6th March: LIFT OFF!!
The Pinge & Wang (and friend!) news team will assemble at Gatwick Airport (Susan and Vita flying over from Dublin and Jill getting the train down from Sunderland) to catch the 13:10 Easyjet flight to Moscow, arriving at 20:00 Moscow time. There we have a long eight hour wait before our flight to Ashgabat (at 01:30) so will check ourselves into the lounge to enjoy the complimentary drinks and snacks for a bit, while we use the time wisely trying to get Vita to teach us Russian (she’s fluent – score!).
7th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We land in the Turkmen capital at 07.15 and will be met by our tour guide who will be taking care of us during our time in Turkmenistan. We were reluctant at first to book a proper “tour” package as we always pride ourselves in being able to organise and implement our own logistical plans without any outside help, but in Turkmenistan an organised tour is a necessary evil that you need in order to get a visa. We specified our own itinerary though and the price was quite reasonable, so it didn’t end up too much of a hardship. We are staying in the Hotel Paytagt – the cheapest, most central hotel we could find (accommodation in Ashgabat is surprisingly expensive and there are next to no hostels!) – so hopefully we can dump our stuff, freshen up and head out to explore the city. We don’t need the guide to accompany us in Ashgabat, so we’ll probably have a leisurely wander (interspersed with taking in some local booze) as we head to the main attraction for the day, the Turkmenbashi Tales – a theme park based on Turkmen fairytales! We’ll probably be knackered after the lack of sleep (hopefully we’ll catch a few hours on the Moscow-Ashgabat flight If we’re not too hyper and excited) but we will soldier on and attempt a shot at the night life.
8th March: Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
We will spend the morning horse riding at Alaja farm (just outside of Ashgabat), who are famous for their strong and graceful Akhal Teke horses (the Turkmen people love their horses even more than their vodka!). Susan, who was a horsey child, is really looking forward to this but Jill has serious reservations as her only horse based encounters have involved falling off them, usually into something spiky. In the afternoon we will visit Kow Ata – an underground lake in a cave (also just outside of Ashgabat) that is always around 30 degrees (due to sulphuric gases from the rocks) for a nice swim and to see Central Asia’s largest colony of bats that also live in the cave! Another evening and night in Ashgabat.
9th March: Erbent Oasis, Gas Crater (Turkmenistan)
We have a driver for this part of the tour (luxury!) and will be leaving Ashgabat by car and travelling into the Karakum desert, stopping at the Erbent Oasis where we will hopefully see some nomads, milk some camels and touch some of their beautiful Tazys (traditional Turkmen hunting dogs that are quite similar to Afghans). . From there we will continue North via the mud and water craters then spend the night camping next to the Gates of Hell gas crater in a yurt, celebrating Susan’s birthday at midnight and hopefully avoiding getting bitten by Caspian Cobras. We really can’t wait for this – it’s going to be epic!
10th March: Konye-Urgench (Turkmenistan), crossing over into Uzbekistan
We will continue up to Konye-Urgench for a brief visit and a spot of lunch on the way to the Uzbek border, where we will bid our driver, guide and the lovely Vita farewell (Vita is flying back to Ashgabat to catch a flight home – though we wish we could have the pleasure of her company (not to mention her language skills) for the onward journey), cross the border and head to Nukus and stock up on supplies before catching the night train at 19.10 to Samarkand.*
*If it exists as we’re getting conflicting information from the internet…otherwise it’ll be the 15.35 “night train” that doesn’t leave at actual night time and gets us into Samarkand ridiculously early!
11th March: Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
The main attraction of the day is the glorious Registan, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and the most famous landmark on the Silk Road. We will have a nice leisurely sight-seeing day and take in all the lovely Islamic architecture and history, maybe visit a banya for a Samarkand deep tissue massage (oh we love a good massage!), try some local food (including some of the famous Samarkand “Non” bread) and stock up on train supplies before trying to find a bar that is open until the early hours (it’s quite a conservative town and not that many pubs, so this will need prior research!) and close-ish to the train station where we can chill out over a few beers before catching the 02:40 night train to Denau.
