Saturday, December 27, 2014

Remaining days in Khiva and then flying home (15.09.2014 - 20.09.2014)

After our visit to the former shoreline of the Aral Sea we drove back south to Khiva. Another city with a rich heritage on the Silk Road.

Here our main goal was to get rid of our car. So far it has been totally reliable and with no problems what so ever. Except the fact that I bumped the exhaust while reversing out of the Aral seabed and it now sounded like a racing car ^^.
Asking around we soon found different people interested in our vehicle. Especially its low price (free!) but also its low mileage on the odometer made it attractive. But alas, after a couple of days we still had no fix offer. The problem it seemed was the muddled and unknown laws regarding import of a car. Besides pushing natural gas over gasoline the government also tries to protect its local car factories. We heard all kind of stories, percentages of taxes and so forth. Arguing that 100% import tax on a car which costs 1$ would be no problem didn't count ;)
The locals told us that they don't have access to the laws, especially out here so far from the capital. Travellers told us to drive it to Kirgistan and sell it there for profit. But besides having no time for that we also had only a single entry visa for Uzbekistan and didn't wanted to risk loosing our flights home.
In the end a "businessman" with the right connections took it. All we had to do was go to the lawyer which set up a contract. It took them quite a while but we ended up with a fancy contract (in Uzbek and cyrillic letters ^^) in the end. We had to pay the lawyer but didn't made a fuss for the 4$ ;)

After the official business was done we snapped some pictures of the Iwans and so forth ;) Of course there where again the groups of elderly people and we even saw an overland bus tour. But wheres the fun in going in a gigantic truck all the way to China?!
I insisted we took a ride in the rusty ferris wheel outside of the old town. It looked exactly the same as the one you see in pictures of Chernobyl. There was probably only one model during soviet times ;). The owner didn't let us ride in the same cabin, makes the whole thing even more trusting, lol.

Late in the evening we headed to the local airport and boarded our Russian built propeller plane to the capital. It had seats which would fold forward, awesome feature to stretch your legs (as long there is nobody in front of you ^^).

In Tashkent we had to fill out a piece of paper like the one during entry. Genti decided to go along that he never got one as well. The security guard was friendly and didn't made a fuss. He said we had to fill up a new one for the entry as he couldn't let us leave with any money otherwise. This was it! Nobody asked for our car =/ And we had spent so much time getting rid of it legally... Almost a bit disappointing.

After the paperwork was done a police men approached me and I had to open up my big bag. The police had found something suspicious (keeping in mind that the airport security had already scanned my bag on entry into the building). It turned out to be my gasoline stove and all was fine.
Later when we headed to the departure gate there was another passport inspection and a military dude told me to follow him. They had scanned my bag and found something suspicious! Really!?! So I had to open my bag again and show them my camping gear for which they went nuts. They wanted to see how my gasoline stove works... I tried to explain them that isn't possible at the moment o_O But everything was fine and I could pack may stuff again.

That was it! A bit later we boarded our plane, had a stop over in Riga and arrived at home with no delay!

Genti is already talking about buying an old Mercedes and driving to South Africa, lol.

Monday, December 22, 2014

At the Aral lake or where it was 20 years ago (14.09.2014 - 15.09.2014)

Ever since hearing about the drying up of the Aral Sea I've been kind of fascinated with its fate. I don't know why but probably because it is kind of unbelievable that human kind could do such a thing to nature and therefore itself.

Back in the glorious days of the soviet republic it was decided that modern day Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan should be the cotton house of the union. With gigantic effort the Karakum canal was built to bring water into the desert with the same name. At the same time similar canals where built in what is now Kazakhstan. The result was a short period of world leadership in cotton production followed by a destroyed fishing and shipbuilding industry around what used to be the Aral Sea.

Once one of the four largest lakes in the world (almost twice the size of Switzerland) it is now at around a tenth of its former size. With the shrinking of the lake its previous harbours where left behind in the middle of nowhere. Muynak used to be a major fishing port but now lies more than 200km from the shoreline.
With the massive cotton production tremendous amounts of pesticides and defoliation substances (makes the cotton easier to pick, although not healthier...) end up in the tiny trickle which used to be the mighty Amur Darya.
All this mixed with the dust left behind from the receding lake gave way to the now infamous Aral Sea Dust Storms®. It gets credit for the high rate of respiratory illnesses and cancer in the region...

On the north side Kazakhstan has built a dam to at least save the northern part of the lake. This together with improving the irrigation system and water proofing the canals (sic!) has helped to stabilise it. Further improvements are under way and maybe in a couple of years the former port of Aralsk may open again.

In the south however no such actions have been taken. =/

You should see the satellite pictures...
It was already getting dark when we arrived in Muynak, the former fishing village. We drove out into what used to be water and made camp amid a ground scattered in sea shells.
A cold night later we visited the ship graveyard and its memorial. Driving around town we found an old abandoned canning factory.
Now everything is in ruins but still people endure, makes you think what keeps them here...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

To Samarkand and up north (12.09.2014 - 14.09.2014)

After Bukhara we continued on eastwards to the next Silk Road™city of Samarkand.

