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) – 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) – 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) – A Farewell to Georgia Part V

Check out Part IV here

 

If you could only wake up to the mountain fresh air every day, you would do it forever. It was yet another joyful day and we were all looking forward to visiting Tbilisi (besides Manuel as he had lived there) and eating some local food on our way. We stopped by at a place that everyone spoke about in Ambrolauri. Apparently, that place offered some top-notch Lobiani and it was “the-place-to-go” for the locals. Naturally, when we arrived at the place to offer our Lobiani, it was already packed with orders – so we were told to wait for at least good 30 minutes before they would be ready.
We walked around the small town, killing time. I was longing for a cup of coffee while Ben & Manuel cared about looking for some attractions. To their disappointment of not stumbling upon anything interesting & growing hungry, we headed back to our car that was parked next to the bistro. We were eagerly waiting for the food to be prepared and a small pack of stray dogs began to surround us. We finally got our order – two giant Lobianis with loads of meat in them. By Jove were they tasty! Reluctantly, we shared some with the dogs as well.

We managed to get lost while trying to understand how to get on a road to get out of the town. On our way to Tblisi, we dropped by at Gori (town) for a stroll, visited Uplistsikhe cave (I highly recommend you to check it out) and we also at some sweet bread, called Nazuki, which was sold on a road by local grannies. As we were passing through a small village, Manuel immediately exploded, sounding angry: “Oh, I f***ing hate this place!”

We were dumbstruck as Manuel was the calmest of the three of us on the trip. We asked him why all the passion and he said that he just had something against that place he did not know what it was. He passed it by quite a few times and always hated it. Fair dinkum, as they say in in Australia.
Nonetheless, I could feel that our company was growing hungry for some more fine spirits and we continued onwards to Tbilisi. Still, during our whole trip we had not been pulled over by the police even once – that was a relief & Ben did not have to worry much about losing the focus on the driving. However, all of our focus was lying in that ABS flashing up on the car’s dashboard. Blast! We had to return the car the same evening when we arrived to Tblisi and we all started thinking of what to say. Initially, Manuel said that we had to come clean. My point of view was that it may not have been our fault that ABS started acting up – after all, it was a rented car and we did not know what maniacs could have driven it before us. Ben seemed to have been in between Ben’s and my idea. Later on, I managed to persuade Ben to tell them nothing of ABS until they had found out about it themselves. Otherwise, the car was tip top.
We finally met the owners of the car in Tblisi, who examined it and asked us about the smudge in bumper – yes, we forgot (a.k.a. did not have time) to clean the car and that smudge was from the time when Ben nearly overthrew the banner in Mestia. We explained that some cleaning would undo it & then the owner sat in the car and drove away. We never heard back from him ever since.
We headed to Manuel’s place in Tbilisi, where he owned a flat and prepared for the night out!

Another Georgian friend of mine, who I had not seen in years, joined us and we started pub-crawling in a hipster place called Fabrika. It was an old factory building that had a bunch of bars and bistros in it, where people got together to have fun. I quite liked the atmosphere of the place – people talked, laughed, smoked, drank & were quite open to talking to strangers. Georgia felt like heaven to me after having lived in Baltics for so long.
Ben, Manuel and I got ourselves “Metro” drinks, which was a cocktail with chacha in it – it was only three Euros and damn was it strong! Everything seemed to have good value for the money in Georgia. My friend (Mary) finally arrived at Fabrika & we started chatting away. We were four then & started thinking of discovering new places around the city. We headed to a small park where there was an open-air party with a few bars. It felt like that American kind of a party where people listened to music loudly and drank beer in the back of their house. We all enjoyed it but had to part our ways soon – Mary had to go to work the next day (since we met on Tuesday). However, I told her that I would be back after Armenia for a little longer, so we would meet again.
We marched onwards to a few other bars and then decided to take a taxi back home. All three of us had had plenty of drinks, so we were fast asleep the moment that we had entered the taxi. We were suddenly awoken by a loud noise that came form a car – it turned out that the car’s tire burst. Once the tyre has been changed, we all went back to sleep until we had arrived at Manuel’s place.
The next day we strolled around the city and drove about to see the sights of Tbilisi, such as Monastery Jugari, the oldest cathedral of Georgia – Svetitskhoveli cathedal & the old town. That took us almost the whole day to get to see those places and we had a few hours left before our train to Baku that same evening. We finished our day with dining at a fine Georgia restaurant and set off to collect our bags.
Overall, a week of travelling in Georgia was a blast and I sure am eager to visit the country again for another week. We did not manage to see Batumi, Borjomi & other places in the North. I am sure that it would take good two-three weeks to see everything in Georgia – but note that to manage to do that you’d need to be one crazy driver.
For the record, here is the map of our journey – just in case that you’d like to plan a journey to Georgia yourself one day – it will definitely be worth it!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Self-Titled Part I

