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Entries about backpacking


A more infamous war-zone

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Our first stop in Lebanon was Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley. Baalbek is famous for large ruins, hashish production as well as being the headquarters for Hezbollah (the current leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is from here). This is scarily visible. There are Hezbollah's yellow flags all around town, as well pictures of a smiling and rather cute looking Sayid Hassan (Mr. Hassan, as he's known around here) with his thick glasses, turban and big beard, often alongside the Ayatollahs Khomeni and Khameni. The Iranian influence and money is also visible, with more-than-suspiciously Iranian looking mosques, decked with onion domes and blue tiles, outside played a loud and impassioned speech by Nasrullah, set to music. There are even shops selling Hezbollah souveniers, but some are so out of the way, they are clearly not for tourists, but for the locals.

The locals buy the Hezbollah merchandise (incuding mugs, t-shirts, flags, desk-flags, bumper stickers, CDs) so that they get immunity from the police, as Hezbollah is popular with the locals and have lots of guns. The hashish dealers, although officially not looked favourably upon by Hezbollah, are tolerated as they help with the financing and ride around in huge SUVs decked out with Hezbollah signs blaring bomb and gunshot sounds (not even to a beat, just war noises), and Nasrullah speeches. Hezbollah, or the party of god, are very popular in the area, the principal reason is that their activities are generally useful to the people. Lebanon's goverment is almost non existant, and with the heavily damaged infrastucture, Hezbollah filled the gap and built schools, mosques, roads and hospitals not just in this area, but in many Shia area's of Lebanon, financed through "muslim charitable donations" (ie the Ayatollahs of Iran). Along with the religious ties, their supporter base is loyal and large. The police, controlled by the government, are completely incapable of touching anyone affiliated with Hezbollah out of fear.

This definitely added some tension to the air, or perhaps that was our slight worry at the yellow flags with Kalashinkovs on them all over the place. This was not helped when the explosions started, but those turned out to be fireworks. Tourists don't seem to stay in the town at all, and just arrive on day trips from Beirut to see the ruins and go. The ruins were very impressive, as they are huge and well preserved temples to Jupiter and probably Bachus, although no-ones really sure as the iscriptions have worn off. The on site museum and labelling was by far the nicest and most-airconned we'd been to so far, which was a bonus.

From there, we took a minibus to Beirut, through past the many glittering billboards and sandbag and tank reinforced military checkpoints.

Beirut is a shock to the backpacker system, used to small dirty streets, grubby children running around, men sitting on street corners drinking tea, we suddenly fast forwarded into the 21st century. Macdonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Western culture in general is the way in Beirut, Hummers and SUVs rolling around playing RnB underneath billboard advertisements for holidays in Turkey. Amongst these glamorous things, soldiers, security guards and milita men (depending on whose area you're in) stand around at street corners with assault rifles and tanks. Not all the Hummers are civilian either, with fully armed military patrols rolling past flashy Bulgari shop windows. Barbed wire adorns many of the buildings just like the jewlerry on the nicely dressed women strutting around town. The downtown area, newly refirbished after the war in 2006, is completely closed to cars by military checkpoints, and soldiers stand guard underneath the main Rolex-sponsored clocktower.

But Beirut is not all glamour. As well as being one of the most developed and richest places we've been to so far, it's also the poorest. The city is divided in 3, with the christians to the east, muslims to the west, and the Shia slums and palestinian refugee camps to the south. We went to the slums and camps yesterday, about an hour walk from the centre, into filthy rubbish strewn streets, people living tightly packed in either concrete shells of appartment blocks or corrugated iron housing. We may have heard a single gunshot. These areas seem to be divided as well. The Shia areas are clearly marked with the posters of martyrs along the road, but we were in an area with green flags, controlled by the Amal militia, who before were bitter enemies of Hezbollah. Life looked very hard here, trash strewn streets where it is unclear whether the rubble was cleared after the war or not. We tried to find the Shatila refugee camp, scene of a famous massacre of Palastinian refugees in 1982, and what we found was a few nasty walled off areas, topped with barbed wire, although it seems that there were people living inside, we saw fresh laundry lines over the tops of the razor wire. Perhaps these were the camps. Either way, living condition were by far the worst we've seen on this trip, mangy dogs patrol the streets and syringes litter the grimy pavements.

