Summary of the trip 2005

Country: Turkey

Dates: 02 - 19 / 05 / 2005

Stops: Istanbul > Erzurum > Trabzon (Sumela) > Uzungol > Ayder > Bahral > Yusufeli > Erzurum > Kars


ISTANBUL : 2-5 / 05 / 2005
I flew into Istanbul from Stuttgart (Germanwings) where I visited some friends and arrived in the middle of the night. I waited at the airport for dawn, which turned out to be very foggy. A taxi took me and other travellers to a bus stop in Pendik, from where we got a bus to Kadikoy and a ferry across to Eminönü. The fog had cleared as we crossed the strait. I ordered my Georgian visa, met Corinne (girlfriend of one of my cousins), visited a bit more this great city and after a few days, flew with Onur Air to Erzurum. Cheap and fast, the train would have taken ages, and there's no way I'd go such a long way in a bus.

ERZURUM : 5-7 / 05 / 2005
In Erzurum, the trip really started. I ordered my iranian visa from the friendly consulate, and was told to call or come back in 10 days "to know if the application has been accepted". I visited the sights in Erzurum (mosques, citadel, medressa...). The location is amazing : at 2000 m on the Anatolian steppe, with snow capped mountains north and south, it was cold even May. This wild open steppe made me feel that I was already a world away. It reminded me of some places like Aba in the Tibetan regions of Sichuan (China).

TRABZON 7-9 / 05 / 2005
Across more steppe, over a mountain pass or two, the scenery became more forrested and greener as we approached the Black Sea and Trabzon. Warmer than Erzurum, Trabzon is knowed for the nearby ruins of the Sumela greek monastery. In Trabzon, the byzantine church Aya Sofia is also very interesting.

UZUNGOL - AYDER : 9-11 / 05 / 2005
I continued to Uzungol, which looked so idyllic on postcards and posters. A small village in a lovely valley, near a lake, with a picturesque mosque on a green pasture. What a disapointment ! Bulldozers were working day long "reshaping" the lake, piling up heaps of mud on the shore. The blue colour of the lake and the green of the pasture on it's shore had turned brown with mud. Only from the distance it looked OK.Even the guesthouse was not very welcoming. The next stop was more friendly, and more untouched : Ayder. With 2 israeli travellers, we considered hiking over a pass to another valley, but it was still too snowy, so we skipped that.

BARHAL - YUSUFELI : 11-14 / 05 / 2005
Instead I continued by bus. The road along the coast is not very nice, as most of the coast has been set in concrete to accomodate the new coastal highway. Then from Hopa, the bus turned inland, climbing amongst green tea covered slopes, and escaping the coastal fog. Passing Artvin, impressively perched on a mountainside, I arrived in Yusufeli and continued up the valley up to Bahral, where I stayed in a very nice guesthouse next to a Georgian Church (Bahral is in one of the so-called "Georgian valleys"). The far end of this valley is spectacular with snow capped mountains, villages and cherry trees in full bloom.

ERZURUM : 14-17 / 05 / 2005
Then I went back to Erzurum. I had to wait a few more days for my iranian visa (total wait in fact 10 working days, cost = 50€). I met Osman and Kadir, local students and had a nice time with them and their friends. I also met Magnus from Norway and Simon from New-Zealand.

KARS : 17-19 / 05 / 2005
With my iranian visa in the passport, I could continue to Kars, further to the East. Many sights : a citadel with a great view, a Georgian church, a part of town with small old houses, a museum with train wagon in which a peace deal was sign in the 1920s between Russia and Turkey, a Russian orthodox church turned into a mosque....

I chose to enter Georgia from Posof. Near Posof passes the new pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, visible as a scar on the hillsides. From Posof, I got a lift to the border post by friendly locals working there.

Turkey was as good as I found it 4-5 years ago : easy to find transport and hotels, good food, nice people, but it had become more expensive.

