Ballbags On The Road (Edition II) – Part II: The History Repeats Itself

Check out Part I here

I’m joking – we landed just fine! Though both Mike and I slept very little, as we had a flight during the night, we were ready to get moving once we had landed in Kazakhstan, Almaty. It was 9 August 2019 that we made an appearance in Central Asia.
We originally planned to stay in the city for a few days and then head out to Bishkek but we had already booked a car trip with two other fellow travellers and they could not make it later than 14 August. Furthermore, since we had to go back to Almaty at the end of the trip for our flight back anyway, we figured we might as well spend time there later. So from 9 till 14 August we would just breathe fresh Kyrgyzstani air and enjoy picturesque sceneries. And it all fit into our plan anyway – first Almaty; then we travel to Bishkek and see other places and cities in the country; then we have a long stay in Tajikistan – drive down Pamir highway for around a week and then stay in the capital; and from there, we would head straight to Uzbekistan, see things there; and then conveniently take a train towards Almaty and spend the remainder of our time there.

A great plan, isn’t it?

And there we were – early morning, Almaty airport. We quickly picked up our belongings and started going towards the exit, where we were greeted by a few taxi drivers who offered us a ride. I told all of them not to bug us and we went our merry way towards an ATM to withdraw some cash and see them pretty foreign banknotes. Once we got some money on our hands, I started chatting with a taxi driver. I asked how much it would cost us to get to the bus station and he said it would only be 1,000 KZT (around 3 USD). Mike and I were astonished – we quickly got into the car and got moving. The driver had shown me his phone and repeated that it would be 1,000 KZT (this is what some app showed). I said that I had trusted him and we went on chatting about the usual – where are you from, what do you do, etc. Once all the simple questions had been covered, our driver and his work mate (who was in the passenger’s seat) started talking about the politics. The usual. At that point it felt like the time froze and I could hear my facial hair grow…
Once we had hit the breaks, the driver pulled out his phone and shown me the figure of 20,000 KZT on his phone app. Obviously, lack of sleep and coffee prevented me from pulling a face of a shock. The bastard charged us 1,000 KZT PER kilometer.

Bloody hell. BLOODY HELL! And there were two of those fat bastards sitting in front of us – I really doubted (at that time) that arguing would get us anywhere. We just simply got served – oh, the sweet moments from my past visit to Azerbaijan! The history repeated itself yet again.

I left the car and withdrew the money…50 bucks! Man, oh man. Much later I found out that once could pay 1,300 KZT to get to the airport from the city.
However, we learnt our lesson and became much more diligent until the end of our trip. Luckily, that was the only time we got properly served during the whole three weeks or our trip.
While we hurried towards the bus station random drivers offered us to take us anywhere we wanted. I told them to sod off and headed towards more affordable, giant cars.
On a brighter side of the moon, had we stayed and argued with the taxi drivers, we may have needed to wait for another 30-60 minutes until the next bus…or rather minibus. We paid for our tickets, went to the potty and caged ourselves into the minibus.

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Despite our unfortunate loss of Mr Ulysses S. Grant, we were lucky to get the last row of seats. There was an interesting looking gent, sitting right next to Mike. The guy’s name was Hugo and he was from Mexico. Mike and I were taken aback by that and started asking him what on earth he was doing in Kazakhstan (as he did not look like he was a traveller).
Hugo moved to Almaty together with his partner years ago and they were overjoyed with the country so much that they had decided to stay for a long while. Hugo even learnt Kazakh (instead of Russian, which was spoken by more people in the country) and was on his way to cross the border, so he could renew his entry visa to Kazakhstan (I believe he would be granted 30 days if he had crossed the border). He had to do that for some time as I believe that he was about to get visa from a new job (in another city in Kazakhstan) some weeks later.
We had a lovely chat with Hugo throughout the trip (our story with the taxi shocked him too by the way) and at the end, we exchanged our phone numbers to stay in touch.
Going through the border was a piece of cake – and quick too! Once we had crossed the border, I told a few more taxi drivers to sod off and got back into our (then, much lighter) minibus and continued towards Bishkek.
It started to get quite pretty past the border and I already started seeing the mighty hills of Kyrgyzstan.

