Ballbags On The Road (Edition II) – Part I: As The Prophecy Foretold

And we’re back with our regular program where a couple of ballbags venture out into the wilderness and occasionally concrete jungles. I do have to admit that while last time’s trip to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan was heaps of fun, I certainly could not have stopped just there – I wanted to taste more foreign food, look at more mountains and get farther out of my comfort zone. While Ben, sadly, could not join me to take a leap of faith with me this time (we were initially thinking of spending a few weeks travelling through North and East of Turkey, and the remainder of the time in Iran), my other mate, Mike, put his name on the line. Just like me he was fearless and ready to become one with the nature and get to know new folks.
I had plenty of time for the trip – six weeks, in fact. The choice of where to go was actually pretty easy and straightforward – just keep going East until you have reached one of the many seas! The idea was to see Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (this took a while to memorise the spelling of), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, while Mike was not as flexible with time as me, we agreed that we’d spend about 3 weeks or so on the road. Mike would then head out back home and I’d go back to Europe – I really wanted to visit Mongolia and South Korea too but I did not want to have instant noodles on my lunch menu for the next six months. What I am trying to say is – it was really expensive.

Mike and I had been thinking for quite a while to agree on what countries it would be worth visiting besides those other four. Turkmenistan was also considered but we waived it off as both of us had to apply for visa to be eligible for a visit and considering a slightly complicated political tension there in summer/autumn of 2019, it was a wise choice to skip it. Travelling to Mongolia was very pricy – we would either have to take a bus (which would take us two or three days to reach the capital from Kazakhstan) or get on a plane/train. The prices for the latter options were roughly 300 Euros for one way trip only – and no matter what month I would choose, the prices would remain fixed. As for the bus prices – well, even if it was cheaper than the alternative, we did not feel like wasting time as it was more precious than money. We would not know because you could find barely any information about bus tickets online about any of the countries (we had a very similar experience when travelling in Caucasus). I do have to say that I am all in favour for mystery factor and all but when it comes to planning trips in advance, then that thrill for the unknown grows into an uncomfortable tension of “what if this ends up costing us too much?”. As for South Korea – same story. Same prices to get there on a flight and even more to spend when there.
And so – it was decided. We sticked to the four countries where we would set our feet on for the very first time: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (I misspelled this country way too many times by now), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Three weeks and we better have fun there!
While all our other friends and colleagues would travel to South America and other EU countries during the summer, I kept on hearing from them:

Indeed – why? My sarcastic answer “because” did not help, unfortunately (same mystery factor). Well, ok, if you search for the photos of the nature in those countries online, you would be amazed. In fact, I’ll drop a few photos of mine here so you can see what’s about to come and what more of you’re about to see later in this blog!

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In Kyrgyzstan

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In Tajikistan

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In Uzbekistan

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In Kazakhstan

And you know me by now – if I know that there will be mountain ranges, lakes and nature, then I would be there in no time. Furthermore, since I lived in the EU, the flight tickets would not break the bank for me and Mike. So yeah, we were genuinely excited for what was about to come!

Mike and I refilled our cups with coffee and went to ask our friends for advice as to what to see and do in those countries. Mike had some friends from Kyrgyzstan, while I knew a few people from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Sadly though, none of us knew anyone from Tajikistan. On top of that, we used the help of uncle Google to see what places would be worth visiting and discovered many other blogs and forums to find out the best ways of moving around. I will do my best to sum up all the useful websites that I came across and share them here for those of you who are either curious about or are planning to travel to Central Asia. A brief disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the websites that I will be listing throughout the blog. Also, by the time you have read this, it may be worthwhile to refresh Google search results and see if any other helpful websites and forums were created to help you with planning your trip. However, there were quite a lot of things that we could not book or plan in advance, and in a typical fashion we had to improvise on the spot and go with the wind.
Overall though, the trip was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to sharing our journey over the course of the next few months!

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Ending On An Odd Number XV

So was the trip worth it? Absolutely. It was also worth the whole two and a half weeks, and I was a bit sad by the fact that I had to travel back home. Another week of adventures would have certainly been more satisfactory but one can take only so much time off.
The last visit in the mountains, namely in Khazbegi was spectacular and I got to hang out for the last time with Manuel and a few other mates of mine. One-day trip to the North of Georgia was certainly more than enough (that is, of course, excluding all the hiking as the cars there can take you up to the viewpoint already for extra). Just see for yourself how picturesque it can get from up and down there.

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After the trip, I had spent another day hanging out with Manuel. He felt in the party mood on our second last day and we went back to the same “party houses” in the park in Tbilisi. I had met new people there too and they were all nudging me to go and party with them. However, I fell ill then and could not join along, so I was sipping water in the back. The next day Manuel saw me to the bus, which took me straight to the airport.
I could not help but think of those three countries as part of a family. Georgia felt like the mother – it was warm, inviting, caring and wanted to give you the most comforting welcome. Azerbaijan felt like the older brother – he wanted you to have a great deal of fun but not without the tricks that he had up its sleeves, and charge the unbeknownst tourists like us with a “surprise welcome tax”, and giggle at us. Armenia felt like the father – it was strict but fair, and made sure that no surprises from the older brother would come up again to ruin the hospitality. Visiting all of those three countries was definitely heaps of fun and loaded with adventure. We loved it.