After that, we went back to the glittering lights on the centre, past the many Starbucks and Costa Coffees, had dinner and wondered whether we were in the same country as a few hours ago...

Posted by Nomadics 07:44 Archived in Lebanon Tagged backpacking

Entering Civilization

Damas and Lebanon

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Stepping off the coach to Damascus, fighting through the rediculous taxi touts, we got to the flat of a friend of mine, Benjy, currently studying Arabic and Persian in Damascus and very familiar with the city. He had kindly put us up for a night in his flat (in the 'Notting Hill of Damascus'), fed us and gave us some tips about town.

Our time in town we mostly spent looking around the old town of one of the most ancient cities in the world, consistently inhabited for the past 6000 years (although flattened in the 15th century by Timur). This still has atmopheric charm, complete with small winding streets, mosques and churches and big souqs.

I liked Damascus. Sure, we had arived out of the desert to by far the biggest and shiniest city we've been to since Kiev, but it definitely is a nice place to spend some time. A faster pace of life, generally marked by the crazy traffic, constant honking and people milling about, although energy levels were visible low because of Ramadan. The Christian quarter was still business as usual though, with it's cafes and kebabis wide open. It's definitely not the most developed city around, but that is part of the charm, with the street sellers hawking prickly pears, socks and other random objects in loud arabic along the big streets in town. Damascus has managed to to accumulate some very nice things over it's history. These included the Umayyad mosque, a large working mosque in black and white smooth marble and well as nice painted designs on the bit where it was built over a Roman temple. This contained the remains of John the Baptist (considered a prophet in Islam), and a shrine to a Imam Hussien (the glass around it filled with Iranian money). Next to this building, the mausoleum of Salah Ad-Din. With the ancient baths and caravanserais and religious monuments, not a bad collection.

We had a relatively hedonistic time, using Benji's knowledge, checking out the best juice bars and ice cream places in town, as well as a very enjoyable hot and scrapy hammam, that cleaned us up nicely. The 'Notting Hill' of Damascus was filled with Syrian playboys driving around in circles in their nice cars, showing off small rims, blaring pop music alond with Europeans chilling in the cafes. Muslim vaules put to once side, hijab factor low, as well as unmarried couples holdings hands, unlike most of the rest of the city, where Ramadan had closed down most of the stores.

Anyway, after a few day trips to christian monasteries nearby, we hit the road again and got on a bus to Lebanon, which we eventually got to, but not before the Syrian sytem bit us by charging 500SYP (10$) for having to leave the country, a system most likely designed to make it prohibitively expensive for many Syrians to go abroad. Anyway, entered we more green and mountainous terrain, with a troubled history....

Posted by Nomadics 13:21 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking


Onto the firmly beaten track

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After breaking down in the desert, we eventually got to Palmyra, which has been a tourist destination for 200 years. Tourism is the only industry there and needless to say were immedeately shafted. Firstly, a rediculously expensive taxi (there were no other transport options), then an elevated hotel rate as the taxi driver collected his commission. Well, actually it was still dirt cheap, but not for Syria.

Our arrival also coincided with the start of Ramadan, the muslim month of fasting, which has so far turned out to be pretty lame. As an procimation of faith, they all give up eating, drinking and smoking during the daylight hours, and consequently give you evil looks if you tempt them by doing any of these in public. As we're clearly not muslims and thus not expected to fast, but the problem is that many shops, cafes and restaurants are closed as either the owners can't even drink during the day, as well as the fact that none of their usual clientelle would go anyway. One benefit is that the touts are too lacking in energy to bother the tourists.

Palmyra is an ancient oasis town situated along the Silk Road, and has had a very colourful history in that it was independent from the Roman and Persian empires (it was a buffer zone in between) for a long time, allowing it's own unique culture to flourish, until the Romans took it over. This led to an influx of even more wealth and many of the ruins date from then.

The ruins themselves give you an insight into the look and size of the ancient city, but the busloads of tourists are sort of off putting, as are the ticket prices coupled with their direct refusal to accept our student cards. If you ever go, get an international student card', or more like a Syrian monuments discount card. Anyway, we managed to sneak into the main attraction, the mostly standing Temple of Bel (a Palmyaeran deity), by climbing over the wall at the back, which was pretty badass.

