Sunday, 30 December 2012

Day 260 – A misleading flag and a rotten tree. (Macedonia)

Having rescued Denner from Greece and finally crossing the border into Macedonia, the first thing that we noticed was how misleading their flag is. As we drove through the border town with a grey sky above us, spots of rain falling intermittently from the sky and puddles scattered along the ground, we found the vibrant yellow sun on a bright red background that is their flag, to be a tad ironic.

Because of the time limit of aiming for Budapest for Christmas that was starting to encroach on our plans (now 16 days to cover Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and get to  Hungary), we decided to skip the supposedly non-eventful capital of Skopje and visit Ohrid instead. Set on Lake Ohrid which is 288 m deep and the deepest lake in the Balkans, Ohrid is a beautiful old town and a popular holiday destination, especially in summer, for mainly Macedonians and Albanians. We looked into going skiing while we were there, but with only 80cm of snow, the season wasn’t yet open – an amusing concept coming from Australia where the snow season opens and closes on fixed dates regardless of snow fall, and 80cm is considered to be a very luxurious covering.

It was raining heavily when we arrived, but over night it snowed, and here began our encounter with snow that lasted for most of the Balkans. Covered in a layer of white, even with a thick fog encompassing everything bar the few metres in front of us, the town looked extra magical. We noticed that even the piles of rubble appeared stunning under a thick layer of fresh powder. At the top of the old town, set on a hill as is usually the case, was the fort which because of the weather we were the only visitors at, and was eerily quiet. From the Church of Sveti Pantelejmon which was only a little way down from the fort, we saw the lake through a gap in the fog. Wasps of steam rose from the surface and evaporated into the fog producing an incredibly surreal picture, one that Denner aptly donned “smoke on the water”.

On our way through the old town which unlike most old towns is predominantly residential and barely built into accommodation, restaurants and shops at all, we passed the ancient theatre. Much smaller and less impressive than many of the ones we’ve seen recently, such as the ones at Efes and Hierapolis, we couldn’t help but note how incredible the view from the stands was. Built on the side of the hill, the stands face out towards the lake and the distant mountains, the town surrounding it on all other sides. At this point we recalled that having a spectacular view from the stands is something that most of the ancient stadiums and theatres had in common. It’s a shame that by becoming accustomed to shelter and temperature control this is something that we miss out on these days.

We’d heard about an 800 – 900 tree known as the Plane Tree, which at various points in its life had housed a cafe and a barber shop, amongst other things. All day we’d been asking anyone we passed if they could tell us where it was, but we were met with blank stares and confused expressions. We persisted though, sure that the tree was in Ohrid and adamant that we wanted to see it, and eventually we met someone who gave us directions. Located in the centre of the new town, we finished exploring the streets of the old town before heading down to check out the famous tree. As we rounded the corner and the tree came into sight, we each paused and looked quizzically at each other. Was this really the Plane Tree? A sign mounted to the side of it told us that it was, but we found it hard to believe. We were expecting a grand tree, metres wide and stretching into the sky, perhaps an entrance to the trunk, and probably some sort of cafe/gift shop beside it. What we were instead standing in front of was a tree that may have been one or two metres wide if it was whole, but other than a thin strip of bark on either side, the entire structure was held up by black plastic supports. A few rotted braches lay in the mud where they had fallen off the dead tree, and besides a damp bench there wasn’t anywhere to sit – certainly not any sort of cafe. As the main attraction that had sold us on visiting Ohrid instead of any of the other options, this was humorously disappointing.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Day 256 - Squatting in Thessalonika. (Greece)

Day 256  - Squatting in Thessalonika.
The border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece was a breeze – our first EU to EU crossing. We weren’t even stopped at the Bulgarian side, so we continued to Greece where we were asked for our passports and car documents. A Chinese couple on a business trip from their home in Germany stopped us for a chat whilst we waited for Immigration to look through and decide that we were suitable to enter their country. Our passports were stamped both out of Bulgaria and into Greece in the same office.
In order to get to Budapest in time for Christmas, on the day that we left Bulgaria we had seven countries to do in 18 days (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia). As a result we unfortunately didn’t have much time for each individually and would only get the chance to see a snippet of each place. It is so frustrating to miss so much, but the nature of travelling is that you actually can’t do everything you want. We could have spent less time in Central Asia or Iran and left more for this part of the world, but then we would have missed so much there. So we made our way to Thessalonika in the Northern part of Greece where we had a Couch Surfer to host us.
The great thing about using Couch Surfing is that you get the opportunity to meet people who can show you places and things that a tourist couldn’t possibly find for themselves. Our first evening in Thessalonika was a prime example of this. Our neuro-scientist host didn’t come with us, but gave us directions to a gay and lesbian movie night at a bar in a squat near his house. We arrived at the spot on the map that he had marked and found ourselves at the end of an alleyway, looking at a high wall covered in anxty graffiti topped with barbed wire and void of any sign of life. He had warned us that the entrance may be hard to find and we might have to circle the block a couple of times to find our way in. We discovered a gate at a corner, surrounded with posters and fliers demonstrating the anarchist movement, so making the assumption that this was what we were looking for, we entered the complex from there.
It’s not often that we feel over dressed or fancy, but this was certainly one of them. Through a dark and overgrown garden there was the “bar” where we were greeted by a very well spoken young man in a ripped tracksuit who politely asked us if we’d been here before and whether we’d like to watch an independent German movie. No, we hadn’t been here before and no thankyou, we’d skip the movie in German (we can’t speak German). Well in that case he proposed that we find ourselves something to drink while he switched the movie on, and then if we like he can show us around.
Passing a group of died-hair, pierced young girls who sat at the bar, we helped ourselves to beer from the fridge and were welcome to any of the bits and pieces of spirits and juice lying around. A till lay open on the counter and no one watched while we tried to figure out what was a reasonable price to pay. We sat at a table next to a dusty motorbike helmet and a ripped poster listing events at a film festival and waited for our well spoken, track suited tour guide to fetch us.
The complex was originally a factory up until the 1960s/70s when it became the site of regular protests, as was the fashion at the time (and still is in Greece). After that it fell into abandonment until around 2001 when it was turned into a squat housing 20-30 people at any one time. During this period it was a centre for Thessalonika’s underground, hosting regular music concerts, art exhibitions and other such community events. Now no one lives in it, but it still functions as a kind of illegal community activist centre, with a cafe/bar, a makeshift cinema, a library, BMX and skate-boarding parks and an information centre. Due to neglect by its inhabitants the buildings have fallen largely into disrepair again though and a lot of the events that used to be hosted can’t happen anymore. They are hoping to house people again in the future and return to functioning as a squat, but the Ministry of Culture has recently been given the complex by the government who wants to repair and develop it into something they see to be productive.  Fortunately for the current users of the “squat” though the government doesn’t have the funds to support their plans so are unable to forcefully reclaim it.
Our tour took us through the information centre which was in a sort of foyer to the main building, furnished by makeshift wooden tables on which a wide selection of political propaganda was haphazardly displayed. Various bits of paper were strewn on the ground, torn and muddy from being walked all over. Next to an old-fashioned stove in a corner of the space a doorway led to the library, the walls of which were lined with sparsely filled bookshelves. We were shown through a painted doorway, past a broken shopping trolley and a pile of dusty mattresses to a skate park, which was in use at the time. A vast dark space was ahead, nothing but pillars and a few beer cans in view, until a flight of stairs which took us past an entire burnt out floor (every squat has at least one) to the rooftop. On the way upstairs our guide opened a door to show us a room, but promptly closed it again before we could see inside, explaining that this was a private room, currently being used by BMXers, so we weren’t able to look in at the moment. The stairwell itself was an explosion of political art, every part of the walls making a point, whether in words or in pictures, or often both. The rooftop we were taken to was the concert venue of 10 years ago, now nothing but a dingy concrete space with rubble piled up in the corners. The vantage point from here was exceptional though and we realised just how huge the complex was. We could see the building that was used for housing and the rows and rows of factory floor that has now been left to completely disintegrate.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Day 255 – A breach in Trevor’s privacy. (Bulgaria)

Whilst enjoying the fine comedy from the previous blog (Day254 – Sandwiches, Sashimi and Snow) we were parked just down the street from the venue in the centre of town, right in front of another bar, a restaurant and next to some sort of unofficial taxi rank. Despite the number of people and cars coming and going continuously around our parking location though, we returned to find that we had been broken into, making this the second time on our trip (the first being in Almaty, Kazakhstan: Blog Day 121  - The inconvenience of having one’s carbroken into).