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However, if you were to ask me, which of the three countries I would like to come back to, I would certainly tell that it would be Georgia. In fact, if you are considering to visit all three countries as well, I would do the following (and I’ve advised so to many of my friends): firstly, visit Georgia and follow the same route as we had, and add Botomi on your list as well. I heard it is a lovely place to visit in summer. Then, take a flight to Baku from Tbilisi, and travel north to see Quba and Khinaliq. Spend another day in Baku, and take the flight back to Tblisi. Those flights operate daily (and can be easily found online) and are reasonably cheap (if you travel without checked-in luggage), in summer – last time we checked, they were about € 35 one way per person. Or else you can take an overnight train to Baku. From Tblisi, take the minibus to Yerevan, and visit the same places as we had (you can even rent a car, or a car with a driver like we did). Then you can take the flight back home directly from Yerevan. If you like being active on the trip (without long stops), then this whole travel affair should easily squeeze into 14 – 20 days.

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I believe that if you consider to go on a serious hike and are not sure if that would be your piece of cake, then visiting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are great places to start. That should give you a good idea whether you want to invest more money and time to go hiking elsewhere. Just bear in mind that a lot of things during the trip cannot be arranged in advance (e.g. bus tickets from Tblisi to Armenia, car from Tblisi to canyons, etc.), so you would need to play by ear and improvise quite a bit. Look at it as another fun part of your adventure and, potential, learning curve in managing another long trip. If you are an experienced driver, renting a car while in Georgia and Azerbaijan would be a great decision. In Armenia you can relax and entrust the wheel to a driver who would take you places and it should actually be even cheaper for you than renting a car on your own. As for other general costs – I would say that you can aim at roughly 10-15 Euros per stay and 5-10 Euros per meal per person, as it is quite inexpensive to travel in those three countries, so you won’t need to break the bank.

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Thanks for reading our adventures and hope that it has been a fun read, and that my tips have or will become useful to you. Next, my friend and I are travelling through the great Stans, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and I cannot wait to share our adventures soon! Until then!

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Roads That Cross XIV

Check out part XIII here.

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Val and I had quite a few topics to cover while on the road and he was not shy tell anything. We talked about Armenia, people, their relationship towards the neighbouring countries, and their best (political) friends. Strangely enough, and from what I got from the conversation, Armenia did not really have close allies. I mean, the people or country that they can call their best buddy. It felt like they were, may be even deliberately, completely on their own, with a heavy burden of their past on the shoulders. But yet they did not want to isolate themselves. It was more of being unable to find someone who would really understand their struggle and look in the face of their old ghost, and say: “This looks familiar to me too”. Nevertheless, Armenians came across as a friendly folk and unlike in Azerbaijan, we were being treated like friends that time around. I simply told Val that Ben and I were looking forward to having fun and exploring the country and he said that he would be happy to make our time memorable. He sure did.
Our next stop was Areni and the nearby cave, where the wine was born. We dropped by a small shop, which had dozens of wines and home-made spirits for tourists to try. First four wine bottles were free of charge for anyone to try but for 1 Euro, one could taste a dozen of them, as well as cognac and other spirits. Before Ben and I were told anything else about the small exhibition, I put the money on the table and we proceeded to try our first wine, accompanied with some snacks, like lavash and cheese. As the drinks were being poured, the girls were telling us how each wine was made and what it was made from. It was pure joy! We both tried about a dozen of different wines, two kinds of cognac and vodka. All made in Armenia. After the tour, we had complementary tea and coffee.
I asked Val if it would be possible to do horse riding around the winery and he told me that it would be a bit of a challenge to find one around. Luckily though, Val spotted a passer-by and asked them for a contact number of a person, who would be able to help out. He called him, and said that there would be two people who would be interested in horse riding in Areni. The stranger gladly agreed and said that there would only be one horse. It would cost us about 15-20 Euros for the two of us for one hour. It was quite pricy, agree, but I had never ridden a horse, so I persuaded Ben to go for it. We waited for the guy to show up with a mighty horse and I was already envisioning myself sitting atop its muscular, strong back and riding against the wind in the wilderness of a small village of Armenia.