The cultural program was more or less the same: Iwans, madras, mosques and minarets ;) We ended up entering the big Registan square from some back street and didn't realise it was closed and costs a fee during the day ;)
Besides this we visited the big graveyard (again by accident entering on some side alley and bypassing the booth at the entrance ^^) with its many impressive tombs. But there where definitely too many tourist groups around to stay longer.

In the evening we entered a restaurant for dinner and got invited to join some locals. A lot of hand signs, beer, local specialities and vodka while Modern Talking was playing on TV in the background, weird meal ;).
Later we stumbled upon an internet cafe (without internet connection) where the kids go to play computer games. Lacking any other form of recreation activity we joined in and got totally destroyed, lol. The cliché-fat-gamer-kid total owned us.

After this we had to backtrack a bit and then headed up north. On the way we spotted an old sky burial ground and of course had to spend it a visit. Racing with our tiny car over unpaved streets and
carving in donuts into the soil ^^

After a hellish ride we finally made it to Munyak, the former fishing port at lake Aral. More on this natural disaster in the next post.

Transport ;)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Entering Uzbekistan (10.09.2014 - 12.09.2014)

Sorry for the delay, here more of the last country we visited with our Corsa.

After the border post had finished it's lunchtime we were finally admitted inside. A short medical check (infrared temperature check, when it is almost 40°C outside...) and we were allowed to start with the usual procedure.
I didn't declare anything, which made them suspicious, hehe. They asked repeatedly for a phone, camera or cash which I denied to have :) In the end only Genti got a paper which had our car, his phone and some dollars declared on it. We pretended not having received any papers when we tried to leave the country, but more on this later.

Back in Turkmenistan we were running out of Manat so postponed to fill up on gasoline once across the border. Bad decision! As Uzbekistan has mostly natural gas, the government is pushing the people to cars which run on it. In the meantime the reduce the amount of gasoline on the market, especially outside of the capital (I guess the big political bosses still want to drive their shiny cars). So it came that all the gas stations selling gasoline where closed and locked down! By word of mouth me managed to find some black market dealer and bought a couple of water gallons full of gas, at 3423849 times we would have paid in Turkmenistan :(
This whole gasoline business tended to be quite time consuming and expensive. In the two weeks we only managed to find one open gas station, the rest of the time we had to buy fuel on the street. The last time they charged us more than 2$ the litre, the most expensive fuel in our entire trip...

The first stop in Uzbekistan was the old Silk Road™ city of Bukhara. After the last couple of countries it came to us as quite a shock to see so many tourists! Bus loads of elderly people with huge cameras where all over the place. On the upside this resulted in accommodations which deserve the term Hotel again, although pricy.

We strolled through the old town, took many pictures of the many Iwans and looked at the special style of minarets.
In the evening we stumbled upon a "biker bar" ;) Some beers later we knew everybody, including the two German dudes which were on their way home from China on cheap Chinese motorbikes, passing the time till their spare parts would catch up with them, lol.
Fun fact: Uzbekistan is halfway from Shanghai to Germany o_O

The following evening we ended up in the same bar and well after the official opening hours a whole bunch of police men showed up. They invited us to drink with them and insisted we take pictures. Most of them didn't speak any english which didn't hinder them starting multiple conversations at once ;)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Transit through Turkmenistan (07.09.2014 - 10.09.2014)

Turkmenistan, one of these countries you may have heard from in the news about their massive oil and gas resources. It was ruled for the first twenty years after freed from the soviet yoke by a proper lunatic, president for life Saparmurat Niyazov.
Famous for his mad laws and decrees, here some examples: 
  • People only had to read two books in their lifetime: the koran and his collection of garbled thoughts, Ruhnama. 
  • Banning news reporters to wear make-up, as he was having trouble distinguishing their sex. 
  • Banning dogs from the capitol because of their "odor". 
  • Renaming all days of the week and the months of the year after family members 
  • Entering Ashgabat with a dirty car is punishable (the only reason we washed our car...)
Some of his more obscure laws have been reverted by his successor, but not all of them...

Even more over the top than Baku, Ashgabat exists mostly of 12 story white marble buildings. It seems every ministry got its own "temple". Highlights (if your into this kind of things) were the building with the tallest indoor ferris wheel and biggest building in star shape in the world. Both acknowledged by the guinness book!? Or the house in the form of his own book, which reads (every day?) a page from it out loud. At the outskirts he let build a many kilometres long concrete walkway (the Walkway of Health, lol) which every government employee, had to walk once a year. With no shade at the borders of a desert, many were sick the day after :D

So when we entered this shiny place with our little beater car, there were almost no other cars around! We had a brand new 6 lane highway all for ourselves. Sadly the many CCTV cameras prevented us from fooling around too much ;)

Genti had done some research and the conclusion was that all the hotels were crap or expensive. So we went for the second and checked in at the Sofitel. ^^ Maybe one of the thirty rooms on each of the fifteen floors were occupied, not so crowded ;). We relaxed at the pool and had our first beer since Baku, nice!

