My Turkish experience in Azerbaijan

I took an overnight train from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Baku, Azerbaijan after finally getting my visa. The embassy said it would take 4-5 days but took 6. The train left Baku at 5:30 pm and I only picked up my passport at 4:45 so those last 45 minutes getting to the train station and buying a ticket were a bit stressful. I opted for the cheaper 2nd class cabin which is supposed to hold 4 people, not 2 like the first class, but we were only 2 women in the cabin anyway. I boarded the train at 5:21, relieved to see her and know that I made it.

Baku's eternal flame

Baku’s eternal flame

The border crossing a few hours later was extremely slow – an hour to get the exit stamp from Georgia, an hour to travel between borders (they were unusually far apart), and another hour and a half to get into Azerbaijan. I was asked questions about my visit to Armenia, had my baggage searched, and taken into a private questioning room, but it all felt very routine. Baku the next morning was cold and wet, and it rained the whole first day. I walked around with my backpack, umbrella and couchsurf hosts to see the few things worth seeing: the mini book museum, Ali’s art gallery in the old town, and fountain square.

My Turkish/Azeri family in Baku

My Turkish/Azeri family in Baku

I stayed in a house of Turkish guys and their one Azeri girl friend, and I mostly ate home-cooked or restaurant bought Turkish food. Not surprising since Azerbaijani people and language are very closely related to Turkey, and Baku felt a little like Istanbul meets Dubai. They have a lot of oil money, highrises, and extremely clean streets (one guy’s theory is that its because women clean the streets), while a cup of chay and the doner (and Turkish people) are everywhere.

The Caspian Sea boulevard

The Caspian Sea boulevard

There isn’t much tourism or touristic appeal to Azerbaijan, but the café culture was wonderful, and I even indulged in a little western delicacy – a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, only because ‘tis the season. There’s an old walled city and palace complex (Shihrvanshah), the strangely shaped Maiden Tower, and a promenade along the Caspian sea with a range of entertainment.

imageNearby in the UNESCO site of Gobustan they have some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world (30,000years!), and archeological evidence of some of the earliest homo sapiens. More modern attractions include a war memorial and the largest eternal flame I’ve ever seen, the iconic flame towers (of which 2 out of 3 are empty?!), and some space-ship looking building called the Heydar Aliyev Cultural center.

Looking at the flame towers from the old city fortress

Looking at the flame towers from the old city fortress

I visited them all and also made the trek to the mud volcanoes. Noone warned me before (no one I met in Baku had been there), but the road is also a muddy mess, so my taxi got stuck once before turning around and trying another dirt road, and it took nearly an hour to drive the 13 km (and walk the last km) to the little bunch of bubbly mud hills. Apparently it’s a great foot bath, but my taxi driver was a little creepy so I was hoping to get out of there as soon as possible, in fear of getting stuck there with him until the next passerbys could save me. Walking out of there was out of the question, because the bottom of your shoes would pile up with kilos of mud, dragging you deeper into it, and there was nothing between the mud volcanoes and the nearest town except more mud.

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The Curse of Traveling Gluten-free

I recently discovered that I’m gluten intolerant. I’ve probably been for a while but only figured it out in August because a horse back rider on tour with me was a dietitian and tested me for it. I’m not a food blogger but food is a huge part of traveling, and gluten is a huge part of food, so being gluten intolerant causes some problems on the road. Personally, its made me crave sugar and sweets much more, so replacing bread with chocolates could slowly turn me fat… or super hyper.

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

Not being able to eat gluten doesnt just mean you have to skip your toast at breakfast – it means you can’t eat hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, croissants, donuts or even french toast 😦 Worse than that, you can’t drink beer. Beer is an international social drink, and so many things happen around it, and on a super hot day, having an ice cold, salt-rimmed Corona with a lime in it just isn’t beatable.

Thank God I’m not vegetarian, and only God knows how vegetarians (or worse yet, vegans) survive on the road. But hey, I may as well give up meat too because its so unusual to eat meat without some form of bread (ie. here in the Caucasus you can’t be served meat without some sort of bread accompanying it or wrapped around it like lavash) and eating the meat without the bread means your no longer eating a hamburger, but a piece of meat with some salad.