Ben had been driving and I was sitting in the back seat behind him, so as we reached our respective doors and noticed that they were unlocked, each of us thought “oops, I left my door unlocked, that’s a de-merit point”. (We have a de-merit point system which is in place to punish behaviour such as leaving a door unlocked, stalling the car, leaving a window open, spilling something over the car seat, driving off with our stupid electric back window still down and other such mistakes. Each of us gets three de-merits per day and since no one has ever reached the designated three, we haven’t ever decided what happens if someone was to. It would however, be decidedly heinous. The point of the system is to playfully chastise each other and point out each other’s wrongdoings to make us feel better about our own.) Then we both opened our doors simultaneously and at the same moment as I noticed that the grill separating the back seat and the boot was mangled and bits of our belongings were strewn over the back seat, Ben was confronted with an open glove box and strewn cables and chargers all over the front seats. Realising in this instant that neither of us had made a chastise-able mistake, but in fact we had been broken into, our hearts skipped a beat, then I checked all the windows to find no damage, and Ben checked the driver’s door lock to find a shard of key jammed into the butchered hole.

We lowered our back window which is progressively struggling more and more and looked through the boot to find that Tunkles’ bag, Denner’s bag and the bag known as the “souvenir bag” (mainly mine and Ben’s) were missing. We all have backpacks that were safely in our accommodation, and Ben had taken his big bag in as well. Mine had obviously been picked up and moved, but we’re guessing our thieves had to quickly make a dash for some reason, forced to spare my bag. Ben, Denner and our host spread out to search the nearby alleyways and stairwells, while I looked after Trevor and took a closer look at what might be missing. As far as I could tell none of our chargers had been taken, and fortunately I had removed the video camera and Denner’s camera from their usual storage space of the centre console, just that afternoon. Amusingly my mobile phone had been picked up and dropped on the front seat, obviously not good enough to bother stealing. Our document box was still in tact and the tool box was fine. I found the air pump which we replaced when it was stolen in our previous theft incident, and the medical kit, and as far as I could tell, anything that was left loose had been left loose. None of the journals, notebooks and maps in the backseats had been touched.

While I waited for the others to return I endeavoured to clean up the shambles that was the back seat; bending some of the disfigured metal grill vaguely back into place, just enough that the back seats could be pushed back to an angle that could be sat in, and returned some shoes, maps and hats to the dishevelled boot. An array of dismembered koalas and kangaroos that used to be keyrings which were intended to be gifts for people we met along the way, lay disturbingly across the floor.

After a while Ben returned empty handed and disheartened and headed off in the other direction to keep looking. A bit later Denner and our host returned also empty handed and were just about to continue looking in different spots when we saw a shadow approaching us in the distance. Was it Ben? And was he carrying something? The shadow walked under a street lamp and we realised that yes, it was Ben, and yes, he was carrying something. A bag. It was the souvenir bag, ramshackled but full of our belongings; a journal which had been in Denner’s bag poking out of one pocket, a doll from Uzbekistan, some thermals and lots of other things falling out the top. While I tried to contain everything and place it in the car, they all ran off to try and save whatever else had been left in this particular alleyway.

We retrieved basically everything from the souvenir bag, and a considerable amount of stuff from Denner’s bag, although the actual bag and still quite a few of his things are missing. Even when we went back the following day to have a better search in daylight though, we couldn’t find anything of Tunkles’ anywhere. Denner was sure that his ipod had been in the glove box, which was the only item of any sort of monetary value that had been taken. The following day though we panicked for a minute when Denner couldn’t find his passport, then as we were hurriedly rummaging through everything to look for it, I inadvertently stumbled across the ipod in a trouser pocket.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Day 254 – Sandwiches, Sashimi and Snow. (Bulgaria)

After our satisfyingly un-corrupt border crossing we camped in the cold for one night before arriving in Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, where we were most impressed by the friendliness of Bulgarians. While we were waiting to hear from our Couch Surfing host we spotted our first Subway in many many months, so decided to indulge ourselves in a Sub of the Day. As we parked though, a group of old men sitting at the front of a coffee shop greeted us excitedly and invited us to join them for a cup of coffee. They were most impressed by the stickers from all the countries we’ve visited on our car (though not overly interested in why we have them, more so in the physical stickers themselves) and we struggled through the language barrier to chat with them for the duration of a cup of coffee. We excused ourselves to have our Subway lunch and couldn’t believe it when we received the best Subway service any of us have ever experienced. This sandwich artist’s understanding of the menu was paramount, his demeanour was utterly professional, yet the epitome of friendliness, and his cheese tessellation was perfect. With still a bit of time to spare before meeting our host we found an op-shop where we were most surprised to find that prices weren’t per item, but by weight. That was certainly a first for me!

We met our host at his apartment and he took us on an excellent tour of Sofia’s night life. Our first stop was the opening of a tiny bar, with ceilings so low that our slightly-taller-than-average host couldn’t stand up straight and packed so full that we had to spend most of our time on the pavement. They were giving away local beers to celebrate/promote the opening though and we got to meet most of Bulgaria’s mountaineering community. Our next stop was another bar’s opening, but this one was more like a trendy cafe decorated with records and bookshelves and serving gluhwein as their promotional drink. It ticked over midnight while we were there so seeing it was Ben’s birthday the following day, we all sang happy birthday before going to the third and final destination of the evening.

Sofia is about 600m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 2,000m, which in winter are flocked to by snow boarders, skiers and ice-climbers, and in summer by hikers and rock-climbers. The next event in our evening’s schedule was about 1,900m up, past the snow line, at a ski resort chalet with Bulgaria’s free riding community. The road leading up the mountain is a very well maintained cobble-stone road, comfortably wide with stunning views over the city, and reaching snow for the first time on this trip we were very excited.

The following day, which was Ben’s birthday, we headed out to explore Sofia. Although the night life exists, and the surrounding mountains are very beautiful, Sofia is not an overly exciting or pretty city (though it is a very driving friendly city). Our first stop was the war museum which sports an extensive selection of tanks, planes, trucks and guns. From there we circled the city, noting from the car the Sofia statue which honours Sofia’s namesake, Saint Sofia, and the Communist Building, which is a building that was built under Communism. We actually quite enjoyed our quick stop at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is a very beautiful church that has not been tarnished at all by tourism. The thermal springs located right in the heart of the city were particularly interesting though. There were many taps lined up throughout a square, packed with men and women – mainly old, a few middle aged – each carrying half a dozen or more 10L and 20L containers. Bulgarian tap water is widely accepted as undrinkable, so although bottled water is relatively cheap, a lot of people – mainly older – cannot afford to purchase it.

After this extensive tour of Sofia, we used Ben’s birthday as an excuse to treat ourselves to lunch at Happy Sushi, a local chain of Japanese restaurants. The food was very nice and although it wasn’t perfectly true to Japanese, it wasn’t far off. I can’t pretend it’s not odd though to watch chefs in a Japanese style open kitchen, kitted out in Japanese chefs’ garb and producing dainty platters of sashimi, yet all tall, dark and quite clearly Bulgarian, yelling at each other in the deep, harsh tones of the Bulgarian language.

Our plan for the next day was to drive up the mountain in the daylight, take in the view and play in the snow. We needn’t have bothered though as the clouds were so low we had barely enough visibility to see the road, let alone the view over the valley. Playing in the snow was fun and it started to snow while we were up there, but we didn’t realise at the time that we needn’t have bothered with that either. As we descended back to Sofia, we kept wondering how far down the snow line was. Surely it had only been a couple of hundred metres from the top on the way up. But it was snowing now, quite heavily actually, and it just kept going even as we approached the city. When we got back to the outskirts we realised it was now snowing there too and the whole city was covered. Suddenly Sofia was much prettier than we’d previously realised. To their credit though, the Bulgarian drivers became very cautious and sensible as soon as the roads became slippery and treacherous.

That evening we went with our host to an interactive stand up comedy show. Members of the audience get up and tell a story – any story at all – in Bulgarian and then the two hosts translate it between them into English. Everyone else seemed to think it was the most outrageously hilarious thing ever, but we just didn’t get it at all. It was only afterwards that we discovered it was because neither the Bulgarian nor the English is especially funny – the hilarity is in the translation. As every single Bulgarian (except our coffee drinking friends from our first day) speaks perfect English, they can spin clever puns and make sneaky comparisons that only work if you completely understand both languages. So that was kind of lost on us, but never mind, it was still quite an experience.


