Tuesday, 7 June 2016


Moldova had long been on my list. It was just a bit difficult and expensive to get to, so when I saw that Wizz Air were now flying there, I booked a trip. Luton isn't exactly the most convenient airport for me, but at least the flight was direct. The flight wasn't very comfortable as the seats were very close together and I'm only  5'11. It made sleeping on it practically impossible despite having arrived at the airport in the early hours of the morning.

On arrival, we had a bit of a nap, then went into the centre. We had a walk around the lake and then when to find something to eat and drink. It was pretty cheap to buy food and drink. Most of the bars also had wifi, as there was no way I was going to pay the outrageous roaming charges on my mobile network.

On our first full day, we decided to visit the breakaway republic of Transistria. We asked reception if they could get us a cab to take us to Bendery Fortress. We were told it was cost 400 leu, which seemed reasonable. They guy arrived and drove us to the border. There he did all the talking, we just handed over our passports and we were given a slip of paper giving us 10 hours in the "country". The emblem above the border post still has the hammer and sickle on it, though I didn't think taking a photo of it was a good idea.

Next it was onto the fortress. We hadn't really arranged how we were going to get back and the driver didn't speak a lot of English, so he just hung around whilst we went round the castle. We paid the entrance fee in Moldovan leu as we didn't have any of the local roubles. This was no problem though we did need the exact money. It was only 100 leu to get in. There's not a huge amount to see, but it is a nice castle which is in the process of being restored.

Then we asked our driver to take us to Tiraspol and once there, we got him to wait for a couple of hours whilst we looked around. There's a big statue of Lenin outside the government building and a big wide road you can imagine them parading tanks up and down.

There are also lots of exchange places, so armed with some local roubles, we had lunch in Andy's Pizza, which is a big chain which is all over Moldova. Then we went for a couple of beers overlooking the river.

Getting back to Chisinau, we asked the driver how much and the whole day was 1100 leu, which between the 3 of us worked out as less than £15 each. So it was a bit of a bargain.

The next day, we went on a winery tour. This needed to be booked in advance. If you'd asked me about Moldovan wine before I went, I would probably have laughed as I'd never heard of it before. It used to only be sold in Russia but they banned the import of it a few years ago.

The Cricova winery is located in the tunnels of an old limestone mine. The constant temperature and humidity in the tunnels allows for very consistent results. The tour was interesting. They drive you round the tunnels in carriages pulled by electric buggies. There's a film and then they show you the very modern bottling process.

At the end, it was time to taste the wine. I felt this was a bit rushed but the wine was good quality. We adjourned to the restaurant for a couple more glasses before getting a cab back into town.

We had our last night out in town and then the next day, it was back on the Wizz Air plane. I had the same seat as the way out. It was definitely the same plane as I recognised the duct tape holding the seat in front together.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Yerevan airport

As seen at Yerevan airport next to the massage chair. The mind boggles as to what it's supposed to say:

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Lake Sevan

I decided I fancied going up to Lake Sevan to have a look at Armenia's biggest lake. I even found accommodation advertised as a beach house, so I booked it. Asking at the hostel, they told me to go to the "northern bus station" and get a minibus from there. You can get a bus there, but a taxi was only 2,000 drams, so it seemed hardly worth the hassle. "Northern bus station" made it sound a lot more impressive than it is. There were about 5 bays with minibuses in them. The Sevan one had 2 seat left, and they leave when they're full, so we were soon off.

The trip takes about an hour and it's dual lane motorway the whole way. Obviously I had no real idea where I was supposed to get off and eventually go off on the peninsula with the Sevanavank monastery on it. It was originally an island, but the same Soviet genius responsible for destroying the Aral sea also implemented a plan to drop the level of Lake Sevan. The monastery looked suitably pretty from a distance, but by this stage, I'd seen enough of them for a lifetime, so I decided to have a beer on the shoreline instead.

Then I set about getting a taxi to my accommodation. After some discussions involving three people, the driver seemed to have an idea of where it was and I got in his Lada, the windscreen of which seemed to be more cracks than glass. We headed off up the road somewhat slowly. It could just about do 60 km/h and whenever we got that "fast", he put it into neutral presumably as part of some genius fuel saving plan. Then we went past a sign with the name of the place on it. The only downside was that it was on the other side of the road, but bumping across the central reservation soon fixed that and we were going down a dirt track to the shoreline.

The accommodation was indeed a chalet and there was a bit of a sandy beach. There was also a big herd of cows just the other side of the fence, but the sun was out and it was a bit cooler than Yerevan which had been too hot for the last couple of days.

It really was a place you needed a car though. The town was quite some distance. My trusty SatNav app showed a brewery not too far, so I decided to walk there. It was a bit strange. They had beer pumps that dispensed straight into 1 litre plastic bottles. There were some tables and they did bar snacks, but most people had come for takeaways and there was a big queue, so the place didn't really fit the bill as somewhere for dinner.

