Baku, Azerbaijan: Dubai’s Little Brother

The final leg of a long summer journey brought us into the enigma that is Azerbaijan. Neither of us knew what to expect from the country that didn’t really want us in anyway, but what we got was a lot different to anywhere else on our voyage.

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After a casual morning in Tbilisi we boarded the daily 16:30 train towards Baku in Azerbaijan. It was to be our longest journey yet as it was due to arrive at 10am. This was not because of distance, but due to the stringent security checks at the Azerbaijani border.

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We were joined our train by a gang of thuggish looking Germans. They were tattooed, bruised, and massive. Why on Earth were they visiting Azerbaijan? It turned out they had reason. When we asked them at one of our numerous stops they told us that they were following their football team, Frankfurt, who were playing in the Europa league in Baku. We made a decisive choice to watch the match as we had missed Arsenal in Istanbul and Spurs in Tbilisi.

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At the Azerbaijani border the train was ground to a halt whilst every passport was checked. We were both asked a series of questions about our purpose for visiting Azerbaijan and photographed by the military. They also checked our bags, albeit not very thoroughly. Eventually, after kicking an Indian couple off the train, the military let our train continue over night towards Baku. This meant we had a nice sleep in our third class cabin.

We were woken by a women who liked to giggle to herself early the next morning. It was clear from looking out at the beautiful landscape that Azerbaijan is not as rich as it makes itself out to be, there is obvious poverty in the towns and villages we passed.

Despite our delays we arrived on time, as if the stops are part-and-parcel of the daily journey. We decided to get a train immediately out of Baku since we had another day to explore the city properly. There appeared to be no train out of the city and we ended up on a bus towards the nearby city of Sumqayit thanks to the help of a Russian guy.

We had originally wished to visit the mountain villages of Azerbaijan via the town of Quba. However, we had given too much time to our visa acquisition in Batumi and were no reluctant to travel too far from Baku in our last days.

A very cheap bus saw us arrive in Sumqayit beside the Caspian Sea. Our first glimpse of the water was not how I had dreamt it. It instead consisted of piles of rubbish and a few bonfires lit across the beach. In Azerbaijan, Baku is the show town and I was starting to think that everything else had been neglected. Nothing I saw in my time in the country changed my view.

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We had a very cheap lunch in Sumqayit and people were fascinated to sea us. They probably wondered why tourists would visit their city, and it wasn’t long before we questioned it ourselves.

The half hour bus back to Baku saw us exploring the city for a suitable park to pitch our tent. Both of us refused to pay the minimum of $42 for a hostel bed. As it was still daylight we accepted that we could only leave possessions in the tent that we could get home without. This meant that we both ventured beyond the park with our wallets, phones, and passports (I decided that my walking boots were also valuable enough to wear). Everything else was open to be robbed (with a potential insurance claim for smelly boxer shorts).

We decided to have a drink in a bar before heading to the stadium for the football. The bar we ended up in was a little more seedy on the inside than the out. We were placed in a private room and served by a promiscuous looking lady. We are still not sure if we ordered what they expected by eating cheese and drinking beer.

After eating supermarket ham and tortilla we headed towards the stadium where it had become lively. We were told by a professional wrestler (naturally) that people don’t generally watch Qarabag play in Azerbaijan as football is not a huge sport here. Today was the biggest game they’d had in years though, and the place was buzzing.

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We managed to buy our £3 tickets from a tout at the stadium and made our way to our designated section. The stadium was electric with noise. Any empty seat, of which there were few, were being constantly banged, whistles whistled, and chants sung. The people of Azerbaijan were really up for this and they were waving their national flag at the Germans with pride. We were also lucky enough to have a young lad in front of us who seemed to support Frankfurt just to wind his mate up. This was a constant source of entertainment.

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It soon became clear that Qarabag are nothing short of a pub team and Frankfurt should have scored more than the 2 they managed. But atmosphere in the stadium meant the result didn’t really matter to us at least.

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After the full time whistle we headed back in the direction of our tent. As I say constantly in my posts, I pride myself on my bearings and sense of direction…but in Baku it failed me. We ended up far from the tent and had to rely on GPS to get us back. I was a little embarrassed.

A long day resulted in a good sleep in an unusually sweltering tent. We woke up to a political rant from a gardener about how he hated Azerbaijan’s government for spending all it’s money on Baku. A theme that appeared to linger in many people’s minds.

Our sole ambition was now to enter the Caspian Sea at a pleasant part of the coast. We headed towards the Baku Bulvar where the city meets Baku Bay. Here we could only find a harbour and oil coated water. I refused to touch the water as this would complete the mission and I wanted to jump in to finish it off.

We delayed the visit to the Caspian Sea to walk around the Old Town. Although quaint and pretty it was a little over renovated. However, I greatly enjoyed seeing another side to a city that was otherwise full of sky scrapers and building sites.

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Once we had explored the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town and the major commercial area of Baku we passed the Carpet Museum. I had half joked about visiting (the joke was to save face but I really did want to visit as Azerbaijan is famed for its carpets). We got a glimpse of a few carpets before deciding it was too expensive.

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At this point we were offered assistance by a man named Zico. He offered to show us a way of reaching a nicer beach to enter the Caspian Sea. He also gave us some information about Baku itself.

Baku, as is blatantly obvious just by walking through it, is rich in oil. The government is exploiting these riches by building elaborate buildings and also plan to build a set of islands in the Baku Bay (hence the comparisons with Dubai). Zico told us that the city is due to be finished in 2020. There is something about it that I think has the potential for success. That is, unlike Dubai, it has humid but moderate temperatures throughout the year, it has good links to Europe, and it is not surrounded by desert. I believe, if they sort out their foreign policy, Baku could be a success (but I’m no politician).

We got our 15km bus ride to the beach at Sixov. Here we jumped out and headed across the littered sand towards the sea. An oil rig was positioned right in front of us, but this made for an authentic look rather than an eyesore.

With a quick removal of clothes and a run, skip, and a dive we entered the Caspian Sea. Our mission was complete! We had made it from Budapest to Baku in under 26 days and had a bloody good time doing it! The feeling when hitting the water was amazing (and expertly captured by Fletch). We stayed in the water for a while, even washing using my reliable soap. We had a great sense of achievement come over us.

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Despite this, the challenge was not complete as I still had to make it to the airport. We had some dinner on 28th May street and asked about public transport links to the airport. We were told that taxi was the only option. Yet, the Internet said otherwise so I went with the positive option.

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Myself and Fletch had therefore come to the end of our journey together. He had a later flight than me so would be staying until the morning. We had a brotherly hug and went our separate ways for the first time. A great companion!

