Craic commandos, flabbergasting hospitality and animal touching abounds in the mountain wilderness – Tblisi to Mestia, Georgia

Jill was happy we’d managed an early (ish of 2am) the previous night but Susan was still of the opinion we should have gone to a tittie bar (even though we’d seen plenty in the bath house earlier that day) when we were rudely awoken by the dustmen at about 8am on the Wednesday morning, as we’d ordered a taxi for 9ish to take us into Tblisi city centre where we would be picked up in a minibus (at the statue of St George next to Rustaveli metro) and taken to Vanilla Sky’s little airstrip outside of town for our terribly commercial flight on a 2 person plane up to the mountain village of Mestia in the Svaneti region of Georgia. Susan was convinced we had tons of time and had snoozed the alarm which lead to Jill getting very anxious and impatient, convinced we were going to miss the flight and she’d had just about enough of missing flights this trip, thank you very much. It was a good 20-30 minutes in the taxi from the hotel to the city centre, and then the taxi driver drove straight past Rustaveli and had to double back around the one way system, so we were starting to really panic! We had been told to look for a “white Mercedes Sprinter” and were relieved to find loads of them waiting near the statue when we finally got there. Unfortunately NONE of them were our Vanilla Sky minibus and one of the taxi drivers told us we had just missed it, so we jumped in and told him to catch up with it! We ended up getting there in good time for the flight still thankfully, the weather was decent so the flight was going ahead and and we flopped ourselves down in the comfy chairs in the waiting room, swigged some breakfast beer and petted the two resident airport toy poodles that were mincing about being adorable. Seriously, take note Ryanair – Our research has shown that customers find the whole airport experience a lot less stressful if you provide them with poodles to touch!

We bonded over poodle touching and breakfast beer with Liz and Andy, a lovely couple (both journalists from That London but living in Ankara in Turkey and you can read Liz’s very interesting blog here) around our age who were also going to Mestia and were soon to become our new BFFs while we were there. After a short wait we boarded the tiny 15 seater turbo prop plane, which was too small even to stand up straight in. The pilot told the four big burly (and seemingly quite drunk) Russian blokes in front of us to sit at the front of the plane, we assume for ballast, but this didn’t stop them from trying to walk around and get into the cockpit/chair at the front once we’d taken off. It was too loud in the plane to really talk, but we attempted to continue our conversation with Liz and Andy by yelling over the sound of the engine and the drunk Russians, who were also shouting at each other. Top plane camaraderie achieved!

Come fly with us come fly come fly away…

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Beasts, Beers and Babushka scrubs – Tbilisi, Georgia, Day 2

Thank Parmaynu for huge orthopaedic mattresses and Thai ladies with their business men massages as for once we woke up all refreshed after a much needed (after barely any sleep on the night train from Yerevan before) night’s sleep splattsed out in a nice comfy bed. We spent it wisely by pottering about our living room having breakfast beers and watching rubbish Russian music channels while getting ready. Today we were off out to properly explore Tbilisi – we liked what we’d seen of it the previous day but didn’t really have much of a chance to enjoy it as we were busy trying to sort out our plane tickets, but today we had no obligations and no plans other than to explore at our own pace and chill out in the sun on some nice terraces.

We got the metro to Rustaveli station, which looked to be the central hub for the city, and promptly found a little kiosk with tables and chairs outside in the sun and had a couple of beers there while looking at our map and deciding where to go next.

The old town seemed like the best bet, and there seemed to be loads of little bars and restaurants with terraces so we headed for there. On the way we passed so many amazing souvenir shops and street stalls – along with the usual fridge magnets and snow globes-type tourist tat, there were some great drinking horns, swords, daggers and ornate goblets that were pretty reasonably priced! Susan got some nice jewellery for presents and made a mental note of our favourite horn/dagger/goblet shops so we could come back later and pick up some good stuff to take home.

