Yerevan, Armenia: The most unsoviet Soviet city?

If Armenia was your friend she would be the funny, smart and pretty one – but more importantly, she’d be the jammy one. The one who always gets what she wants, despite the odds thrown her way, due to her (unusually charming) combination of brains and balls.

In fact, she’d be the kind of girl that if mugged at at gun point, would not only convince the balaclava-donned thug to put his gun down, but actually to lend her a quid or two for the last bus home. Because that’s exactly what she seemed to do to the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century.

Most countries that were absorbed by the swelling USSR in the early 1920s have been left with physical scars that will take decades to fade. Centuries old archaic churches were replaced by functional, concrete tower blocks while grand, old homes of the rich paved way for linear, grey and brown bus stations or post offices.

Inevitably there is plenty of that to be found across Armenia, but its capital Yerevan has emerged grand and glorious, despite almost the entire city being designed and built in the early Soviet years. It is nothing short of a miracle.

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Like the very impressive Republic Square, for example, which comes to life every evening with fountains that dance to everything from Beethoven to Cotton Eye Joe, with the Superman theme tune somewhere in between.

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The design of the stately buildings around Republic Square are grand and intricate. They feel like the complete antithesis to Soviet architecture, despite being built in the 1920s. One of the buildings even has the exact same engravings around it as a ruinous 17th century Armenian Church, in a bid to let the legacy to live on.

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‘Errrm, how exactly did you manage to get the Soviets to let you do this… and fund it?’ We asked our guide incredulously.

She gave us a knowing smile and instead told us the story of how Yerevan got its underground metro system. She explained the capital had originally been denied a metro because it had less than one million residents and only Soviet cities with more than a million could develop an underground network.

But, she continued, the Armenians, refused to just lie down and take this news, so a cunning plan was hatched. When Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev visited the city soon after, massive traffic jams were promptly organised on every street he visited. He took the news of Yerevan’s terrible traffic congestion back to Russia and voila, by 1981 Yerevan’s metro was up and running.

Similar, mischievous tales were regaled to us throughout our time in Armenia. Take the ‘Mother Cathedral’, the world’s first state built church, for example, which was under orders to be knocked down by Iranian Shah Abas in the 17th century.

The Armenians caught wind of this and hastily engraved his head at the top of the cathedral. So, in due course when his troops arrived they found themselves in quite a quandary… How they could demolish the very cathedral that was devoted to their very Shah? The building was saved.

Fast forward some 300 years and Armenia decided it wanted a grand, steep staircase leading up a huge Yerevan hill. So what did she do? She built a monument at the peak, devoted to 50 years of Soviet rule and asked for the cash to build a staircase to lead the people to the monument.

She got denied. She revamped the design, threw in a set of elaborate fountains, each representing a different Soviet republic, with Russia in the middle, and pronto, the staircase (aka The Cascade) was built with Soviet funds.

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Admittedly it’s still not finished today, but that is not the point. And if anyone can get someone to complete the job, it will be Armenia.

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The top of The Cascade is the perfect way to spend an evening in Yerevan, admiring the city skyline (don’t forget to take a bottle of Ararat’s finest brandy, mind.)

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But perhaps most impressive of all, was Armenia’s success in building a monument devoted to the 1.5 million Armenians who died in the Turkish genocide of 1915.

It is a tragedy that remains at the very core of Armenian people today. Families were ripped apart as the Young Turk government sent hundreds of thousands of Armenians into barren deserts to starve to death or simply shot them dead in a bid to make the Ottoman Empire, which included the area which was formerly known as West Armenia, more ‘Turkish’.

One day, during our time in Yerevan, we visited an Armenian family for lunch. After serving a delicious and generous lunch time feast, the father of the house pulled out an old black and white family photo. There were a few men in military uniforms, a few women (I presumed to be their wives) and about five little children. After we admired it, we were told that all had been killed in the genocide apart from one little boy. The table went silent, it was hard to take in.

But to take you back to the significance of the memorial… during the Soviet times it was frowned upon to commemorate any events that were deemed to be too nationalist. The Armenian Genocide fell firmly into that category, so the nation remembered in silence.

But in 1965, 50 years after the tragic event, Armenia raised her voice. Expats around the globe were commemorating but she had nothing in her homeland. The movement for a memorial began and by 1967 the obelisk was opened.

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While we were there school children lined up to place a flower beside the eternal flame. Today there is also a very impressive museum about the genocide which is well worth a visit.

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Perhaps some of these facts have been elaborated and embellished to enhance the tourist tale – and I have certainly only heard one side to each story. The Turkish, for example, deny the Armenian genocide ever took place.

I don’t profess to be a historian, or even deliver a balanced blog (that’s what my years in newspapers were for), but I can tell you that after meeting Armenia and listening to her myself I walked away admiring her passion, her guts and her sheer determination in times of strife. And I like that in a girl.

Travel Tips

We stayed at the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan, a clean and extremely well facilitated hostel, which runs fantastic day trips from the city.

The tours are led by the hostel’s manager Arpine Yesayan, who is the primary source for most of the tales above. Her excellent humour, witty jokes and fabulous story telling skills make for extremely memorable tours. They cost €30 (pretty much a day’s budget for us), but worth every penny!

She also runs free city walking tours of Yerevan, which are every bit as good as the paid excursions.

Envoy hostel is at 54 Pushkin Poghots and their website is at www.envoyhostel.com

Walking in the Debed Canyon, Armenia

Does it sound strange if I admit that during my time in Armenia I asked our guesthouse host if she knew anyone with sheep and cows who I could go and hang out with for the day? No, I don’t think so either. It was a perfectly legitimate question.

