The Test trip of summer 2015

We gave our motorhome “Epeli” a trial run in the summer of 2015 to see how it coped with variable driving conditions and different types of terrain.

 Our journey took us to the plains of central Asia in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and to the Caucasus mountain range in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

 We found it useful to have a high sitting vehicle with four wheel drive and some of the extras, such as the solar panels, spare fuel tank and separate tanks for drinking- and washing water came in handy too.

 The height of the vehicle (3.59m) turned out to be a little problematic at times especially around low hanging electric wires, gaspipes and the over head wires of trolley buses.

After the trip we decided to add more solar panels to ensure the consistency of our electric supply and we also installed an external gas output for outdoor barbecues etc.

Russia

We wake up by the Rättijärvi Canal as raindrops are tapping on Epeli’s roof. I cook breakfast for the first time in the new kitchen. We eat up and get driving, before anyone says anything about us camping here. Everyman’s right does not apply in Russia and camping is only allowed at designated sites. All passengers arriving in Russia must register at some type of accommodation or a post office, so we first drive, to “Olgino” motel on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg and check in for one night. We hope this will alleviate any problems on our departure from the country later on.

We don’t stay to enjoy our shabby room but carry on driving towards Moscow. There’s quite a bit of traffic around Saint Petersburg.  Road works make navigation a tad tricky at times.  The satnav drops off the map altogether a few times and suggests dirt tracks and going off road!  We don’t listen. Thankfully Pekka knows where he’s going! The road from Saint Petersburg to Moscow is in surprisingly good condition. The lorry traffic is massive. Over a half of the vehicles coming towards us are lorries! The villages beside the road are evidently poor, rundown houses in desperate need of fresh paint and repair. Some of the cottages have collapsed into heaps, but they’ve just been left to rot.  It comes as a surprise to us how rundown some of the houses that still have curtains in their windows and rusty cars parked outside, really are.

Driving through Russia takes us five long days. Road conditions vary greatly. The Saint Petersburg – Moscow line is like any other European highway, but the roads off that are filled with holes and dents. Garage forecourts and shop parking lots would be impassable in places, without the ground clearance of a truck. Our journey is moving forward as planned. Russia, in all its tattiness, feels rather laid back. People are friendly, not that I get to talk to them much since I don’t speak Russian. Thankfully Pekka can get by with his knowledge of the language. The conditions the locals live in are grim to say the least. Outhouses for domestic animals and livestock surround their little cottages. Chickens, goats and cows are kept in enclosures out on the yard. Small plots of land are maintained by manual hoeing etc. Homegrown products, such as gherkins are sold by the roadside. Grey little saunas stand in lines on riversides. I can only imagine what it must be like in winter here, when snow piles up on the roads, icy winds blow through the badly insulated walls and it’s dark outside.

Nearly all of the villages have a Russian Orthodox church or a small wooden chapel at least. Some of the churches have sadly ended up in a pretty miserable state thanks to the atheist era of the Soviet Union and now stand empty and neglected. We find lorry parks great for staying over night. Five rubles pay for the guard service and showers and toilets can be used for an extra cost. Usually these sites also have a shop and a restaurant. Our nights have been peaceful, if the hum from the lorries’ chillers doesn’t count.

Our first real attraction is the city of Samara. I was expecting exotic, oriental atmosphere and its still there in the toothless smiles of grannies and the items for sale on the stalls, like dried fish, and chicken legs. A lot of the authenticity has been lost though, amidst the ultra modern shopping centres and international labels. We can find Mc Donald’s, H&M, KFC, Mango, Levis etc. Decorative wooden log buildings stand side by side with glassy, metallic, skyscrapers. While driving in the city centre we’re a little vary of the trolleybus wires that hang quite low. It’s good to keep your wits about anyway when traveling in a major city during rush hour. We take photos of the buzz of the city and the majestic buildings and make use of some tasty burgers and internet-access. We even find a geo-catch and thus acquire a new country in our stats!

Kazakhstan

Flat, never ending pusta, barren wasteland and sandy desert. Roaming herds: horses with their foals, goats and camels. The wind is blowing and sand is flying in clouds. Huge hawks circle the skies.

Residences on the countryside are few and far between and are generally modest, whitewashed cottages. There’s little need for gardening amongst all the sand. The cities, however, are more densely populated. Electric wires are crisscrossed all over the place and a yellow gas pipe runs in between and above the buildings. Perhaps that’s why access to city centres is mostly denied for trucks.