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By the time we had to meet the guy, I had built so much excitement that I was ready to pay him anything he’d ask for. After all, it would have been my first time riding the horse! We walked up one of the hills and stood there waiting for him. After a few or so minutes, two figures emerged from the distance and they were walking our direction. As they were approaching closer, I could see it was a middle-aged man with a huge belly, which was bigger than the horse itself. The man approached us and I could clearly see that it was not a horse…

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A f***ing pony! Come on! Well, it was too late to back down, so I told Ben to get on first. So he did. After cruising for about ten or so minutes, I approached him and got on the pony. I was still excited to ride a…pony, but unfortunately, it was too young, too slow. It felt like riding on an elephant. So yeah, lesson learnt – ask for a horse and say it if would be anything but the horse, there would not be a deal.
After that disappointing ride, we drove towards one of the caves. It was sadly going to close shortly but Val spoke to the staff and told that we’d be quick. One of the staff members reluctantly let us go up with him but after a few minutes, he brightened up and was giving us a small tour inside the cave. Yes, Ben and I are nice and friendly folk!
Our guide showed us the pots, where the wine was kept under the ground and sand for years and also the remains of people who were sacrificed (to the god of wine, of course). Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, the wine was treated as the holy drink and not everyone was allowed to drink it – only those from wealthy, or known families. And one would not drink the whole litre bottle in a few hours (like I tend to do on Fridays) – it was one or few sips only.

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It was time for us to head back to our hostel. Ben and I found another one, close to the city centre. It was a Thai hostel, which was interesting. We picked it up because it was the cheapest that we could find, so we were looking forward to checking in.
I asked Val if he could take us down to Tsaghkadzor for a ropeway tour (the place that was closed on our first day) and even though Val did not have to do it, as our agreement was only for a two-day trip, he agreed nonetheless. We also wanted to visit Hankavan, a small village where one could go on a summer resort to but we decided to spend more time in the city instead. So our plan for the third day was to visit Tsaghkadzor, genocide memorial and see the city. On the fourth day, Ben would travel to Belarus for a few days before heading back home and I would head back to Georgia for a few days to go to Kazbegi and catch a flight back.
Val drove us back and just like with any cheap hostels, it took us about 10 minutes to find the door…or rather manage to call the owner and ask him to find us because we could not find the door. He was quite friendly and relaxed – he took us into a big hall and there we saw our room. The rooms were separated by, what looked like, plywood and the boards were about 2.5 meters tall, so they did not even touch the ceiling. Naturally, this was a recipe for a disastrous night sleep and boy was I right. I could easily hear someone whispering a few meters away from us, let alone snoring (that was loud and clear). Ben and I went grocery shopping and drank some peach vodka that we got on our first day. It still tasted amazing.
We were offered a Thai massage by an employee in the hostel and we politely rejected the offer. Mainly because it would cost about 15 Euros for an hour. I found it a bit too much in my books. After some more reasonable drinking we both went to sleep. Well, that’s Ben and I would wake up every few hours because of someone snoring. And I would wake up very early in the morning because our neighbours decided to have a chat in the hall.

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Val met us by the hostel and we drove towards Tsaghkadzor, which was not that far off the city. There were plenty of people there too, who wanted to go on a ropeway tour. We got in line and waited for our turn.
The tour was amazing. In about ten minutes we got on top of the hill and spent some time walking around. Naturally, we were approached by locals, who asked us if we wanted to get a ride on a barbie jeep. We learnt our lesson (the hard way) from Azerbaijan and asked how much it would cost. We were told that it would be around 40 Euros, which was the same as renting the car from Val for a day. Clearly, were being ripped off, so I told him to get lost. We resumed the walk and spent about an hour or so walking around, enjoying the view.

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And here is what the saw while going down on the ropeway.

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It looked stellar! Val was kind enough to also take us to the genocide memorial, where we spent a considerable amount of time in the museum. Val said that it would take us quite a while to see everything there, so we asked him what the average taxi fare was and went our merry way.
We spent about two hours in the museum and I am sure that one could spend there way more time if they read everything there was to read there. Ben and I took a taxi back to the city and went to a small restaurant, which served amazing falafel sandwiches for just 1.50 Euros. Once we’d filled our stomachs up with amazing lunch, we went to explore the city. We took a ride on the metro and went to the centre. I unfortunately did not take names of places we visited, as we were just simply walking where the road would lead us, but I did take some photos.

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And there was our trip to Armenia. Ben and I went back to hostel to get a good night sleep and look back at the fun we had had, and the places that we got to see.

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(red – 1st day, green – 2nd day)

We covered quite a few places in Armenia within three days and I would say that it was a good amount of time to spend in the country and more would have been an “overstay”, in my opinion.
The next day, as agreed, Val met to pick us up at the hostel. While we were driving towards the airport, I asked Val what on earth “jan” stood for and why Arthur called me “Timjan”, and not just Tim. Apparently, “jan” meant “sweet” in Armenian. It was a friendly way of adding that at the end of one’s name. How nice!
Ben got on the airplane, and I got on a minibus at the bus station and headed towards Tblisi for a few days. Ben was heading to Belarus, Minsk via Moscow and he texted me after a few hours to say that he was stuck in the airport. Apparently, he needed some sort of a transit visa for Russia, which was news to both of us. Neither of us would even think of such a thing and I don’t think that Ben was even given a proper explanation at the airport as to what kind of visa he actually needed. So Ben had to buy the flight tickets directly to his home instead, and cancel a short trip to Belarus. Sad that he did not decide to join me in Georgia. I was very much looking forward to coming back to Tblisi to meet Manuel and visit Khazbegi, before heading home. Once again I would see the mighty, tall mountains, before the trip would come to a conclusion.