Ballbag is a term that was coined back in 2003, primarily referring to a gentleman’s dignity. However, the word had accumulated another meaning (by a small portion of people) where I live, which was commonly referring to “lad”. That was back in 2015. Afterwards, that word took an interesting direction and found itself in a sweet spot between a “what-on-earth-is-this-guy-doing”, “this-lad-does-not-think-straight” and “this-lad-is-a-really-kind-lad”. Throughout the course of this adventure, the “ballbag” term has been altered slightly again. No, actually, it has been perfected. So much, in fact, that it was crystal clear to us. We were true ballbags – very kind and polite chaps, who were looking for an adventure in any place (whether it is for fun or glory), [intentionally] get into trouble and make stupid mistakes (to the point that we collectively feel sorry for ourselves and everyone around us).
Originally, the trip was supposed to include a visit to South Ossetia and Karabakh but I discovered the will to live and postponed visiting those places until some other time (furthermore, we had very little time to spare and visiting those two places in addition to the ones we’d been to, would have proven to be challenging). And so, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were on the table. Luckily, we had a local guide in Georgia, who volunteered to travel with us. Let’s call my friend, Manuel (I have known him back from the university times). He was not really keen on visiting other two countries with us, so he politely declined the offer. However, my Turkish friend (let’s call him Ben) was with me all the way until Armenia, our last destination. We started putting the places down on paper that we wanted to visit in each country and discussing our route – what places we visit first, how long we would stay in every place, how much it would cost us, etc. My heart desired to visit mountains, Ben wanted to see more forests in addition, and Manuel was cool with whatever we decided to do.
I decided to give Manuel one last call before our trip to confirm the route towards mountains from Kutaisi and back. Manuel confessed to us that our route would be long because there was no asphalt road from mountains and back. What that meant was that we had to travel all the way from the mountains back to Kutaisi – that was bad news as that shrinked our possibilities of visiting other places that we originally planned to see. Ah balls. Months upon months worth of planning went all the way from the production cycle into “what on earth do we do with this now and how?” We had to improvise quickly and re-map our small adventure. Ballbagging phase number one officially kicked off.

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We had great suggestions for places to see in Azerbaijan too – my other friend suggested us a couple of places to see there and helped us find a car to rent. Armenia was last on our list, so we decided to leave it be there like milk in the fridge – you know that it is there but you’re afraid of drinking it now because you’re not entirely sure if it went sour. Also, my ex-colleague lived in Yerevan and gave a few tips for places to visit. I jotted her ideas down and let them be there. Clearly, both Ben’s and my highlight was Georgia – plus, we had so much more time ahead of us to plan our other two trips anyway, so we were not too worried.
Manuel met Ben and me in Kutaisi airport on 26 September 2018. Manuel came there with our car that Ben had the fortune of driving (since he was the only one with the driver license). It was Mistubishi Pajero IO from 2014. Unfortunately, we forgot to ask our car renter what kind of gearbox the car had and to Ben’s surprise it was automatic, which he did not have any experience of using. While Manuel and I were exchanging our life stories (we had not met each other for a couple of years), Ben was checking out youtube to see how to use automatic gearbox. That clearly made Manuel raise his eyebrow and question Ben’s driving experience. I told Manuel that he had nothing to worry about and that Ben would do just great – he just needed some time to adjust and he would pick up automatic without any problem. I mean, it was a peace of cake after all. After about an hour, we started moving and Ben began his ritual of summoning his inner beast (it was hungry, I could tell) and dedicating 100% of his attention on the road towards Kutaisi, which was our first place to stay in.