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I thought I got very lucky as the 116 bus that runs towards the airport approached as I arrived at the stop. The bus driver told me that there were no more buses running to the airport now. I was left scratching my head as a taxi was the last option I would consider.

I always think that something will get me out of a sticky situation, but I needed a wee first. I snuck into a restaurant and used their toilet. On my way out I heard a man speaking in English, a rarity here. I asked him if he knew the way to the airport. He told me that he and his girlfriend were also looking for a way there, and they were on my flight! What a slice of luck!

Together we went back to the bus stop armed with the basic Russian that the Czech couple could speak. As suspected the buses had finished. Since the girl was blonde we felt we had a good chance of getting a quick hitch to the airport when a man approached and told us that he would take us to the airport for the equivalent of £8. It was a little dearer that expected but a lot cheaper than a taxi for the 30km distance. It turned out that the drivers grandad was Czech, hence why he was so keen to take us.

We arrived 3 hours prior to check in which meant that we could all enjoy a beer before getting out our sleeping bags for a nap before our flight.

At 4am the adventure in Baku was over. A strange city in a puzzling country, but a fitting end to an incredible journey. It was time to grab a flight to Budapest for a day of R&R in the baths and enjoy an Arsenal victory at last.

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Another summer, another success. Home, and reality, await.

Tbilisi, Georgia: The City that Loves Wine

There are certain general knowledge facts that everyone is proud to know. Tbilisi being the capital of Georgia was always one of mine. It had never dawned on me that I might actually visit the city.

In order to get there I had to forsake the health of my back, my sleep, and my personal space. We had booked an overnight coach towards Tbilisi from Batumi. This meant I was no longer in control of my own fate on the crazy Georgian roads, and instead I placed it in the hands of a strange driver whom developed an unhealthy obsession with my feet.

We squeezed tightly into a mini bus, like James Bate on a Vietnamese coach. In an attempt to get myself comfortable I placed my head in my lap. The man in front then, very inconsiderately, decided to recline his seat, leaving my head trapped in my groin. This was not a comfortable way to travel.

Following an hour of claustrophobic travel I decided to take action (I am not myself when I’m tired) and climbed over the seats to position myself in the gangway of the minibus. People were confused but I was a little more comfortable….until a woman scrapped the dirt from her sole onto my face.

Thankfully some people moved during the night and we were able to obtain some more space. But our 7am arrival was proceeded by minimal sleep.

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When we did arrive in Tbilisi we were quickly able to buy our onwards travel, get a public bus to the centre, and eventually find our hostel before 9am. We decided it was best to have a nap until lunch time. We are starting to see beds as a novelty since we have had 2 nights in one over 2 weeks. We greatly enjoyed our nap.

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Following this we were able to explore the city. We had been warned that people in Tbilisi love their drink. This became evident as we passed the Liberty Square. We were offered several glasses of red wine as we passed the street. We took advantage of the fabulous Georgian red as we walked. In one particular cellar I was given 2 shots of cha cha (50% Georgian vodka) just for checking in on the iPhone app of FourSquare.

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This made for a giddy feel to the rest of the afternoon, as well as a craving for more red wine. In fact, Georgia claims that it is the birthplace of wine. Everywhere is evidence of its love of grapes and it is very proud of its wine making traditions.

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We managed to tour the Old Tbilisi area by getting a cable car to the fortress and walking our own way down via the hamam baths and old buildings. These made for an impressive part of the city.

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Maybe it was the wine, but I was quickly falling in love with Tbilisi.

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At 6pm we met for a free tour around the city. The lady giving the tour was on her first day in the job, and it showed. The group on the tour consisted of a range of nationalities and it resulted in us being more interested in each other than what the girl was saying. This was not really her fault.

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Within the group was an Italian living in Scotland, an Argentinian man, a Hungarian woman, an Armenian man, an Iraqi man, and a Spurs fan from England. He had travelled to Georgia to watch Spurs play in the Europa League. 2 of the tour soon realised that they both lived in Dubai and worked for Fly Emirates as cabin crew, but had never met before. The Iraqi man was quite the showman.

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Following the tour we decided to continue together for a drink and some traditional Georgian food. One Georgian man, strangely named George (who just happened to be a Georgian arm wrestling champion) offered to take us somewhere. We initially ended up drinking Georgian beer at a bar before heading for some food. We walked as a group for quite a while until George instructed us to go into what looked like a very dingy room. However, as we walked in and went down some stairs it soon opened up to be a secret underground Georgian restaurant selling traditional Georgian cuisine. The Italian announced ‘this was not in my Lonely Planet guide’, and it wouldn’t have been.

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Together we ate food ordered by George at very cheap prices. Fletch and I ate khinkali, which were basically giant Chinese dumplings filled with delicious juices. Lovely.

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The group of us then carried on sharing stories of our individual adventures towards Georgia as we sat at another bar. The Iraqi man in particular had a lot to share. This was a fantastic bunch of people. Yet, at around 1am eyes became bloodshot and yawns could not be quashed, resulting in bed. This was not before witnessing two teenage Georgian girls rip each others hair out…one could only guess a boy was involved.

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The next day we woke and packed ready for our overnight train to Baku, Azerbaijan. We decided to walk both sides of the river and have one final tour of the old town before collecting our stuff and making our short journey to the railway station. During this time I bought and ate another traditional food from the country. It was effectively nuts coated in dried grape juice. Very sweet but very tasty. Apparently the locals refer to it as the Georgian Snickers.

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This meant that our stay in Tbilisi was short but I had completely bought into the atmosphere of the city. I’d recommend it to anyone. In fact the city tagline is Tbilisi: The City That Loves You’, and the feeling was reciprocated.

Driving Around Georgia: Insanity on the road.

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A train to Yerevan, Armenia soon turned into a hitch-hike to Yerevan, Armenia. Yet, with a little moment of spontaneity we decided to take a gamble and hire a car to get there. This turned out to be a 3 day adventure that neither of us had prepared for, but both of us greatly enjoyed.

Since we decided late in the day to hire a car we had only one place to get one: the airport. This worked out well as we had not scouted a place to pitch our tent in the evening. We headed straight for the airport where we were able to sleep on the floor free-of-charge in anticipation for the numerous car-hire companies to open.

Our sleep was good beside the marble flooring and being kicked by a ‘helpful’ policeman who thought we had missed our flight to Minsk. ‘Do we look like we are going to Minsk tonight?’ was not our actual response.