The thing is, in Armenia you don’t just see the occasional field scattered with a smattering of farmyard animals, you literally find them in their hundreds, being herded down the road like a massive army of floating woolly jumpers by a charismatic looking man carrying a crooked stick. And I just kind of wanted to hang out with him and his animals. And squeal and take pictures.

So it was in this vein that I found myself asking Irina, our wonderful host at Iris guesthouse in Debed Canyon, if she could set me up with a shepherd for the day. She seemed a little confused by the request and as I tried to explain myself, Matty and the Mongoose just sat back in silence, smiling as I dug myself deeper into a crazy-sounding hole.

A glimmer of hope appeared when she started dialling a number, explaining she had some friends with sheep, but then the whole thing was suddenly forgotten about and people started talking about monasteries or something.

So, instead of spending our last day in Armenia with a shepherd or cow herder, we opted to do a 7km walk from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery in the Debed Canyon instead. And it wasn’t that I was disappointed with this decision as such, it’s just that we had already seen our fair share of religious sites and I just fancied hanging out with the locals, and their animals.

But as we approached the monastery even the voice in my head, that had been threatening to just get out of the taxi if I saw a cow herder and insist on spending the day with him, fell silent. Because it was very pretty indeed.

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And after a quick look around, we left the monastery behind us and clambered down the hill to begin the walk.

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We had scant details of the route but with an air of boy scoutishness about us, we crossed a gurgling river, climbed up a huge hill, found an ancient, neglected fortress and clambered over huge rocks that made me feel like Tarzan.

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And then finally, after crossing an entire gorge and climbing up the other side, we reached what can only be described as a riot of flowers. A wild meadow of flowers, right up to our knees…

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The flowers seemed to go on for miles and miles, as if multiplying in front of our eyes as they swayed in the wind. At first we tried to be careful not to tread on them but as they got thicker across the fields it became impossible not to.

After having a hearty skip through the daisies (well, Matty and the Mongoose that is) we reached a small village that had that reassuring smell of cow pat. What is it about cow pat and horse manure that instead of screwing up your nose in disgust as you do on train toilets, you simply fill your lungs with the stuff and sigh contently?

But it wasn’t just the smell, there was something else… a sound. A sound not dissimilar to that of the Mongoose tucking into a medium rare steak, I might add. As the boys walked on ahead I peered over a fence on my tip toes, to find something that made me positively squeal with delight.

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And this:

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And then, just when I thought my discovery couldn’t get any better, I looked to my right and chanced upon two baby calves. Just sitting there all doe eyed with their gangly little legs tucked under them.

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By now the squealing and frantic photography had reached a great crescendo and a bemused woman stepped out of her house, confused to see an excitable blonde girl cooing over her calves.

“Awwww, look at the little runt,” I cried in sympathy, pointing at the little brown piglet that attached himself to his mum too late for a decent position, still trying to get some milk from here teats after the others had long sucked her dry.

The woman smiled at me, she understood. She opened the pen gate and the little runt came flying out, oinking squeakily as he scattered across the road as if still a little uncertain on his legs. The woman ushered me into the driveway of her home and starting filling a little saucer of milk, which the little piglet scampered up to and started lapping up.

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I wanted to stroke him, but I’m not sure if it’s socially acceptable to stroke pigs in rural Armenia so instead I just continued to coo in excitement. The woman, by now probably thinking she had stumbled across some mad city folk that did not get out much, asked us if we would like a coffee.

I jumped at the opportunity (it had got to the point where I probably couldn’t hang out with the animals for much longer without getting to know their owner) and the Mongoose had that caffeine haunted look in his eyes.

She led us through a door into a small room that seemed to be the living room, bedroom and kitchen in one. She pointed on the bed for us to sit on, while she poured ground coffee and water into a small pan, which she then placed on a single gas ring in the middle of the room.

Sweet, soft bread was torn into pieces and placed on a plate on the table pushed against the back wall, which we ate with strong, soft sheep’s cheese, which was probably produced by a neighbour down the road. (I made a mental note to find the sheep before we left.)

She spoke no English but we communicated in pidgin Russian, body language and smiles. We did not need a common language to understand that she was kind, had nothing but offered us everything, and for her to understand that we were very, very grateful. As we bid our farewells, she pulled me in, held me tightly and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.

It was splendid. One of those rare days that grabs all your wishes in one big bag, as crazy as they may seem, and just dumps it on you. But as we started walking home, just when I thought they’d all come true, we heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on a stony path and saw the crooked stick of a smiling cow herder…

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Amoo-zing.

Travel Tips

Where to stay in Debed Canyon?
We stayed at Iris guesthouse, run by the lovely Irina Israyelyan and her husband. The accommodation is exceptional – the three of us were given two bedrooms and a huge adjoining lounge with two balconies overlooking the lush, green valley.

The couple were extremely attentive, cooked delicious meals for us each evening and on our last morning with them, Irina even baked us a beautiful cake that was deliciously syrupy. We were quite spoilt.

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BREAKFAST.

A room costs 8,000 Dram per night including breakfast, plus 3,000 (a total of about £17). You can call Irina on +374 (253)23839 or email her at irinaisrayelyan@gmail.com

World in Pictures: Armenian Churches

Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion more than 1,700 years ago. As a result the country is scattered with stunning churches and ancient, atmospheric monasteries on every hilltop, grassy plain and city street.

Despite the Soviet Union’s determined efforts to suppress Christianity in the country (closing all but one church for the best part of seven decades ), the Armenian’s devotion appears to have bounced back stronger than ever.

The priests, dressed in grand black robes, chant and pray in the old Armenian language during Sunday services, leaving many of the congregation in tbe dark.

