Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Seat Belts Are Optional Part XII

For chapter XI click here

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We made it back to Tbilisi in one peace. Crossing and leaving Azerbaijani was a peace of cake – we were asked a few friendly questions and went our merry way back to the rocking beds of the train. As you can imagine, I did not get to sleep that much on the train, so I was looking forward to getting on a minibus, reaching Yerevan and burying myself in a bed. Luckily, our friend Manuel did help us with booking two seats on the minibus – our only other choice to get to Yerevan was on a train but it was much more expensive. Since Tblisi was far from being “digital”, Manuel made a few calls and reserved two places for us. If you do visit Georgia, you either need to call people to book bus tickets or go directly to where they sell them, and buy them on the spot. Yeah, I really missed Europe then and how easy it was to buy pretty much anything online.

When we arrived at the bus station, we still had around one hour to wander about. We got to a shop to buy some snacks and a giant shoti bread (I could not get enough of it in Mestia) and found a small, cozy restaurant close to the bus station. The prices, however, were not as welcoming but we decided to eat something anyway. When we were approached by the waiter, she immediately proceeded by telling me to take my hat off (it was rude) and I barked back at her to serve us something that could be prepared quickly. We waited…and waited…and were finally presented with some food, at long last. The longer I had to wait, the angrier I was growing – I did not want to miss the minibus. I picked up my hat and we rushed to get on the minibus.

Fortunately, getting to Yerevan was quick – about four-five hours, including the border check. Ben was most nervous about it as Turkey did not get along with Armenia and vice versa. We reached the border and Ben asked me if he could go in front of me in the queue. So he did and he crossed it sooner than I could take a third breath. I passed the passport control soon after him.
We still had no plan for Armenia and what places we wanted to see. We figured that since we would arrive to Yerevan later in the evening, we would sit down and explore at the map.
As we were driving towards the capital, I was admiring the country: it had heaps of hills, forests, some lakes and neat-looking villages. I liked it – much more than I did Azerbaijan. Yes, it was not as green and pristine (to an extent) as Georgia but it was good. Here, I managed to take a few photos while we were on the road.

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The city was…ok. Although, there was no interesting architecture – it looked kind of dull…It felt like it was one of the uninteresting districts of Berlin that you have to go through to get to some club to have fun, only that there were no clubs around for miles. Alright, it was not bad but it was certainly quite (even during other days when we stayed in the city).
Ben was particularly reluctant to rent a car in Armenia, even though he was getting better at driving in Azerbaijan.

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OK, just kidding. But he was indeed improving. Last thing that Ben wanted for him to happen was to sign a car rental contract and be pulled over by the police. Considering the political complications between the two countries, it was a wise decision to use 60 km/h guidance of the local buss network. However, if I had the driver’s license, I would have signed the car rental document. We kept on strolling around the city and it was actually looking much nicer in Northern Avenue and around the area. While we were casually looking around and taking photos, we noticed quite a few cars parked around and saw that some of them had banners or photos of the local sights attached to them. We walked closer to take a look at what it was and we were approached by a friendly-looking, elderly chap. He asked if we were tourists and wanted to have him drive us around the country. It looked, firstly, suspicious but then he gave us a neat price and Ben went with the flow of the conversation, so I knew it was a good sign. Basically, the offer was that he would take us around about 6-8 places during the next two days and on the third day, he would give us both a free lift to the airport and/or bus station. The price was around 45 Euros for the two of us and we would leave in the early morning and come back by the sunset, and spend as much time as we wanted at the sights. I took his phone number (let’s call him, Andy) and he bade me farewell. “Hope to hear back from you, Timjan!” Timjan? I just told him a few minutes ago I was Tim – why the “jan” (pronounced as “John”) at the end of my name? Weird.

I talked to Ben and we immediately checked the prices of renting a car in Yerevan and the cheapest that we could find was around 30 or so Euros. Considering that we also had to pay for the gas, put the deposit down, etc., it was a no-brainer that we would call Andy back to agree on the car trip. Still, we walked around and asked how much others charged for the comfort of being driven around. Unfortunately, there were only minibuses that would normally take about four-six people, so it made no sense to pay the price of the six while we were two, even though the drivers told us that they would be happy to take us.