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And soon enough we were in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. We started feverishly looking for our taxi driver friends and soon enough, found one. That time though, we bombarded him with questions, like: what’s the full price for the ride from here to X? Is it the price per person or for the both of us? What will be the final price for the ride? Will we be the only passengers or will anyone else squeeze in on the way? Yep, those two taxi bastards taught us a lesson, so we had to think of them dearly till the end. We negotiated the price and took off. The driver started off a very familiar game of “where are you from, what do you do” and then told us that he did not really like the city and that there was not much to do. It used to be a desert about 30-40 years ago according to him and so seemed to be quite upset about the fact that people wanted to build buildings to have somewhere to live…
Anyway, we headed straight to the hostel, where one of our mates, Jacky, worked (he owned the place). The hostel was very simple and cheap – we literally had carpets, which we slept on, with a pillow with blanket. It was quite hot in Bishkek, so we did not really need more.
Mike already had his visa sorted for Pamir Highway (in Tajikistan) online. I could not so I had to go to a Tajikistani embassy in person to do so. I know, it is quite dumb. Those who don’t need a visa to visit Tajikistan, have to go to the embassy to apply for the visa for Pamir Highway (which is done separately), while those who needed a visa to Tajikistan, could apply for both visas online.

Something for you to bear in mind should you decide to visit the country.
I took my passport, money and we headed towards Tajik embassy, which was conveniently located about one kilometer from the hostel.
Mike and I started strolling towards the place when I suddenly realised it was…Friday. Right around 3:00 p.m. Friday…which meant that the embassy would not be open during the weekend and we weren’t sure when and if we’d be back in Bishkek again, before heading out to Pamir Highway…

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Good job, Tim – great planner. Honestly, if we ended up arguing with those sneaky taxi drivers back in Almaty, our trip would not have been so smooth because I did not know how soon the visa would be ready (forums on the internet said it could take up to one day) and I did not want to stay around in Bishkek, waiting to get that visa.
Soon later I had arrived and was greeted by a form, which I promptly filled out on the spot. I handed it over, went for my wallet to take out shiny, crispy and elegant Euros, when the consular officer looked at me and said: “We only accept dollars and I’d need your printed-out photo”. I moved my finger towards USD bank note and pulled out a familiar 50-dollar banknote and asked if he was able to scan my passport photo or whether it was possible to take a photo right in the embassy. The officer said that he did not have a change (the visa cost about 20 USD) and that I had to take a photo of myself elsewhere.

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Fine…I asked for directions and the lad had explained to me how to get to the market to get a photo taken and exchange the money to smaller bills. I had roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes until the embassy would close, so, I had to rush again.

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I made it back on time, though, and once I handed in the money and photos, the consular officer put a stamp in my passport right away and said I was all gucci. So much work and bureaucracy for a single stamp. Anyboom – I was glad it was over with.
Mike and I headed back to hostel to leave my documents, and we then went for a stroll around the city, and to get some food and liqueur for the night.
The city was not a looker but we liked its humbleness nonetheless.

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We returned to the hostel and met new people, who would be staying with us for the night. I ended up spending the whole evening drinking Screwdriver with a Japanese girl, who was travelling for about one year non-stop. So I sat on the edge of the chair, listening to her trips and new places she was planning to visit next. She saved enough money back home so she could travel the world for as long as she could. I would really love to do the same one day!
Mike came up to me soon later to say that there was some national festival taking place on 10 August, called Birds of Prey, which was taking place at Issyk-Kul lake. Mike really wanted to go there, while I was not really interested in it, and we did not plan it. Furthermore, I had to call our driver (who we booked for three days) to tell him that he had to come to pick us up earlier, so that we could make it to the festival. Mike insisted and I made a call.
The driver was provided to us by a friend of Mike’s friend, so I called him (Chin) and asked him if he could come and pick us up at 8:00 a.m. instead of the agreed 12:00 p.m. He said he could make it but I could sense that he was not quite happy with such request.
Sure it was a long and tiring day but I was glad that the visa situation was out of the way. More adventures were on the way…

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To continue to Part III click here

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

Check out Part IX here

 

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

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

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

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

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

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To continue to Part XI click here

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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To continue to Part X click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Where the Police Go Part VII

