30 May 2013

Conversations you don't have at home

With those type of travel you can't help but get to know the people you are travelling with really well as you are living with them 24/7 and tend to do most things as a group - if nothing else there is just a lot of time for talking.

One topic of conversation which occurs with a fair amount of regularity, if you'll excuse they pun, is bowl movements. The health of your fellow travellers guts is of acute interest and it is perfectly normal to ask how someone's guts are doing, especially - as with last night - if you ate somewhere very local (we did - a tiny little hole in the wall type place, where the food & beer was cheap, plentiful and tasty) or ate something unusual (we did - bulls testicles, which are bland) or to discuss when someone isn't doing so well and how we, the group, can help them (if nothing else when you get hit hard with Deli Belly it's good to have a few people who'll get stuff from the shops for you, something which is less likely to occur whenever independently backpacking).

Not something which is normally discussed much at home.

Baku port (pictures)

Some pictures of the port I spent far too long in.


I am here: 41 5.088 N 65 57.736 E at 271m as of 28/05/2013 10:00 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.08479,65.96227

I stayed here last night and went swimming in the lake too - wonderfully refreshing after hours of bouncing around in 30+ degC heat (it's been 37 degC today, for reference). 

Slightly less refreshing was my first camel ride, which is an odd, if practical around here, method of movement. Not sure I'd want to do multi-day treks on one, as Tony has - a quick 15 min around the campsite was enough to get a feel for it. 

The evening was a simple meal of (yet more) Plov, vodka (what else) and then listening to the local folk music as performed by one man and some form of stringed guitar-like musical instrument - whilst sitting around a camp fire, looking at the stars. 

Motorway service stations

I am here: 40 34.865 N 62 40.904 E at 154m as of 24/05/2013 09:57 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:40.58108,62.68172

As random finds go, a well equipped, reasonably priced, restaurant (service station, but one which all UK service stations could learn from) in the middle of the desert is a nice find. That they were happy for us to prepare and eat our own food on their site as we'd bought drinks is something I just can't imagine happening in the UK. 

28 May 2013

Layer 0 / cable run marking

When you build a network you need to clearly document it, showing the different layers within it. One of the bits we all are probably fairly lax about documenting is the physical cable runs, although in an office this is probably taken care of by the facilities people. For WAN links there is a SEP field past the demarcation point, unless you're a SP.

What does this have to do with travel, I hear at least none of you ask....

Driving between Khiva and Bukhara and the local telco has got a brilliant way of marking where the optical cable is as it passes through the desert - they use reeds. The same reeds as are used elsewhere on help prevent dune erosion, just on a smaller scale.

Such a ridiculously simple idea.

26 May 2013

In hindsight...

... Trying to get a meal from a restaurant which is very obviously a building site was probably not our best idea.

Believing them when we were assured they had everything on the menu was, perhaps, silly.

The chicken and rice which some of the other guys ordered having to become chicken and chips because they didn't have any rice should have been a clue that my mushroom rice was also off the menu. The same menu which has everything available. This was confirmed when instead of asking if I'd like to order something else the waiter delivered nothing.

The 10% service charge was the biggest and hardest laugh I've had in really a very long time. Tears of laughter.

An excellent night.

My first earthquake

I experienced my first earthquake this morning - only a small one, but an actual earthquake. It felt like something was gently shaking the whole room.

By the time I realised what waste going on and had left my bedroom it hadn't stopped. I then found that Ryan & Vicky hadn't felt it (ie no idea how, it was very obvious) and the hotel staff had all ran out of the building.

24 May 2013

Goodbye Turkmenistan, hello Uzbekistan

I am here: 41 45.925 N 60 4.636 E at 104m as of 22/05/2013 13:50 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.76542,60.07727

Not even 1 month of travel and I'm in country number 5 on this part of the trip!

