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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
Today we were supposed to be waking up in a little private cabin on the beautiful Chopin Alta lake then horse trekking up in the mountains before heading off to spend the evening in Tian Shan observatory in Ile-Alatau , Kazakhstan (another gorgeous mountain lake) but due to the mugging incident in Osh we were a day behind and had to miss out on our 2nd lake of the trip! However we refused to get down about it and were still elated from finding Jill’s passport and bag buried in the woods so decided to make the most of enjoying our bonus sunny day in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
We got up at quite a respectable time (for us), went for a wander around Bishkek and somehow seemed to find ourselves in some kind of bizarre hardware district, where all the shops and market stalls were only selling light fittings, scrubbing brushes, paint etc.! On the off chance we asked one of the stall owners (in our chut-chut Ruski) if he had any plastic cups, as we’d been sans cups for too long and we’d come to the conclusion that maybe this was the root of our recent misfortune. He brought out two plastic kids mugs, one with Winnie the Pooh characters and one with Disney Princesses on – perfect! We grabbed a bottle of beer at the nearest little kiosk and headed off to find Zhirgal Banya, which for once proved pretty easy as it stuck out from the rest of the environment by resembling a pair of large bosoms. We sat on the wall drinking beer out of our shiny new cups – we figured that we needed to at least have a little bit of beer in us if we were going to get naked in front of a loads of strangers!! Despite the snow the previous night, the sun was cracking the flags today and we had a nice bit sit, watching the world go by and Susan made friends with a fly who was getting drunk on the rim of her cup (Pooh) and tested the macro lense on her new camera (the Olympus TG-3 tough – highly recommended and bonus still hasn’t been stolen yet like her last 2!) before we finished the beer and worked up the courage to go into the banya.
We were full of woe like Wednesday’s child when we woke up and had both spent the fretful early hours lying in shock and disbelief that we had yet again been so unfortunate. We should have been on a flight to Bishkek (from where we were heading up to stay in a lovely hotel in Cholpon-Ata near Issyk-Kul – a supposedly breathtakingly gorgeous mountain lake that we were so, SO excited about visiting) but alas, the theft of Jill’s precious passport the previous evening had made this completely impossible. We nursed our hangovers and hopelessness for a bit until Susan sneaked out to the shop to buy some beer and something for breakfast to cheer us up – she’d only had about £3 worth of Kyrgyz soms left but still managed to get a big bottle of beer, a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and two sandwiches with change to spare!
We sat with our beers on the balcony, giving our heads a shake and putting things into perspective. It really wasn’t the end of the world – no one got hurt, Susan still had plenty of money to get us by, and thinking about it we have been lucky not to have something similar happen to us in ANY of the places we’ve been over the last few years! Most people you meet who have travelled any considerable amount of time will have had some similar experience – hell, people get mugged in our home towns! We decided not to let the bastards get us down – Kyrgyzstan had been for the most part really lovely and we weren’t going to let a couple of bad eggs make us think badly about it. Our back up plan (we joked that we were onto about “Plan Q” by now, having deviated from the itinerary so many times already) was that we could go to Bishkek to sort out Jill’s emergency passport for the journey home, and then spend the next two weeks exploring Kyrgyzstan. We were getting quite excited about the concept of having a luxury two weeks in one place and we both had tons of ideas of what to do – we would have a few days in Issyk-Kul, maybe get some horses and trek up to Song-Kul (a smaller, more remote and allegedly more beautiful lake), maybe find somewhere to go skiing, maybe have a few days in a nice spa getting covered in mud and hit with sticks, we could investigate the far east side next to the Chinese border – Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful place with tons to do and everything costs so little that we’d be able to do tons of stuff! We thanked our lucky stars that we had got stranded somewhere really, REALLY CHEAP!
We were up bright and early (well, about 9am – that is very bright and early for us) to start our journey from Khojand to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. We had a quick look at Alexander the Great’s first settlement, the 10th century citadel, and enjoyed a little sunny morning hustle and bustle with the locals while lamenting that we couldn’t stay longer and had missed most of our planned stops in Tajikistan because of all of our mishaps. We had enjoyed our brief time here immensely and promised ourselves we would be back to do the country justice at some point.
Used to it by now we shook it off and then jumped on a marshrutka to Istaravshan bus station. There we were TAXITAXITAXI-ed from all angles. We’d planned on getting the marshrutka (which involved changing in Bakan near the border) but we ended up finding a shared taxi with a few other people all the way to Osh for a very reasonable price. It took an hour or so to get to the border, by which time we’d polished off the leftover vodka and sock from the night before, so we were pleased when the driver stopped to refuel at the first garage we got to in Kyrgyzstan and although we didn’t have any Kyrgz money yet – lo! It had a visa sign! So we headed in there for some beers and snacks. We were very impressed by the entire fridge dedicated to vodka, including a shelf full of little plastic shot glasses covered with foil lids (perfect for the thirsty motorist!) and then were gutted when neither of our cards would work in their machine. Susan took a long shot and asked if she could pay in dollars, and amazingly they said we could!