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – One More To Go Part XIII

Check out chapter XII here

 

One more country to go – that’s right! I could not believe how fast the time flew. A few more days and Ben and I had to leave hack home. All the great food, fun people and beautiful nature surrounded my hills and mountains – poof. Gone. Wicked!
Our next destination was Garni – one of the oldest temples in the country. It was used to worship the god of sun/fire back in the day. The views surrounding the temple were as interesting to look at.

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And that’s about it – we did not have anything else to explore there, so we came back to Val and proceeded to Geghard, a medieval monastery.
While on the road, Val asked Ben and me if we wanted to try out some local, home-made vodka and before I could say “yes”, I saw a few stands a few hundred metres away from us, which were surrounded by the baskets of fruits and vegetables. We stopped by one of the stands and Val asked for a few shots to taste. It was vodka made from peaches and it tasted great! We grabbed the bottle and went our way.
Geghard was most famous for housing ancient relics, such as the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. I very much liked how raw and dark the churches and monasteries of Armenia were – a sight to behold!

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It looked somewhat gothic to me, in the form and share that the insides of the monastery were preserved. We explored the monastery, walked a bit more around the premises and got back to the car. The next destination was another monastery, Haghartsin Monastery.
We were lucky enough to witness a wedding there. Val told us that weddings in Armenia stretch for days, where family members and friends of both bride and groom bring tons of meat and alcohol and go wild. At that point I was thinking how amazing it would be to marry an Armenian woman!
We also saw old Armenian scripts and asked Val if he was still able to understand them but he unfortunately could not, as the writing of the language had changed so much over time. So we left that mystery, and happy young couple behind us for Dilijan, a small neat-looking town in the north of Armenia.
And next on our list was the Sevan lake – we were excited! Also, we met Arthur by the lake, who was taking care of his group of tourists. One guy got so hammered on the trip that he went swimming naked – his wife, to say the least, was embarrassed and had to calm him down (he would get a bit shouty every now and then). Ben and I found a few small boats by the coast and we approached the guy, who threw the rope over to park the boat. We asked him if he could get us onboard and for the mere 10-15 or so Euros for all three of us, he agreed to take us around. It was quite windy but the scenery was great!

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The only thing that was missing on board was alcohol but luckily, the boat trip was short so we did not feel too bad for too long. We got back to the shore and went up the hill to get another view over the land and the lake. It was beautiful.

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There were a few small churches up the hill – the country is plentiful of them. Similarly to Georgia, Armenia was also deeply religious and you would not want to joke about that over there either (unfortunately for Ben).
We descended the hill and told Val that we would not mind snacking some local food. He drove us to the restaurant nearby, called Collette It was quite popular and Val said that we would love it and we certainly did. They even had crayfish kebab on the menu! Wow – I really wanted to try it out.

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But unfortunately it was out of season so they could not serve it to us. Good to know they did not cook frozen food. We ordered some kebab, bread and local cognac, Ararat, which tasted wonderful. Since Ararat was, literally, everything to Armenians, they named a lot of thing after the great mountain. Man’s name, cigarette, food & alcohol brand and many more were things were called and branded as Ararat.
Val, in the meantime, grabbed a cup of coffee and waited for us in the car. The food and drinks were so great that we wanted to stay for longer, have some more and go party but we had one more place to visit for the day, which was Tsaghkadzor.
And we were too late! We arrived there at about 5.00 p.m. and the ropeway tours were unfortunately closed. I asked Val to take us there the next day and he politely nodded and said that if we had time, we would certainly go there.
He dropped us off at our hostel, where we did manage to keep the room for ourselves, so we stayed there another night. Ben and I armed ourselves with some cognac and spent the rest of the evening chatting and relaxing.

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The next day, it was finally time to visit the great mountain Ararat or rather, look at it from a distance, since it was on the Turkish border. The place that we started heading towards was Khor Virap, where a monastery lay with an outstanding view on the tall mountain.
When we arrived, Val nodded and said that he would wait us by the car as we proceeded to towards the stairs up the hill. As we were walking, a couple of locals approached Ben and me with four pigeons in their hands. They both literally shuffled pigeons into our hands and told us to hold them tight. “There, make a wish and then let them go!” they said. Ok, Ben and I wished of something irrelevant and let the birds go. Before we could make another move, the guys told us that it would cost us 10 Euros each.