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Day 251 – Bad cops turned good. (Border crossing Turkey to Bulgaria)

Having heard disturbing reports from various people about the levels of corruption at the border crossing between Turkey and Bulgaria, we had considered going to Bulgaria through Greece. It would be a bit of a detour but perhaps it would be worth it if it really was as bad as everyone was making out, and if it really was that bad then two borders crossings might just be quicker than one. Ben did a bit of research beforehand though and found that things had been cleaned up a bit under the general guise of the EU, including the arrests of 30 border guards from this crossing on the basis of corruption. We weighed up the fact that we’ve driven all the way through South East Asia, Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus and not had any problems, and decided to take our chances.

When we entered Turkey from Georgia two weeks previously (Blog Day 237 – Good luck), we felt like we were leaving professionalism and efficiency and entering chaos, but oddly enough we felt like this again leaving Turkey and entering Bulgaria. We sat in the organised single file queue and waited for the Turkish border guards to promptly stamp us out of the country, wish us well on our travels, and send us towards Bulgaria. It wasn’t the same type of jovial chaos as we experienced when entering Turkey, but more of an uncontrolled ex-Soviet wasteland. Approaching the dingy cement booth where we would have our passports checked, we noticed warning signs provided by the EU plastered on all the grey walls. Written in Bulgarian, Russian, Turkish and English they outlined exactly what travellers were and weren’t required to pay.

All drivers on Bulgarian roads are required to purchase a vignette, for which the prices were outlined on the signs (5 for 5 days, 13 for one month and 34 one year). We were informed that these can be purchased either at the border or at any petrol station within 30km of the border. It was highlighted that no one should pay anything at the border if they felt at all uncomfortable and no fees other than the vignette are required. We were also informed that all police in Bulgaria will be in blue jackets with “POLICE” written on the backs, with or without yellow reflective vests and driving white Opal Astras with blue “POLICE” markings, and no one should stop for or pay money to anyone that doesn’t fit this description. It’s slightly concerning when such statements need to be made, but seeing as they do, it’s fantastic that they have.

They guards weren’t particularly open and friendly, but the system ran smoothly, we weren’t asked for any illegitimate payments and the entire process took just under half an hour.

For more information on the vignette there are plenty of web pages if you just search “Bulgarian vignette”.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Day 251 – The hustle and bustle of life lived between two continents. (Turkey)

Having heard many reports on the horrendous traffic and parking in Istanbul, we were prepared for a challenge. Making our way into the very centre of town at rush hour though, we were pleasantly surprised at how bearable the traffic was – not even comparable to Tehran, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. It was heavy for sure, but it moved continuously and the drivers weren’t particularly erratic at all. A tip for anyone planning to navigate a vehicle through Istanbul: don’t listen to any nay-sayer who will try and convince you that it’s impossible, but if you want to get a really great run into the centre of town take Kennedy Cadessi (Street). Parking was a task, but compared to some of the obstacles we’ve overcome, it wasn’t too big a deal. Parking on the street in the centre of town is restricted, in some places it is free, in some payment is required, and there are plenty of secure lots all over the city. You’re unlikely to stumble upon a spot right away, but with a little patience one will certainly pop up.

We had one day with Tunkles before he left us for a week, which we used to visit the main tourist sites – the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya Museum, the grand bazaar and the general sights and sounds of one of the most hustling and bustling cities in the world. We found the Blue Mosque to be a lot more tasteful and less sold out that our cynical selves had assumed. There was no entrance fee even though it is quite obviously only a tourist attraction and no longer a functioning mosque, men were required to have their legs covered, women were asked to cover up including heads, and there were subtle bulletin boards and leaflet stands providing information on Islam dotted all over the outside (not inside) of the mosque. The building was well maintained and despite the crowd flowing through, we were somehow encompassed by a sense of quiet calm. I covered my head as directed, as did many others, but still the majority of tourists ignored the signs and entered with ponytails and necks on display. Regardless of whether this is a valid rule in the first place, and as much as I appreciate the fact that there was no sense of intimidation so women weren’t made to feel uncomfortable, it does bother me that such a rule is put in place yet not enforced and so blatantly broken.

We had high expectations for the grand bazaar, possibly unfairly high, and they were far from met. The issue is probably that after the Tehran bazaar which controls 30% of Iran’s entire economy, spans more than 10km and sells anything you could possibly think of, probably no other bazaar in the world will ever compare. We found the Istanbul grand bazaar to be horribly touristic, audaciously overpriced and as is often the case, a group of shops selling identical items. A few things did grab our attention, but unfortunately the only purchase I really wanted to make was a hat. It just happened though, that it was in the only shop which wasn’t directed for tourists but was in fact a wholesaler where I wasn’t allowed to buy fewer than ten of any item. It was a nice hat, but I really didn’t have any use for ten of them.

We spent our first night in a hostel in Fatih which is the tourist centre of Istanbul, near the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya, the Saltan’s Palace, the grand bazaar and all the souvenir shops and fancy restaurants. For the remainder of our stay though we were hosted by Yalin who we met on Couch Surfing, and she showed us some incredible impossible-to-find-on-your-own spots. Istanbul is dissected by the fault line between the European and Asian tectonic plates, providing the amusing and entirely accurate terms for areas within the city, “European side” and “Asian side”.  Taksim is a suburb on the European side where young locals enjoy their spare time in trendy cafes down narrow alley ways, up-market clothing stores on the classy main street and off-the-beaten-track restaurants and bars in obscure apartment blocks. Our host expertly guided us through the maze of steep side streets to her favourite restaurant – down an alley way, off a side street and round a corner, through a beaten-up metal door, into a sketchy lift and up to the 6th floor – where we enjoyed real local food that real local people eat. After our meal we were led through more of the maze to some of her favourite night life spots – all completely hidden from the streets and therefore refreshingly void of tourists.

The following night Yalin invited us to join her at a bar in Kadikoy on the Asian side, where her and her dance class were having a Blues night. Once again, what a fabulous insight into Istanbul life, and we got the unexpected opportunity to dabble in the art of Blues dancing. On our way to our evening of dancing we stopped for some street food and sampled a local delicacy. Seafood is very prevalent in Istanbul, and fishing is an integral part of life. The main bridge crossing the Golden Horn in the centre of town is covered all day every day by fishermen, lined up along the edges with boxes and buckets of their catch strewn along the pavement. Seafood is advertised at almost every restaurant and many establishments only sell seafood. We spotted a few blokes standing near the river with trays of mussels, and unlike the roasted chestnut carts which seem to be all over every city in every country, but from which I’ve never seen anyone purchasing anything, these mussel sellers had queues of enthusiastic buyers. We hadn’t summoned the courage to actually try them though until Yalin persuaded us. They are stuffed with a flavoursome rice mixture and the method for eating one is to crack it in half, slot one bit of shell into the other part which is holding the rice/oyster mixture and scoop it into your mouth all at once.

Istanbul is a very water-centric city with two rivers, the Bosphoros and the Golden Horn, running through the centre and a large part of life seeming to revolve around the water. Aside from the afore-mentioned fishing culture and abundance of seafood, not to mention the large amounts of trade that revolve around transportation on the Bosphoros, the ferries that run on both rivers and the cruises for tourists are an important part of Istanbul life. During our stay we enjoyed catching the ferries back and forth between Asia and Europe, never tiring of how humorous it was to change continents several times a day. It did feel a bit odd leaving Trevor in Asia while we explored Europe though.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Day 246 – Breakfast in Asia, Europe for lunch, and back to Asia for dinner. (Turkey)

We arrived in the town of Canakkale in the late afternoon and after exploring the streets a little and satisfying ourselves with well priced donors, met up with our Couch Surfing host. Ibrahim and his family were the perfect hosts, providing us not only with a warm bed, but also some much needed hearty home-cooked meals, expertly made Turkish coffee and above all else an abundance of genuine hospitality and intriguing conversation. We could have happily stayed with them forever, but unfortunately Gallipoli was the only main thing for us to see before we had to keep moving.

