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.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Day 220 – Revolutionary Ideas. (Georgia)

From Sighnaghi we drove West towards Gori, planning to spend an afternoon there before heading into Tblisi, the capital city. The main attraction in Gori city is the Stalin Museum in Stalin Square. Very proud of being the birth place of the great dictator, the city has been somewhat built around the square which houses not only the museum, but also his family house preserved under an open-sided brick building, and his personal bullet-proof, air-conditioned train carriage. The museum itself offered an interestingly narrow perspective on his life, referring to his policies as “revolutionary ideas” and focusing more on his exile and his personal life than the world wide trauma and devastation that he caused. Gifts from other world leaders, and photographs of Stalin in meetings with Lenin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Mao amongst others portrayed an image of a reasonable and fair leader. The only hint at the fact that perhaps everything had not been so lovely and clean was the reconstruction of the “Room of Repression”. A flick through the visitors’ book, despite only being able to read the messages in English, displayed some very vocal and controversial ideas; many of the museum’s viewers more than outraged at the silver-lined portrayal of Stalin’s life.

We were just about to head out of town when we decided to quickly check Couch Surfing (free wi-fi on the streets) and found that we had a positive reply from a guy in Gori. A quick phone call later we had a host, so decided to stay in town. Our host was fantastic, working around us at the last minute, providing us with a three bedroom house all to ourselves, treating us to beer, cheese and sausages, and sharing stories and jokes with us. He presented some intriguing sounding activities, so we decided to stay another day and see what Gori really had to offer.

Our first stop on the backstreets tour of Gori was the closed border between Georgia and the Russian-occupied, independent nation, recognised by the rest of the world as part of Georgia, South Ossetia. Only 26km away from the city centre, we saw remnants of buildings that were demolished and villages bombed to the ground in the 2008 war. Communities of small, cloned houses built by the EU have popped up all over the place, housing many refugees displaced by the war. As we drove, our guide pointed out a narrow road zigzagging up a steep hillside. The village that the road leads to is in Georgia, but the road to access it from the rest of the country, now goes through the Russian-occupied area, so in order to remain accessible from the rest of the country a new road had to be built. On the bright side, this village is still in the democratic and free country of Georgia, a country that built a new road to them in order for them not to be cut off.

The border itself, the first truly closed border any of us have ever actually seen, is marked by a khaki coloured wall following the line dividing Georgia. Armed guards manned the section at the road, warning us not to drive on any of the tracks running parallel to the border and ensuring we didn’t take any photos or wander off to explore anything we shouldn’t. From a few hundred metres away on the road, a gap between the trees and shells of buildings provided a clear view of Tskhinvali, the capital city of the area. Even from a distance on a sunny day, the bleakness and drabness of the city was all too apparent. Yet so close to Gori, how different life would be on the other side of that wall.

We asked our new friend whether there was anything else in or around the city that had to do with Stalin, other than the obvious which we had already ticked off. After a minute of thinking, he mentioned that there used to be a statue in the centre of town, but it was removed a couple of years ago. It’s far from public knowledge, but somehow he had an idea that it was now resting in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town. This sounded like a very unique experience!

Our host directed us off the main road, past a military base, into a complex of bombed out, dilapidated houses. Having never actually looked for it before, he asked for directions from a family who we can only assume were squatting in one of the buildings. The man pointed us behind the overgrown home to what I suppose would have been the back garden. We picked our way through brambles and nettles, climbed over some rubble, and realised the statue wasn’t there. We waited in the jungle of prickles while our guide climbed a concrete wall, returning a little while later, claiming to have uncovered the location of the statue. We followed him back through the brambles, nettles and rubble, and along a slightly more manageable track to a group of construction/demolition (it’s often hard to tell the difference) workers who pointed us to another bombed out shell.

Climbing in single file through more prickles and rubble, we emerged into the small room one at a time, each of us gasping in shock as our eyes fell upon the 3m tall statue of Stalin. In such a non-descript room, probably only 4m x 2m and completely open to the elements given the lack of windows or roof, the statue lay face-down in the weeds, taking up the majority of the space; a bizarrely humble position for the all too imposing monument. Considering how seemingly proud the city seems to be of this dictator, how peculiar that this statue just be left completely open to the elements, theft or vandalism. We heard that there is talk of the statue being reinstated in Stalin Square, but in the mean time, we are four of the very few people, possibly the only tourists, that will witness the magnificent monument in its current degrading position.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Day 218 – Dancing, Eating and Laughing. (Georgia)

Sighnaghi is a quaint mountain town in the West of Georgia, where we stayed at the guest house of our chance wine tour guide (Blog Day 217 - Armwrestles, Monasteries, and Wineries). Our timing was very fortunate, coincidingwith a festival which included a concert in the main square displaying traditional dance and song. Quite a crowd was gathered, and bands of mostly children and teenagers marched through the streets in traditional dress on their way to and from performances.

For lunch, we found a slightly odd but very lovely cafe where we feasted on pizza and the spectacular Georgian dish of “khachapuri” which is essentially a cheese pizza, stuffed with a generous helping of very good quality cheese, and in this case huge and straight out the oven. Very satisfied with our meal and having greatly enjoyed the service, we were still trying to figure out the peculiar vibe of the place. The plain wooden chairs and tables, although regularly sized, felt like ones you might find in a kindergarten, and between them, the piano in the corner and the handmade pictures around the room, we felt like we might be in a primary school. I refrained from tinkling on the piano, although we were the only customers, as a sound track of 80’s love ballads was playing in the background.

As we got up to leave, we had a quick gander at the goods laid out along one wall which seemed to be for sale. When the girl who was in charge of running the cafe saw us, she explained that this is a disabled home and the toys and trinkets that we were looking at were made by the inhabitants and sold to raise funds. Suddenly the decor and ambiance made sense, and as we realised that the waiter and cook were residents of the home, we were glad we’d chosen to eat lunch here over any of the other options. We bought a couple of their products and continued on our way around Sighnaghi.

The city wall is the main attraction inside the town, so that was our next stop. As is usually the case, the town is centred at the top of the hill. Peculiarly though, the old wall mainly surrounds the valley, which is predominantly forest now. From the towers and the top of the wall, we had a great view over the valley and the town, covered at this time in layers of low laying cloud. A group of American girls who had possibly had some wine or chacha over lunch very amusingly assumed that we were locals – even though I assume locals rarely climb the touristic city walls. As a result they were quite vocal about how they thought we looked (oddly dressed apparently) and how funny they found us, not being in the least bit discreet and speaking to each other about us right in front of our faces. Well, joke’s on them.

By this time the clouds were rolling towards us and the rain was starting, so we headed back to our accommodation to sit in front of the open fire place. Conveniently our lunch was plenty to take care of dinner as well, so we used their ancient oven and enjoyed the evening at home. The hospitality we experienced from Guram and his family at the Zandarashvili Gueshouse was genuine and bountiful. We were paying for our beds, but the family was so helpful and friendly and took us, as with all of their guests I would imagine, under their wing quite sincerely.