Country: Georgia

Dates: 19 / 05 - 03 / 06 / 2005

Stops: Akhaltsikhe > Batumi > Kutaisi > Tbilissi (Mtskheta, Gori) > Kazbegi > Tbilissi > Telavi > Tbilissi


AKHALSTIKHE : 19-20 / 05 / 2005
This border post was quiet indeed. No queues here, just me. That also meant no transport on the georgian side. But fortunately, some locals were there waiting for the surely very rare travellers on foot, and gave me a lift to Akhaltsikhe for 10 USD. The road, all stones and pebbles was so bad you cannot even talk about potholes and bumps, except for a couple of stretches (max a few 100s m) where you could still see some remains of aged tarmac (so there was a road in the past). The past is not so far ago, it's the soviet union. These days, the country has a hard time keeping up with road maintenance.

The lads dropped me where I could change money (and pay them) and then took me to the hotel, making sure they had room before saying goodbye. Akhatsikhe (took me a while to get the prononciation approximately right) is a quiet small town, from which I visited the Sapara monastery, set in very forrested surroundings.From Akhatsikhe, I wanted to go to Batumi on a road shown on maps along the Turkish border, but people told me "there is no road that way". And if they say that, I believe them, considering what the road from the border was like. So I went via Khasuri, even though it meant backtracking later on.

BATUMI : 20-22 / 05 / 2005
Batumi is located on the Black Sea coast, on a background of hills and even a few snow capped peaks. Boats depart from here to Sochi in Russia, and town is busy as the main border with Turkey is not far. It's a lively town with nice architecture, an armenian church, a mosque (Batumi is in Adjara, a province where Islam is the main religion since the Ottoman occupation). Here I found Magnus by chance (I had met him in Erzurum). As he left for Kutaisi, I went to visit an old Roman fort between town and the Turkish border.

KUTAISI : 22-24 / 05 / 2005
Next day, I also took a train to Kutaisi. Very very slow train, with some chickens somewhere in the wagon, but the sound of it, and some worried sounding ducklings in a box or a girl's lap behind me. And in Kutaisi, small world, I found Magnus again by chance while walking around. We met the lads running the internet cafe and went with them to visit the Gelati monastery. In the evening, they invited us to their familly "to taste the wine and have a small dinner". The result was a several hour long dinner, loads of food and endless toasting. Georgian food is very tasty, the wine was also very good, we had an excellent evening (story to come about this).

TBILISSI and around : 24-29 / 05 / 2005
A faster train then took us to Tbilissi. Like most travellers, we went to the famous "Nasi Guesthouse", run by German speaking Nasi. She is a retired German teacher, putting up travellers in her home to top up her income. Don't enter the home with your shoes, don't be too many people on the balcony and don't go out in a bunch (neighbours might see), don't come back after 11pm (the gate will be locked), etc... Nevermind, good atmosphere and good location. We met Simon (who was also in Erzurum and more travellers). Also, we were lucky to be there for the Georgian Independence Day: fireworks, military parades, big concert on the square Tavisuplebis Moedani.

While in Tbilissi, I went for some day trips, including Mtskheta (Jvari church on a hill, overlooking a gracious ben of the river below). I also went to Gori, birthplace of the Stalin. You can visit the Stalin birth-house, the Stalin museum, see the statue of Stalin on Stalin square, which is at the end of Stalin Avenue. I ordered my visa for Armenia, as the staff wrongly said that you cannot get it at the border, as I found later. With Magnus, Simon, two Davids (one swede and one aussie), we squeezed in a Lada to go and visit the Davit-Gareja monastery near the Azeri border.

KAZBEGI : 29 / 05 - 01 / 06 / 2005
Then we went together to Kazbegi, up north into the Caucasus mountains. We had now decided that we made up the "Inch'Allah team". They had travelled in Jordan before, and like in Turkey, the frequent answer to "when is the bus leaving ? " is for example "may be about 4 o'clock, inch'Allah" (God willing). So our principle was the same : go and see what happens, inch'Allah it will be good. Nasi introduced us to Vano, who runs a guesthouse in Kazbegi and we all hired a minibus together. Easy. On the way there, the scenery is wonderful, passing the Ananuri monastery, the Zhinvali reservoir, then gradually going up into the mountains on the Georgian Military Highway. Before the snowy Jvari pass (2676m), a strange soviet memorial celebrates the friendship of Georgian and Russian people.

