Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Uzbekistan - the cradle of Silk Road culture and history

This simple, earnest hospitality can be disconcerting at first (what are they after?), but soon becomes super-enjoyable, the care shown for a guest (visitor, foreigner,etc) is amazing – certainly changed the way I try to act as host and guest.

September 9th 2011 – crossing the border, Turkmenista to Uzbekistan

Friday, 4 November 2011

TURKMENISTAN at a glance. Getting into Central Asia

University students in their "blue" day
After Iran the next stop of my Silk road trip and the entrance to Central Asia is Turkmenistan. The government made it extremely difficult and expensive to get a tourist visa, so most of the backpackers arrive on 5 day transit visa. It is the most difficult visa to get in Asia, together with the one for Buthan.

I arrived on the 5th of September. After being almost kidnapped by a local journalist who wanted to make an interview with me and also marry me, I finally got to the border. The Iranian border was alright, I was the only tourist, so the policemen were quite interested to see me I guess so they invited me to their office, offered me some tea, biscuits and dates while checking the passports of the others. When leaving, they insisted to take the rest of the biscuits and dates with me and as I kept saying no, no, no.. he just dumped everything in my bag (without putting it in a plastic bag first)! So never say NO to Iranian policemen J, they were nice though, and one of them really handsome.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

IRAN. Through the eyes of the locals.

Azadi tower
Sorry guys, this will include lots of reading but Iran impressed me a lot, no chance to make it shorter.

I couchsurfed all the time there and probably because of that I didn’t meet even one foreigner during my whole stay. For that reason I had a lot of time to ask all these questions I had about the country because the truith is that in Europe, we don’t know anything about it. Or just accept the easiest version – a land of terrorists and criminals. Before leaving Spain, I remember telling the people what countries im going to go to and the reaction when mentioning Iran, was always the same: “Iran!?! Why? Don’t go there! Be careful!”.  But what I found, was just people like all of us, educated and curious about the rest of the world, and incredibly nice to the foreigners. One common thing was that all of them hated the government and very few of them saw a way out of the current situation. No wonder most of the young, educated Iranians want to emigrate (buying just one way ticket)...Sad but that’s the Iranian reality.
My only inconvenience was the dress code – it was hot, and the fact that someone tells you how to dress up, was even more annoying than the heat.
And the lack of ATMs... There are a lot of ATMs in cities in Iran but none of them accept foreign credit or debit cards, the only option for us is the cash. It was quite frustrating cos i didn’t have much cash left. And I was told that  crossing the Armenian-Iranian border (the most beautiful border i’ve seen so far, but It wasn’t allowed to take photos there), at the Armenian side there was an ATM but NOOOOO, no ATM there. So I had to be very careful how I spend my money, especially going to Turkmenistan afterwards where I knew I would come upon the same problem.
But what I received there, was just hospitality and generosity that Europeans would never show to a stranger (unless they are “imported” Europeans). I got that everywhere and from everyone – buses, trains, street, my hosts, their families and friends....By the end of the bus journey from Yerevan to Tehran, the whole bus knew I was from Bulgaria and they all were so friendly and nice. Even at the border as my shirt wasn’t long enough (apparently it has to cover your ass and half of the thighs at least) I was given an appropriate shirt by a nice family from my bus. Another girl gave me her scarf (she had another one) because mine was falling down all the time. And everyone was giving me their phone numbers in case I need some help...So nice..

Friday, 14 October 2011

Armenia and Radio Erevan :) August 2011

Geghard Monastery
A few facts first
There are only 3 million Armenians living in Armania while 8 million live abroad. The relations with neighbors could definitely approve -peace with Azerbaijan seems as distant as ever and the Turkish land border looks no closer to being opened, Georgians hate them and Armenians don’t like Iranians. Money comes in from all around the world to keep the country alive – sons in USA, daughters in Moscow, cousins in Paris, Sidney and Germany.
The language and alphabet are another story, impossible to figure out if you are there only for a few days. The sad thing is that I didn’t interact that much with Armenians during my stay there. I only met a few locals when I usually spend most of my time with them wherever I go.
People stare at you, just like in Georgia. Most of them speak good Russian so communication is possible. And women don't drive in Armenia, only a very few exceptions.
To me, Georgia and Armenia were really similar – climate, nature, people, culture, traditions…but, of course there is a but…In Georgia everything was more full of life and positive energy.
The Cascada, Yerevan

