Balloons at Dawn and a Midnight Feast at the Police Station

I was awoken by the call to prayer from a distant mosque, the Muezzin had a wonderfully melodious voice, so for once I wasn't upset at being awoken at 4.30. I lay back listening smiling, thinking of all the other calls to prayer we have been awoken by on this journey and others. Then came a distinctive unfamiliar sound, a rushing, blowing sound. A hairdryer perhaps? Jet engine? Unlikely, as we were camped out in the Cappadocian countryside under the weirdly sculptured "fairy chimneys". Peeking out of the window into the half light I squeaked with delight, awaking Steve. Just 150m from us were 9 huge hot air balloons being inflated. Throwing on clothes, we rushed out to investigate and were even more delighted to find scores of balloons inflating on nearby hillsides. A few had started to drift skywards, their bursts of flame lighting up the pre-dawn sky. The girls were slightly less enthusiastic, only arising on their own terms to sip hot chocolate on the truck's roof and admire the spectacle, while Steve and I admired the fifty or more balloons in the sunrise from a nearby hill. The only others around were bridal couples dressed to the nines and fully made up, which must be painful at that time of the morning, for beautiful wedding shots. It had been a long couple of days drive from the Georgian border to Cappadocia, it was on mostly wonderfully smooth highways. The first night in the country we drove up a tiny winding mountain road hoping to find a good place to park for the night, it looked ideal with small fields of recently cut grass drying in the last rays of sun in the evening. We were well away from any border or any army posts. Not wanting to trespass on anyone's field we found a small flat patch beside the track and waved good evening to the couple of tractors that passed us by. After the previous night's disruption in Georgia (see our last blog) we crashed out early and were all sweetly sleeping when I was awoken at 10 by the noise of a small truck outside. Peering out, I was alarmed to see two men dressed in black jeans and t-shirts with machine guns having an animated discussion just outside the window! I am sure this is not the way that most husbands wish to be woken up after a relentless day of driving "Steve! Wake up! There are men outside! And they've got guns! Big guns!" Poor man. . As we lay holding our breath peering out, their conversation seemed to need a second and third opinion and they pulled out their mobiles. I allowed myself a little bit of oxygen, surely robbers or terrorists wouldn't be dialling a friend before whatever they were planning on doing. Steve took the brave option and decided to dress and go out. With a cheery sounding "Hello"; a big smile; and a hand outstretched to shake, he walked up to the men. This approach was obviously the correct one, like the start of all male interactions in this part of the world they stretched out their hands to shake Steve's hand, clumsily juggling with their machine guns. Phew! I allowed myself to breathe a little. . Now we had to ascertain who they were and what did they want, it turned out they wanted to know exactly the same thing from us. We soon realised that Turkish and English have very few common words, thank goodness there was just enough of a phone signal to use google translate. It turned out that although the only symbol of authority they had was their machine guns (that is probably enough), that they were police men and they wanted us to accompany them to the police station. . We set off in convoy, once back on the main road we were met by a squad car and they insisted that a policeman in uniform, but thankfully without a machine gun just a pistol, sit with us in the cab. Instead of stopping in the next village we drove off up a winding rough track. Eeek! Had we just been duped by some scary pretend police bandits and they were now taking us off somewhere else. We were very relieved when a sign directed us to a hilltop "Jandarma" By the time we had got to the station, they had clocked onto the fact that we weren't of any threat to national security, so it was smiles all round. After about an hour of checking documents and waking up the local English teacher to translate over the phone, they gave us tea and brought out snacks to the truck for the girls. You never know what the road will bring you: I never envisioned any midnight feasts at