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Naturally, we broke into an argument. “But oh well, you know, we raised the pigeons, fed them and now they will never come back!” was their argument and they would not let us go. Val stepped in and they started speaking Armenian. Ben and I exchanged angry stares. “Ok, Tim, Ben, just give those charlatans 6 Euros each and let’s go.” And we did. At least I felt good about the pigeons being released from those scammers for good, so it was worth paying in the end. Val interrupted my thought by saying that those guys trained pigeons to come back to them when released, so the poor birds could not escape their fate.

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We got to top of the hill to admire the scenery and take some great photos.

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We walked around some more and went back to Val to drive to one of the oldest wineries in the world and drink some in the village of Areni. Exciting!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Back to the mountains Part X

Check out Part IX here

 

Ben was indeed serious about driving 500 + km towards Xinaliq and he was itching to get to see the mountains and stay in the small town for the night. We were speeding through the highways of Azerbaijan as fast as we could (of course, courtesy of the police, we were following the speed limit without exceeding it even by 1 km). Other things that were going at 90 km/h speed were our thoughts about what on earth we would do about the dent on the front side of the car. I was mainly concerned about the deposit that we were going to lose. Then again, we were also through with all the previous fines as well, so we did not have to worry about that at least.
As we were driving, we kept on fighting with one another as to whose track would play next. Ben insisted that we listened to his tracks as he was the driver and needed to relax while I insisted on playing newer, and some of my, tracks. You see, Ben only had one playlist and listening to the same songs over and over again was getting on my nerves. By the time we had put my song to play, we were nearing Baku. Ben suggested we stepped out of the car for a little while and feasted our eyes at the view on Caspian sea. It was so windy that we could barely managed to open the car doors. Ben also quickly checked the engine and sniffed around the breaking pads…just to be safe, you know.
Thanks to an uneventful visit of Göygöl lake, the sun was already reaching the horizon and we were still quite far away from Xinaliq. I set our next destination to Quba, just to be more optimistic about how far we would drive and started looking for hostels in the meantime. As usual, I was able to find a place for two people for as cheap as 10-15 Euros. And we knew that the good-old “we are only going to stay for the night” would reduce the pricing for us by 10-20% no problem.
By the time we had reached Quba, it was evening and we knew that we would have to stay there for the night for sure. We phoned up the host and budged in for a discount while parking to a nearby bar/restaurant to get some snacks. It looked like the only meal that was on the menu was an Azeri version of Turkish pizza, Lahmajoun. We both enjoyed it with a cup of tea (with some Russian sweets), cleaned our plates and walked out.
We met the our host and his hostel reminded me of those Hollywood type of motels – it felt like I travelled back in time and straight into an Eastern version of Pulp Fiction movie. We had a room on a second floor with an exit right onto the balcony and a walkthrough to other hostel rooms. Sadly, it was quite chilly in the room and it did not get better even after a few hours of us warming up the room with our warm breaths. So, we celebrated the fact that we paid so little for the hostel room while deep-diving into fat blankets. Yeah, I was glad that we did end up getting discount because it felt like we should have got paid for sleeping there. So cold it was!
Waking up was easy though – the moment we opened our eyes, we sprang from our beds, packed right away and got into car and set the course towards Xinaliq!

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About time – we had about 50 km to cover and the distance seemed to be a joke in comparison to how much Ben drove the day before. However, Waze app indicated that it would take us roughly two hours to get there…suspicious. We bade goodbye to a nice and little town of Quba and took off towards the mountains. About 20-30 km in, we understood the pessimistic arrival estimate of our digital navigation friend – the road was pure madness. Up and down, down and up, curvy and broken. But by Jove! What a view we were witnesses of.

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After driving past deserted wastelands for a couple of days, a friendly and familiar-looking mountain giants brought a delightful change of pace to our journey. Had we known how beautiful the sights were up north in the country, we would have forgotten about driving past Ganja and the lake in a heartbeat. We just could not take enough pictures, honestly. The fresh air and mist filled us with joy – we were in front of something magnificent, something bigger than ourselves. It was a tremendous feeling.
As soon as the magic dust settled in our heads, we sat back in the car and continued driving. We then realised how happy we were that we decided to stay in Quba for the evening the day before. The roads to Xinaliq still felt as if though the main architect of the road was a kid drawing for the first time with acrylics – we then realised why the maps told us it would take more than an hour to get from Quba to Khinaliq. Furthermore, going up the hill in our car, with automatic gearbox, was also a bit of a struggle or we simply did not know how to drive it well. And the roads were also narrow – when we saw another car driving back, we were terrified.
We made a few more stops to take photos and met a herd of sheep on our way too!