We dragged ourselves reluctantly out of the lovely comfy beds in the Hotel Sharq the next day and headed straight to the airport in a taxi. We went back to the ticket desk where the same miserable woman with inch thick make up on told us she couldn’t sell us tickets as the flight was full. “What? But we wanted to buy tickets last night and you said we couldn’t and had to come back today!!”
“You have to see the airport manager”.
So we wandered off to locate the airport manager who was a) hard to find, b) equally as miserable and c) the Pickwick Papers, but seemed to understand that we wanted to be put on stand-by for the Termiz flight and told us to take a seat in the waiting area. After a while he came back and said there were some seats and told us to go back to the ticket desk. Susan grabbed the passports and dashed over to the desk only to find that foreigners are only allowed to purchase flights in DOLLARS for some bizarre reason! We had enough Uzbek Sommes for the flights, but only enough dollars for one! AND the card machine was broken so we couldn’t even pay by visa! There was no way we would have had time to find an ATM (the banks we could use in Uzbekistan were very limited and tended to only be in the big five-star hotels back in the city centre) and make it back for the flight. Gutted!
There was another flight to Termiz that evening, so we had to resign ourselves to getting on that one instead (the other option being to head down from Tashkent to Khojand in Tajikistan but that would have meant missing out Dunshanbe and we really wanted to go there! Even if we only had time to have lunch and a beer on it!), and since we couldn’t buy the tickets for THAT one due to the ridiculous currency situation we would have to come back later once we’d managed to get some dollars from somewhere. It was only 6am, we’d had next to no sleep and we’d left our amazing comfy beds well in advance of the 12 o’clock check out time so we reckoned that if we went back to the hotel, and told the lovely girl on reception (she was still there – they work some crazy 24 hour shifts in these parts!) what had happened she would probably let us back in the room until then. Then we would head to the airport via an ATM for dollars and if there were no seats left on the plane and we couldn’t get stand-by seats, there were still marshrutkas leaving for Khojand that we could catch instead. As predicted the receptionist was lovely and said of course we could get back in our rooms for a few more hours sleep!
We had intended to be up and about early to catch a daytime train to Samarkand to get back on track, but the previous night’s vodka session had taken its toll and neither of us wanted to get out of bed, despite our friend the receptionist continually knocking on the door telling us we needed to get up if we wanted to get the train. We had told him the previous night that this was our plan, so bless him, he reminded us shouting “Girls you will be late!!!” (followed later by “Girls! You will be VERY LATE!!”) through the door. When we finally emerged it was around lunchtime, and upon paying the bill we found that the cheeky “what is your opinion on sex?” birthday vodka gifter room invader of the previous evening had actually charged it to our bill! And it was Uzbekistans best vodka! But then OK it was only less than a fiver so we just laughed it off but ee, that’s a shan birthday vodka that like dude. After a breakfast beer or two in the room we packed up and headed out to the nearest internet café (that was located upstairs in someone’s house and had to be accessed via a rubbish tip) to check out trains and flights as the hotel wifi wasn’t working and neither of us had any 3G signal. After having no luck with trains (and a lot of our go to rail websites being blocked by Uzbekistan!) we’d come to the conclusion that our best option was to get a flight to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital), where hopefully there would be more transport opportunities available. We could see that there was a flight that evening at around 9pm but he Uzbek airlines website wouldn’t let us book online – we put this down to the ancient browser on the pc at the internet café and decided we’d head to one of the posh hotels in the centre to have a beer and use their wifi.
So, we were rudely awakened by the dustmen aka Mr Dima at about 6am the next morning, just when the sun was starting to come up and we could actually get some sleep. It had been so cold in our desert tent that we’d all just spent the night shivering and hoping that we wouldn’t get hypothermia. Susan, who isn’t too fond of being dragged out of bed at the best of times, was in a horrendous mood so Jill and Vita helped Dima pack the tents up and load the stuff into the jeep while she took her cup of cowboy coffee (made by Dima on the camp fire) down to the gas crater to warm herself up, since it was her birthday after all. There was only 1 other person around the crater so watching the light creep over the desert while DJ Gas Crater hissed and spat was a fine way to spend her first morning as a 40 year old. As magnificent as the sunrise was, it was still DJ Gas Crater who turtelly sturl the shurr and even with lots of attempts it was impossible to catch just how stunning it all was on camera. When she wandered back up again everything was packed up and Susan was in a lot finer fettle so we all piled into the jeep, said a tearful yet fond farewell to the new guest DJ for Marijuana Fuelled Murders and set off for the Uzbekistan border.