Come the morning we were able to hire a Toyota Corolla for 3 days at a reasonable price (thanks to Fletch’s haggling). As it would cost extra to add drivers we decided that I would be the driver for the trip, which I made no secret of my excitement about. The excitement was momentarily quashed when we were told that we could not leave Georgia with the car. With a little shrug of the shoulders we realised that we could see much more of the magnificent Georgia this way.

We had a brief inspection of the car before hitting the road with our bags safely stowed in the boot. I drove around Europe at the beginning of the year, but this was the first time I had driven in a left hand drive car, and it took me a while to get used to it. Thankfully, bar a few near misses, I got to grips with the car.

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As we left Batumi we began on our route East. We initially stopped at the small town of Keda where we habitually picked up a loaf of bread and a chunk of ham to make sandwiches with. You can take the man out of Britain but when the budget is tight he will make a sandwich. We sat and admired the view whilst we ate our food.

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Following lunch we hit real Georgia. We had been warned that driving here was dangerous, but this was something else. I never imagine my parents cringing at anything I do as I believe that they trust I will take risks but ultimately keep myself out of harm. Yet, if mum or dad saw me driving on these roads I think they might have had a heart attack.

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The roads here are not roads, they are tracks at best. They are littered with pot holes and nothing defining the edges except cliff faces. Not only this, but a one-way track featured two-way traffic. This made for a bumpy ride. We covered a very short distance in a very long time, bumping along the stones road.

This seems like an awful experience, but it wasn’t. The mountainous views were well worth it. The kind of views, and drive, that words or pictures cannot express. We were driving around the majestic lower Caucasus and taking every moment in. It was an amazing drive for me, perhaps the best. Every sharp turn on the bumpy ground revealed something more spectacular.

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The worst of the road came when a waterfall fell onto the pot holed paths where we were driving and fell further down a 100m drop. We had to cross the fast moving water without being dragged down the cliff with it. We lived to tell the tale. I’m pretty sure the car was relieved too.

Eventually we reached the town of Vale (which was recommended by the French Lonely Planet). It turned out that there was nothing there besides an authentic village, which we very briefly took advantage of.

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We decided to stop close to our 250km per day limit at the town of Borjomi. We had told Vincent that we could meet him there.

Once we had parked in a spot that we felt was secluded enough to stop and to sleep, since we would be sleeping in the car.

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We then met Vincent on the beauty bridge before eating some cheap chicken at a local cafe. We then explored the lively local park with a cheap 2.5litre bottle of Georgian beer where we sat and people watched.

As conversation started to wain we were approached by a young lad named Raul. He was 18 years old and had recently moved to Ukraine from Georgia. He claimed to be a Rapper in Russian and gave us an impromptu performance. He humoured us with his free styling.

Raul had gained our trust and we accepted his invite into a neighbouring park to try the famous Borjomi water, sold everywhere around Georgia sells is. Still, when we tried it it tasted as though it had come straight from the sea. He assured us that it was healthy.

The 4 of us then sat in the park and chatted, mainly about Raul. He showed off with a double-jointed circus act that’s freaked us all out before asking a very strange and concerning question. He stood in front of the 3 of us and asked ‘do you like knives?’ As he flicked open a flick knife and waved it in front of us. Despite this being a potentially scary situation, his camp demeanour and youthfulness meant that we all just laughed. This confused him. He then danced with his knife.

We managed to lose Raul before he found out that we were sleeping in a car. This was a long and uncomfortable might, where a lot of forgetting happened on our bruised hips.

At 9am we met once more with Vincent. We had set aside the morning for a trek in the national park. I had nothing but my camera and walking boots, which made for an interesting trek. The terrain was much different to the hike in Turkey as Georgia is more abundant in greenery and trees.

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We climbed steep slopes for about 2 hours, taking in the forest around us. At one point I became too confident and decided to climb the steepest of inclines. This meant that I was clinging onto tree stumps and twigs to stop myself from falling. I had to resort to my fingers in the soil at some points as was the stupidity of my climb. Both Fletch and Vincent took the longer, more sensible route.

We came across a cemetery deep in the forest. It seemed a nice place but would have given am eerie feel late at night.

With one eye one the time and a slight tingle of thirst we retraced our steps beyond the national park and back to the car.

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From the car the three of us drove to the town of Kutaisi, birthplace of Katie Melua. Before entering the town we managed to clean ourselves in the river, which was much needed, and the car was telling us.

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We took our time to find a good spot to park in the centre before finding a bar to watch the start of the premier league season. It was a good job that the Arsenal game was not being televised.

We later found a semi-legitimate Georgian bookmakers to sit and watch the evening kick offs with a stupid bet on Swansea to win. We were able to drink our own beer there.

As the night drew on we decided to withdraw to our beds. For tonight we had decided to utilise the space which mean Fletch slept in the car and I went to the park to assemble a tent in front of the Saturday night drinkers. They weren’t too bothered by my presence, and nor was the lightening, which made for a nice sleep.

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I was up and the tent was packed by 9am when I knocked on the car window to wake Fletch, who had had a less comfortable night. We quickly got n the road due to the terrestrial rain and headed for the town or Zugdidi about 100km north. Here we ate the traditional Georgian food (I think you spell it Hagipodi) in the company of some very soviet looking men.

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We went from there into a region we had been advised not to go to because the Government were not in control there. We wanted to go for that reason but spent only a little time there as we nearly crashed.

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In fact, as well as the roads, the drivers are mental here. I thought the Chinese drove insanely. However, it seemed as though the driving here is contagious. It was not long before I was beeping my horn at every error or over taking on the wrong side of the road. In fact, driving in Georgia is like a giant game of dodgems, except with expensive cars and life ending consequences. We saw our fair few accidents on the way.

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When we stopped in theory town of Poti I decided to drive a little too fast down an unmade road. Tis resulted in me soaking a young boy from a puddle and turning on a warning light within the car. When we told our company that we were concerned they told us to get the car to Batumi and they would refund what we had left of the car. This meant that by driving on these crazy roads we had actually earned ourselves a partial refund. All I had to do was get back to Batumi airport.

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It had been raining all day but it soon became torrential, making driving harder. However, I was now very confident in my ability to weave and turn in the road. I could beep with the best of them. Thankfully we both survived and I can now reflect on my over-confidence.

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We made it back to Batumi in the downpour without any injuries and were able to claim enough refund to get us into a hostel and have some spare. It turned out that the car was just out of anti-freeze.

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This made for a fantastic 3 days. I will never forget driving in Georgia. It is not a road lovers dream, but it is a dream of a road.

Batumi, Georgia: Azerbaijan visa with some R&R

This is probably going to be a shortish post, as our intention in Batumi was to catch a breath (and get our Azerbaijani visa) We haven’t really stopped to reflect yet.