Follow us down the winding roads…

Attempting to be Pen Pals with Mr. Richard Madeley

A surprising element of our trip through the Stans was a burgeoning correspondence with Mr. Richard Madeley, of Richard and Judy television fame. He’d been contacted by our amazing friend Aaron, whom for Susan’s 40th had sent out beautifully hand written letters with blank birthday cards to lots of her favourite celebrities (plus a few random ones, and ones she hates) to fill out and send to her with their well wishes. As well as sending back his card with a nice personal message (although Aaron had at this point ran out of 40th cards and told him Susan was 50!), Mr. Richard Madeley also went to the effort of calling up to say Happy Birthday in person! To our utter dismay we were in the wilds of Nukus, Uzbekistan at the time and had no phone signal so we didn’t get to speak to him and the voicemail didn’t even kick in, so he sent a lovely email instead:

“Dear Susan

Firstly, happy 50th, although as you are currently adrift in the wastes of the desert you may not receive this for some time. Or, indeed, ever, if your goat’s bladder of water runs short. However, we live in confidence and hope.
Assuming your survival, I thought I might just add to your developing appreciation of The Pickwick Papers. Here’s an extract I just know you will like.

“Oh, she dotes on poetry, sir. She ADORES it … she has produced some delightful pieces herself, sir. You may have met with her ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog, sir?’

Now that’s writing.
Lots of love on your 50th, Susan. You have some very nice friends.
Best wishes,

Richard Madeley. xx”

What a total gentleman and all round amazing human being he is! So having some time to ourselves on the night train from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia we thought it was about time to reply and try to become life long friends with the wonderful Mr. Richard Madeley, as well as send him some snaps of Jill’s fabulous new sausage skin fake tan and Susan weeing into The Gates of Hell:

Dear Mr. Richard Madeley…

Grounding of the Cessna and Monkey Tattooing – Tbilisi, Georgia, Day 1.

After travelling from Yerevan to our first stop in Georgia, Tbilisi, enduring the heat in our night train compartment the evening before from the inability to leave the door next to the window open in case Mr. Anal Secret came in and tried it on again, we emerged rather groggily from Tbilisi station to a nice sunny day and were immediately swarmed by pushy taxi drivers, which is not what you want at the best of times but especially not when you’ve just woke up after hardly any sleep and are in a new place and don’t even really know where you’re actually going yet! So we dived into a little bakery/café outside the station and had a breakfast beer while formulating a plan for the day. In the meantime, the little old baker dragged Susan up for a bit of a dance to some Phil Collins on the radio which was hilarious until his hands got a bit frisky and she had to slap him, which all the other staff behind the counter thought was even more hilarious but seriously – what is it with these lecherous old men around these parts?

Tblisi's dancing, touchy baker
Rocking out with our Khachapuri out.

Dance with us through Tblisi…

Night train marriage proposal to indecent proposal – Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia

After bumping and grinding the night away in a dubious cellar club with the locals in Yerevan the previous night it was a dream come true to lounge around in bed the next day, totally missing seeing anything as we are wont to do once we have a booze in us. Our night train to Tbilisi wasn’t until 10.30pm so we’d both just enjoyed what we thought was a nice respectable lie in as we’d assumed that the other people in the dorm getting up and moving about would rouse us at a decent time, but as the ones that had got up were quiet as mice and the other ones were sleeping all day too, it was already evening when Susan checked her phone and realised what time it was! Thankfully we had slept away our hangovers (as well as the entire day) so we immediately packed up our gear, grabbed the rest of our food and drinks from the fridge and headed for the station as although there was still a few hours to go, we wanted to be sure that we got tickets as we were already a day behind schedule (“every other day” night train not running on the day we wanted to get it). Thankfully the tickets weren’t a problem and we even splashed out on a 1st class private cabin for a very reasonable €33. Once they were purchased, we stocked up on a fine selection of vodka, juices, kebabs, sausages and pastries for the train in the little shops in the subway.