Ben and I started heading back to the hostel and bought some wine and cheese on the way. We were rejoiced, to say the least, and once we had come back to the hostel (where the lights were back on!), we called Andy and said that we were down for the trip for two days and I tried to negotiate on the discount. “Timjan, unfortunately no, this is the lowest that we can ask for. We will take you to the bus station or airport after the trip, so that will save you quite a bit on the taxi!” Where on bloody earth was that “jan” coming from and why, I still could not get my head around. “Fine”, I said. “Let’s do it! Looking forward to our trip tomorrow”. “And also, Timjan, there will be one of my friends who will pick you up, as I sadly won’t be able to be there for two days with you. His name is Val – he is a really kind and friendly lad. You’ll have a blast with him!”

And so Ben and I opened a bottle of a fine local pomegranate wine and a box of cheese, pieces of which were individually wrapped in and sealed like a small money pouch bag. It was delightful. We were happy that we had to spend no time in organising the bus to drive us places, and think of what places to see during the next three days that we would spend in the country. Brilliant. We still looked up the sights that we would see in the next few days with Val and were excited about the trip.

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We woke up quite early the next day. We went down to the reception and asked if we could stay in the same room for another day. The lady told us that there could be reservation coming in soon, so she told us to wait a bit longer and give her a call back. Strange.
Val was waiting for us outside, sitting in a shiny sedan. We greeted him and put our rucksacks in the trunk. Val was a calm, middle-aged man (and quite friendly indeed), so right from the start I could feel that the trip would be fun and we would not get sick of him. He told us that the first place we would go to would be Garni, a small village with an ancient temple (as I am writing this, I am looking up pictures of the temple taken during a rainy autumn day and does it look gorgeous!). I put the seat belt on and Val said that I did not have to. “Timjan, just sit back and relax. Feel like you’re in the couch – the car has a lot of space”. He did not put his seat belt on either and we started driving through early morning’s traffic jam and onwards to our first sightseeing of Armenia. I could sense that it would be an awesome trip!

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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) – The Salty Treat VIII

Check out Part VII here

This is what it felt like after driving for about 30 minutes on the highway towards Sheki. Our excitement of leaving packed Baku quickly wore off as we were surrounded by dry, small hills and desert – it was a total contrast to driving around in Georgia, which was covered in green and had greater hills and mountain views. Luckily, Sheki was not that far away so we were going to get there the same day and rest up. However, the roads were smoother and better than in Georgia, so we could safely drive within the speed limit and a little bit over (as we were advised, we could go + 10 km over the speed limit, which was nice) and not be afraid. We had snacks and water with us, so we planned on driving without any stops.
Ben seemed to have fallen in love with the automatic gearbox and was already driving like a pro. However, after a few hours, the police car showed up behind us and we were requested to pull over.

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Ah, bollocks. What did we do wrong? Nothing, it turned out – the police just did a regular check and let us go. What the hell – not even once were we pulled over by the police in Georgia for the entire week that we were there!
We then took a turn to the right, on a narrow two-lane street. Ben sped up and took over the car in front of us, as it was too slow and boom – another police car flashed behind us, giving us a signal us to pull over.

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Balls – what now? Ben presented the documents and chatted with the police guy for quite some time. Then both of them went silent for a short while and continued talking. I could not make out a single thing they were talking about, besides when Ben mentioned where two of us were from. The police guy then smiled, Ben thanked him and he went away. So, what happened was that Ben overtook a car on the road where we were not allowed to overtake the car and was fined for about 30 Euros (we agreed that we would split all the fines between the two of us). Ben explained the police officer that he was not aware of it, was a newbie and understood his mistake. We were then let go. At least that was nice.
I found some notes on the language differences between Turkish and Aziri and they are quite fun! Check this out.
For example, in Turkish, to translate it literally, “cigarettes are something you drink” (I know that sounds quite stupid) but in Azeri, “you can inhale the cigarettes”. In Turkish, a shop would be “closed” but in Azeri “tightened”. Also, the way how Azerbajani people say “money’ means “stamp” in Turkish.
Here are some funny words that mean different things in both languages:
Yarak : gentleman’s sausage (in Turkish), Weapon (Azeri).
Kerhane : Brothel (in Turkish), Company/Firm (Azeri).
It was evening when we reached Sheki – I already found a hostel for us while we were driving, so we decided to phone them up. Ben did the talking, agreed on a small discount (since we were staying there only for one night) and we put the address on the map. Funny thing was that hostels/hotels would normally not accept local unmarried couples in (according to their religion, they would not accept that) – but if you are a tourist, you’ve got nothing to worry about – just make sure you say that (but I guess you won’t have to if you speak English with them).
We followed the map and arrived at, what it seemed like, the middle of nowhere and we could not find the place.