“Often we wonder if they make up stories,” our guide joked, adding that most people can not understand everything.

But nevertheless, the church is a special place to most Armenians and as we stepped into the old, sparsely decorated buildings, often lit by just a single shaft of light from the sky, I could understand why. Armenia is also home to the world’s oldest state built church, which was constructed from 301-303, and remains in surprisingly good condition today.

So without any further chatter, I shall let you enjoy our church pics. I have thrown them all into black and white and played around with the contrast on this occasion, to emphasise the dark, antique-like atmoshphere of Armenian churches.

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A man prays at Khor Virap Church

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Sevanavank Monastery besides Lake Sevan, Armenia

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Me gazing into the ray of light inside Sevanavank Monastery, on Lake Sevan.

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Two ladies sit outside St Gayane Church, built in 630 AD and home to Armenia's only two nuns.

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Inside St Hripsimeh Church, where a nun by the same name lies after being killed by an Armenian king because she would not marry him.

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A girl looks into a tray of candles, sitting in water, lit in memory of loved ones

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The roof top of Haghartsin Monastery through the 'lucky' tree stump beside it.

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Inside the county's oldest church, the 'mother cathedral', at Echmiadzin, Armenia

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One of rmenia's beautiful, old battered cars, in front of Hayravank Monastery near Lake Sevan

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A priest walks through the entrance to one of the cave churches at Geghard Monastery

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The beautifully located Noravank Monastery

Travel Tips

Churches and monasteries can be seen all over Armenia, but one of the best ways to see a good selection if you don’t have much time is to take day tours from Yerevan. We stayed at the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan, which runs fantastic trips from the city, taking in all of the highlights above. The tours are led by the hostel’s manager Arpine Yesayan, who is excellent and gave us a fantastic insight into Armenian culture and spirit as well as the fascinating history of the churches pictured here. It was so good that we signed up to a second tour there.

Choosing the best SLR camera bag to take travelling

We might have made a packing mistake that has cost us £130. Gulp.

Deciding whether to take our SLR camera travelling for five months was a tricky one… On the plus side it enables us to take photos that we just can’t seem to capture with our trusty, much loved compact (a Canon G12 which we use in conjunction with the SLR), but on the other hand, it is bulky, heavy and a bit of a nuisance. Especially when you also want to take three lenses and a tripod… Because otherwise you might as well just take a compact, right?

So last September, ahead of our big trip across Central Asia, we did a test run in Bali with the SLR and bought the Jack Wolfskin ACS Photobag to see how cumbersome it would be.

But it worked out just fine. The bag made for an ideal ‘day pack’, despite being a little large. Click on the link above for detailed pictures, but essentially it has a large Velcro-strapped area for the camera and lenses, with two other sections for all the other bits you might need for the day (including space for a thin laptop or tablet).

However, within a week of being on the road for the big trip, we realised the bag was completely impractical.

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Me looking a tad top heavy with the Jack Wolfskin, on the morning we left for our Silk Road journey.

While fine for a holiday in Bali, when we caught taxis to most places and stayed at guest houses for more than a few days at a time, it was a completely different scenario trying to squeeze it onto cramped mini-buses and sleep with it on sleeper trains.

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Matty sporting the giant ‘day pack’ on his front before attempting to wrestle it onto a sleeper train.

In fact, it got so bad that Matty started talking about getting a new bag on an almost hourly basis. One of the main problems was its large and rigid frame, that just couldn’t be squeezed into small spaces. It was just too bulky.

To cut a long, and somewhat boring story short, we have finally caved in and replaced it. We now have a tiny little SLR camera bag (relatively speaking) that fits in everything we need to carry, and can sits under all tables and awkward bus spaces with ease. But it came at a price.

Our new shiny Lowepro Photo Sport Sling 100 AW bag cost us a whopping £100, plus it cost us another £30 to post home the Jack Wolfskin bag (it is a great bag for weekends away etc so we were loathed to just chuck it.)

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So in a (geeky) bid to make sure others don’t make the same mistake, I thought I would write a small review of our new bag.

There is plenty to love about the Lowepro sling but I think perhaps the best thing is, it looks more like an ordinary rucksack than a camera bag, which is a big plus when you don’t want to attract unnecessary attention when travelling.

It has just one strap over the shoulder with a support belt around the waist to prevent your shoulder from aching too much. But the real benefit of this is that you don’t need to take the bag off to get the camera out, you just undo the support strap and swing the bag to your side.

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It feels only appropriate, if writing a geeky post like this, to include an incredibly geeky picture of myself. So here you go.

The camera is tucked away in this little section on the side of the bag, zipped up snugly, with a drawstring to make even tighter if your camera is smaller than ours.

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So the camera takes up the bottom half of the bag, leaving space for bits and bobs in the top half. We can also slide our iPad down into the bottom half of the bag, beside the camera, and it fits in perfectly. In the top half I can carry my kindle, journal, guide book etc easily. (Yes, I’m a dirty ‘flashpacker’).

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Look, it even has a little zip compartment in there where we keep our camera connectors and polarising filter etc.

There is a pouch at the front, which is the perfect size for a book – and also a small zip up pocket on the top of the bag, giving easy access for smaller valuables etc, as well as a pouch in the side that easily carries 1.5 litre bottles of water. Oh, and it has a rainwater protector tucked in at the bottom for wet days. I did warn you this post was geeky.

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The water lives here.

It gets better. I know, I can almost hearing you crying: “How, how, can this bag get any better?!” It has straps at the bottom to attach a tripod and you can easily roll up a jumper or pashmina and fix it underneath the strap at the top of the bag. In fact, there are so many straps that you could hang all sorts to it, and I’m not sure why, but that makes me happy.