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

I would much rather be lactose intolerant (and they have pills for that!), since milk and cheese are foods I’d rather give up than pasta or pizza. Oh pasta, how I crave to eat those mushy little noodles with Bolognese sauce. Or a cheesy tomatoey pepperoni pizza. Sigh. And how will I live without instant noodles, my go-to comfort food, always cheap and sold in every supermarket around the world? Or chicken noodle soup, chow mein or roti? I guess its rice and a lot of potatoes from here on out. And vegetables. But I’m going to have small tears well up in my eyes everytime I pass by a bakery with the smell of freshly baked bread, and the next time I see a sketchy street food seller with all sorts of doughy deep fried things, I’ll have to walk away and find the even more sketchy meat on a stick seller and hope its not dog. I’ve always thought bakers were more trustworthy than butchers, but I’ll just have to get used to getting a little Delhi belly once in a while.

What to Know about Traveling in Georgia (and Abkhazia)

When I think of a place called Georgia, usually Georgia state in the US is the first thing I think of. Some haven’t even heard of the country Georgia, and those who have, have vague ideas about where it is. Once you get here, you’ll have no idea where you are after you’ve seen their labyrinth of an alphabet and heard their very unusual, completely unrelated to any other language.

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Georgia is in the Caucasus mountain range, bordered by Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, touches the Black Sea on the west and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the east. Its pretty much exactly in the middle of Europe and Asia, homeless to both but a friendly neighbor to them all. Unlike Armenia, which has closed borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan (you can only get in or out thru Georgia or Iran), Georgia, an extremely homogenous Christian society, maintains business and tourism with the not-so-Christian Iran and Turkey, and even after the sour collapse of the Soviet Union and the disputed territories of South Ossetia (and to a lesser extent Abkhazia*), has a functional relationship with Russia and Russian tourists.

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

It’s a country famous for wine, and they love to make cognac and brandy from their grapes too, or any type of fruit alcohol generically called chacha. They have an entirely different genre of white wine called kvevri wine, an amber coloured wine fermented in clay pots. They have their own type of cuisine, heavy on the meat, cheese and bread, especially when combined all together. BBQ meat and vegetables are served in all Georgian restaurants, and the most common fast food is kebabs or shwarma. Georgian cheese is a big thing too, and some of it was amazing, but the most unique thing I tried was churckhela, nuts covered in some sugary fruity wax that looks like candles made out of anal balls.

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

In the capital city Tbilisi, there are enough stray cats and dogs to make walking on the sidewalk a little dangerous – beware of piles of steamy poop whose smell is impossible to get off the soles of your shoes. If you dare to rent a car and drive in Georgia, the roads are okay and well marked and all that, but drivers are impatient, aggressive, and a little suicidal at times. Being overtaken on the left or right on a blind hill or bendy mountain road doesn’t give you many options to move out of the way, so it wasn’t a surprise to see how many cars are partially crashed, scraped or banged up and not fixed. Police stations line the main highways, atleast one huge station in every village, and the police officers wait on the side of the road with flashing lights in their new Ford cruisers waiting and expecting for something to happen. At least they weren’t checking anyones speed, so I guess they’re waiting for an accident.

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren't scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren’t scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

The downside is a lot of roadkill. And the roadkill are those same street cats and stray dogs you see in Tbilisi. Its downright depressing to see so many cute and innocent puppies or fluffy kittens lying whole, in a couple pieces, or smashed flat to the concrete. I don’t know if any are ever removed, so they lay there to rest in no peace at all, and don’t seem to warn the other drivers or strays to stay away from each other on the road.

Still Georgians maintain peace with God. There are crosses and churches to be seen in every corner of the country, and just walking past a church is reason to cross oneself and bow from the street. If you want to enter the church, women must be wearing skirts and cover their heads, but only the old ladies and tourists seemed to follow this rule.

the bridge to Abkhazia

the bridge to Abkhazia

*If you want to travel to Abkhazia from Georgia, you must send an electronic tourist visa application to visa@mfaapsny.org (the application form is a short 2 page pdf with basic questions, and can be found on their website www.mfaapsny.org). After 5 working days, they email you a clearance letter which you have to print out and take with you to the border. Physically crossing into Abkhazia is as unfriendly as land borders get – you must walk one kilometer in no mans land over a dilapidated bridge (unless you prefer the horse and carriage option), and enter a barbed wired alley to pass Russian soldiers who check your documents. Once you get thru, you have to travel 2-3 hours (+100km) by bus to the capital city Sukhum and pay for your visa at the Ministry of Foreign affairs (between $5-50USD depending on how many days you’ll stay in Abkhazia) during working business hours. Only after you get the visa in your passport can you return back to Georgia, so be wary of getting stuck in Akhazia if you’re not planning to visit Sukhum!