Some of the places I've been are already places I want to go back to and see more of and Turkmenistan is at the top of that list at the moment - with the time lost on the ferry (and that it is just an interesting country which I don't think the tour spends enough time in) I just didn't get to see enough of it. Still, there's always the next loop around.

The gates of hell (Darwasa Crater)

I am here: 40 15.108 N 58 26.292 E at 110m as of 21/05/2013 17:41 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:40.2518,58.43819

Day 27 - 21 May 2013

I said last year that I'd seen hell and in Turkmenistan I've found the entrance - the Darwasa Gas Crater.

The history of the place is well worth reading - it's an exercise to the reader to find out.

As with Ashgabat, it is the type of thing which none of us had seen before - a large crater, full of gas fires. It doesn't sound much, but to see it is amazing - the heat from it is tremendous, no need for the warm clothing which is otherwise associated with the desert at night, and like a camp fire (say, the one we lit an hour or so later) it is mesmerising to watch. 

We got there at nearly sunset and spent about 90 minutes there, watching the crater and the fires within. As we lost the sunlight it became a major light source - it was a shame that there was a bright moon as I'd like to see it in the pitch dark.

It was the first night bush camping, or any camping, for the new guys on the tour, some it was interesting to watch them learn the ropes of how we setup camp, prepare food, the strict system for keeping things clean & as bacteria free as we realistically can in an effort to help reduce the amount of Deli Belly we get, and generally do everything - for those of us who left Istanbul together it is now second nature; it is strange to see everyone going through the same learning process as the rest of us did only a few weeks ago.

Ashgabat - the white city

Day 27 (20 May)
After a 12 hour drive from Turkmenbashi we finally arrived in Ashgabat. Amusingly the hotel for the night was a hotel which also had the British Embassy within the building. No, I don't know why either - it made for amusement over breakfast as you could play spot the spook; sorry, spot the diplomat. It did explain the UN Hilux in the car park.

I'll threw my bag into my room, threw enough water across my face to make myself slightly more human and went in hunt of a much desired beer (I'd promised Olly the first round when we got off the boat - even at $7 for a bottle of so-so larger it was good) and to meet the new inhabitants of Daisy.
We only had a few hours in the morning (day 28 (21 May)) to see something of Ashgabat, as we needed to push on in hope of recovering the schedule and getting our of Turkmenistan before our visas expire - we'd been planning leaving before we even got there.

After a bitter of a faff we managed to get a taxi to take us around the city - the faff being that our local guide really really wasn't keen on us going around without him. This is the type of country which really doesn't like solo tourists - I wonder how Steffen got on.

Ashgabat is what happens when a country rich with mineral wealth becomes independent and decides that what it really needs is a lot of new buildings. The presidential at the time (semi self-elected president for life) must have said at some point "I *really* like white marble" as this is what everything is made with. Or at least faced with - the construction sites I saw the on the way out of the city was just another concrete building and marble cladding.

It is a place which is hard to describe as it so different from anywhere else I've seen, different from anywhere else everyone on the tour had seen, different from everywhere else.
Given that I still can't get the pictures off my phone, go do an image search for Ashgabat and you'll see what I mean. The place is just odd.

What makes it odder is that I'm fairly certain a lot or the government buildings are mostly empty. They are all large multistorey building, which could easily have a thousand+ people working in them and yet the car parks were empty and the only sign of life outside the offices were cleaners and gardeners (there were people - all older women, I think - tending to the greenery all overseas the city); there wasn't the usual bustle of people coming and going. For all the ministerial buildings and things which were meant to be happening inside, there way just no life.

The roads were mostly empty too - for all the large housing blocks our guide showed us (again, white marble) and said good things about (highly subsidised living being the main thing, to which I'm adding a very large pinch of salt) there was no traffic. In just under 2 hours of driving around the city we saw a few dozen cars on the road - given that the government gives everyone with a car 7000 litres of petrol a years, I'd expect to see more. That or see full car parks in the offices, which were empty.
In discussing the place with others on the tour and people I met in Uzbekistan we all agreed there is something unreal about the place; the lack of traffic and the lack of people was mentioned by just about everyone.