We then attempted to find a bar nearby where we could kill the remaining couple of hours until it was time for the train but unfortunately it was at this point that it started to absolutely lash it down, and we couldn’t find a bar anywhere! Even google maps was coming up with nothing in the area and we were getting drenched and grumpy trudging around the streets with our rucksacks in tow, so decided to go into the fast food joint that was just on the corner close to the station in the hope that they sold beer. To our surprise it did, and it smelled really good in there so we ordered some beers, falafel for Jill and a veggie burger for Susan. She’d been quite lucky in Armenia as it was conveniently lent so lots of places had a “Lenten” vegetarian option for those who had decided to abstain from meat. We perched next to the window to watch the world go by while we enjoyed our food and drink and did a quick facebook update to let our friends know we were still alive, since we hadn’t been in touch with anyone since before we’d left for the wilds of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was at this point that a dodgy little old man came up and started talking away to us. Now you know we love a nice friendly old man, but he kept pointing to our beers and then himself and then the bar and we thought he meant he wanted to buy us one, but it soon became apparent that he wanted us to buy HIM one. We wouldn’t have been averse to treating him to a booze but then he started stroking Susan’s leg so since we didn’t know “go away” in Armenian, we decided to head for the train as it was about due to arrive anyway. Said dodgy old man followed us all the way to the platform, now asking us for money, and then onto the TRAIN and only finally left us alone when we found our compartment and locked the door. You give old meeeen, a bad name! And we hardly had any Armenian drams left anyway since we were going to be in Georgia when we woke up the next day!

Choo chooooo – and off we chuff!

Full photographic adventures of Armenia are over on our Facebook page.

Packed in a (t)rusty Russian saloon with their old reliable driver, Albert, Susan and Jill venture off into the wild mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Head on over to 2 Girls 1 Country (per day) – an Adventure in Pinge and Wang. on Facebook to catch up with all of the hot visual action.

Armenia Album

A Beautiful Day Out and About in Skyrim – Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karaback to Yerevan, Armenia

Still bearing the disappointment of turning up to a building site instead of the Titanic Hotel in Vank and then not finding any dodgy old men bars in Stepanakert yesterday, upon going out onto the balcony of our new hotel we were happy to find that the previous night’s heavy fog had lifted and we could enjoy our lovely mountain view in all its full glory. We were actually awake in time for breakfast for once, so had something to eat and slyly made up a packed lunch of cheese sandwiches before Albert appeared in the lobby to collect us. Our first stop of the day was Shushi, an historical walled city not far from Stepanakert that was the scene of one of the most bloody battles during the Karabakh war. We had a wander round there and visited the fortifications and famous Ghazanchetsots Cathedral before starting the long drive back over the mountains. Upon reaching the border we stopped off at the Nagorno-Karabakh entrance monument which is perched on a plateau overlooking the beautiful rolling hills and valleys of the region.   Also enjoying the view was a family having a picnic and one of them came over as we were taking photos to give us some of their lunch – how nice? Susan even had to pretend to eat the meat in it as she didn’t want to appear rude by not accepting it.

 

En route back to Yerevan we had planned a stop off at the village of Halidzor (back in Armenia) to have a ride on the “Wings of Tatev” – the worlds longest (5.7km) non-stop double track cable car which takes you up to the spectacular 9th century Tatev Monastery, that sits high in the mountains, at the edge of a cliff and looks like High Hrothgar (so we hoped we would meet some Greybeards and get to learn some new thumes). Albert dropped us off at the cable car and told us to try and be back by 3pm as he was wanting to get back to Yerevan before it got too late (and we had a suspicion that his car didn’t have any headlights), so off we skipped. The cable car was great fun – it’s quite new so everything is very modern and shiny, and a recording of a very posh BBC World Service RP accented man (“The Monastery of Taaaaaaahtev”) provided us with a commentary on the view as we ascended to some nice classical music.

On the wings ooooof Taaaateeeev, I wanna fly foreeeveeer…

Through the ice to Titanic – Yerevan, Armenia to Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh

Our driver to Nagorno-Karabakh, Albert, arrived bright and early and we said Goodbye to our cheerful little hostel room. Albert was an elderly gent (80 if he was a day) and our carriage for the next couple of days was a battered and drafty old Russian saloon. Albert was from Karabakh and couldn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t really communicate (other than our bits of chut chut Ruski), but he did however understand our needs and wants and stopped at all the roadside shops saying “Piva (beer), toilette (toilet)” and taking photos of us with any particularly stunning vistas.

