Getting stopped by ‘The Fuzz’ has become part of our daily routine as we travel east. Our running total has now reached more than 40 times in the last 12 months alone.
In most Eastern European countries the police have a bad reputation for stopping tourists and collecting bribes. This can be incredibly frustrating when so much bad driving is going on around you unpunished. Emma and I have a strict rule that we will never pay a bribe, and up until now we have stuck to this and not parted with a penny! This kind of low-level corruption should never be encouraged; paying backhanders only makes the police expect subsequent payments from your fellow overlanders. Obviously this is for ‘made-up’ charges and false accusations, if you actually do the crime you should pay the legal fine.
Surprisingly Russia wasn’t the worst offender, as we’d heard, we were pulled over at least 10 times but never actually asked for any money. On the one occasion they actually stopped us legitimately, I was made to sit in the back of the smokey police Lada, and much to my surprise the officer showed me a photograph on a laptop of our car travelling at 72kph in an apparent 50kph zone 5km back down the road. Once he learnt we were heading to Mongolia he called us crazy and sent us on our way.
Checkpoints are a fairly regular occurrence in foreign countries; we had them in Morocco, Russia, Ukraine and all the ‘Stans. Most of the time they have police control buildings at the side of the road, normally located just after a succession of decreasing speed limit signs crammed into a 50m stretch, making it virtually impossible to slow down in time. In the Ukraine we got stopped by a rather over-zealous speed gun operator stood next to the speed limit sign (90km down to 30km). He wanted to see all my original documents and took me into his little room where he placed his gun on the table and basically tried to get me to pay $200. After playing the dumb tourist (which Emma thinks I’ve mastered), a long wait and a refusal to get into his police car to take us to the nearest ATM, we left without paying a thing!
The secret to avoid getting stopped at checkpoints is to avoid making eye contact, helped enormously by a right-hand drive vehicle! That tactic worked up until Kazakhstan where the police stopped us a whopping 17 times. On one occasion I apparently broke 4 laws in the space of about 30 metres when I pulled out from a petrol station. Most of the time the police, waving large orange sticks and whistle blowing excessively, are generally just curious about Bee-bee and her number plate. Again, this discrimination is incredibly frustrating when complete lunacy is going on all around you in cars that are totally unfit for the road.
In the former Soviet countries the police are generally pretty useless at patrolling bad driving, ironically the ‘sleeping policemen’ are more effective at controlling the traffic. The permanent farcical wooden police car cut-outs are also a poor deterrent to discourage bad driving. The police do however like inspecting paperwork. Being tourists you do have the advantage that most of the officers have no idea what they are looking at when you hand over documents. Give them colour photocopies in the first instance unless they strongly insist otherwise- once they have the originals the bribing ball’s in their court!
Much to our amusement most of the police we encountered looked like the comical sculpture we spotted in Finland 4 years earlier, only the police in the ‘Stans having disproportionately larger hats. We soon learnt that if we stopped far enough down the road past the typically portly police in their elasticated-waist uniforms, their laziness would prompt them to wave us on rather than walk to our car.
On the few occasions they did make it to the window (normally the passenger side) we used our over-the-top, non-stop friendly English accents and diversion tactics like showing them the shower and solar panel to charm them/confuse them into letting us go. If you are calm, polite, patient and show them you have all the time in the world to wait they normally get bored of you and can’t be bothered with the hassle of continuing to extort money from you. Even if you can speak the local language, stick to your own because they don’t have the patience for this either.
Since their independence one thing most of the post-Soviet countries have in common is a desire to out-do each other whilst proving to the rest of the world that they are worthy of competing on an international stage.
To announce their arrival many of the larger cities have been busy constructing exceedingly tall flagpoles and Dubai-esq ostentatious and often kitsch architectural projects. We first encountered this in Batumi, Georgia. For a relatively small city it had a disproportionately large amount of ‘interesting’ architecture.
The 180m tall Batumi Tower is probably one of the most eccentric. In an effort to attract attention and aiming for classy prestige, it is intersected 100m from the ground by a 20 metre diameter golden Ferris wheel.
Equally as insane is the White Restaurant, basically an upside down mini White House. Initially designed as a joke by a 24 year-old architect it was spotted and built within a year.
Thankfully Batumi has one redeeming piece of architecture that makes up for these tacky abominations. Ironically McDonalds isn’t usually associated with good design. Luckily the branch in Batumi is a stunning piece of glass-clad, cantilevered, sculptural goodness. Designed by Khmaladze Architects, the building incorporates a McDonalds and a fuel station in one.