As with many of the ruins on Syria from this era, it's very impressive, and great if you love huge columns. Heh. The main collonnade is still mostly intact and spans almost 2 kilometers. The Valley of the Tombs nearby is also fairly impressive, and is filled with mysterious large rectangular structures, which we clambered about for a while. Then an Arab castle, to which we had to hike up a hill in the 50 degree desert heat. Situated in the middle of the desert, the heat was almost unbearable, and we had to sit out the hottest parts of the day in the shade, unable to move.

Soon enough, we beat the heat by getting on a bus to Damascus.

Posted by Nomadics 13:28 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Further Down the Hospitality Rabbit Hole

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Having accepted Amir's invitation, we headed to the village of Bokros further south along the Euphrates from the city of Dier Ez-Zor. Eventually after a series of rather disastrous minibus rides, including one where the window exploded for no reason, we arrived. Here he led us to a nice looking house in an otherwise nondescript farming village, and introduced us to Mohammed, the owner of the house and Khalid, a friend of theirs who was staying there. Both seemed very well educated and had a good command english, and both worked for the Syrian National Oil company, Mohamed as a communications technician and Khalid as a safety officer.

This was all a rather surreal and dream like experience. The house seemed to be the centre of village life, as many of the locals would stop by for a bit for some tea or to partake in our meals. Although not rich by any means, clearly these oil workers were the most wealthy in this village of farmers, and supported much of the rest of the populace with their earnings, although to what extent I can't say. Many strange characters stopped by during our stay, including one other oil worker, Geologist Naif, but mostly random farmers and villagers, one of whom sang even us a song.

We were served lavish amounts of tea and awesome Syrain homecooking (by far the best food we had in Syria). Being excellent hosts, they made it seem that every wish would be catered for. Having arrived from the desert after an exhausing ride, their unswerving hospitality was akin to finding a lake of fresh ice cold ice tea in the desert.

Perhaps I haven't captured the surrealness of the events. These were very intelligent people and constantly played jokes on us that caught us a little off guard. These ranged from trying to guilt trip us that they won't be able to eat for 3 days because they served us meat to warning us about being eaten by the dogs that wandered around the village, as well as asking us to sing them a song as it was part of their tradition, apparently. Coupled with the host of other characters that popped by, who they described extravagantly as professors of english (to a guy that clearly spoke none), and professional football players (to a heavy chain smoker), this made for a very odd experiance.

Eventually we were led to the roof where Amir was already sleeping, where we immedeately fell asleep under the many visible stars, although not before Khalid pointed out his star, and told us to remember him everytime we see it. That was a little wierd.

We had planned to leave the next morning, but they were very eager for us to stay forever, although Mohammed had left for work that morning. We were served a massive breakfast, and chatted and played chess with an ever increasing group of men until lunch. A huge lunch later, we were encouraged to sleep. Relaxation is something the Arabs do very well, and we followed their lead to a daytime nap. Then, with heavy hearts, they let us go and put us onto a minibus to Dier Ez-Zor, from where we got onto a coach to Palmyra.

Posted by Nomadics 12:50 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Syrian Pharmacists Speak Russian

A story of hospitality

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So, I left off last time with us in the middle of the desert, sun setting, arms out into the air in a prayer to the many gods this region has had over the millennia. Our prayers were swiftly answered by a minibus full of Syrians who looked shocked to see foreigners, and welcomed us with open arms.

As usual, the level of English was pretty low inside the bus, and we were expecting to get by with the basic hand gestures and simple conversations about where we were from (not always so simple in my case) as well as listing english football teams. But in a strange quirk of fate one of the passengers, Sayid, a pharmacist, spoke Russian, and had spent 8 years all over Russia learning the pharmacists trade. As he had had such a good time in Russia and had been treated so well during his time there, he invited us to stay at his house in the village of Al Mansoura. This was perfect for us as we had no idea where we would stay tonight, and there were no towns with hotels (no towns at all actually) within at least an hour of where we were. This was also a great as it allowed us to communicate properly with the people, so far we'd had pretty basic conversations as our Arabic isn't exactly up to scratch.