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Our place looked pretty authentic in Kutaisi (and no wonder, it was one of the cheapest options to rent) – it was quite an old place that threw me back into the late 80s – right in those times where people had carpets on their walls, old and squeaky wooden floors & furniture. I cannot say that all of us felt like home but we were fine with our choice. Our stomachs directed us to go and find a place to eat out in the town and get some tourist information. You see, we wanted to visit the canyons (Martvili and Okatse) that were close to Kutaisi but we found out that they were closed because of the rainy weather. So we let our stomachs feast upon some kebab, bread and beer. We exchanged some money & enjoyed seeing how locals drove down the roads in the town. Ben was, to say the least, not impressed with their attitude on the road and started wondering together with us when we would crash first & how bad it would get. After walking around, we got back to the car and headed out of the town.
Google Maps was our least favourite man on the mission – it very much enjoyed deceiving us by showing weird turns and corners that actually weren’t there. We ended up pulling over every ten or so minutes to ask locals for directions. Eventually, Ben had his first taste for curvy and narrow roads towards Sataplia cave & Gelati monastery – both of the places were close to Kutaisi. My friend told me that it was a normal occurrence to see pigs and cows on the roads in Georgia and he was totally right. The more cows and pigs we had seen, the hungrier we were getting, so we made our way back to Kutaisi to get some more food, rest and head onwards the next day.
On our way back to the guest house, we stopped at the traffic lights (I can still clearly see that night clear in my head) and we continued driving. Ben was still getting used to the automatic gearbox and that was when the car headlights met an innocent-looking elderly lady crossing the street in the middle of the road. In addition to pigs and cows, it was totally normal for pedestrians to jump in the middle of the road and scare the living s**t out of you as well. Ben did not hesitate and switched the gear all the way to “P” (parking) and stopped the car. Clearly, he panicked and switched the gears to break (which does not need to be done). Manuel and I were probably envisioning something terrible to happen to that lady right then and there. We released a deep breath and went on driving, complaining about people being so lazy to get to a zebra crossing. Unacceptable.
We found a parking spot, pulled over, and a smell travelled right into our nostrils. This was the smell of something burnt and got us thinking…

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Upon a closer inspection and some sniffing around, we found out that the smell was coming from the wheels. Clearly, those were the breaks.

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Great, now we had a car with broken pads on the first day of travelling. The owners of the car were 200 km away from us in Tblisi and we had limited amount of time to deal with that issue (we barely had time to find places to eat out in). To fight with our stress and suppressed bouts of anger, we decided to go out and eat something local fatty foods and drown our sorrow with beer. Obviously, Manuel was far north from “OK” and was grim about me not telling him in advance that Ben did not have enough experience to conquer them mountain roads. The only thing on Ben’s mind was long face of Manuel and big calculator (in his mind) that was summing up the expenses to fix the breaks. Everyone’s concern was the time, of which we had very little.
The atmosphere during our dinner was tense, to say the least, so we headed home with full stomachs and empty heads, still questioning what was real and what was not. While I was telling Manuel not to call the owners of the car to tell what had happened and convincing him to go on driving (because Ben said that the breaks just became “softer” and not broken), Ben gave us the best news of the day: “hey guys, so my friend has just told me that the breaking pads should be totally fine. If we did destroy the breaking pads, we would not be able to use the automatic gearbox. So we should be all good!”

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F***ing amateurs.

That was a weight off of our minds – we later found out that replacing the breaking pads was an enormous amount of work for a car repairman – he had to disassemble the whole gearbox (which would take him one hour and more), get the breaking pads (I bet they had to match our car’s breaking pads), it would cost us a lot (because insurance did not cover them), we definitely then had to ring up the owner’s of the car about it, etc. The whole process did not sound as great as eating khachapuri – so we were glad about the fact that the car was in order. We agreed to keep a close eye and strong nose on the car wheels over the next coming days before we entered the mountain roads.
Next morning began with smelling the breaking pads, which still had the scent of panicked driving from the day before. We continued to drive and agreed that if the breaks were to really affect our driving that we would give the car back to the owners. We visited Bagrati cathedral in Kutaisi to enjoy the panorama view on the town and headed towards Prometheus caves. Manuel said that it would be exciting. The cave was close to Kutaisi. We took the tour guide through the cave and a short boat ride as well. It took us about an hour to go through the cave and the view was mesmerising. I heard that it took about 100 years for the crystals to form by a centimetre. Some halls in the cave were used for weddings as well. Just look at this:

 

That was magnificent, to say the least.

After feeding upon some cave air, we headed back to the car and moved direction Mestia to look at the mountains, more sheep and cows.

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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.

