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?
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!
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.
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.
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!
As you no doubt know, one of our favourite travel activities is finding grotty little dive bars in which to talk the toot to drunk old men. The grotty dive bars thing has long been a tradition (as we would rather stay away from the touristy places and get to know some of the locals), and we didn’t really give much thought to the old men part until we were in Estonia earlier this year, reading through the “In Your Pocket” guide to Tallinn and noticed “Vaali Bar”, a “small and stinky local institution” promising “cheap drinks and unusual elderly regulars” and thought that sounded right up our street (declaring “I love talking shit with old men!”, “I love talking shit to old men too!!!!”) and our great night there with our new friend Aaaaaaaarrrrrrnie, that we decided that we should make more of a conscious effort to meet more old men and make it part of our mission statement and core values.
Looking back, we’ve had some of our best craic with old men! Drinking beers in a record shop in Tulum (Mexico), driving around the castles of Transylvania (with beers, obviously)…and our favourite occasion when, after being warned that the men in northern Albania were dangerous and would kidnap us, we happened upon a hut halfway up a mountain near Thethi where the old mountain men within greeted us warmly, offered us beers and we had a fabulous evening drinking, playing dominoes and chatting in broken English/Albanian – these are some of our greatest old men times! So, we thought we’d put together a list of reasons why old men are the best.