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We asked a local for help and they walked together with us in search for a place (how nice of them) but we still were unable to find it – the booking website must have displayed a wrong address. The local then advised us to approach local taxi drivers and ask for help – Ben talked to them and they told him that we indeed got a wrong address but they would gladly help us out and drive with us there. We said that we would get our car and drive together with them. Perfect – both of us were longing to park the car, get back to town to get some food and relax, at long last.
After walking around in the dark, we finally got to our car and drove to the spot where we re-united with our new friends. They got in their own car and we followed them towards the hostel. I’ve got to say, they drove as if they were chased by the police but Ben managed to keep up with them. We were greeted by a nice-looking house and the receptionist, who opened the gate for us. To be correct, this was a villa house with a few rooms and we were the only guests there. Smashing – booking a room in that place was the best decision. We drove in, parked our car and when I got out of the car to get our things, Ben stayed in. Once I had got our stuff, I asked him why on earth he was still in and he said that the key would not get out of the keyhole in the car. He said it was a common problem and no matter how he tweaked the key and tried pulling it towards himself, nothing worked. The key was stuck.

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The receptionist, Mr R, approached us and asked what was up. Sadly, he did not speak English, so Ben was interpreting what I wanted to tell him. Ben tried a few ways of getting the key out – turning the wheel left and right, putting the hand break up – whatever we did, nothing worked and Ben did not want to give up – he was in the car for about 30 minutes before we had given up and called the car owner. He gave us a few tips (which we already tried but with no success) and then told us that if nothing worked, then we should call a local taxi driver as they would be more helpful and experienced. Ben tried getting the key out again and after about 10 more minutes, we got a call from a local repairman that he would drive to us to help fix the problem (the car owner called him). While we put out things inside the house, gave our passports and chatted with Mr R, we heard that the guy arrive. He sat in the car, moved the wheel and hand-break about and pulled out the key – he simply pushed the key slightly into the keyhole and pulled it out with a bit of force. Ben then replicated exactly that method a few times and we were happy again. Phew! Worst case scenario, if we had not managed to pull the key out, we would have to go to a repair shop where they would have to disassemble the car wheel from the dashboard – it would have taken us the time that we could not spare.
Mr R took pity on us and offered to cook something for us. We told him that we had some left-over food and he offered to warm it up for us and prepare some tea. We then fired up a conversation and shared our plans with Mr R and he gave us a few tips. I wanted to go further north from Sheki to the mountains but Mr R advised that we would need to have a 4×4 to get around to get a great view from the mountains and generally drive around (our friend insisted that there was not much to see there). Mr R then told us that he could show us around Sheki the next day (as there were quite a few interesting sights) and that we could then head over to lake Göygöl and then onwards to Khinaliq (we still had to drive to Baku first though to get north). Ben continued chatting with Mr R about politics and I went upstairs to take a shower and then I crashed my head into the pillow.
We woke about about 8 a.m. the next day and walked to the castle that was next to the villa and the view from there was pretty nice:

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We headed towards Palace of Shaki Khans, walked about and got our talisman for the road from a granny on the street – it was basically beads made out of dried fruit. We headed to eat some Piti (this is traditional food in Sheki and you should try it if you ever get a chance as just eating the thing is an experience) at Çelebi Xan restaurant (price was quite reasonable for a full meal for three people). We then headed towards an Albanian church of Kish, took nice pictures on the way and headed towards a hotel, which was built for the wife of the president.
We then dropped Mr R to his place, thanked him for his immense hospitality and drove onwards to Ganja. I initially wanted to drop it off our list but since our friend strongly recommended us to go there, we fired up the engine.
Also, earlier in Sheki, we dropped by a place, which used to be a marketplace centuries ago and a place for traders to stay in (it is now a hotel/museum) and when we were about to leave it, one of the owners approached us and started talking to us. She found out that Ben was was from Turkey and offered him a free stay at a hotel whenever he wanted.

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Good lord, it felt like Ben was treated like saint there! Well, Azeri and Turks do love one another after all but I did not know it was that extreme. Wow. Some folks, however, were not kind towards Russians – in some cases, they were quite negative about them – this is just something that always came up in conversation when they mentioned their president and Russia working together. The political situation in the country was, to say the least, quite tense.
Anyway, it was already growing late and we still had to make it to Ganja and the lake as we had to drive back to Baku the next day and the time was pressing.

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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?