We arrived on the outskirts of the city so needed to get a public bus to the centre. It did not start well as I went somewhere in between blinding Fletch and gauging his right eye out. This was a result of my over exaggeration of pointing as an emphasis upon our intended direction to a non-English speaking Georgian. Without an idea of where we were on the map we were initially a little lost. As we walked along the boulevard we were approached by a familiar face: a French guy we gave directions to in Amasya. He asked for directions again, fortunately we had a good enough idea about where he needed to be going.

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As he walked with us I noticed the Azerbaijani flag! A slice of luck! We expected to be walking a while before stumbling across the embassy in Batumi, but it had found us (it’s a good job I’d spent some time on the coach revising my knowledge of world flags…how cool I have become).

We entered the embassy a little nervously as we knew that the man inside had the power to issue us, or refuse us, entry to Azerbaijan. This meant we were incredibly polite and well spoken when around him. He had the demeanour of someone who knew he had power over us.

Obtaining the Azerbaijani Visa…can we do it?
We had heard that Batumi is the only place that we could obtain a visa for Azerbaijan without a letter of invitation. We weren’t sure this was factual, but it is. He told us not to worry about the invitation as he would be the inviter as a representative of his government. All we had to do was fill out a couple of forms, hand over 2 passport photos, 2 photo copies of our passport and £90 worth of Geogian cash. This was a killer considering we had been living on peanuts for so long. However, we had been aware of the cost when budgeting so it didn’t come as much of a shock. The man told us that the visa would be ready for us on Monday (in 3 working days, which meant he was shut Saturday and Sunday). This was not such a blow as he didn’t need to hold onto our passports, meaning we could potentially venture into Armenia in the mean time.

We left the embassy safe in the knowledge that Azerbaijan was looking increasingly likely as our final destination. This meant we could check into our hostel and have our first shower for a week. This felt pretty special.

We then headed to the beach where we were able to chill out. The lat 3 weeks has required constant thinking, awareness, moving and planning. For the first time we were able to relax and do nothing, safe in the knowledge that we had a bed to sleep in later. We bathed for a while and had a brief dip in the Black Sea.

As evening approached we walked back to the hostel armed with a bag of pasta and tomato sauce to cook our cheap dinner. We accompanied this with a large bottle of Georgian beer. Having had no beer in Turkey it was a welcome start to the evening (although the pasta was nothing special).

It turned out that the French guy had also booked into our hostel, and he also had a name: Vincent. The hostel had a good atmosphere and we were soon socialising with Vincent, an Israeli girl, a dutch man, a few Iranian girls, 2 Polish hitch hikers, 1 Chinese man, 1 opinionated Turkish man, another French man among countless others. One Georgian man gave us a live music show with his guitar as we downed Polish vodka with the Poles and exchanged QQ details with the Chinese. It made for a great atmosphere until one of the French guys fell out with the Turkish man over religion and Fletch got mistaken for an ashtray. The Turkish man was later removed from the hostel because of his outlandish behaviour towards non believers.

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As the night went on people decided to venture towards the sea front for a beer or two. 6 of us made it and we spent a while having a cheap beer on the front before the youngest member of the group got frustrated as he couldn’t remember who else was French. At which point we nearly went to a club but thought better of the £3 entry fee.

We returned back to the hostel at about 2:30 where Fletch hardly touched the pillow before he was asleep. We needed to bed, but perhaps sleeping in one after a few drinks meant we didn’t take full advantage of it.

Our next day started with a trip to the train ticket office. This revealed extortionate ticket prices for the long international journey to Yerevan, via Tbilisi. We decided against it, and prepared ourselves to hitch hike the next day.

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We spent most of the afternoon on the beach, taking dips in the Black Sea and napping in the sun. It was a nice experience to relax, but we were keen to get ourselves prepared once we had eaten our cheese and bread lunch combo. This was before we saw an Ajarian speciality in a window, we couldn’t resist trying the very fatty Achma dish.

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It soon dawned on us that we could hire a car much cheaper than getting the train. We searched for somewhere to loan us a car but seemed to be out of luck because of the high season. We got some hope when a women told us a Mercedes would be available at a reasonable price. It later turned out to be false.

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We found our way back to the hostel easily because of the strange statue of a woman sitting on a fish with water squirting from her nipples. Here we decided to gather our things from the hostel before heading to the airport for a night of free accommodation on the departure floor. We had agreed to hire a car in the morning or begin hitch hiking towards Armenia. In the hostel a film crew were filming for a documentary about cheap travel in Georgia. They filmed a couple of our conversations with Vincent as we invited him in our car should we get one. I think that was the kind of conversation they wanted to see.

‘Hitch-hiking’ into Georgia.

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Only 3 weeks ago did 2 novice hitch hikers step onto a Hungarian motorway with a slight apprehension and blissful ignorance about what their first journey might entail. Yet, we have become so accustomed to getting into stranger’s cars that we now use ‘the cheeky thumb’ to get us out of sticky situations. This worked on a couple of occasions in Turkey, and we would once gain rely on others to get us across the border, and into Georgia.

Yet, this was not quite the semi-adventurous hitch hiking we had done in Eastern Europe, but a last ditch attempt to cross the border without additional expense.

Our journey from Erzurum was due to start at 2:30pm. For once we had not chosen to get an overnight bus. It turned out that the bus had been delayed by almost 2 hours. This made a serious dent in our ambition to get to Georgia that evening as our bus was already scheduled to take 8 hours due to a detour via Trapzon. That said, we had the chance to ease political relations between Britain and Iran by humouring a Persian man.

As we turned out of the bus station and onto the road we witnessed a horrific crash. A man sat on his cart was being pulled along by his horse. In a sudden misjudgement a taxi driver drove straight into them, forcing the horse to bolt into a field and the man onto the road. The man had clearly seriously injured himself and had left the road bloodstained from a gash to his head. We had to break sharply to avoid making it worse.

As we passed the incident, which could easily have been in a film, the driver of the taxi fell gingerly out of his beaten car and prayed on the floor. His car was written off and the other man’s livelihood destroyed. I guess we will never know how it concluded.

Once we were properly on the road it was clear that something wasn’t right. The air con was not working which made for a lot of sweaty passengers. One man decided to make fans from newspaper for the people around him (quite rudely excluding the woman sat beside him). The driver decided the coach needed servicing and pulled into a garage. At this point we thought it would have been easier to hitch hike.

We stayed in the garage for a while and one man went to pray in the prayer room. He never returned to the coach. I guess we will never know what happened to him either.

