Saturday, January 12, 2013

Caucasus Christmas

On a whim, we decided to make a quick holiday trip to the Caucasus region and visit Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. We also got to see a little bit of the Ukraine on our way home. Below are a few anecdotes of our adventure.

Arrival into Tbilisi
  • We arrived minus one suitcase, which we had to retrieve from the airport three days later. Not to worry, I had packed extra clothes for the kids and underwear and pajamas for everyone into our carry-on luggage. Nils and I just wore the same thing for three days - thank you dark jeans and brown long-sleeved shirt. 
  • The one checked bag that did arrive, the kids' car seats, we checked at the train station so we wouldn't have to carry it around. Finding where you can leave luggage was a bit scary as we had to wind around dark stairwells and underground passages before finding the hole in the wall (literally) storage service. We gave them our bag and $7. We got a small piece of paper with a number scribbled on it - a matching scribbled paper stapled to our bag. 
  • Purchased tickets to Baku, Azerbaijan for the following evening. First class sleeper car, baby. 
  • Beautiful city! Click here for Tbilisi pictures.
Night train to Baku
  • This is the life! Private cabin, portable DVD player, and simple groceries. 
  • Apparently, I look Azeri because at the border crossing into Azerbaijan, the guard looked at me and through non-verbal cues (and some verbals ones that I didn't understand), asked if I was. It's amazing what you can understand without understanding the words. Anyway, maybe I need to look a little deeper into my genealogy.
Arrival into Baku

  • We hadn't been able to secure return tickets to Tbilisi ahead, so upon arrival we went straight to the ticket office to purchase return tickets. Apparently everyone had holiday plans in Tbilisi because at first they told us it was all sold out. Then, after two hours, nowhere to sit down!, a lot of negotiation and some misunderstanding, we were able to get third class sleeper seats on the very last car, in the very back, near the bathroom. Kudos go to Nils on that one. Whew!
  • Intending to learn the metro system, we set off on our own toward the old city center. Our best efforts were foiled by a "helpful" teenager who took us to our stop without explaining how to get back. When I asked him how he could tell which way to go he laughed and said, "because I live here." Yes, thank you, but how can I know which way to go? Have you follow me around for two days?
  • We forgot to take our hotel address/information with us (thinking we could just retrace our steps on the metro), so it took extra time, money, and the taxi driving stopping ever few meters to ask around before we made it back to our hotel. As he drove off we found out it wasn't actually our hotel. Ours was another block away and around the corner. Sigh....
  • Another gorgeous city. Click here for more pictures. 
Night train back to Tbilisi

  • As luck would have it, we ended up in the same train car with some famous Azeri people. I didn't catch all of their names, but one is a singer, Shole Sefereliyeva. You can see her music videos on youtube (warning, nice singing but excessive smeared mascara). She and the others work together on a radio / TV show (?) which you can see on Given that I can't read the language I wasn't able to navigate very far. But they were all very nice sleeper-car-mates and were great with the kids!
  • Jane was quite popular with everyone on the train car. We let her walk around a little and she came back with her pockets and both hands filled with candy. That girl can work it!
  • See the bed above Nils' head? That's where he slept. He's sitting on my bed that I got to share with Jane and Harry. Let's just say Jane wasn't able to do her usual thrashing during the night.
Rental car drive down to Yerevan, Armenia

  • We had a two-hour delay on the train, which somehow caused another two-hour delay in getting our rental car. We didn't start driving until roughly 4:00 pm. We made a quick stop at the airport to get our other bag and grab a bite at Burger King.  From there we started on the path to Yerevan.... or so the sign said... and then didn't say... and then said again... and then disappeared again... where are we???  Three hours later and we're still in Tbilisi asking around for directions. Getting directions was hilarious since most of the people would suggest going "that way" and to ask someone else once we got "there". We didn't find the right road until 9:00 pm (because of much fervent prayer and a mighty miracle) and we still had the whole way to go!
  • Arrived in Yerevan at 3:00 am. Determined not to sleep in the car, Nills rang and rang the doorbell of our "hotel". A sleepy man answered and pointed us to our hotel which was through a gate and down a few stairs. Oops. Sorry sleepy Dr. Without Borders. 
  • Nice hotel, excellent breakfast, and even better price. The shower was a little crowded though, having to share space with the hot water heater. No matter. At least the shower was warm... HOT... warm... COLD... warm again.
  • Went to church in Yerevan. It took another miracle to find it, but we did. Armenian is a cool sounding language, even if we couldn't understand it.
  • What a beautifully decorated city for the holidays! A lot of colorful lights! More pictures here.
Heading back to Georgia

  • Beautiful uneventful drive, until we got 40 km from our hotel and we hit a road that was closed. Apparently the National Park is closed during the Winter. When we called our hotel, the man gave Nils an earful of how fortunate we were to be going to their hotel for New Year's Eve, and that we must have heard about their party, and it is going to be so amazing, so much food, and music, and dancing.... It was hard for Nils to convince the man we weren't coming because the road was closed. 
  • Spent New Year's Eve in Akhaltsikhe (anyone wanna try to guess how to pronounce that?? Beats me). Lots of exploding firecrackers and fireworks. Only one restaurant open, which wasn't very kid-friendly, so we took our dinner to go and returned to the hotel for a quiet evening. We crashed around 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm and Nils woke up again at midnight to watch the fireworks display. It would have been almost romantic if I had been able to wake from my slumber, but I remained in dream-land even with all the loud exploding sounds. 
  • Visited the outside of the Rabati Fortress (shown above). Pretty cool, huh?
  • More pictures here.
Last stop - Kiev, Ukraine

  • Our main objective was to visit the temple. Such a lovely place! Some people from Moscow were visiting that day too, including one of Nils' friends.
  • Thanks to the hospitality of the patrons' lodge, Nils and I took turns babysitting the children so we could go inside.
  • More pictures here.
All in all, a marvelous trip! We got to see a lot and meet some very nice people.

We flew an overnight flight back to Astana and when we got home Nils had to go straight to work. I didn't get to sleep either. By the time Nils got home I felt half-crazed and in the haze of my memory, I recall him suggesting a road trip from Astana to somewhere in Africa. Ha! For now, we're looking forward to our next trip happening next month to India and Nepal.
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