Monday, October 22, 2007

"Magnificence" + "What the Hell!" = The Caucasus

After about six weeks in the Caucasus we realised oddities had become the norm. Where to begin telling the stories! Our time in Georgia was dominated by the people and the mountains and was all at once magnificent, plenty of "What the hell is going on now!?", thrilling and ultimately too short. Armenia was an education in the cradle of Christianity where we were charmed by this remarkable ancient race and didn't want to leave.


The Georgians were to us generous, open-hearted, passionate, stunningly male chauvinistic and boastful.

They tried to kill us with kindness and we ran away to Armenia for a while leaving pillars of smoking faux pas in our path.

They express themselves regularly in emotive and heart-felt toasts that Mick had to match, and he did a good job.

They live and breathe their orthodox religion and their churches are some of the loveliest I have ever seen. Delicate stone work from centuries past; emotive icons busy being kissed. We met two boys smoking dope that were off to spend a month praying in a monastery.

The man responsible for 20 million deaths (more or less, depends who you read) has a shrine built to him and is praised in toasts: the most famous Georgian ever - Stalin. Here he still stands in some squares and hangs on walls; he may have made mistakes, but look what he achieved - the Big Man! We saw his death mask, poked around his personal train carriage and the humble home he grew up in. Creepy. However, the lovely young man showing us around invited us to tea where we met his parents.

Now, the wine. The Georgian wine reputation greatly preceded our visit from ancient Roman writings, period novels to travellers rapt guest book comments. We were looking forward to it but ended up wondering what the hell was going on as at no point did anyone admit the wine is crap.

When Georgians presented us with wine at their parties or at home with a flourish it was the vilest stuff I've ever tasted and had bits floating in it. This might explain the Georgian's juvenile attitude to alcohol - "don't enjoy it, just drink it" - as glasses of wine (and firewater homemade spirits) must be downed in one or you will be shouted down. We visited a Soviet-era wine factory (some craftily labelled plonk for the Chinese market - Stalin again!) and another winery in the famous wine district of Kakheti with an equally bemused Israeli couple. We convinced ourselves it wasn't too bad, but I ended up with a horror headache. A final effort involved sitting in the swankiest wine bar in Tbilisi and ordering the most expensive bottle. It was as good as anything mass-produced anywhere else. There, I’ve said it.

Stalin-based marketing campaign for Georgian wine to the Chinese market

The magnificent Caucasus Mountains were beyond-words beautiful and we couldn't get enough, so we climbed into them three times.

First was the Kazbegi region. We were taken there by a Georgian friend, Lasha, and his uncle. We climbed to a stunningly located church. Shared much vodka and stayed with Lasha's crazy friends who starved us as no woman was around to grow the food and cook it. Hiked gorgeous Truso Gorge inspecting the carcasses of sheep left behind by wolves who killed another 80 of their mates. Attended a Georgian christening party under the stars to experience the legendary toasting traditions and grown men rolling around drunk.

The morning after the night before: Georgian friends with Mick.

Next was the mysterious Svaneti region reached by one of the most thrilling trips of my life - in the belly of a worn Russian military helicopter passing by one of Georgia's conflict zones. Exciting stuff as it wound up to an ear splitting nudge off the ground to float into the mountains, seemingly just skimming over ridges. Words absolutely fail me on how beautiful it was up there.

The local kids had a party in our campsite all night; tire marks at the door of our tent in the morning. We checked out their concert of a guy with a camel toe in his pants inexplicably singing in English making up his own Brit Pop tunes. I got another five minutes of fame when a camera crew nearly fell over on discovering we were Australian and got us on film raving about Svaneti (but not the band).

Finally we made a dash to remote Tusheti where the trip up surprised me by making me scared. Not an unreasonable fear as we ascended up a steep single jeep track from 500m to 3000m in a Toyota that early on hit a rock and lost its high gears. Well worth it though, as the scenery again was majestic and the village life fascinating in how different it was to our own.