From this point onwards the journey was a mixture of a struggle to sleep and admiration of the stunning views eastern Turkey blesses us with. We both tried to get some sleep before we stopped for dinner where we had more soup and relied once more on our GCSE German to pay for it.

We both fell asleep before reaching Trapzon and were surprised to see that we were the only 2 left on the coach as we pulled into the small town of Hopa.

We had been dropped off at 1am by the side of the road. We had nowhere to stay and no desire to look. This is where our habitual ‘get your thumb out’ routine kicked in. We stood by the side of the road until 2am and noticed a drop in traffic flow and a reluctance to acknowledge us in the dead of the night. We decided to pitch our tent on a grassy patch beside the highway and try again at dawn.

Despite overhearing the stray dog and the regular lorry driver ‘banter’ we both managed to recharge for about 3 hours before quickly dismantling the tent and getting back on the road.

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The drivers could now see us, but they weren’t taking to us, and the traffic hadn’t picked up. As it turned out, we managed to ‘hitch’ a public bus taking us to the border town of Sarpi. At this point we were able to exit Turkey, just as we entered it: on foot.

The sight of the Georgian border was fantastic. It certainly made me realise how much land we had covered since we arrived in Budapest.

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Once officially on the Georgian side we were once again invited onto a public bus towards the city of Batumi. This meant that, despite our efforts in the morning, we had not officially hitch hiked into Georgia at all. Instead, the public transport systems in Turkey and Georgia had created their own adventures for us.

Erzurum, Turkey: The City in the Sky

Erzurum was initially billed as a stopping point towards the beauty of Lake Van towards the Kurdish South East. However, both time and funds meant we decided not to go too far off our linear route east, and spend the night in Turkey’s highest city.

As has become customary, we set up camp within the bus station due to our early arrival with the altitude giving Erzurum a more chilly feel than previous stops. After a short nap we were awoken by a police officer who told us to move somewhere else to sleep. Soon after we moved on he found us asleep again. With a short nudge he waved both his hands in the air quite comply and shouted in a pure American accent ‘Ow My God, you guys!’ a few times (this is how my memory recalls it, but may just be how I want it to have happened…I was in a sleepy daze).

Since we had been banned from napping in the coach station we got the first public bus towards the city. Fletch spotted the tourist information sign and we jumped off at the next stop. When we walked in we found a police officer surprised that Erzurum had any tourists at this time of year (as Erzurum is surrounded by snow capped mountains in the winter and is generally regarded as base camp to a ski resort).

We got nothing except a map from the tourist information and decided to walk around the small city in search of a toilet to wash and a tea to drink. Beside the largest mosque in the city we found locals drinking cheap tea outside. We joined them. As we drank we took it in turns to freshen up by washing our feet at the toilet basement beside the mosque. Our feet needed a clean and we both knew it.

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As we prepared to walk on we spotted 3 tourists with back packs. We hadn’t seen this since we left Istanbul and approached them for a chat. They seemed just as happy to see us. It turned out that they had just hitch hiked from Armenia and Georgia towards Erzurum and gave us some useful advice about our next intended destinations.

The 3 of them spoke English as a mutual language but were from Italy, Romania, and the Netherlands. They invited us to join them for lunch once their Portuguese friend arrived. At this point the 6 of us had some Turkish soup at a local restaurant where we were able to consume as much bread as we wanted.

The 4 of them worked together for an English speaking organisation in Turkey and had planned to visit Trapzon in the evening. As we had not seen much of Erzurum and were not travelling in that direction we left our lunch mates behind.

We headed towards Erzurum’s crowning glory, the double minaret building with a mountainous backdrop, only to find it covered in scaffolding. This was quite disappointing.

However, one of the reasons we chose Erzurum as a destination was its height at city level, about 2000m above sea level. This gave us even more reason to venture even higher, into one of the scores of mountains surrounding the city.

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We decided to head towards Palandoken. We got a short bus beyond the city before hitch-hiking towards the base of one of the mountains. At this point we were able to get a ski lift about 400m higher. No one else was using the lift as there was no snow and the man in charge was confused about our intent.

When we reached the half way point of the mountain we surveyed the terrain for a suitable place to pitch our tent. We wanted somewhere flat but with a wind shield. We didn’t walk far to find a place partially shielded from the wind but also on a very limited incline. We were used to being pulled down hills in our sleep. This made for a good enough sleeping place.

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We quickly assembled the tent and loaded it with anything we had that was either not valuable of not required for a hike. This left us with a small bag containing passports and water. We made it our mission to reach the peak of one of the hill tops before sunset, and set about walking towards one. It was quite strange to see no other human up in the mountains as it seemed to us as though it would be quite an attraction to both locals and tourists. The views were incredible.

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In order to reach the top of the mountain we had to walk off any obvious path and walk across rock and shrubby land. The altitude made the walk harder than it would have otherwise been and we found ourselves to be breathless. Every few minutes we stopped to admire the views. Yet, the best view was found at the top.

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When we eventually did reach the top we had a perfect aerial view of the city below. It was similar to the view of a city you get from a descending airplane. It was then time to make our own descent before sunset. I was so happy that some hiking had been done in the Turkish mountains, I would have been a little upset if we hadn’t done any.

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We got back to our tent in good time to watch the sun set as we played cards outside. We were the only people around and this made for a great sense of freedom.

Once the sun escaped behind one of the peaks we began to feel the chill and wind of the night. It quickly became dark and we retired to our tent to eat out food. We had really budgeted today and found ourselves dipping bread in chocolate spread for dinner. We both stopped when it became sickly. Our bodies must love us right now.

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As the mountain was dark, the food eater, and the people inside knackered we found ourselves wrapped in our sleeping bags and wrapped up before 9pm. When planting the tent I got my angles slightly wrong which meant gravity pulled our feet into the corner of the tent during the night. I think Fletch got a bit concerned about how close this meant we became during the night. At one point in the night I had t brave the cold for a wee. This gave me an opportunity to admire the starry night sky.

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We did not wake up until 8am the next morning. Even though we felt like we had a good, and needed, night’s sleep we were aware that it wasn’t totally smooth.

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We had a short trek to the ski lift before making our way back to the town in time for some soup and bread. This gave us ample time to reach the bus station for our final Turkish leg: Hopa.

This meant that we spent very little time in Erzurum City, but more time in the mountains. I know that this would have been my choice anyway. A trip through Northern Turkey can not be complete without a hike in its abundance of mountains.