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Frakked-up Roads & Back Again Part III

Check out Part II here

 

I was strongly advised not go to Georgia in summer as it was normally around 30 degrees there and I hate “sweat hiking”. Not sure who really enjoys it even. However, while tenting is permitted (at least I have not heard about any restrictions), it was certainly the worst idea to do it in the mountains or close to bodies of water (especially in the evening). Although, I would definitely say that travelling to Georgia during first half of September would have been best (and it was – I did not even have to take a coat with me). However, it was hard to carry on with my thoughts on those broken roads, mate!

We were on our way to Koruldi lakes and I kept on wondering why it took an hour to just get up there (I believe it was about 1km or so up hill from Mestia). When we saw the tall hill and how steep the roads (rather, paths carved with stones) were, I wondered no longer. Furthermore, the roads were so narrow that we could clearly see our death down the hill – if the driver turned even slightly to the side, we would have rolled down the hill like drunk Santa on the sled. The best part about the ride was that that road was a two-way road.

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As we were going up the hill and shaking around the van like pickles in the bottle, Ben started telling the driver about our “talismans” that we had in our car – the icon of Lady of St. Theodore and Jesus. Ben said that we found it in the car and used it for good luck to stay safe on the road (all three of us are atheists – we still respect other people beliefs though) and the driver felt very uncomfortable about it and almost got angry at us. “How dare you even?” he started. “Religion is my life, do not talk bad about it and telling me you were using icons as talismans”. That gave us a very clear idea how deeply routed the Orthodox Christianity was in the country. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, we went on talking all like good old mates  – Georgians are emotional people but they do not hold grudges against you.

After about 20-30 minutes of uncomfortable and painful ascendance up the hill, we got closer to the lakes. The driver told us that he went up there already three times before us (on the same day!) – he should either have a strong butt or a good doctor. Kuraldi lakes were very close to the Russian border and it was a spectacular view on the mountains. We came there at the right time as well – right before the sunset.

We saw a few tents close to the lake as well and some tourists. I hope they did not freeze to death at night.

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We breathed in enough cold and fresh air and decided to start going back to Mestia before it went pitch dark. Meow, our Chinese new friend, enjoyed the trip very much and before I realised that we had parted our ways in Mestia, I forgot to invite him to join us to Ushguli the next day. I was sure that we would meet him the next day.

We reached the hostel and decided to have some drinks and smokes on our way to a restaurant for dinner. We had a little bit too much of everything and decided to head back to the guest house to rest before our trip. Once we had arrived to the guest house, we went downstairs for some complementary tea, bread and jam from the house owner and talked about our work lives, a bit about philosophy, IT hacking and our life values. We had done enough bonding and decided to head back to our room to get some sleep.

It was about midnight. We were fast asleep and then I woke up to the scratching noises coming from the roof. Ben and Manuel were woken up by the noise as well. We heard a bit longer into it and understood that it must have been a mouse. We went back to sleep and woke up to the scratching again. Jesus… Manuel took a bottle and hit it against the ceiling to scare the mouse off. We went back to sleep… or so we thought. Manuel and I woke up startled to the loud noise (as if someone hit hammer against the ceiling) and Ben suddenly waking up and shouting. “Ahhhhhhh!” We thought that Ben had seen Casper the ghost. He actually thought that the roof was coming down on him! We laughed. A lot. Manuel then hit the ceiling once again to scare the mouse away and it apparently crawled over to scratch the ceiling under someone else’s room. Poor neighbours.

The first thing that was on our minds was that scratching noise from the night. Manuel went to speak with the house owner, while Ben and I were packing for the trip to Ushguli.

Manuel came back to use with one of the best stories I had heard in a while. So check this out – apparently, there was a walnut tree right next to our window and there was a squirrel. It knew how to get to the roof of the house and it would bring the walnuts there and the crack them open against the ceiling. Our room was the luckiest one as this is where the squirrel did its job under. That sneaky squirrel…

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We arrived to get our minibus, grabbed a Shoti and mentally prepared ourselves for a two-hour road to Ushguli, a community of small villages, surrounded by the mountains.

To our anticipation, the road was way worse than we thought. I could barely take any pictures during the ride and was nearly thrown out of my seat a dozen of times. I do not reckon that it would have been possible to even walk on those roads! However, the views that my eyes captured were breathtaking.

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We had arrived to the farthest village and were given about five-six hours to walk about and explore. We decided to order some food in the nearby restaurant. Clearly, it was not meant for locals because the price tag on food there was pretty high (about three-four Euros for Kubdar – meat pie) but by Jove was it the tastiest Kubdar we had ever had. Again, because it always took time for food to be prepared in Georgia, we nearly stopped our count at 2,000 Mississippi. The moment we got two pies, we stormed out of the place and Ben, who was the pie carrier and supervisor, immediately attracted a pack of stray dogs, who were our companions all the way to the observation point. And it was gorgeous.