The Gallipoli Peninsula is where the ANZAC’s (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) fought the Turks alongside the Allies in WWI. What makes it so devastating and significant is that they were mistakenly (there are several theories on why the mistake was made, or whether it was even a mistake at all) guided to land their ships at an unforgiving cliff face instead of the miles of flat beach surrounding it. Tens of thousands of soldiers were unnecessarily killed on both sides and the battle is looked upon as an overwhelming and horrendous waste of good men. Instead of holding it against the opposing side, most Australians feel a sense of camaraderie with the Turks and regard this as a turning point in their own sense of National identity. ANZAC Day is one of the most important dates in Australian culture and as such Gallipoli is a site that almost every Australian will make a trip to at some point in their lives.  

Not surprisingly Canakkale is riddled with hotels, cafes and bars flying Australian flags and sporting names such as “ANZAC Cafe”, “Boomerang Bar” and “Crowded House Hotel”. This is somewhere we were quite relieved to be visiting during low season as we can imagine the ruckus that a town full of Aussie holiday makers would cause. Aside from this though, we were very pleased at how tactfully preserved the peninsula is. Under-stated grave sites and memorial plaques riddled the whole area, with monuments to both sides, and barely any tacky souvenir shops. A few trenches and bunkers have been left in place and sporadic information boards gave information about various places and events.

The Dardanelles is the thin strip of water which dissects Turkey between the Mediterranean Sea and the Marmara Sea, and also happens to house the fault line between the European and Asian tectonic plates. Canakkale on the East side is therefore technically in Asia, whilst Gallipoli located to the West of the Dardanelles is on the European side. So not only is Gallipoli a significant historical and cultural site, but for us it was also the point at which we had officially successfully driven all the way from our homes in Melbourne, to geographical Europe. Amusingly we woke up in Asia, then went to Europe to visit Gallipoli and returned to Asia (Ibrahim residing in Canakkale on the Eastern side) for dinner and sleeping, before returning to Europe the following morning. We laughed when we learnt that Ibrahim’s brother whilst living in Asia all his life, used to go to school in Europe, and joked about it regularly. We were to have much more of this hilarity in Istanbul which is split down the centre by the fault line between the two tectonic plates, and each area is generally referred to as either the “European side” or the “Asian side”.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Day 245 - Turkish Antiquities: Part 2 (Turkey)

We stayed at a pensione in the touristic coastal town of Kusadasi, which is laden with accommodation, restaurants, bars and tourist shops. We can only imagine that in summer the place would be heaving, tourists filling the streets day and night, lights and noise everywhere, but during our stay it was little more than a ghost town. Exploring the streets in the evening was eerie, with an entire maze of streets reserved only for bars, but all boarded up and lifeless.

From Kusadasi we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Listed and world renowned ancient city of Efes. Not only is it a large and very well preserved example of an ancient city of the region, but it is also the home of the now destroyed Temple of Artemis, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. It was certainly the most impressive of all of the similar sites we’ve visited (Afrodisias, Hierapolis and Troy) and as such the most ridden with tourists – even far away from peak season it was horrendous. We were disappointed though that there is no marking of where the Temple of Artemis used to stand.

Troy was the last of our intended stops before Canakkale and Gallipoli. This was the least impressive of all the ruined cities we visited, but the main attraction there is the replica of the Trojan Horse. Although we were excited to see the horse, and even enter it and explore a little, it was a pretty tacky replica, not really resembling what we suppose the actual horse would have looked like. Tom, Tom and I climbed up the stairwell into the horse and Ben asked a bystander to take a photo of us all together peering out the windows and then ran up to meet us. Only after we’d left did we check the photos and realised we’d chosen possibly the worst photographer of all time. The first photo had us all and the horse in it, but the next three that he took “for good measure” cut out Tom Unkles in one, Tom Unkles and I in another, and all three of us bar Ben in another. Perhaps our bystander misunderstood and thought Ben only wanted a photograph of himself.

Troy was the end of our tour of the Turkish Antiquities, leaving us at the doorstep of the town of Canakkale and the haunting war site of Gallipoli. It wasn’t long now until we’d be in geographical Europe.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Day 243 - Turkish Antiquities: Part 1 (Turkey)

Our first few days in Turkey were a whirlwind of long driving days and covering large distances without stopping to see much. Our aim was to cut through the centre of the country quite promptly and slow down to explore the West coast once we got to it. It’s a shame to miss so much of this culturally and historically rich nation, but our time is running shorter and shorter and unfortunately we just can’t see everything.

 Having said this, we did pause at two lovely towns in the Northern part of the country – Amasya and Safranbolu. The old town of Amasya is laid alongside a river, and with relaxing parkland lining one river bank and traditional Ottoman houses lining the other, it is a beautiful to township to explore. What sets it apart from other quaint historical towns though is that it is nestled between cliff faces, one of which is topped with a castle. Magnificent tombs are carved into the side of the cliff overlooking the town, from which you can get a spectacular view.

Safranbolu is UNESCO World Heritage Listed because of its prolific Ottoman style architecture. It was quite typically touristy with small cobble-stoned laneways lined with European style cafes and souvenir shops, but quaint and enjoyable all the same. The buildings were really very interesting and if you’re willing to go exploring past the central maze of touristic streets, there are some very quirky and unique parts to the town.

Almost at the West coast, we found one of our best camping spots of all time near the sites of Pamukkale, Hierapolis and Afrodisias. The ground was flat, we were away from prying eyes, a camp fire place was already built, we had fire wood, and it wasn’t too cold, but most importantly we had a spectacular view over the valley, reaching for miles in each direction.

Pamukkale was the main site we were interested in, but Denner was using a gooey substance to fix a hole in the radiator and needed us to drive further than it was to Pamukkale, so instead, we visisted Afrodisias first. Set in the hills, away from any major (or even minor for that matter) cities/towns, we were horrified to find that they were charging for parking. This is one place in Turkey where space is not an issue, yet they have blocked everything off to force you to park in the pay parking a kilometre away from the entrance. There is actually a road that leads all the way to the entrance where there are two huge car parks, also blocked off so that not only do you need to pay for parking, but you’re forced to ride their novelty tractor service that runs from the car park to the entrance. In summer I imagine that all this parking would be packed, rendering a need for a tractor service, but still not charging for parking. Never the less there were only two buses and about four cars when we arrived so the whole thing is just quite offensive. We were most perturbed at this and refused to give into their extortion of tourists, so drove a bit along the road where we just parked in a lay-by and walked back.

Afrodisias itself was an interesting ruins to explore, my favourite part of which was the oblong sports stadium that stretched 270 metres and could sit 30,000 people. Although nowhere near as huge and well preserved as Efes, there were far less tourists here and it was still very interesting. We decided to use the same camping spot as the previous night, making that now the first camping spot we have returned to.

The following day had Pamukkale and Hierapolis in hold for us – Hierapolis being an ancient city and Pamukkale being its water source. Hierapolis, whilst being the ruins of an ancient city, is similar in many ways to a lot of other sites. Pamukkale on the other hand is highly unique and incredibly spectacular – one of the best things we’ve seen on this trip in fact – thus overshining Hierapolis in its beauty and intrigue. When approaching the site, you are faced with a wall of gleaming white, stretching as far as the eye can see (it was foggy the day we were there so it wasn’t actually all that far in this case). Even knowing that it wasn’t, it was hard to believe that it was anything other than a hill covered in fresh snow. The white colouring is caused by the high levels of calcium in the springs that trickles over the hill, forming shining blue terraces of the thermal water. Visitors are required to remove their shoes before walking on the area, so during the ascent across the travertines you can feel the difference between the temperatures in the water – some of it is thermal, some a little warm and some freezing cold. The calcium deposits itself in waves, forming unique patterns on the floor; rock hard in some places, soft and squishy in others.

An ancient thermal bath is located at the top of the hill, available for swimming in for the fee of 30 Lira ($15) per person (entrance to the site was 20 Lira per person). We went prepared to swim, excited at the idea and expecting a somewhat authentically styled bathhouse which we could enjoy the thermal mineral water in. As it turns out though, even though the travertines themselves are very intact and un-abused, the complex between the two sites (Pamukkale and Hierapolis) is obnoxiously touristic and quite built up. The “ancient bathhouse” that we were so intrigued about was just a small pool decorated with fake plants, backing onto a row of shops, a tacky massage parlour and a virtual video studio. It was a shame that this part of the experience was so artificial, and after the incredible Pamukkale we were quite disappointed and decided to opt out of taking a dip. This disappointment though was nowhere near enough to take away from the amazing time we had exploring Pamukkale.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Day 242 – Challenges and friendly faces. (Turkey)

After successfully entering Turkey as two Australians and two Brits our plan was to stop somewhere, get some money out, have lunch, buy groceries for dinner and find a campsite somewhere along the Black Sea coast. We realised in the small town we stopped in to use an ATM that parking was going to be a challenge in this country. I triple parked and waited with the car while the others went to take care of business. A car drove up behind me but couldn’t pass so I had to move up a little, blocking another entrance, only to move straight back to let a woman get her car out. I watched as a vehicle shuffle took place up ahead resulting in a free spot (not just a space that was able to be double/triple parked in but a real one with markings on the ground), but nobody took it because then to get back out again you need to negotiate with half a dozen other drivers.