There’s little traffic. Kazaks like white cars, perhaps it’s because of the sunshine, after all white cars will stay considerably cooler than their dark coloured counterparts. Over a half of the cars we encounter are white! Taking risks seems to be the done thing around here. Overtaking must take place at the very time there’s a car coming towards, even if it’s the only one in half an hour! Unsurprisingly we witness a few crashes being dealt with by the police.

We spend our first night camped on a restaurant car park, where a few lorries end up later on too. Once the sky darkens and stars are lit above the rooftops, I get caught up listening to the sounds of growling street dogs, late in to the night.

Our route takes us through the cities of Oral and Atyrau. Both cities house both a Russian orthodox church and a mosque. Here Christians and Muslims live side by side. In Atyrau we photograph an impressive monument, in which a rider-statue and the Kazak flag symbolize the independence of this developing country.  Tall hotels and grand shopping centres have also been built here. Construction work seems to be underway pretty much everywhere, so the two cities will no doubt look totally different in a few years.

We tend to pop in the little cafes of small towns and try to get to know some of the locals. Most of them appear a little shy and a touch serious, the language barrier is obvious. We manage to overcome it a little in the village of Majk, where Pekka repairs the café’s fish-tank. We receive a warming, gold-toothed smile and some of the staff even agree to have their picture taken with me. The little boys selling water at the roadside also flash happy smiles at us, after we offer them a handful of mint chocolates. 

Uzbekistan - Crossing Borders

Shaking, banging, screaking brakes, squeaking springs, revving… Epeli waddles from side to side like a camel! Our earlier meal is now bouncing up and down in our esophagi. Thankfully we don’t suffer from incontinence, otherwise I’d expect a few puddles by now! It’s hot outside, the sun is beaming and the flat, sandy desert seems to go on forever. The road is in such bad shape that a regular motorhome would stand no chance of making it here! The bumpy road surface has big potholes and wide cracks all over it. We crawl towards the Uzbekistani border at around 20kmph. To be precise, it’s actually the border of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The border control turns out to be a trial in itself, even though both our fellow passengers and the staff members are very friendly and some of them do speak basic English. First we go to get our passports checked and then we grab the declaration forms and list all our valuables such as laptops, phones, cameras and currency. We get our vehicle’s paperwork checked and the customs officers check out the car. They go inside and glance inside the cupboards without rummaging through them too thoroughly. The locals, however, seem to get dragged through some pretty detailed investigations, having to unpack everything and even getting the undercarriage of their cars checked at a pit. They are carrying all sorts of bits and pieces across the border. One passenger is getting carried across the state border on a stretcher. It appears he has made it across the final border already, since the sheet covering his body has been pulled over his face too.

Just as we receive the all clear, one of the officers has a brainwave and decides our vehicle can’t possibly be a car since it weighs 5,500 kg and crossing the border in a truck would cost an extra $300-400 in fees. Our paperwork gets rechecked and scrutinised a few times over until the document we received from the Russian customs saves the day, since it clearly states that our vehicle has been registered as a car. One of the officers fancies a lift with us to Nukus, but thankfully the car is only registered for two and we get spared the extra passenger! After five and a half hours our ordeal at the customs is over and our journey in Uzbekistan can finally begin! It’s getting dark fast so we pull up by a private house to stay the night.

Nukus

Savitsky Art Museum

We set off early in order to make it in time to the most famous attraction in Nukus: the Savitsky Art Museum. The museum’s collection is impressive, 50,000 exhibits consisting of art, archeology, and cultural history. Among the most interesting exhibits are the colourful, avant garde art pieces, as well as the items portraying traditional way of life, such as a yurt and skillfully made tools, clothes and jewellery.

We leave the car at the museum car park and set off on foot to take a look at the Nukus bazar. The bazar really is the heart of the city! It’s bubbling with joy and life! Local people doing their daily shop; fetching bread, vegetables, meat and spices, while having a natter with friends. There’s stuff for sale in stalls and sheltered halls. Some of the salesmen are sat on the ground in the open air. The exchange dealers have wads of banknotes by the carrier-bagful. The value of the local currency is incredibly poor. On the street exchange one euro gets us 4200 sum. A loaf of bread costs 1000 sum, a bun 600, a tomato 500… we don’t bother to haggle!

We sit down to some ice cream at a café by the market place. The middle-aged gentlemen at our table take us by total surprise. Once they hear we are from Finland, they instantly tell us all about Helsinki, ice hockey, Nokia and Finnish paper. Once they start on Kalevala we really are lost for words! We find out that they are anthropologists and get a taste of Karakapakistani hospitality; before we know it they’ve paid for our ice creams!

