Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tbilisi to Yerevan

According to the map the road distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan is 301km and 5:45 driving time.  And that proved pretty accurate, as we left the city at 9:00am and we were at our hotel by 16:00pm.  In the middle we visited some UNESCO listed monasteries

We had arranged a car transfer between the two cities with a tourist agency and it worked perfectly, allowing us to see a couple sights we wanted to see along the way, that would have not been possible with public transport.

Once we had left Tbilisi we saw road-side stall, after stall, selling autumn fruit and produce.  One local oddity was that often the stalls also sold washing powder and detergents.  Time and again, it would be that classic combination: fruit and washing power.

After crossing into Armenia we headed into the mountains.  The landscape was unusual in that there were deep canyons with very flat cultivated land at the top.

We stopped at Haghpat Monastery.  It was Sunday and mass was being performed.  The colour of the church garments, the choral singing, and the local with headscarves on added to the atmosphere.  An operational church in a building that was 1st established in 976AD

From here there were clear views of a Copper mine belching out emissions.  All through this valley there were derelict factories and signs of investments abandoned.  There were plenty of people living in towns and Soviet style apartment blocks, but not huge amounts of places to actually work.  Our driver said most men in the past went to Russia to find work. 

The second monastery was Sanahin, which is of a similar style and age, but not functioning the same as Haghpat.

and here the floors had engraved floor stones

From here we got back onto the main roads for the drive down to the capital.  Along the way some of the areas seemed pretty bleak,  Looking at the map later, this was the edge of area hit by the devastating earthquake of 1988 when 25-50,000 people died and 130,000 were injured.  There were many herds of sheep/goats being moved by a lone herder.  The herders fell into two main categories - a young person simultaneously checking their phone or a stooped over, elderly person.

As we passed the highest point, with Mt Agarats in the distance, the temperature dropped significantly (in Yerevan it was warmer again)  

The only traffic incident we had on the trip was near the city where a wedding party of cars were doing strange manoeuvres while driving.  They were clumping together, surrounding the bridal car forcing other drivers (including our car) to have to do some slightly hairy moves to get past them and back to normal.

Andrew captured some great pictures of the typical ovens and the bread therein

Monday, December 4, 2017

A bit more Tbilisi

We ate very well over the time we were in the city and prices were VERY cheap, maybe $12 for two  of us for a simple dinner with a house wine or beer.  

Having an interest in wine, we tried the one highly recommended venues which specialized in Natural Georgian wines - Vino Underground.  The natural refers to the traditional wine making method

Grapes are stomped by foot and put into egg-shaped clay pots called qvevris, which are then buried in the ground or kept in cellars. As the wine ferments, the qvevri's shape promotes circulation, clarifying the wine. The clay provides natural temperature control and a little oxygen exposure, all of which makes for some truly dynamic wine unlike anything you may have tasted. There's also skin contact, which gives white wines that iconic amber color and more tannin's than conventionally made whites, where the skin is removed before fermentation.
The complete article on Georgian wines: 

Below is a qvevri, terracotta wine jar - an advertising prop outside a local wineshop

The wine industry is huge for the country and there are a lot of places trying to sell to tourists.  We tried a few wines, but really only found the best ones on our last night in the city.  A local cafe Dadi offered wine by the glass and the staff were happy to listen to what we liked and make sensible suggestions.  And the food and atmosphere were excellent.

We had another local food venue down the street from us that was in the Lonely Planet, Racha (with great street art graffiti on the wall outside. Andrew particularly liked watching the dumplings being made and the traditional fried potato and meat dish  Ojakhuri 

One of Tbilisi’s last duqani (cheap, traditional, basement eatery, literally 'shop'), Racha serves up tasty home-style staples such as khinkali (spicy dumplings), mtsvadi (shish kebabs), khachapuri and badrijani nigvzit (aubergine slices with walnut-and-garlic paste) at great prices. Perhaps not a place for beginners: the menu is a board written in Georgian and no one speaks any English.  (From Lonely Planet)
It was very good, simple food and we went back twice.

The other great eat was at Sofia Melnikova's Fantastic Douqan, which we picked up off Tripadvisor with consistently good ratings. The reviews said how hard it could be to find the location and it proved a challenge.  Finally we walked into the museum we knew was near the actual location and of course I had forgotten the actual long name of the restaurant.  Saying Sofia a couple of times resulted in blank looks.  But i remembered the name for the dumplings for which the restaurant was well known for and saying Khinkali?  resulted in a big smile, and they directed us through a door and pointed to where we needed to be.  