It want to return.

The crossing

This post was written over the time on the boat and then after to fill in bits I'd missed and some reflection - this is why it has a slightly odd flow.

Day 23 (17 May 2013)
Olly and Jan went off to the port again this morning, having had no call last night about a crossing. By 1030 they were back - there is a crossing, but they won't sell us tickets until they see you and your bags and the woman selling the tickets was pushing how quickly we needed to move - Jan had stayed at the port to help make sure they sold the tickets to us. Cue some quick repacking, goodbyes at the hotel (we'd been there long enough to get to know them a little - it was obviously a family run business) and a short taxi ride later (the taxis which park near the hotel all know Olly now - they knew where we were going and we had a fixed price) and we were at the port by 1100.

The ticket seller would now sell us tickets, despite that she'd not looked at us or our bags. No, I don't know either.

Here begins the hurryupandwait. Here also beings our introduction to Steffen - a Dutch guy travelling in the area on his own and we'd been told it was 4 to a room and that he'd be sharing with us.
He in travelling independently through parts of them world which go outside of their way to make it harder for independent travellers, if not impossible, so it surprised me that I met anyone doing it.

By 1230 we'd managed to be processed by Customs and Immigration, which mostly involved many different people checking our paperwork was in order and then writing down information in to paper ledger books - yes folks, paper.
The final check of my passport and ticket came with the same information being entered in to a computer and my picture taken (as per entry) - one stamp later and I'm officially out of the country.
Interestingly, and amusingly, the guys at the last check point had a guiager counter - not your everyday item at most borders I've crossed, or at least not visibly so.

We loaded on to the ferry fairly quickly, to be massively surprised to find that it's nice. It's new, clean, only 2 to a room, the rooms are en suite and have a shower! This was a major surprise to us all; we were expecting a rusting hulk with very basic facilities. It also has a kitchen on board and they'll sell us food as well as feeding the crew - this is a far more interesting option than the basics I'd brought with me and in hindsight a really useful thing - we'd all have all been in trouble without it.

The hurryupandwait now gets in to full swing. A good 2 hours go by with very little happening - the cargo isn't loaded (the train tracks on the boat don't have trains on them, so it's easy to tell) and we all just poke around the boat, relax, read (Rivers of London - it's excellent, I'm working my way through the trilogy).
Eventually the loading process starts - to my simple mind this should be a simple thing: there is a fixed amount of space for train carriages and the carriages are all identical - simply shunt on the required amount in to the relevant places (there are 4 tracks - you need to load them up in pairs so as to balance the weight) and done. How wrong am I. If nothing else the lower level of train tracks (yes, 2 floors of trains on a boat) take a lot of effort to fill, or so it would appear.

2.5+ hours later and the last of the train carriages are on board - this is when they then start loading the other items, mostly by forklift - but some (clearly marked as corrosive) by hand (ie thrown on to some guy's shoulder). This takes hours - don't ask me how many, I lost track.

I knew when we reached the port and saw the lack of loaded cargo we were on for a long wait - I was hoping for about 1800, maybe 2000. We asked several members of the boat's crew and got a mixture of shrugs, "30 minutes after we are finished loading" and "8pm" - 8 would do me.

What we hadn't expected is that around 8pm we'd be told by the crew, and then by the Captain (to Olly), that we will leave "early in the morning" as the boat didn't have enough fuel on board. The boat, which has been in the port all day, which is carrying trains full of fuel, doesn't have enough on board.
There is nothing we can do about this, so we continue to talk, take in the view of Baku by night and then turn in.

We'll see what tomorrow brings...

