Monday 13 July 2015

7 July

Day 4 was definitely not for the faint-hearted. We left central Tbilisi on our way to the Azerbaijani border, driving through the city’s industrial area. Passing by huge factories, landfill sites and discarded car/train piles, you can imagine we were pretty surprised to find a sparklingly new rugby pitch to our left, with intimidating looking men going through their morning training. Olivier being our “rugby boy”, we cut around the gate to get a closer look and found that it was none other than the Georgian national rugby team! Being the awkward tourists that we were, we watched them through the fence from the safety of our car for a while, had an animated but short discussion about whether Oli should go ask to train with them, and then were on our way again.

The area got more and more scarcely populated and after some rudimentary navigating, we ended up on the correct track that would hopefully take us to the border zone. We knew we were getting close when we came across a disused military training camp, and then further along an active military camp and firing range. After passing the latter, we were in what looked like a kind of no-mans land, with the occasional bunker to our left and right and apart from that, an uninhabited expanse of hills. From afar we noticed some people wandering around these hills, which, on initial naïve impression, were thought (by mum) to be children on a school trip. A laughable suggestion when we later realised they were soldiers performing a mine-sweep -sponsored by the Japanese and US governments-.

We also came across (surpirseeeee) another monastery with caves, which was built on (surpriseee) a very high mountain. Knowing that we were going to be in the car for a while, we decided to go on what sounded like a short climb to see the frescoes, caves and view. A not very short three hours later, sweaty and tomato faced, we were back in the car. Apart from the scenery and the turtle along the way, it was mostly things that we had already seen before, and climbing what was quite a steep, slippery and viper-licious path in flip-flops didn’t make anyone very happy either.

It only got more cheerful as we neared the official border crossing zone, realising the car’s air-conditioning as well as my car doors’ hinge was broken, passing a decapitated dog on our way, and entering the no-bullshit Georgia-Azerbaijan border zone where we would be spending the following two hours. Apparently, we had a visa for two weeks, but our car only had a visa for three days, so that was a problem, and they had to thouroughly check our car (top, bottom, inside) with mirrors (officially, not practically) and sniffer dog before we were allowed to be on our way again.

Finally, after a few more sweaty hours in the car, we made it to Sheki, a renown Silk Road town in Azerbaijan. Our hotel f0r the night- the local Caravanserai -was a beautiful remnant of the Silk Road, with a classic Arabian exterior complete with sand coloured arches and heavy wooden doors. For dinner, we walked to the nearest restaurant where we accidentally tried liver shashlik (not a big fan), and other local food, most of which was very nice. Our bellies and minds full, we fell asleep.

Friday 10 July 2015

5 - 10 July

First week down. Sitting in the last luxury comfort (Kempinski Hotel in Baku) we're going to have for probably the remainder of this trip, I feel, finally, relaxed, and immensely excited for what is to come. The past week has been a rollercoaster of culture shock after culture shock, but I think I'm finally beginning to wrap my head around the idea of Central Asia.

Day two started with us being swiftly boiled out of our tents, and after quickly packing and navigating our way out of the grass field, we were on our way again. It wasn't long (500 meters) before we came across a beautiful little Orthodox church, Zarzma. Armed with my head wrapped in mum's sweater (didn't bring a scarf), I discovered the meticulously painted murals and watched locals come to pay their respects by kissing various framed painted figures. 