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Georgia, part 2: The land of hospitality, beautiful nature and Stalin


Tbilisi was way nicer than I expected. No trace of Soviet union in the old town – really beautiful buildings, lots of narrow streets with cosy little cafes and bars. My host Zura took me around the old town after work and we went to his dad’s hotel where u can catch the most incredible views of the city.  Later we went to one of his favourite bars to have a beer (Scarlet’s ....) and after that to Koka’s hostel (Sky hostelwww.skyhostel.ge) – always full of travellers and they are always drinking so it is a really nice place if you are a solo traveller and you wanna be around people and have fun. Koka is very helpful and funny, I guarantee you won´t be bored there. Aaron and Koka plan to open a hostel in Brazil (Florianopolis as I recommended) in 2 years, Im looking forward to seeing this happening J.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Georgia - My new love. Part 1

Khachapuri Adjaruli
Gelati church near Kutaisi
9th of August 2011, I got to Batumi.

So the “marshrutka” dropped me off somewhere in Batumi. At the very border I was introduced to Georgian hospitality. I got adopted by this Georgian guy who explained me how the bastards from the Turkish bus won’t come back so we need to take a marshrutka or taxi to the city. Once in the city I was shocked how dirty and poor everything looked, old school Soviet blocks of buildings falling apart, roads with no pavement, pipes and cables everywhere...

Cables and clothes everywhere between the buildings
More cables and clothes
But that was only one side of Batumi, later when I went to the Boulevard (the coast line) I saw the other, modern and shiny Batumi...Such a big contrast...The Georgians said that the government is investing tons of $ in it and the funny thing is that almost nowhere in Batumi they have hot water (in some houses no water at all, just twice a day for 1 or 2 hours) but instead of fixing that problem and invest in the water supply and sewerage they prefer to make the coast line really fancy. 

I had the address of a hostel I found on internet so the guy just put me in a taxi, told the driver where to go and even paid for it as I didn’t have lari yet. The only tiny problem was that there was no hostel at the address I had...if I can call the thing that was standing there a building...And while the taxi driver was wondering what to do with me, I saw two young guys and a girl passing by. I asked them if they speak English and that’s how I met Mari, her boyfriend Temo and his brother. Literally, they took over...first they took me to a internet club to check if the address I had was correct (and it was) and then everything was decided – Mari said “you are my guest and you are staying in my house”. By no means I could convince her anything else. So I ended up staying with Mari and her auntie’s lovely family.  It wasn’t enough that she hosted a complete stranger but every time we had food or drinks on the street, they wouldn’t let me pay, doesn’t matter how hard I tried. That’s how Georgians treat their guests. It was a little victory every time when I managed to pay for something little like some fruit for the beach or a drink bought on the street. 

I had a few phone numbers of people which my good friend Petra gave me as she was living in Batumi for 2 years. So I called Aaron, an American Peace Corps volunteer and we met up. Ok, I should write a bit more about Aaron cos he probably is gonna read this. He is a Jewish American but surprisingly he is alright. He actually introduced me to many of his friends and Petra’s old friends,  was really helpful and careful in his own way. But most important, he has a great sense of humor and doesn’t get offended by my stupid jokes.
There is a bar in Batumi, called “Vinyl” where most of the foreigners hang out. The next few days I met a few of Petra’s old friends, spend some time with Mari and her boyfriend on the beach and roaming the streets of Batumi..