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We had come well prepared with our packed lunch, leftover dinner (from the restaurant the previous night) and a selection of alcoholic beverages for the long drive ahead. As we drove out of the city and up into the mountains the weather got continually worse, starting with a sprinkling of snow and ending up in a total white out blizzard by the time we got to the highest point! It was pretty scary, especially as the roads were so potholed it was impossible to drive on your correct side of the road all the time (and Albert didn’t much seem to care about such formalities as lanes anyway) and there were a few times swerving to avoid oncoming wagons by a hair’s breadth, we really did think we were goners! We stopped off at a little service station right in the mountains, full of truck drivers huddled around a little gas heater. We bought Albert a coffee, replenished our beers and got told off by the truckers for wandering around outside in the snow taking photos because we’d get sick.

Hup over the mountains with us!

Oh Transaero, where is your vodka?! – Almaty, Kazakhstan to Yerevan, Armenia

Ah the traditionally heavy St Patrick’s Day/Jill’s birthday night hangover, how we hate you but OH how you are worth it!! Awaking in our suite in Almaty we were really enjoying the luxury with it’s amazing comfy beds (especially Jill’s middle class bed – although sadly they didn’t have any instructions on how to predict an earthquake by observing the behaviour of cats) and black out curtains, so it will come as no surprise at all to hear that we didn’t surface until mid-afternoon. Thankfully our flight wasn’t until 6.30pm (nicely timed, Transaero!), so we just sat on our lovely big balcony drinking minibar boozes in the sun and debriefing each other on the shenanigans of the previous night until the time came to head down to check out, order a taxi and neck a quick vodka and fresh orange at the bar before heading to the airport. We got there in sufficient (not “good” obviously, this is us we’re talking about) time to catch the flight no problem, but there was a MASSIVE queue at passport control, only one window was open and he seemed to be taking ages to let each person through (we thought maybe he was using Tajik security methods of getting a yak to stare at people’s documents) and we were getting very restless and tetchy as we anxiously awaited our turn.

Finally we got through and managed to board the flight just in time. After take-off when the complimentary drinks trolley came round we asked for a beer, which was met with shaken heads. “Wine?”, “Vodka?” and “Whisky?” were also similarly dismissed. Even when we offered to pay extra. Turns out there was only NO BOOZE on the flipping plane! This was just not cricket, as we were in dire need of a mender and it was over four hours to Moscow (that we were actually allowed to go to this time as our connecting flight was with the same airline so we were “officially” transitting). Four miserable hours, that we spent mostly bitching about the lack of booze or trying to nap. Very badly played Transaero! We had thought better of a Russian airline!!

Bring us some vodka!!

Searching for Saint Patrick – Almaty, Kazakhstan

We had a nice whole luxury day in Almaty, and we had two main objectives to achieve. Firstly, we needed to find somewhere where something was likely to be going on that night for St Patricks’ Day – it is now a tradition of ours to hit up the Irish/ex-pats bars (i.e. the places we usually avoid like the plague) wherever we are in the world on Paddy’s Day. Secondly, we wanted to buy some Kazakhstan ice hockey jerseys to wear at the next IIHF world championships, so were on the lookout for some kind of sports/merchandise shop. We’d asked at the hotel reception about the latter, but they looked at us like we’d just vomited up a live cat and said they didn’t know.

We got a couple of beers from the shop near the hotel and sat on a wall in the sun, trying to formulate a plan of action. Looking in the Lonely Planet, the most likely candidate for the first objective was The Shakespeare – a “pub” themed pub that was popular with ex-pats. It looked about a mile away, but the route cut through the main shopping streets so we figured that we’d have a leisurely wander by that way and hopefully come across some shops selling ice hockey jerseys on route.

Almaty was a very lively place, and much more cosmopolitan than any of the cities we’d visited so far this trip. It was however, still very much the sprawling soviet style with huge blocks, massive roads and official looking buildings. Oh how we yearned for a nice little cobbled old town with windy streets and courtyard bars! We eventually found it after walking for ages, discovering that the Lonely Plant map had the pub on the wrong corner and having to use the wifi from somewhere to finally get there.

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That’s Susan’s happy to find the pub face.

Keep on hunting for St. patrick with us…