And the salads and dumplings were well worth the search!  No one deserves to watch the video I have of Andrew eating/slurping his dumplings, so just a photo.  The dumplings are very large and the local technique is to use your hands.  The knot at the top isn't eaten and used more as a handle.

We found some very good coffee at independent cafes around the city, but it was relatively expensive by local standards 

Andrew did cause a bit of an international incident one day when we were walking along the street.  A young man gave Andrew a fright by grabbing his arm from behind.  So startled by this, he yelled at the top of his voice "F*** Off!" The guy backed-off and started saying America, America - we weren't about to contradict him.  Then he started to follow us.  Periodically yelling 'America'.  15 minutes later we ducked into a museum to lose him.  He probably was high on something or perhaps had some mental health issues.  

The museum was actually on Andrew's list, being the National Gallery.  It was one of the most disappointing  places we visited this trip.  There was an exhibition of Italian paintings - but they were just copies.  Then one gallery of local artists which had a limited number of paintings and were of a primitive style.  A picture taken of the favourite local artist, Pirosmani 

 On the other hand the Georgian National museum was outstanding and well worth a visit - we happily spent a few hours here.  The displays archaeological items in bronze and iron ( many were thousands of years pre BC) were really interesting and the items in the treasury were stunning.  On the top floor is an exhibition on the Soviet Occupation from the 1920s until the early 1990s and covers the 2003 Russian invasion in disputed Georgian territories.  A particularly effective, yet simple exhibit, was lighting inside a rail car, so as to highlight the bullet holes.

The green building in the photo above, is a police station.  According to some reading we did, post independence Police Station were built of glass as part of the idea of transparency and moving away from corruption - how true that statement is we don't know, but we did see a number of glass police station in Tbilisi and on the drive to Armenia.

We took a trip to the large market called Deserters Bazaar.  There were no shortage of large articulated lorries distributing produce and transit vans where the vegetables had been pileed in directly and the vendor selling directly from the tailgate.  If it was grown or made, you could probably buy it here. 

We originally had a plan to head to particular lunch venue after the market but we hadn't factored in local customs.  The city didn't really get going until 11:00am and cafes weren't always open when we wanted.  The ones that were probably though we were odd, eating so 'early'.  I read somewhere some people's working day didn't start until 13:00.  Of course things were open much later in the evening, but we kept our normal routine and were asleep before the fun started.

There was a trip to the weekend flea market at the Dry Bridge.  Lots of people and some interesting items for sale.  There was no shortage of Vinyl records and vintage cameras/lenses.  One special stall that surprised us was the surgical instruments, and they had a lot of stock to sell!  Also a good collection of firearms and swords.

The people were helpful and kind to us, but they had the eastern European more reserved natures.    While we couldn't read the local script and had 3 words in Georgian, we had no problem communicating with people. The only time we got caught out was when Andrew purchased a bottle of milk.  He said it made his tea taste funny.  Turns out it was Kefir not milk.  He had missed the English words on the label, but no harm done and I'm sure his gut health was improved.  And it is similar to the time in Russia where he nearly bought horse milk rather than cow milk before a kind local pointed the label out to him :-0 

Andrew noted that a lot of the cars had 1 or both bumpers missing - probably related to the driving styles commented on earlier.  There were not the same number of expensive cars that we saw in Azerbaijan  but there were a LOT of Ladas.

Tbilisi was a great base for exploring and we had plenty to do.  At another time of year the mountains are an hour away and would be worth day-tripping to do some walking.

Georgia, the Country, not the State

For our time in Tbilisi we had rented an Airbnb apartment, in a residential street, near the centre of the city.  We took the option of paying the owner to send a driver to meet us at the airport - which was her father who made nice conversation.  Meanwhile he drove like a mad-man or in other terms, like a typical Georgian driver!  See a gap, take it, veer in and out of lanes and make sure you use horn.

From the outside the building looked interesting but inside was modern, spacious and quiet.  Our apartment was the one at the top, with the small balcony.

It was immediately obvious that there wasn't the same economic prosperity here as had been very evident in the centre of Baju, Azerbaijan.  Here things were a look more run-down and there were plenty of investment opportunities if you wanted to renovate buildings.  One obvious sign of the need for maintenance was the high number of apartment buildings that were being propped up by steel beams. And wasn't just a single building, very often it was the entire street.  Everything appeared very stable, but you wouldn't want to be here in an earthquake.

The weather for the entire trip was generally pleasant, being early autumn.  But we struggled to get entirely clear days, so when we did go up the cable car or the funicular to the hills surrounding the city, the views were not ideal, but you just have to take what you get.

The hills accessed by the cable car provided views back down over the Peace bridge, a pedestrian only zone, and the music hall.  Very modern architectural installations, in a very traditional city.