On the grounds surrounding the church, someone was breeding bees for honey as well as at least 20 different kinds of cacti. Very peaceful and nature-y. If it wasn't for the fact that it was situated in the middle of nowhere and I'm not religious, I wouldn't have minded a life there as an old, grey, lady. Continuing East, we came across more similar Orthodox monasteries with more murals and more bees. Eventually we made it to the king of all monasteries in Georgia; the David Gareja monastery complex. It's made up of caves in the rock mountain wall that its 6th century builders had carved out, at an unfriendly altitude I might add. Unfortunately, the monastery was also used as a training ground for the USSR military during the Georgian occupation, which damaged some of the frescoes, but what was left was impressive nonetheless. Besides the initial awe at seeing the first few caves, the rest were all kind of the same, until we came across the chapel and refuge. These were much deeper into the cliff face, and contained a maze of very small tunnels that even I hit my head on (a miracle- I'm quite short). Exhausted from the heat and sightseeing, we walked down and had a drink at the local bar, where many monks (!!) came in their spare time. When the time came for dinner, we found a very nice looking hotel/restaurant called Vardzia. Dad put his newfound German skills to good use when we found out that the owner was a former local German teacher. She very kindly let us use their grounds to camp on, for free!, so we set up next to the swimming pool with a view overlooking the valley with the caves- definitely the best camp site yet. 

Our view

Morning dip
On day 3 we had to make our way to Tbilisi, where we had an apartment booked in the centre of the Old Town. This meant that in the morning, we had to drive up and over the mountain we were camping on, on a track all-knowingly marked with 4x4 only!. I should mention here that dad has a fear of heights, which was now, as well as continuously so far, being tested almost to the limit. The view was incredible, with the caves looking significantly less high than we'd experienced when we were there. At the top of the mountain, we came upon a very creepy sight. A lone horse, an abandoned church, and whole village of seemingly abandoned concrete Soviet houses. It was foggy (again), and as we drove through the compound we found some of the houses to be inhabited, albeit without doors, windows or paint. As we travelled further down the plateau, we came across very primitive villages  with women planting seeds in the fields and men ploughing with their horses. Only very few people owned cars, and they all seemed to be living off of their own lands in their hand-crafted wooden dwellings. This was all refreshingly more picturesque than the Soviet housing. The plateau stretched as far as our eyes could see, we passed the occasional horse-drawn wooden carriage, and finally after an hour of driving came across a road (I use this term with caution). This was level 1 of a game we would be playing for hours and days to come, Dodge the Pothole. There were literally squares of concrete cut out of the asphalt in a tetris-like pattern, and with traffic coming in the opposite direction, participating in the same game, it was quite a feat if you managed to hold onto any of your 20 lives (you lost one per pothole). 

(MORE COMING SOON- running out of time but here's some pictures of what comes after) 

Border between Georgia and Azerbaijan

Old administrative building of Palace in Sheki, Azerbaijan

Baku by day
Baku (Azerbaijan) nightlife
Boat we'll be taking across Caspian Sea to Turkmensitan

Sunday 5 July 2015

Dad's Journey

info and pictures from dad's journey from the Netherlands - Trabzon in Turkey are coming soon!

4 July

Day 1 - So far, so good. After flying through the night and quite some hassle during transit (nobody seemed to be able to tell us where departures was), we landed, exhausted, in Trabzon (Turkey), where we met up with dad and the BFG. In my imagination, Turkey had always been a middle eastern country, so I was on first impression very surprised to see that it was so green. This area of Turkey used to be the poorest in the country, so to provide people with a livelihood, they started growing tea, hence the green. It was of course also very helpful that it rains a lot, creating the ideal climate for tea-growing. I don't know about you, but I've never really come across Turkish tea. Apparently, and unfortunately for them, the tea that is produced here only really makes it as far as the border of Turkey, because, to put it bluntly, it's just not very good. This may have something to do with the fact that most of the tea here is machine-harvested, and therefore misses out on the most important rule of tea picking; two leaves and a bud. 
braving some Turkish tea

Despite this, we headed to Rize, the tea capital of Turkey, to try some at the Tea Research and Development Centre. There we were offered 5 glasses of intimidatingly dark tea, which upon later tasting would put even the British to shame when it comes to strength. Nonetheless, we put the complimentary bucket of sugar to good use, so that our pitifully sensitive Dutch tastebuds could handle the flavour. I can still feel the tea pounding behind my eyeballs as I write this. 