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The only negative factor is the bag only really has space for one spare lens. We are travelling with three lenses so bought a little case for our small 50mm lens, which we carry in the top half of the bag.

So the conclusion is, Matty is much happier and is talking less about bags. And that is definitely worth £130.

Armenian Brandy: Visiting Ararat Yerevan Brandy Company

Getting sick while travelling is always a worry. There’s nothing worse than sweating out stomach cramps in a hot, packed dorm room and running to the shared bathroom to find not only is it engaged but two other bedraggled travellers are already waiting to go in. Matty is only too aware of this.

So we have, of course, come away with a fully equipped medical kit… stuff to block, unblock and everything in between. However, we all know prevention is better than cure and fortunately our good friends Gemma and Marco were kind enough to enlighten us before we set off.

“Brandy,” said Marco, looking quite proud of himself while Gemma nodded in agreement.

Lowering his voice, as if in fear that others would hear his trade secret, he added: “We took a bottle of the stuff to Morocco and started every day with a shot of brandy.”

“And,” Gemma concluded, “We never got ill. Not once.”

I saw the pain in Matty’s eyes as he remembered his own Moroccan experience, which largely involved being curled up in a ball in Essouaira, cursing chefs up and down the country for poisoning him. I could hear his mind ticking away, saying: “That could have been prevented by drinking brandy? It could have all been different if I had begun every day with a slug of fine cognac?” He had, in his eyes no doubt, been knifed by a double edged sword.

And so, it was somewhat inevitable that when packing his medical kit for this trip, he did what every good nurse would do and made a mental note to add some brandy as soon as he crossed the border into Armenia, home of Winston Chirchill’s favourite tipple.

“If it’s good enough for Churchill it’s good enough for me,” were pretty much his first words as our sleeper train from Tbilisi, Georgia pulled into Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at 7am.

We were tired, hungry and grouchy after a sleepless night on a particularly loud and unusually chilly train. We spent that morning trying, to no avail, to get Turkmenistan visas as we were warned that relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are so bad that Azeri border officers may prevent us from crossing the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, purely because we picked up the visas in Armenia. There is that little love.

So, it was in these particularly (rare) low spirits, that we began our hunt for brandy. Specifically for the Ararat Yerevan Brandy Company, which offers tours and taster sessions for a mere £7. After all, Matty had been in the country by now for a good eight hours and was growing increasingly concerned about his medical supplies.

Eventually, after much taxi negotiating in pidgeon Russian, we arrived. Perched on a hill like a palace we were buzzed through the large, wrought iron gates of Ararat’s Yerevan headquarters and immediately bowed over by the sweet, unmistakable aroma of brandy.

Within seconds of inhaling this new, much improved oxygen supply the boys looked better rested.

“It is the angel’s share”, our guide told us, which she added was responsible for both keeping the angels on side and keeping the workers so happy.

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The tour began. We passed barrels of brandy, learnt all about distillation and the history of Ararat. But it was one story in particular that resonated with me.

It was 1945, Europe was on the verge of peace and Stalin was doing his best to woo Churchill at the Yalta conference, where important post-war decisions were being made. Knowing the British Prime Minister’s soft spot for the fine things in life, he handed him a glass of Ararat brandy (and probably a fat cigar but that’s not been documented as far as I’m aware). After glugging the rich honey-coloured liquor, Churchill smacked his lips and immediately ordered 400 bottles to be delivered… per year, for the rest of his life.

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However, soon after (while quaffing bottle 567 or something) Churchill declared that something was amiss. So he did what any great British man would do if left unsatisfied by an expensive glass of brandy, and he wrote to the Russian dictator himself. It probably went something like: “Dear Stalin, your brandy’s off. Fix it or I will get all of Britain drinking the French stuff. Yours, parched, WC.”

Somewhat alarmed, Stalin immediately investigated the situation to learn that he (or his minions) had only sent the head technologist of Ararat’s brandy production into political exile in Siberia. An easy mistake for a man like himself to make I suppose. So within days of this discovery, Margar Sedrakyan was brought back to Armenia and reinstated in his role as chief brandy expert, Churchill was happy and all was well in the world.

So let’s have a quick recap – brandy prevents travellers diarrhoea, improves mentality after sleeper trains and saved poor Margar from possible death in exile. But there are higher hopes for the healing powers of Armenian brandy yet.

This little country, with huge spirit (pardon the pun), is nestled between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But tragically it’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed after a dispute over an area of land known as Nagorno-Karabakh, which has an ethnically Armenian population and has been controlled by Armenia following a bloody war in the early 1990s, despite it legally being within Azerbaijan’s borders. Thousands of people have been displaced because of the conflict, soldiers and even some civilians are still killed around the border, and locals seem to believe that peace is an impossibility.

Nevertheless, it feels appropriate that at Ararat’s HQ, taking pride of place in the distillation and fermentation room, sits the “peace barrel”, filled with fine cognac and ready to be cracked open as soon as a solution is reached.

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Right now it is hard to imagine the Azeri and Armenian prime ministers clinking glasses before enjoying the first sips from that barrel, but given its track record, I can hardly think of a more appropriate drink to seal the deal.

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So as we held up our glasses, swilling the bronzed 10 year-old liquid in the light, we made a toast… To the peace barrel being opened, and sooner rather than later.

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And… long live the healing powers of brandy.

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Travel Tips

Ararat Brandy Company is located on the edge of the city centre, over the Hrazdan River on Admiral Isakov Poghota.

Tours must be booked in advance, and cost 4,500 dram (about £8). The guide speaks excellent English and the tour is full of interesting anecdotes and stories.