Our first impressions of Turkish people were fairly positive. The man in the kebab shop where we ate lunch was very helpful and appropriately concerned about the quantity and quality of mayonnaise on our table. At the supermarket next door we were greeted by the friendliest and most enthusiastic supermarket manager in the world. Never wiping the grin off his face he excitedly pointed out all the items he thought we might be interested in – huge tubs of chocolate spread, Turka cola, Turkish delight and many more. When we started approaching the exit he quickly ran out the front of the shop and along the street to meet us at the other side of the check-out, plastic bags in hand and ready to go.

The roads in Turkey are truly fantastic – newly built, well maintained, wide and clearly marked. In the style adopted by many European countries though, the road and the railway run right along the waterfront, making it a very pleasant drive, but detracting dramatically from the integrity of the coastline. The entire coast is also entirely built up. There are continuous apartment blocks – not sky-scrapers, not 2-storey houses, but mainly 6 - 10-storey complexes, none of them really flashy and modern, but not ancient and dilapidated either. And unbelievably continuous.

We knew finding a camping spot along this road would be a challenge, and sure enough it was. We took a punt at a road that led towards the mountains, hoping we might be able to get away from the sprawling metropolis of small coastal towns. The road led us through some suburbs, then an industrial zone and into a valley filled with villages and orchards. It took a couple of hours, but eventually we found a spot at the edge of an olive grove and set up there for the night. We expected that this would be the case for most of Turkey, probably easing up a little in the centre of the country, but still a camper’s nightmare. After this first night though we easily found some really fantastic camping spots – so it really is only along the Black Sea coast that is particularly challenging.

Aware that Turkey is a Muslim country, but fairly liberal within that, we were quite surprised at the density of mosques, the regular and prolific calls to prayer and the proportion of women in head scarves. In Iran women must cover up by law and most hate it, but here many choose to. Mosques were certainly present in Iran, but it just isn’t to the same extent. On the Black Sea coast we would be able to see at least half a dozen mosques at any one time, sometimes more than a dozen. Central Turkey is more sparsely populated and the West coast is more liberal so it’s not the same story throughout the whole country, but even in these other areas Islam in many ways feels more present in the people than it did in Iran. Maybe it’s because of the density of mosques, but the call to prayer is just so much more noticeable in Turkey. We barely heard it in Iran, whereas now we hear it five times a day no matter where we are or what we’re upto.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Day 237 – Good luck. (Border crossing Georgia to Turkey)

After Karabakh we stayed two nights in Yerevan with our previous Couch Surfing host and Karabakh travel mate, Stanislav, before heading back to Georgia and our last destination before Turkey. Considering how good all the other roads in Georgia were we were surprised to find that our route running along the Turkish border from the North West of Armenia to the South West of Georgia was an exceptionally muddy track, winding through the mountains and barely wide enough for one car.

As a popular tourist destination for Georgians as well as foreigners we expected somewhat of an array of accommodation options, but with only one hostel style place it felt like we were back in Central Asia. The up-side of this issue though is that everyone’s staying at the same place, which in high season could be a problem, but in low season (as it is now) it’s actually quite nice.

LPG is available in Georgia (with the same connection as Turkey), but not everywhere. We looked up SoCar which is the company that sells it and found the locations of the stations with LPG. There were lots near the Armenian border directly South of Tblisi, many of them not listed on the website. Fortunately we found one a few kilometres from Batumi, and only 16km or so from the Turkish border, so before embarking on the border crossing we filled up with as much LPG and petrol as possible. We know that there is LPG in Turkey, but there’s always the concern – especially given our track record up until now – that we won’t have the correct adaptor. Also, petrol and LPG and diesel and any other fuel is horrendously expensive in Turkey.

The building on the Georgian side of the Sarpi border between Georgia and Turkey is quite famous for its architecture. Above the usual car lanes and customs offices, there are several magnificent stories of abstractly shaped white terraces, towering over the Black Sea coast. The sign 200m before the border that read “Good luck” in Georgian and English seemed like a bad omen, but we didn’t really except this to be a tricky crossing.

As expected the Georgian side was entirely organised and efficient. A woman checked our passports and Carnet and politely bade us farewell. As we crossed the 100m or so of no man’s land and reached Turkey,  we realised we were back to Middle Eastern/Asian mayhem with groups of men standing around of which we were unable to decipher who worked where or if at all. No signs directed us into queues; we were just left to ram ourselves into a gap somewhere and hope it was the right one. The first queue we tried definitely wasn’t for us – the windows to talk through from our window were higher than our roof – so we backtracked and found one that would serve us. We were instructed to park our car and proceed to the visa office.

Now, we are all Australians travelling with Australian passports for the majority of this trip, however I am actually Scottish (born and raised) and Denner’s father is English and as such we both have British passports. We haven’t pulled these out up until now (in fact we were careful to hide them especially for Iran) but Turkey recently increased the price of visas for Australians to US$60 instead of the US$20 that they charge the rest of the world. (Canadians also pay $60.) Admittedly Australia just put up their already extortionate visa prices so I don’t actually disagree with it in principal, but it meant it was time to play the British card.

You’re not really supposed to switch passports between borders, and the country you’re entering will always check that you left the previous country properly, so we decided not to leave the switch until the Turkish border but pre-empt it when we were re-entering Georgia from Armenia. They wanted to see the passport that we had exited Armenia with and then asked why we would like our British passport to be stamped. I think if we had explained that we wanted to save money on Turkish visas they would have been quite understanding, but just because it was easier we said it was because our Australian passports are getting very full – which they are. This reason was accepted on face value and our British passports were stamped.

Back to the border crossing... so we took our passports and found the “visa office” which was signed as “cashier” and paid our $20 and $60 respectively. The amusing part of this is that they haven’t printed new stickers for the $60 visa, so in Ben and Tom’s passports the cashier just stuck three $20 stickers. They peel out really easily so we moved them around in our passports to the locations we desired before returning to the stamping window where the man told us that only Canadians are expensive and Ben and Tom should go back and pay only $20 each. They went back and were tossed around a few officials before returning back to us and the stamping man with someone to verify that it was actually $60. A little bit of our time was wasted but everyone was surprisingly helpful and we actually appreciated the fact that no one wanted to over charge us which is why they were all checking with each other.

We were now in the country, we just had to get our car in. We followed a lane that ended at a crowded window. There we parked and Ben got out to figure out what to do. He took our Carnet and insurance documents and told me to park. There really were just cars and trucks and buses going everywhere in all directions so parking wasn’t so straight forward, but I stopped in a gap, until someone needed to drive in that gap at which point I moved to a new gap, until someone ahead of me moved and I could get into a better gap, and so on.

While I was negotiating the traffic Ben was watching as groups of men stood around and stared at our Carnet and insurance documents, wondering and discussing amongst themselves what to do with them. (It’s possible/probable that they weren’t discussing this at all but were just having a chat about meeting up for tea later on.) Eventually they decided on the “let’s just stamp it” course of action and we were out of there.

We checked the time on the way out of the border area and sure enough we had just gained two hours, meaning that although the sun was already half-way down the sky, it really was only 1.30pm.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Travelling to Nagorno – Karabakh, by Ben Crowley.