The Armenian capital, Yerevan also has an unusual building. The Cascade was originally completed in 1980 but has since undergone an extensive make over. Essentially a five-storey building incorporated into a ginormous staircase, the Cascade now houses a contemporary art collection.
Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is the realisation of a 1950’s Sci-Fi vision of the future. It’s self appointed ‘Home of Futuristic Architecture’ title is well deserved with glass pyramids, golden eggs and giant tents dominating the skyline.
Astana’s city plan is driven by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s vision. Often criticized as a vanity project the city has sprung from nothing since the President moved the capital city in 1997 from Almaty.
Astana’s buildings have been designed by many international architects, including British Architect Norman Foster who designed The King’s Tent, the world’s largest tent and The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a glass pyramid.
Some of the most brash and showy buildings can be found in Turkmenistan where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s obsession with gold statues and white marble is dominating the capital city, Ashgabat. Unfortunately/thankfully we weren’t allowed to visit the capital where the tasteless opulence is turned up to 11, we did however visit The National History and Ethnology Museum in Mary, Turkmenistan where the museum was displaying a rather impressive collection of badly photoshopped photographs of the supreme leader all housed in a lavish white marble building.
Seemingly each country in Central Asia is keen to out-do each other, this competitive spirit has manifested itself in a ‘which country has the largest flagpole competition’.
For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million trumping Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan who also have pretty impressive poles.
Following on in our ‘Adventure Annoyances’ series we look now from the surface of the roads to those driving on them, specifically the Bad drivers. Every country has atrocious drivers; only some have more than others, the worst offenders we have found being in Albania, Turkey, Russia and Georgia. Tailgating is a huge problem in all countries, with cars literally less than 2m from your rear bumper at speeds of more than 50kph.
The Georgians & Russians in particular have a unique style of overtaking, which involves passing as close as possible to your vehicle; behind, along side and in front. We have witnessed vehicles overtaking vehicles that were already overtaking other vehicles. We frequently see people being forced off the road by on-coming overtaking vehicles, usual accompanied with a kind, informative light flash which states “I’m coming through, even though you have right-of-way and I’m going to have to force you to brake and swerve”. The hard shoulder, when it exists, is also a valid lane for ‘undertaking’.
We rode in several Taxis in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and not once did I see the drivers use their mirrors. One driver purposefully inched sideways todays a lady driver to intimidate her and another reached out his window and snapped off the wing mirror of another car who refused to move out his way.
Outside of Europe no one uses baby seats in cars, it’s not unusual to see children playing on dashboards, sat on laps (without seatbelts) and standing in the gap between the two front seats. In Bishkek (a city renowned for it’s chaotic, fast traffic) we witnessed a 5-year-old boy steering the car from his fathers lap whilst dad sat back and ate a sandwich.
On one occasion in Armenia crossing an icy, snowy pass we encountered a white Lada on its roof being retrieved from down a steep verge. 30 minutes later the same white Lada overtook us on a blind bend!
Seemingly it doesn’t matter what the driving conditions are, the drivers don’t seem to change their driving habits. We had several near misses in fog because other drivers failed to use their lights; rain, snow and ice also have no effect on drivers speed or care. Bright sunshine in your eyes? Just cover your driver’s window completely with a towel, shading your eyes and also obscuring your entire peripheral view. Why just drive when you can multitask? - Combine it with messaging on your phone, reading the paper or eating your dinner?
The condition of the cars also doesn’t fill you with confidence, bald tyres, broken windscreens, no lights and often completely overloaded (and that’s not just our car!), sometimes to the point where you are swerving to avoid tumbling items from the truck ahead; from rocks and gravel to onions and potatoes.
One positive side to all of the bad drivers (excluding taxis!) in the countries mentioned is that these motoring misdemeanours are rarely carried out in an aggressive fashion. People seem to accept each other’s stupidity, dangerous manoeuvres and blatant disregard for human life as all part of normal, daily road use. Horns are beeped cheerfully to let others know you’re about to do something reckless and stupid, rather than as a hostile reaction to others foolish and careless driving. Narrowly missing a head-on collision at 60kph on a blind bend from an oncoming, overtaking pickup with windscreen obscured by the tons of hay precariously piled on top… a wave and a big happy smile from the driver on the phone with his baby on his lap and it’s all OK.