It lasts about 75 minutes including time to sample two types of brandy – we tried the three year and 10 year old varieties. Both of which were delicious.

Serving suggesting for Ararat brandy – drink with small pieces of dark chocolate or dried peaches. Delicious.

The Weird and Wonderful things about Georgia

With its fabulous food, stunning scenery and charming ways, Georgia is without a doubt a great place to visit. It’s cheap, very cheap, and – just to top it all off – it has some weird and wonderful oddities, that I thought only right to share.

1) Wine: The Georgians make plenty of their own vino… A lot of it tends to be sweet (even the red wine) but perhaps more surprising than that, is the ingenious lengths they go to when bottling the stuff. It is commonly found in huge vats resembling vegetable oil and in strange little goblin bodies. The Mongoose was determined to drink all the goblins under the table.

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2) Cheese: Any country where the ‘weird and wonderful’ list begins with cheese and wine is a wonderful one in my book. But nevertheless, the Georgians deserve a special mention here for the sheer amount of cheese they eat. This dish was served, bubbling and sizzling in its deep pan and as it was placed on the table our waitress declared it loudly and proudly: ‘Cheeeeeeeese!’

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Huge quantities of cheese are seved with almost everything… Their national staple is Khachapuri, which is basically a cheese pie in a deep crust, served with half a block of butter and two fried eggs on top. I kid you not.

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3) COWS!!! Yes, this list gets better, I hear you cry. Georgia literally has hundreds of cows – and sheep – roaming its streets, causing traffic to stop. They are beautiful and should be worshipped.

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4) Hygiene: Georgia gets a special mention for its cleaning products sounding downright dirty. Especially its barf cleaner.

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5) Loo roll: Confession – on my first day in Georgia I went without using any toilet paper at all as I just couldn’t find any in our hostel bathroom. It later transpired that this bandage-like object is actually the bog roll. Yes, it’s a tad scratchy.

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6) Statues: Georgia has weird and wonderful statues all over the place. They are not shy of a bit of gold and elaborate statues of the golden fleece and whatnot often look fairly incongruous to their surroundings, just like the one at the top of this post which was taken in the coastal town of Batumi. Here’s a few more:

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7) Ferris wheels: From the highest point in the crumbling, old town of Tbilisi to the sea level of Batumi, it costs less than a £1 to ride the Georgian ferris wheels which, we concluded, is a delightful way of seeing the surroundings.

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8) Toasting: Georgian toasts are incredibly long and will leave you holding your glass in the air for long enough to wonder if you should put it down again. But at the same time they are often wonderfully thoughtful and poignant. The traditional feast is called a Supra, and each Supra will have a Tamada, a toastmaker, who will lead the toasts throughout the meal. It starts with a toast to God and peace and then moves onto everything from plans and dreams to absent friends. Oh, and did I mention that you have to down your drink at every toast? One person is always given the role of ‘merrykeeper’ whose job it is to keep everybody’s glasses full at all times. I think it was appropriate to scream: ‘Keep me merry!’ at him throughout the evening.

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Georgian Wine: The Best, the Worst and the Rest

There aren’t many places in the world where you walk into an off-license to buy wine and walk out with a belly full of moonshine. But that’s Georgia for you.

We learnt of the country’s booze loving ways before we even set foot on Georgian soil. A lovely French jewellery artist, who we met in Turkey, gave us ample warning. Cooing about monasteries and the rolling countryside, she raved about Georgia – but in a more cautious tone, added: “They are big drinkers, they often put pressure on you to drink when you don’t want to.”

Matty’s eyes lit up. The Mongoose rubbed his hands in anticipation, and I was delighted to learn that the Georgians are also big wine makers. On a trip where I thought we may have said goodbye to decent vino after leaving Paris, I was keen to sample as many large glasses of rich, red stuff as possible before begrudgingly moving onto the gurn-inducing vodka that no doubt awaits us in the ‘stans.

So it was perhaps fitting that the first thing purchased after crossing the border from Turkey by foot, was a bottle of wine. We had to break into a 100 Lari note to get a few pennies for the marshrutka into Batumi and this seemed like the most appropriate way to do it:

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But, I won’t lie, it did not taste half as good as it looks. In fact, it tasted little better than an elaborately bottled glass of Ribena. Sweet and sickly, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone had picked it up in the fruit juice section before swapping it for a bottle of the stronger stuff in the wine aisle, leaving it for a hapless tourist to pick up minutes later.

The Mongoose made dark mutterings about finding the wine maker and dragging him out of bed in the middle of the night, to ensure others never again experience what we went through. And Matty wrote a rather twisted blog about its sinister ways.

Georgian wine, it transpires, is often sweet. Or dry. And a bit like girl with the curl, when it’s sweet, it’s very, very sweet and when it’s dry, it’s very, very dry.

It marked the beginning of what was to become a long journey to find the perfect Georgian wine. Our vino odyssey took us into supermarkets where we were watched like hawks as we cluelessly stared at bottles of funny-lettered wine, into basement bars where it was served out of large plastic bottles resembling sunflower oil, and into cosy little restaurants where the unidentifiable juices flowed from battered terracotta jugs.

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But somehow, somewhere along the way, we concluded that we quite liked Saperavi. This robust, red grape has bags of potential and was by far, the tastiest red wine we sampled in Georgia.

Produced by dozens of wine makers all over the country (but mainly in the Kakheti region), it was occasionally a tad too dry, tasting as if it had been stripped of all flavour, and other times still a little too sweet, but by and large we found it was, in the words of Goldilocks, just right.