12th March: Denau (Uzbekistan), crossing over into Tajikistan, Iskanderkul Lake (Tajikistan)
The train to Denau goes the “scenic route”, i,e. from Samarkand all the way down to Termiz (near the Afghan border – it’s just there! We are so tempted to get out and touch Afghanistan!) before going back up to Denau, close to the Tajik border so we don’t arrive there until nearly 2pm! The train stops at the border, so we will cross over and get another taxi to Dunshanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) and from there get a shared taxi to Sarytag, near Iskanderkul Lake. Iskanderkul is a glacial mountain lake that is said to be one of the mose beautiful in the Soviet Union. It’s named after Alexander the Great (Iskander is Persian for Alexander) and legend has it that his beloved warhorse Bucephalus fell from the cliff and drowned in the lake, and that on clear nights at exactly midnight the ghost of Bucephalus can be seen coming out of the lake and grazing on the shore. We are staying in “Sherzok” guesthouse right on the lake (which is too cold to swim in even in the summer, due to the altitude), which is the only home stay with actual beds (rather than mats on the floor) and the luxury of an indoor shower! Fingers crossed we’ll see Bucephalus!!
13th March: Iskanderkul (Tajikistan)
We have a luxury full day/night combo here, so on day 8 we are going to wrap up warm (as it will be about 1 degree! For Susan this will just involve wearing another pair of tights and still no coat), pack ourselves up some food and boozes and go out on a hike exploring. There is a 38 metre waterfall nearby (called “Niagara” by the locals) so that will probably be our first port of call. We’ve also seen mention on that internet about YAK RIDING! Which of course we’ll be all over if the opportunity arises! After a day of good clean Christian family values wholesome outdoor pursuits, we will be over the moon to enjoy some nice home-cooked grub around an open fire back at the home stay with our hosts, and maybe hitch a ride into Sarytag village to find a dubious little bar to talk shit to the local old men in on the night.
14th March: Dunshanbe (Tajikistan)
The next morning we will head back into the village to hopefully catch a marshrutka (shared taxi/minibus – we are proud to know the word for “minibus” in many different languages as we have got so many of them!) to Dunshanbe, or alternatively will have befriended someone in the village the previous night who will drive us there for a decent price. We really struggled to find somewhere to stay in Dunshanbe as there are very few hostels (none of them are central!) and the other hotels and guesthouses are surprisingly expensive, but we finally settled on the “Green House” which is cheap, nice and handy for the airport the next day. It’s around 5km outside of the town centre, so we figure that we’d have a leisurely stroll towards the town (via some bars), find somewhere for a bowl of soup and a bottle of wine and see what Dunshanbe’s nightlife has to offer.
15th March: Dunshanbe to Issyk Kul (Kyrgyzstan) via Bishkek
We have a flight at 11.30 from Dunshanbe to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan capital) that gets in at 1pm, and from there we’re jumping straight on one of our trusty marshrutkas to Cholpon Ata, a little town on the shores of Iake Issyk Kul that’s a crowded resort in the summer but should be pretty quiet when we go (the temperature in March ranges between –5 and 3 degrees C… what sort of idiots go on holiday to these temperatures eh?). We were hoping to find ourselves a yurt camp to stay in with the fishermen/goatherds but they are only there in the summer, so we’ve found ourselves a nice little hotel. We should get there around tea time, so hopefully will have the chance to enjoy the views of the lake and mountains in the last of the daylight before a nice chilled out evening hopefully involving touching animals and/or talking rubbish with old men.
16th March: Issyk-Kul to lle-Alatau National Park (Kazakhstan) via Bishkek and Almaty
Another day of marshrutkas and a pretty early start –dragging ourselves away from the beautiful lake and mountains into a marshrutka back to Bishkek (4 hours) then straight into another one to Almaty (4 hours) then a taxi (1 hour) to today’s end destination we’ll probably arrive in the evening but this time we won’t be so gutted about missing the daylight as we’ll be staying in an ex-soviet astronomical observatory! Insert details about observatory.
17th March: Ile-Alatau and Almaty (Kazakhstan)
Since today’s final destination is only a luxury one hour taxi ride away, we might spend the morning exploring the park around the observatory in search of some animals to touch, head back to Almaty around midday for some lunch (Jill is particularly excited about trying the Kazakh delicacies of “kazy” and “karta” – sausages made from horse rectum), a trip to the bath house (for naked saunas and hitting each other with sticks) and then check into our hostel and hopefully befriend some craic commandoes to be our privy legs as we head out to celebrate St Patricks Day and Jill’s birthday at midnight. Almaty looks like quite the buzzing party town, so we’re sure that it will be a messy one!