Ah, we also visited the ancient city of Nissa. Sadly not much to see, but as it lies outside of "new" Ashgabat we had the chance to see where the common people lived. Of course after this little tour our car was dirty again ;)

The following morning we left and drove south east to Mary. The highway follows the Turkmen canal which is one of the main reasons the Aral sea is drying up. Nevertheless there were cotton fields all along it. Soon the new pavement and uncountable potholes started...

On this less than 400 km long journey we got stopped 9 times by random police checkpoints! And there were even more which let us pass unhindered...
It seems english (or any form of education) is not a requirement to become a policeman in these parts, so our conversations were mostly in hand signals. Luckily we had our fancy paper from the border with the many stamps and signatures. Anyway it was important!! to enter our names and licence plate into big books many times on the way...
It probably didn't help our cause that we had lost our front licence plate during the day on the bumpy shitty roads. Something we only realised in the evening (we made a new one from cardboard the next day ^^).

In the morning we visited the huge ruin field of close to Mary. Over 150km² lies the remains of the once magnificent Mary, a major city on the silk road. Without a car it would have taken hours to walk from sight to sight. 

Afterwards we headed on the Turkmenbat at the Uzbek border. A couple of police checkpoints and a drive through the desert later we arrived at another rundown and expensive hotel, hooray.

The border of course was closed for lunch break when we showed up the day after but otherwise not too complicated and lengthy.

Next Uzbekistan!

Arch of Neutrality, including golden Saparmurat Niyazov  on top

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Entering Turkmenistan, a typical border crossing (07.09.2014)

On the Turkmen side the "border-crossing" fun started once more. As always entering with our own car was what caused the most work/trouble/annoyance.

Here how it worked:

  1. Enter the border post, get your passport details copied into some big book at hut A
  2. Deliver passport at counter B, wait
  3. Pay 11$ per person at counter C
  4. Deliver the receipt at counter B, wait
  5. Collect passport and head through security check as passenger or start the car procedure...
  6. Enter office D (wake the guy sleeping on three chairs by doing so), deliver passport and car documents. He fills out an important looking sheet of paper with two copies in a handwriting of a five year old, writing my name wrong o_O He stamps sheet.
  7. Head to office E with sheet to get something copied into a big book, guy stamps sheet
  8. Return to office D to get told your at the wrong place and you have to go to "bak" 
  9. Some confusion later (nobody speaks English) you realize they mean bank (office F) but the guy has its lunch break
  10. Office G, in charge of sanitation, is willing to do his work and stamps the sheet without having seen the car
  11. Wait till the guy from the bank has its lunch finished
  12. Having a genius idea and enter the other building to head to office C (which also handled payments) to pay, doesn't work
  13. Have an army dude question you what your doing here, try to explain your waiting for the bank dude. He signals one of its friends standing around, its the bank guy!
  14. Pay 111$ total for the car: 1$ vehicle disinfection (never happened), 30$ entry & passage, 40$ fuel compensation, 35$ insurance, 5$ processing fee and 2$ bank fee on top
  15. Take receipt to office H, more copying into other books, more stamps on sheet
  16. Head to customs, guy copies passport details into his big book, stamps sheet
  17. Some bored military dude lazily search the car till they find our water pipe. They explain to me I have to destroy it there on the spot o_O Do as I get told, a shame but we haven't planned to bring it back home anyway. Other military dude smells on our felt markers, wtf?! Nobody looks into our cooler!!! Never ever in all the border crossings!
  18. Drive away, a couple of kilometers, stop at hut I, they copy your passport details into another big book
  19. That's it! ;)

We had an official looking paper, with our route, five! stamps and many many signatures. Turned out to be quite handy for the many police controls to come...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Yazd and crossing the desert to Mashhad (02.09.2014 - 07.09.2014)

Next was Yazd, city at the edge of the desert. Much of the old town is unchanged as the inhabitants just moved to the outskirts into new(er) buildings. Quite distinctive are the many wind catchers used to ventilate and cool the buildings. A visit to the water museum was great to get to know more about the extensive network of qanat of the old days. You can still see the mole-like hills in a line but nowadays the water gets to the cities by means of water pumps.
Lastly we visited a former sky burial grounds, called Dakhma. In Zoroastrianism it was believed that dead bodies are polluted and to avoid contamination of the earth they where put a top so called towers of silence and offered to the sun and birds.