As we walk around the streets of Nukus, a young man joyfully greets us in English and asks if we need any help. We go for lunch together and he tells us a lot about the history of his home country. He says he wants to practice his English and is daringly open about his political views. He teaches Sociology and history at the university, so he’s extremely well informed. We get to hear some interesting thoughts on the differences of the communism of the past and the still developing democracy of the present, on human rights and Karakapakistan’s attempts at independence. To top it off Madyar tells us that he knows a Finnish lady called Heli and arranges for us to meet her!

Soon enough, Heli Nykänen, a UN worker, rushes over to us at the end of her lunch hour. She has lived in Nukus for a year and a half and is part of a project aiming to support democracy in a fast developing country. Our encounter is very open and joyful. We receive some great tips on attractions and Heli even gives us her phone number, which increases our sense of security while visiting the country. We hear that Uzbekistan experiences very cold winters, with the temperature dropping as low as -30 C. Apparently the police monitors the activities of both the tourists and the locals, which on the other hand does deter criminal activity fairly effectively. Heli regards the country as very safe.

We hit the road and head towards Urgench. On our way there we stop to take a look at Chilpak, a flat-topped mountain that was once an ancient place of worship for the Zoroastrians. The mountain is guarded by an elderly man whose job is to record all visitors to the site. A lonely and tiresome job in this heat and in the middle of nowhere! The man is clearly made up after we offer him some fridge-cold sparkling water and as a thank you we receive an awesome number of traditional singing accompanied by a long-necked instrument called Rubab. We climb up the path to the mountain. The temperature hovers around 37C and the sandstone hill is glistening with heat in the sunshine. On the top of the hill remains a pole, around which fabric can be tied as a symbol of prayer. The pole is covered in strips of different colour fabrics. 

On The Silk Road from Urgench to Khiva

Last night we were suddenly faced with a challenge. Just as the sun sank into the canal like a red ball of fire, we arrived in Urgench and it got dark in a flash. The main roads of the city were framed by trolleybus-wires, some of which were hanging dangerously low and the side-streets were covered in the zigzag of residential electric wires, also hanging fairly dubiously at various heights. We were sweating over the height of our vehicle (3.59m). Every now and then I jumped out the car to walk in front of it, making sure it could fit through. The space left between us and the potential creation of an electric circuit, was merely a couple of centimetres. We didn’t seem to be able to find a suitable place to park and were getting worried. Finally we received permission to park at the car park of a restaurant. Just as we were gratefully going to go and get a cup of tea there, it shut its doors. We’d received a place to camp at the very last minute!

In the morning we headed towards a Unesco world heritage site, and old silk road town called Khiva. Once again we were faced with the dilemma of finding a suitable route, since the trolleybus runs precisely from Urgench to Khiva. We tried to stay in the middle lane between the wires, in the hope that we wouldn’t have to turn and go under them.

 We were happy and grateful to see Khiva’s tall towers and the gates to the old city appear in front of us. We left our car parked at a garage a walking distance away from the bazar and palace complex. The buildings were jaw-droppingly grand and had held on to their splendor throughout the centuries amazingly well. The engraved patterns on wooden pillars and doors, blue-painted ornaments and golden onion-domes took us back to the time of the Ottoman, when traders on the silk road used to stop here, bringing oriental spices, silk and china to the bazar. Here is where we also saw other western tourists for the first time.

 

Aktau

The plan is to carry on from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan on a boat, across the Caspian Sea. This is why we end up spending a couple of days in the seaside town of Aktau, while we wait for our boat. Aktau must be the most attractive of the Kazak towns we have visited. The sea has certainly influenced the character of the town, which feels as if it’s almost peering across the sea to the west and into Europe. There are lots of statues, monuments and flowers and the town centre features modern shopping centres and fashion labels. We see lots of fancy SUV’s about. There aren’t many tourists as far as we can see and our motorhome sparks the interest of the locals. We spend our days mainly relaxing on the beach and in the evenings we head to the promenade, which comes alive at sunset when families gather there to spend time together. There’s also a fair right next to the promenade. Young men cruise around in their pimped out cars. Teenage girls have dressed up in all the latest gear. Skintight clothes, ripped jeans and plenty of bling seem to be on trend here too.

We’ve parked Epeli on the promenade’s car park and sit under the marque, admiring the sunset. The sea reflects the purple hue of the sky, but also glistens in shades of ochre, turquoise and light blue. While on road, Epeli gets a lot of attention; we receive many smiles, thumbs ups and flying comments of “machina khorosho”. When we’re parked, lots of people want photos of Epeli and ask about the different mechanics and technicalities. The most asked question however is “skolka euro” what does it cost? Many would also like to come in, but we’ve decided on a principle: While traveling Epeli is our home, so we only invite in those, who we would happily welcome in our home otherwise.