Check out Part VI here

 

We were approaching the city – Ben woke me up and while I was crawling around in the tiny train bed, I was cursing the train for not letting me sleep well. Sometimes, I wish someone would put me in a capsule for hyper sleep and let me be in peace and quite for at least few days! I just had not managed to get proper rest for quite some time back home before the trip, you see.
We packed out stuff and descended onto the platform. It was around 9 a.m. Our first mission was to get find a sim-card, some snacks and get to the address, where we would pick our car and drive off from the city. Our appointment with the car dealer shop was at about 11 a.m. The first sight of the city was… fine, I guess. It did feel a bit like St. Petersburg though, considering that Azerbaijan was a part of USSR – I could sense a familiar architecture. We passed by the train station and found a chain of small shops. A few of them had “Azericell” shops and similar ones – so we were on a right track! Ben, the prime negotiator, started asking about how much a sim card would cost us, what agreements we should sign, etc. Well, one shop told us they were still closed (they started working at 10 a.m.) – what? I guess it was the cleaner. Another shop told us they could not sell it to us for whatever reason – I cannot remember what they told us exactly. We then came across a store that sold used mobile devices and asked them if they could help us. They said that they could get us a sim-card with no contract and at a reasonable price – it was about 50 Manat, which is equivalent to about 25 Euros. Also, we would get loads of internet traffic and unlimited calls with messages. The guys also told us that for that price they would add us additional few gigabytes of internet, which was nice, considering that we would be sharing one sim card between the two of us.

They guys spoke no English at all, so I asked Ben to find out if they knew any other car dealers (just in case) and advise us how to get to the car rental shop. They advised us to rent a car from the airport (that is always a safe bet) and get to our car dealer by car. As I was talking with one of the other shop guys with my hands, I showed him my phone and he seemed to be quite interested in it. He asked me to check it out and I thought for a bit about it – well, since Ben was already inside with another guy, sweet-talking with him for quite some time, I decided to trust. He took my phone and was checking some sim-settings, to help set up Ben’s phone. Plus, he was mesmerised by my phone, so he was curious to check it out. I do not remember last time my eyes were locked on someone with such focus but after five or so minutes, I got my phone back. I was growing quite worried but apparently, it is quite normal to trust strangers in Baku. The guys tried selling us a few other things and Ben took some.
Once we walked out of the store to find a taxi, Ben said “dude, they f***ed us over so well”. I asked him to explain. “So, the sim card is apparently 40 Manat and they told us they would give us some more gigabytes for the internet package if we paid 50, right? I believe there was like 5 gigabytes or so. Anyway, guess what – the sim-package already had 5 gigabytes included by default…


So, we basically lost about 10 Manat (5 Euros) and probably a few more for the “discounted” accessories that Ben took. Great first impression!


“Alright man, forget this – at least we signed no contract, which saved us quite some time. Let us go and find a taxi,” I told Ben. “We’ll just be more careful next time.”
Ben then started telling me that even though Turkish and Azeris were in a “brotherly relationship”, the latter side only had it easier to make more money on tourists because of that established trust. Sadly, Ben’s fear was coming to life but I was hoping that we would see a good side of Azerbaijan yet. Ben and I although agreed that we had to hard negotiate any stuff that we would buy. We started with a taxi driver (although, Ben seemed a bit reluctant to negotiate from 6 to 4 Manat) and after a bit of chit chat, we got the deal. It is not much, though, but considering that we were there for nearly a week, we would have to buy quite a few things.
We arrived close to our location, tried activating the internet on the phone and started walking with our moderately heavy backpacks. We reached the street and started looking for a car rental store but found nothing around us. We asked a few people on the street if they were aware of that shop and everyone told us that there was some other shop way down the street but that was not it. So we came back to the big building on the street and started looking around.

Nothing. We called the guy and he told us to wait there on the street. He said he would be there in a few minutes in a car.
The chap finally arrived in a car that was ours for a good few days and it looked gorgeous. Not exactly the type of car you would take on a mountain trip but then again, we were going to find out how bad the roads would be in comparison with Georgia. Plus, the country was not full of mountains the same way as Georgia was by a long shot. About the car – it was had an automatic gearbox (which Ben fell in love with form our Georgia trip) and in stellar condition. We payed up front, gave the deposit and bade goodbye to our dealer. He told us that his actual shop was out of the town, hence he offered us to meet him in the city. Wish we knew that earlier as we almost started panicking.