One of the other recent builds is the golden domed cathedral visible from all the hills around the city.  While is is impressive in size and style, the interior was lacking in individual character, but there were plenty of devout worshipers.  Entering Orthodox Christian churches I almost always needed to cover my head:  that was made easy because I was wearing a hooded winter jacket, so just needed to put my hood up.  But at the cathedral I was required to wear a skirt as well - large scarves and wrap around skirts at the door were the solution provided.

We visited a number of other churches, from very spartan ones dating from the 12th century to more ornate modern versions.  In the collage below, bottom right, is a symbol from inside our apartment.  It consisted of a sticker over a 'painted'cross - about 10-15 cm tall.  They were in the kitchen, living a sleeping areas.  A little google research said  they were blessings done by the priest each year with the cross painted in olive oil.  A comment in the Lonely Planet suggested the Georgians as a nation were very superstitious.

Another unique feature we saw through the region was the reverence given to uneaten bread.  Bread was considered sacred and that it should not be thrown away like rubbish or left on the ground.  Instead, it was placed on the lid of communal rubbish bins or hung off the end to keep it separate.  We are unclear what process the rubbish collectors had for it when the rubbish was actually dealt to.

Tbilisi, more than either of the two cities we visited, had bread for sale every 10 meters in bakeries or from windows directly coming from the baking room.  The ovens were the round tandoori style where the bread is placed directly onto the walls of the oven.  And it has to be said the bread was simply fantastic, unbelievably cheap, and there were so many varieties to choose from.

Most of the places we ate at were subterranean, located below street level and the bakeries were also generally below street level.  The left hand picture below shows a direct bakery window, with the black footpath and road visible.  To buy your bread you had to bend down.  

Some more food, wine and exploring to follow

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Off to the Caucasus v2

 (re-posted with pictures)

About the same time last year (November 2016) we went to Iran.  On our return, someone said you should have also gone to Georgia, it has fantastic wine.  Andrew stored this idea away and brought it out again when we were planning holidays this year.  We added in the neighbouring countries Azerbaijan and Armenia, and a 2 week trip in the Transcaucasus region was developed.

The superficial summary of a complicated geopolitical area would include a few facts such as
  • the populations in the 3 countries are Azerbaijan 8 million, Georgia 4 million and Armenia 3 million
  • Azerbaijan is classified as a Muslim country but it is extremely liberal and the other two countries are Orthodox Christian
  • All came into the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s and all achieved independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union about 1991. In between there were some pretty tense times.
  • Azerbaijan and Armenia are at still at war over disputed territories in the South, Armenia and Turkey have very strained relations going back to genocide in the early 20th century, Georgia has strained relations with Russia over 2 disputed territories, but otherwise they have good relations with the rest of the world.
  • Azerbaijan has oil revenues but Georgia and Armenia have some very good alcoholic beverages

We flew up to Dubai, overnighted, then hopped on a 3 hour flight to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

Leaving the airport in our purple”’London Cab” we soon realised we were no longer in Laos.  For a start we went from 0-120km/ph in quick time and stayed at that pace till we got into the urban centre maybe 10 minutes later. Along the way we got in the middle of a race between 2 Mercedes weaving in and out of lanes, dropping back and racing forward. 

We were staying in the walled Old Town, but there were plenty of modern architectural edifices everywhere, including a controversial Zaha Hadid museum/auditorium, which looked stunning (as we passed by at high speeds)

Eager to explore, we headed down to the newly developed waterfront park. With wide open spaces and great sea/cityscape views, it was well patronised by locals enjoying the warmth of a sunny autumn afternoon. 

Outside the Old Town there has been a lot of money spent on modern architecture.  The most visible are the Flame Towers which are on a hillside looking over the city.  A night there is a lightshow, with flames, water, the flag – all symbols of the country

The central pedestrianised shopping streets and other buildings certainly reflected the oil-wealth in this country.  There is so much new money, that since 2016, they host a street circuit .  The city was an interesting mix of old and new. The swirl building below, is the carpet museum.

The next day wandered and took in the various sights.  It proved difficult to find somewhere to eat lunch after walking along the foreshore to the area of town below the flame tower hill.  We saw plenty of business people, but couldn’t find any restaurants/cafes or even a mini-mart. We had a theory (based solely uneducated guessing) that maybe being ex-communist state there was a profusion of office canteens – so people ate there.  But finally we stumbled across a signboard offering a ‘business lunch’  So we walked down the stairs into the subterranean cellar. 