Arriving to his home, we were introduced to the men in his family, and the women quickly made themselves scarce. He lived with his brother, Mohamed, and his cousin Sultan stopped by to meet the foreigners. As usual, we were served large amounts of tea, and again as usual the conversation turned onto money. Arab culture is pretty materialistic, they all dream about getting rich, and it seems to pain them that Syria is in such a poor economic position, something they are acutely aware of.
Sayid promptly went to bed, leaving us in the company of Sultan, who seemed happy reeling off common memes, a rather tiring conversation form that Syrian seem to love doing with us when there is no common language. It generally goes like this: "Chelsea... hmm.. yeah... Charles Dickens... hmm, yeah.. Liverpool... yeah... Sherlock Holmes... yeah... Michael Ballack.. hmm... Shakespeare (or Sheik Sebeir, apparently he was an Arab)... hmm.. yeah..." etc. ad infinitum. Eventually after a few games of chess with Mohamed we got to sleep in his courtyard, under the stars, as it was very hot.

Next morning, they opened up their pharmacy and gave us breakfast inside, I think we brought in a few extra customers. Soon enough, they sent us on our way and we were on a bus heading to Lake Al-Assad, a lake created by damming up the Euphrates. We saw a castle on an peninsula on the lake, and we spent most of day frolicking around under a fig tree on the beach by the cooling waters eating melons and generally having an excidingly good time. After a few hitches back, including one on top of an awesome Arab rasta-colour scheme pimped out pick up, racing over the dam, we got back to Al Mansoura, where we planned to hitch across the desert to the other side, against the advice of pretty much everyone we had come across. They were right. An hour of waiting around on a disty road drilled home that no one would be driving through the desert late on a thursday night (friday is the main weekend day), and so we gave up and got on a minibus to Ar-Raqqa, the capital of the region.

Raqqa's main claim to fame is that it houses many Iraqi refugees, and consequently, its a pretty gritty place, at least from what we saw of the bus station. After hours of waiting and waiting and somehow not getting onto buses that seemed to be going even after we had registered our passports, we chanced upon another weary traveler going our way, Amir. He happened to be trainee pharmacist, and consequently, spoke excellent Russian after having spent 6 years there studying. Syria doesn't seem to have any facilities for pharmacy study, and sends its students to Russia. Again this turned out amazingly, as he put us on a bus, even paid for us, and invited us to his home in the small village of Bokros, near the town of Dier Ezzour where we happened to be going.

Weary and amazed at our luck, we accepted....

Posted by Nomadics 14:31 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Heading East

Into the wild again

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From Homs we decided to head into the desert, into the wilds of Eastern Syria, away from civilization, away from the crowds. So we got a minibus to an unknown town eastwards, accompanied by looks that said 'why the hell are you going there' (exactly what we were looking for), we got out onto the main highway east and stuck out our arms.

It wasn't long before a tucker picked us up for a small distance until he had to turn off, leaving us under a motorway bridge, conveniently shaded from the baking sun. A few minutes later a man in a yellow fiat picked us up, and we raced into the desert. Little did we know this man, Abu Ahmad, was a complete nutter, drinking 13% strength beer (although he insisted he'd quit for ramadan), driving at 140 kmph and racing his friends that drove coaches, bringing us close to death more than once. He would spray himself with cologne to mask the heavy stench of alcohol in case the police stopped him, and asked me to take responsibility for the can if we were stopped. Eventually we got out of the car on a turn off in the middle of nowhere, and he started demanding ludicrous sums of money. We flat out refused, and the yellow fiat raced off into the distance.

This turn off we'd got to led to a place called Ar-Rasafeh, an old roman town that was heavily fortified as it was a defense post against the Persians, as well as a stopping point for caravans on the silk road. It is walled collection of ruins in the middle of the scorching desert, miles away from anything. To get there we had to wait for over an hour at a little truck stop 2km from the turn off, having been given tea by some locals, just waiting for any kind of vehicle to be going our way. Eventually a pick up obliged an we hopped on the back and went down an empty dusty road, amidst a completely empty, beige sun baked landscape.

Ar-Rasafeh was worth it though. Lonely and isolated, the church and a few building are still in okay condition. The Cisterns were by far the most impressive thing there though, massive underground vaults, with shafts of sunlight breaking through like lasers from holes above. We were alone for much of the time, until 2 robed Arabs mysteriously turned up, took some photos with us and promptly disappeared into the desert.