Before we were to decide which direction head for, we had to fill the gas tank, buy food/water for the car trip and eat out somewhere. We got the tank filled up and the rest of our time were being terrified by the traffic. It was complete madness and I do not remember seeing Ben being so focused. I, in the meantime, was thinking what talisman we should get for our trip.
In the meantime, I was looking for a supermarket we could drop by and I found an outlet on the edge of the city, which was perfect. We finally arrived at the spot and parked our car. On our way towards the outlet, Ben found a restaurant and wanted to check it out. I told him that it would be better if we headed towards the outlet first and then came back but his empty stomach shut down his hearing ability and he entered the place. We saw the policemen eating out there and Ben immediately told me that it must have been a great place if police ate there. Not sure why that would have been the case though – Ben must probably have picked that up from Hollywood movies. However, I managed to get him to come to the outlet first.
When we entered the outlet, there was no single supermarket. Weird, because in Europe there would normally be a supermarket inside an outlet but there was only a small food store in it. We got a few bottles of water, snacks and headed back to the restaurant.
It was a nice and cozy family restaurant. We were well-greeted by the owners of the place and they gave us a table with a window next to it, which had a nice view on Baku. The owner’s son approached and sat with us. He was a young and very friendly chap. He would put his hands on our shoulders, as if we were friends, asked us where we were heading towards and if we liked the city. We told him about our trip plan and asked if there was any way of getting through to Khinaliq from the North-Eastern side of Azerbaijan. Sadly, he said there was no road, so if we had travelled East, we would have to come back to Baku and then travel up north or vice versa. Actually, that was the guy who told us to visit Sheki in the north east of the country and gave us a few other tips on travelling: we could exceed the speeding limit by about 10 km, use Waze application in the country for car riding (because Google Maps there were absolutely useless – the maps, it felt like, refreshed our location only every 10 seconds and Waze picked it up no problem).
We were offered salad, an Azerbaijani version of Ayran drink and kebab – that was the good stuff, as our new friend said. However, I could not see the menu anywhere and with our recent experience, I asked him what it would cost us. The lad told us not to worry as it would cost us around 4 Manat (about 2 Euros) for a kebab per person.


When they brought us food, we were swimming in the joy and saliva – the food was really great and Ben was comparing every dish to Turkish ones (as Turkey and Azerbaijan share one cuisine but each has a different interpretation of the dishes) and said that he enjoyed the food more in Baku, thus far, than in Turkey. Nonetheless, it made all the sense why the police spotted that place for lunch.
In the end, we payed about 17 Manat (about 9 Euros) for two full sets of meals and drinks for us. That seemed reasonable – however, the hospitality we were given was amazing! So amazing, in fact, that Ben wanted to tip the owner but they politely refused to take his tip…like five times. Make sure to give some love to “Evim restaurant” if you ever visit Baku!
We left the place, feeling quite happy and decided to head for Sheki first, explore it and then head back for Baku and then Khinaliq. Trip with a plan is always a fun trip, considering that it always adds a bunch of unexpected side quests! Onwards to Sheki we were.

 

To continue to Part VIII click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Midnight rails to Azerbaijan VI

Check out part V here

 

We finally boarded the train towards Baku in Tbilisi early in October and were looking forward towards a new adventure. We were planning to stay for about four-five days in the country. That time around, though, it was only Ben and me as Manuel had to take care of a few things at home and then resume with work.
Honestly, we somewhat prepared for our trip – my friend from Azerbaijan advised us on places that we had to visit and what things we could do. He also offered that we met his friend in Baku to show us around. I gladly accepted the offer.
My priorities were straight simple – see the mountains, landscapes & the nature as I had visited way too many cities on my previous adventures and they could never beat the nature. Ben was happy with my plan – he had also wanted to visit national museums in the country and see some local city sights – that is a good balance for a long trip.
The boarding started at about 8.00 p.m. and we were supposed to arrive to Baku at 9.00 a.m. next day. Another option to travel to Baku from Tbilisi was by plane but there were two downsides to it – taking any luggage with you would cost you extra 20-30 Euros or so (per bag of 10kg) and the plane would arrive at 1-2 a.m. – not the best idea to wander around a big city that late at night, really. Surprisingly though, the flights were quite cheap – about 30-40 Euros one way, which is pretty much what the train cost us.