Gaze at the constant stream of romantic overland expedition posts on social media and it’s easy to believe that it’s all exotic sunsets, idyllic camp spots and laughter with locals.
In reality however, it’s not all thrilling and fulfilling- overlanding has more than its fair share of exasperations and frustrations. But surely that’s part of the experience, right? Most days these provocations can be shrugged off, even laughed at, but even with the strongly developed tolerance and patience of an overlander sometimes these few repeating niggles make you want to scream from the roof(tent)tops.
In this short series of blogs I retain the right to rant, expose the things that have left nail marks in the steering wheel and detail our main adventure annoyances, our overlanding irritations. So here is my stage on which to vent. First up, bad roads. Expected? Yes. Tolerated? Mostly…
We’ve experienced some pretty terrible roads on our travels. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about off-road dirt tracks high up into the mountains here, we’re talking about main roads, motorways and city streets.
Russia, Kosovo, Albania, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan all have their fair share of ‘bad’ roads often with potholes larger than your car.
Deep chasms are not the only surface danger, due to heavy truck traffic many roads become furrowed, once in a groove your vehicle handles like it is on rails, without a vigilant steering wheel wrestle this can suddenly send you veering towards oncoming traffic.
Travelling in Armenia in your own vehicle is costly, on entry we paid at least £50 for ecology and road tax. Ironically when we left we should have billed Armenia for the damage done to our car for using such terrible roads. I’m not sure where the tax money is going but it certainly isn’t being spent on the roads.
The highway system in Armenia consists of 7,633km of (apparently) paved roads, of which, 1,561km are supposedly expressways; our average speed on Armenia’s M1 was about 28mph.
One of the worst stretches of urban street we encountered was in Sevan; some of the potholes on the main high street are so large you can see them on Google Earth!
It is not just the road surfaces that are dangerous in these countries; the lack of road markings, signals and ambiguous road junctions are equally hazardous, as are open drain covers and deep gutters. Other potential dangers include animals, overloaded trucks and clueless pedestrians. In Georgia we narrowly avoided hitting a child, who crossing the road with his mother, ran straight out in front of our vehicle. Fortunately the only physical damage done to him was from the heavy clout round the ear his mother gave him for being so careless.
Georgia’s excessive use of speed bumps is simply annoying. A motorway should never have speed bumps! Especially unmarked speed bumps.
In Western Europe we have a system for using roundabouts, it works because every roundabout employs the same system, you know your place and everybody else knows theirs. In Eastern Europe the system fails as every roundabout operates a different system. Some roundabouts allow vehicles that are approaching to have right-of-way whilst others allow the vehicles on the roundabout to have priority, some even employ both on the same roundabout. Some roundabouts even have traffic lights mid-roundabout whilst others have no road markings at all and are simply a massive city square with six lanes of traffic and a fountain in the middle. So, bad roads, the first of my adventure annoyances- the logistical network allowing me to traverse this wonderful planet, but at times my reason for breaking the 6pm G&T rule.
Legend has it that wine was invented 8,000 years ago in Georgia, a small country which still produces over 100 million bottles of beautiful wine varieties every year. Whilst immersing ourselves in this important part of the country’s heritage, we felt it necessary to soak up the potent grape juice with some of Georgia’s delicious array of culinary specialities and these are some of our favourites.
We lost count of the Khachapuri we consumed throughout the country owing to their availability everywhere, low cost and variety. Predominantly pastry based, these hefty parcels were sufficient for a lunch or dinner snack and sold on every street in many small bakeries producing them fresh from the oven. Triangles, squares, slices, circles stuffed with melted cheese, ham, garlic mushrooms, potato, salty panir, onion… whichever you point to and pick it’s a snack lottery with a win every time. Adjaruli Khachapuri from Adjara region is a particular speciality, the pie is shaped like a boat and brimming with hot melted cheese and butter swimming round a warm, runny egg.
Khinkali are the ubiquitous Georgian dumplings, the filling stuffed raw and cooked so all the piping hot juices stay inside, to be politely sucked out on the first bite. The tough, twisted top is purely for practical reasons and traditionally discarded on the plate (although then you can’t ignore how many you’ve devoured in one sitting). Filled with mixed beef and pork mince with onions and garlic, but also sometimes stuffed with herby mushrooms, cheese or potato, these delicious dough finger-foods are cheap and cheerful eats sold everywhere.