Bittersweet

“Some people die at 25 and are only buried at 75” –
Benjamin Franklin

My American friend, Michael, accompanied me for the trip to “warm places” back in August 2016. I initially was supposed to go there on a business trip in the wake of September but the company I worked for allowed me to run away from “the sacred beauties” of the Baltics three weeks prior to the business trip (i.e. instead of purchasing the flight tickets only for the business trip, I booked a ticket to fly over to Ukraine for a vacation first). As Mike had only one week of holidays, he suggested me to visit Odessa, Tiraspol (in Transnistria) and Chisinau (Moldova) together with him. He was really stoked to see Transnistria, while I wanted to enjoy Moldavian wine and see dozens (literally) of my relatives in Ukraine.
I flew with Turkish Airlines (they treat you with good food and smiles) and was chatting with a lovely Estonian girl through the whole trip to Istanbul – she was on the way to her relatives in Georgia. I hope I could go there one day too (boom – already planned this trip for 2018). She was travelling alone though – but her heart was already taken by someone else (awww) so my compliments already started wearing off pretty quickly after that (girls mention their boyfriends out of the blue in the middle of the conversation – or may be it is there strategy) and we just continued talking over “friendship barricade”. She was an interesting person nonetheless.
I arrived to Istanbul to wait for the connecting flight and had quite some time to waste. So I was walking around in search of the Wi-Fi to entertain myself with memes from 9Gag. All networks were password protected and a local cafe shop wanted me to buy some food/drinks from them if I wanted to connect to their Wi-Fi. That’s how you make a business! I then approached a stranger, who was sitting close nearby that same cafe and asked her if she knew the password by any chance. She gladly shared it with me and that stroke a conversation. She was from Sweden (finally it was time to practice my Swedish!), and was going to Africa for a week to give some inspirational speeches to the people in need (she is working for some NGO) for a week or so. By the time we got around to talking about Swedish FinTech, my flight was approaching, so I bade a warm farewell to her.
I arrived to Kiev to get on the bus to Odessa right away. When I got to Odessa, I then took a taxi (I absolutely forgot to bargain with the taxi driver, so I overpaid a few Euros) to get to the hostel to meet up with Mike, who had a flight from Tallinn to Odessa. He although said that he was deeply unimpressed by the Ukrainian airport. We were hanging out with his two other female friends around the city for the next couple of days (I assure you that it was a pure coincidence that we were mingling so much with the girls on the trip), eating, drinking, staying at the beach – having fun, basically. Odessa felt like sauna packed with oceans of shops in August – it felt like every second person living there felt that it was time to do some business and sell something.
Ukrainians are very honest people, I can tell you that. If a girl does not want to dance with you, she will say “no” before you take another breath. If they like you – you will know. Easiest “women manual” I have ever come across thus far. It is quite easy to strike a conversation with them and chat away but I barely met anyone who would speak English there and if you ever go to Ukraine, it is a good idea to arm yourself with a local or Russian speaker (otherwise, you may be ripped off when buying something – obviously, not in the stores – or get lost in the city).
After a couple of days in Odessa, midnight “English breakfast” from a local restaurant close to our hotel and late night beach parties, we were finally ready to set off to another location. We got on an intercity bus – this was when Mike and I felt that real adventure was about to come – we were on our way to Tiraspol from Odessa. Not even joking – it was a regular intercity bus about to cross borders in an hour or two! Nevertheless, Prendnistrovje (a.k.a. Transnistria) is an unrecognised country within Moldova. As they wanted to be a part of neither Ukraine nor Moldova, they had remained that way for over 20 years. However, they still want to be a part of Russia (more than a half of people living there hold a Russian passport).
Apparently, anyone can visit Transnistria for up to 24 hours (on the border, a chap with “KGB” sticker on his shirt will ask you the purpose of your visit, your occupation, address you are staying at and give you a migration card – as far as I can recall, they do not stamp your passport at all). If you leave the border later than 24 hours, you will be fined. If you want to stay longer (which I believe you can up to anywhere between 1-3 months, depending on your citizenship), you need to ask the host to extend your visit for acceptable X amount of time with the help of local “KGB” or superman, whoever they have there. On another note, definitely make sure you get yourself a Russian speaker as barely anyone speaks English there.
We rented an apartment in Tiraspol through booking.com and our host, Eugene, gave us a tour around the town. He told us about the organisation, called “Sheriff” – known by all people in Transnistria. They had their gas stations, infrastructure, football club – basically, they were a huge monopoly in the country. Despite that, people still appreciated “Sheriff” and what they had done for the country.