In Kazbegi, the weather was very changing. A spectacular thunderstorm, with heavy rain and lightning bolts hitting the Tsminda Sameba on the hill gave way to some sunshine. We went up to the church, and when the sky cleared, the view was amazing. Surely one of the most beautiful places I have seen on this trip. The valley, the church itself on its hill, Mount Kazbek, the flowers on the meadow... superbe. We also walked along the road to the border post. Unfortunately, this border crossing is only for locals. Chechnya is not far, it's a sensitive area on the other side....

TBILISSI / TELAVI : 1-3 / 06 / 2005
Back in Tbilissi, they continued to Armenia, while I went to Telavi for 2 days (more Georgian churches including the very big Alaverdi cathedral and a persian style palace inside the Batonistsikhe castle). Then I came back to Tbilissi and also went on to Armenia, crossing at Sadakhlo.

Country: Armenia

Dates: 03 - 14 / 06 / 2005

Stops: Alaverdi > Sevan > Yerevan (and around) > Sisian > Goris (Tatev) > Meghri


ALAVERDI : 3-4 / 06 / 2005
Easy border crossing and on to my first stop in Armenia : the small town of Alaverdi. Part of town (including the mining industry) is along the main road, in the deep canyon-like valley. To go to the main square, where the hotel is located, you have to take a cable car to the plateau above the valley. The plateau is in fact tucked between some mountains and the edge of the valley. Here is the actual town : decrepit appartment blocks, potholed streets, and few cars (most people come on foot by cable car, though a windy road also exists). The hotel is a big concrete monster of a building. However, the reception is one simple small wooden table in the hall, staffed by a friendly lady. Only one floor is working, there is no hot water, only cold water and only in the morning. Near Alaverdi, I visited two monasteries. At the first one, I met a local painter using not brushes but byros of different colours, giving some very nice results. I mentionned the water problem of the hotel and as we walked between water-filled potholes and muddy roadsides, and he said "I am sorry, my country not very comfortable". The weather when I was in Alaverdi was quite bad : grey and rainy, but this was going to be the last rain I'd see for several months....

SEVAN : 4-5 / 06 / 2005
Next day, I continued to Sevan, via Vanazdor. Sevan is the town near the lake of the same name, at 1900m. The landscape here is more open than the canyon at Alaverdi. Near the lake are two more old monasteries (Sevanavank and Hayravank), with very fine carved crosses ("khatchkars"). The churches are as always located in very scenic surroundings.

YEREVAN and around : 05-10 / 06 / 2005
Yerevan was then just a few hours away by marshrutka (minubus). Here I met again with the "inch'Allah" team (see above). We had dinner at a soviet themed restaurant, and went out quite a bit, since Yerevan has many nice outdoor cafes, and a good relaxed atmosphere. I stayed for 5 days in Yerevan, visiting sights in the city (including the memorial to the Armenian genocide), and nearby. These included Khor Virap, a monastery by the turkish border, as near as you can be to Mount Ararat while in Armenia. I also went to Garni (restored greek temple, basalt columns), Geghard (monastery with chapels carved in the cliffside). One of the chapels has exceptional accoustics and when I was there, a woman and a man were singing. Beautiful indeed. I went to talk to them. They were teachers with their school group on day excursion. I was in the company of an english tourist and they invited us to share a few toasts and some food. Great afternoon, it was funny, as the driver put some music, to see them all singing and dancing in the bus on the way back, while in Europe, the teachers would have told everyone to be seated and be quiet. I also went to Ashtarak and Echmiadzin, near Yerevan

SISIAN : 10-11 / 06 / 2005
The next stop, further south, was the small town of Sisian. The scenery on the way is beautiful : green meadows, yellow and white flowers, snow on highest hills, a nice lake to reflect the blue sky. People in the marshrutka were very talkative and very cheerful, sharing beer and toasting. One of them, from Russia, was going to visit his mother in Goris. I stopped in Sisian first. Next day, I got a lift to Goris (thanks to a policeman who, seing no bus was coming, asked a truck driver if he could take me).