We were greeted by the staff on the train and after we had boarded, one of the train conductors asked me to translate a letter to her from English – it was from a guy who complained that the person in the wagon, who walked into his room while being drunk and misbehaved (luckily, everyone was alright). Fortunately, the person who wrote that letter very much liked the staff. We were given the blankets and Ben and I started discussing what we would do in Azerbaijan. After reviewing the map, it was quite straightforward but inconvenient at the same time. Let me show you why:

Capture1.PNGSee the yellow lines? Yep, those are the only two main roads that would get us to the places that we wanted to see (and arguably those were the only places worth checking out as people told us), which were Khinaliq, where the mountains were, Sheki and up north from there as well as Ganja (south from Sheki), which was close to the lake Göygöl. We could not see how we could possible reach Khinaliq from, say, Gebele (that was close to it) as there were no roads. Google came in handy to us same way when we were planning our route for Georgia. So, that being said, we basically had to travel from Baku to Sheki and north (that was about 300 km +) then down to Ganja (that was another 140 km +), then from Ganja back to Baku (that was about 360 km +) and then from Baku to Khinaliq (yet, another 200 + km) and then back to Baku, since we would rent a car from there and we had to return it. If we wanted to leave our car, say, in Ganja and then travel from Ganja back to Georgia, that would cost us around 50 + Euros. Does not sound great either.


You may be thinking: well, guys, why would you simply not just take a train to Armenia then (which was our third and last destination) or a flight? Why do you need to go back to Georgia? And those would be great questions. Well, long story short, Armenia and Azerbaijan aren’t exactly good friends because of the ongoing territorial conflict. The borders between those two countries are closed.
Tip! If you would like to visit both Azerbaijan and Armenia, go to Azerbaijan first and then to Armenia. It is still possible to go to Armenia first though but you may not have a fun time crossing Azerbaijani border afterwards. There still is a possibility that they would not let you in. Best case scenario, you’ll be asked a lot of questions by the border police and then let into the country.
To us it did not make much of difference whether we’d firstly go to Armenia or Azerbaijan, so we took the safest route and headed for Azerbaijan.


We were asked to fill out the cross-border papers, which was quite simple to do – we just had to write down what goods we were carrying with us and who we were. Passing Georgian border was a peace of cake and we waited for about 30-40 minutes while the rest of the train was being checked. Ben then told me about the similarities of Turkish and Azeri languages and how some differences were fun – I don’t remember them from top of my head but if you ask either of the people from those countries, you’ll have a good laugh. Basically, both Turkish and Azeris could speak to one another in their languages and still understand one another. That felt like a weight off of our shoulders in establishing “a diplomatic connection” with the people.
We had finally reached the Azerbaijani border and were anticipating to get it over with. The boarder guards came in, collected our passports and shortly afterwards, asked us to go to the consuctor’s room. I have to admit that I got a bit scared but I was greeted with a few questions, such as where I was from, what I was planning to do in Azerbaijan and whether my last name was related to my home country (obviously, it was). Same fate befell Ben and we released a deep breath when we came back to our room.


Upon our arrival to Baku, we were supposed to come and meet a guy, who would rent us a car for the whole trip. Luckily, my friend connected me with him so we did not have to go to a random car rental shop. But you may want to hear what had happened later to the car, in this blog series. Nonetheless, we were prepared to meet up with the guy, figure out our route and go on driving out of the city. I suggested to Ben that it would be best if we deove off from Baku right away rather than spending our time there first – visiting other places in Azerbaijan seemed more fun.
Tip! Make sure you bring the earplugs with you on a train – I kept on waking up every hour to the train driving – the sound isolation in the wagon was not great at all. And onwards was Baku and yet more adventures!