Tiraspol looked like a frozen city – it felt like it time-travelled back to Soviet Union and was looking up to Russia (still) for a better future. Locals seemed to be fine with that. For Mike and me the trip was a totally new experience. But the highlight of the trip there was seeing plastic Transnistrian coins – I would not be surprised if people played poker with that money (they do look like poker chips) and the nightlife. We went out to a local club and met quite a few folks who had travelled through Europe, Asia and heaps of different countries but came back either because of their families or of something that did not work out for them there. The locals were distantly friendly to us but even Mike could not impress them with the fact that he came all the way from the US to Tiraspol (apparently, the locals had travelled quite extensively!) and the fact that I was from Ukraine, living abroad, raised no eyebrows either. What the locals were, however, impressed by was Mike’s Russian (as it was pretty good at the time) and our “afterparty” was basically others teaching him all sort of expressions in Russian.
After our active one-day trip in Tiraspol and breathing in the spirit of “I-want-to-be-in-Russia-someday”, it was time to move on. We boarded the bus to Moldova. That was when where proper Turkish sauna began – starting in Chisinau. Bear in mind I was already sweating the whole 4 days before arriving to Chisinau but there I felt that my forehead was like a lamp and I was so desperate to summon a genie that I kept on rubbing it (from the sweat) every two minutes. So hot it was there – above 30 degrees, in fact.
What was interesting about Chisianu was that half of the city looked modern (somewhat close to your “regular Baltic capital”) and the other half was swarming with street markets and cheap prices like in a small town. We met up with two locals there (through Couchsurfing) and went to a place to eat. The food I ate was so rich in taste and every piece of that beautifully executed chicken in the soup (zjama), mamaliga and plăcintă made me feel closer to Jesus (not that I was dying or anything). When they asked me if I preferred Moldavian women to food, I could not talk – my mouth was full all the time. And home-made wine was something out of the barrel (literally)! It felt so light, tasty and bittersweet. I would not be able to drink any other wine any more but Moldavian (may be Georgia will change my mind this year).
I also got a tip from one of the locals – if you ever want to see Moldova, rent a car (€ 15 per day) and go around the North of the country. Locals say it is worth it, if you want to see what Moldova really is made of. Eat here as much as you can as well and go wild on grapes too!
After a few days, Mike headed to Bucharest, to see some more Roma folks and I got on the bus back to Ukraine (it was a sweaty and humiliating bus trip for me) to visit my relatives. I travelled around some more Ukrainian cities and then went to the village close to Kremenchug where my relatives lived. I sadly could not learn how to ride a motorcycle or fish with a bamboo fishing rod just like in good old times (the motorcycle was broken and my uncle did not have time to fix it, sadly, and fish in the lakes were a size of a quarter and the owners of those lakes were greedy bastards, who charged you unreasonable prices to go and fish there). My uncle often dreamt of fishing like in good old times too, he confessed. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant stay with my relatives for a week before taking off to the business trip in the town nearby.
Cherkasy. Spelled with one “s” as I learned when I entered the office the first day. I had side-by-sides with the IT dudes – I showed them what I did in another office and talked more about products that I worked with and they showed me their witchcraft. Some of the things on their screens looked really scary – almost enough to summon the Satan himself, it felt like. Cherkasy was a small but cute town. If you have work and family or bunch of friends there – it was alright. The place was really small and stagnant though. Folks were at a loss of suggesting what I could see here after recommending me to visit a park and a monument, close to the beach. Conclusion – fine with beer for a day or two there!
I had passed Kiev it by so many times but never had a chance to walk about and explore that magnificent city. I am so glad that I had done that on that trip. It was miraculous at night time and there were more pretty women – I do recommend you to spend at least a week here. There is a ton of places to visit and things to do. Although, bear in mind that getting somewhere for an hour within the city is considered normal. Chatting up with someone out of the blue is considered sane though (unlike in Baltics and Scandinavia) and I had missed that so much – you can start a chat with literally anyone in Kiev and people were always glad to help out. Kiev ticked in all the boxes for me and I cannot wait to come there again to stay longer.

To be honest with you – that trip woke me up and pushed me out of my comfort zone quite a bit and I had been craving to see more places after that. Getting out of your comfort zone is always the way to go! Staying at hotels, getting a tour guide and all the other trivial and typical tourist crap – do you really need it? Use Couchsurfing to meet up with new people or ask your friends around for some more friends who live in the place you are planning to visit. Easy trip is never a fun and educating one. Yes, there were a few hoops and uncomfortable travels (like me sweating the whole bus trip back to Ukraine) and so forth but I broke shackles of comfort and “a new little me” was born at that time – I noticed that I changed and that was the change I anticipated to experience the most. I learned new things, talked to new people, tried different food and drinks – I felt alive. There were hoops and ladders to cross and climb and challenges to face but by the end of the day I still could feel the bitter-sweet taste of this trip in my mouth. After the cup of tea, of course. No sugar.