Bye Attaturk!
2pm and we were out of Turkey and into Georgia, with a stern looking goodbye from Attaturk, who had so far been following us everywhere, we were on our way Eastbound to set up camp. We topped up on diesel at a petrol station called "Shelf" (not a typo), and then took further inland. Here the landscape became even more lush and tropical, and with an eerie mist hanging over the mountains surrounding the valley, it resembled a scene that one could find in Jurassic Park. I really wouldn't have been surprised to see a pterodactyl swooping down to the pastel-turquoise water. Only the occasional patchy concrete house and wandering car or child broke the illusion. 

At this point I was thoroughly confused about Georgia. We'd come from Turkey, a mostly green version of the middle eastern countries that I'd spent some of my life growing up in, to a place that was a mix of the latter, and its former USSR influence. It was something I had never really seen before. Austrian landscape with Arabian market stalls selling Russian vodka. Considering history this makes sense, the Georgians have been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Persians, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the Mongols, and finally the USSR, before becoming independent in 1991. So on top of that, they're quite a young country, whose people probably haven't had much time to establish themselves. 

This was becoming difficult to think about as we were now driving on a "highway" along the Acharistskali River that contained the occasional heavenly patch of concrete amongst huge holes that had since filled with innocent looking puddles and a surface that grew gradually less flat. We came across some foreign bird enthusiasts at a disused military site, who told us that once we'd passed the Goderdzi Pass, we would be able to see the sun. We took their advice and went up, reaching the peak at 2025m with visibility zero. I can guess that their must be a good view up there, but who really knows? The mist did add a mist-ical (sorry) touch, and it wasn't as cold as it looked, so it was quite nice. This was nothing compared to the way down though, dotted with sun and beautiful little villages of wooden mountain homes that looked precariously put together. The colourful washing was hung out to dry and the kids ran up to greet us with excited Hello!'s and ByeBye!'s. 

Pepijn on Goderdzi Pass

Godzerti Pass

It was somewhere down this route that we took a left onto some empty looking grassland and pitched our tents. Then came the plague. Of mosquitoes. If I have one bit of advice for anyone coming this way, it would be to dress like a turtle and bring litres of repellent. Seeing as we were only partially equipped to deal with such a disaster, we had a very quick soup dinner and then scrammed into our tents for a blissful mosquito-free night. 

in for the night!

Sunday 28 June 2015

About Us

Having lived and travelled far and wide, it was only a matter of time before we -most prominently dad- decided to embark on this insanely long and incredibly extraordinary journey:
With a grand total of eighteen thousand kilometers, this is a 6 week trip that will take us from our house in the Netherlands, through Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan,  Russia, Ukraine, Poland and then finally Germany and the Netherlands again. Quite the mouthful. 

A lot of this trip follows the ancient trading and communication route(s) known as the Silk Road. This network of paths, across both land and sea, provided a place along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Particularly on the oceans, this network linked East and West, and was used especially for the trade of spices, thereby collectively becoming known as the Spice Route. Besides this, the constant movement and mixing of populations incited the transmission of knowledge, cultures and beliefs, something that is still evident today all over the world. (for more info: Many remnants of the Silk Road still stand, through caravanserais, ports and cities, and remain largely unexplored. Being suckers for the untouched, this, for us, is what makes Central Asia such a thrilling place to explore. 

But who are we??

Family of five; Mum, Dad, Heleen (17), Olivier (14) and Pepijn (12). And of course the BFG (that's Big Friendly Giant, for all you lame non-Roald Dahl fanatics); our thoroughly pimped Toyota Land Cruiser, complete with roof-rack, huge tires, and torque, torque, torque and guess what? A little extra torque. 

The trip starts on the 27th of June, with dad doing the first chunk from the Netherlands to Turkey with a friend, since us kids are all still stuck at school. We will keep you posted on updates and photos!