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Having squeezed a few more times on the side road to let the car pass through, we finally reached the destination. A small, historical town of Xinaliq. We wasted no time and parked our car in an open area, and started sniffing about for a nearby place to eat as we did not have time for breakfast in Quba. Apparently, the town had a population of 2,000 people (even though it felt more like 100 people) and only one shop/place to eat out. We headed there and asked for something cheap to snack on. The locals showed us to our dining room with a beautiful view on the mountains and we sat and waited. It was chilly, I have to admit, but the anticipation for locals’ fine cuisine easily overweighed the feeling of hunger. We were told that we would be served very tasty sausage and eggs with tea.
It took about 20 or so minutes until we had been served just the tea, which was followed up with breakfast after a few minutes or so. I don’t want to sound harsh but the breakfast was underwhelming at best. It was the most basic scrambled eggs, sausage and the veggies package we had ever had (even the veggies did not taste fresh). Bread was not straight out of the oven either and we started guessing how much we would be charged for it. Well, we thought back on our stop after we left Göygöl lake, where each one of us had two small kebabs and a drink for about seven manat per person. So, fourteen in total for the two of us for a satisfying meal – we we full. So, for a small portion of eggs and sausages, we would probably pay ten manat – max.
We finished the meal and jumped off our seats to pay. Ben started chatting with the cashier and after a few seconds, his face froze and turned to me. We had to pay 25 manat for the meal and the cigarettes I had bought (which were roughly six or seven manat).

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We were both shocked. Unfortunately, we were quickly surrounded by two other guys in the shop, so we had nowhere else to go but pay what we were asked. I immediately told Ben to give him 20 and leave the place at once. So we did. Lesson learned – ask for the price first and foremost before ordering anything in Azerbaijan. Clearly, that was not the first time we were screwed over like dumb, virgin teenagers.
As more money had left out pockets, we started going up the hill and past small huts to the top of the town. It almost felt and looked like “Rohan” from Lord of the Rings. The villagers were giving us tense looks and we could feel how weird it felt when dozens of tourists were passing by their front doors regularly (although, I am not sure how many tourists the place normally has) but even if it is a few per week, it would still feel weird. We got to highest point in the town and took a few more shots of the wonderful scenery that was right before our eyes. Ben started chatting with a local, who had a few tourists he was showing the place around. The local complemented Ben on getting it up to Xinaliq in a car as even Azeris themselves have hard time getting up there because of the roads. He sure may be right but we did not know what cost we had paid to drive up there (we may have messed up a few internal car parts doing that).
Having stayed for a few more minutes and chatted to the local, who seemed to have been dressed pretty stylish (he sure was paid quite well for being a local tour guide in the town) we descended back to our car and started driving back to Baku. We had about a day and a half left to be spent in Baku before our final destination – Armenia. We were excited to change the scene and even more terrified about giving the car back. Nonetheless, onwards we continued driving!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Will Of Sultan IX

Check out part VIII here.

Obviously, we overstayed our welcome in Sheki – our friend Mr R definitely knew how to PR the sh*t out of his hometown and got us intrigued to check it out with him the next day. It was already about 3-4 p.m. when we left Sheki towards lake Göygöl. Our plan was to visit the lake and stay at Shirvan town, which was about 100 km away from Baku – there was a national zoo/park, which looked appealing from the photos. We pressed the pedal firmly and stormed towards the lake.
Unfortunately, the view only changed a few times to hilly areas but in general, it did not look at all impressive and we had to listen to music and talk the whole trip to keep ourselves entertained.
We pulled over at a random spot to freshen ourselves up and take a few photos. We both went separate directions and after about five minutes, as I was still taking photos, Ben approached the car and froze. I looked back at him and asked what was up. He then started going through all of his pockets nervously and looking through the car’s window. We lost the car key.

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There we were – in the middle of nowhere of Azerbaijan with a car we could not open. We then started walking around the hill he was on in search of the lost treasure. I gave him an idea to look at the photos he took and go to that area and after about 10-15 minutes of sneaking about, we finally retrieved the key. Phew – what a relief.
Already running out of time, we continued driving and were so thankful that the roads were a joy to ride. If only not for the police that felt attracted to us like a magnet to metal. We saw them quite often and had to drive like saints – in Georgia it felt like police were from a mythical book while in Azerbaijan they were like Zeus – overseeing us at every corner from high above and striking us with lightning whenever they saw us. Ugh.
The evening was nearing and we knew that we had to hurry up if we wanted to make it to the lake and take pretty pictures of it before the sundown. We found ourselves on a big four-lane highway, where we started overtaking cars by changing to the left lane and going back to the right one. And a few other drivers behind us did the same. So, we were overtaking the car in front of us by switching to the left lane, and the bastard to our right only sped up and did not let us overtake him. So we were stuck on the opposite side for good ten or so seconds when we saw familiar faces in familiar-looking cars.

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Oh…my…cracking…nuts. It felt as if we woke up right into a nightmare…again. Naturally, we were pulled over by the police and the negotiations in the mystic (to me) language began once again. Ben was asked to step out of the car shortly and I was left all by myself for good 10-15 minutes, thinking how deep we would have to bend over. Finally, Ben came back and explained that the police did not buy his story of “I was about to switch to the right lane but I could not” and furthermore, they told us that we had about € 30 worth of speeding tickets collected.