Couchsurfing and Hitchhiking in Armenia

Couchsurfing and couchsurfers shaped my time in Armenia, and I couchsurfed the nicest place I’ve couchsurfed yet – a penthouse apartment with a 13th floor view of Yerevan and all the way out to Mount Ararat, all to myself. My couchsurf host picked me up at the airport and took me to his apartment, gave me the keys and some fruits, and then left to stay with his parents.

me, the tango DJ and the Russian couchsurfers at Sevan Lake

me, the tango DJ and the Russian couchsurfers at Sevan Lake

Through him I met other Armenian local hosts, and I convinced one to accompany me to the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and watch Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto. Another was showing around a Russian couple who later hitchhiked with me to Georgia and around Tbilisi. We all met for a couchsurf bbq on the balcony of my apartment, and ate kilos of chicken and bread, in true Armenian style.

sunset BBQ

sunset BBQ

I hitchhiked one taxi on my way from Khor Virap monastery, which I never considered trying before, but he took me to the nearest bus stop, without charging me, and then waited 45 minutes with me in the sun til the bus arrived. On another day I took local buses to nearby Garni pagan temple and Gerhard stone church, and I met a different Russian couple who told me to follow them to Etchmiadzin. They spoke Russian and could find the right buses and change or get off at the right places, so I followed them to the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church and managed to get back without them.

Haghartsin Monastery

Haghartsin Monastery

I also couchsurfed in the little Switzerland of Armenia, a small city called Dilijan, with a Russian host. Its amazing how useful and necessary Russian language is here, and useless English is, so its been a tactic of mine to make friends with Russians on the road. I also made some friends through tango dancing, after attending a milonga in Yerevan. The DJ there, who knows a friend of a friend, offered to take me and the Russian couchsurfers on a roadtrip to see some beautiful places in the Armenian countryside. We made a couple of hikes, one to a beautiful river/waterfall canyon whose name I can’t remember, and then Gosh Lake, where I lost the other three for 3 hours in a failed mission to go apple picking.

inside Gerhard stone church, a place of very special acoustics and echoes

inside Gerhard stone church, a place of very special acoustics and echoes

We visited Sevan Lake and ate delicious fresh fish, and visited a lot of stone churches and old monasteries. I thought I saw a lot of hitchhikers on the road, but they signaled to cars by holding both their arms up and spread to the side. I later learned those are fishermen trying to sell a catch, and the space between their hands signifies the size of the fish.

Mount Ararat in the background from the top of the sculpture parks at Yerevan's Cascades

Mount Ararat in the background from the top of the sculpture parks at Yerevan’s Cascades

Hitchhiking from Dilijan to Georgia was a breeze, especially with the help of my Russian translators, but our first driver spoke terrible Russian and no English, and somehow we ended up an hour out of the way trying to visit yet another stone church in the middle of a forest. Things got weird when he tried to buy a 6 pack of beer at noon to take with to the church, so we decided to try our luck with another car. After 5 cars and never waiting for more than 3 minutes, we made it to Tbilisi, where I’ve decided to take a break from couchsurfing and hitchhiking.

24 hours in Kiev

I wanted to fly directly to Armenia from Minsk, but then I needed a transit visa just to connect in Russia – all flights to Armenia go first to Moscow and Belarus and Russia have no border formalities between their countries so I would essentially be sneaking illegally into Russia, if only for 3 hours. Instead I flew to Kiev, only one hour away. I could have taken a cozy overnight sleeper train for next to nothing, but paying 100 euros for a flight and spending the extra time in Kiev seemed worth it.

St Andrew's cathedral

St Andrew’s cathedral

I arrived late at night and kind of hitchiked another persons taxi into town. I checked into a hostel and walked around the empty streets on a Sunday night. On Monday it was 24 degrees Celsius and I probably walked 15 km around town that day. I saw churches and churches and more churches (6 out of the 7 top sights to see in Kiev are churches!), and I think the only things recommended to me to see besides churches were parks around the churches.