police stations when we went to sleep that night. They then escorted us to a flat patch just off the main road, where they could keep an eye on us for the night as they passed on their rounds. . Nearly 3 1/2 years ago in Central America we met Alex and Meira, a young Belgium-Spanish couple in a land cruiser. After meeting them several times in different countries we had a great week with them and others on a beach in Nicaragua, they were great fun and brilliant with the kids too. Since their Pan-Am trip a lot has happened, they got married and had 2 babies. We heard that Alex was going to be doing the Mongol Rally, a rally between the UK and Mongolia, in a Nissan Micra with a friend, we hoped that somewhere our paths would cross. Remarkably they did, before they turned east for Iran and on our path south we managed to meet at the town of Erzurum. Unfortunately due to both our driving schedules we didn't get to camp up with them for the night but it was still good to catch up with him again for a hour at a garage. After that it had been another long day's drive, anxious to not repeat the previous night's experience we chose our campsite well in a little picnic spot hidden in the woods. We had to cross a little stream to get to it and the girls had a wonderful time playing and climbing as I cooked supper. We loved Goreme and its surrounding area, apart from the wonderful hot air balloons, hiking through the valleys filled with otherworldly shaped and naturally sculpted rocks. In the valleys between the rocky outcrops and thin rock spires were small fields and grove of fruit trees and grapes. Some people still live in the caves carved out and many more are used for storage or shelter from the sun. Everywhere you looked there were doors opening onto dwellings; specially carved dovecotes; or high up in cliffs rooms exposed to the elements after a rockfall. Many of the larger and more elaborate caves were churches, carved out during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Some were decorated with simple religious symbols and figures, roughly painted in ochre. Others were true works of art with frescos dating from the 10th to 12th centuries. It was hot, so we kept our exploring to the early morning unfortunately though we saw no more balloons, even though the atmospheric conditions seemed to be the same. The girls spent their free time making one of the nearby carved out caves their own. They made happy little troglodytes sweeping it out and decorating it with bunches of wild flowers. Leaving the area we stopped at the underground city of Kaymakli. We purposely chose the most touristy one in the hope it would be well lit and not too claustrophobic, as our littlest troglodyte prefers her caves close to the surface. It wasn't very busy and the girls loved it, climbing though all the tiny tunnels down to 4 stories deep imagining people's life that took place there. The whole city was built as subterranean refuge there were 7 stories below in total and we got a sense of how deep it actually was by peering down the ventilation shaft to the bottom. Years ago before we started this trip, I decided that apart from the Maths and English, we wouldn't stick to the National Curriculum. Instead the girls would learn about the places we were; the things we saw; and what they were interested in. We've pretty much stuck to that but added in extra bits so that I made sure that they kept up with peers at home. The example I always gave to people was that why would they cover the Romans when they were scheduled to, when we were in Mexico and we could learn about the Aztecs instead. Which is why the girls had a fabulous time in Mexico skipping around the ruins and pretending to use a stingray barb for bloodletting as a part of an Aztec ritual. Now in Western Turkey, it was the chance of the Romans! Archeologists have been hard at work uncovering the ancient secrets of Sagalassos, with a long history much of the ruins are of Roman origin. High up on a mountainside, we had a peaceful night beside the tiny road and for the first time since Tibet we were forced inside in the evening due to the cool temperature. We explored the sight in the morning, enjoying the rebuilt fountains; and imagining the Roman citizens watching the gladiators at the amphitheater; the racing at the Hippodrome; and getting a good scrub down at the baths. School was a breeze after lunch, for once, as they were hungry to know more.