To reach the the Turkmen border and get our visa we had to cross the desert to Mashhad. To split up the more than 700km journey we camped next to one of these abandoned buildings in the middle of nowhere.
The next day we reached Mashhad and were in for a surprise. Our lousy preparations had us not ready for this city at all. As it turns out it is one of the most holy place for Shia Islam and of course one of the holiest persons, Imam Reza which is buried here, had its anniversary during our stay. So the city was super crowded and traffic next to impossible. We finally found (an expensive) place to stay after driving around for quite a while and just crashed exhausted on our beds.

An early start had us at the Turkmen embassy where we got our transit visa, yeah! No more guessing how to reach Uzbekistan (Afgahnistan? ^^) or how to drive home (Russia?).
After this was done we switched accommodation and stayed at Wali's guest house. The place was rather shabby and dirty but way cheaper and there where some fellow travelers to chit chat.
Mission of the day was to find a car wash. As absurd it may sound: you get a 25$ fine if you enter Ashgabat with a dirty car...

To reach the border in time we were up again early the next day and headed north into the mountains. Traffic diminished more and more until there was nobody else on the street.
At Bagjiran, the Iranian border, we got our passport stamped, paid some dude 30$ (bribe, fine or toll? Still cheaper than the expected 100$ for the car, we didn't complain) and the locked gate was opened for us. Not many cars seem to come through here...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Going south, Isfahan & Shiraz (28.08.2014 - 01.09.2014)

Leaving Tehran we stopped at the Imam Khomeini shrine/mausoleum/mosque/center. What a waste of time. The inside doesn't live up to the lavish exterior. An industrial hall with some shabby carpets...

On our way south we discovered some abandoned fortress and village all built out of mud (bricks). All over the country you can find these (partly) uninhabited cities/towns which now only serve as shelter for goats and sheep. Also many caravansary's are still intact. We had the chance to spot them from the street and enter a couple of them on our way through former Persia.

When night fell we finally reached Isfahan and found a solution for our tire problem. More or less since Georgia we were looking around to buy two new tires. But in the former soviet countries they had only the Lada sizes and in Iran only the ones for Iran Kohdro or Saipa (built under Peugeot respectively Kia license). The mechanic spoke English and had two second hand tires for us which were only a bit too wide ;) He as well painstakingly balanced all our wheels. As the tires weren't new he insisted we should drive slower than 100km/h ^^

In Isfahan we visited the different bridges crossing the river Zayandeh Rud. Sadly the famous Si-o-se Pol and Khaju are spanning a river which has been dry the last three years, as locals told us. The many pedal boats lying on the dry river bed looked quite sad...
On the big Imam/Naqsh-e Jahan Square the old Persians used to play Polo, up to the last Shah. Which is by the way a Persian invention!

Before heading on we stopped at the Armenian church to snap some pictures of the frescoes, books and other items on display. There is still an Armenian minority living in Iran. We've seen a couple of churches, especially in Tehran.
Almost reaching our destination we visited Pasargade, the former residence of the Achaemenid kings. There wasn't much to see from this first Persian empire, a bit disappointing.

Wandering around Shiraz aimlessly the following day we bumped into three Swiss travelers and decided to let them board our mighty car the next day to visit Persepolis. First time there were five people in our little Corsa ;)

Persepolis lived up to its fame and was quite interesting. The many arches, pillars and especially the big stone reliefs depicting the different tribes and nations presenting gifts to the kings were impressive. 
Afterwards we stopped at the old burial grounds of the kings, Naqsh-e Rostam. Declining the hefty fee to enter we snapped some pics and headed home.

In the evening we met up with the Swiss and some locals. After a couple of teas and rounds of Backgammon at the local cafe we visited them at home. They even organized some moonshine out of pet bottles for us ;) Later into the night they drove us in their Saipa cars (with squealing tires) to the internet cafe they worked for a round of Counter-Strike ^^ The Swiss got totally pummeled by the Iranians, having team members which had never played before and Genti shooting me in the back didn't help ;)   


Friday, September 19, 2014

Tehran (26.08.2014 - 28.08.2014)

In Tehran our big mission was to apply for the Turkmenistan transit visa. By the time we showed up the first morning the embassy was closed. On the second morning we got up earlier and could deliver our application form, letter of intent and pictures. Pick up will be in Mashhad, if they grant it...

We also had to find a laundry (everything written in Farsi doesn't help) and exchange money. Because of the sanctions Iran is cut off from the international banking system. So we had to bring all the money in cash, credit or debit cards don't work here!

After the official business was done we visited Darband in the north of Tehran. Heaps of restaurant line a little river/ravine up the hill. There is also a chairlift up the mountain, sadly it closed 30 minutes prior to our arrival.

At the bazar Genti bought 2 meters of Abercrombie & Fitch labels. Actually it was a gift, the shop owner insisted on it. Not the first time people refused our money. Being a foreign tourist has its perks here :D

Next was the former Shah residence, the Golestan Palace. One of the halls was covered entirely in mirrors and you could gaze (no photo!) at the many gifts he received.