We stumble on a cultural difference in getting things done. We drive the 13km between the ticket office and the port office many a time and spend hours sat on the soviet-green sofa of the port office reception.  We struggle to understand the extensive Russian speech of the official, but this only prompts him to speak louder! We manage to make out that the boat is actually leaving today, earlier than expected. Perseverance pays off in the end and we manage to buy tickets to the boat from the ticket office in the centre of town, for the price of 22160 tenge per person. Apparently the space for the car can only be reserved later on at the port office and the freight cost would only be paid upon arrival. We go and try to sort it all out at the port office and get passed around from one counter to the next for several hours! At the end of the ordeal we’ve collected an impressive stack of important paperwork and stamps and the whole lot gets photocopied too of course. 

The boat across the Caspian Sea

We wait at the port for our boat for the next twelve hours. Once it finally arrives, a load of train wagons get loaded off and much to our surprise, four international backpackers hop out too! It’s refreshing to speak English again! Despite the ship’s ominous name “karabach” we bravely drive in… Where the crew takes us to our sea-view cabin, where a bottle of champagne awaits us, chilled in a bucket of ice and served with fresh strawberries on the side. Once we’ve unpacked our luggage in the cabin, we get shown around the tax-free shop, buffet restaurant, cocktail bar and the entertainment and music options for the evening…

Well, not quite! In reality our cabin is a filthy sty, where the bedding has evidently never been changed and the toilet has flooded with sewage water and is operated by a bucket of water. The lamps and plug sockets seem to be broken and there’s an awful, stale, smell in the room. The corridor is teeming with cockroaches and the only music here is the banging from the engine room and the sound of the waves crashing on the side of the ship. There’s no shop or restaurant. We do however get to enjoy a supper with the crew, consisting of bean soup and fish, freshly caught by the cook. Once we get past the initial shock, we notice that the crew includes some lovely, friendly people. We have a chat with them and learn a few Azeri phrases. Thankfully the Caspian stays calm and after a steady voyage of 30 hours or so we arrive in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan - the spot of trouble upon arrival

The procedure on arrival to Azerbaijan by boat is not exactly simple. Our passports, visas, the car’s registration details and the car itself first get checked out at the harbour. Then the ferry company’s representative informs us that the oversea transportation of our vehicle should be paid for at their office in Baku, which is 65km away. At first they suggest that Pekka go with them to Baku and return by bus once everything has been sorted, leaving me waiting at the customs by my self for the whole day. After some negotiation we do however get granted a permission to travel there in our motorhome. Before we know it we’re speeding towards Baku behind the official’s car and although we’re already going at a mad speed they pull over mid-trip to tell us to drive even faster! To our surprise there are road closures and/or police at pretty much every junction on the road to Baku. Towards the end we twist and turn our way to the office through the busy city centre. Once the transportation fee of $500 has been paid we must return to the customs. That’s when we receive the real bombshell! Although we both have 30 day visas on our passports we are only allowed to keep our vehicle in the country for three days, the first of which has now turned to afternoon, leaving us only two days to leave the country! We are told that if we wish to stay for any longer, we must pay an insurance deposit of $5000, which we might get back at the border control when departing. Our travel budget will certainly not allow for extras of these proportions. We’ve not even had breakfast or lunch at this point and my head is pounding. I’m right on the edge of spitting the dummy out and having an epic melt down, that’s how disappointed I am in our welcome at Azerbaijan!

Disheartened, we leave border control and check in for a couple of nights at hotel Araz, where we meet our prearranged contact person. Booking a hotel room was part of the conditions for getting our visas. We park Epeli in the safety of the hotel’s fenced off courtyard. We explain the trouble to our contact person, Aydin, who is determined to ring border control straight away and explain our situation to them. We can’t undo the paperwork that has already been completed, but apparently the customs manager can influence the amount we’d have to pay at the customs should we cross the three day deadline. Instead of the usual $500 fine we would now only have to pay $25! Cronyism at it’s best!

