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!!

When we landed in Moscow Domodedovo(denobnob), like a bat out of hell we were gone in the direction of the nearest bar and sunk a couple of pints of overpriced Heineken. Jill was in dire need of a cigarette after four hours on a plane (and the whole lack of booze saga – “No Booze on a Plane” sounds like the scariest horror story ever to us!) and the airport had no smoking area! Luckily, Susan had just been to the toilet and had observed that the disabled toilet absolutely reeked of smoke and must have been the go-to place for a sneaky fag, so she sloped off for a nonchalant toilet smoke. We got another round of beers, then decided that since our next flight was also with Transaero, and would also likely have no booze, we should make a stop at the airport Duty Free and grab ourselves a bottle of vodka for the next leg to Yerevan. All was going according to plan until we were trying to pay for our vodka and juice and they asked to see our boarding passes. “Sorry, you can’t buy duty free because you are going to Armenia and there is an agreement with Russia”. Damn it. We thought it might just be like if you are going from the UK to Ireland or something where you can’t get stuff at the cheap duty free price, but even when we offered to pay the full usual price for it they were having none of it and by this point we were worried about missing the flight if we dashed back to get some take out from the bar.

So we had to suffer another 4-5 hours stuck on a plane with no boozes before finally landing in Yerevan. After the usual arguing with taxi drivers, trying to find a marshrutka and being told it was too late for one (it was around 2am) we got a taxi to our home for the next couple of days – Traveller’s Hostel, where our lovely host Alice came down in her pyjamas to greet us. We had booked a private room and it was dead canny, with cute little princess beds, and she had had a fan heater blasting to warm it up as it was a big old drafty building and it was quite a cold night. By this point it was 3am and we were both sober and hadn’t seen any bars around the area so we decided to call it a night and be fresh for exploring Yerevan the next day and our luxury (planned) 2 nights in 1 place.

Jill woke up first the next morning, heading into the streets of Yerevan in search of breakfast beers to rouse Susan out of her slumber. We had one main objective to achieve today – to get our Nagorno-Karabakh visas for our trip there the next day. Looking at the map, the embassy was about a mile away but it looked like it was a nice route through Yerevan so decided to have a leisurely wander there, stopping for beers and nibbles on welcoming terraces as it was a lovely day. After the huge, seemingly endless, sprawling Sovietness of Almaty with its regimental blocks and massive roads, Yerevan was a welcome change! It has a lot more character with little windy streets, a plethora of parks and street sculptures coming out the yin y(ereov)an, so we had a ball wandering around in the sunshine exploring it’s nooks and crannies.

We ended up in a tiny little bar called Eden en route to the Cascade (a big huge monument of steps and fountains that is filled with art) that lured us in with its dubiousness. It was a nice brown pub, with us and a couple of blokes in, and the poor barmaid had to keep going down a spiral staircase into the cellar for the drinks – no wonder she was so skinny! After chatting to her over a few more beers, we wandered along to Malocco a lovely little café bar with tables outside (inside was very “shabby chic” and full of hipsters but was still nice). Thankfully they had menus in English (the Armenian alphabet is VERY strange – everything looks like it says “ulululurulurlu”) and we ordered a delicious broccoli and blue cheese soup, lentil cutlets, a mozzarella salad, some garlic mushrooms and a bottle of wine. Oh! Wine! How we had missed you! That’s not to say we hadn’t enjoyed our £3 litres of vodka with dinner in the ‘stans, but it’s not a proper holiday unless you have a bottle of wine on a terrace at some point!

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Terrace wine!

As usual we had ordered far too much food – we had just about managed to eat the cheese, salad and cutlets when out came a huge tray of delicious mushrooms and we felt really bad that we left most of them. We would have been quite happy just sat outside the café all day, but alas time was getting on and we had to get up and over the cascade to the embassy (before 4.30pm when it closed) and it was just the thing to burn off our massive lunch – we think we counted around 600 steps to get to the top and got some strange stares from the other visitors for our method of linked armed stomping chanting “111, 112, 113” etc. Despite the fact that it was obviously having maintenance done in preparation for the summer (all the fountains were turned off and it was too early in the year for the spectacular flower beds that flank the steps), there were still plenty of great sculptures to admire (including an amazing lion made of old tyres) on the various levels and the view over Yerevan itself was beautiful.