GORIS : 11-13 / 06 / 2005
From Goris, I went to visit the monastery of Tatev. I stayed in a friendly homestay in Goris, and the owner helped find a lift (in a very shaky old truck) to the village of Halinadzor, from which I walked on. Tatev is a few kilometers away, and I missed two cars that passed while I was checking view points away from the road. Fortunately, as I was going up the last stretch, steep and exposed to the sun, a car stopped (an old Lada or Zhiguli or something like that). Too bad, already full, 3 at the front, and I could not see how many at the back. So it continued. But was it really full after all ? no... of course. Some 20 m further, the driver stopped stopped again and called me "you can sit next to me". So I squeezed in, and off we went. Again, very cheerful and talkative people. I was too squeezed at the front to know exactly how many of them were at the back, may be 4 or 5. Tatev monastery was well worth the trip, perched on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the valley. I met some local people who had come from a nearby village, and had some food with them. I also met two american girls working for an NGO in Yerevan, and they gave me a lift back to Goris.

MEGHRI : 13-14 / 06 / 2005
Next day, I took a marshurtka to Meghri, and met again the russian man from two days before. Also in this minibus was a other traveller, from France. On the way to Meghri, passing some impressive mountain passes, the scenery became drier. Around Meghri, mountain sides are barren, taking an orange colour in the evening. We went for the "last beer for a month" in a small cafe (no alcohol in Iran ... well not officially at least). We were joined by two bored unemployed local young guys. They said on the table next to us were russians working at the border post. The border point Armenia-Iran is indeed staffed by russian officers. Next day, one of the women in charge of the passport stamping recognised me : friendly, smiley exit from Armenia.

Country: Iran

Dates: 14 / 06 - 13 / 07 / 2005

Stops: Tabriz > Zanjan > Teheran > Damavand > Teheran > Kashan > Sharood > Gonbad > Sari > Teheran > Mashhad


TABRIZ : 14-15 / 06 / 2005
A few hundred meters from the Armenian checkpoint, a bridge and we entered the modern hall of the Iranian customs. It took them a while to return the stamped passports and then we tackled the transport problem : only taxis.... After some unfair negociations (as they knew we've no alternative), we agreed on a price and we taken at a scary speed to the small town of Jolfa. A welcome to Iran with some hair-rising full speed overtaking with no visibility or in the face of incoming traffic. Shared taxis (savari) were then easy to find to Tabriz, second "node" (city already passed during the trip 2000-2001, like Istanbul).

It's good I stopped in Tabriz, because I did not recall visiting much last time. The bazaar is huge, seemingly endless maze of lanes lined with shops and workshops. Town is very very busy, and the traffic is crazy after, quite maddening compared to quiet country roads of Armenia. We met some students, including Ali who (besides azeri and farsi) spoke perfect french and was delighted to be able to practice. In the evening, he took us to Elgoli park, famous for it's lovely pavillion built in the middle of an artificial lake, with fountains all lit up around it. Super sight. Then Ali insisted that we come to his parent's house for some dinner. What a welcome for the first day in Iran !

ZANJAN : 15-16 / 06 / 2005
Next was Zanjan, about half way to Teheran. Tabriz-Zanjan is about the same distance as north-south of Armenia. Iran is not only a change of culture, it's a change of scale too. In Zanjan, I met up with Nicolas, again by chance (french guy met in Yerevan and before that in Tbilissi). With other travellers, we had dinner in a beautiful traditional restaurant in a former caravanserai, on the sound of live iranian music. I also went to Takht-e-Soleiman, a huge mausoleum about 30 km outside Zanjan.

TEHERAN : 16-20 / 06 / 2005
On my last trip, I did not go to Teheran, not being a great fan of huge cities. This time, no choice : it's on my way to Turkmenistan and I need visas. It's sometimes hard to find out about local transport in big places, but fortunately, in Iran, people are so friendly they offer help very spontaneously when they see a hesitating foreigner. So I made it to the hotel using bus and metro from the main bus-station where I had arrived. My priority was to get the Uzbek visa sorted, so I could apply for the transit visa for Turkmenistan.