The rest of the time, we walked around and enjoyed the view of the hills, sheep pasturing and locals riding horses around the village. Staying in the village is quite cheap – only about 10-20 Euros per night per person, which is quite reasonable. So if you decide to go hiking in the mountains, it is a good idea to stay for a few good days in Ushguli – this is something that we may well do in the future.

Once the scent of Kubdar had disappeared from our mouths, and we got to see the whole village, we went back to the car in anticipation of another couple of hours of riding down the roads that should be put up on display in a museum.

We still had a bit of time when we were back in Mestia (and it was our last day), so we decided to go visit Chalaadi glacier that was close nearby. We had to go through the forest there for about half an hour – so we had to rush before the sunset. We got into the car and drove off towards the woods – Manuel sprinted towards the forest and we tried to follow him as fast as we could but it felt like he put on magic boots of speed, and we lost him on a split-road.

We decided to take the left path and the further we walked, the angrier we were growing – why would he leave us? Is he in trouble? Do they even have wild animals in the forest? May be he is fighting for his life against a fat bear or sucking the poison out of the open wound. And with more anger, came more concern as we hit the dead-end. We realised that we lost the bet and should have taken the other road. As we came back to the split path, it grew darker. Ben, being the wisest, told me to come back to the car before it got darker, while I insisted on going and finding Manuel. As we were deciding what to do, it got yet darker, so we agreed to go back to the car and wait for our fellow ballbag. By the time we had reached the way out of the woods, I could barely see the ground under me (and the flashlight did not help much). Ben and I agreed to call the emergency in case Manuel would not come back to the car within the next hour or so. We were not able to reach him on a phone.

Finally, Manuel sent a message to Ben, telling him that he was on his way to the car.

I was not very happy with Manuel’s need for speed while Ben was more comforting towards him. We went towards our guest house to spend the last night in Mestia with the lovely squirrel above us.

We woke up to a cold morning and decided to drive as early as we could so we could get to see more and rush less on our way. Our plan was to visit Matvili and Okatse canyons and ideally make it to Tblisi by the night. However, in a typical “ballbag fashion” we did not make that happen. But that’s a story for another time. In the meantime, we started our Japanese car, greeted the icons and continued driving to feed our eyes to some more treasures of Georgia.

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The Marble Castle – Part III