Pechersk Lavra

Pechersk Lavra

Pechersk Lavra was the most interesting, an entire complex of beautiful churches, monasteries, golden topped buildings, and an intricate underground cave system full of dead saints. To enter you had to wrap yourself in a green skirt and cover your head, light your way with wax candles, and politely avoid walking into the people kissing coffins in the narrow passageways.

yet another beautiful church

yet another beautiful church

I ran into some strange people, and I must have been radiating some form of inviting energy to welcome their approaches because it can’t possible be that I looked like a local. The crazy pigeon lady in the park tried to talk to me, the homeless asked me for money and cigarettes, a business man asked me for directions, a guy dressed as a bear walked me across a square, and a street performer put his monkey on my head when I tried to pass him by. At least I can say it was a memorable 24 hours in Kiev.

Backpacking Belarus

Belarus’ visa policy isn’t very welcoming to tourists other than Russians (who can enter without crossing any form of border control), but Belarusians were very welcoming to an unfamiliar face once I got in. Not being able to speak Russian is a huge handicap, but people are a lot more willing to take the time to try and understand your charades, read your body language, or speak a few words in English. I wouldn’t say they’re the smiliest people, but certainly a lot more comfortable to be around, especially considering how safe everything and everywhere was. All the couchsurfers I met were helpful and hospitable, though sometimes a bit too friendly – one man and his wife were open to threesomes with female travelers and stated this openly on their couchsurfing profile!

Minsk

Minsk

There wasn’t much striking about Minsk, a city nearly completely rebuilt in Soviet times with oversized, colourless, communist buildings filling most of the city. The entrance doors to most residential buildings reminded me of a maximum security prison cell door, but like in many other things, functionalism and safety are more important than aesthetics. Visiting in summer helps brighten things up, though all the parks and green spaces are left to fend for themselves, unless it’s a park around some sort of historical monument or war memorial. Children’s play grounds more often than not had swing sets without swings, but the endless forests outside of the cities made a much larger, more beautiful playground for those who wanted to enjoy it.

selfie with this monumental war memorial

selfie with this monumental war memorial

I enjoyed a lot of cultural things in Minsk, though not all of them very stereo-typically Belarusian. I attended a Salsa festival, a symphony, the Swan Lake ballet, and an art/music street festival whose theme I couldn’t figure out. Around Minsk, the rebuilt traditional village of Dudutki had some old buildings, a wooden church, windmills, a petting zoo, bee hives, a horse training stable and a moonshine distillery. There were two castles, Mir and Nezvizh, surrounded by beautiful forests and walking trails, and a lot of Orthodox churches in between. In Vitebsk city center, there was a small zoo tucked away into a forested park, and I would have walked right past it if I hadn’t heard the lion roar.

Orthodox church in Vitebsk

Orthodox church in Vitebsk

I attended one forest barbeque, with a handful of Belarusians who knew exactly how to grill a piece of meat, and went to two ‘summer’ houses – an old home or cottage in a small village that people keep as a vacation spot. The forests are usually just a stones throw away from any village, and the little dirt roads that connect them seem like they should still be traveled by horse and carriage.

Brest fortress

Brest fortress

I traveled mostly by train, and a 3 – 5 hour train ticket costs only 3 or 4 euros, and for that price you get an entire sofa-bed bench. For a few extra cents, you can rent sheets and drink tea, and I seriously considered moving back and forth across the country every night just to be able to live on the train. The metro and public buses are also easy to use and super duper cheap, but a lot of people still own cars. There is a huge sub-culture of car garages, little covered parking zones where people park their cars in individual, locked garages. The men also gather here from time to time, using this space as a second home. Here they can barbeque, play chess, drink beer, or just work on their cars and pretty them up. I also noticed that most people don’t sleep in beds, but sofa-couches, so being a couchsurfer there was like being a local.

couchsurfing barbeque

couchsurfing barbeque

I couchsurfed in Minsk, Brest and Vitebsk, staying with very different people but always walking away with a similar experience. Their friends were my friends, I was always fed, I had my own space in the house and almost always had an escort outside. The graffitied apartments I stayed at never looked very inviting, but once inside with the people I met, it became my cozy home too. I just fish that Belarusians would stop wallpapering their walls, ceilings and even floors with the tackiest patterns I’ve ever seen – it would do a lot for the feng-shui!