Day 24 (18 May 2013)
True to the Captain's word we set off early, about 0630. I got out of bed (having been woken by a PA announcement telling us we're on our way, or that is what I assume it said - it was lost on me in that it was in Azeri and I was too busy jumping out of bed going "what was that", or words to that effect) the remainder of the sunrise, but mostly to see us leaving Baku - it was nice to be in one place for a few days, but we'd been there 2 days too long.
The crew told us that it would be about an 11 hour crossings, which wasn't terrible - sail all day, get to Turkmenbashi in the evening, a few hours for Customs and Immigration and then drive all night to get to Ashgabat - we'd long known that we had lost the first few days of the Turkmenistan itinerary as we needed to get to Ashgabat, if for no other reason than there were a bunch of people there waiting to join the tour, but the sooner we got there the better.

With nothing else to do I got busy with reading - Moon Over Soho, the second in the trilogy starting with Rivers of London.
We were told by the crew that there was already one boat ahead of us waiting at the port, so they slowed our ship down and this meant we'd not reach port until about midnight - not great news, but not terrible; if we had travelled at the boat's normal speed we'd still be waiting until midnight to dock, so why rush.
A while after sunset we could see the lights of Turkmenbashi on the horizon - we knew we were close. What we hadn't expected was the sound of the anchor being lowered and the sound of the engines stopping - we weren't docking and would spend another night on the boat. We would dock early in the morning, said the crew.

Day 25 (19 May 2013)
Early morning came and went. Morning came and part way through the engines were started, the anchor raised and we started heading for the land - the boat was just being moved to a better fishing spot. The anchor was lowered and the engines stopped. Again. The fishing lines came out.

I'm not sure what they caught, but we had chicken for lunch.

The afternoon was exactly the same as the previous day - wandering around the ship, chatting, but mostly reading (Whispers Underground). The highlight was easily that the two cooks baked John a cake - allowing him to have tea & cake on his birthday. A really really nice thing for them to have done.
With no sign of docking at any point soon I just went to my bunk, read (finished the book - well worth reading all three) and dozed off - at about midnight Brian (my roommate for the crossing, an in general) woke me up with the news that the crew had just told (through sign language & mime) that they were about to start the engines and we'd be docking about 0100. Cue a quick repacking and getting everything ready. I then went back to bed to sleep for what little I could, expecting to get precious little over the next day or two.

At 0230 (Day 26 - 20 May 2013) I was awoken again, this time by one of the cooks (who also doubled as the boat's housekeeper) saying that we had docked and we needed to leave the boat. Now.

After days of hurryupandwait that I, we, going from our beds at 0230 to being in Customs and Immigration by 0245 came as a surprise. Of course, we then spent a few hours there - but it took me a few hours to get through the Immigration queue in the USA last November.

To our surprise, delight and relief Jan walked in to Customs about 10 minutes after us - it turns out that he had left a 1.5 days after us, but arrived at the same time thanks to the delays we had. Given that potentially huge headaches involved if the truck was stuck in Baku we were all very happy to see Jan - Olly especially.

Our guide for what little time we had left in Turkmenistan met us at Customs, which is a very useful thing - having someone local to help with the paperwork and act as a translator is invaluable, especially as the local officials are picky about how the paperwork is filled in; we all needed 2 goes at it and that's with help and a translator.

Steffen hitched a little lift with 2 Swedish guys who were independently overlanding in a 4x4 (you expect none and 3 turn up at once) and we last saw him waiting for the Swedes to sort out their entry. Given the delays we had with the boat he had very little time left on his visa, so he was hoping to see something of Ashgabat before having to push on to the Kazakhstan border. I hope he made it.

After sorting out a mistake with the paperwork (it only had 2 stamps and it needed 3) we were finally out of the port. 67 hours. 67 hours from port to port, beating the crossing of a similar Dragoman truck who are a few weeks ahead of us - they took 41 hours. That is winning, yes?