Then we got onto the road nearby that led to some sort of inhabited area and stuck our arms out again, throwing ourselves onto the winds of chance. Fortunately, we were soon picked up, and this began our 2 day Syrian Pharmacist adventure... (more to come)

Posted by Nomadics 07:03 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Syria So Far

Arabs, Markets, Castles, Ruins

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Syria has been probably the dirtiest and dustiest place on the trip so far (and easily the hottest), with most of the places that we've stayed at having some nasty odor or other. But, on the bright side, we've also had some of the cheapest accommodation of the trip here, which makes up for the more than questionable hygiene, and a few bad squatter experiences.

We've so far been making our way south from Aleppo down Syria's developed side, and Syria's main north-south artery of Aleppo to Damascus, so far we stopped by at Marat An-Nama'an, Hama and now Homs. But soon we'll venture off the beaten path and bust east into the desert...

The sights so far have been mainly ruins, highlighting that this is an old, old place. Civilizations have come and gone, since the very beginning, and great powers have always vied for the region. We've seen many impressive ruins from all eras, the leftovers of the massive colonnades of the Roman city of Apamea (first built by the Seleucids though), which had enough of a main street left to inspire the imagination to envisage the legions walking in under the eagle banner. The size and solidity of the stones was very impressive.
From the byzantine era, we saw the Dead Cities, large Byzantine towns that were left abandoned for some unknown reason. Although most of the building are ruined, with quite of few of the stones taken by locals for their own houses, there is still a few buildings and walls fully intact, and more than enough to show that there was a proper town there. Again, it was all built out of huge stone blocks, giving the impression that these ruins would be here forever (or until people steal all the stones). The current theory on why they were abandoned are "demographic shifts", people moved out to better places, perhaps to escape marauding armies, of which there have been many.
Personally though I prefer the medieval ruins. Today we saw the Assassin's castle at Musyaf. The Assassins are the stuff of legend, but were definitely badass. Since they were Shia Ismailis, they were constantly at war with the Sunnis, who generally controlled the region. When Saladin besieged their castle, he one day woke up with a cake, a dagger and a note by his bed saying "you are in my power" signed by the Assassins. Obviously, he crapped his pants and lifted the siege. When a crusader came to the castle, the leader, just for kicks and a display of power started shouting at his acolytes to start jumping off the ramparts, which they did until the crusader begged him to stop. The castle itself is pretty intact, and we spent a good few hours climbing around it.

The local people have been pretty nice. There seem to be tourists around, but mostly of the tour-taking variety, so when we take public transport around the place to small towns and villages to see the ruins, we get many surprised looks and mobbed by cute and scruffy children. This is good as we also get invited for tea, but the language barrier is proving quite hard to break through. Some communication is possible though, about pretty random topics. With one old man (who lived in a house in the ruins of an old castle), who spoke no English whatsoever, we managed to "talk" about world war 2 (I got the distinct impression he still though the Soviet Union still existed), and about how he stole stones from the ancient roman ruins nearby to build his home. Somehow, just with our hands and tone of voice, this got through. Although he tried to explain for about 20 minutes how he was a farmer and it didn't really click until he took us into his shed and showed us his plough.

I've also been surprised at how many men still wear the traditional robes and headwraps. The streets are filled with the guttural tones of heavily stubbled men in the red kiffieyeh, hijabied women and street urchins selling bread and shining shoes. There is a lot of heat around too in the cities, not just from the baking sun, but from the streetside kebab shops cooking outside, and men carrying around coals for the nargilehs. A very vivid and intense culture, lots of loud body language, people hawking things on the street, as well as shouts of "hello and welcome" to us as we walk by. Most of the younger people we've met seem to be fixated on leaving the country though, as there a few jobs, and no money here. Money is all important around here, you need to to get a wife (or the bride's family will refuse), to get a house (or you wont be able to live with your wife, or even marry her), to buy your wife jewelery, and all the other usual expenses. One guy who invited us for tea and coffee, Saddam (woohoo!), thought that all Europeans are rich, and a job in Europe would land him a jackpot, but with his level on English I doubt he would have an easy time getting a job.

The Axis of Evil this is not, however they do block facebook...

Posted by Nomadics 12:18 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

Entering the Arab World

السلام عليكم

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After a rather hectic week and 6 day 'detour' (3 days of solid travel from Eastern Turkey to Sakhalin in Far Eastern Russia and back, over 30 hours on a plane etc.), I returned to Gaziantep and miraculously found Chuck again, who'd been traveling around Turkey while I was away. We were now ready to go into the arid world of the Arabs.