The Marble Castle Part II here

I wake up to the bright sun rays and catch the chill of the wind that creeped in through the doorway. I must have dropped onto my bed after the vassals’ visit. I get a happy rush streaming down my throat after recalling early morning’s visit and spring up from the bed to put on my robes. I look at the window and extend my hand towards the sun to see how much time I have left till the sundown. It seems to be the midday – good time to visit Frank once again before I hear what the king has to say. I sense an adventure down the road but peril crippling alongside it and I cannot put it together to understand which thrills me the most. On a bright side, the old man may shed a light on this sudden visit from the king’s servants as he tends to have ears on the back of everyone’s head. Although, I am not sure why he did not speak of this yesterday as he usually is the first one to know everything that happens within and outside of the kingdom.
Leaving the armour behind me, I pour myself a lukewarm water into the goblet and start hungrily sipping on it. I cannot gather my spirit not to rush to hear what Frank knows about tomorrow. It has been a long time since my last service done for the king and my muscles have been growing weary and strength leaving has slowly left from my body. No matter how much I train and how long I carry this armour for, I cannot summon the same courage and passion as I had before. Being a knight is not something that one is born with – you learn and practice to be one and once you have mastered that skill, it will scar you for the rest of your life. Some look at the scar as an old wound and some see it as a gift. The former turns into madmen while the other see their gift fade away over time. The saddest part is that neither of them can live the same way.
I put the goblet on the side of the table and look around just to see if I need to take anything else with me. I come up to get my pouch of silver coins (to re-pay for some of the Frank’s past rounds and also to soothe the old man down into giving me more details on the upcoming event) and fly out through the doorway and out into the forest. Frank’s establishment is not located far away from my house and it is on the way to the kingdom as well (which is why I anticipate for the old man to spill the truth and all the rumours he has collected from the visitors all the way from there).
The forest has been very quite and I have grown too comfortable with the calmness of it all – so calm, in fact, that it has dumbed my mind.
The sun’s rays were slowly being covered by the clouds – I could sense the rain brewing. The time has come for Autumn to colour the trees and soak the ground. Most beautiful time of the year before the cold malice of winter. I can cherish those winter days spent in the kingdom – so warm and hospital it was. The huts, the houses were lit and the fire was constantly dancing outside of everyone’s place. All the kingdom folk made winter the most anticipated and jolliest seasons of all. The streets were always swarming with people, songs, celebrations, festivals and hot wine that could boil the coldest soul of any human. It was mesmerising to live there. My hut, though, cast me into a cold oblivion and made me urge for spring to return. Luckily, Frank always had a brew to warm me up and he would sometimes invite me to stay in the brewery, which was always glowing with warmth and hospitality.
I approach Frank’s brewery and, to my surprise, I do not hear the crowded noise and goblets smashing against one another in cheering. Only the dimmed lights and the same familiar warmth, crawling from under the door crack, and the smell of glazed chestnuts. I walk up the stairs to open the door and see that the place has only a few people and Frank stand behind the bar stand, preparing another brew. I nod at the visitors and come up to the old man.
“Top of the day, Frank,” I said. “Surprisingly quite today, is it not?”
“Yes, it is,” he responded quickly. “I can imagine most of my clients enjoying today without my usual sarcasm and old stories. I bet that they are only waiting for my brew to get stronger to hit their heads quicker and make them drunk. Judging by the amount of brew I have sold over the couple of years, my visitors can easily enter the ranks of Barbarians, I bet that. I certainly do not mind the quite days as I have longed for them already for quite some time. It looks like my brew has had an effect on you too now that you cannot fit into your armour now, haha!”
“Have you heard of anything that will happen tomorrow?” I interrupted Frank’s laughter.
Frank stopped rubbing the thick glass, looked at me and put his rug aside. He took a deep breath, as if we would not be able to take another one and put his hands onto the table. Frank stared at the floor for a few moments, lifted his head up and came up to one of the barrels and started pouring the drink. I gathered that the drink was meant to be for me, so I reached out for the silver pouch in my pocket and quietly placed it onto the bar stand. Frank could hear the coins touch his stand faster than they actually did. Once he had the goblet full, he placed it in front of me and pushed the bag of silver towards me.
“You may need this, boy,” he said in a deep voice.
“Pardon?” It came as a genuine surprise to me that Frank would not accept the money that I owed him. “This is the money for most of the rounds I had owed you. I am not certain of when I may be back here to drink your brew once again if the king orders us to go on a long journey. Take it now while you can.”
“You owe me nothing,” he continued. “And I sense nothing benign behind that gathering, in all honesty. The kingdom has been in peace for a long time now and it foresees no further clashes, skirmishes or wars in its path. It has made allies with everyone that it possibly could. If there is any blood to be spilled, that would be way up in the North of this world, which is of no concern to his highness and of no interest to the Barbarians that inhabit those regions.”
I was not sure what Frank had on his mind or what stories he had gathered from the others who passed by his brewery. He sounded alarmed and worried to me, and looked quite upset that I knew about tomorrow’s event.
“I gather that the vassals already paid you a visit earlier today. That is unfortunate. No matter how many times I had told them not to venture deeper into the forest, their noses appear to be longer than my stick, which I attempted to scare them off with. They should not have found you.”
“Why is that, Frank? What are you trying to say?” I took my first sip of his brew, which felt surprisingly more bitter than usual.
“You better stay where you are, boy, if you want to live.”
“I swore my life to the king. I owe him everything – what he has done for me, other knights and his people. How can you say that? If my life needs to be sacrificed for the greater good, then it shall be.”
“This won’t be a worthwhile sacrifice – that you can trust me,” Frank continued sounding unlike himself. “The king cannot continue supporting the lot of you. You are of no purpose to him any longer. He cannot disband you nor can he put you into a civil life any longer. The king once created the purpose of your existence and he is afraid of the consequences that may follow. Run while you can and hide in a new house, while you’re young and have a long life ahead. Your discipline is of my and many other people’s admiration and you have to place it elsewhere while there is time and while you are alive.”
The silence stood upon us and I tried deciphering Frank’s riddles one at a time as I could feel that he was hiding something from me or he did not know the whole story and what was about to happen. My hope was growing dim at the same time and I could feel the old man’s concern over my life.
“The king wishes you nothing good, any longer, my friend. I wish you could stay out of this trouble but I know that you shall not. This is not how you have been brought up and for that, I am glad. You are fearless and are ready to embrace the trouble and look into the mouth of the danger. But this is not the right time or occasion to do so. Stay out of this if you can. He shall set you on a mission that you shall not come back after alive.”
The sense of confusion started growing deeper inside of me and it kept me speechless. Frank could feel it as well but he knew that it would be dishonourable for me not to follow the king’s word and at the same time he had a hope that I would not go. I continued sipping on Frank’s brew and staring at him being puzzled. I was waiting for him to tell me more of what he knew.
“I am worried about it all, to say the least. Stay out of it if you want to live and if you have something to lose,” he concluded.
I remained in the brewery until late evening as Frank continued serving me the brew and tried reading one another in complete silence under the dimmed lights. I could sense that Frank knew nothing more of what were to follow tomorrow. He continued persuading me against going there but something kept on telling me that I had to. And, unfortunately, I had nothing else to lose but my word and life to my king

