Hungary, Georgia, and Armenia.

In early August we arrived in Europe. Budapest was the lucky city. We were here to catch up with some friends for a music festival. As it turns out the music festival was extremely popular with antipodeans.

Those with a keen eye will notice an All Blacks flag flying.

I swear the most popular passport in the entry queue was the New Zealand one. We had a good time in Budapest and saw a lot of the old city. The houses of parliament along the Danube river was amazing. We found out that Budapest is used to be two cities, Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other.

At the gates.
A couple of Pests.

In total we spent a week in Budapest, thoroughly enjoying our friends company after months of only talking to each other.

From Budapest we flew into Tblisi the capital of Georgia. We arrived pretty late at night and were feeling tired after week at the festival, so we stayed quiet in our AirBnb for a couple of days. We also sort of forgot about photos for a few weeks so don’t have much.

When we made it outside it proved to be quite nice.

Tblisi means warm and is known as such for its famous hot springs. Unfortunately for us, the receptionist at the baths we had booking at was not so ‘Tblisi’, and we were short changed out of our booking by a suspicious ‘change’ in our booking time.

On a hill in Tblisi

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour (as has become customary for each city we go to) This tour was interesting as Tblisi and Georgia have had such a fascinating history.

Georgia is located on the edge of pretty much every major historical empire, somehow never being fully assimilated each time it was overrun. This has led to a very distinct Georgian culture being established and the city has begun to reflect this since the economy stabilized after leaving the soviet union in the mid 2000’s.

“Balcony’s are the glue that holds Tblisi together” – Our tour guide.
Proximity principle at work in a cosmopolitan city.

The city clock tower. 7pm is puppet show time.

Tblisi was quite captivating, particularly at night, the old city having a real vibe to it. This is helped by the food, beer and wine. Georgia excels at these pursuits. The wines were incredible, with names and styles I’ve never heard of, but after a few tastings we had a real taste for it. The food tasted amazing, but being 50% cheese by the end of four days our belts had gone out a notch.

Khachapuri for one!
They love dogs in Georgia. If you put in a plastic bottle, dog food comes out.

In typical Chris and Issy fashion we had neglected to plan our time in the caucauses very well at all. We did not manage to explore any of the Georgian countryside, which is supposed to be full of great walking and mountains. But, with time up on our Airbnb and a few days before planning to go to Turkey we were looking for things to do. Enter Armenia.

We had met a number of travelers in Iran and Central Asia who had come from Armenia and had nothing but good things to say about it. So we headed to the bus stop in Tbilisi and waited for a few hours for our marshrutka to fill up. We had free entertainment from the Georgian bus drivers, who between puffs of cigarettes, yelled at each other. This was interspersed with riotous laughter. To this day we still can’t figure out if it was good natured yelling or not.

After a long bus ride, Russian lemonade goes a treat.

We misjudged the length of the trip. We were anticipating a four hour journey to get to Yerevan, It took a full 10 hours. The border crossing was one of the most hectic we have been through, just a crush of people for 2 hours masquarding as a line. To be fair, the mountains and countryside on the Armenia side was quite pretty.

Yerevan is known as the pink city and is about 3000 years old. It is so named as most of the buildings are made from pink granite. It is a sparsely vegetated city which makes the effect even more pronounced. We spent a few hours both nights checking out the city, which has a vibrant food and beer scene.

At the top of the Cascade
Down the bottom.

We went on a tour to check out some of the highlights of Armenia the next day. Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world around 3rd AD century. So naturally some highlights include Mount Ararat of Noah’s ark fame, old monasteries and religious sites. These were broken up with some natural features such as waterfalls. We closed the day with a wine tasting and this made watching the sunset over the countryside all that much better.

Issy with Mount Ararat

The next day we had to get on our way to Turkey. So we booked an overnight train from Yerevan to Batumi which is on the Black sea. We got the last seats and were in different carriages for the trip. It was exceptionally hot on the train and it moved at a top speed of about 35km/hr.

3rd class. 40 degrees.

When we arrived in Batumi we were surprised to find what can only be described as a Russian tourist town. We spent two days here, and spent our time on the beach, and looking around the town. We ended up at a dolphin show. This was a very surreal experience, but overall quite sad. The dolphins were incredible athletes but it all felt very cruel. The audience was packed and apparently every show (3 a day) sells out in peak season. From Batumi, it was another marshrutka to Trabzon in Turkey.

Batumi
Real mix of vibes in the place
Bus station in Georgia, for the curious.

