Sunday, July 29, 2007

Impressions of Georgia: wine, Stalin and mountainscenery

On the Azeri-Georgian border, I had to wait for quite some time for the borderguards to finish their bureaucratic stuff. But while waiting, I met some nice Georgian people with whom I talked for a while. Within 5 minutes, I was busy with writing telephonenumbers of all their friends in Georgia who I should visit. Also they helped me with transport from the border, as they had a big bus full of teenagers going to 'patriot camp' and I was invited to join them. They dropped me off in the village Sighnaghi, as I asked them. Sighnaghi is a small town in the region Kakheti, in the east of Georgia. And when I arrived, I found a place to stay right away in the homestay (sleeping in someones house for little money) of an old construction worker. The same man invited me for diner and some beers in a small cafe, which I very much appreciated. The guy walked into the cafe, grabbed a big fish from the wall and smashed it on the table. Bon appetit...... The beer was nice though and it was highly amusing to watch the people in this small cafe full of semi-drunken construction workers.
Next morning, I walked a bit throught Sighnaghi. I liked the town very much, as it has a beautifull setting and some kind of Italian atmosphere. The view from Sighnaghi over the Kakhetian wine valleys was pretty amazing as well and there were some churches and lots of old buildings. Around noon I hitchhiked to Telavi, which took me allmost all day. And when I arrived in Telavi, I walked towards the homestay of an old Georgian woman. Her name is Manana and she lived by herself as both her husband and daughter died. She provided me with lots of Georgian coffee and we spended quite some time talking (in Russian off course) about her and my life. After my coffee, I went to a small park where I met a group of Georgian people, with whom I spended the rest of the evening talking and drinking. At the same time, there was a free concert in the city, it was organised by a telephone company, and it was nice to hear some Georgian music together with my beer.
When I woke up the next morning, there was a nice cup of Manana's coffee waiting for me. After I finished my coffee with macaroni for breakfast, I went to the busstation for a marshrutka to the religious site of Alaverdi. It is a huge complex with a big Georgian Orthodox Cathedral. And I found it quite fascinating to watch the intense practise of Georgian Christianity overthere. The Georgian religion is, after the Armenian, the oldest form of Christianity in the world and almost all Georgians are quite strond believers. At the Cathedral, I talked a bit with some priests and enjoyed the surrounding views, before I catched another marshrutka towards Telavi. On the way, I hopped of the marshrutka and walked towards another religious site, the monastery of Ikalto.
When I arrived at Ikalto, I met some of the people from the monastery, who invited me for Kakhetian wine and a lot of talking about Dutch football. The wine was tasty and one of the man gave me a short tour throught the pretty monastery. After, I returned to Telavi, where I watched the second concert day and spended the evening drinking and eating with another group of Georgians who invited me.
The next day, I thanked Manana and went by marshrutka to the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I got little bit sick in the marshrutka though, but when I arrived in Tbilisi I felt quite better. I met a German traveller (the first foreigner I met since Sheki) who helped me finding the cheapest homestay in the city. I stayed at Khatuna's homestay. Khatuna is a woman of about 35 years old, who lives with her small daughter Nadya and her old mother. The homestay is known as the 'Japanese place', because a lot of Japanese travellers are staying there (allthought I haven't seen any Japanese so far). I talked a bit with Khatuna and her family and went to sleep early to make sure I wouldn't be sick the next day.
My early sleeping helped, as the next day I didn't had any medical problems and could easily spend all the day sightseeing in Tbilisi. I started my walking with coffee and khachapuri (Georgian national dish, very tasty) in a small cafe. And while I was eating, I saw on the television in the cafe a news-reportage about a policeman who was shot in his car. And after I finished my lunch and walked out of the street, I saw the same car including journalists and crime investigators.The city Tbilisi I enjoyed very much, it has a charming and relaxed atmosphere and there are lots of things to see. It is full of churches, but the city feels like an European capital with an Asian way of living. In total I spended 5 days in Tbilisi and I saw a lot sights, including the third biggest church in the world (Sameba), and too many other churches. Also I spended two days with some teenagers who are living in a suburb called 'Afrika' and I was invited to view their living area full of concrete Sovietstyle appartmentblocks (and to drink quite a lot of Kazbegi-beer). Also in Tbilisi, I met two other travellers: Kalin from Bulgaria and Waldek from Poland, with whom I travelled to the mountaintown Kazbegi. We went to Kazbegi by marshrutka and I enjoyed some amazing mountainscenery on the way. The road links Tbilisi with Vladikavkaz (in Russia) and is known as the Georgian Military Highway.