0.17 (Trip to Poland)

Best moments of your life start with “You know what? F**k it. Let’s do it” and this is where you start feeling that you’ve got nothing to lose and everything else to embrace. Ironically, following that expression is when you start planning that “f**k it” moment. I mean, you have to plan these kind of moments so you can get the best out of them. “Only planning” moments won’t bring you any further without doing something about them. So if you feel like learning a new language or creating an event, make sure you end up doing it.

Disclaimer: this does not apply to all of the situations and you are the one taking the risk of taking the aforementioned paragraph seriously. Think wisely and just do it. You have been warned.

Back in February last year I thought of travelling to Poland. You know, cheap, quality beer, stunning-looking girls, friendly people and good weather. You know, Poland! My friend invited me over to come visit her in Krakow and my colleague and friend from work was from Poland too. Boom. It all matched. Thank you, destiny.

My other friend, Pavel (a.k.a. Pablo) went with me as well. When I told him about my idea of travelling to Poland for two weeks to see the country, his only question to me was: “When?” I liked his spirit from the very start. And so we went to Warsaw together with my colleague and Pablo arrived later that night. Our plan was pretty simple: drink magic liquid, see places, meet new people, repeat. However, walking about the city with a hangover was not a good idea I can tell you. Luckily, magic beer “Lomza” saved my day and no matter how many bottles I’d had, I would never get a hangover the next day. Sacred liquid. And apart from all that, we had a plan to visit as many cities/towns as we could – we were ready for anything.

Krakow. I had been told that quite a number of Krakow people (to be precise 90%, according to my friend’s calculations) did not like Warsaw. Why? Because half of Warsaw had been rebuilt and the other half of the buildings were old? Well, I liked it anyway but Krakow people had something against Warsaw. The old town of Krakow was marvellous – huge, old…you know, just like any other Old Town in Europe. However, not far away from Krakow Old Town there was a Jewish district full of bars and fast food places with Zapiekankas. That national dish has since become my new religion.

Krakow had lovely spots to visit and cool tattoo culture going on there. If you wanted to get tattooed in Poland, then go anywhere but Warsaw. If you would like to visit “salty mines” and be salty there – you are more than welcome to do so. Although make sure that you plan this because the mines are 20 minutes away from the city and the tour would cost you about € 20. But I’d been told that the salt there was too salty.

One other thing I’d noticed about Poland‘s night life were bars and pubs – they were usually small and comfy and each place that you went to had its own atmosphere unlike in other places in Europe. If you got bored of one pub and wanted to visit another one, you would not be able to tell the places apart (especially under the influence of alcohol). It was a genuine pleasure to explore new pubs and see Pablo being asked for his ID every time he ordered alcohol. They also had a bar called “Pijalnia”, which you can find in any Polish city. They sell beer/shots for 4 zloty (~1 €) and food/snacks for 8 zloty (~2 €)heaven on earth.

Katowice was the next on the list and considering the size and feedback about the place, we did not have much to look forward to there. Pablo and I ate some more Zapiekankas and got our stomachs ready for evening liquid. We stayed at a couple’s place, who we found through “couchsurfing” and Sara showed us around the place, cooked with us and treated us with stories about her and her partner’s adventures. They also had two cats that behaved more like dogs. Reincarnation went wrong.