Once we got to the top, we were having a breather enjoying the view when we were approached by a handsome young chap called Ruben who spoke great English and enjoyed telling us all about Yerevan and Armenian people. We had to make our excuses and dash off as we were worried about missing the embassy, but he said he knew where it was and would come part of the way and show us where to go. There followed more hills, Ruben pointed us to where he thought it was but when we got there it wasn’t there and we wandered up many a long weary road, even trying to hitch hike to get off the main road and were getting rather sweaty, knackered and fed up by this point before we finally managed to flag down a taxi.

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We arrived at the embassy shortly before 4.30 (cutting it very fine indeed) and were gutted to find that no one was answering the intercom on the gate to let us in! We spent a good five minutes repeatedly pressing the code that was on the notice and hoping for a reply, but nothing happened. Then a little old bloke in a shirt and tie (who we assumed just worked there) sauntered over, pushed the gate and walked straight through! It was only flipping open the whole time! He laughed at us and showed us where to go for visas, and we begged the girl there to process our applications even though it was nearly closing time (as we had been there earlier but we couldn’t get in – the little old man backed us up on this one). She was really lovely and took us up to the office once we’d filled in our paperwork, where a jovial babushka in a rainbow jumper asked us how long we were planning to stay in Karabakh, how we were getting there and where we planned to stay. We told her we were only there for one day before heading back (via the Tatev cable car) to Yerevan for our night train, and intended to get the marshrutka and stay the night in the Eclectic “Titanic” hotel in the village of Vank and she responded wagging her finger at us and “No, no, no! This is no good! You will have see NOTHING in Karabakh!” before picking up the phone and gabbling away to someone on the other end in Armenian, obviously about us as she kept nodding at us and writing things down. When finally she hung up, she said “Well we will give you your visa today, but you must take this driver to show you around Karabakh so you can see more. His name is Albert and he will collect you from your hotel at 8am tomorrow” and handed us a post it with Albert’s number on. After checking that he would bring us back to Yerevan via Tatev, and checking the cost (a luxury amount for us but $300 for a full 2 days driving and an overnight) we agreed – it suited us as a) we were already worried about having to catch 6am marshrutkas and cutting it fine to try and get back to Yerevan on time, b) We were already way over budget so feck it and c) The Pickwick Papers. We left with a very “official” looking visa – they’d asked if it was ok to give us one between us, and the end result was a printed visa saying “Susan Baxter” and a scribble underneath saying “+ 1”.

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Poor Jill relegated to a plus 1 in Karabakh

Happy to achieve our objective for the day in the face of adversity, and looking forward to our breakaway state adventure the next day, we went to a supermarket for supplies, then back to the hostel to make ourselves a nice packed lunch of nice loose egg and cheese salad sandwiches for the journey before getting ready and heading out for a “nice sit down meal” and nothing too raucous as we had an early start the next day. Our choice of venue for the evening was Old Erivan – it sounded rather touristy and cheesy but we were dying to sit on thrones and see some winged centurions. We found the building and it was massive, and ended up accidentally going up to the 8th floor which turned out to be a “cigar bar” pumping out the horrific local dance (“razi”) music. Realising our error we headed back down, only to find several other floors of blasting music. Finally, we asked the concierge who helped us locate the restaurant on the 2nd floor. It was as promised, very cheesy, in a medieval style with big banqueting tables, candle effect chandeliers and a folk band in traditional costume that entertained us during dinner with their wailing babushkas and dancing.

One of them played a “kanun” which looked very impressive, sounded nice and we really wanted one – kind of like a knee harp/dulcimer. There was also a lady telling stories, but alas our grasp of Armenian only went as far as the usual “two beers”, “please” and “thank you” so we didn’t have a clue what she was on about. It sounded interesting though, by the reactions of the group on the next table. The food itself was absolutely gorgeous and lovely and fresh tasting – we had tabbouleh, aubergine hummous, fried cheese, dolmas (meat in vine leaves) and salad, washed down with some lovely local wine. As usual we had ordered too much and ended up getting a load of stuff wrapped to take out, to add to our car picnic for our road trip the next day, before we headed back to the hostel for an early-ish night.

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