In the evening we managed to meet with a local couple over Couchsurfing. We swapped stories and got a bit of an insight into the everyday life. Under the new president the Moral Police had been reduced and a lot of the once strict rules are ignored more and more. Women started not wearing their head scar in the car anymore, wear (excessive) make-up and just barely cover the bun at the back of the head. You can also see scarfs in all kind of colors. I don't think the Iman had bright pink scarfs in mind ;)

Murals at the Golestan Palace

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The north of Iran (21.08.2014 - 24.08.2014)

Our first night in Iran we spent in Ardebil. The next morning we wanted to visit the Sheikh Safi mausoleum, which was closed. Instead we could witnessed the procession for the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war ending. There where cars with coffins parading, a marching band, military in formal attire and all was filmed by a camera crew (and a guy with a GoPro on a giant stick, lol). Also there were people handing out free drinks on the street, which resulted in a huge traffic jam.

Next city was Tabriz, 200km to the east. A stroll through the bazaar and mandatory visit to the carpet dealer later (without buying anything) we headed further east.

The lake of Oroomiye is shrinking more and more due to the water loss because of the surrounding agriculture. This results in a salinity of 38%, more than the dead sea! Also there are huge flat surfaces around, which we had to race on :D Some giant donuts, spinning wheels and almost overheating motor later everything in our car was covered in dust ;)

Because of the receding coastline a newly built resort now lies far away from the water. When we tried to drive down the "beach" we promptly got stuck and had to shove our little blue bird out of the sand ;)

After crossing the dam/bridge we turned south and stayed for the night in Mahabad. This close to the Turkish border we saw a Turkish truck and one week later a German expedition team. These were the only foreign cars on the street in over two weeks! Hence the stir we cause when we turn up in our car ;) On the motorway they pull up next to us and want to know where we are from. Or shake hands at 90km/h ;) Also often they overtake us just to have a look at us, hehe.

On the way to Zanjan we stopped at the fire temple Takhte Soleiman, Salamons throne. The main attraction is the giant pool/pond in the middle of the ruin which is fed by underground springs. Weird to see water emerging from nowhere in this dry and arid area. Sadly your not allowed to go swimming in it :(

More to come!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Entering Iran without Carnet de Passage

To enter the Islamic Republic of Iran you need a Carnet de Passage. This document, issued by your national car association, cost you quite a lot of money and is some form of bond that you will return your car to your home country. 

As our trip is only one way this was out of the question for us. ;) 
Searching for a solution online we soon found out about Hussein from Overland to Iran. We got in contact and explained him our travel plans. He wanted 600€ for this service and told us we were only allowed to stay seven days in Iran with our car when entering from Azerbaijan. This was way too much and especially not long enough for our stay in Iran. Also he told us this when we were already in Baku, meaning a giant detour to enter through Armenia.

Not knowing what else to do we decided to visit the Iranian ambassador in Baku! We got invited for tea and he made some phone calls in our behalf. In the end he assured us that it would be no problem and we could acquire all the needed documents at the border. He also organized that Muhammad Safari (09141526002) would await us at the border in Bilehsavar and handle all the paper work. 

Leaving Azerbaijan took less than an hour but then the problems started. This had nothing to do with our car, the problem were the two walkie-talkies we had with us. Apparently your not allowed to bring in radios... To stay in touch when we get separated (especially at border crossings were they only allow the driver to remain in the car) we use these. More and more people were involved until finally some high ranking dude showed up with his driver. We had some tea with him and could finally clear the issue and keep our walkie-talkies. He got us to the front of the line and we got our passports stamped and were officially inside Iran. This took us about two hours, but our car still wasn't registered.

After this little "detour" we could start getting our paperwork for the car settled. Worth mentioning is that the car is registered on Genti but I was driving into the border post. So everything was under my name. I tried to tell them this but they didn't care and told me it was fine this way ;).
First I had to sign some document in a little hut, where they translated my name to Farsi, lol. They copied this into a big book and I had to visit the shack next door, where the copied this into another big book. Then our fixer, Mr Muhammad Safari showed up and we told him where we'd like to exit Iran to Turkmenistan. He didn't speak any English but with some help and hand signs we were able to communicate. He disappeared with our car documents and the papers we got on the Azeri border for half an hour to return later asking for money. He wanted 400$, I offered 300$ which he immediately accepted, damn should have gone lower... Anyway still way cheaper than Hussein.
With our money he vanished into the building with all the chaotic counters for about an hour. I checked on him twice and saw him stand in line on different counters. Maybe if you spoke Farsi and had a lot of time on your hand you could do this by yourself...
So he emerged with a our car license, an insurance all in Farsi, and a staple of papers, on them where multiple stamps and even a hologram sticker ;) 
It seemed they had used our Azeri papers as reference, as they had added an AZ in front our license plate number.
Next was another shack where they copied my name again, this time into a computer. Then the form had to get stamped on another desk and half of this we had to hand out to the guy manning the exit. And that's it! 