Waking up, we had a kebab and some baklava (a local specialty) and took a minivan heading south to a small town near the border, where we managed to get a car heading south to Aleppo, aka Halep, aka Haleb. After some standard beurocracy and waiting around at the border, especially the Syrian side, where we needed to see the doctor, who was inexplicably absent for almost an hour, we crossed over into Syria, and entered a country with yet another alphabet. That makes it the 5th alphabet in the 5th country on this trip, full house.

The level of development immediately got lower, the road got a lot worse, driving standards went from fairly western minus seatbelts to "drive wherever the hell you want at any speed", the amount of donkeys on the roads increased by 1000% (although livestock on roads is waaaay below Caucasus levels). The buildings changed from being quite colourful neat apartment blocks to a monotony of beige and white blocks. The land suddenly lost the irrigation and so the arid scorched grass and bushes were the main feature on the parched landscape, a change from the many fields of green that the Turks had planted what is essentially the same land, still a very far cry from the lush and verdant mountains of Georgia.

From our exploration of Aleppo so far, it is a very mad and bustling city, a trading town since the beginning of time with the souqs (markets) still going strong. A very loud place, with cars honking, the sound of the workmen near the markets still making things by hand, the calls to prayer and the Arab pop music blared out of shops all melding together to create a loud and vibrant soundscape. Amidst all the chaos, the courtyards of the beautiful old mosques somehow retain a stillness and peace about them.

I think we need to wander around the the small winding streets of the old town some more, and drink more of the strawberry and honey juice that Aleppo offers...

Posted by Nomadics 13:21 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking

End of the Caucasus

Not the end of the adventure

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Yerevan is a very Soviet city, with large buildings in shades beige and grey dominating the streets, which are all surprisingly well kept (around the centre at least), sharp corners and paint still on. The central planning of it shows too, theres a ring road around the centre, with long boulevards going through, dotted with sociaL realist statues. Despite the illusion of a giant soviet city, it is actually very small, this centre ring is only about a kilometer and a half in diameter. There don't seem to be any old buildings there either, and apparently Russian officers visiting Yerevan in the 19th century called the city a "collection of mud huts", Armenians don't seem to build anything out of stone apart from monasteries and the odd caravanserai, and Yerevan's were all demolished to make way for what the Soviet architect decided. It's skyline seems to be changing drastically though, with new deveopment making the city seem like a forest of cranes.

As with Tbilisi, Yerevan has a large statue overlooking it on a hill north of the city, Mother Armenia, defensively holding a sword across her body. It seems Caucasian peoples love mother figures, sort of how Turkic peoples love father figures (Ataturk = Father of Turks, Turkmenbashi = Father of Turkmen). Tbilisi had a Mother Georgia statue, holding a cup of wine for guests and a sword for enemies. The Russians are in on the game too, with the largest of them all at 85m, near Volgograd, holding a massive sword aloft, arm outstretched and shouting. The Azeris, caught in the middle of the mother-father complex, have abstained, perhaps as a mother-father combination statue would be too weird.

Most of Armenia's most famous and most visited sights (unsurprisingly churches and monasteries) are scattered around Yerevan, and although we hadn't planned on seeing all of them, our laundry wouldn't be ready till monday so we had an extra day to kill. First on the list was Echmiadzin, Armenia's Vatican, where the head of the oldest chrisian sect resides. Most of the complex is inaccessable to non-Armenian clegy, but the main church is very nice, and by far the most colourful Armenian church we've seen so far, with frescoes decorating the walls, and packed with a large candle lighting brigade. Walking around the small town, we didn't find much else of interest, but met a man who sung us a song, and a woman who wanted who know where the concert was (which one I have no idea) and how much are shoes cost. She did give us a chocolate bar, so I guess shes the good kind of crazy.
Next day (still waiting for laundry, but it had to bedone, seriously) we saw Garni and Geghard, having teamed up with a Mecedonian-Canadian firefighter from our flat-hostel. The first a hellenic temple which is mostly rebuilt, overlooking a nice valley (not much else to add), the latter a church with many acoustically awesome chambers carved into the cliff by which it resides, definitely a 9 out of 10.