Khachapuri Heaven

Georgia is famous for many things. It's wonderful mountains; warm and hospitable people ; the culture; churches; and it's wine but as we crossed the border from Azerbaijan we only had one thing on our mind and it wasn't any one of those.. It was the food. Having spent many years in Moscow where Georgian food is deservedly popular we were keen to try it again and especially in its home county. In particular we were looking forward to Khachapuri, leavened bread filled with delicious oozy melted cheese. We had been telling Alisha and Lucy all about this over the preceding days so after a simple border crossing we headed to the hilltop picturesque town of Sighnaghi. Although the town had a lot to offer in terms of churches, views and cobble streets we rushed past all of this to a delightful restaurant where we could gorge ourselves on our first Georgian meal. It was to be the first of many. At the end of it Lucy was as in love with Khachapuri as we were, even enjoying left overs for breakfast. Having feasted on a delicious lunch we pulled ourselves away to explore the pretty little town. With lunches like these mind you there was going to be no need for dinner. We wandered the narrow streets admiring the churches and town walls before finding a quiet spot to camp by the river for the night. The next day it was the time to enjoy another Georgian speciality, its wine. We had heard that the Schuchmann winery allowed you to camp in its grounds so we thought that made a particularly good choice for a spot of wine tasting. First though we were to enjoy another magnificent lunch in the restaurant with wonderful views over the vines. As I wouldn't be driving for the rest of the day it only seemed appropriate to accompany it with some of the local wine. . Later that afternoon we were given a tour of the winery. In Georgia wine is made in the classical European way but also in its own traditional way, "unfiltered" where the wine is made in big clay pots buried in the ground. At the wine tasting later we sampled both types. It's been quite a while since we have been drinking wine so we also thought it was a good opportunity to stock up with a few bottles. We spent the evening enjoying one of the bottles and watching the sunset over the winery. Before leaving the area we spent an enjoyable hour wandering around the Chavchavdze Estate and it's ornamental gardens. It reminded us very much of an English stately home. With any capital city, parking for the truck is always tricky. Tbilisi was not going to prove an exception and with the narrow streets of the old town we decided to park above the town around a lake. We were met by an old friend and former colleagues' driver, George who kindly showed us where to park. It was a great spot from a security perspective and we felt comfortable leaving the truck there while heading down into the city to explore. It was though a popular summer escape from the city and as the evening wore on more and more people arrived until the car park was full. This was fine as everyone was out enjoying the summer weather. As the car park emptied though it was the turn of the boy racers and loud music which meant we didn't get the most restful sleep. . Tbilisi is a lovely old city full of churches and interesting streets. The churches date from around the 5th century right up until the present day with the largest new cathedral being built since Georgian independence. We spent a couple of days exploring the streets, popping into the churches to admire the frescos and iconostasis. We also took the modern cable car up the hill to the fortress to enjoy fantastic views of the city. One of my former colleagues, Altaf is still based in Tbilisi and it was great that he was around while we were there and to catch up over a wonderful Gerogian meal. While the girls enjoyed the dancing and folk music we caught up over what has been going on over the last four years and remembering times together. It was quite symmetrical meeting Altaf just a few weeks before we finish our trip as I met with him at this home in Canada after we had been on the road for only a few weeks. A lot has passed since then but it's always nice to meet with friends. Altaf was a fantastic host and I would like to thank him for a wonderful Georgian meal where we not only sampled Khachapuri but also some wonderful new Georgian dishes as well. We headed out of Tbilisi taking the main road East. We then turned South as we were planning on crossing one of the quieter borders into Turkey. As we turned off the road narrowed and wound its way along a beautiful valley dotted with fortresses. We were here to visit Vardzia a 12th century cave city. As it was too late that afternoon to visit we drove further along a minor road to camp by the river. It was so nice Gilly and Lucy even went for a swim. However we are not having much luck with campsites at the moment. It was a lovely evening at a lovely spot but was obviously well known. At about midnight a car came down with four men who were out for some beers for the night. Leaving their music blaring they proceeded to make a fire. They ignored us but were clearly settling in for the night so we slipped through to the front of the cab and drove a couple of Kilometres down the track to another spot. The next morning we drove back to Vardzia and climbed up the hill to explore the cave city where monks used to live. The monks lived in rock hewn dwellings ranging over many floors. Whilst in ruins now there was still a church carved into the rock and a couple of the caves were still lived in. Unfortunately that was our last sight in Georgia. We are having to speed up our journey now as we near Europe and wished we could have spent much longer in Georgia. Mind you we had certainly eaten our fill of absolutely delicious Georgian food and if we kept eating Khachapuri every day our waistlines would soon begin to suffer. But they taste just so heavenly.