Legally and internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1994 after a bloody war costing the lives of tens of thousands. Still today you see the scar of conflict in the eyes of the locals as much as the blown up buildings and infrastructure. Although the war has stopped, small skirmishes and confrontations between the Azeri and Karabakh forces occur quite frequently.  Before even travelling to this ‘Pseudo-Country’ we needed to obtain a Visa. That’s right, a Visa from a government that no one recognises (since writing this, the Australian state of New South Wales has recognised Karabakh.) We headed to their permanent mission in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan. We approached the large gate that anyone having been to an embassy would be familiar with and pressed the buzzer. There was no answer, so we went about pressing it several times more and still no answer. I decided maybe it was a good idea to attempt to open the large gate and low and behold it was unlocked and as such we continued inside the seemingly deserted compound. We ventured inside and finally found an elderly man who directed us to the Visa room. In here we found an equally lovely elderly lady who gave us forms to fill in and even some travel advice. In a first in our experience, we were given several options for the visa. Would we like it left out of the passport (so we could still travel to Azerbaijan in the future), would we like a group visa or separate individual visas in our respective passports? We chose the latter and 3000dram ($7) and 4 hours later were done.

Driving the four hours there from Yerevan, we were not sure what to expect, how militarised the still ongoing war zone would be? Would the border guards be suspicious of travellers with Azeri visas in their passports? How much more difficult would travelling be? We eventually arrived and were greeted by no more than a sign welcoming us on the side of the road, no bigger than one would experience from entering a new local council area. Shockingly the road actually got better. We didn’t need to wonder for long as we viewed the first of thousands of signs explaining that a Diaspora group had paid for its upkeep, in this particular instance the All-Armenian Fund based in the United States. We had driven no more than a kilometre and were already well aware of how this de facto independent country was staying afloat. Another ten kilometres and we’d already come across our first completely destroyed town, in this instance it was an Azeri town that stood in the Lachin corridor separating Karabakh and Armenia. We eventually arrived at a border gate where members of the Karabakh army inspected our passports, signed us in and then waved us on wishing us ‘good luck’. We then drove on to the capital Stepanakert, with its one main street, to find accommodation as our base for doing some exploring.

Being such a small place we were able to visit all of the major attractions that Stepanakert had to offer: the Martyrs’ Museum, National Museum, The national buildings of Government, the extremely small Bazaar and probably the highlight of Stepanakert, the “We are the Mountains monument” – a 2.5 metre high hideous brown brick statue of the faces of a grandfather and grandmother, a sculpture one might expect tackily placed on the side of a highway/motorway, which also happens to appear on their national regalia and visas. Being an ex-soviet country, food of quality is scarce with the exception of what is known as “green bread”, a type of flat unleavened almost pita type bread stuffed full of every green herb known to man, including coriander, which we delighted in. The next day we ventured into rural Karabakh and one town of note was Vank. A local wealthy businessman who had somewhat became the patron of Vank had a strange obsession with all things nautical. He had gone about constructing several interesting designs for buildings and tourist spots all boat themed, including a four star hotel shaped like the Titanic. Other things of note were a large cave made to look like a tiger and the quirky fences made of licence plates adorning the town.

A deeply Christian people, we visited the numerous churches and monasteries that the area is famous for, including the Gandzasar Monastery and Dadivank Monastery and just generally explored the beautiful mountainous countryside. Apart from their shared religion which easily differentiates them from the Azeri’s, it is difficult to get a real grasp of what the Karabakh identity is. The first day we arrived we bumped into a young man, Arman, who invited us back to his house for food and drinks. He told us the story of his own family who were refugees from just near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, due to the conflict. His family spoke fondly of living side by side with the Azeris and even preferred Azeri as a language to Armenian, but chose Russian over both of these. Here was a man who had never lived anywhere but Armenian Karabakh and did not feel comfortable with their official language (Armenian). On the other hand we stopped to ask a young girl for directions when driving in the countryside and she herself did not speak a word of Russian, only knowing Armenian, and thus we were unable to communicate with her. Many others we spoke to said how they thought the conflict was stupid and that they would be happy being part of Azerbaijan or leaving Karabakh altogether. Yet one can’t go past the sheer number of the separatist flags flying and the pictures of their proud military tradition.

We decided that we needed to see the front line for ourselves and thus drove out of what is considered Karabakh proper and into the Armenian occupied areas of Azerbaijan proper. We drove from north to south along the line of contact stopping along the way to photograph buildings laden with bullet holes and completely destroyed ghost towns. We passed many blown up tanks and trucks. The most shocking of all these was standing from a prime look out position over the town of Agdam, a town of 40,000 persons with large soviet apartment blocks, sports grounds, wide boulevards, suburbs of which are all deserted. It was feared that having such a large Azeri city within 20km’s of the capital could be a launching pad for future attacks so as such the entire city was captured and made unliveable. Due to the line of contact being in the suburbs of Agdam and the large military presence, it is difficult to get permission from the Ministry of Defence to enter the city centre, and as such we drove as close as we felt comfortable.

On the last day before leaving we decided the best thing we could probably do was play a round of golf. We had read that the town of Shushi hosted the small nation’s only golf course and as such we were terribly interested to play. A Russian speaking friend of ours accompanied and we ventured out in search. We stopped several times to ask locals for directions only for our friend Stanislav to tell us that they had never even heard of the word golf before, let alone knew of the course’s location. After being forced to drive around in circles due to well meaning but ultimately inconvenient directions, we eventually got a lead with a phone number. We rang and found the man we were looking for. Having used a telephone at a nearby hotel he agreed to meet us there and take us to the course. When he arrived we found out we would be the first to play in 3 years! We drove to his house first to pick up the only set of clubs and one flagpole, which bamboozled us somewhat. He took us to the course only to find it quite overgrown and covering somewhat difficult terrain, consisting of mainly rocks and trees. As the story goes, a Belgian doctor by the name John Malcolm who lived in Karabakh was quite the golf enthusiast and had adapted the game and designed the course for local conditions. We soon realised Dr Malcolm was quite the sadistic individual as our golfing host had been told that golf involved a “flag man”, I suppose similar to a caddy, which was our hosts’ job, who runs around marking the holes and retrieving our balls. Not only this but he was to stand directly in front of our aim (supposedly to see the direction of our shot best) as we took our shot. We were genuinely scared we were going to hit him and when we suggested this to him he laughed and told us he’s only been hit in the head a few times. We played and our flag man continued to run around moving the flag from hole to hole and retrieving our balls for us. After 30 minutes of this ‘interesting’ version of the game we decided to call it quits and head back to Armenia, marking the end of our Karabakh odyssey.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Day 228 – A Digger and a Film Maker. (Armenia)

Yerevan isn’t a hugely exciting city for tourism, but we found ourselves taking an unexpected liking to it. It reminded me of a mid-sized European city – not Berlin or Prague, but maybe Innsbruck or Bern. The place is alive and has everything one would need to happily live there, without the scale of hustle and bustle that some cities ooze. Despite the lack of glamour though, if you look closely enough there is actually quite a lot to keep one entertained.

We stayed with a friendly young Russian whose work has brought him to Yerevan for two months. While he worked during the day we explored the city and found a few treasures. The State Museum, despite its over-staffing and horribly squeaking floorboards, is home to a shoe that is claimed to be the oldest in the world. I’m not sure how many other museums claim to house the oldest shoe in the world, but regardless it is 6,000 years old and quite an amazing thing to have seen.

The Cascade Monument in the city centre is a vast expanse of stairs which was originally built in the Soviet era but never completed, the project only now being finished after the fall of the Soviet Union. While Ben, Tunkles and Denner climbed the steps I waited in the square below which is decorated with a variety of unusual modern art sculptures. My favourites of these were a comically overweight warrior clothed only by a helmet, a shield and a baton, and a matching naked lady lying ironically seductively on a podium and smoking a cigarette.

Tunkles stumbled upon a tiny article describing “Levon’s Divine Underground”, a group of tunnels that an eccentric old man dug by hand underneath his house in a village on the outskirts of Yerevan. We didn’t except it to be overly enthralling, but decided to pay a visit because of how unusual and obscure the place sounded. We found a selection of pieces of information on it, each one referring to it using a variety of names, and no directions or exact location whatsoever. Our plan of attack was to drive to the village and somehow find it once we got there, so that’s exactly what we did. Once in Arinj we turned down a residential alleyway and stopped at a monument where the first guy we asked for advice jumped in the car with us and directed us there.

Levon’s wife greeted us hospitably and using a torch, guided us through the freezing cold 21m deep maze of tunnels that her husband spent 30 years sculpting by hand. The work was intricate with even steps carved into the stone floor, and unique images of columns, jars, crosses and flowers carved into the walls. In places hand marks were visible where Levon had packed the dirt tightly by hand. Small rooms opened up from the spiral staircase, some plain, some filled with trinkets and even one with a fireplace and chimney. Light globes have been attached in a few places, incorporated into the artwork to complement some of the carvings in the walls. A huge circular hole reached all the way from the deepest point of the cave to the ground level entrance, providing a bizarre perspective on the depth.