 

To continue to Part VII click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Big Bread Part II

Check out Part I here

 

Driving in Georgia had been a pure entertainment and crazy at the same time. I had heard of the mighty cows and pigs being the holy servants of the roads in the country but I was even more dumbfounded at the tricks that the police pulled off there. Off the record though, we barely saw any speed cameras and had not been pulled over by the police throughout our trip – that was great. I was pondering over and over again as to why they had not though – everyone was driving over the limit and changed lanes at random, made turns without any signals (alright, fine, I understand that it gets tiring for a driver to do (who enjoys the routine, right?) but that was terrifying to us and I cannot say that Ben could have a relaxing drive) and the police had a perfect opportunity to pull anyone over and give a meaty fine. Well, I did not have to put my mind to the test as the answer to my question found me quicker than I anticipated.
We were driving on a two-lane road outside of Kutaisi (we were heading towards Mestia) and there was a car ahead of us. Another car appeared behind and overtook us. It tried to overtake the car that was ahead of us and as it was catching up to it, the police car drove past us and tried overtaking both of them. I had to say that “the trick” looked great and we were impressed by it but when we saw that the turn was coming up on the right side and the three cars remained in one lane on the two-lane road, we started growing worried as to what would happen next. Luckily, the police car managed to overtake both cars and drove further. Once we caught our breaths, we carried on discussing what we would eat at our next stop.

Just before we had reached a small town, Zugdidi, we decided to pull over and smell the breaking pads (that was our new fetish). While Ben was taking pictures of grape fields, Manuel & I caught the familiar smell. Although it was not as strong as yesterday. Manuel insisted that we stop by in Zugdidi for the night to let the pads cool down. Ben stepped in and said that the breaks worked as good as before and because Google images of Zugdidi could not impress us all, we decided to get some food there and keep on driving.
I have to tell you that Georgian food met our expectations: it was reach in flavour, meaty, cheesy and cheap. It was quite common to wait for the food for at least 10-20 minutes but the wait had always paid off – I knew that the food was not heated up in microwave. We pulled over at the restaurant in Zugdidi and buried our faces into the menus in no time. We ordered Khachapuri, cheese balls, some more cheese that was mashed in flour & roasted eggplants. Fun fact: most of the times that we went out for food, we overestimated our stomachs’ capacity and had a takeaway – that is not to say that food was not great. It was finger-licking and oh so different. Georgia would be a bit of a tough nut for vegans but as a vegetarian you can do fine (that is if you cannot live without eating out regularly). We could fill our stomachs up for about five – ten Euros per person. All the food we ate, felt as if though it was home-made by our mothers, who wishes you nothing less than falling in love with her food and always coming back home for some more.
We visited Dadiani castle and walked around the town to stir up the food in our stomachs. We then went to get some more food for the road and continued driving.
Ben and I really wanted to get to Mestia and stay there for our second night. However, we forgot about the concept of time and very soon it started growing dark and the road was only getting worse. Apparently, there were some road constructions happening ahead of us (or may be that was how the road had always been). To add to the experience, the road was also growing narrow and when another car was coming towards us, we would either be blinded by its long lights (very few drivers knew how to turn them off, apparently) or could not see where we could pull over to give a fellow driver a way. Manuel started looking some places to stay in the nearest village, which happened to be Khaishi. We had no idea what the place was and it took me hours to memorise the name. So we decided to stay there.
It also took us a while to get to the location. When we arrived to the house, we thought we would stay in, Manuel, after speaking with the owner, told us that we had to take the road up the hill. When we saw the road up, we got terrified (mainly because we could not see it clearly) and driving up felt something like this:

WESdW3E

But ten times worse and in complete darkness. Clearly, we could not have picked a better place. Our (mainly, Ben’s) hard work was rewarded when we arrived at the guest house – a very hospitable lady greeted us, showed us the places and offered us some food – bread, honey and fruit jam. It was a delightful and heart-warming welcoming. Then her husband came over and showed us the pictures of the places he visited in the north of Georgia and places that where we were heading to.

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We woke up quite early in the morning to get ready and take a shower. I could not tell from Ben’s face whether he was looking forward to driving the mountain roads again but there was not much of a choice after all.
Remember when I said it was fun crazy and entertaining to drive around Georgia? It sort of made us feel more alive and appreciate the little things more. However, we had no little things around us – we were surrounded by the picturesque cut-outs from the paintings drawn by the best artists. We could not but stop every now and then to take a few pictures and admire the view.