16 May 2013

Movement in Azerbaijan. Or not

Turns out the woman from the port called the wrong people - it is a boat to somewhere else which is leaving.
Back to the original plan of waiting around to 2300 tonight to see if there is a crossing, whereupon we will haven another round of world-class hurryupandwait.

All this means that we haven to skip what was planned four the first few days in Turkmenistan, we just have to push and get to Ashgabat as quickly as we can. Without the truck. Time for some local transport - time to be thankful for the guide we have in Turkmenistan to help us.

This does mean that I've had a lot of time to read today - Rivers of London, for those interested. A good read.

Movement in Azerbaijan

We've had a call from the woman who sells the tickets at the port - there is a crossing for us tonight, but not for Daisy. Her and Jan will follow us at some point (soon).

As for now - some frantic sorting of bags for us all, a quick trip to the truck to get a few bits and, hopefully, a trip to the supermarket so that we've actually got food.

Then comes what I expect will be a world-class hurryupandwait.


I noticed it in Tblisil, but I didn't really see it; it is much more evident in Baku, especially given the other shops, the other brands, which are here....

Neither Tblisil or Baku have a Starbucks. Yes Baku has some of the other major Western (global) food brands (McDonald's (1), KFC (1, with another opening soon), etc), but neither place (neither country?) has a Starbucks. This is a good thing.

Here's hoping Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) are the same.

Turns out Monmouth doesn't have a local supplier either, but that is less of a surprise.

Stuck in Azerbaijan

The lack of regular schedule for the boats across the Caspian to Turkmenistan was always going to make things interesting - turns out that issues at the Turkmenistan port, about which we can find no information, makes for an even more interesting time.

As I type this Olly & Jan are off trying to find options, which includes leaving the truck behind for a while and flying or sailing to Turkmenistan as foot passengers - Olly has to get there to meet the new people and the rest of us have visa time limits.

This was always one of the more interesting bits of the trip. :)

15 May 2013

Dear London (part two)

I've just started reading Rivers of London and the opening page has this little gem...

"... Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the 'London once-over' - a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-samaritism in London is considered an extreme sport - like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling."

Dear London

Dear London,

You need to change.

I know this isn't the best of opening lines, but we might as well get it in to the open. You need to change.

This isn't a case of "it's not you, it's me" - it really is you. Although it is (was) also me. An example...

Yesterday we discovered that we needed some passport pictures when we arrive in Turkmenistan - no digital photography for them at the border. Simple - we've found the local shopping centre and we'll just go there. Alas, no - none to be found.
So we wander the streets and can't find anywhere which does them, so Chris pops in to an electronics shop in the hope that they do them (small chance) or that there someone in there who knows where to get its done and, crucially, speaks English - or at least can understand our attempts to use sign language if the spoken word doesn't work out.

Now, London, pay attention to this bit...
Less than 1 minute later Chris comes back out of the shop with one of the guys who works there and he starts explaining to us where the nearest place is, as they don't do them. About half way through the explanation he realises it really isn't the easiest place to find and so, and London you really need to pay attention here, he walks us the 10 min walk to the place and then translates for us. He leaves work and takes a group of total strangers, tourists, to where they need to be and then helps them. Helps me. And then he offers to pay, if we didn't have enough cash.

Can you imagine this happening in London? No, I can't either.

You see London, you need to change. And it's not you, or me - it's us.



Days 18, 19, 20, 21 and at least 22. 12-15 May 2013.

At least day 22....
Greetings from Baku, where we are currently awaiting a boat across the Caspian, taking us to Turkmenistan. There isn't a scheduled service, so we'll go when the boat goes and that isn't today - which we'd hoped it would be.

It has been really good to have a few days in one place after 3 weeks of permanently being on the move; a few days to slow down a little, take in what Baku has, do the mundane things like laundry & banking and generally not have to think about what is happening. It has also provided for some much needed solo time, which after a few weeks of being around the same people all the time is needed.