No menu and sitting on padded pallets as chairs, we awaited our business lunch looking at the bear skins on the walls and the hunting pictures.  And of course the lunch was exceedingly good and filling with soup and chicken and rice for the equivalent of $4 each

We wandered back to the funicular station for the small train that was supposed to whisk us up the hillside.  Sadly it was Monday, and the funicular doesn’t operate on a Monday.  So the only real option was to do some stair-walking.  Up, up, up and further up, only about 45 flights of stairs!  But once we got there and recovered our breath there were some lovely views from the top. The eternal flame and cemeteries are located at in this area.

We stayed at the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel (sister hotel to the more famous Sultan Inn) and had two meals at the Hard Rock Cafe.  The Hard Rock was a tactical choice while we were tired as the food & beer was good, it was nearby and they had partial non-smoking areas.  Smoking in restaurants is something we had forgotten about, and having experienced it again, are pleased to not see it most countries we go to.

The airport was modern and had some really nice design features.  Here while going through security we didnt need to remove our shoes and put them through the scanner.  Instead they had a machine that scanned each foot individually when you put your booted foot into the scanning area.  If only a few more airports had this it would reduce the pain of going through the security line!
Air-side the design feature was Pods, outer structures that enclosed seating or cafes. And in one case a library-cafe


Bye-Bye Baku, Tbilisi here we come.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Seoul, solo

With Andrew still away in NZ I needed a breakout from Vientiane.  12 hours after I booked flights to Seoul there was an escalation in the rhetoric surrounding North Korea and US/Japan.  However nothing significant happened and I got on a 22:45 flight from Vientiane to Seoul.  It was a 5 hour flight and I arrived into Incheon airport at 5:30am local time.

It was a breeze to get through an empty immigration hall and I headed off to find my wifi device.  $3 a day for unlimited internet made my 4 days in Korea so much easier!

The airport is about an hour from the city itself and a bit bleary eyed I got on the train and watched everything around me.  The metro system is comprehensive, but the signage is not the best in the world so internet apps make it easy to cope. 


The hotelwas very kind and let me check-in early and I had 2 hours sleep.  Somewhat refreshed I wandered off to check things out.  I chose the Insadong area because was close to the metro and I could walk to 3 sites I wanted to see nearby.  It was a good area with lots of little laneways and access to food options

I visited the Changdeokung Palace and it’s secret garden''.  The secret garden  (another name for a royal garden) can only be visited if you join a tour so I pre-booked on-line and chose 11:30am using the theory I would be tired and maybe wake late. Nope, awake early as normal.  As a result I went to the palace early and walked around. I accidentally walked past the meeting place for the 10:30 tour and joined the earlier tour.  Yes, perfect timing for once!  The palace and gardens were nice and a very good way to ease into Seoul for me.  One interesting comment from the guide in the garden was when we looked a pond deliberately shaped like the outline of Korea.  She said, Yes, the shape includes North Korea….I could not imagine Korea without the North. 


There was a trip to the National Museum of Korea.  Three floors of interesting collections but the ground floor was the most interesting.  I visited on a Saturday and there were endless groups of school children doing small group (6 or 7 per group) study.


I did notice there was a high level of safety equipment everywhere.  In the hotel room there were descending ropes if you needed to leave in an emergency.  In every metro station there were emergency supply cabinets with breathing masks and other protective equipment.  This seemed like community preparedness as opposed to any particular concerns.  But I am basing that on 4 days, as opposed to any real knowledge.


I went to check out a market in the university area and while I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy, it was certainly interesting seeing an area with a completely different vibe and really busy on a Saturday afternoon.  I also found a highly recommended cafĂ© and had a mega-lunch including homemade ginger beer. 

Food-wise I didn't starve Smile  I am NOT a fan of Kimchi (or most other fermented or highly acidic foods)  But I certainly didn't say no to massive plates of fried chicken (non-greasy and a little spicy, mmmm)  so much, but so good.  There was so much I had a doggy bag and took it ‘home’ for my evening meal.  There were Mandu (meat dumplings) from a shop that sold 2 dishes only – dumplings or soup…simply lots of good food.  I went to an evening market and was not tempted to eat the spicy meals or the offal – but everyone was enjoying.  I later even found the Turkish ice-cream sellers, tormenting small children with ice-creams on poles – just like they taunted Andrew when we were in Taipei.


I managed to get to the night market at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) designed by Zaha Hadid.  I went “early” at about 19:00 and enjoyed seeing the building illuminated, the people, entertainment and food.  Apparently that district doesn't really get going until 22:00 when the wholesale clothing stores open and trade through to early morning. The design market itself is open 24 hours a day.

Wat Phou and Hue

In early September I finally got to visit Wat Phou in southern Laos.  Wat Phou is the 2nd of 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Laos (Luang Prabang town is the other).  Wat Phou is part of the Khmer trail of which Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the most famous.  