Teheran is big, very big, huge, immense and getting around takes ages. The hotel is in the centre-south, and embassies and consulate are in the nicer suburbs in the north of town. Too bad. The traffic is absolutely mad, the metro is packed, hot and not frequent enough to cope (10 min between two trains). The polluted air, the heat in the transport and the visa paperwork : it's hell. Fortunately again, locals are super-friendly and really do go out of their way to help.

Friday and Saturday are the days-off for muslims, consulates were closed, so I did some sightseeing, starting.... by escaping town. I went to Darband, north of town, at the foot of the mountains (nice trails, waterfalls, excellent). I also visited the Golestan palace. Then Sunday, back on my priority task : the Uzbek consulate (north of town). Ah... I need a letter from the french embassy. OK, where are they ? in the centre. Back in the bus and metro. Got that letter same day, but Uzbek consulate closed in the afternoon, so back the day after. Another trip all the way to the north of town, one and half hour (metro and bus). I dropped my application, and was told the visa would be ready in 3-4 days. Then it was time for some fresh air ...

MOUNT DAMAVAND - 20-22 / 06 / 2005
A long metro-bus-trolleybus ride to the Teheran "East Terminal" and the bus to Reyneh was just leaving. In the company of a swiss guy, we went to the slopes of the tallest mountain in Iran : Mt Damavand, 5671m. First stop at about 3000m, second stop at about 4200m in a small shelter. I did not go to the top because I don't have the right gear. At 4000m, it was really windy and cold. On the way down, in the company of iranian people, we made many stops to enjoy the views of the mountain on a foreground of red poppies.

TEHERAN - 22-23 / 06 / 2005
Back in Teheran, my Visa Uzbek was sorted, it only took 3 days. I dropped my passport and 75 USD (one month visa), went to visit Niyavaran (former residence of the Shah). A few hours later, I picked up my passport with with the visa in it. One visa sorted, but too late for the Turkmen consulate, and next day was Friday, everything closed, so I left Teheran.

KASHAN : 23-25 / 06 /2005
I went toKashan, a town with several very nice traditional houses, with green courtyards and fountains. In the old streets, walls are made of dry mud, and windtowers capture the breeze to cool the houses below, like in Yazd. Certainly one of the most beautiful cities in Iran. The bazaar was great, and I could even go on the roof.

TEHERAN : 25-27 / 06 /2005
Back again in Teheran to order the Turkmen visa, and told it would take 7-10 days. I also took the chance to visit the former summer residence of the Shah (Sa'd Abad museum complex).

SHAROOD : 27 / 06 - 02 / 07 / 2005
I went then by bus to Sharood to meet my friend Sahar and her familly, whom I had met 4 years earlier when I was travelling in Isfahan. I spend several days with her familly, and they took me to many great places around Sharood, including the pretty village of Mojan, the mausoleum of Abolhassan (a mystic who lived several 100s years ago and could speak to and tame animals), and the village Bastam with the Bayazid mausoleum. Bayazid was also a mystic who lived 100 year before Abolhassan. We also went for a full day excursion / picnic in the mountains with the whole familly :the cousins, uncles and aunts (see day out in Iran for details). Excellent day ! My stay in Sharood was great, very relaxing, and Sahar's mum made really good iranian dishes.I also went to one of Sahar's daily english lessons.

GONBAD : 02 - 04 / 07 / 2005
I then took the bus to Gonbad to meet Fariborz and his friend Mr Dadkhah, whom I had met on the slopes of Damavand. They took me to Abbasabad park near Beshar (Safavid ruins), to Gorgan gulf for a short boat trip and a swim, and to finish the day, to a night time picnic near a small mausoleum near Minudasht. The day after, we visited some ruins near Gonbad, and we went to see a turkmen yurt. This area of Iran is populated by many turkmen people (like my friend Fariborz and his friend Nemat). We also went to a very nice and modern swimming pool, and Mr Dadkhah arranged that I could meet his brother in Sari, when I said I wanted to break my trip back to Teheran.The north of Iran along the Caspian sea is very green, a big change compared to the scenery from Teheran to Sharood a few days before.