Baku itself is an interesting place - there is very serious money here due to the oil & gas (all the high-end shops are here, very expensive cars, London prices at least, etc) and yet once you go a few streets backup from the excessively manicured central area you hit the normal Baku and it feels a lot different - it isn't manicured, the scaffolding isn't hidden in the normal are as it is in the centre; the pavements need work, unlike the central area; the shops go from the likes of Dior & Tiffany's to the local equivalent of Spar (7-11 for you Americans :)) & small local businesses. All in about 3 blocks. Not a lot different from walking 3 (ish) blocks from the likes of Knightsbridge, now I think about it.

14 May 2013

Into Azerbaijan

Being massively behind on writing anything about Georgia I'm going to start again on Azerbaijan and will try and finish writing about Georgia at some point - maybe on the ship across the Caspian.

Days 16 & 17 - 10 & 11 May 2013

The border crossing for Georgia in to Azerbaijan was surprisingly simple; given the headaches I had getting the visa sorted I was surprised at how easy it was to get across - 30 minutes end-to-end to leave Georgia and enter Azerbaijan. Well, that is what it was for the passengers, the truck always takes longer - another 2 hours by the time all the paperwork was sorted. That was 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac in the sun, as there is nothing once you cross. Next time I'll take a book. And my sunglasses. And sunscreen.

One thing became very obvious once we'd crossed the border and started heading for Sheki (our stop for the night) - the Lada car is still really common (popular?) here. Yes there were quite a few in Georgia, but Azerbaijan is The place to be if you're a fan of Ladas. I'm wonder if I can get one of the 4x4 ones with right hand drive for home. Perfect for London! ;-)
A Lada which looks like it's a contender for the Azerbaijany edition of Pimp My Ride is well worth seeing.

Sheki itself is a small town which isn't massively interesting - there is Khan's Palace and that it mostly just for the "huh, so they really knew how to do woodwork back then" factor - no nails or glue in the building, just joins. We'll, none apart from the replacement floor which has been put down - someone decided nailing that down would be a good idea. *sigh*

Given our inability to speak any of the local language getting dinner was entertaining for all involved (us, the guy who ran the place, his other customers) - I've still no idea what we ordered and if it has any relationship to what we ate; tasty either way.

Breakfast on day 17 was the source of much amusement - having left the hotel at 7am we have bush "camped" breakfast on route to Baku. Given that there was no where really suitable, we ended up having breakfast in a bite of scrubland next to a major road - anyone for breakfast on the hard shoulder of the M1? It's effectively what we did.
The entertainment comes from the confused looks on the drivers at 9 people having a picnic on the side of the road.

The rest of the days driving towards Baku was dull, with the exception of finding a tree growing in the middle of the road. Not something that had fallen on to the road, not something which had fell off a lorry, but actually growing up through to road. A main road.

The day was mostly about driving - the whole route through this Caucuses is because we can't go through Iran at the moment, which most, if not all, on the truck would have preferred. Alas global politics is what it is - a shame, as from what I've heard Iran is a really nice place, not that Georgia and Azerbaijan aren't, and that your average Iranian is a very friendly and welcoming person - as are the people of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The pushing with the driving was to get to Baku as quickly as we could, as there isn't a scheduled boat service from Baku to Turkmenistan; the boat goes when the boat goes and Olly & Jan needed to start getting it sorted.

There was time to stop in Gobustan to see the Petroglyphs and mud volcanoes, both of whish were well worth seeing.

Our bed for the night was a random field about 60Km from Baku. Just us and a heard of sheep which stopped by for a visit.

13 May 2013

That moment...

That moment when you're in a random locals bar in Azerbaijan and the in-house singer starts singing a song in Russian and the 4 non Russians at your table all go "I know this song". That.

I've no idea how we all know the song or what it is, but we all knew it.

12 May 2013

Batumi to Tblisil

(I never wrote anything about Georgia. This is the as is draft of what I started to write.)