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Many Saperavis remind me of the Merlot grape, a ruby red with subtle fruit flavours but plenty of tannin. And I guess like any grape, you get the good, the bad and the downright ugly depending on how much cash you’re willing to flash. As wine-loving budget-backpackers we found one of the best buys was the Marani brand of Saparevi, which ranged in price from 9 Lari (£4.50) to 14 Lari (£6.50) depending on the retailer.

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But it is the purchasing of the wine that really makes Georgia stand out from its continental cousins. A far cry from the safe, reliable Thresher wine stores that once stood proud on every British high street (before the recession even managed to have a stab at wine), the Georgian off-licenses are as much as a place to drink as they are to purchase drink.

The centrepiece of every store is a table laden with half-empty bottles of wine and often a couple of skimpily clad ladies offering tasters to the boys. As we walked into our ‘local’ for 48 hours in Tbilisi, the Mongoose gave the man behind the counter a familiar smile and sauntered over to the tasting table.

“We’re back again,” said the Mongoose. “Last night’s recommendation went down a treat.”

The man looked at him blankly.

“You know,” the Mongoose continued, “I was in last night, you gave me some cha cha.”

Still no recognition came from the man, who was by now pouring us small glasses from a red-labelled bottle of Saparevi to try.

Eventually, he looked up and said: “I’m sorry, last night I was very drunk, I remember nothing.”

We nodded understandingly, glancing over to the two round-bellied men currently propping up the counter, which on reflection was more like a bar, drinking cha-cha with the other shop assistant.

So it was in that fashion that we sampled a few more Saperavi’s, before moving over to the bar to ‘taste’ no less than three varieties of cha-cha, a homemade fermented grape number which comes in a varieties of potencies. Most of which are potent.

And with a belly full of moonshine we eventually walked out with what we declared to be the finest bottle of Superavi yet.

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But if truth be told, by that point we probably had just as much of a clue as we’d had the day before when we accidentally ordered non-alcoholic beers and got half way through them before realising. Or just as much as the tramp who gladly took them off us, swigging the booze-free beer from the bottle as she swayed down the street. But that’s Georgia for you.

Climbing to Gergeti Glacier, Kazbegi, Georgia

Almost a month into our big journey across central asia, I have learnt three things about travelling with boys:

1) Boys like climbing things.

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Matty on a rocky crag in Ani, Turkey

2) Boys like shooting things.

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The Mongoose even found something to shoot at the top of the Citadel in Budapest

3) Boys are not as good as girls at asking for things.

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I was brave enough to ask this girl selling carrots in a club in Budapest for a picture. And now we have a picture of a girl carrying carrots... see, never hurts to ask.

In sum, this means I have asked more favours from strangers, and climbed more walls, steps and mountains in the last three weeks than I did in the one year I travelled with my dear friend Carly after university.* I’m not sure how the shooting thing comes into it yet, I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Crumbling city walls, that I would have once regarded as no more than a ‘lovely backdrop’ for a picture, have become giant playgrounds for climbing and walking, while steep, ghastly looking stairs that would normally pass me by have become one of the first things I notice when visiting beautiful old ruins. For those that remember my previous scaredy cat confessions of, well, most things, including stairs, I hope you are impressed.

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And this was precisely how I found myself climbing up to the Gergeti Glacier, in Kazbegi, Georgia.

A beautiful, mountainous region of Georgia, we had always intended to do some long walks in Kazbegi, including a climb to a 14th century church, perched above the town on an isolated crag at 2, 200 metres above sea level.

However, it did not take the boys long to realise that this was really just the first stop on a much more arduous (‘but rewarding’, they promised) climb to a glacier at 3, 000 metres above sea level. I enthusiastically (but slightly anxiously) agreed, and we pledged if one of us felt unable to continue we would all return back to the village together.

And so we set off. The Three ‘Must-have-a-beers’ (as christened by my dad when he said our farewells to us at St Pancras) and Dog. We accidentally picked up Dog, a big giant beast of a dog, in the village when buying bread for the trek. We clambered through some forest land, with Dog faithfully trotting by our side, and paused at an information board about local fauna and wildlife.

There it was in black and white, among a long list of indingeous creatures… the Brown Bear.

‘Bears?!’ I shrieked, loud enough for even Dog to cast a cagey look to his right, into the woodland. I had been worrying a bit about the altitude, about whether Dog would suddenly turn on us to get our bread half way up a mountain, and even twisting an ankle or two. But bears?

So the remainder of the trek up to the Tsminda Sameba Church was largely spent coming up with a bear plan. We decided the boys would throw rocks at the beast, while I would throw the bread in the hope that Dog would fight him for it… or I would play dead and let the boys deal with it all. Travelling with boys has its uses after all, I concluded.

But such fears were soon forgotten as we made our approach to the stunning church, sitting amid low-lying clouds, because Dog started terrorising the cows. There are cows everywhere in Georgia and as a huge bovine fan, I am in my element on a daily basis. They are not even skanky cows like in India. The Georgian cows are beautiful beasts with deep, rich coloured coats and happy faces. But Dog started chasing a couple of the idly grazing cows beside the church, causing them to charge in fear at startled tourists, who tried to run out of their way. So we pretended not to know Dog and focused on the beauty of the church instead.

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Looking down at the village of Kazbegi, where we started the climb.

From the church we began the ascent to the glacier, minus Dog. Although by this point we had picked up New Dog, a smaller little creature that treated cows with more respect.

We started the long and cumbersome climb up hills scattered in wild flowers, over mountain ridges and more hills… and hills, and hills. As the altitude increased we found just a few energetic steps could leave us out of breath, causing us to pause… and reach for the chocolate.

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Even New Dog (who got crazier the higher he climbed) got tired and stopped for a snooze.