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How is that possible? Well, I’m glad you asked. Turns out that we were only allowed to go over the speed limit by 9 km while we were normally 10 km above it. Thank you guy from that restaurant in Baku who told us we could drive up to 10 km on the roads! So, we collected a pretty sum on our heads but luckily, Ben was able to resolve everything and we went on driving.
If you thought that our adventures came to an end, then you were oh so wrong.
After an hour or so of driving, we pulled over at the petrol station to get some snacks and drinks and I discovered that we had a dent on the front of our car.

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I immediately bade goodbye to my deposit that I put down for that car and started preparing myself for slow and painful penetration in Baku. Ben was so shocked that he lost his mind and started cleaning up the scratches around the dent in hopes that the dent would disappear. Poor man. I knew that we could do nothing about it (what happened had happened) and went to buy some goodies from the store. When I came back, Ben was still standing by the car. I told him to not bother about it and buy himself some sweets, relax and go on driving. So he did.
The thing was that we were not driving up the mountains or broken roads, so we were almost sure that someone just drove into us and left the scene – but of course, we could not certain. We thought that it would have been a bad idea to tell the renter about it right then as we would only piss him off and he would demand to take the car back and spank us hard. We were short on time and had to visit the rest of the places as soon as possible. Plus, we did not know what hit the car, so…we might just as well have ignored it completely.
The evening was nearing and unfortunately the road towards the lake was only getting worse and being pulled over the by police, looking for car keys and ballbagging too long in Sheki did the 69 position (but upside down) to our plan. We had to drive slowly because of the poor roads and by the time we stopped by a hill, we already had to turn our lights on and we were still 15 or so km away from the lake. Bugger. We pulled over and started thinking what to do next. Ben suggested we stay in Ganja, wake up early to drive to the lake and head over to Khinaliq the next day. I thought that Ben took the wrong vitamins that day as the distance was 600 km to the final destination from Ganja. Ben said that he would manage to drive that long and that certainly looked like a challenge, considering that our longest ride in a single day was probably around 300 – 400 km tops. I took his word for it and we started looking for a hostel in Ganja. We stumbled upon a cheap guest house and Ben phoned up the owner with a price offer. We went on saying the usual that we wanted to stay for one night only and take off the next early morning – the owner agreed and we started driving towards Ganja, which was something that I absolutely wanted to avoid – I mean, there was nothing to see there, really.
On our way to Ganja we noticed a few small wooden houses that had smoke coming out of them. We pulled over and saw that those were small bistros, so we decided to eat something. We approached one of the huts and asked them what was on the menu and they told us that they could serve us some Qutab (local dish) and tea. We sat inside a small shed and waited for the food to arrive. We got about 3 or 4 Qutabs and they were finger licking and filling. They also brought us desert (they said it was on the house), which was simply jam. The tea was served with some Russian sweets (not sure why Azeris always put some Russian sweets for tea). Ben actually preferred Azeri tea to Turkish as it was served in larger glasses and the tea was not as strong. So, we then went to ask for a bill and it was somewhere around 10 or 12 Manat (about € 5-6) and we felt that were ripped off again as you normally would pay 1 Manat (or less, considering we were in the middle of a forest) for Qutab and tea was normally dirty cheap too. So, the normal price for that should have been somewhere about 5-6 Manat instead. Yeah.
By the time we had reached Ganja it was almost pitch black and again, the booking website gave us the wrong bloody address! I am not sure if it was the house owners who did not know how to use the website or the website did not allow the owner to enter their exact address…luckily, some kind locals helped us find our friend from the guest house and we finally laid our bags and arses to rest. The owner was an elder, jolly and happy chap, who showed us everything around his house and prepared tea for us. However, once we had entered our room, he turned on the TV and left to bring us tea. I am not sure why he did that but I guess it had something to do with local tradition…I guess. We turned off the TV shortly after and continued our chat. When the owner entered our room again with tea, he turned on the TV shortly after and wished us good evening. We turned off the TV once again and went to sleep in an hour.
The morning was pretty chilly and we did wake up as early as we could to make it on time to Khinaliq. Our Ganja friend allowed us to do the laundry the day before and we packed our stuff, brushed our teeth and set off towards lake Göygöl.
When we reached the area, where the lake was located, we were greeted by the guards, who, obviously, asked us for some money to enter the lake – no surprise there (although it was only a few Euros per person). I was although unsure if people had to pay to go and look at a bloody pool of water! Anyway, we proceeded and reached our destination. We parked the car in an open field and went up to admire the lake.