Amasya, Turkey: Hamam Washing by Some Rock Tombs

Amasya gave us exactly what we were looking for. We had become too accustomed to cities and needed a break from the concrete monuments and crowds of people (outside of Ankara). Amasya is a beautiful place, off the normal tourist trail, with an elegant river flowing between old Ottoman houses and lively riverside cafes. Yet, it’s biggest attraction is its age. At 7000 years old it offers mystique in its tomb caves and intrigue about the comings-and-goings of yesteryear.

That said, our initial arrival in Amasya was far from as romantically smooth as the city itself. Our coach had arrived 2 hours early and thus released us into the coach station at 4am. Reluctant to move on at such an hour we decided to sleep in our sleeping bags on the floor. At around 6am we woke with swarms of flies around us. We guessed that they, and everyone around us, knew that we had not washed or changed since Istanbul (not our choice).

After being offered pricey onward travel at the station we decided to risk walking into the city to find our next ticket. After a 45 minute walk we found out that there were no tickets cheaper in the city. I decided to use this opportunity to leave the bags with Fletch and walk back to the bus station with a free back to buy the onward tickets to Erzurum.

We had managed to stop for breakfast at a place owned by a man who used to live in Bristol. He very kindly gave us free tea with a chicken sandwich.

Once I got back to Fletch we dumped our bags with a lady who claimed to be a tourist information rep and moved on with our day. Usually we would have left our bags in our hostel room but we had decided to camp tonight.

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Our first stop were the famous Turkish baths. Not only did we want to experience these, but we were also in desperate need for a wash. We headed towards a hamam recommended to us by a local man. We were told to change into our underwear and head towards the steam room and sauna where we furiously bathed ourselves in warm, clean water. This was an extra special moment as the call to prayer echoed in the room from the mosque next door as we on our backs wallowing in cleanliness.

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We were to go from feeling very grubby to very clean indeed. The owner offered a massage to us, which we accepted. The massage turned out o be the human equivalent of a car wash. A middle aged man coated me in soap and foam and scrubbed my body from toe to head (certain body parts exempt). We made me as clean as I’ve ever been before ironing out the copious knots in my back and legs. It felt amazing to be clean once more. I don’t know who was more undignified: me getting a body wash from a middle aged man, or the man giving another man a wash. Unfortunately there are no photographs of this moment.

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Feeling fresh we then explored the town’s river side. We found a dried up waterfall (the fact that it was flowing fast in the morning made me sceptical about whether it was genuine…perhaps that’s because I had the wool pulled over my eyes too many times in China).

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We tried some food of Amasya origin, which turned out to be glorified omelettes before trying out tea in many of the riverside cafes. We were lucky enough to experience dinner at a cafe park where the locals seemed to be hanging out. Here we listened to some live music and drank more Turkish tea.

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As the sun went down, the lights turned on at the riverside. This meant that the wooden Ottoman houses lit above the river, and the cave tombs and castle that rose above us also lit the night sky. It was a fantastic sight. In fact. It reminded me much of Xiliang last year, and had a very similar feel.

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As the night sky was becoming littered with stars we decided it would be a good time to pitch our tent. We agreed to take a risk and camp beside the castle at the very top of the mountain. We had been told that it was accessible by road so flagged a taxi to get there. The taxi driver pulled the old trick of ‘my meter is broken’ and over charged us by a couple of pounds, I was a little annoyed at myself for falling of it.

The castle, situated upon tombs, was empty at night. So empty that the taxi driver hinted that we were mad to go to the top of the mountain in the dark, particularly as it is built on top of various tombs. This gave the forest around it an eerie feel. We found a spot about 200m from the castle, in what appeared to be a picnic spot. We quickly assembled the tent but were spotted by an angry dog. Thankfully for us the dog was tied to a tree, but its owners were not far away.

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In the dead of the night we had not removed every stone from beneath the tent. This made for an uncomfortable night, but we did get more sleep than the previous evening.

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The morning was a joy, ignoring the nearby cockerel. As I poked my sleepy head from the tent I was greeted with the most incredible view of Amasya from above, we were blessed. After putting away the tent and eating the breakfast we purchased the night before we walked down the mountain and dropped off our bags once more. We then climbed the more conventional route via the tomb caves. It was said that these are 5000 years old, which make them an amazing feat f engineering into a cliff face. At these spots we took time to admire both the tombs and the view that they looked out onto. Although we didn’t feel entirely safe facing a sheer drop we both maintained our balance.

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Since we felt Amasya had already spoilt us we tried to find a place to catch the Community Shield. We found a bar which was apparently run by Galatasary Ultras. This was a good bet. It turned out that they didn’t have the English football but, as we were in control of the TV, we caught up on Fenerbache’s midweek action. Our choice of match was not accepted by the ‘Ultras’ so we watched a German game instead. The Galatasary maniacs loved that we could name a few of their players and asked if we old come back later for Galatasary’s Super Cup gave against Fenerbache. They offered to reserve our seats as they converted their bar into a theatre. This old have been a great experience to watch but we had another bus to catch. As a result we watched the majority of the game with a station load of Galatasary fans at the coach station. They really love their football in Turkey.

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Amasya had provided us with a venue quite unique to the others on our trip so far. We thoroughly enjoyed being the only tourists around and were even asked ‘why are you here? English people go to the beaches in Turkey’. We took that as a big compliment.

Ankara, Turkey: Not Your Normal Capital City.

Having left the vibrancy of Istanbul we didn’t know what to expect from Turkey’s official capital city. I knew that it didn’t have the global appeal of Istanbul, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as uncharacteristic a capital city as I have ever experienced.

Our initial challenge was to purchase bus tickets from Istanbul. In order to do the we had to bargain with scores of bus companies in search for the cheapest deal. We gave ourselves lots of time and had fun scouring the different booths. It turned out that several companies liked to advertise for destinations that they didn’t go to. Neither of us saw much purpose in this, except frustrating themselves. We received a variety of reasons for buses being unable to take us to Ankara, the best being “Sorry, we are dead” (said with no hint of humour).

We eventually managed to get a ticket from a man who tried to set us both up with his young female colleague. It left an hour or so later so we had time for another Turkish tea.

The coach itself was relatively uneventful. We arrived in Ankara at about 6am and had time to book our onward travel arrangements, east towards Amasya.

It was then time to explore Turkey’s capital. We naturally asked a helpful bunch for directions to places of interest. They turned out to be the tourist information people (or so they said they were). When we asked one of the men responded “would you like a map?”, to which we nodded. His next response was “sorry, I don’t have a map”, leaving us both perplexed.