There was no power or running water to the now mostly empty villages as hardy shepherds drove their flocks down for the winter. We walked between pretty slate villages, accompanied by Loma the 62kg Caucasian dog whose head was the size of a bear's. Concerned about the approaching winter, we joined the Georgian Off-Road Club on their trip down even though one of them was a tool who nearly died driving his vehicle half-way off a precipice the night before. But, this time I had a thrilling time, much more confident in our Georgian 2006 Off-Road Driving Champion and his serious 4 x 4 machine. We pushed our way through flocks of sheep, one thousand strong, and herds of cattle and horses that were watched over by the shepherd's pack of ear and tail-less Caucasian dogs.

The Georgian Off-Road Club heading down from Tusheti, pushing through a flock of sheep doing the same thing.

I left Georgia with a heavy heart filled with a crowd of faces of those who eagerly went out of their way to look after us. After all the time we spent in Georgia and digging pretty deep I felt we left unsatisfied, there is so much more to the place but they had worn us out this time.


In Armenia we loved staying in private homes where we were welcomed like visiting dignitaries, especially when they found out we were Australian (rare in these parts). Armenian's would throw their whole body into frantically waving us over to join them for vodka and food. But they didn’t try to kill us with it like the Georgians.

We learnt about their long history of survival and found their quiet resilience, open-heartedness and generosity remarkable, despite all they have been through. Their longing for all they had lost over the centuries was palpable. Such as biblical Mt. Ararat - achingly sacred to all Armenians - but it is in another country. I was taken aback to see the mountain looming over Yerevan, so close, but with the border slammed shut by the Turks: you can look but not touch.

The Genocide Museum did what it was supposed to and made me sick with the images. The Turkish government only last week said it "never happened".

Armenian’s were the first Christian nation, building churches when now long-dead races were waving swords about. Our Armenian church experience started in Turkey, at the most fascinating church I have ever seen - on Akdamar Island in massive Lake Van. In Armenia we saw at least a monastery a day, each with its own ancient architectural feats. They seemed to grow out of the remote locations we found them in. I won't bore you with a list of them, but thanks to our guide / driver Gagik they came alive for us. He is a charming artist whose passion for his landscape drew the beauty of it even more into our eyes. Gagik became a friend too, especially with Mick over a homemade rocket fuel mulberry vodka session!

We giggled calling out to each other in retro bathtubs watched over by a nurse in a lurid synthetic uniform at a thermal mineral spring resort. We were confused why we had to visit a doctor first – serious medical institution, not for fun it seems!

You know when your meal is slow arriving at a restaurant you say, "Are they out the back killing it!?" Well, here they are. I discovered this wandering off to the loo at one outdoor restaurant, walking past a man busy hacking up a sheep hanging from an A-frame. Driving through villages we would be greeted by a decapitated cow - her skin on one side of the road, the butcher selling the rest of her on a sheet on the other. Fruit and veg is picked straight off the plant and put on the table. It was the freshest food of our lives, and none of it had a yuppy organic price tag.

We really didn’t want to leave, there wasn’t much left to see, but there was something about the Armenian’s that I can’t quite explain. We felt at home.

Gagik and Mick joining cheerful locals for vodka at Hayravank monastery, Lake Sevan.


We have been back in the land of mighty moes for two weeks, greatly enjoying the super friendly but not overbearing Black Sea Turks and having a quiet, relaxing end to our Walkabout. All along the way locals helped us before we even knew we needed it.

We were leapt on by traders to join in their street-side feast at the end of a Ramadan day.

Explored yet another beautiful mountain range, the Kackar, listening to the call to prayer dance amongst the brilliant autumn colours of our alpine village.

We cruised the entire length of the Black Sea coast, the best bit being on a little winding road amongst cliffs and ranges dotted with minarets and villages of tumbling Ottoman homes on the sea. Just beautiful, and not an ugly resort in sight. We thought we were in heaven, wiling away days in a charming fishing village where every bin had a cat in it. Fell in love with Istanbul - must return one day.