If you would like to visit Auschwitz, then you can do so from Katowice. Buses usually leave every 1-2 hours and you can enter the place without paying for a guided tour. Or else you can head to a place called “Zakopane” to do a bit of hiking and see some Polish mountains. Although make sure that you go there after April/May when it’s warm and tourist season has not started. It would also be cool to head to Slovakia after Zakopane but since it was still snowing there in March, we decided to stick to the map and head out for…

Wroclaw that had more German influence on it unlike other places we’d seen in Poland. Old town was lovely and that was where I tried “Tartar”, a.k.a. “Steak tartare”. It was a crazy idea at first but after two beers, I could eat a pony. I saw the raw meat with a yolk on top of it, chopped vegetables and bread on the side but was still hesitant as my reflexes kept on telling me to cook that meat. Nevertheless, I was told to mix it all together with the fork and spread it over the bread like a sandwich…I felt quite tense but then something else happened. A smile emerged on my face and I felt like something holy entered my rows of teeth and tongue. Tartar…it was blissful. The more time I spent in Poland, the more I ate and drank, the happier I felt there. It was, simply put, godlike. We were also hosted by awesome Sir, called Kuba, who took days off to show us around and spend time together with us. Polish people are really nice.

If you consider the expenses in Poland, I can tell you that most things are twice cheaper there than, say, in Baltics. If you feel like buying some clothes, then do not – prices are similar to the ones in the Baltic states. But not only did food taste good there, it was also much cheaper. Eating out is cheaper and the service is better. That being said, you are looking at having great food and cheap booze! However, the rent in Warsaw is not that cheap than you think but would you care if you could have litres of that amazing beer everyday? Exactly. I doubt so.

Poznan looked unlike any other place that we’ve seen in Poland. It came across as “foreign” to me and something felt pleasingly wrong about the place. I enjoyed its atmosphere and it was definitely worth seeing and exploring. We’d also been told that Poznan had the best Irish pub (evarrr) that had the tastiest Guinness served in Poland. They lied.

Although we could not find a couch host to stay at, we had to book hostel. Here is the pro tip for y’all – if you do think that you may need to book a hostel, do so in advance (caps-lock this in your mind) and make sure that you either do so via “booking.com” or “airbnb”. You’ll save yourself so much more time and relieve yourselves from hassle. You’re welcome.

Also, you’ll be able to find bicycles to rent out around Poland. For just € 1, you have the whole hour to cycle around and if you would like to travel more, just top up your temporary account that you open and you’re good to go. You can ask locals how to do that when you’re there. Revolut pre-paid card came in pretty handy when I had to buy anything in Poland.

Torun was next on our list and by Jove how many people had told us that it was much better than Bydgoszcz (a.k.a. Bydgozzjhgzxchhzh). And I would neither disagree nor agree. The only place you want to see there is the Old Town and munch on Torun’s gingerbreads. Literally, there is nothing else to see.

Bydgozzjhgzxchhzh was not so bad as people said it would be. I was told that it had changed throughout years and the Old Town area with old and picturesque buildings was worth going taking multiple pictures of. And that’s about it. Nothing else to see besides “Zabka” shops that are literally 10 m distance away and a few old but neat-looking buildings here and there. Also, you can buy beer 24/7 but are not allowed to drink outside in public.

Gdansk was coming up and as expected, it felt like it was missing from the Baltic trinity. Like Poznan, it felt quite different to me and Pablo and we quite liked it for this. We also thought about travelling to Gdynia and Sopot, which were close to Gdansk to enjoy some panorama views but since we were short of time and there was not that much to see there anyway, we had to enjoy the rest of the day and head out for…

Lodz, which was an exceptional city. By “exceptional” I mean that it did not have an Old Town (mind=blown for a European) but instead it had this Piotrkowska street that stretched for up to 5 km in length and was known as a tourist area, full of pubs, shops and Zapiekanka temple. Best Zapiekanka was eaten by me there. I still dream about it even up till now. But since Lodz was quite an industrial city and there was nothing else but old factories to see, we headed back to…

Warsaw. If you ask me what places I’d recommend you to live in, it would definitely be Warsaw and/or Krakow. However, considering the fact that moving by bus between cities is quick and cheap, you can always move around the country if you get bored or feel adventurous. But those two places are the ones I could imagine myself live in. Both cities have an amazing and colourful night life, foreigners, great vibe and of course…the Old Town. Ta-daaaa. They’re lovely.

Am I trying to say that Poland is amazing and I would not mind moving there to live? Why not? However, travelling feels more like this “move-in” to me and I can tell you that from the start, it was a bit inconvenient but after a week, I fell out from my “comfort zone” and felt like travelling through the whole world. Travelling engulfs and sucks you in. When you stop travelling, you just freeze within a wall, waiting for it to fall to set you free. When I’m writing this, I feel like going back and exploring more places, getting to know more people and feelings. It does sound cheesy but try it yourself. Go out and travel for a couple of weeks to a place that you’ve wanted to or thought of and trust me, you’ll not come back home the same person. Get the f**k out of your comfort zone, mate.