We eventually got into the eerily silent metro station. We questioned if any tube station in London, or even Istanbul, is ever empty at 8am on a Friday. The train hardly acquired any passengers before we got to the city centre. Here we spent a little time enjoying the fresh morning sun before heading towards a square for some much needed breakfast.

We put the quiet metro and empty streets down to the bank holiday weekend in light of the Eid celebrations, but it did not explain where all the people were. Nor did it explain the lack of attractive things to do in Ankara.

A man gave us advice on how to get to the mausoleum, but as this involved public transport we decided to walk it. Within an hour we had arrived at the shrine to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man referred to as the Father of the Turks. The mausoleum was heavily guarded by armed officers and our hands were perfumed as we entered the park leading towards it.

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Initially there are statues resembling the men and women of modern Turkey. They are followed by numerous lion statues as we approached a central square. By this time the sun was baking and there was not a cloud in the sky. This meant the marble floor below us becoming incredibly bright, so bright that we had to squint to even see.

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However, what we did see was something quite amazing. The mausoleum was a great structure which stood tall over the city below. Fletch even suggested that it outshines the Abraham Lincoln structure in Washington DC. I found myself staring at it in wonder.

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We quickly found ourselves inside the great museum outlining the history of the Turks, the influence of Ataturk, and Turkey’s interesting view of their enemies in World War 1. It’s actually amazing how ignorant we were, and perhaps still are. We found ourselves blinded as we entered the marble square from the dark rooms within and took a few snaps before leaving the area.

After we left we walked for quite a few miles in an attempt to take advantage of the city. We walked around a stadium and a few streets as we continued to travel by our trusty feet within the cities we visit.

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We stumbled upon a park where we intended to rest up for a while. We found a shady area to lie. Both of us found ourselves dozing off, until we eventually spent 2 and a half hours asleep. When we arose, the shady area that we fell asleep in was not so shady anymore. This showed that
the relentless pace of our trip was starting to catch up on us. Still, we don’t intend to sleep in a bed until we reach Georgia, such is our limited funds.

It was at this point that we realised where everyone in Ankara was during this long weekend: in this park! There were people everywhere and music blasting from a fun fair where lots of families were hanging out. In fact, people of all ages were here. We could see the draw of the park to people as it was actually quite beautiful. We decided to explore it but didn’t find ourselves queuing for the Ferris Wheel.

We managed to enjoy what remained of our day in Ankara by drinking tea and eating a small kebab. We also found time to visit the fair before getting the metro back to our bus station for night bus.

It may seem that we did not do much in Ankara, and in truth we didn’t. However, we are not sure there is much to do. It is certainly not what I think a capital should be like, and ‘Istanbul on Valium’ would be a compliment. Yet, I am glad we visited Ankara on our way through Turkey as I would always have wondered what it was like. Also, the mausoleum made the city worth visiting all by itself.

We were ready to move on from the cities and into the towns and mountains of Eastern Turkey.

Istanbul, Turkey: Incredible Madness

Istanbul is like no other city I’ve visited before. It’s vibrant, multicultural, entertaining, and utterly crazy. Istanbul often uses the tag line ‘East meets West’, which really sums it up perfectly. However, as the city is so vast, and we hardly scratched the surface in 2 days, I am hardly in a justified position to summarise the city.

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Upon receiving our map of the city we were slightly overwhelmed. We had no idea where to start. We decided to spend the first day exploring our side of the river, including Taksim Square and the Galata Tower. As our hostel was placed upon Istiklal Street (Istanbul’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées, Oxford street, or Beijing Lu) we were quickly able to find our bearings. We had also not considered the vast and steep hills that Istanbul positions itself on, which made for a bit of a work out.

Despite our desire to stay on our side of the Golden Horn until tomorrow we couldn’t resist venturing across the bridge from the lure of the magnificent mosques and the oodles of people heading that way. We eventually found ourselves walking around the busy spice market with all the sights, smells, and sounds you’d expect from any Silk Road market place. I must admit that I love this kind of atmosphere and its probably the only time that I am not bothered by slow moving people or inconsiderate stopping. In fact, Fletch has been the latest in a long line of people who have commented on my overly fast walking pace, I need to slow myself down. Within the spice market we stopped for some Turkish tea. It was to become a common excuse to sit and people watch throughout our stay in Istanbul, and will probably continue throughout Turkey.

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Without wanting to spoil the sights we intended to see tomorrow we headed back towards the other side of the Horn and got a great view of the famous Bosphorus, where it is obvious why Istanbul has been an influential city for centuries across so many empires.

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We ascended the mountain of a hill back towards Taksim square after looking around Besiktas’ football stadium. At the square we were able to see the remnants of the recent protests and were able to sneak a cheeky photo of the armed guards and water cannoned police vans. However, these only serve as a deterrent now.

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We explored the Isiklal by night where we saw and heard lots of fantastic buskers from all over the world. They really were impressive. It was a great atmosphere around the street, but we ventured down a few side streets to get our cut price dinner from a Kebab man, budget remaining very tight.

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Feeling adventurous we headed by metro to a random stop beyond the centre of the city, hoping to see some ‘real life’ beyond the ludicrous in the centre. However, we ended up meeting more armed guards with triggers on their guns and observing a highway with another cup of Turkish Tea.

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The next morning we woke up excited. We were going to be seeing the major tourist and historic destinations of the city. After being provided breakfast by our hostel owner we headed up a hill and down another to reach the river once more and head across towards the Topkapi, the Hippodrome, and the Aya Sofya mosque.

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It’s fair to say that the mosques in Istanbul are marvellous. Reading up on them made us realise that the different periods of history in Istanbul tried to outdo each other by building bigger and better mosques.

Perhaps the most spectacular part of the day came when we visited the Blue Mosque, with its staggering 6 sky scrapping minarets. It was said that the size of the mosque and its influential positioning made some people believe it might have rivalled that of Mecca. That might be taking it a bit too far.

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We arrived at the mosque just in time for the prayer call. This sounds fantastic on the streets but hearing it within the walls of the mosque is really something quite special, and spine tingling. In their streams people came to the mosque to worship as we admired the ritual. Hearing the prayer call in one of the worlds biggest mosques during Ramadan is something amazing.

After a quick look at the Ottoman remains in this part of the city we headed towards to Grand Bazaar to see the worlds biggest marketplace. I was genuinely excited about this prospect, particularly as I left a flip flop in someone’s car/truck/van. Yet, as it was the first day of Eid, the Grand Bazaar was shut, and we weren’t able to take in that special part of the city. Still, we we able to take a little nap on a bench instead. Classy pair.

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Our next stop was another massive mosque of Suleymaniye Camii, we were able to enter the mosque at the point as the next prayer was not due until 5pm. The interior was quite spectacular, and incredibly beautiful. We were politely asked to leave before the next prayer call.