For a slightly more refined appetizer, my favourite was Badridzhani Nigvsit, delicious slices of lightly fried aubergine topped with a rough, garlicky walnut sauce and decorated with pomegranate seeds.
And for something sweet? Churchkhela is definitely unique to this region and looks more like a slightly mouldy, lumpy sausage than a syrupy delicacy. These odd-looking sweet snacks are a string of softened walnuts dipped in a thick, fragrant red or white grape juice and flour mixture, sometimes with honey. After the initial acceptance of such a novel taste and texture combination, chewing a Churchkela is actually very pleasurable and weirdly addictive.
Within hours of crossing the border from Turkey into Georgia the landscape began to feel more ‘wild’. Gone was the previous week’s dismay of exploring a valley only to be met by industrial development; indiscriminate scarring of the rock sides for roads and mining and rubbish strewn everywhere.
We were determined to see the beauty of the Black Sea after our motoring of the Turkish coast was disappointing with persistent torrential rain and grey skies. Sadly, a heaving great highway scours the entire Eastern Turkish coastal length; an ugly, dirty, noisy (and in most parts impassable) barrier to the narrow beaches and waves beyond. In Georgia, we arrived back at the Black Sea again just south from the port city of Poti, on the edge of Kolkethi National Park.
Our camp that evening was in woodland next to a calm lagoon opposite an islet with the Black Sea beyond. As the sky flushed orange from a glorious sunset, Egrets and Herons paddled through the margins. The next morning, braving the onset of drizzle, we hired a speedboat and driver through the park office and sped across shallow Lake Paliastomi. Reaching the far side, past docile water buffalo grazing in the shallows, we manoeuvred into the mouth of the Pichori River. Motoring through reed-fringed backwaters, we passed wading birds in the Bulrushes and peatland swamps. We alighted briefly on land in the heart of the wetland relic forest, a chorus of frogs singing and wild horses padding warily through the trees. I was in binocular and field-guide-clutching wildlife geek heaven.
A staggering 40% of Georgia is still covered by pristine forest and nowhere does this feel more evident than Borjomi National Park. The protected area covers an impressive 850 km2 and is strictly safeguarded to the extent that no tracks, and consequently no vehicles, are allowed in the park.
We took the opportunity to swap wheels for walking, made easier by the comprehensive free hiking maps and permits to enter the park distributed by the park office and visitor centre. It was a very steep climb up muddy trails through the shady evergreen forest. We reached the snow line- the silence, isolation, crisp air and mist creating an atmosphere in which we felt we may stumble across one of the parks 90 native brown bears in every clearing. As the fog cleared, the panoramic views from the summit across the Lesser Caucasus and into the Likani valley below were breath-taking. Eagles soared level with our vantage point, dew-covered spring flowers doted the grass hillside and vibrant orchids poked from the mossy forest floor.
Our route towards Russia took us through another protected area, this time through the high mountain range of the Greater Caucasus and into Kazbegi National Park. A combination of high-altitude passes through forest, windswept alpine pastureland and rocky valleys produce magnificent scenery around every twist and turn of the dramatic roads and trails. The snow-covered peaks towered above us as we set up chilly camps alongside clear, gushing glacial rivers in remote high valleys. Wildlife here is well adapted to the harshness of the terrain but excitedly, within the first day, I had the pleasure of spotting several rarer bird species within the gorges and rocky Mountains.
The Georgian agency of protected areas successfully manage these wild places; wildlife protection quite rightly has priority with strict management of access and activities. Eco-tourism is well established yet minimal and without detracting from that ‘wilderness’ feel. Carefully implemented infrastructure along the trails includes visitor’s centres, marked trails, maps, camping areas, overnight shelters, campfire pits, springs and picnic spots. I have only talked about a few of the many protected reserves and parks in Georgia, 10 of which have developed marked trails. I was so impressed by how well they’ve achieved creating the balance of organised, well-designed, minimal eco-tourism development with genuine conservation.
Arriving at 5am in pitch blackness, I followed the mist-shrouded path by torchlight, the sound of singing greeting me as I opened the church doors and stepped inside. Jikheti Church, hidden in the dense forest hills of Georgia’s Guria region, was atmospherically lit by candles. I assigned myself a high-surrounded wooden pew at the far side; a prime front row view of proceedings but possibly one above my rank as I then noticed the younger nuns perched uncomfortably on small hard stools at the back.