In Kazbegi we found a nice homestay and we spended the rest of the day eating, drinking and talking. The next day, we hiked up to a small church on top of a mountain, with amazingly beautifull views over the Caucasus and the 5033m Mt. Kazbeg. When we made it back to Kazbegi, exhausted, we were hanging a bit around and we made our selves a diner. From Kazbegi, we shared a taxi and went to a small village on the Georgian Military Highway called Ananuri. Overthere is a very pretty fortress/church and we visited this site that afternoon. We catched a marshrutka back to Tbilisi, were we stayed for 3 more nights.
In Tbilisi, I haven't done much actually. I played a lot of pool with Kalin and we went to a 'party' in Irina's homestay (homestay with quite a lot of travellers). Also, we made a daytrip to Gori, a small city in the centre of Georgia, famous for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We saw a huge statue of Stalin (the only statue of the bastard still standing) and we climbed a huge fortress in the middle of the city. And allthought Gori is quite a depressing place, were is nothing much to see besides the Stalin attraction, it was quite nice for a daytrip. Back in Tbilisi, Waldek left us that night, because he met some other Polish travellers. With Kalin I went the next day to Borjomi, another small city, but famous for its mineral water and natural springs. We stayed two nights in Borjomi in a friendly homestay and we spended our time viewing the relaxing town. Also I spended quite some time in the postoffice, to make phonecalls to the ministery of foreign affairs of the 'republic' of Abkhazia, in order to get an entry-permit. From Borjomi, we decided to take a train back to Tbilisi, which was quite some experience. The train was old, very very old, it had no windows and nothing inside except wooden benches (which are very hard). Also the train was slow, very very slow, as it took 5 hours for only 150 km (30km/h average). But the reason we took this train was, because it is damn cheap (2 lari) and an interesting experience. The next day in Tbilisi, I finaly got to speak someone in Abkhazia and I received my entry-permission by mail directly after. Also I did some climbing with Kalin (who is an experienced rock climber) in the 'alpinist club' of Tbilisi.
From Tbilisi, we went west by bus towards Georgia's second biggest city Kutaisi. As every form of transport in Georgia, also this bus was slow, but also quite relaxing. In Kutaisi, we found a good homestay again and the rest of the day we spend eating with the family and drinking wine, and I mean a lot of wine. At the end everyone was pretty drunk and we went to sleep early.
The next day was blazingly hot, the thermometer recorded over 40 degrees celcius.... And with this temperatures it is quite hard to do anything during the day, trust me. Still me and Kalin decided to visit some monasteries around Kutaisi and we chartered a taxi to take us to Motsameta en Gelati. Both monasteries were impressive and build on amazing locations, but as it was so hot, it was hard to fully enjoy it. In the afternoon we went back to Kutaisi for a cold shower and diner. The rest of the evening I spended in an internetcafe and to prepare myself for my journey toward the semi-independant republic of Abkhazia.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hospitality in the Azeri northwest

After too much hanging around and talking with fellow travellers in Baku, I moved west by shared taxi to an uninteresting town named Ismayilli. I was sitting on the backseat of that rusty Lada, sqeezed between two overweighted, chainsmoking Azeris with golden teeth. And when I arrived, the driver brought me to the cheapest hotel in town, as I asked him, which was the Hotel 'Niyal'. That hotel is completely run down, with broken windows, no running water, old Soviet architecture, dirty linnen and the don't want to know. The people in the hotel were nice though, as I enjoyed a tastefull Azeri dish and drunk some tea and vodka with the other guests.