18th March: Almaty to Yerevan (Armenia)
As is now traditional, Jill’s birthday will be spent hideously hungover and trying to force down some hair of the dog in order to get ourselves going. Luckily our flight to Yerevan isn’t until 18.20, so we have plenty of time to sort our heads out and get to the airport, and will probably manage to get a nice sleep on it due to our inevitable delicate condition. Our flight gets in at 1:30am, so we’ll probably head straight to our hostel, get some sleep and hopefully wake up refreshed for some Yerevan adventures
19th March: Yerevan (Armenia)
We’ve chosen the “Travellers’ Hostel”, mainly on the merit of it’s gorgeous looking courtyard bar, so we’ll probably get a nice loose egg and some breakfast beers in there while planning what to do that day. Yet again we have a luxury “waking up in the same place two days in a row” in Yerevan so we can have a proper look around. Aside from the abundances of old churches and fortresses, we’re particularly intrigued by “Levon’s Amazing Underground World”- an awesome underground sanctuary in a village outside of Yerevan, where in the mid-eighties Master Levon started digging a potato cellar for his wife, only to hear voices telling him to keep digging and spending the next 23 years chiselling out an elaborate cave! The evening will probably involve a luxury “nice sit down meal” and a few boozes as we have an early start in the morning!
20th March – Yerevan to Vank (Nagorno-Karabakh) via Stepanakert
We really wanted to go Azerbaijan on this Caucasus leg of this trip,, but the logistics getting to and from Armenia (which would have been our next port of call) were ridiculous and involved a 24 hour round trip to Tbilisi in Georgia to get from Baku (Azeri capital) to Yerevan due to no borders being open between Azerbaijan and Armenia (they’re not exactly on great terms) and the visa was a preposterous £100! Not to be deterred, we decided instead to go to Nagorno-Karabakh, a small independent state that Is technically part of Azerbaijan but occupied by Armenia. Not only could we still justify colouring in Azerbaijan on our world maps (although we will definitely visit on a separate trip as it looks amazing), but we will also be one step closer to achieving one of our life goals – to visit all the breakaway ex-soviet, non-UN states that started with Transnistria last year.
The marshrutka from Yerevan to Stepanakert (N-K capital) takes around 8 hours, so we’re going to catch the earliest one our non-morning selves will allow, and from there we will get a taxi to Vank – a small village about an hour away. This is the birthplace of an eccentric millionaire lumber baron called Levon Hayrapetyran (what’s with all these crazy Levons Armenia?) who after making his fortune decide to plough lots of money into improving his home village and aside from the sensible things (asphalt roads, a school and a lumber mill), part of his vision for the village was to develop tourism in the area (which was “ a long shot considering its isolation and the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is the remnant of a frozen conflict and officially does not even exist.“) and built a preposterous grand hotel in the shape of the Titanic. Of course, this is our accommodation for the night! One reviewer said “The Hotel Titanic, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh is not only a very odd place to stay, it is the Caucasus region’s very own Fawlty Towers. “
There’s probably not that much else happening in Vank (apart from the wall of licence plates, which is obviously a must!) so that evening we will probably enjoy this bizarre luxury and maybe just have a wander in search of a dubious little bar.
21st March – Vank (Nagorno-Karabakh) back to Yerevan via Halidzor cable car, night train to Tbilsi (Georgia)
Another early start to get back to Stepanakert by taxi, then marashrutka to Goris (back in Armenia) and from there we’re off to Halidzor to ride on the “Wings of Tatev” (the world’s longest (5.7 km) non-stop double track aerial tramway) up to the Tatev monastery and back, before hopping on another marashrutka back to Yerevan with time to stock up on supplies and grab a couple of drinks before catching the 22.35 actual night train timed night train to Tbilisi.