All in all it took us about three hours and 300$ to get the car across. We now have official papers and are allowed to stay for the whole time of our Iranian visa.

We snapped some pictures with Mohammad and drove on!

Edit from the future: To leave Iran to Turkmenistan on the Bagjiran border we payed a dude 30$ to unlock the gate for us. No idea if this was for him or an official payment. The ambassador had told us we would need to pay around 10$ for every day over six days we stayed in Iran... Anyway, the gate was open and we continued!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Status Update (September 10, 2014 at 01:03PM)

Just crossed the last border, made it to Uzbekistan! Got stopped 12 times by random police checkpoints between Ashgabat & Turkmenabat ;) @ 39.306898,63.764261

Friday, August 29, 2014

A brief visit to the kingdom of Azerbaijan (17.08.2014 - 21.08.2014)

Ridiculous expensive visa, lengthy border procedure, police every 100 meters and CCTV every 50 meters, expensive hotels, boiling heat and stinking oil wells: Welcome to Azerbaijan! 
If it wasn't for our Uzbek visa we wouldn't have come here...

You may have heard that Azerbaijan is a Republik, it isn't. It is run by the Aliyev family. The current president inherited the throne from his father. Also other parts of the government are in family hand as well as much of the money.
They try to push Baku as a holiday location (?!?) by constructing modern high rise buildings. The famous flames of Baku are one example. But of course the Azeri quality standards are so low that one of the three flames is already inhabitable, lol.

After five hours including some paperwork and insurance for our car we were finally admitted inside. Only to be stopped about 100km later for alleged speeding... Since leaving Europe/Austria we would drive as fast the street & car allowed and the other vehicles did. Not so in Azerbaijan... The cop wanted us to return to the last police post and pay a hefty fine of 200AZN (1AZN = 1€UR). Something we had been warned in Batumi and Tbilisi about :(. Knowing we still had a long ride in front of us we managed to talk him down to 50€ and could head on. 
It is quite tiring to drive in these countries: taking care of other vehicles, the street condition, pedestrians and free wandering livestock. Now we also had to respect the speed limit, which changed every fucking 200m! 

Somehow we made it to Baku in the middle of the night only to get up early the next morning for our visas. Thanks to online research we had the GPS coordinates of the two embassies, otherwise we would never have found them. Sadly the Turkmenistan embassy was closed till we had our Uzbek visa payed and collected. We need to organize this in Tehran...

Later we visited the harbor and saw the infamous train ferry over the Caspian Sea. Yes a train ferry! They also transport cars, but most of the time it is stuck in front of the harbor and you have to wait an unknown time on this stinking rust bucket (which occasionally sinks). Another reason to take the route through Iran!
In the evening we took a stroll in the city center. All the big and luxurious brands have stores here. I don't know who should buy that stuff...
One of the few attractions in Baku are the ever burning flames. Gas is seeping from the ground and keeps burning since hundred (?) of years. Sadly the spot isn't too welcoming as they have poured concrete over most of the place.
After three nights we had enough and left the city after visiting the Iranian ambassador (more of this in the next post). 

We stopped on the way south in Qobustan to snap some pictures of the stone carvings. The engravings date back between 5'000 - 40'000 years, says Wikipedia. Driving to the place we missed the ticket office so had to bribe the park guard ;)
Next were the mud volcanoes on schedule. One third of all the mud volcanoes in the world can be found in Azerbaijan. Activated by underground natural gas deposit they push mud to the surface which results in gurgling and hissing cones. Supposedly the mud is good for your skin, we didn't try it out tough. Besides us was only one other visitor around, covered entirely in mud :D

In the town of Bilasuvar in front of the Iranian border was no hotel to be found. So we decided to camp in the field. After all the field worker had left and we had just started cooking dinner a car showed up. It was the local policeman wanting to know what we did here... With a lot of hand signs we finally managed to get the message across where after he wanted to invite us to his place. After we declined we got warned about some wild animals (dog, dingo, wolf? Something with pointy ears) and he left. 
An uncomfortable night later (Genti even had heard some howling) we finally left this country...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Batumi & Tbilisi, Georgia (12.08.2014 - 16.08.2014)

After a lot of waiting on the Georgian side we where finally admitted inside and could continue along the coast.

In Batumi we had planned to get our transit visa for Azerbaijan and maybe relax a bit at the Caspian Sea. Sadly the little consulate wanted to make a quick buck. He refused us a transit visa! Even though there was the option to cross on the form we had to fill out... Also he insisted it would take five days for the paperwork or pay the double to have it immediately. As we had no other option we had to bite the (expensive) bullet and pay 150$ each!
He then took some visa stickers out of a drawer and filled them out in front of us. Five days my ass, little fat and hairy cunt. A foreshadow of corrupt and arbitrary Azerbaijan, more to come...