Days 7-10, 1-4 May

Day 7 started with with the first of the border crossings, Turkey to Georgia. We all got through very quickly (under 30 minutes), but then had to wait another 1.5 ish hours for the truck to get through - Daisy draws attention, so everyone wants a look (mostly just so they can get a better look). That and there's always paperwork. Endless bloody paperwork.

As we crossed the border we found our local guide, Zaza. Or more accurately - he found us; we stand out.
Zaza was with us from border to border and made everything so much easier - having someone who knows the lie of the land, the language, the customs and how (and where) to get things done made our time in country far more about experiencing what was there as a lot of the local logistics had already been taken care of. If nothing else thanks to him Tony & I were able to sort out our visas for Azerbaijan quickly and easily.

Thinking back on the land crossings I did in Africa (the European ones don't count) and none of them were like the Turkey/Georgia border - a real sea of humanity, with endless people watching. The car with a fridge hanging out the back of it, masses of people with their luggage waiting for their coach to get through Customs, taxis and cars everywhere - all dropping off and collecting people, money changers all offering exactly the same rate, small shops which seemed to mostly just sell alcohol, and for some reason - a casino. Great for people watching.

There were also beggars, which reminded me (rightly or wrongly) of the "professional" child beggars in London. One, a girl aged about 5, latched on to Olly's leg and did the full works to try and get money from him - after we managed to almost literally pry her from him she went another way and I saw her a few minutes later trying it again with a different group of tourists - it worked that time. Her ability to turn on/off a range of emotions to try and get what she wants (needs?) at that age is surprising.
She had what I took to be an older sister (about 10-11) and what I'd guess was her mother, who had a babe in arms too, both of which were begging. I saw them later in Batumi around the hotel, which for better or worse makes me think of the London "professional" beggars. (note to self: find a better way of describing a "professional" beggar.)

The border cross also gave us the first taste of Georgian food - a cheesy bread, something which would turn up every day. It also turned up later that day over dinner, which was a sampling of traditional Georgian food - the food we'd eat almost exclusively for the whole time in Georgia (the exception being camping, where we had some much needed vegetarian food - the Georgians really like pork).
We ate (far too much) very food for our entire time in Georgia.

The morning of Day 8 (2 May) was spent sorting the visa for Azerbaijan (see other blog post) and then wandering the streets of Batumi. The few hours of walking around radically changed my view of the town.
The evening before Kim, Rachel and I had gone for a quick walk, which ended up along the sea front, which showed Batumi as a modern town with hints of Soviet, something reinforced by the walk to/from dinner (a place called The Ship) - a modern, well sculpted, park and fairly prosperous looking streets.
I took and blogged a few pictures with my phone, but as one of the pictures didn't upload properly I deleted the post and added that to my "sort it later" list. I still haven't got around to reuploading them and probably won't until I can extract pictures from my camera, within which is a better sample of the town.

From the entrance to the hotel you could see a market, but only once we'd explored it (one small street) and the surrounds (many streets) did we (me, Tony and Brian) get a better (more accurate?) feel of the place.
The market itself was something Brian described as "Africa meets Stalin" and I can see what he means - small stalls selling a small amount of produce, it felt like they were scratching a living. To add to this, the market was next to a new shopping centre & gym. The surrounding buildings had a distinctly soviet feel to them, where the further away from the sea front we went the more soviet the buildings looked & felt.
The surrounding shops were all very local, typically specialist, shops, the housing was soviet style low-rise blocks, laundry hanging everywhere.

The night should have been spent at a homestay and technically was - it is just that they've invested the money made from providing homestays and invested it in their home (a great thing) and made it a small hotel - not exactly a homestay, although obviously there are no complaints about people doing whatever they can to improve their lives - it is what we all strive for in our own ways.

Day 9. 3 May 2013.
This is being written on Day 16, even if it is posted later....