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Well, it was nice…and that was it, really. Was it worth it? Mmmm, nah. After visiting Georgia, neither Ben nor I had been impressed. The view was certainly great but…meh.
Without spending any more time, we loaded ourselves back into the car, set our destination to Khinaliq, dropped our jaws, having seen how much distance we had to cover, put seat belts on and continued driving. We had about two or so days remaining before we had to go back to Georgia and we still wanted to walk around Baku at night and spend some time in the city. I was really looking forward to seeing the mountains again and Ben was all in to drive as far as he could!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – What Do You Call This Chapter? Part IV

Check out Part III here

You probably got a pretty good idea of how my friends and I had come to enjoy driving around in Georgia but the pain of some roads still resides in my bottom but boy did the views astound us all. Every time we would see something beautiful, we would immediately forget all the pain and feel grateful for coming over to see the country. While Ben did the lion’s share of work, Manuel and I still had to keep him company and show the way (thanks, Google maps).
We knew our destiny as we had to take the same curvy, broken, mountain road back – down towards Kutaisi, stopping by at Martvili and Okatse canyons. Manuel had already visited both of the places before, so he left Ben and me have fun there all on our own, while he was chatting away with some local girls (I bet). Out of both of the places though, I enjoyed Martivili the most. Just look how gorgeous it is!

 

We got on a small boat and went on a quick tour around the canyon and then walked around the area to enjoy the humming noises of the water and sweaty tourists.
Okatse canyon was definitely more enormous and grand, however, it felt like looking down at a desert, with some hills popping up in the view as we raised our heads. I mean, it was still nice but I wish that Martvili canyon was as large and as Okatse.

 

We also passed by a small town of Surami in Georgia and we saw a camera crew there filming us – we thought that we’d be in the local news. Manuel found out later that The Grand Tour was filming one of their episodes there. I’m a huge fan of the show and the presenters – Jeremy, James & Richard. Fingers crossed that we’ll appear on their episode, smiling at the cameras as we drove by.
Needless to say, we were an ambitious trio – we wanted to visit Kazbegi as well, after our stop in Tblisi, but found out that we were constrained by the time as well as the country’s borders. That border closed us off from driving there directly from where we were at the time – thanks, South Ossetia! There was no chance that we could enter South Ossetia from Georgia (because of them not being the best of friends) and going to Kazbegi from Kutaisi was a very long journey to do in a day, considering that Ben was the only driver.
So, in the typical ballbag fashion, we wasted quite a bit of our day at stopping by at a lot of places, walking around canyons and understood that we would not make it on time to Tblisi. The nearest place for a sleepover was Ambrolauri. It took me weeks to memorise the name of the bloody town though.
We found ourselves driving late in the evening and could barely see what was ahead of us, even with the long lights. Other drivers had their long lights when driving towards us and Ben was progressively turning into a rage mode because the light flash made his eyes tired. To add to the frustration, the road was as curvy as if we were driving inside someone’s intestines – actually, that is a very good metaphor now that I come to think of it. However, that was a great practice for Ben and long tiring trip for all of us. Lesson learnt: wake up at the sunrise to travel as early as you can, so you won’t have to be like us. Ideally, it would and should have been an “active vacation” rather than a “passive” one but it ended up being a mix – we would get more sleep than we should have and drive out late but when it came to seeing places or doing anything, we would always rush a bit. Not the best mix but there we are.
We arrived to the town of Ambrolauri, being greeted by yet more long lights and dark hills. I even felt a bit of joy entering the town – it looked quite neat and lovely and I was longing for the morning, to see the hills looking down at the small buildings around them. However, our main goal was to get some local wine and try it out as we had not been able to get tipsy for quite some time!
Firstly though, we had to get to a guesthouse. Manuel called the local and negotiated the price. Once done, we headed towards the place & unpacked our things. Our room felt like it used to be a prison cell or torture room – it was about 8 m2 with four beds in there, which were old and rusty. At least it was not cold.
The owner of the place was so kind that he offered us some home-made Chacha (strong Georgian brandy), which was kept in plastic bottle (very promising) and was 60% strong, if not more. Last time I drank something out of the plastic bottle, I had a really hard time. However, before we had committed to it, we went into the city to get some food and local wine.
We met a tourist and his driver in the shop, who told us that they drove all the way from Ushgvili, through the mountains, towards Ambrolauri.

This is wicked! Just have a look at the map and imagine going all the way through the mountains there.

It must have been a whole new journey for the tourist’s bottom as the driver had done that before, obviously. And he was Georgian – no surprise there. We left the shop and Manuel and I started thinking of taking the same journey next time as them, and try to climb up one of the mountains there.
Once we have arrived at the guesthouse, we opened Chacha and took our first shot. It felt great and strong but that joy was mixed with fear of going South either in my stomach or head. It felt like taking drugs for the first time – exciting but scary, as you do not know what the consequences are going to be like. So we cautiously drank it, shot by shot, and chatted away about our trip, what places we’d be visiting the next day and how early we should wake up. We all agreed at waking up as early as possible to visit a few other places on our way to Tblisi. We had to give the car back and we were quite nervous about it – we almost destroyed the break, nearly crashed and ABS kept on coming up on the dashboard, which normally is the sign that the breaks need to be changed (even though the ABS warning would disappear on some occasions). Ballbags on vacation, what else can I say?