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We all started dreaming about buying a house somewhere around the mountains. Surely, it would not be more expensive that a house somewhere in the south of France. However, I found out that while foreigners could purchase a property, they were not allowed to purchase land for farming (not that it was my dream to start my farm in Georgia) but it would still be a nice-to-have.
After a few hours of driving, we finally reached Mestia – a small town surrounded by the mountains. Before we reached another guest house, we needed to a) fill the tank and b) get some food. We were tempted to go with the latter option first but decided to pull by the gas station.
When we entered the gas station, Ben forgot which side of the car the tank was on. Great. So we thought that we would reverse and get into another line. While Ben was thinking of how to turn around (the station was not very spacious, you see), another car came behind us. The space was shrinking and so was Ben’s clear vision. He was making the ritual of turning the wheel here and there, looking around and about, and started the execution of his plan. After a few turns, he added a bit too much speed and we heard a lot of noise coming starting to come from the workers. We also felt that we touched something ahead of us and stopped the car. That “something” was a f***king billboard. We reversed and decided to drive through the line we were in and then change from there.
We really thought that we did smash the front of the car and went out to inspect the damage. To our relief, we only touched the billboard, which left a smudge of black paint on the car.

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After that magic trick, the workers at the station gave Ben a nickname – “Schumacher”.
Once we have caught our breaths, we went on driving and arrived at the local restaurant to re-fill our stomachs. We had yet another course of finger-licking food. To entertain ourselves, while waiting for the food, we were reading the menu in English that had a lot of funny typos. For instance, they called “beer” a “bear” and mineral water “Borjomi” as “Borjomo”.

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F***king Borjomo. Oh man.
We headed towards the guest house and got a pretty neat-looking room and comfy beds. Without hesitation, we went out to start looking for things to do, where and how to get to places. We visited a tourist centre and I asked Manuel to check where we could go horse-riding. The girl at the table gave us some numbers and told us how to get to the observation point, Hatsvali, Koruldi lakes, Ushguli and what we could do in the town.
Once we got out of the tourist centre, a driver approached us and offered us a drive to Ushguli for around 50 Euros (for the whole car) there and back. We politely rejected his offer and continued walking to search for a better offer.
We stopped by the mini-bus centre and got three return tickets to Ushguli for 10 Euros each. Not too shabby. The only downside to that was that it only went there once a day at 10 a.m. Apparently, 50 Euros for a car was a fixed price there. I would only suggest taking a taxi if you do not have much time or arrived to Mestia a bit too late (just like us). However, we had a few other places to visit around the town and so, we decided to stay in Mestia for two days (although, we originally thought it would be a one-day trip). We were fine with that.
We started walking towards the ski lifts that would take us up to Hatsvali – turned out that the first line, out of two, was closed.That meant that we had to get to the second point ourselves. We came across a car that stood at the turn to the ski lifts and saw an Asian guy approach us, asking if we were going up top as well. Manuel used his power of negotiations on the drivers and got a bit of a discount for us to go up top. We got in the car and the driver was a bit taken aback and annoyed that we were pondering over his offer for too long. “You will not get a better price anywhere else, anyway!” he said.
And onwards to the ski lifts we went.

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Our new companion was from China and his name was “Meow”. Not even joking. He was passionate about tourism and said that one day he would really like to work in that industry. He would certainly be entertaining to the foreign tourists.
Going up the Hatsvali was awesome. I took a few pictures for your eye-gasm. Enjoy!

After taking a stroll around Hatsvali and loads of gasping, we went down together (the view was even better coming from top) and met our driver. We asked him how much he would take us to the Koruldi lakes for and he offered us the popular flat fee of 50 Euros for everyone. We did some quick maths and agreed to go there as we were four…so each of us would pay less…well, you get the point.
We pulled over in Mestia and got some bread before going. Manuel brought us three huge breads, called “Shoti”, and we started wolfing them down (one peace was somewhere around 20 Euro cents). I was falling in love with the country yet more and more but could not tell it to the others about it as my mouth was full of bread – it was enormous and delicious.

 

To continue to Part III click here

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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To continue to Part II click here

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.