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But as soon as I got my breath back and looked around me, I felt overwhelmed by the views around us. The church soon went from being a tiny speck below us to disappearing completely, and was replaced by towering mountains and deep cut valleys that suddenly emerged over the ridges as we climbed higher.

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As we approached our final destination, we discovered we were unable to reach the glacier due to wet, melting snow which came up to our waists. Instead we sat looking out to Mount Kazbek and the glacier and ripped open our bread, cheese and chocolate for a picnic that might just win the best location award yet.
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And as we silently chomped away, at a spot that I would never dreamed of perservering to find, I concluded that travelling with boys – well these boys at least – is not so bad after all.

*This might be a slight exaggeration. Carly and I after all tackled many things including the great muddy hills of Laos’s jungles in nothing more than a pair of flip flops, which no other boys were daft enough dared to do.

Travel Tips

It is easy to travel to Kazbegi from Tbilisi – regualr marshrutkys (mini buses) run, taking about three hours and costing 10 lari (£4). You can also get taxis, costing about 90 lari – although we got a cab for the same price as the marshrutky as it needed to return to Tbilisi anyway, so worth asking around.

The journey is worth the visit in itself. Known as the Georgian Military Highway, it’s incredibly scenic if not a little terrifying as you take corners on the mountain edge – seeing an overturned lorry on one stretch was a tad unnerving – but the drive really is beautiul.

Where to stay in Kazbegi?

We stayed at a guesthouse called Nunu’s where she lovingly cooked for us every evening after we came down from the mountains. The beds were a little hard and there was no heating but we couldnt ask for better hospitality – plus the showers were hot! She’s very central – you can email her at gvanci9191@gmail.com or call +995558358535.

Best Georgian Restaurant in Batumi, Georgia

In Georgia it would seem that very few people speak English. This is more than acceptable and is the very reason why Matty has taken one for the team and learned Russian over the last few months.

But sometimes he gets a little stage fright and the phrase book is at the bottom of a bag, underneath more useful things like tissues, kirby grips and Blistex.

So in the meantime we have a new strategy for ordering food, which basically involves the Mongoose making animal noises at bemused waiting staff.

When struggling with the word for lamb recently, the Mongoose just suddenly started bleating. Not missing a beat, the waiter ‘Mooed’ back in his face. But nevertheless, we were soon eating a bleating-no-longer lamb.

Often, the most authentic local food is found in the places that have no English menus. As was the case with the best Georgian restaurant we have found so far, in the seaside town of Batumi, which was recommended to us by the lovely owners of the small family-run hostel we are staying in.

The first challenge was finding it. We knew it was on an alleyway, off a main boulevard, but the alleyway did not have a name and the restaurant name was nothing more than a sprawl of Georgian letters (which to my untrained eye looks like a combination of Arabic and Russian). Nevertheless, after the Mongoose furiously acted out eating a big plate of food fit for the gods, and we enthusiastically showed off our piece of paper with the indistinguishable Georgian letters, somebody finally took pity on us and led us there.

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This is the frontage of the inconspicuous little eatery.

Stepping in, we walked down some stairs and entered what almost felt like a hideaway den. A couple of women greeted us, chatting away in Georgian. We know one word – thank you – which we over use enthusiastically. Tomorrow I’m going to learn hello.

But for now we kind of greet people by thanking them and we try to tell people important messages by thanking them and when we actually need to thank someone for something, we feel rather pleased with ourselves for using the word in the right context.

So after ‘thanking’ our hellos, we took in our new surroundings. The walls and ceiling were decked out in a dark wooden panelling, giving the room a cosy feeling. And if you want it even more intimate than that there are two little private rooms that are curtained off from the main restaurant (this seems to be a common theme in Georgia.)

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They wisely led us into one of the little hideaway dens to keep the likes of Matty out of harms way.

Then came the food-ordering challenge. No menu was presented but a cheery woman started reading out what we decided must have been food options. Our trusty hostel owner had said if we said his name they would call him so he could translate on the phone.

So we started saying his name. This caused quite the flurry of excitement and they dashed in and out of our little room, but then returned and continued reading us the menu in Georgian… With no phone.

So I just started nodding at things. There was no real rhyme or reason to what I’d nod at but I did notice sometimes she looked more excited when she read out various dishes, which in turn led to more excitable nods from me.

It was around this time that Donagh started behaving like a fish. He put the palms of his hands together and made swimming motions towards the poor woman. Just as he was about to start puckering in his cheeks and swimming in circles around the imaginary fish bowl he now believed he was in, the woman shouted what I can only presume was ‘fish’ in Georgian. I nodded enthusiastically.

And the hard work was done. We sat back on our little stools around the low table in our den and eagerly waited for the food to arrive.

Charming and well loved terracotta clay plates and bowls were placed down in front of us. A litre of red wine, served in a reassuringly robust clay jug was presented and the woman pointed at the small terracotta bowls and said ‘vino’, to avoid that awkward situation of tourists pouring food into their wine vessels.

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Georgian red wine is either dry or sweet and tends to be of the two extremes, at least at the cheaper end of the market anyway. But this wine was light and fruity without being too sweet or too dry. It turned out to go very well with the food that was about to cover the table.

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First up was the bread. Bread is both big and beautiful in Georgia, it is always deliciously soft and fresh and we end up eating far too much of it before the meal arrives. This time it was accompanied by a lip-smacking tangy tomato salsa that was laden with fresh coriander and chilli. The bread basket and dip were replaced so quickly we were almost embarrassed. Almost.

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Allow me to introduce you to the 10 giant dumplings, (later learned to be called khinkali). Looking just like giant ravioli parcels, they were filled with a herb infused lamb mince and as we pierced the thick pasta-like skin, light but flavoursome meat juices spilled out onto the plate. A heavy sprinkling of pepper is encouraged. Delicious.