We spent a lot of time in Yerevan just walking around, sitting in the many, many cafes that litter the streets and eating shwarmas and trying out wierd Armenian soft drinks (like bright green Feti Cola, Estragon flavour, yum). The cafes and trees lining the streets do give it a slight European feel, but counterbalancing that there were also dogfights in the main central park (by the opera), which were quite entertaining.

As soon as we got our laundry back (I can't stress enough how much it was necessary), we decided to break north and see how far we close we could get to the Georgian border, so that we could cross to Turkey as soon as possible.
Getting the last marshrutka out of town at 8 (no one travels at night because the roads are so bad and there are no lights on the "motorways") and our first marshrutka after sunset, we set out north to the town of Gyumri.
This turned out to be the most epic ride of my life, as we rode on a rickety minibus into the mountains skirting a giant electrical storm. The lightning lit up the arid ground around us every few seconds for what seemed like an eternity (2 hours) and occasionally a huge flash would draw itself starky in the sky. As we kept driving along the storm kept moving toward us, creeping closer from the left side, then it was chasing us from behind, then surrounded us but somehow we managed to bouce along the pothole ridden road just quickly enough to avoid it. I wish I was a better writer to capture the moment, but sufice to say I saw more lighting that night that I have ever in my life before. Also, we had a wicked soundtrack :).

We got to Gyumri slightly dumbfounded and were dumped somewhere near the centre. As none of the locals seemed to know any the geography of the town at all (we asked a few), and the rain had finally caught up with us, we took a cab to a cheap homestay somewhere in town. Not planning to stay long, or see the city at all (it was mostly levelled in an earthquake 20 years ago), we got up early and got to the bus station to get on something going to Georgia. As usual we had to wait for a couple of hours, so we got a shotfull of sunflower seeds and practiced our seed eating skills, which are far below that of the average Armenian (that is super-expert, we even saw some who would pop the seed into their mouths and spit out the shells). It passed the time. Eventually we got to another border crossing of shacks, guys with AKs, cows, and stressed out people, although we got through without any problems.

Going back into Georgia the scenery got a lot more green and lush (and the roads a lot worse), and we got dumped off near some Georgian farmers armed to the teeth with knives, scythes and pitchforks (probably planning to kill the local vampire lord), on on a turn-off to the cave-city of Vardzia, the last sight we planned to see in Georgia before heading into Muslim lands. A hitch got us halfway there, as well as lots of apples, and another hitch put us into the open arms of a Georgian tour group from Tbilisi, who drove us to more sights than we knew where there as well as filling us with khachipuri. The cave city was awesome, with hundreds of caves carved into the rock, and long pitch black tunnels between some of them. All of the caves were empty apart form one working church, but it was very fun to climb around. There were also more impressive caves nearby, as well as a nunnery set amidst nice vegetation and ruins all along the canyon, including a castle set on a cliff, controlling the valley beneath.

The tour group eventually dropped us off outside a hotel (probably slightly over estimating our budget) on the outskirts of the unpronouncable town of Akhaltsikhe, but it was late so having no choice we eventually haggled it down to something fairly manageable. Hey, after the next day, all our Georgian money would be completely useless, and we got a nice shower, BBC news and a massive breakfast. Also we met some Mongol Rallyers, who were new to the region and had made the mistake of driving at night, battering their car. Giving them a few tips, we left them making repairs and went to get the bus from the bus station mostly filled with giant watermelons to the border of Turkey.

Posted by Nomadics 10:10 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Hitching Armenia

Closing the loop

View Kiev to Beirut on Nomadics's travel map.

The sights of southern Armenia are nice, amidst the mountains carpeted in the whites, blues, yellows and purples of small mountain flowers in bloom. Our first day in Sisian we wandered around the sights scattered in the hills above the town, the first of which was Zorats Karer, or Karahundj (stone hundj, or henge), a mysterious collection of large rocks punctured with small holes that is thought to be some kind of ancient observatory.
It is dated to 7000 BC, making it the oldest rock observatory (if you can call a bunch of rocks an observatory), but according to the man in the small shack selling souvenirs, who invited us in for coffee (we were the only people there when we arrived), the dating was done using "procession", so measuring how far off it is from actually seeing stars through the holes. Since the stars move their position centimeters in millions of years, I would assume this method has a margin of error of somewhere in the thousands of years, so it's safe to say we have no idea when, who or why these rocks are placed here. Also it's making the assumption that they haven't been moved within that time, which is rather ludicrous since messing stuff up has been a human pastime since day 1, and this area has been inhabited by us humans almost since then. It all sounded like the Armenian claim of "this is the oldest, best and most incredible thing EVER!", and the naming it to karahundj (a recent thing) seems like a attempt to gain legitimacy by linking it to Stonehenge. Anyway, despite the rant, it was actually a very interesting place, with large rocks arranged in a east-west line with a circle in the middle, with most of the rocks having small holes through them. It definitely throws up questions of why these strange rocks are here, and what it must have meant to early peoples.