Khachapuri Adjaruli 
Traditional "Kvas"
I went for a day to the mountains, 1,5h away from Batumi in Shuakhevi with Aaron and his clumsy friend Adam (who was even worse than me – able to hurt himself any time), stayed in Aaron’s house (actually his host family) where he was living for the last year and a half as an English teacher in the local school. Really beautiful landscapes and a really nice family! They had water just for 2 hours per day thought...pretty sad because the river is just 100 m away...
On the way to Shuakevi

Aaron and I, posing for a "special purpose"  photo
Aaron being an idiot. Have a look at the washed pampers at the back

Beach drinking in Batumi

Aaron and Adam dead on the beach in Batumi
There was a birthday party full of Peace Corps volunteers in Sheraton in Batumi, then we went to a bar when it was raining heavily and I did one of my classic moves – falling down the stairs (at least 6-7 steps) so that was the result (was visible for 2 weeks): 

After Batumi I went to Kutaisi to spend two days with Mari and her family, she was insisting that I visit her there and meet her twin sister Maiko. They took me to some beautiful old churches and monasteries outside the city (Motsameta monastery and Gelati church) and her mother prepared a really delicious dinner, traditional Georgian food and wine. I was quite sad to leave this nice family so soon but I had to go if I wanted to see more places in Georgia. 
11th centyry Bagrati roofless cathedral

Motsameta monastery
The praying corner in Mari's house
Gelati church near Kutaisi
After Kutaisi I headed south, to Borjomi, a town in the mountains where the famous Borjomi water comes from (it’s kind of gas water but salty and its considered as a good hangover’s remedy. I spent the day walking around the park, which is huuuge, and talking to a guy who i met there – it was really frustrating because I realized how bad my Russian is and how I can’t express myself properly (I had the same feeling so many times after that but that was the first time, so I decided to seriously work on my Russian). 

I stayed in a cosy guesthouse I found in the Lonely planet (thanks Aaron), Its called Marina Zulmatashvili’s Homestay (12 €, nice big double rooms with a terrace), run by the nicest Georgian lady who was telling me her life story over a cup of tea until very late. There was hot water so I finally took a proper shower and even washed my clothes. I took a Russian exercise book from the guesthouse so I can work on my Russian. 
Borjomi National park

Borjomi Mineral Water park
Next day I took a marshrutka to Vardzia. Vardzia is a cave city dug into the side of the Erusheli Mountain but two thirds of the city was destroyed by an earthquake. Nevetherless the church and lots of apartments and halls remain visitable and in some tunnels the old irrigation pipes still bring drinkable water. Its very similar to Cappadocia in Turkey, just quite smaller but the landscape was nicer. 
On the way to Vardzia
The view from the caves
Little "sevillana" in Vardzia

I was going to go directly to Tbilisi after that but suddenly my plans changed as a guy I contacted on CS and who turned out to be a friend of Aaron (I even had his number and was going to call him once in Tbilisi) told me that they are coming to the area to camp and after that they are going to Vardzia. So I got off the marshrutka 2 hours before Borjomi and met them there. It was Koka and Giorgi (Gosho) representing Georgia, Birgit (volunteer from Germany), Marina (couchsurfer from Ukraine) and me. We went to Abastumani to camp, near a river with a fire and everything, all the time munching Georgian bread and cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes. We tried to see the stars and the moon in the observatory nearby but after waiting for an hour on the queue, we gave up. Well, the sky was still beautiful. We had very long talks about Georgian culture, especially the virginity, marriages, drinking, relationships and women rights in Georgia – its all quite different to what we are used to in Europe. And don’t even start talking about Armenia with Georgians – even though all of them have Armenian friends, they don’t like Armenia (put it mildly), the conversation can turn into a war J.  Next day I went back to Vardzia so they also see it and this time we went to Sarapa Monastery where the nuns were nice to let us in and give us some historical details. 

The restaurant´s fridge

Koka, Marina and Goshu


Sarapa monastery

Sarapa monastery

So it was really fun to travel with these guys, even though it was only for 2 days. Finally I got to Tbilisi on the 17th , I had a new host to meet there – Zura.
If you wanna keep reading about Georgia, here is the second post:  http://gonewiththebackpack.blogspot.com.es/2011/09/georgia-part-2-land-of-hospitality.html