The app said there was a restaurant just 100 yards down the road. The building didn't look like a restaurant but this guy assured me it was and took me out the back which looked even less like a restaurant but there was indeed a family eating a meal in one room and I was shown to my own room which had a table for 6 in it. The food was BBQ fish and was really good, and the beer was of course from just down the road. It's a German owned brewery and it showed as it was significantly better than most Armenian beer I'd had. It explained the big queue.

The next morning it was cold and grey with a bit of drizzle. Well, the lake is at 1,900m. I walked into town which was a bit of a distance and eventually found where the minibuses went from mainly because some guy took pity on me when I looked lost and told me where I needed to go. It was another hour ride back into town. It was still stinking hot in Yerevan though that evening there were thunderstorms.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Nagorno Karabakh

I remember the Nagorno Karabakh war well from back in the early 90s. It was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan populated mostly by Armenians. Unfortunately it was completely surrounded by lands where Azeris were in the majority. There was no link to Armenia. After the cease fire, the Armenians occupied most of Nagorno Karabakh and all the land between it and Armenia. Today it's a republic recognised by no one except other unrecognised places like South Ossetia.

About 800,000 Azeris were forced out. On the other hand, the exclave of Nachieva was given to Azerbaijan by the soviets in 1920 when the split was 60:40 in favour to Azeris over Armenians. There are no Armenians left there and historic cemeteries dating back to the 5th century have disappeared.

The FCO advises against all travel. I booked a tour with Hyur for 3 days for 200 US dollars. Just about everyone else on it was of Armenian descent. The first two stops were at monasteries in southern Armenia. The first one Khor Virap in the shadow of Mt Ararat and then Noravank. Then we had lunch and drove to the border. They scanned our passports going in. There were no formalities coming out of Armenia. Then it was more long driving through the mountains to Stepanakert. We had dinner and it was almost 10 before getting to the hotel. It had 4 stars so somewhat of an upgrade compared to what I was used to. The town isn't very big and isn't exactly a party place. It's all quiet at midnight.
Novaravank Monstery

In the morning we went to the market where you can buy wine and mulberry vodka rebottled in plastic coke bottles. Then we went to the museum which was interesting. The section on the conflict showed the handmade guns they originally used.

Then we went to the old fortified city of Shousi where we visited yet another church. It did have a cool echo room though where you can hear yourself speak as others hear you.

Then we drove for ages to guess what, a church at Gandzasar, right on the other side of the territory. 

After that we went to a castle at  Shahbulag which is right next to the front line. You could see the foxholes, wires hanging across the valley to prevent low flying planes and the ruins of the town of Agda, which is deserted and kept as a buffer zone between the two lines. I found this significantly more interesting than the previous two attractions. On the way back , there was a photo opportunity at the statues on the edge of town though it was a bit dark by then. Back at the hotel by 9, it was another long day though at least there was time for drinks in the hotel bar and a bit of socialising.

Next morning there was a somewhat pointless photo stop at a T72 tank that we'd driven past the previous day. Then we collected our passports. Those who wanted visas got them. Most didn't as it bans you from entering Azerbaijan for life apparently.

Our next stop was back in Armenia at Tatev. Thus us another monastery but this one has the longest cable car ride of its type in the world so that was well worth doing. For some reason the tour didn't include the price of the cable car which was 5000 drams.

Then we went to a stone circle called Carahunge with some stones with strange round holes in them. The guide told us that it formed a triangle with Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. I did point out that any three points forms a triangle and no, its nowhere near equilateral and she got a bit arsey so I kept my skepticism about the petroglyphs that could have been Adam, Eve and possibly a snake or a river or a curly wurly to myself.

The long drive back was punctuated with a visit to a wine cellar for tasting. We didn't get back to Yerevan until gone 10pm. All in all, an interesting trip. The days were too long. I think one less monastery/church a day would fix that.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Tblisi - Yerevan

In retrospect, getting around Georgia proved to be really easy. I can't believe I ever thought it was going to be difficult. Having the car made things really simple. GPS was invaluable in Tbilisi but out of the city, the roadsigns weren't that bad and they were all in both Georgian and Roman letters, presumably having all be renewed when they removed the Cyrilic signs.

I was staying at Envoy hostel in Tbilisi and they have another hostel in Yerevan. The do a one way, one day tour between the two cities and you stop at 3 monasteries in northern Armenia on the way as well as a stop for lunch, so it's a good way of getting to see stuff as you travel between the two.

The Armenian church is one of the oldest Christian churches and unlike the Orthodox church, they don't require women to cover their heads in church and shorts are fine. The monasteries are all really old. They were started in the 10th century and construction then done over the next couple of hundred years which is pretty impressive when I imagine what my ancestors were doing back then.

I have to say that 3 monasteries was overdoing it a bit. By the third one, I'd had enough. It was a full day and we got into Yerevan at 8pm. The Envoy hostel there is modern and clean and right in the centre. There are quite a few bars around. I went to one for a drink, but it was pretty quiet.