The story goes that our guide – the wife of the tunnel-builder – asked her husband to make a small cellar to store their potatoes in, but once he started digging, God instructed him to keep going and that He would reveal His purpose later. Unfortunately we have no Russian and she had no English so we were unable to understand any of the things she was explaining to us, but we have read that the during his first ten years of digging, the rock was so hard that he would dig for 17 hours per day and only manage a hole of 7cm depth and 20cm width.

A room inside their house has been turned into a small museum exhibiting some books and magazines that Levon’s feat has been published in, photos of the work-in-progress, the tools that were used and some clothes that he wore during the process. Unable to communicate with the family and not having found any information elsewhere we can’t be sure, but there was a sense of bitter-sweetness about the place and our guide that leads us to suspect that Levon himself may have passed away. The experience was very haunting and is one of the most incredible things that we’ve witnessed on this trip.

Another personal highlight of Yerevan, though not on the same unique scale as Levon’s Divine Underground, was the Museum of Sergei Parajanov, Georgian-born Armenian artist and film-maker who was jailed during the Soviet era for his un-nationalistic work, under the pretence of homosexuality. I’m not a huge fan of obscure art for the sake of it, but this man’s work was amongst the most fascinating I’ve ever seen. Most pieces were displays, depicting situations in and around his life in an abstract fashion, varying from things such as the humorous “my childhood trunk turned into an elephant” to unflattering collages of world leaders and eerily dark sketches of fellow inmates from his days in prison. Despite the fact that there was no information in English other than the titles of the pieces, making our way through the gallery gave us a clear depiction of his life. Had we not arrived shortly before closing time we could have easily spent several hours perusing the works of Sergei Parajanov. I even bought a book to remind me of his art, which anyone who knows me will understand is quite out of character and a huge testament to the brilliance of his art.

The nightlife in Yerevan is far from note worthy on a world wide scale, but there are plenty of places to keep one busy, no matter what you might be looking for. Our most memorable night was at a modest basement bar called Bourbon Street which played everything from blues and jazz, to classic rock to current pop hits. What made it so exciting though were the patrons that we shared the venue with – some sort of EU delegation with representatives from all of Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Turkey and the Caucasus. As a very down to earth group of 20-somethings with English as a common language we chatted with a few of them and as well as having a relaxed and fun-filled evening, we obtained contacts in several countries.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Day 226 – On our way to an internationally unrecognised state. (Nagorno Karabakh visas in Yerevan, Armenia)

Our first priority on arrival in Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, was to visit the Embassy of Nagorno Karabakh (also known as RMK – Republic of Mountainous Karabakh, NKR – Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Artsakh Republic). We found it easily, parked outside the front, and carried our passports to the front gate. An A4 piece of paper was taped to the fence telling us in Armenian, Russian and English, that to enter we should press “1*” on the number pad. Denner did, and we waited. Nothing happened, so he pressed it again. We waited again. Perhaps he was pressing the buttons wrong, so Ben stepped up and gave it a shot. Again we waited, and again nobody came for us. After a few minutes Ben decided to give the gate a push, and lo and behold, it swung open easily. Oops.

We passed the diplomatically plated cars and ascended the steps leading to the front of the somewhat dilapidated, but surprisingly elegant red-brick building. Inside reminded me a little of an old house that has been turned into an obscure museum, with yellowing pictures hung sporadically along the walls of the entrance corridor, a majestic but frayed carpet running along the dusty floorboards, and a sturdy mahogany desk tucked away in the corner. A man appeared from a side room, addressed us with “visa?” and led us to a door at the end of the corridor which he knocked on and opened for us.

Inside a young lady sat at one desk while a motherly woman at another gestured us towards her. She asked us to fill in application forms at the previously mentioned mahogany desk, and gave us some maps to look at as reference for the “where do you intend to visit?” question. Despite the fact that there was a spot to stick a photo on, she told us not to worry about that. When we’d answered all the questions, we took the forms and our passports back to her office and sat down while she looked through our intentions. After giving us a little advice on where we should visit, she asked us to visit the accountant to pay 3,000 Dram ($7.50) each.

When we returned with our receipt we were told to come back at 3pm (it was now about midday) to collect our visas, then as an afterthought she checked whether we want a group visa or four individual visas, and whether we wanted it in our passports or not. She seemed quite surprised when we said we’d like individual visas if possible and that in our passports was fine. We are aware that with a Karabakh visa we can’t travel to Azerbaijan, but by the time any of us go back there we’ll have new passports anyway. We thought there could be a problem entering Turkey with Karabakh visas, but a friend recently managed it with no problems and we’ve done a bit of research and decided it’s probably not an issue. Considering she now had to make four visas instead of just one, we were asked to return at 4pm instead of the original 3pm.

What a peculiar concept – an Embassy offering to issue visas outside of your passport. It’s hard for us to imagine coming from a nation that is not recognised by the rest of the world and people can be caused problems just by visiting. And being offered a group visa seems like a ridiculous idea – I have to admit it is a little hard to take a visa seriously when multiple people can choose to share it, just for the sake of ease.

We returned just before the designated 4pm and entered the same office as before. Our motherly visa issuer greeted us with a smile and took her glasses off to look up at us. Our visas sat at the front of her desk, and she picked them up to hand over to us. “I see you like travelling a lot. You have visited many interesting places.” Well yes, we have. “You usually travel together?” We explained that most of the visas in our current passports are from this trip, which we are doing as a group, all the way from Australia to Scotland. She seemed impressed by this and wished us well on our travels. A lovely lady giving us visas and actually understanding let along taking an interest in our trip is a nice little change. We left feeling very satisfied with Karabakh so far and looking forward to visiting the country itself.

Interestingly, everyone we came across who worked in that Embassy (the lady who dealt with us, her young female assistant, and the two women in the accountancy office) were females, except for the male receptionist who initially greeted us. How’s that for a role reversal.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Day 225 – Spray jackets vs Pleather jackets. (Border crossing Georgia to Armenia)

Not expecting the border crossing between Georgia and Armenia to be too painful or time consuming, but as always choosing to leave ourselves plenty of lee-way, we camped only a few kilometres from the border. Not too imposing, yet brand new and state of the art, the Georgian side of the border couldn’t have gone more smoothly. With its restaurant, ATM’s and Duty Free shopping opportunities, we really feel very far away from Asia now. We drove upto the window manned by a policeman in his dark slacks and under-stated “police” spray jacket, had our passports stamped, our faces photographed through the car windows and a few car details entered into a computer. Once again very satisfied with the efficient Georgian service we progressed through no man’s land to Armenia.

Suddenly we went from a modern European style border, to an all too familiar Soviet type set up. The immaculate coloured suits adorned with lapel pins and badges, true to the Soviet fashion, and the old buildings lying abandoned next to the new ones, reminded us once again of Central Asia.

We parked at the visa window where we filled in basic application forms and handed over our passports. I fed a US$50 note into the conveniently located money exchange machine to receive my first batch of Armenian Dram, allowing us to pay for our visas in local currency. At 3,000 Dram per person ($7.50), we could hardly grudge the 10 minute process. Yet another page in our passports taken up with a full page visa, we drove on to the passport window.

It took a bit of persuasion, but we managed to convince the man in the window that our Carnet is in fact our “car passport”, issued by the Australian government. He entered the necessary details into his computer, took the required photos of our faces through the car windows and stamped us into Armenia. Thinking for a moment that we had actually managed an entire border crossing from start to finish in less than 40 minutes, we moved on to enter the country. Much to our disappointment though, a smug looking guard who we had just spent 10 minutes humorously observing as he eyed up some women in high heels, waved at us and addressed us through our open window. Apparently all was not yet well, and we were required to make a stop at one of the dilapidated Soviet era buildings to speak with a “customs broker”. Far from chuffed at this concept, we followed his directions to a dirty grey brick dwelling just up ahead.

Inside we were greeted by a middle aged woman with artificially bright blonde hair and pink lipstick covering at least double the surface area of her actual lips, a Soviet-uniformed man who should surely be retired with green ink all over his hands from the stamps he was carefully cleaning with toothpicks, and a slender young man in a pleather jacket. Well, by greeted I mean Pink Lipstick was on her mobile phone, Pleather Jacket was engrossed in some sort of music playing device, and Stamp Man was pre-occupied with his stamps; all much too busy to acknowledge us in any way of course.