Then we had some cross country mountain walking to a large waterfall nearby, which was actually "shut off" because the nearby hydroelectric station was using up the water, so there was only a small trickle down the falls themselves. There was still an opportunity to have a swim in the cold mountain waters in the pool above with some local boys, and some rock climbing to the top of a mountain nearby.

The next day we decided to be adventurous and have a day trip to Tatev, a famous monastery in the region that was recommended to us by a trucker we had hitched with earlier: "If you haven't seen Tatev, you haven't seen Armenia". This was rather daring as there was one bus going there from the town of Goris (further down the motorway from us) and none going back until the next day, and since it wasn't on the main road or anything of the sort, hitching would be hard.
We had this "hitching would be hard" revelation after a few hours of standing along the dirt track that leads to Tatev, being told a few times that we'd have no chance of getting there by passing drivers (some of whom said they'd drive us there for big money, ie. filthy taxi drivers, so we ignored them). Eventually a passing kid confirmed our suspicions and invited us into his house, where we were somehow ushered into a farewell feast for a newly married couple, who were leaving that same day on their honeymoon. Some chess games and shots of homemade mulberry vodka later, they put us on the only (packed) bus going there along the dirt path into the mountains. The jackhammer ride didn't help the daytime hangover, but we made it eventually. After we arrived, some kids laughed at our wishes to get back on the same day, pointing to some local homestays nearby. Deciding to ignore that issue for the time being, we went to check out the monastery that Tatev is famous for.

The monastery was surrounded by a large wall, perched on a cliff overlooking a deep canyon, definitely an epic sight. The building itself was fairly usual (I'm getting quite sick of these monasteries), beige stone, drum and conical dome, carvings of crosses everywhere, orange wax all over the walls from years of candles. After this was done, we had the pressing issue of somehow getting back, which also meant that we couldn't see the other sight of the area, Satan's bridge, as hiking 5km through mountains and back then trying to hitch a ride wasn't really an option since it was getting late.
But one again, luck was on our side, and we managed to befriend some Armenian playboys (the big dog was LSE and MGU educated, with his trophy girl and 2 lackeys) out on holiday and got a ride back in their big black jeep. Amazingly enough, they also wanted to see Satan's bridge and took us there too, which was a natural bridge over a steep gorge (ie a rockfall). You can even go under the bridge, to the place where you'd expect the trolls to lurk, which is an dark tunnel dripping with stalactites and pools of warm spring water, as well as lots of cool rocks to climb around.

Eventually, after losing the way a few times (iphone GPS doesn't work here) the sleek black SUV dropped us off on the motorway to Sisian, where we quickly found a classic foul mouthed Armenian trucker on his was to Yerevan from Iran who dropped us off at the turn. There we miraculously found another truck home. The hitching itself is very fun, as you get good banter with the truckers in a particular Russian vernacular where every second word is somehow offensive.

A dinner of fresh fruit and bread and quick night at our hotel, and we hopped onto a minivan heading north to Yerevan, the capital, almost completing our loop of the country. But before we stopped at Khor Virap, yet another monastery on a hill overlooking Ararat plain and the mountain itself, another epic location. Obviously it's very picturesque, but it feels quite standard. They need to step it up and build a monastery on an island inside an active volcano or something. Despite taxi touts bluntly saying there's no public transport, we got onto a waiting bus right in from of us to the capital.

Yerevan is a slight shock, a developed city where we don't have to avoid cow pats on the streets, nicely dressed attractive people, neon lights and tall buildings. Definitely a mild "farmer boy in the big city for the first time" kind of sensation, although it soon passed. We shall delve deeper into what there is around...

Posted by Nomadics 09:20 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

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