We had a company meeting for all staff in the southern city of Pakse, and included an outing for all to the temple about an hour out of Pakse.  The complex has waterways and ruined buildings.  The climb to the temple itself is a killer.  I raced up wanting to get there before the other 120 people in our party (they took the longer official approach route to get the steep steps while I went the shorter way after organising everyone’s tickets Smile
wat phou2
wat phou1

Getting to the top I sat for a few minutes to get my breath back  Smile  But it was worth it to see the site in relative quiet.  And I managed to get on the 1st bus back to town - one NOT playing karaoke.  Lao love it.

The next day a small group of us got on another bus and went on a study tour to Vietnam.  

It is only 370km from Pakse to Hue, but we left at 7:30am and arrived in Hue about 5pm.  The border in the middle adds 30 minutes at each end and there are mountain roads.  But main contributor to the length of journey was due to the bus driver not driving over 80km at any time.  When we returned to Laos, we noticed he immediately put his foot down and drove at the speed limit.  But fair enough he was being careful, particularly when the police target foreign drivers.

We saw a lot of trees as we drove, but we also visited a MDF factory, a wood-chip factory, and a port.

Hue itself was a nice Vietnamese town.  And the food, as always, was great.  The Bun Bo Hue (Pho with a lemongrass and shrimp paste influences) was fantastic. 

After visiting the port we had a seafood lunch at the beach.  Most of the local staff had never been to the sea-side before – one of the downsides of living in a poor, land-locked country.  They loved swimming in the sea.  One was heard to ask ‘so how far out does the water go?…

At the end of day 2 we had an hour at the main tourist site in Hue, the Citadel (old palace).  it was enormous and a great walk to end the day.

vn citadel

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Return to Kapas Island, June 2017 version

In July last year we had a week in Malaysia on Kapas island.  We decided to do it again – we had not been to beach since then.

Before this, there was a weekend in Bangkok doing some errands: fixing phones, going fabric shopping etc. Andrew was so good and sat in the gentleman’s waiting chair.  He agreed that a stretch Hummer was not the most practical of vehicles, and that no, we neither needed a lap dog nor a dog pram to push it in.  But a fan is a very useful piece of portable kit when you are sitting in a humid train station waiting 10 minutes for the airport train to arrive.


Then it was the trip to Kapas via KL and then KT.  KT, Kuala Terengganu, is the town nearest Redang, the Perhentian Islands and our quieter and less touristed destination Kapas Island.  Last time we did this trip we were supposed to spend the night in KT but when Andrew left his iPad on the plane and we had to do a detour rescue mission to retrieve it, that plan went by the wayside.  So this time we deliberately added a full day there.  The town turned out to be a quietish, provincial city, worth a look but not a destination in itself.

Then it was onto the small boat that ferried us to the island.  There had been a bt of rain the day before but Monday was clear and sunny and made for a pleasant 15 minute ride.  In fact it did not rain at all the entire stay even though quite a bit of rain was forecast

Turtle Valley is a laid-back place with simple accomodation and fantastic food.  Sylvia and Peter and the crew do it well.  This year it was Ramadhan and although that had no impact at Turtle Valley it did mean there were not the dining restaurants open at lunchtime each day.  We did not starve , we adapted our routine to be back at Turtle Valley each day for a lovely lunch.
The water was good, and we swam and snorkled.  The walkways that had been built around the island are quite an asset.  The island was quiet with only a few tourists mid-week and at times we had beaches entirely to ourselves.  The one thing that did not leave Andrew alone were the mosquitoes.  They LOVED him and left lots of bites.  He had time on his hands and actually counted what he could see.  He thought there were 300+. 

We had 4 relaxing days there and then it was back to KL for a couple of days.  We arrived into KL Sentral station at about 6pm on Friday night.  We took the circle train to our hotel.  We have never been squashed into a train carriage as much as we were on that leg.

After checking in we decided to head out for dinner.  But outside the heavens had opened and a massive tropical downpour was happening.  We stood and waited 15 minutes or so, and finally decided to brave it as it was sort of easing off,  And the restaurant we wanted to go to was about 400m away.  We got sooo wet and the restaurant was over-airconditoned and freezing, but we had a good steak. 
We walked, did some shopping and generally enjoyed a little bit of city.  One of the highlights (unexpected) was visiting the Japan Store by Isetan.  A new concept store with beautifully curated products, simple and sophisticated it was a visual treat and we spent quite a lot of time looking around all floors. 

Stayed @ Holiday Inn express and ate well The Ship, Lot 10 and Taps beer