SARI - 04 - 05 / 07 /2005
I spent one night in Sari at the house of Mr Dadkhah's brother. We went for a cup of tea on the coast in the evening. In Iran, petrol is cheap, and they don't hesitate to drive 30 km for a cup of tea and 30 km back.

TEHERAN : 05 - 10 or 11 / 07 /2005
Back again one more time in Teheran, I went to the turkmen consulate, thinking it'd be the last time I had to suffer the transports in the heat of buses and metros. But no, they said I should come back next day and my visa will be ready. I spent the rest of the say with Farnaz, cousin of Sahar from Sharood. We had some lunch in my favorite part of Teheran : in fact just outside Teheran : Darband, that lovely spot at the foot of the mountains. Then I met her parents and stayed for dinner, experiencing once more the unequalled iranian hospitality. We had planned to spend more time together but unfortunately, they had a call that a relative had died and they had to leave to go to the funeral. Next day, I picked up my turkmen visa. I visited a few more places south of Teheran, including Rey (very nice mausoleum), the Shrine to Emam Khomeini, and the cemetery to the victims of the war with Irak (or the "war imposed on Irak" as they call it).

MASHHAD : 11 - 13 / 07 /2005
After the most expensive and most confortable train ride possible in Iran (900 kmm for 15 euros, including dinner and breakfast), I arrived in Mashhad. This is a very very religious city, an important pilgrimage town and many shiites from all over Iran and also from Irak come here to pray at the mausoleum of Emam Reza. Hotels were all packed and town was really busy. It is forbidden to take photos in the mausoleum complex, but the sight of a courtyard-full of people praying in unisson is unforgettable. I also visited the tomb of Ferdosi, a famous iranian poet. Then it was time to move on..... to Sovietistan...

Country: Turkmenistan

Dates: 13 - 17 / 07 / 2005

Stops: Ashgabat > Konye-Urgench

Comments:just transit unfortunately. Ashgabat : very weird city, megalomaniac president with posters and statues of himself everywhere, huge fountains, .... Women in very bright and elegant long robes, big change from black chadors in Mashhad. Long long trip across the Karakum desert. Friendly people and colourful bazaars.

Country: Uzbekistan

Dates: 17 / 07 - 06 / 08 / 2005

Stops: Khiva > Bukhara > Samarkand (Shakhrisabz) > Tashkent > Kokand > Fergana > Andijan

Comments:old historical and legendary cities. I took my time in Samarkand and then in Tashkent sorting out some more visas (Kirgiztan and Kazakhstan, quickly done). Tashkent is a soviet design sort of city with wide avenues, parks and big buildings. In Kokand, I was invited to a familly : beautiful house, very kind. Fergana - Andijan (more details coming)

Country: Kyrgyzstan

Dates: 06 / 08 - 05 / 09 /2005


Comments:arrived in Osh, and straight away invited by a local girl on her way to her mother's home in Gulcha. We went together to the Jailoos (mountain steppe) near Sary Tash where we spent a night in a yurt at 3200 m not far from the Tadjik border. Loads of Kimiz (mare's milk), some mutton, some rain (not had any in 2 months)... at the foot of the snowy wall-like Alay mountain range. Next stop was in Arslanbap (village in the mountains). Then Bishkek with some more visa problems : for a russian transit visa, I need train tickets in and out, so I opted for a tourist visa (got my letter of invitation via the internet, 30 USD...)... The Russian consulate is only open for visa requests on Tuesday and Thursday 14.30 to 15.30. Went to Lake Issyk-Kul (great swim on a beach, with mountains in the distance) and then to the mountains (spent a night with a familly who pick mushroom for a living, selling them at the bazaar). Then, Bishkek again, russian visa is ordered. After that, I went to Karakol and for a hike in the mountains (nice hotsprings, great scenery but not very good weather). Borskoon, a small village was next, followed by Kochkor. There, I went for 2 days of horse riding. Monday 5th, russian visa sorted, they accepted to let me get it although it's normally only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Country: Kazakhstan

Dates: 05 - 14 / 09 /2005


Comments:BIG difference in costs compared to Kyrgyzstan. Interesting city, big, rich, green, and friendly. Pity it's so expensive to stay here, it's a nice city. A smooth ride in a night train and I arrived in Shymkent (big bazar, and I was invited to a wedding dinner). Turkistan, the next stop, has some nice architecture, a mausoleum with blue tiles. Then a very special place : Aralsk, a former port on the now remote Aral sea. I could see the rusting wrecks on the former seabed in the harbour. I continued by night train to Aktobe, and from there I had another train in the night to Samara, Russia.