The next day I walked for about an hour to the busstation, where I missed my bus to the mountain village Lahic. But soon, after some negociations, I went to Lahic anyway in a shared taxi. The village is really pretty, it is a coppersmith's town situated in a beautiful valley, overlooking the mighty Caucasus. Within 15 minutes since I arrived in Lahic, I was invited into someones home for tea and lunch. That people were quite curious about me and genourously poured tea and refilled my plate. I talked with them for a while and did some more walking in the village after. Late in the afternoon I went back in an old ramshackle bus to Ismayilli where I changed hotel and had delicious shashlyk for diner.
The next morning I stopped a marshrutka and went further west to the town Qebele. From there I walked little bit and started hitchhiking towards Sheki. This time I had a great experience with hitchhiking as basically all passing cars stopped imediately and people weren't expecting money at all. The third car I hitchhiked with, was a truck full of asfalt which was driving towards a small city Oguz. The truckdriver was really friendly, but he had some kind of sadistical driving style, as he enjoyed driving extra fast into groups of cattle. The guy was wearing big sunglasses and always had a big smile while driving his asfalt truck. By the time we got to Oguz, the man dropped the asfalt and drove me to the busstation where he insisted on paying my busticket to Sheki and even payed my lunch while we were waiting for the bus. Really amazing experiences.
By the time I arrived in Sheki, I called an Azeri girl named Sevda. I knew her from the website hospitality-club and she was able to show me around in Sheki and help me with accomodation. We met in a hotel and soon after, she took me to an Azeri family where I could stay. Sevda showed me a small village called Kish that afternoon and we talked about various topics. Sevda and her family are all working in NGO businesses and they are taking much effort for the development of Azerbaijan and its people. It was really interesting to meet people with much knowledge and objective opinions about their country. Later, I met Sevda's brother Ilyas, with whom I drunk some tea, enjoyed a galyan and discussed various other topics. We drunk a beer with his friends and I went back to my homestay around midnight.
When I woke up the next day, I talked with my host family and played little bit with their young children. Around noon, I walked to the city centre, where I directly was invited for tea with some people on the mean square. Soon after, they invited me to their house for lunch and they showed me the house of one of their friends after. Hospitality in Azerbaijan is really amazing, continuously I had been invited into homes of people for food, tea and some talking. Anyway, the men brought me back to the centre in his car and I wandered throught the old town myself after. The city of Sheki had been a resting place on the silk road for ages, which is still visable at the Karavanseray (see picture). Besides this, it had been a khanate and it now is one of the 'tourist centres' of Azerbaijan (this is relative as there aren't much tourists in the country anyway).
When I finished my sightseeing walk, I talked about football with some guys in the park and went back to my homestay. There I played some more with the children and talked with the very friendly family. In the evening Sevda and one of her American friends took we to Karavanseray, in order to drink tea and try some more Galyan. I thanked them for their help and said them goodbye, as I was going to Georgia the day after.
My journey towards Georgia started after a breakfast and some relaxing time with my homestay family. I walked to the busstation and went by bus to Zaqatala. I intented to walk a bit around in that town, but haven't done that after all, as I was getting late. I ate some shashlyk and continued by bus to the border town Balekan. From there I went to the border with an old man and I sad foot in Georgia in the beginning of the evening.
To sum up my experiences in Azerbaijan. The best thing about the country is its people, as I was invited for tea or lunch or just talking with so many people. It is amazing how hospitable and friendly the Azeris are. Further, it is for travellers one of the more adventurous countries, as there is no tourist industry at all and it is not exactly an easy country to travel in. But looking back I certainly enjoyed Azerbaijan a lot and had some great experiences overthere. Sag ol.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Endless cups of tea and remote mountain villages

From Baku, I went north in a totally packed marshrutka (Soviet style minivan) to a town called Sumqayit. This place actually is the third largest city in Azerbaijan and it is famous for its abandoned factories and industrial wastelands. The two reasons that made me decide going here were to see this industrial horror site and secondly to be out of Baku, because I intended to hitchhike further north. The mean problem actually was, that the marshrutka driver brought me to the seafront, which was very far away from the former industrial area and also quite far from the mean road. The positive thing was, that I stranded at a nice beach with a beautifull view over the Caspian sea. I went into a beachhouse, were I drunk some tea and talked with the friendly owner. After a while, that man started to bring food and more tea and when I left he didn't accept any money from me. Really an amazing experience.