We are back in Melbourne on Friday, back at the desk on Monday. We'll miss meeting curious and friendly people, dogs and cats everyday. Mick won't miss the accursed money belt and bashing his head on low doors. I'm just looking forward to a decent vino.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Eastern Turkey - Holy Carp Batman

Beyond our intermission in the UK and most of the way through our second, more challenging and exotic leg of the Walkabout, here's some results:

Physical Status - The trip before Istanbul endowed me with a bum an African woman would be proud of, built on sometimes monotonous food and omnipresent vino. Since then I have been alternating between the squirts (thanks Turkey), great variety and tastiness in food (thanks Georgia and Armenia), starving (Georgia too), weeks without booze (too much Turkish tea) or forced to skull vodka (those piss head Caucasians). Need a hair cut; I've grown a daggy Diana.

Mental Status - Head crammed to overload of experiences and images of previously unheard of ancient wonders, historic horrors, beyond words natural beauty, loony alphabets, local's everyday lives. Thus, I'll only tackle Turkey in this update.

After breathing in the exotic feel of Istanbul only briefly, we bolted for the great interior of Turkey. We decided to focus on the east with only a smattering of tourists (thanks PKK) and found a load of stuff we had never heard of before.

One of the most friendly and safe places I have ever been was a pious, Muslim pilgrimage town - Urfa. We still regret not staying longer to soak up the mix of dress of the Iranian or Arabic pilgrims, wander the labyrinth bazaar, laze in the peaceful gardens, chat with the pleasant locals who stopped us every five minutes or scream "ewwwwww" at the writhing mass of holy carp eating our breadcrumbs.

We were swollen with tea in Mardin, a town of honey coloured, old, extravagant mansions dripping down a mountain side. The view of the roasting plains of Mesopotamia spread below our tea house, seemingly into antiquity.

Filled with quiet excitement at the beauty of little Hasankeyf, we climbed the ancient fortress overlooking the Tigris river, yellow mountains, and people still living in caves. Batman was up the road but dodgy apparently.

Mick's favourite photo: Hasankeyf and the Tigris River in a scene unchanged for centuries.

We visited both Mt Nemruts. One at dawn to watch the sun spread across the ancient stone heads left to honour a long ago king. On top of the other Nemrut we splashed about in a volcanic lake and watched locals devour a whole sheep for a picnic - brought along alive.

Turkish baklava is the best!

I was denied paradise - found a house full of cats, but I could hardly touch them. The rare pure white cats of Van, many with one green and one blue eye, are in quarantine playing in gardens caged by mesh or bars that I could at least stick my fingers through.

A mysterious Van Cat

Anyone heard of the Urartians? Well I hadn't, but we met a man who spoke their ancient language and checked out millennia-old ruins.

t Ararat took our breath away as it loomed over us from its 5,137m height with the remains of the top 1,825m spewed about from an eruption a while ago. I'm confused as to why anyone believes a bit of old lava flow is Noah's Ark.

Us and Noah's Ark - apparently

I had a Turkish bath, of course, and briefly was less of a grot - scrubbed so clean.

Kars was a dump of a town, but the nearby old Armenian city of Ani was eerie and magnificent. Various earthquakes and destructive hordes left only the walls, churches and mosque standing. An act of God? Ani is long deserted, but quietly watched by Russian guards on the locked-down border with Armenia.

In the east we met plenty of overeager locals offering tea, seemingly every few minutes. However, the stone-throwing, doodle flashing, 'money, money, money' chanting kids can grow boils on their tongues. Also, it’s the most traditional part of Turkey, and there were just too many men around - women were kept at home.

After trying to fit the east into three weeks, we were stuffed - moving too fast.

Entering Georgia was a welcome, dramatic change, evident by the first Georgian we met - a woman with a job. The relief spread from there: women freely walking on the streets, flirting with boys on the beach, drinking alcohol. We chilled on the Black Sea coast seeing lots of things to laugh / cry at, but I'll get to that next time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

East to West and back again

Since my last update we have passed from heat wave to a very soggy country; been defeated by food and run with open arms to the curry restaurants of England and fabulous cheese of France; been cultured with concerts and theatre; marched around mountains, coasts and dales; and enjoyed glittering hospitality with friends and family. As I have been slack in writing this is going to be long...