Backpacking Iran: Isfahan

We started out from Yazd on another bus, and arrived some 6 hours later in Ishfahan. We arrived late at night and were expecting to turn up in a quiet city. We were wrong. The city is one of Iran’s biggest, home to around 2 million people. So we jumped in an old Renault which served as a taxi and sped through the neon lit city streets to our hostel.

The next morning, following another delicious Iranian breakfast, we set out on a tour of the city. We learnt that the city flourished from 1050 to 1722, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Safavid dynasty when it became the capital of Persia for the second time. An Afghan invasion in 1722 caused instability. The city lost its political importance over the next 50 years, culminating in the Qajar dynasty moving the capital to Tehran in 1775.

Square complete with tourist horse rides

 The tour took us to the heart of Isfahan Naqsh-e Jahan square. This is one of the largest city squares in the world and a UNESQO site. The square is the site of the bazaar, the Jameh mosque and the Ali Qopu palace.

No polo in the square today sadly.

The Jameh mosque is one of the oldest in Iran, and has been remodeled a number of times. It has elements of all the major historical influences in the city including Mongols, Muzzafarids, Timurids and Safavids. The end result of all this is an incredible mosque, with unbelievable tiling and colours. This was the most impressive mosque we saw while in Iran

Entrance to the mosque
Looking up and out the entrance way
Detailing on one of the domes
Courtyard, under repair.
The mosque exterior

From the mosque we went to Ali Qopu palace and had a look around. Each of the floors was very different style and function. The music floor had intriate wood paneling which improved acoustics, and the balcony was where the Shahs enjoyed watching games of Polo.

Palace on the left
This ceiling is made from bits of wood, cut to fit, no glue.
Square and caravanserai in background
Wood panelling carved for acoustics

As per ‘how to run a tour guide for dummies’ we went and saw a traditional print maker in the bazaar, which would be more accurately termed a labyrinth. We returned here later in our stay and got quite lost.

One of the more quiet bazaar alleys

Then we tried some ice cream. Issy was very excited about this. The flavours were rose and saffron. Issy was very disappointed about this. From here we went to a summer palace where we saw some old murals which were pretty neat.

Summer palace.
Mural, too large to focus well sadly, note the moustaches on the right.

That evening we were invited to a house party. We were not expecting anything like this and it turned out to be one of the more memorable events in our time in Isfahan. We got in a taxi and drove for about an hour out of town to a very nice house. Here we had lots of food and music. The women were able to take off their headscarves and dance with guys, which normally is banned. There was also a couple of bottles of moonshine type alcohol in old coke bottles, which apparently get smuggled across the border. We were able to talk to locals about growing up in Iran and stuff like that.  Very different to what we were expecting, but still a great time.

The next day we went out to the Armenian quarter, New Jolfa. About three hundred thousand Armenians moved to Isfahan when the Ottoman empire began persecuting them. They were welcomed by the Shah due to their knowledge of silk trade.

Inside Vank cathedral

The area had a nice cathedral and it was accompanied by a really interesting museum which had clandestine copies of bibles, information about the Armenian genocide (which was news to both of us) and a really neat inscription of the koran which was etched onto a single strand of hair and had to be seen through a microscope. After the cathedral we went to a music performance with traditional instruments.

Super blurry again, but the bit down the bottom right is a touch different. This takes up an entire wall in a cathedral.

We spent the rest of our time in Isfahan mostly in the square. Here we met a few people who came to talk to us to practice their English and learn about us. Having been so many places where this inevitably leads to a scam it was quite refreshing for people to just be friendly and curious. This happened more times in Iran than anywhere else in the world and it made a big difference to how we viewed the country. Our final night we went for a picnic to Kahju bridge.

View from our picnic spot

From Ishafan we went on a road trip north to Kashan. We stopped at a couple of places along the way. First up way Hanjan castle. This place was falling apart and it felt very dodgy walking across the holes and beams. There was a really random exercise park next to it too.

Not sure why this was here but it was quite fun
Looking at the Valley, most of the countryside is super dry.

Then we went to Abynaeh, which was a town in the mountains. It is made from a red type of clay and built on a steep hillside. Then we went to Kashan, there was an interesting garden, called Fin garden. We learnt about how the Shah organised a stabbing of a prime minister figure in a bathhouse of an otherwise very pretty garden.

View of Abyaneh from across the valley.
Gotta stay hydrated. Public water supply in Iran was amazing everywhere we went
The power of water.