The rest of the days we tried to relax in our cooled hotel room or went for a quick swim in the sea. The pebble beach with its murky water wasn't to our liking, but the Russians had no objections.
After three nights we continued to Tbilisi. On the way we encountered the hottest weather so far, 41° with hot side winds. Our car felt like one of the boxes they torture people in...
Also worth mentioning are the shittiest roads so far and the lousiests driver. No wonder their cars all have some pieces missing o_OOnce settled in the nice Hostel M42 we decided to try our luck with some party. Knowing it would be one of the last time. So the next day was mostly hang over treatment and relaxing ;)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ancient Ani, Kars and over the border! (11.08.2014 -12.08.2014)

Our last attraction in Turkey was the armenian medieval capital of Ani. This former city on the silk route had its strategic location secured by canyons on three sides and a mighty wall at the front.
It nevertheless got captured and sacked multiple times. The Arabs, Mongols and last the Russians all where once master of this spot.
Because of these changing rulers there are now ruins of mosques and Armenian churches next to each other. Besides some key buildings and the wall most of it is in ruins and heaps of stone.
We climbed the fortress and had a good view over the border river to the modern Armenia. 
On the parking a little girl approached us to sell some handicraft. We declined but Genti gave her the Barbie make-up set he had bought back home :D Worth mentioning is that this is one of the more conservative spots in Turkey. We hope she didn't get into too much trouble ;)

We then returned to the city of Kars for the night. Here we ate the local delicacy, another form of kebab ;) 
The next day we crossed the mountains once more to the Caspian Sea. The woods and and wooden chalets reminded us of back home. Once at the sea we followed the highway to the border to Batumi in Georgia. Exit procedure took almost an hour. We weren't billed for speeding despite the many speeding cameras, nor for use of the motorway even dough we hadn't bought a sticker... ;)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Status Update (August 21, 2014 at 11:17AM)

Entered Iran without carnet, but some bills lighter. Mohammad the fixer nailed it. @ 39.380724,48.344757

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stats about our epic road trip!

Hard data about our trip ;)

Monday, August 18, 2014

To the Black Sea and back over the mountains (09.08.2014 - 10.08.2014)

From Tokat we headed further north and finally reached the Black Sea near Ünye (after climbing the local fortress/ruin). We had "planned" to spend some relaxing days on the coast but alas the Turks had other things in mind.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Status Update (August 17, 2014 at 01:06PM)

We made it to Azerbaijan! Took us only 5 hours to cross the border :S Now 500km to Baku. Gonna be a long day... Kisses from Genti ;) @ 41.293473,45.138689

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mysterious Cappadocia (06.08.2014 - 09.08.2014)

We arrived just in time in Göreme to see the Cappadocian landscape painted by the setting sun.

Our camping for two nights wasn't called Panorama Camping for nothing. Just meters from our tent was an overlook with view of the valley. On the first morning we got woken up by a constant humming sound. It was the hundred hot air balloons getting filled! The entire valley was full of them. The already special landscape got even better! Some the balloons came pretty close to the stone formations or the ground. Wouldn't be surprised if some of the overloaded baskets sometimes crash into something... Besides being crowded these balloon rides are quite expensive as well, so we decided to skip them.
During the day we visited one of the many underground cities in the region. Built as a retreat from raiders (not Twix) they had space for thousands of people and livestock. For some reason this seems to be on the itinerary of visitors from South Korea o_O There were bus loads of them...
The rest of the day we spent at the pool and enjoying the sunset once more.
Early next morning I got up to snap some pictures again. Later on we visited one of the popular Fairy Chimney sites. These stone pillars are created over time when the top consists of a more durable formation but the rest around gets washed away. They look quite surreal, our pictures just don't do it justice.

After this we drove up north to the Black Sea. Because of our late start into the day and little visit on the way did we make it only to the town of Tokat. The only attraction here (beside another mediocre fortress) is the local Hamam built in 1572. Genti refused to join me so I went by myself. I think he is still mad at me because of the ayuverdan massage which I talked him into in India :D Getting an oily massage on a wooden plank by two hairy men marked him for live ;)
Luckily there was a group of French Turks which explained the different rooms and procedures. I declined the massage but got a good rubdown/peeling. Haven't felt as clean for a while!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

To Ankara for another visa (05.08.2014 - 06.08.2014)

On Monday morning we dropped of Melanie at the airport and returned to the Iranian consulate a third time to pick up Gentis visa. With this done we crossed the Bosporus and made our way to Iznik. Another ferry ride took us across the Marmara Sea and closer to the ancient Roman town of Iznik. Sadly not much besides part of the city wall remain.