After I finished all my chatting and tea drinking, I moved on to the northern part of town with a small bus. I walked towards the mean road and luckily it appeared that the industrial site I was looking for, was right next to the road were I intended to hitchhike. So I visited the former industrial area of Sumqayit. It seriously was much more terrible than I expected, the industrial area is like a sea of rust and could be a perfect setting for a horrormovie. Everything is completely abandoned and there is chemical waste all over the place. This former petrochemical industry is now an ecological disaster, which caused many deformed and retarted Azeri victims.
After a short walk around this site and some waiting time, I managed to get a ride north. Althought I planned to hitchhike to a town named Quba, the man wasn't going any further than a place called Deveci. As it was a bit late already, I stayed in Deveci. I found a very cheap hotel (3 manat), but it was very run down and one of the most dodgy and shitty placed I've stayed in. The town itself is quite a shithole as well. The atmosphere is pretty grim and haunting and all the persons I bought something from tried to rip me off. Also it was very strange that I only saw men walking the streets, I haven't seen any women that whole evening.
The next day I went to Quba by marshrutka and on the way, I saw a Azeri funeral. In Quba, I stayed in a small hotel with a very friendly owner, who kept on talking about KGB stuff. In the afternoon, I walked a bit throught the friendly town, which has a relaxing and quiet atmosphere. The Russian cottagehouses reminded me of Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) and after I walked a bit, I sat in a nice park for a while, where I met some really nice guys. These people are my age and, while enjoyed various cups of tea, we discussed politics and cultural differences. Allthought there were some language barriers (my Russian is certainly not good enough), I got to know much more about Azeri culture and lifestyle. They told me about the political problems of Azerbaijan (corruption, crazy politicians, lack of democracy, etc.) and strongly advised me not to go to Armenia, as it is the evil country in their opinion. This is because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which got both countries into war in most of the 1990's.
At about six o'clock one of their friends came with a car and we drove out of town towards the mountains. He really drove like a maniac, I am not often afraid in cars, but he really got my andrenaline pumping. On the way we stopped somewhere and one of the guys showed me his gun. And after some talking and shooting, we returned to Quba for some more cups of tea. That evening I met a lot of their friends, including a guy who said he is multiple weight lifting champion of the former Soviet Union (allthought many man are saying they are weightlifting champion).
The next morning, I arranged transport by UAZ-jeep to a remote mountain village named Xinaliq. After waiting a bit for the jeep to fill up, we left towards the Caucasian mountains. The ride was very nice and we stopped in a shepperds camp to drop one of the passengers. The scenery along the way was very pretty and the village of Xinaliq is even more amazing. It is very remote and build on top of a mountain, from where I had a spectacular 360 degree panorama overlooking the impressive Caucasus. The way of living in Xinaliq is quite primitive due to the isolation of the village and therefore completely different than the lifestyle of hectic Baku.
After walking a bit trought the village, I was invited for tea and lunch together with my driver in someones home. As soon as we finished our meal, we picked up some people and drove back to Quba, where I spended some time talking to the owner of my hotel again.
The next day I hitchhiked back to Baku. I first walked for 3 kilometres out of town and had some delay as I was invited for tea again. When my tea cups were empty, I continued hitchhiking and soon I got a ride from an old man with an old Volga directly to Baku. We stopped for tea on the way and as his car wasn't able to drive faster then 50km/hour, I arrived in Baku quite late. Unfortunately, the man didn't understand the concept of hitchhiking and he demanded money for his service. After explaining him that hitchhiking is supposed to be free, I ended up paying him. That evening in Baku I went to 1000Camels hostel again, where I met some other travellers and exchanged stories.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sleepless in Baku

My travelling throught the Caucasus countries started with a trainjourney from the Netherlands to Brussels. When I arrived in Brussels, it was 01.30am allready and with an airplane leaving for Riga at 09.00am, there was no point for me to search for accomodation in Belgium capital. So I decided to drop my luggage in the trainstation and stay up all night, waiting for a suitable time to go to Zaventem airport. I spended that night drinking a couple of beers in a bar in downtown Brussels with some Romanian guys who I met overthere.