I greatly enjoyed this little country with big mountains and recent, very visible history. Catholic bell towers, Orthodox onion domes and minarets compete on the sky line. There is endless pots of Turkish coffee and too many restaurants dedicated to one national dish.

We watched posers jump off the magnificent Old Bridge of Mostar, clapped along with disabled kids at a music therapy concert, and marvelled the super kitsch on offer at a Catholic pilgrimage site.

A gaggle of Mary's for sale at Medjugorje

Mick and I can't stand seeing food wasted and can eat just about anything - except risotto swimming in squid ink. It tasted like nothing, except very wrong. We kept eating though, until raising the white flag in defeat.

We didn't want to leave Sarajevo; a gutsy, compact place full of life. We learnt a lot of the daunting recent history. Free philharmonic concert. Too much of the national dish.

We went for a walk in the Bosnian mountains with a sugar fiend called Larenc who fed us multiple pieces of cake (with ice cream) for breakfast. Spectacular scenery, apparently. We saw mostly the inside of clouds, but the dense primeval forest and Larenc's passion for the outdoors (and sugar) made a great day.


We then almost turned into puddles lounging on the Croatian coast for another two weeks. Soooo lazy. We tracked down the quietest coves on laid back islands and mostly had them all to ourselves (except for a few nudeys here and there). Crystal water against silver rocks topped by forbidding, spiky vegetation. However, a heat wave struck and the crowds were growing, so the first day of summer was our last on the coast.

Our private cove within the National Park on Mljet Island


This was our second visit to Montenegro and we gave the interior a good shot. The harsh coast gave way to glorious mountains, a colossal canyon and lush fields. There was whole families out building their hay stacks – it looked idyllic from the bus as the setting sun cast long shadows behind the high stacks, but not fun for the women stripped to their bras in the oppressive heat.


Our travel mojo was now a little off kilter. Little things would not work out quite right, i.e. we would go for a walk and end up in the wrong place, but had a nice enough time anyway. We got seriously over identical menus of meat with canned veg. Hunted down a spa described by Serbian tourism as “peaceful, relaxing, therapeutic, historic” and were surprised this description matched the 70s communist era brown public pool oldies on crutches put their faith in.

Anyhoo, this all changed when we lobed in on a Hospitality Club mate, Jimmy the Eccentric Philosopher, in Novi Sad. We crashed in his flat which was the size of our storage unit at home. Found a Chinese restaurant. Stumbled across a wine festival. Tasted lots of yummy local vino and chatted with growers. Slightly pissed, I got dragged into saying a bit to camera for their festival promo video! Somewhere on Serbian TV is a grotty, unglamorous traveller giggling, "Hi from Australia, Wine is Love!" What a worry. Stayed up to 4am in bars with Jimmy's mates.

In Belgrade we stayed with a gorgeous character and new mate, Maja, in her flat for five nights. She cooked yummy stuff for us, Venison Goulash! We were homebodies together with her charming cat; again off kilter as this is supposed to be a major party capital! But we enjoyed being at home and learning about the intricacies of her social life in the Balkan’s big smoke. She cried when we left.


Now we have been in the UK for over a month and can’t express enough how much we have enjoyed the hospitality of our friends and family here. Thank you all again for looking after us so well. Catching up with you has been a great highlight of our trip.

We miraculously tip-toed around all the rain deluges and flooding. We spent time with my parents and Scotty in the wilds of Scotland in the (almost) most northerly cottage on the mainland.

Most of the Wehl family at Dunnet Head, the most Northern spot on the main island of Britian

We saw surprisingly beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, cute puffins, funny seals, sheep so fat (and some locals) that if they fell over they
couldn’t get up again, and met friendly Scots in t-shirts while we wore beanies. We also drove around for a week further south tasting whisky, watching strong men toss cabers and rambled in mysterious glens.