Baku - a modern and international metropolis

Our first impression of Baku is pretty awe-inspiring! Curved, dark glass paneled skyscrapers slice through the scenery in between the historic, decorative buildings. On the outskirts of the city one can still spot the odd remnant of the soviet times but the buildings in the city centre have been renovated gloriously. Shiny Bentleys, Porches, Ford Explores and huge SUVs occupy the streets here.  Ferrari and Aston Martin also have business premises here. We wonder where all the Ladas and Kamaz’s have gone! There’s police at every crossing. They direct the traffic and sometimes shut down entire streets. International tourists are buzzing around town in masses. There are colourful posters and sheets covering the faces of buildings everywhere, with information about the ongoing sports event “The First European Games, Baku 2015” The atmosphere is intriguingly international and media from all over Europe are following the event. As we are walking on the promenade, we suddenly find ourselves pulled in the middle of a tv-interview. The city has lots of parks filled with colourful flower arrangements and water fountains. Once the dark sets in, coloured lights create a magical feel to the place. Once the evening cools the city gets filled with the locals too instead of just the tourists. Children’s bedtimes here seem far from the Finnish way of life. The patios fill up too, but much to our amazement the only drink in sight seems to be Turkish tea! No pints of beer or cider anywhere! It’s the time of the Islamic fast, Ramadan.

 On the second day we get to know the old city, Ichari Shahar and the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs. We also climb up the Maiden Tower, regarded as the symbol of Baku. According to legend the tower was once the scene of a tragic love story, when a dancing maiden jumped to her death from there to avoid an undesirable marriage. The heat of the day can really be felt inside these stonewalls so we take little brakes and enjoy cold drinks under the marquees of quaint little cafes.

 Our guide, Aydin, takes us out of the city in his Toyota, to Ateshgah where we get to visit the Zoroastrian “Fire Temple”. The place has been regarded as holy for hundreds of years B.D due to the spontaneous fires that used to occur there, ignited by the flow of natural gasses into the temple. The “olympic torch” of the Baku European games was also ignited here. The area’s museum exhibits archeological finds and ancient culture.

 We grab a bite to eat in the suburbs, at a garden restaurant. The restaurant is Aydan’s regular spot and we receive a very warm welcome when the owner himself looks after us. Soon the table, topped with a white tablecloth, is covered from edge to edge in local delicacies. The menu consists of lamb kebab, shashlik, fresh herbs, oily vegetable salad, thin bread, natural yogurt and peach drink to name a few. We also receive a bottle of “Ivanonvka” red wine on the house to wash it all down with. As we enjoy our meal in the shade of the trees, Aydin tells us that he often brings his whole family, including the grandkids, for dinner here. It’s a time to sit and chat with good food and wine in no rush and to have a laugh and a sing-song together. I don’t find it hard to believe when Aydin proclaims that on those warm summer nights, he’s a happy man!

 

The life in a bosom of Mount Caucasus

Our journey continues on from Baku towards Shaki via a route recommended in the travel guides and soon enough we’re ascending towards Caucasus Mountains. By as little as 30km on from the metropolis of Baku we find ourselves in another, much plainer reality. This is where all the Ladas and Kamaz’s were! In the traffic facing us we encounter vehicles transporting huge loads of hay and it seems commonplace for cows, goats, sheep, ducks and turkeys to roam free on the road with no one keeping an eye on them. People are busy working on construction sites, garages and fields. We often see men loitering about outside the houses, smoking tobacco or playing dominos while sat on plastic garden furniture of little cafes and sipping tea. The supermarkets feature very limited and practical selections. No chance of finding any luxury items here.

 Homely little towns like Samaxi, Ismaylli and Qabala are dotted nicely throughout our route. We stop at these to absorb their authentic Azerbaijani atmosphere and photograph some historic monuments that still remain. The people are friendly and our vehicle arouses curiosity. The older generation speaks Russian as well as Azeri, but we find it hard to communicate with the younger folk, since they don’t seem to understand Russian any better than English. We ask for a menu at one of the local restaurants and get directed to the kitchen to look at the different pots of food cooking away. We enjoy a delicious and generous meal and pay five manat for our lunch and drinks. This equates to about four euros.

 The road meanders along the edge of mount Caucasus, going uphill one moment and down the next. The views are beautiful. The valleys grow park like deciduous forest and according to our travel book these nature reserves are home to lots of animals such as deer, bears, wolves, fox and hares. We see a few exotic looking, fluorescent coloured birds like rollers and bee-eaters. There are lots of bee farms around here and the roadside stalls tend to sell honey and either fresh or preserved fruit and vegetables. We also notice these vacuum packed little discs on sale in a few places and guess they might be either honey or dried meat of some description, but upon closer inspection it turns out that we were way off. Later on we learn that they were actually discs of bee wax for making candles! We see the first snowy peaks in the horizon just as the sun starts to set. We spend the night at the Green House resort, four kilometres off the main road. It’s a charming hotel with well looked after gardens. Roses are in bloom. Resting in the shadows of huge deciduous trees are white gazebos in which tea and food from the restaurant are served. We get to park up and camp for free on the lawn inside the gates. We get shown a great place to get water from the nearby stream and before long I’m washing the few bits of laundry that have accumulated on the journey thus far. As the night darkens we sit underneath the marque and listen to the singing of leafhoppers. 