Getting money proved surprisingly difficult. I have a Caxton FX currency card which you preload and normally works in most ATMs. It's a Mastercard. The first 4 banks I tried, including Credit Agricole and HSBC gave me nothing. Eventually I had success with a Gazprombank machine. Obviously I had backup cards, but it was a pain.

I went to visit the Armenian Genocide museum the next day. It was quite a long walk there. The museum relates the events in the dying days of the Ottoman empire when the Armenians were killed in their hundreds of thousands. Getting back, I took the Metro. The stations are traditionally Soviet, all ornate with marble and statues. The signs are all in Armenian and whilst there is an English announcement onboard, it was drowned out by the noise of the train pulling away, so make sure you know how many stops you need to go before getting on the train.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Kazbegi - Gori - Tblisi

The next day I drove to Stepantsminda or Kazbegi as practically everyone calls it including the minibuses. It's only 15kms from the Russian border and there were lots of Russian cars on the road. They were even more suicidal than the locals. I saw one that had just gone over the edge, fortunately for them not at a place where there was a big drop.

The draw at Kazbegi is the Gergheti Trinity church. It sits on top of a mountain. Back in the Soviet days, the government built a cable car but the locals complained it ruined their special place so they just demolished it. You can still see the remains of the cable car station in town.

You can take a 4wd taxi up there but I decide to walk. I parked my car for 5 lari in a car park and set up the path at the end that went up the hill. There's a steep and no so steep path. This was the less steep but was still reasonably hard work and it was a warm morning. At the summit there were hoards of tourists though they all left shortly and the place was more tranquil. I looked at the steep path down but it seemed risky in my crappy shoes so I went back the way I'd come.

There's not a lot else in the town. Some restaurants and a museum which only cost 3 lari but still wasn't really worth it. Then I headed back to Gudauri. There were a couple of sets of roadworks on the way, one of which was single lane and the police had stopped the traffic the other way in a huge queue which looked like it had been there a while.

Then it was back to the supermarket in Gudauri for some supplies. They have a bakery which is a good option for breakfast with various pastries and breads containing meat and cheese. There's also a couple of ATMs in there. That night,I ate in. The only restaurant that seemed to be open again.
Next morning,I headed off to Gori. It's the birthplace of Stalin and I visited the museum and saw the most tourists I'd seen the whole trip. At 15 lari, it was quite expensive by local standards and I found it underwhelming. It was mostly photos and lots of text transcripts but they were all in Russian so it meant little to me. There's also Gori fortress.

Eating out that night was less than successful. I ordered by pointing at a picture on the menu, then sat for 15 mins next to a dead pot plant before the food arrived and then my beer came last. And the food seemed to be mostly salad which certainly wasn't what I ordered. Still at least it came with the usual mountain of bread so I didn't go hungry.

Next morning I drove to the prehistoric cave city at Uplistsikhe. It was only 3 lari to get in and the caves are impressively extensive.

Then it was the drive back to Tbilisi which easier than getting out of it because I was coming from the west. I had to pay 15 lari to have the car washed which is a con as there is nowhere you can get a car washed. They tried to claim I'd used 6 litres of fuel in the 11kms since I'd filled up but eventually I got my full deposit back.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Telavi to Gudauri

Telavi turned out to have a nice little old town and even a King's Palace in the centre. It also has the stereotypical Soviet apartment blocks, which was nearer my hotel, and some horrendous empty concrete monstrosity in the town square which needs demolishing. There wasn't a lot happening but I did find one bar/restaurant which served huge portions accompanied with more bread than I can eat in a day.

The main highway to Gudauri takes you back much of the way I'd came. There is a more direct route but its a rather ominous white road on Google maps. So I went that way. The road is fine until Akhmeta then it becomes an unmade road. It was a bit rough except for the very rough bits. It was dry and dusty so no problem passing but progress was slow. The worst bit lasted about 15kms before it became better then I came to Tianeti and the road was smooth, obviously new tarmac. This didn't last long before it was back to dirt roadworks for kms with very little sign of anyone working.

Eventually I made it onto the main highway and shortly realised my sat nav was taking me to South Ossetia despite me entering the coordinates directly. This didn't seem the best idea. I'm sure the people are lovely but the Russian army is in the way so I loaded my OsmAnd app which I hadn't tried in anger on my phone but seems much better than the ancient Garmin, so I could probably have saved myself $40 and some petrol using that from the start.

The road goes up to the Russian border and is called the Georgian Military Highway. It's full of trucks and there were a couple of sets of roadworks and a couple of places with a herd of cows just sitting in the road. Rather more scenic was the church/castle at Ananuri.

Gudauri is a ski resort so it's quiet in the summer though there are some restaurants open. It does mean you get cheap rooms. A spotless room in a lodge set me back the grand total of 50 lari for a night.