Cruising on the Caspian

Well, maybe "cruising" is a bit of a stretch of the word. I've had no experience but I'm pretty sure that most cruise boats are a lot cleaner and more luxurious with fewer cockroaches than the Merkuri-1. So there wasn't enough bed sheets to cover the horribly stained matresses; the furniture was falling apart; and the back door of the ship was left open for the whole crossing. But it did come with 3 solidly square meals a day; some cool travellers to hang out with; friendly Turkish truck drivers; and we even got the only cabin with a bathroom due to having children. The most important thing for me, as I'm the sort of person who gets seasick on a pond, is that the sea was flat as a pancake the whole way - what a relief! Supposedly the boat type isn't the ideal sort of ship for the Caspian, something to do with it being the wrong shape for the shallow waters, so they don't sail if it is too windy. In the end it was "just" a 16 hour wait at the port in Aktau until our ship set sail. We hadn't checked in the truck the previous evening and there had been a mysterious phone call at 1am in Russian asking where the truck was so we arrived at the port at 8, anxious to make sure it was on the loading list. From then on it was just a long wait, there was a good cafe we could stay in for part of it so it wasn't too painful. Apart from the mostly truckers; there was one other motorhome; a handful of motorbikes and about 10 backpackers. With virtually no information forthcoming from the ferry company, we made a very convincing bunch of sheep milling around trying to workout what was happening, then all moving en-mass to the next place to wait. Eventually by 8.30pm the girls and I along with the other foot passengers were onboard but it took Steve a couple more hours to get the truck on, as all the arriving trucks had to reverse off. The girls did very well, chatting away to all the other travellers. But eventually at 10.30 with Lucy dropping on her feet I begged some sheets off of the staff and put them to bed, we left around midnight. We had been worried if the Caspian Sea option was the best for us, rather than driving through the dodgy bits of Russia. We had heard nightmare stories of people waiting for 9 days for the boat, which runs without a schedule, but we left Aktau 72 hours after arriving so we were pleased we took it. Tracking the previous crossing we had seen they had been stuck outside both ports for many hours but our crossing was only 30 hours, just long enough to catch 2 magnificent sunsets.  We were woken up at midnight by banging on the door, telling us to return the sheets. It would have been nicer to stay in bed as we weren't allowed to disembark for a further 2 1/2 hours. The port of Alat, 70 kms south of Baku, has nothing near it: no town, no taxis, no nothing - just desert. Port security also wanted us all out, fine for us we planned to drive just outside and go back to bed till the morning but hard for our new backpacker friends. Stroppy Port security wouldn't even let them set up their tents or even sit inside the port. So we loaded them all up in the back of the truck and tried to drive out, only to be thwarted by the dam security guys again who sent Steve back to pay another fee that no one had previously mentioned on the other side of the port. I think they were rather surprised to see 13 people get out and wait for a fuming Steve to come back. It sounds like the start of a terrible joke: How many backpackers can you get in a truck at 4am? Just a few missing from the shot. We gave up on the sleeping option as the sun started to rise and made for a group of mud volcanoes just in time to see the sunrise over the Caspian. What a way to start the day (or was it end of the night?) with the rising sun reflecting off the cold belching puddles of mud and the strangely bubbling pool.   Not wanting to incur the wrath of the frequently present Azeri traffic police we had to drop off most of the backpackers on the highway and headed into Baku. Finding nowhere to stay downtown we headed out out to a nearby beach resort, with a beautiful view of the row of oil rigs just offshore. Too wired to sleep we headed into the picturesque old town to explore. Baku was an interesting mix of old and new with the old town walls starkly contrasting with modern architecture funded from money from the recent oil boom.  Much refreshed the following morning we drove through the desert and into the winding forested hills. The countryside was full of tiny roadside cafes with tables under the trees waiting for customers out on a Sunday drive. Boys sold small bags of freshly picked hazelnuts along the road and smallholders had piles of fruit in buckets; honey; pickles; and jams. We bought boiled sweet corn and fresh figs for lunch from one of them.  . We arrived in the picturesquely historic town of Seki in time to explore the compact walled town. The 18th century Khan had two intricately painted palaces with lots of "niches for dishes" - a bizarre but commonly descriptive phrase used all over Central Asia, where the two words rhyme - it always cracks us up. It was the bright stain-glassed windows projecting vivid patterns onto the walls and floor that made the place truly beautiful. The ancient caravanasi is now a hotel but it wasn't hard to imagine the central courtyard teaming with merchants with their pack animals and the thick walled rooms piled high with goods. A track up a stream bed made for a quiet night's camp spot. With just 3 days and, sort of, 3 nights to explore Azerbaijan we barely scratched the surface but we liked what we saw. Unfortunately the time is marching on towards our return back to England, so after a quick border control it was time for our next country: Georgia.