A few frustrating minutes passed until we got the attention of Pleather Jacket who wrote down some numbers on a scrap of paper and told us to pay him. Well, we don’t just pay money to people without some sort of reason as to why, so we tried to ask what we were actually paying for. This is a concept that was way beyond the training of this particular man, so he made a phone call and a few minutes later a man appeared, who after shaking hands with everyone else in the room, addressed us in perfect English. Apparently we were paying “to drive around in Armenia”, but we weren’t very content with just handing over a bunch of cash (21,500 Dram/ about $54) with nothing more than some guy’s scribbling as documentation.

The English speaking man took us to the ATM where we withdrew the necessary cash and we returned to Pleather Jacket. Apparently the “bank” would give us documents, so we went to the desk in the corner of the “customs” room which was supposedly the bank, but the man there just stamped the desired figure into his calculator and also had no comprehension of the fact that we wanted some sort of proof of what we were paying for and that we had paid it.

Some tense toing and froing ensued until eventually Pleather Jacket showed us a print-out which had been hanging on a notice board behind us this whole time. It outlined the individual charges which sure enough added up to 21,500 Dram. It was all in Armenian of-course, but that was enough to convince us that it wasn’t just some guy making up an amount that he wanted the tourists to pay. We handed over our payment to the “bank teller” and were told to continue on and “go either left or right” to purchase insurance.

We went both left and right to compare all the available options. Most places quoted 8,000 Dram ($20) for 10 days, but one man actually entered some details into a computer and came up with 3,200 Dram ($8), or 4,800 Dram ($12) for 12 days. Obviously we were pleased with the much lower price, but we also greatly approved of the fact that that he had followed some sort of system to come up with this figure, as opposed to just punching random numbers into a calculator. We decided to purchase 10 days, waited while he printed off the sticker that goes on the front window of the car, and entered Armenia almost two hours after leaving Georgia.

It’s very interesting to see how Georgia has completely abandoned Soviet bureaucracy for their immigration and customs procedures, and Armenia has started to follow suit but hasn’t quite made it yet.  The Armenian immigration process was very concise and smooth, but the reforms obviously haven’t quite trickled down to customs and the importation of a car.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Day 223 – Witch’s hats and double denim. (Georgia)

Arriving in Tblisi on the afternoon of October 31st, we didn’t realise until heading out in the evening that it was Halloween. Having shacked up at Irine’s Boarding house, a homely guest house in what we thought to be the centre of town, we discovered that the nightlife was in fact centred around the old town, a couple of kilometres away. After making the walk we were glad to find a lively and friendly Irish style pub called Hangar Bar. We were enthusiastically greeted by the host whom we couldn’t decide was Irish or American (and later found out that both were correct), and entered what we discovered to be an excessively themed Halloween party. Feeling a little under-dressed as the only patrons not in face paint, witch’s hats, masks and capes, we sat ourselves at one of the pumpkin clothed tables in a room decorated with spiders’ webs. Making the most of where we were, Tom Unkles who has been designated Director of Interpersonal Relations, struck up conversation with a group of three at a neighbouring table. Despite the differences in choice of fashion (us in whatever clean clothes we could muster that seem acceptable to present ourselves in in a city, and them in black capes, black make-up, a mask and a witch’s hat) we hit it off like a house on fire and got ourselves a tour guide for the following day.

Elene met us the following afternoon to show us around her home city. We explored the fashionable Rustavi Street and the winding cobble-stone alleyways of the old town before taking a ride in the gondola to the top of the hill where we had a view over the rooftops and skyline of the city. The gondola, incidentally is on the same system as the standard Tblisi public transport system.

Whilst wandering the streets we bumped into Frank and Martine, a Dutch couple in a campervan who we’d met the previous day at Carrefour. They’ve made several trips in their car, even more extensively than us, including Australia, and with a dog too. Their website’s in Dutch, so for most of our readers it’s probably not overly exciting, but for anyone who can read Dutch and would like to know about their travels, visit .

After not succeeding at filling our LPG tank since leaving Australia, we were finally able to do so in Georgia. Some countries use CNG (compressed natural gas – a different substance to LPG), some don’t have gas at all, or the most frustrating one is where LPG is available, but with a connection that we don’t have an adaptor for. We purchased adaptors before setting off from home, but Georgia is the first country where we’ve actually been able to use one. We’ve been pretty concerned about the effects on the LPG system after being out of use for 7 months, but we excitedly filled up our bone-dry tank and started driving. Very quickly though it became apparent that something was wrong: the engine shuddered ferociously and stalled itself, then wouldn’t re-start on gas. We spent a while revving and experimenting with starting and re-starting on gas, and switching from petrol to gas, hoping that the system was just a bit tired and needed some fuel pumped through. We realised though that it just wasn’t working, so continued to drive on petrol until reaching Tblisi.

We headed to the outskirts of town to a strip of car dealerships, but unable to find what we were looking for, asked for help/directions at the Toyota building. Their best advice was to send us to a petrol station that sells CNG. Dismissing this, we kept driving until we spotted a tiny roadside shop selling oil and probably equipped to change a tyre. The man there had very limited English and his map skills were lacking, but he really wanted to help us and eventually we got directions to a mechanic. With no idea whether he’d understood the LPG thing at all, thinking that perhaps we were just being sent to a mechanic, we followed his directions and found the place remarkably easily.

A crowd of at least a dozen mechanics and on-lookers gathered around as we tried to explain that we needed our LPG tank fixed. Everybody seemed to want to send us to a petrol station – we drove here from Australia, do you think we hassle mechanics every time we need fuel? We switched the engine on and switched it to gas. A mechanic in blue overalls who had a beard that made Denner’s look like pre-pubescent bum-fluff and a cigarette glued to his lip, fiddled with some belts, looked at the radiator and flicked the catch for the hood release. No buddy, we’re not concerned about whether our bonnet can be secured, just look at the LPG system that we’ve got a problem with which we’re trying to demonstrate.

A man who was way too clean to be a mechanic, dressed in jeans, a woollen jumper and a vest, fiddled with the accelerator chord, revving Trev up to 7,000 Rpm. As it only switches to gas at a comfy 2,500 Rpm we were getting very frustrated at all our petrol being wasted while they weren’t even letting us show them the problem. Eventually we managed, and as soon as it switched to gas and conked out, the beardy mechanic realised there was a problem, lost interest and left. We continued to try appealing to the woollen jumpered man, begging for any sort of direction or advice other than where to purchase CNG. After adamantly informing us over and over again that there was no-one that could help us in all of Georgia, something seemed to click with the woollen jumpered man and suddenly he was offering to come in the car with us to find someone who could help us.

The first workshop was a CNG specialist. They sent us to another mechanic who in turn pointed us towards another. Eventually we were directed to a petrol station which sold CNG that had a workshop attached. It seemed to be mainly for the purposes of installing CNG tanks, but our new friend for want of a better word, got the attention of a scrawny man in double denim who attended to us. Straight away he started testing the electrics and we could sense he actually knew what he was doing. A while later we paid him 20 Lari (about $12) for his trouble, dropped off our woollen jumpered buddy back at his own shop and enjoyed driving on LPG again.

I can’t quite put my finger on the relationship between the woollen jumpered man who accompanied us, and the double denimed mechanic who fixed our problem. To us, woollen jumpered man was essentially a friendly stranger who we had no way of communicating with other than basic pointing. To double denimed mechanic though, woollen jumpered man must have been a friend, or at least some sort of confidante of ours. Yet throughout the whole reparation process they seemed to work together – from where we were standing they acted like colleagues. Does double denim just assume that woollen jumper is a mechanically interested customer? Or did woollen jumper introduce himself as a fellow mechanic? We could tell they didn’t know each other beforehand. Does woollen jumper get any sort of cut of our payment? We honestly doubt that one in this situation actually. And if not, then why was he playing such an active role in the fixing process? We don’t even know if he was a mechanic – maybe he owned the place where we met him, or perhaps he was just a nosey and bored on-looker.

Either way, this was just another example of the outstanding Georgian hospitality that we continue to experience. In many places this man would have bothered us for some extortionate amount of money for his “help”, but in Georgia this really just wasn’t a concern.