Nuns shuffled around the church in black robes and veils. Relieved at my foresight to wear a headscarf, I hadn’t predicted the unsuitability of combat trousers so was kindly issued a wrap-around skirt for decency (coincidentally in Khaki which complemented the adventure chic look). My inner feminist silently protested that the man also in attendance was wearing ill-fitting, tatty sportswear trousers which surely any god would find more offensive. I was also wearing two pairs of pyjama bottoms underneath said trousers, less of a respectful gesture and more because a stone church in the Georgian foothills at 5am in April is not the warmest of places to be sitting for long periods of time.
Candles were glowing from underneath portraits of saints adorning the walls, causing the gold paint to shimmer and halo’s to glitter. As nuns and monastical congregation members entered the church, they would genuflect towards the altar then kiss and place their foreheads gently on several framed portraits and the carved wooden panelling.
A nun stooped over a wooden lectern and unwaveringly recited verses from the bible, barely pausing for breath and reading each line perfectly and melodiously by candlelight. Similarly, nuns sat around the room followed the words unfailingly by the flickers of their delicate beeswax candles.
A deep, man’s voice boomed from behind a carved white stone altar piece at the front of the church, immediately followed by a beautiful melodic singing from the nuns, the church echoing with their harmonious response. I copied the nearby nuns and stood up politely during this recital however, now the foremost person, I was not able to see when I should sit down again so subtly strained a look from the corner of my eye and listened for the creaking of wood as pious bottoms rested back on benches.
Nuns ushered around the shadowy room, busy with lighting candles, appearing from hidden nooks behind concealed wooden panel doors. A table was carried by two younger nuns into the centre of the church and items of food were carried through the heavy doors and arranged neatly on top. Large loaves of bread, cake, bottles of oil, flasks of water, jars of preserved apricots and a bottle of wine (too early surely, even for me?). I assumed this was a ‘breakfast blessing’ as more thin beeswax candles were arranged on top of this sanctified buffet, conveniently wedged into bread rolls.
The faint blue light of dawn appeared through the arched windows of the dome high above, dimly illuminating the encompassing fresco of Jesus with arms outstretched. Simultaneously, a chorus of birds began their own early morning celebration to the end of night and arrival of day. The simultaneous songs of praise, both spiritual and natural, strangely complemented each other in chanting and chirping unison.
A younger monastic helper appeared from behind the altar hideaway first, the trim on his dark robes reflecting brightly like a high-vis safety vest in the half-light. He was followed by clearly the master of ceremonies, the ‘voice from the vestry’, a priest with a huge white beard, veiled hat and billowing cloak of pearlescent white. He swayed a grand silver incense burner, shaking high-pitched bells in time to each swing, and wafting clouds of surprisingly sweet and floral smoke behind him. He passed round the small congregation, waving fragrant vapour over each individual. I bowed my head on his approach but, curious for a close look at this wizard-like minister, I glanced up and caught his eye; he met my gaze curiously and sternly and I’m sure I received twice as much holy smoke as everyone else. The high priest stepped out of both church doorways and wafted the incense smoke into the cold, foggy morning air. He then retreated back into his sealed off sanctuary, through another concealed door of a life-size saint painting.
An older nun approached the altar carrying a large book and, skilfully balancing a candle at its corner, dutifully recited several passages. The loud bells from the tower above rhythmically chimed bong… bong-bong… bong… bong-bong, joined in a unified chorus by a rhythmic shaking of ceremonial bells. Reappearing once more, the younger assistant carried a heavy wooden lectern to centre-stage and the high priest began reading from a thick book.
After two mesmerising hours I slipped out of the side door when, almost ready to hit the road, Nino, a nun who spoke English, came to our camp outside and kindly invited us for breakfast. A table had been lovingly laid-out specially for us; the nuns follow Jerusalem time so were not due to eat for another couple of hours. The dining room contained long, wooden tables and benches, the surrounding walls beautifully painted with religious murals including an entire wall behind Andy depicting the last supper.
I consider myself a spiritual person in a non-religious way, personally a resolute non-believer in higher beings of creation and afterlife. I am however always emotionally moved by services of worship and forever fascinated by the peaceful beauty, ceremony and traditions of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. To witness this daily dawn ceremony of worship, duty and servitude was a privilege. To be welcomed to stay and share breakfast with these, often mysterious and isolated, female monastical communities, was an absolute honour and a memory I will cherish forever.