The day started with what was to become a staple of Georgia, a visit to a monastery.
In my 8 days in Georgia I have probably visited more churches and monasteries than I have in the previous 8+ years - it is interesting to look around them, especially as I was in a Russian Orthodox country during their Easter (no chocolate bunnies to be be seen anywhere), especially given that their faith is engrained in to the everyday. 

10 May 2013

... I'm off to Azerbaijan </Eddie>

After much stress with sorting visas in London it brings me much joy to report that I am here: 41 47.263 N 46 18.877 E at 362m as of 10/05/2013 05:57 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.78771,46.31461

4 May 2013

My view at lunchtime

Had lunch at 2200 meters today; sat out in the sun, surrounded by snowy mountains

2 May 2013

Switzerland with Mosques and the Sumela Monastery

Day 6. 30 April 2013.

Waking up in there middle of nowhere is a wonderful thing - all the same simple things whish make settings up the camp good are there again in the morning - a focus on striking camp, breakfast and then hitting the road. As nice at have WiFi access it at the campsite tonight is (it allows me to keep in contact with your lot), having no contact with the outside and being focused on the moment is good too - I need to find a balance between these two, where I think it's a little too sided towards contact at the moment. We'll see.

There only planned activity for the day was a visit to the Sumela Monastery, a now disused ancient christian monastery half way up a cliff. No, really, this thing is build into a cliff, about 800 metres up. I'd shown you the pictures I've taken, but they are still stuck on them camera - a quick image search will show you what I mean.
Given how big it is and where it is, my first thought (after: wow!) was: how the hell did they build that?! Humans do some amazing (and also stupid and downright nasty) things in the name of God.
Rachel had a good point - gives that the place is built where there was a miraculous appearance or Mary in the rocks (order so the storyline goes) - what were the people who've discovered it doing up their in the first place?! It isn't what you'd call accessible.
The place itself is another place I'm glad I've visited - it's an insight in to a world in just don't know; the world of a people who build a monastery in a place which just can't have been easy to build in, make it fully functional by building an acquaduct (because building the monastery just wasn't hard enough), have then carved out a "priest room" and decorated with fresco painted scenes from the bible. Being atheist (although one with another increasing soft spot for Buddhism) I won't haven got from my place what someone who has actually read the bible could, but well worth the visit regardless.

One of the side bonuses to the visit is that we had a gentle 40 min walk up the hill to get to the monastery, providing a nicely relief for the otherwise far too static time only the truck - yes the truck is moving long distances, but there in limited ability for us to do real exercise; this is a major change in my life as compared to the previous 6 months. It's nice to be able to stretch my legs properly.

The bonus "activity" of the day was the drive, or at least the views whilst driving - he says with a feeling that I'm turning in to a stuck record. Having spent a week or so in the Swiss and Austrian Alps a few years ago there scenery was very familiar - mountains, twisty passes which take you up & over, small little groups of houses, rivers through the valleys and all with a touch on snow still on the peaks. The major difference - mosques. All the little "Swiss" towns and villages had a mosque; other than that you could have been in Europe.

Visas (again)

I am now the proud owner of a visa for Azerbaijan.

What was going to take the wrong side of a week in London took 2 hours in Batumi and I think if pushed could have been done in about 20 minutes - there was a big book of them on the desk in the office and you could easily do all the paperwork for a visa, including writing the visa out (yes folks, my visa is hand written) within 20 minutes; probably 10.
I suspect it took as long as 2 hours as there guy sortie it out at the Consulate was more interested in Facebook - his computer screen had it showing and as we left his office he went back to looking at it.

The only other visas to sort is the Mongolian one, but that can't be done in London as it would expire before I got there; one for Beijing, but that is expected.

1 May 2013

Georgia border crossing

I am here: 41 31.291 N 41 32.95 E at 2m as of 01/05/2013 11:38 BST http://maps.google.com/maps?q=loc:41.52151,41.54917