Instead of heading the normal route out of the mosque we took another exit. This lead us onto a series of streets that seem unexplored by tourists. I was here that we saw some people living in poverty and another side to Istanbul that is not too far from the riches of the main part of the city. Yet, about 1km later we were back on the river and into the madness once more.

At this point, after the prayers, there were people everywhere. We had a bit of a struggle getting to the over side of the river through the crowds but eventually made it. We were then able to climb our hill back the the Taksim. At which point we realised how much we had walked, quite unnecessarily given the ample public transport system here. Still, saving the pennies.

With our bags in storage we headed down a back street where we saw the vibrant night life beginning, with music and the odd clink of beer glasses. We decided on a more substantial meal this time, without spending over a couple of pounds. I also really craved a yoghurt. Perhaps we hadn’t had enough calcium.

It was beginning to get late so we grabbed our bags and jumped on a nearby tram in the the direction if the bus station. Our stay in Istanbul had been brief, but eye-opening and ultimately unforgettable.

Hitching to Istanbul, Turkey

It seems that every hitch comes with a story and each day on the road becomes more exciting. Our venture to Istanbul today took its toll on our bodies, both physically and emotionally, but made the relief of arriving in this fabulous city much more euphoric than taking the simple route.

We started off with little idea about our route out of Plovdiv, since little research had gone into getting there in the first place. We walked what must have been 2 miles beyond the main city to a small stretch of road where the few people we saw on horse-and-cart couldn’t reach us. That would have been an interesting ride.

Once we did reach the main road we were picked up quite quickly. The man who pulled over spoke a little English and agreed to take us about 100km of our 450km trip under one condition. The condition was that we stop off in a village on route and help him pick fruit. We both knew that this would significantly dent our time, but this is the kind of reason why we were hitch hiking: to do something different.

We parked up in a shady area and climbed a wall to reach an overgrown garden with lots of semi-ripe fruit. He gave some reason for getting an axe out to sort a tree whilst we went about picking plums from a tree for a liquor. We thoroughly enjoyed it, except avoiding the wasps. When the tree was naked we moved onto the peaches. He made us eat a couple but warned us to look at the fruit we eat in case it had ‘friends’ in it. I didn’t see any if there were any.

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He kindly dropped us outside the town of Hoscova after exchanging email addresses, but kept us on the right road.

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It was then two hitches in quick succession. The first a large man with a people carrier who took us 20km with no verbal exchange, and the other a lumberjack with a sharp tool kit who dropped us 20k from the border of Turkey.

At this point we were confident that we were going to get a quick hitch. However, the traffic had dried up, as had our water supply. What made this point harder was that we were standing in 40 degree heat beside newly laid Tarmac. This concoction made for brutal temperatures on our faces, and we were quickly wilting. We probably waited at this point about an hour before we realised we had nowhere to get our water, and nowhere to pitch a tent if it started to get dark. We were both so hot that we were concerned about heat stroke and covered our heads with clothing.

We decided to start walking along the road in search of water. About 1km later we noticed a garage and we both celebrated in our own heads until we actually reached the garage. Here we found a very grumpy police officer and a derelict shop. No water.

We were no faced with walking numerous miles with in the baking heat, with no water and no idea how far we needed to walk. It sounds dramatic but we really were in a bit of a pickle. Neither of us admitted that we were a bit concerned…but we have since confirmed that we were thinking the same thing.

Still, being warriors, we continued hiking along the road, getting abused by people in air conditioned Mercedes’. We must of walked about 10km and we were close to being defeated. I had resorted to poking my tongue out in a desperate attempt to gain moisture in my dry mouth. We prayed for something to pick us up as we walked with a wounded thumb out.

We saw a sign ahead that we hoped with give us some idea about how much further we had to endure our walk, or perhaps until one of us passed out. The sign had no distance, and it appeared all hope was lost.

However, as it always does, luck stuck. A man had overheated in front of us and pulled over to cool his car. We approached him and immediately asked for water, quite desperately. He told us that he had no water and had a problem with his car. Fletch then had the bright idea of asking him for a lift when his car is cooled. Fletch didn’t even wait for the response before parking his substantial rucksack in front of the man’s car. We had effectively hijacked a hitch. He was not going to drive anywhere without us. This meant we had demanded a lift in this mans car. Thankfully he did let us in his car and took us to the border, an additional 8 ish km….we would probably not have made it.

At the border he wanted us out of his car so asked us to cross by foot. This was a new concept for the people at the Turkish border and the customs officers loved that we queued up with the cars. They enjoyed welcoming us to Turkey and must’ve wondered how people were on foot at this particular border crossing.

However, despite a scary experience, we had successfully hitched into Turkey. It was now an issue of getting the additional 200km to Istanbul. It was now approaching 6pm and looking like a bridge too far before nightfall.

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Our first hitch in Turkey offered to take us to the first city, Edirne. We jumped in and arrived within the city at 6:30. We were forced to make a decision: stay in Edirne or risk it and go for Istanbul. We took the risk.

We ended up back on the motorway at around 7:30 and I decided to run to the next exit to pick up some supply’s for the night. We agreed that we would hitch until we got a bite, no matter how long it took. In fact, there are so many relationships between hitch hiking and fishing. So often you feel like you have a bite, you are teased by drivers (fish) and get a fantastic feeling when you eventually reel one in, which could take minutes or hours.

Still, tonight was our lucky night (so much luck). I strolled back towards fletch with night supplies (an almost beaten man) and as I did so a man pulled in after noticing Fletch’s outstretched thumb.

He was not a trucker, not even a mentalist, he was a normal Turkish man with a modern, air-conditioned car. He offered to take us all the way to Istanbul! Amazing!

We sat comfortably in disbelief for an hour and a half until he made himself even more saintly. Instead of dropping us on the motorway he drove right into the centre of Istanbul (well out of his way as he was going to Ankara) and dropped us at Taksim Square. We were overwhelmed.

A few weeks ago I was told that you would avoid the protests in Istanbul if you avoided Taksim Square, yet this was our first sight. Thankfully there are only armed police to remind us of the protests now. We had a cheeky kebab before making our final hike towards our hostel.

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Reaching our dorm beds brought as much relief as it did delight. However, realising that we had successfully hitch hiked from Budapest to Istanbul via 4 countries and 21 vehicles. We had achieved the first mission in our quest to reach the Caspian Sea, and a day like today made victory feel so sweet. Thank you, Eastern Europe….What have you got, Asia?

Hi Chloe Thornback.