Another week was spent in the picture perfect Yorkshire Dales spotting steam trains, catching up with a friend and marching through people’s farms. Now back in London after two days tasting all things French with friends in Lille, we are about to fly out on Monday to Istanbul to resume our eastern adventure.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Albania, Montenegro & Croatia - Wooo hooo

Since the last update we have had two weeks in Albania - wow, what a time! It is now high on our list of favourite countries. We didn't find the dangers that fog foreigner's minds from a decade ago (uprisings, crime). Instead, this diamond in the rough gave us everything we wanted out of our trip. Life changing experiences, breath-taking scenery, visible fascinating history, beautiful people who welcomed us to their tables and in their homes, looked out for us on the buses or just gave us a wave on the street. Many countries are friendly but this was another level. Traditionally guests were placed next to God, and we felt this trait at every turn.

There is the rough edges of a poor country (rubbish, broken communist buildings when everyone went on a looting rampage, some rough roads) but they are fast emerging from the ashes of a complicated history. Get in quick, this will have to be a travel hot spot soon.

The coast was spectacular. We sat on the beach drinking with boys from Kosovo and hung out playing chess with the guys at our beach side hotel; had the best fish meals of our lives; drove tiny, old road winding around the mountains that crash into the sea, shepherds and their flocks diving out of the way; sat on long pebble beaches all to ourselves with little coves to climb around to.

We explored ancient hilltop fortresses and checked out how Ottoman's lived in their mansions. We climbed in, on and around the indestructible bunkers that litter the entire country; placed there by Enver Hoxha's paranoia.

Mick on top of one of the many one-man size bunkers that will litter Albania for eternity

We stayed in the trendiest area of Tirana where the communist honchos once lived it up behind walls to keep everyone else out. We took in celebrity spotting as we stood with a media pack gawking at the Prime Minister.

Inspired by an evocative book about the Accursed Mountains, we just had to see them and the mountain people's traditional life for ourselves. The people used to live by a specific code, the Kanun, that included rules about conducting blood feuds. We took a guide, Florian. He is well educated, worldly and has a great laugh - we became good mates.

We travelled into the remote north, got a ferry up to a spectacular dam, stayed in traditional homes. On our six month anniversary we challenged ourselves walking over a mountain pass covered in snow with stunning weather and views.
Florian, Zeni (local Shepard) and Mick on our challenging walk in the Accursed Mountains

We stayed with a gorgeous
grannie and her son for four days in a monstrous valley on the other side. We ate home made everything (butter, honey, raki etc) and explored the area. Tastiest water ever. We saw the tower men used to lock themselves up in forever to avoid being killed in a blood feud. Met kids who acted very grown up. Everyone was working hard in their fields.

We were the first Australians anyone in the village had met. How weird is that!

Alas, we left Albania and had a week on the Montenegrin coast. We enjoyed Ulcinj where the local men swam in their undies and lolled around in the black sand. Cute old town. Good local vino varieties.

There was more cute old walled towns along the small coast, along with big tourist holiday spots. We stayed in Kotor within the beautiful, old, walled, vibrant town on the edge of a stunning fjord. But I must admit, we were not in a touristy holiday mood and got a bit bored. Maybe we had too much excitement in Albania.

Now, we have just concluded another super duper highlight of the trip - a week on the Croatian island of Vis with our friends Ben and Emma. Again, it was everything we could ever hope for. We had quality time with good friends; met many friendly locals who invited us into their homes; learnt much of the islands history and culture; enjoyed charming villages with low key tourism and great restaurants - more fabulous fish dishes.

Emma and Ben took us to the gems of the island such as a winery set up in old WWII tunnels; a fancy dinner cooked in a Peka at another winery (like a big cast iron tagine - I want to buy one now!); swimming in special spots in the glittering blue sea; and a boat trip into a florescent blue sea cave that took our breath away. Their home in Vis town was a haven of cosy comfort.

Mick and Emma lit by the glowing blue cave, Bisevo Island

Time to go farewell them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Greece - Cafe Loafing Wannabees

Mick and I have had a month in Greece now. There is a lot more to it, but we feel we have had a good look about Northern Greece.

