25 September 2013

Cavorting in the Caucasus

I started writing this article in Yerevan, Armenia. It is my last full day here, and tonight I am flying back to Berlin after 16 days of being on the road. My trip started in August 7, when I flew from Berlin to Yerevan via Vienna. And as my trip is about to end, I am wrapping up the things that have happened for the past 2 weeks in this overview post.

This is the second trip I have done in which I went with no set plans whatsoever. I first did this type of backpacking trip when I went to Guatemala in January 2012, and I had fun. That trip involved a spontaneous border crossing into Honduras, and yes, I had no hostel reservations whatsoever except for my very first night. Following that pattern, I set out to replicate it this time in Armenia.

But first, let me tell you how I decided to go here. The thing is, I was supposed to be in Lebanon for two weeks instead. As a Filipino citizen, I needed a visa to enter Lebanon. And according to the Lebanese Embassy in Berlin, processing the visa takes 6-8 weeks, as I have to submit all of my paperwork first, and the embassy will forward it to Beirut for processing. In order to submit my papers, I already booked a flight, and I gave them a list of the hostels and guesthouses that I plan to stay while I am in Lebanon for two weeks.

I submitted my papers on the first week of May. 8 weeks later, I got a phone call and was told that my visa application was denied.

That was my first visa denial, ever. I never got denied with my US visas, my Canadian visas, my visas for several European countries; I was surprised that my first ever visa denial would come from Lebanon. Oh well, they didn't tell me why, but I am guessing they think it would be unsafe for foreigners to visit the country, knowing that the conflict in Syria is actually slowly spilling into Lebanon across the border. Otherwise, the irrational reason would be that Lebanon thinks that someone who already has a German residence permit would want to enter Lebanon and stay there illegally.

Anyway, looking back, I am glad that I didn't go to Lebanon; while I was in Armenia, I was watching the news, and saw this news report about pilots from Turkish Airlines being kidnapped across the street from Beirut International Airport. Incidentally, I was supposed to fly Berlin-Istanbul-Beirut on Turkish Airlines and Beirut-Cairo-Berlin on Egyptair. Since my visa was denied, I had to alter my flight.

The good thing was that it was easy to do. I booked my original flight using miles I have accumulated with United Airlines, and Turkish Airlines and Egyptair are United Airlines partners. So I told United Airlines that I wanted to change the destination, and so when I looked at the map, I found Armenia. So after paying 50 USD for a change fee, I was able to change my booking and therefore I am flying Berlin-Vienna-Yerevan and back on Austrian Airlines.

I left Berlin on August 7 in the evening, arriving early morning of August 8 in Yerevan. While I was still in Vienna Airport, I already got a taste of Armenian hospitality. Someone saw my Philippine passport and asked me why I was heading to Armenia. Later on, she offered to text her friends in Yerevan to see whether they still have space in the car because if there is, then she would ask them to take me from the airport to the hostel I was staying. I offered to help them with their luggage, so early in the morning of August 8, I played porter to this woman and her daughter, and after unloading their luggage to their apartment, they took me to my hostel.

I originally had a booking for August 8 to 10 in a hostel in Yerevan, but I ended up extending it for one more day. So I spent a total of three days in Armenia's capital city, but in fact, I never did any sight-seeing within the city. Instead I opted for doing daytrips around the capital, visiting mountains and churches and monasteries. As I am flying out of Yerevan later on, I figured I'd save the city sights for my last days.

During those three days in Yerevan, I bumped across several travelers and we started talking about where to go next. This is when I was convinced I should try and cross the border to go to Georgia. I never planned on entering Georgia; at first, I thought I would only spend 16 days in Armenia alone. However, I was convinced that I should visit Georgia, so I boarded a marshrutka to go to Tbilisi on August 11. During this day, I got stuck at the border for some visa technicality, my marshrutka left me in the meantime, and I had to hitch-hike the remaining 56 kilometers from the border to Tbilisi. Anyway, I did reach Tbilisi safe and sound, and spent 3 nights there, again, doing daytrips around the capital area.

August 14 was the day I decided to leave Tbilisi and head to the mountains. I headed north to Kazbegi, a mountain town that is just a few minutes away from the Russian border. In order to get here, I had to travel along the Georgian Military Highway, and this is one awesome road. Additionally, two war zones are close by, South Ossetia and Chechnya. Both can be reached within 2 hours driving time. Upon reaching Kazbegi, I found a guesthouse to stay, I stayed there for 2 nights, where I was housed and fed by a Georgian family. There was a huge language barrier, but they were honestly the most hospitable people I have ever met. I then climbed the summit of Gergeti, where the Gergeti Trinity Church is located. The location, with the spectacular background of Mount Kazbek, is just so spectacular, that I remember having an endorphin rush the whole time I was there.

After staying for 2 nights in Kazbegi, I headed back to Tbilisi and spent another 3 nights there. I did another day trip, this time to Gori and Mtskheta. And after 3 nights, I boarded another marshrutka to go back to Yerevan. In Yerevan, I spent another 3 nights, and after that, I departed from Yerevan on the morning of August 22 to go back to Berlin via Vienna.

This has been an outline of my latest trip. Of course, I will write more about the details on every leg I have done, and I will post pictures as well. This has been my best, and most challenging trip, so far. I first thought that Guatemala and Honduras in January 2012 was very awesome, but this trip makes my previous trips quite easy in comparison. Perhaps the most challenging aspect is the fact that I cannot read the script of the languages here, which I have already blogged about previously. Anyway, that being said, I still enjoyed my time, and I can truly say that the last 2 weeks has been quite a blast.

6 comments:

  1. That's strange your visa was denied! Never happened to me (touching wood!). You sound like the perfect applicant. Weird.

    Armenia... ever heard of Charles Aznavour? He is a great French singers with ties to Armenia. I think you would like him.

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    1. Zhu,

      It was weird indeed, but after bumping with a Syrian refugee in Berlin, I was told that Lebanon denies visas to tourists right now, because there are militant groups who kidnap foreigners and use them for political purposes. Like the Turkish Airlines pilots. So I guess that was a reasonable reason to be denied. Hopefully I can visit Lebanon at a later time when the area is more calm.

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  2. I am endlessly jealous that you might - one day - get to go to Lebanon. Presently, as an Israeli citizen I can't go and I'm kicking myself for not pursuing more vigorously the opportunity to study abroad there for a year (though my parents would have had a fit, and I don't believe I was yet really mature enough to do it, it remains a missed opportunity).

    Anyway, as always, your travels sound fabulous - I look forward to seeing you in Berlin sooner, rather than later.

    Best,

    Matan

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    1. Matan,

      I tried, but failed. We'll see. It might be decades before I get to try again and go. In the meantime, there are other destinations worth seeing I am sure.

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  3. Am really surprised about your visa denial but after reading something in the news, you're indeed better off staying away from Lebanon in the meantime. You don't want to be the news for sure :)

    Your Armenia trip sounds so awesome I'm actually envious. Many of these countries previously part of the USSR are so appealing no? Using United miles for a Star Alliance redemption is cool in these parts!

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    1. TNP,

      Oh definitely, I don't want to be the one mentioned in the news at all. So it might sound like I am doing some sour grapes, but I guess it is better that I had my visa denied.

      And yes, this was my most awesome trip so far! The former Soviet Union is this huge enigma to me, that I actually love visiting these places again and again. :)

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