22nd March – Tbilisi (Georgia)
We arrive in Tbilisi (the Georgian capital – According to Georgian legends, it was founded in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali who, while hunting, shot a pheasant which fell into a warm spring and was either boiled or healed . Either way, the king was inspired to found a city on the site.) at 9am, so will probably locate a hostel (we have a few choices on the spreadsheet but Tbilisi seems quite cosmopolitan and we reckon we can probably just wing this bit), dump our stuff, find somewhere for a loose egg and some loose booze and have an explore of the city. Georgian wine is apparently very nice, so we’re of course going to put some of that in our face, probably sitting on nice terraces in the old town. We’re both quite interested in Georgian history (especially Jill who is a bit obsessed with Queen Tamar) so perhaps we will check some of that out. And there are geo-thermal baths!
23rd March – Tbilisi to Mestia OR TBC!!!
This part of the trip is where things get a bit uncertain. We’re absolutely gagging to visit Svaneti (from Wikitravel – “a high mountain region in Northwestern Georgia, home of the fierce and chivalric Svans. An extraordinary and surreal land of towers, snow, craggy peaks, wine, and dancing; where gold was fleeced, where time has not merely stopped, but rather simply never existed “ – ancient forts and bloodfeuds? Count us in! Another SKYRIM*!) and we’d read online about flights (or better – a helicopter!) from Tbilisi to Mestia (capital of the Svaneti region) but follow up research hasn’t been very successful. The flight/helicopter only seem to run in the summer (as apparently they have “no instruments” so can’t fly in bad weather!) so we either have the option of getting there via train/marashrutka, which will be a full day’s travel, or find somewhere else to visit. There is far too much choice in Georgia as it all looks amazing! Anyway we’ll just continue this itinerary with the original Mestia route or we’ll be on all day with options!
We haven’t decided on a hotel in Mestia yet, but it’s a toss up between an old fortress or another nice homestay.
*The first Skyrim we visited being Thethi in the Northern Albanian Alps, which is just stunning and we fell completely in love with its fabulous scenery and friendly people.
24rd March – Mestia (Georgia)
We learned from our trip to Thethi in 2012 that if you’re going out of the way to somewhere beautiful and isolated, then it’s a good idea to at least have some actual time there (rather than just staying the night and getting bundled back into a jeep to start the 5 hour drive back to civilisation first thing the next morning) so we’ve given ourself a luxury two nighter in Mestia to do some hiking/exploring/animal touching/talking shit to old mountain men.
25th March – Mestia (Georgia) to Sukhumi (Abkhazia)
Today involves another load of buses and marshrutkas to take us west to yet another independent state (Visit all breakaway states achievement 75% complete – only South Ossetia to go!)– Abkhazia, which is a popular summer resort for Russian tourists. In March it should still be pretty chilly, but we’ve found ourselves a lovely hotel (Hotel Sukhum) with a big terrace (we’re sure that anything above zero degrees will seem tropical to us at this stage in the trip!) and have given ourselves another two luxury nights.
26th March – Sukhumi (Abkhazia)
It doesn’t look like there’s much to do in Sukhumi (Abkhazia capital), but after the previous few days non-stop buses/trains/marshrutkas and healthy outdoor pursuits we’ll for sure be glad of not feeling obliged to get out and go and see things and will really enjoy relaxing in some nice little bars, doing a bit of catching up on blogging and hopefully get a little bit of warmer weather.
27th March – Sukhumi to Akhaltsikhe (Georgia)
Back on the marshrutkas again, to the small city of Akhaltsikhe which is the base point for visiting the cave city of Vardzia. We have the most AWESOME hotel booked for this night – Hotel Rabath (seriously check the website out), which is a historic fortress with a spa. We’re going to suffocate in luxury in these beautiful surroundings, having some nice spa treatments and preparing our weary muscles for the thousands of steps that await us the next day!
28th March – Vardzia (Georgia) The Halls of The Mountain Queen!
Today we’re off to explore the cave monastery of Vardzia, constructed under the reign of Giorgi III (1100s) and his daughter and successor, the legendary Tamar. It looks like Moria from Lord of the Rings! That evening we will marshrutka back to Tbilisi and spend our last (sob) night there. It will probably be a chilled out affair involving dinner, wine and reminiscing over the last three weeks’ crazy adventures, and we’ll probably be too shattered for a crazy night after all those stone steps!!
29th March – Time to go home!
We have a flight the next morning at 11.20 (which isn’t hideously early so still manageable even if we get carried away on our last night in Tbilisi) to Istanbul and then the 14:00 flight from there to London, where we will say our goodbyes and head back to Sunderland/Dublin.