On The Silk Road in Shaki

At four o’clock in the morning the birds begin their concert at the very moment the first rays of sunlight hit the trees. We head towards Shaki, which has been advertised to us as the most beautiful city in Azerbaijan. Shaki was once a stopgap for caravans on the Silk Road. In memory of those times stands the palace of Shaki Khans, which’ museum portrays Azeri culture and traditions. After a tour around the museum we do a little souvenir shopping. Among the items for sale are art pieces, jewelry, traditional headwear and shoes with curled toecaps, halwa, nuts and other local treats. The ancient accommodation facility of the camel caravans still serves its purpose today as a modernly renovated hotel. The buildings here are made of stone and they’re very decorative with their arches and sticky-out bits. We stay in Shaki for a half a day, making the most of the exotic vibe of the Silk Road before our time in Azerbaijan starts to near its end.

Georgia - Tbilisi

We slide in to the traffic of the metropolis through its main artery, which soon takes us to Mtkvari river in the old town of Tibilisi. We park up for two nights next to a casino, at the car park of “Mira”, a hostel just by the glass made Bridge of Peace. This is a brilliant spot, within walking distance of all the major sites. We pay the seemingly seasoned and polite valet a fee of 30 Lari, equal to around €11 and he watches our motorhome like a hawk!

 Out of all the major cities we have visited in Europe, Tbilisi certainly stands out the most. The murky streets of its old town are filled with deteriorating houses, the wooden, decorative balconies of which bare a sad reminder of the glory days of a by gone era. Something about this place feels similar to Havana, Cuba. There are lots of historically valuable sites here and they have gone through a fair bit of renovation work lately, funded mainly by money from the west. Construction work for skyscrapers is under way and some already completed, weird and wonderful architectural creations, such as a pair of gigantic metal tubes, remain empty, awaiting a purpose for use.

We spend two days walking around the hot, multicultural home city of about a million people and among other things we photograph several old churches, the St. George Statue, the town hall, a mosque, a synagogue and the cathedral. We spot a precariously lob sided, colourful clock tower that is leaning on a metal pole for support. As we sit down on a bench next to it a little hatch at the top of the tower opens and an angel pops out. The angel is holding a sledge-hammer and he rings the bell with it one solitary time. It’s 1.00 pm.

We journey up the hill in a trolley lift, which drops us off at Vake park situated next to the television tower. The view over the city is spectacular! The temperature hovers around 37C so it’s lovely to sit at the park café and enjoy some cold refreshments. There’s an amusement park here too and its old ferris wheel is the symbol of Tbilisi.

On our second day we find ourselves swinging in the air in a cable car as it takes us to the ancient Narikala fortress just by The Mother of Georgia statue.  In the evenings all the different churches, fortresses and statues are lit up and they look superb shining in the dark all around the city!

 As we walk along a small side street in the old town we come across an elderly lady dressed in a floral dress and wellies. She is just watering these splendid hydrangeas that radiate purple into the grey and grubby walls in the background. The lady asks us where we are from in Russian and once she hears that we are from Finland she lights up and invites us to a tiny little art gallery, her home. Her house is a modest, run down, drafty little place with an odour not dissimilar to that of a cellar. She proudly presents her own artwork to us. She has painted beautiful pictures of nature and animals onto the unbroken parts of the walls! This mysterious old lady’s somewhat regal domeanour hints of explicable taste and a past in the social elite. We find out that she used to be a talented violinist! This lady has lived through the ever changing seasons of her home town: the wealthy soviet years, the Tbilisi massacre, Georgia’s independence, the collapse of the economy and the rose revolution

Village life in the mountains

The sound of mooing cows wakes me up at the break of dawn. I move the mosquito net just a little and take a peek outside the window of our camper to notice that we are surrounded by a heard of cattle. It appears that a brown individual with horns is currently peeing rather loudly right outside our caravan.The next thing I hear is the thumping of hooves and lashing of whips in the air accompanied by dogs growling and barking.I catch a glimpse of a brimmed hatted shepherd riding on horseback, guiding his cattle onto the empty plot next to ours with scruffy dogs yapping beside him. It is six o’clock in the village of Asuret, Georgia.

Refreshed by a glass of orange juice we set off and carry on driving along a small mountain road. We decide to eat a proper breakfast once we have found a more appealing place to stop. Bit by bit the road meanders up the mountain. There is hardly any traffic.

We spot a water catchment next to a layby. The water streams down the mountain through a pipe and seems clean, so we pour fourteen jugs worth of it into Epeli. Now we can shower again without having to worry too much about supply. Pekka gets a cloth to wipe the windows with so it’s easier to enjoy the scenery and take pictures.