We hung out with more Greek-residing Germans, marvelling the emerald (by Greek standards) isle of Samothraki where there are more goats than people. We wandered ruins of temples more ancient than the Olympian Gods with only some goat herders for company.

Bird watchers we are not, but you have to get excited about a flock of massive black vultures flying just over your head! We perched in a hide spying on three different types of vultures bickering over something dead. They deserve their reputation as looking menacing, but they are fascinating all the same.

The draft wine at dinner is cheaper than coca-cola; only once was it truly vile. We've eaten everything Greek in sight. There is such a thing as too much cheese. We haven't, however, had enough of Greek sweet shops. Service in bars and restaurants is second to none. Travel has been too easy as everyone is so friendly.

We tried to imitate the professional cafe loafers, sitting on one drink for hours. Mick discovered why they sometimes don't even bother finishing their token coffee - he had one and couldn't get to sleep until 3am.

We saw more snakes in one day than in my whole life. The pretty Prespa Lakes were ringed with tall reeds – a cesspit of musical frogs, birds and snakes. Since the mobs of Greek teenagers on a school trip didn't notice them (expect the bus driver stabbing some snakes with a stick), mobile phones still glued to their ears, we assumed they mustn't be poisonous and walked amongst them on the shore - carefully.

We drove around the stunning Zagoria villages for days in drizzle. Blending in with the mountains as they are made from the same stuff - slate, sturdy, proud - these villages cluster together in impossible locations in breathtaking mountain ranges. We brought on vertigo looking into the colossal Vikos Gorge; almost one kilometre deep, and over one kilometre across.

Me looking down into the immense Vikos Gorge

We finished up in Meteora marvelling the monasteries perched on giant rocks and hordes of tourists. Until then we hadn't seen many other foreigners, but here we were lucky to get a bed or not get run over by a tour bus.

A scene of the monastries of Meteora

Now we are in Albania. People are more reserved than the colourful Greeks, but friendly just the same. We were greeted by fields of one-size-fits-all bunkers poking out like mushrooms from crazier days of the mad dictator's, Enver Hoxha, reign.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Greece - Aaaaahhhh

Mick and I are now over a week into our post-wedding big travel adventure and I am afraid I might not have any of my travel tales of weirdness or laughable disasters. We are in Greece and it all has been.... lovely.

Highlights so far:

My brother Scott joined us for a week which was great fun to catch up.

Joining the Greeks in their Easter services. More like a orderly scrum at times, these services were attended by hundreds. At midnight on Easter Saturday we ended up shut inside a church while fire crackers went mad outside.

The island of Lesvos. Low key on tourism; its a big island of dramatic mountains currently coated in green grass, pungent wildflowers and endless ancient olive trees.

I tell you, Greeks can talk! We stayed in the main town of Mytilene for 24 hours and marvelled at hundreds of fashionable young things sitting in the funky cafes ALL DAY.

The sun on your face all day without (badly) burning.

Litres and litres of (kinda weak) red wine.

Lots of sleep.

Not being able to tear ourselves away from picture-perfect Molyvos in the north of Lesvos. It is everything you dream of in a Greek village – stone houses on top of each other up the steep cobbled streets, topped by an old fort, pretty painted shutters, cute boats in the stone harbour, plenty of healthy stray dogs and cats to play with, stunning views over the glassy Aegean and no foreign tourist crowds. The town ran out of food though as the Greeks on Easter holidays ate it all up. We drank Ouzo in a cafĂ© with the old boys and went bush bashing through the terraced olive groves which was fun; Mick nearly stood on a black snake.

Mick, Ouzo and a pretty spot in Molyvos

Off the track in the South. Yesterday we stayed in an almost deserted village on a pretty pebble beach after twisting and turning on the wrong dirt road through crazy mountains. We met a mad old German, Claus (of course), who took us for a 4 x 4 drive up tracks to an impossibly high, tiny church while entertaining us with tales of what the commanding rock outcrops speak to him. He showed as much joy at the changing natural "theatres" as we climbed higher and higher as I imagine he did when first arriving here 15 years ago.

Now, we are back with the kids in the cafes waiting for a midnight ferry further North.