At about seven o'clock I went back to the trainstation and on to Zaventem for my flight to Riga. As I haven't slept in the plane that much, I was desperately looking for coffee and energy drinks by the time I got to the centre of Riga. I walked I bit around in the Latvian capital, stopping many times in cafes for more coffee, before I went back to the airport again for my connectionflight to Baku.
At 03.15am the next day, I woke up in the airplane from a sea of shining lights which is called Baku. Sleepdrunken, I stepped out of my plane, making my way to customs. It took me over an hour to get the Azeri visa and I got a bit irritated by a guy who ripped me off by asking $10 for a bunch of photographes, which I needed to optain the visa. Finally, I went to the main hall of the airport, where I drunk lots of coffee, waiting for the first bus going to the city centre. After a while, a policeman came to me and offered me a ride to the city as soon as he finished his nightshift. Allthought I was a bit suspicious (rule no.1 in the former Soviet Union: never trust the police) I met two French people and together we decided to go with the policeman. At 07.30 we left in the policeman's Lada and drove towards the centre of Baku. The ride throught the immense oil-fields and rusty suburbs or Baku was quite impressive and after a while the police guy brought us to a hotel called the Velotrek (named after a cyclingtrack next door). I was being told that this place is the cheapest hotel in Baku, allthought I had to pay 20 manat (little less than 20 euro) for a room with no shower and sometimes not even running water at all.
Quite logically, the first thing I did in Baku was sleeping. I slept allmost the whole day and in the evening I went to the real centre of the city for diner (breakfast) and to look a bit around. My first impressions of Baku were quite mixed, it is a bustling, chaotic and exotic city. But on the other hand, the Azeri capital is quite depressing and dirty. The next day I went to another place to stay, as I didn't want to stay another night at the terrible Velotrek-hotel. I found a hostel in the old-town of Baku, called the 1000camels hostel. This place is run by an Australian guy and it is perfect to meet other travellers. I met three English travellers and a Dutch guy. The rest of the day I spended walking around the city, making pictures of Soviet monster buildings (like in the pic above). As my new hostel was right in the centre of Baku, I stayed in a location with much more atmosphere and I really started to feel the vibe of Baku. The city is seriously extraordinary, it really is one of the most strange places I ever visited. Baku is famous for the oil, which they dig out of the Caspian sea and the earned oil-dollars are spend here on pictures of the president and construction of buildings which they dont need. Azerbaijan is an extremely corrupt country and this you can feel everywhere. The whole system of the country is based on corruption and power. The city itself is very hectic and chaotic, but also has its charms. Particularly the old part of the city is very pretty and I could feel the different influences that have passed the area: Turkish, Persian, Russian, Arabic and Central Asian. The mix of this all is very unique in Azerbaijan, which makes the country really special and odd.
The next day I did some more exploration of the city and I walked around in the old town. Later that afternoon I have met a man who writes travelbooks. For the travellers who are reading this: Mark Elliott, the writer of the Trailblaizer guidebooks, also he contributed for the LP Iran. This man told me lots of information and facts about Azerbaijan and its culture. It really was a pleasure of meeting him and sharing information and experiences.
Later that afternoon I ate some doner with Marko, the Australian guy from the hostel and a Turkish traveller. It was really nice to talk to much people who know the country and it gave me more inside perspectives on Azerbaijan. That evening I met an Azeri construction worker, who was working at a building side nextdoor to the hostel. The man was really amazing, he kept on buying beers for us (the foreigners in the hostel) and he was actually the first one who brought me in contact with Caucasian hospitality.
The main negative aspect of Baku, is that it is an extremely expensive city. This forms the main reason that I am leaving for northern Azerbaijan. More about this in my next post.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Welcome on my weblog, here I share my travel experiences in Asia. Next summer I will start my trip to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Iraq. I am planning to travel in that area in July and August, so I start posting from the beginning of July. My intented route is visible on the map. For pictures of my previous journeys in Asia, see
I hope you enjoy reading my experiences and anecdotes.