 We find a great place by a lake to have a little break at. By around nine am we are munching on fried eggs, baguettes, ham, cheese, tomatoes and yogurt in our own private restaurant. I have to drink my coffee black though, after realizing that I’d bought sour milk yesterday, instead of regular. 

We delight in the beauty of the pristine and steep shores of the lake. There are no hotels, cabins, nor jetties or boats. We wonder whether the lake is a natural lake at all or perhaps a dead reservoir. The scenery is filled with mellow green and there are daisies, poppies, clovers and buttercups in full bloom on the hilly meadows. Rosebushes are growing wild by the side of the road. I take a moment to admire a small pink bell-shaped flower, the name of which I don’t know. I pick one to put in my diary as a memento.  

Our journey along the mountain road takes us up to 2400m and beyond and then back down again to valleys, villages and lakes. Snowy peaks fill the horizon. I sit in the car alert and ready with a camera on my lap. We get down to the villages nestled amongst the green hills and I wish I could capture everything I see. Life here is so different to our own busy day-to-day lives. The houses are humble, grey, stone buildings with little vegetable patches in their gardens. We spot a young man baking bread in an oven of a dim-lit little bakery room. We purchase a few goodies. Warm, freshly baked bread with melted butter, delicious! We notice a few elderly ladies waving at us, asking us to come with them to look at a big stork nest resting on top of a pillar on their courtyard. The stork has chicks. The smell of cow droppings is floating in the air, saturating it with its pungent aroma. Heaps of it have been left out to dry. We notice a young woman pushing a wheelbarrow filled with the stuff. On one of the yards there is a compressor attached to a tractor, molding dried dung into sheets that are then stacked with the help of the whole family. This must be the local way to heat the houses in the winter, since there is so little wood around. We see people hoeing the fields. The villagers come to have a chat and a look at our motorhome. We give the children some Finnish sweets and they respond with big friendly smiles.

Armenia - heart wrenching poverty and lavish luxury

I spot the red-blue-orange flag of Armenia flying high in the wind as we cross the border from Georgia to Armenia. Dust is flying in the air and clouds are gathering in the sky. It looks as if it’s going to rain. The road through the frontier is a dirt track laden with potholes and the villages beside it are poor, even poorer than the ones we saw in Georgia, impossible as that may sound. Living conditions around here are modest at best and accommodation appears shoddy. We observe cow dung being shovelled into heaps and hay getting transported from one place to another on bicycles, donkeys or in the trunks of Ladas

 The views however are simply beautiful! There are meadows dotted with colourful flowers and magnificent mountains which fill the horizon. The highest peak visible is that of the snow covered Mount Aragats.

 As we journey on towards the village of Maralik, a luxury hotel named Rublevka presents itself before our eyes. We decide to stop by for our morning coffee and are pleasantly surprised by the level of service we receive. The caretaker of the hotel comes over to the car park to greet us and gives us a tour around the hotel showing off some of the guest- and conference rooms of the hotel. He even switches the water fountain on for us so we may take pictures! The hotel has a spacious car park and even a helipad. Gorgeous views of the mountain surround the property. As we make our way to the reception and find a comfy leather sofa to sit on, someone rushes over with our coffee and bowls of sweets and cherries. We feel like Royalty! A coffee here costs about 500 Dram (€1) and a room around $30 per night.

 I don’t sleep too good on my first night in Armenia. I listen to the loud noise coming from a riot that is taking place outside on the streets of Gyumri. Someone keeps shouting slogans into a megaphone and the thousands of people flocked to the site are repeating them. Car horns are beeping and police sirens are going wild. As I look outside the window I see masses of people armed with Armenian flags marching down the main street with a police escort. I try to wake Pekka who is snoring beside me, but he reckons it’s just the end of a football match and carries on sleeping. Unconvinced by his theory of Armenian’s sudden football success I take another peek out the window, just to make sure they’re not armed soldiers or anything. No tanks or assault rifles in sight so I decide to let sleep take over. We find out in the morning that the riot was to do with a rise in the price of electricity. 

Yerevan - a dramatic metropolis

Our preconceived impressions of Yerevan, shaped mainly by news footage of war and guerrilla soldiers, were that it was a pretty scary place. Our false impressions are soon corrected though, as the capital of Armenia surprises us with its apparent quick westernisation. The same internationally known fast-food chains and clothes retailers found in all of Europe’s major cities are found here too. The people on the street are dressed in western clothing like jeans, miniskirts and summer tops. Besides, we can’t help but notice how stunning the Armenian women are, with their long black hair and dark sultry eyes. Their taste in make-up however, is a little eccentric. Bold, bright coloured eye shadow seems to be the trend and lipstick in particular is applied rather generously, way beyond the natural lip line.