Country: Russia

Dates: 15 / 09 / 2005 - 02 / 10 / 2005


Comments:I entered Russia by train and they forgot to give me a piece of paper at the border. I spent a full day chasing it between several hidden obscure offices, and finally ending up at the airport (thanks Olya and James for the help). Read full story here. Next was Kazan, absolutely beautiful city, celebrating it's 1000 years this year. I was very impressed, it's the most beautiful city I passed during this trip. I continued to Nizhni-Novgorod, also nicely situated on the shore of the Volga river. I am now in Moscow, exactly at the same date as 5 years ago ! Volgograd has an impressive recent history : site of a major battle against the Nazis. Big ( I mean BIG !!!) monuments and memorials, very impressive. I continued to Astrakhan : nice Kremlin. I am now in Elista, capital of the Kalmak republic, the only Buddhist people on this side of the Caspian sea. Kalmak people are asian looking and related to Buryat people (and remotely to Mongolians). They are buddhist, and I saw here a tibetan buddhist temple, amazing so far from Tibet or Mongolia. Stalin deported 1/3 of Kalmak people and most of their heritage was destroyed. The temple I saw is new, but it's very interesting to be here. I skipped the mountains of the Caucausus, and I stopped in Gelendjik on the Black Sea for a swim. I exited Russia in Port Kavkaz. Russia was difficult. Hotel staff is sometimes unfriendly and the police is corrupt (read "the russian police : "you have a present?". They kept asking for a "present" (I always pretended not to understand, and they did not insist too much). Most were curious about my trip and gave up with the "present", some showed me their computer where they were playing "tactical ops" and gave me travel advice. However the last ones, at the border, said I should pay a fine because I had more than 3 days without a hotel stamp on the immigration card. A new rule... ? never heard that one before. I ended up paying a bribe of 500 R (15 Euros), which I bet they'll spend in vodka with their colleagues.

Country: Ukraine

Dates: 02 - 18 / 10 / 2005

Stops: FEODOSIYA - YALTA - ALUPKA - SEVASTOPOL (Foros, Balaklava, Bakhchisaray) - ODESSA - KIEV - LVOV

Comments: Entered Ukraine by boat in Port Krim. At last a normal country, what a relief after Russia. Here no visa, no more hassle with registrations and police. Sights are signposted, much more welcoming. Today 02/10, it's been 5 months travelling, when I started in Istanbul. Feodosiya is a pleasant small town. I took a boat tour along the coast near Koktebel : impressive rock formations and cliffs of the remains of a volcano (Karadag). Then I continued west : beautiful scenery along the windy, hilly coastal road. In Yalta, I visited the palace where the 1945 conference took place. There is also not far a cable-car that takes you 1200 m high, with great views on the Black sea. Next was Alupka, small village, from where I moved on to Sevastopol : very interesting city (history, russian Black Sea Fleet, Crimean war memorials...). Nearby are interesting sights (a church on top of a cliff in Foros, beautiful coastline near the small harbour of Balaklava, and Khan Palace in turkish architecture in Bakhchisaray). I came to Odessa by night train. Here : tree lined streets, Potemkin stairs, Pushkin museum,...). Kiev is very very nice, but the weather has not been so nice (cold and wet). Many churches and monasteries, war memorials, good nightlife (people walking around with a beer in their hand, listening to street musicians). Now : Lvov, nice town but very bad weather (cold, wet and windy). From Lvov, bus to the polish border, very slow crossing, loads of people pushing while waiting in the cold wind.

Country: Poland

Dates: 18 - 20 / 10 / 2005

Stops: Krakow

Comments:last stop : Krakow, and it's sunny ! I am visiting polish friends I met in Kirgyzstan. Flight on the 20th in the morning to France via London. END OF THE TRIP




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