As we gobbled them down, a sizzling pan of pork was brought out to us, each little piece of juicy meat finished with its own crunchy layer of crackling.

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Apologies for the terrible pictures (and lack of pictorial food porn in this post) – I had only my iPhone with me and our cosy little den was lit by a single lantern.

Rest assured though, the food was so good that Matty attempted to quieten our dramatic gasps and cooing as we chomped away.

‘The people next door are going to think there’s some kind of orgy going on in here with the amount of sex noises going on,’ he warned.

But no sooner had he said it, the waitress brought the fish out and the Mongoose made a sound that even he looked a little uncomfortable with.

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Deep fried like a giant whitebait, the fish was deliciously tender and meaty.

It was, we concluded, a wonderful find and the ‘thank yous’ flowed out of us with no sign of relenting until we had finally left the building. Matty was delighted and the Mongoose ecstatic.

‘Mmmm, I wonder if we could get some squid next time,’ he suggested.

Let me assure you now, the phrase book will definitely be left behind for that occasion.

Travel Tips

We have been told that the translation for this wonderful Georgian restaurant in Batumi is ‘White Bear’.

It is on an alleyway just off Z.Gorgiladze Street, between the Art Museum and Maisi Street.

Our meal, with two litres of wine cost just 30 GEL for three people (about £10 between us).

If it’s any help at all, the alleyway entrance looks like this:

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Where to stay in Batumi?

We stayed at the lovely Batumi Hostel, which is on Mazniashvilis Qucha, and run by a friendly, young couple.

A converted house, the light and airy place really feels like a second home. Being there out of season we basically had it to ourself… Perfect. They also had a living room and kitchen, which was free to use as we pleased.

Ani, Turkey: Our first Silk Road city in ruins

My decision to travel the Silk Road was made while rambling around the Lake District with Matty and the Mongoose – hunting out film locations from the legendary British film Withnail and I. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what I was signing up to.

The conversation went something like this:

Matty and The Mongoose are walking ahead on a dusty narrow path, surrounded by trees. Delia is dawdling and looking at flowers and thinking about how to get into Uncle Monty’s Cottage. The boys have a conspiratorial air about them.

The Mongoose: So mate, it’s been four years since we pledged to travel the Silk Road together – when can we make it happen?
Matty: Well Delia has suggested that her and I travel South America in 2013.

The boys lean their heads together and talk in low tones. Matty then hangs back and waits for Delia while the Mongoose continues ahead

Matty: What say the three of us travel the Silk Road together in 2013 and then we do South America on the way home?
Delia: Ok.

Some squawking, high giving and general elation. Followed by a long pause.

Delia: Where exactly is the Silk Road again?

The following months involved me learning about this ‘stan, that ‘stan, another ‘stan and ‘stan, ‘stan. I soon had a huge list of places I wanted to see… The shrinking sea in Uzbekistan, the gold statue of the Turkmenistan president that rotates at the exact same speed as the earth so the sun is always on his face in daylight hours, the beautiful pony treks of Kyrgyzstan and the countless yurt stays in Tajikistan.

But still, when we set off almost three weeks ago, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect.

Europe was a wonderful whirlwind and then suddenly we were in Turkey. And I fell in love with Turkey. A far cry from the tacky beach resorts of the south coast, we visited the fairy tale land of Cappadocia before taking a stunning train ride through the mountainous north-east of the country to Kars.

But it was a little place called Ani, an old ruined Silk Road city, that made me stop in my tracks, stand still and realise what this journey is about.

Once the stately Armenian capital that was home to more than 100,000 people, today Ani’s crumbling city walls and ancient churches are surrounded by nothing more than velvet green hills and a gurgling river.

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With only seven other tourists also exploring the ruins, which are spread over acres of land, it felt like we had discovered it quite by accident. It was both eerie and beautiful.

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We had more birds than people for company.

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The dramatic landscape rolls right into Armenia, a border which remains closed to this day.

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The Mongoose gazes out to Armenia.

As we climbed up an old mosque tower (a dark, enclosed steep concrete staircase with a local who liked to brush up against me), and looked out on the view below it was suddenly so easy to see it as the hustling and bustling Silk Road city it had once been.

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This excavation shows a whole street of what would have been shops, trading their goods and perhaps selling the silk that had just completed its long journey from China.

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The view out to Armenia from the tower.

It was the sort of place that took you back in time, and made you imagine another world, another place. It brought history to life.

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It made me think about back to that windy day in Penrith as we trudged to Uncle Monty’s ruinous cottage, and how glad I was for giving that one word answer. Because Ani is just the beginning of learning about a rather special time in history… and for me, that is what this journey is about.

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Travel tips

We travelled from Goreme, Cappadocia to Kars to visit Ani.

We caught the airport shuttle bus to the nearest train station called Kayseri (our lovely Hostel – Shoestring- organised this for us and spoke to the driver to make sure he also stopped at the station on the way to the airport) and then caught a 16 hour sleeper train to Kars, which was – without a doubt the best and most beautiful train journey of the trip yet.

You cannot make train reservations in Turkey for sleeper cars etc online or by phone – you have to just turn up an hour early and do it there. We were assured the trains are never full as the Turkish find them too slow compared to buses. Sure enough we turned up (about three hours early as shuttle bus did not go any later) and got tickets at the station no prob at all.

In Kars we stayed at Otel Mirac, which was a basic but nice enough guesthouse (although the rooms STANK of smoke) and the guy at the hotel told us it would cost 40 Lira (£15) to go out on the minibus to Ani the next day, which seemed to be the only minibus making the trip as we had the place to ourselves. It was worth every penny.