 We climb a grand total of 748 steps to reach the top of the Cascade. On our way up we get to admire amazing pieces of art, water fountains and beautiful flower arrangements. The view over the city of Yerevan is stunning in itself, but once the clouds part and Mount Ararat with it’s snowy peak is revealed in all of it’s magnificence, it really becomes something spectacular!

We take a walk down town to soak in the buzz of the city and take photos of the Blue Mosque, the opera house and the huge government buildings by the Republic Square.

 We spend our nights parked on the side of a road. At first I wasn’t too sure about staying in the city centre over night, but the street we have chosen turns out to be pretty quiet. A parking fee of €4.00 gets paid into a bank and it covers our parking anywhere in the country for a whole month!

Handy for us the campsite is within walking distance from all the major sites and only a stones throw away from a pizzeria, where we sit in the evenings, after having spent our days sightseeing and make the most of both their delicious menu and their wi-fi connection.

A scenic route from Lake Sevan to Debed River Canyon

Lake Sevan had been advertised to us as one of Armenia’s most beautiful holiday destinations so we head towards it with high expectations. The scenery is admittedly beautiful, crystal clear water and mountains surrounding the lake. Holiday season doesn’t seem to have reached it’s peak yet though, since the jetties and sun chairs are all empty and in need of some t.l.c. There are no tourists in sight. The holiday cottages look pretty basic and there are a few sorry looking boathouses sat by the beach.

 Because the lake itself is so high up, the mountains surrounding it don’t appear all that dramatic. What does create an impression though is the sheer size of the lake. It’s 78km wide and 56km long! Sevan is in fact one of the world’s largest mountain lakes!

We see Armenian nature at it’s lushest at the Debed Canyon. We don’t fancy a tour to the Unesco approved world heritage site of Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries today, but are happy to just take in the beautiful views. We go for a wander along the steep riverbank of Debed and photograph its rapid stream, as it meanders between the hills. We spot a dodgy looking suspension bridge that appears to have cracked in a number of places. Thank goodness we don’t have to cross the river just now!

Going off road in the mountains

On our return to Georgia we decide to take the Akhaltsikhe-Batumi road. Judging by our map this route looks like it’d be peppered with small villages and views of the mountains. The first 50km are pretty easy going, since although the road twists and turns a lot, it’s in reasonably good condition so we’re making tracks at a fair pace. We admire the scenery in Kvabliami river valley and climb our way up to Khertvisi fortress. We enjoy the local cousine in the small cafes of the laid back little villages and buy a few bits and bobs from the village shops on the way.

 As we reach Zarzma village, the road narrows down to a dirt track laden with potholes. We assume we must have got lost and ask some locals for directions but they tell us to carry on the road we’re on. The road starts meandering uphill high into the mountains and driving on it proves to be an off-road adventure if ever there was one! It takes us six hours to get through the next 40km! The road is just about wide enough for one car and the potholes and collapsed road-edges teamed with low-hanging tree branches on one side and a several hundred meter drop on the other are quite frankly not helping matters. I haven’t been this scared for a while! The somewhat Alaskan looking scenery is just breath taking! Tall coniferous forest and a steep sloped canyon, on the bottom of which a river is flowing wild and rather ferocious at some points. We take photos of waterfalls and cliff-faces. Once we reach the altitude of 2km or so we are faced with a new challenge: clouds! The visibility is poor and it begins to rain.

 When we finally get to Danisparauli, a village situated at an altitude of just above 2km, the temperature has dropped down to 13C. Amidst the fog we can make out some dark, cabin like wooden buildings. The village children run to the roadside to wave to us, despite the rain. It’s even cold here now in July and we wonder what it must be like in the winter months! We spot a few lumberjacks working away. The trees are still being cut down and limbed manually. A small, sad looking roadside stall stands in the pouring rain. We buy five jars of honey from the beekeeper to take back as gifts for relatives. He seems totally made up to have made a big sale. Roughly half a dozen workmen climb out of a tarpaulin covered truck and we stay to chat with them for a little while.

 The dusk is setting in and we’re still on the mountain road. What makes us feel slightly more at ease though, is not being able to see the massive drop down any longer. However, since we’re still aware of its presence, we’re happy to stay behind a local truck. We finally make it to Khulo, where we stay overnight on a hotel car park. The lively yet friendly host sits down for an evening cuppa with us and keeps suggesting a few vodka shots together. He himself has had a few already and is chatting away in Russian.