The following day we drove to the Turkish capital, Ankara. Initially we had "planned" to acquire the visa for Iran and Uzbekistan in Istanbul. But because of the delay on the Iranian side (and the sparse opening hours of the Uzbek consulate) forced us to rethink our options. That's why we ended up in Ankara. Having read online you get the Uzbek visa on the same day in Istanbul made us assume the same for Ankara. Sadly it wasn't as simple. The guy at the counter only spoke Turkish and Uzbek :S With some local help translating we got that it would take 5 days for the whole process... =/ It seems every embassy/consulate does things a bit differently. With some more talking we managed to tell him we would pick up the visas in Baku, Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijan we plan on getting the visas in Georgia ;) Without a visa for the countries coming from and leaving to it is even more complicated (to impossible) to get a transit visa for Turkmenistan. We still gonna trie our luck in Tbilisi and again in Baku.

After the paperwork was done we returned to the city centre to visit the Atatürk museum and mausoleum. The name meaning literally "Father of the Turks" is still remembered everywhere. Not a city without a road or square named after him. He was the founder of the Turkish republic and initiator of many reforms. For example it was on his behalf that the Turkish alphabet was introduced, having used the Arabic letters before. He wanted to transfer the remains of the Ottoman Empire into a modern republic. Not sure he would approve where the country is heading at the moment...
We then continued on to Cappadocia for the night. On the way we stopped at the Tuz Gölü (salt lake) for the view and some pictures!

Fail ;)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gigantic Istanbul (29.07.2014 - 04.08.2014)

After leaving Greece on a new and empty motorway we decided to take the scenic route along the Sea of Marmara. Our hopes of finding a nice camping to stay for the night were unfulfilled and we ended up in a giant half finished 5* hotel.

The remaining distance to Istanbul was soon covered and the one way street madness had us engulfed. Finally we reached our destination to soon leave again and pick up Melanie at the airport.
The following two mornings we visited the Iranian consulate for our visa. I got mine but Pasqual got told to return on Monday a third time :S

The rest of the time we visited the usual attractions: Galata tower, Spice Market and Grand Bazar, Sultan Palace, Hagia Sofia and other mosques (from the outside), Taksim square, the Beyoglu quarter with its shops, restaurants, cafes and clubs. We also took the ferry to the Asian side, but as there wasn't much to see returned by train trough the new (leaky) tunnel to the Golden Horn.
Diving into the Turkish cuisine we tried all kind of kebab, shish kebab, ayran (buttermilk), lahmacun, köfte, different pide, many appetizers and even overpriced ice cream (including show) :D
On Monday Melanie flew back home and we got the second Iranian visa, yuppie! We don't know yet how to get in with our car, but one problem at the time ;)
As we had planned to get the Uzbek visa in Istanbul as well (and haven't due to the delay) we decided to visit Ankara for that. So we continued eastwards to the city of Iznik. Another ferry ride and scenic route later we arrived in this town which once was the capital of a kingdom at the Marmara Sea.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Genti + Mussels

Genti enjoying some mussels from the street vendor ;)

Status Update (August 03, 2014 at 03:43PM)

We finally made it to Asia after six days in Istanbul. Big Erdogan election party going on. Locals call him Taliban in a suit :D @ 41.025737,29.016614

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mighty Hellas (24. - 28.07.2014)

After all this daily driving we stopped for two nights in Thessaloniki. Here they serve you always and immediately free water once your seated. We guessed this is so you don't die of thirst, as the service was always super slow. Waiting to order and to settle the bill seems to be common here. Who would have thought they don't employ enough waiters in a country with 25% unemployment rate...
After some party and snapping pictures we continued on to the island Thassos. In the tiny village of Pefkari was our first proper camping. Firing up the gasoline stove for the first time (without loosing eyebrows ^^), lying on our inflatable mattress (thanks to our east coast connections! ^^) and just chilling at the beach was our schedule. Most of the visitors where from Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia. We also didn't fit in age wise, old couples and families ;)
On the second night we discovered the neighbor town of Patos for some party. The locals we talked to didn't even know about Switzerland!?! O_o No not Sweden!
Hung over we took the ferry the day after back to the mainland and continued on to Istanbul.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ohrid & Skopje, Macedonia (22. -23.07.2014)

Last Yugoslavian country on our list was Macedonia. We stayed for one night in Ohrid next to lake Ohrid, supposedly one of the oldest lakes in the world. A speciality of the region is baked eel. Sadly you have to order it in advance as it takes two to thee hours to prepare. The eels used to migrate from the lake to the Saragossa sea (next to the Caribbean), 6500km away! Nowadays there are too many hydroelectric dams blocking the river and they are stuck =/
We snapped pictures from the town and the castle overlooking the lake. They proudly fly their flag from every tower...
Next was the capital Skopje, where we had an entire hostel for ourselves :). Skopje is littered with statues, on every corner or plaza is a lion or dude on a podium. "Highlight" is a monstrous mix of a fountain, pillar and statue, including light and sound! o_O
The following day we left for Greece and where reminded that they do not approve of the name Macedonia. A big part of the antic Macedonia lies in Greece, they also have a region with the same name. At the border they had a sign "The sign MK is not recognized by Greece". Because of this opposition some maps have FYROM written next to Macedonia: Former Yugoslavian Republic Of Macedonia.