What about

blog about a country I’ve visited

What about Armenia? Final of the series.

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. The latter also covered Abkhazia. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad thing. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

Armenia was the first Christian country. I didn’t know that. Different people will have different opinions about this.  Nevertheless, seeing where Noah landed made a big impression.  What was harder was taxi drivers who didn’t speak English – which was every one I came across.

Some photos:

Us arriving at Yerevan Railway Station – three trains arrive a week. From Tbilisi, Georgia. And three trains depart weekly to Tbilisi.

Yerevan Railway Station

Yerevan Railway Station

one of many beautiful churches – this on the outskirts of Yerevan

one of many beautiful churches – this on the outskirts of Yerevan

another of many beautiful churches – this on the outskirts of Yerevan

one of many beautiful churches – this on the outskirts of Yerevan

lunch

lunch here

heading out into the country towards Mt. Ararat

If it’s not cloudy you can see Mt. Ararat from here

a home cooked meal

tour of the brandy factory

Mr. Yeltsin was there before us

Yerevan Tavern

Eating at the Yerevan Tavern – delicious, inexpensive, good service, friendly

Eating at the Yerevan Tavern – delicious, inexpensive, good service, friendly

and with entertainment

cathedral

the top of Mt. Ararat as seen from the cathedral

central Yerevan

Mother Armenia statue

snow on the hills surrounding Yerevan

sculptures around the city

Parliament Building

the Cascades – leading up to the Mother Armenia statue – further to the right out of the photo, though

Central Mosque

cathedral at night

History Museum

the Metro

Yerevan station at night

Yerevan station at night

compartment on the night train to Tbilisi, Georgia

the bar / cafe on the night train

the bar / cafe on the night train

available at the bar

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What about Abkhazia?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. The latter also covered Abkhazia. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country. But in the case of Abkhazia I will do this a bit differently, as there are not many non-Georgian / non-Russian tourists visiting this country. I saw no other tourists there, except for one tour group, which appeared to be Russian. So I will tell of my experience, which could help anyone else who wants to go. And give my hints and advice.

As for bad and good – food was expensive and it was hard to find reasonably priced restaurants; alcohol was cheap and easy to find.

Oh, and few people speak English, although some will understand a few basic words.  They do speak Russian, however, if that helps.

If you want to enter the country, first you need to obtain permission, which you do by downloading a government form from their web site, filling it out and emailing to them.  In about 10 days I got the permission letter back.  One of the questions on the form is the range of dates you wish to stay there, and I made the mistake of only applying for dates covering five days.  These were the dates I had permission to enter.  That was my first mistake. If you want greater flexibility ask for a much longer period.

The bureaucrats often make mistakes – and they did on mypermission letter, which caused me grief. I had checked it – it’s all in Russian, and wasn’t sure of part of it – and that was where the mistake was. So use Google Translate (photo function) to translate the Russian on the forms and also approval letter you receive to ensure you make no mistakes, and that the bureaucrat hasn’t. If they have, get it corrected before you travel there.  Obviously you take this permission letter with you, but I found it useful to also take the forms I filled out and emailed to the MFA as well.

Once you have entered the country you need to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within three working days (if memory serves) to apply for your visa. If not, you won’t be able to leave the country, apparently. The MFA is in the capital, Sukhumi.

Before you go, buy roubles.  It’s easy to do in Tbilisi, or in Zugdidi. Small notes are more convenient, if you can get them.  If you plan to arrive in Abkhazia on the weekend, be aware that you are unlikely to find a money changer open until Monday.  (I’ll later mention the one I did finally find open).  Lonely Planet (LP) wrote that you couldn’t use ATM’s with a western card.  Actually I found that I could, but it would only dispense small amounts, and charged large fees. But you won’t find any ATM’s anywhere convenient until you reach Sukhumi.

I entered the country on a Saturday.  I think one would find it more convenient to enter on a weekday as money changers and shops are open, and you can also go to the MFA for your visa ASAP. Once you have the visa you are free to leave.

I entered the country from Georgia. I don’t know anything about entering from Russia – except LP said that you’d need a double entry visa for Russia as you would have to return there after and can’t continue on to Georgia.

It appears you can get a minibus / marshrutka directly to the Enguri Bridge border from the central railway station in Tbilisi. I did the reverse direction.  It’s pretty uncomfortable because it’s cramped and only stops once, halfway through the seven hour journey.  But it is convenient and relatively fast.  Or you can get the train to Zugdidi and then a taxi to the border. This is much more comfortable. LP said it was a 20 minute drive and cost  GEL10 to Enguri Bridge from Zugdidi station.  I was charged 15, but it was less than 10 minutes, so I think  I overpaid in that case, and 10 would be realistic.

As they don’t want anyone photographing border regions, army barracks etc. I have no photos until further into the country.  Here is my account of crossing the border from Georgia to Abkhazia at Enguri Bridge.

First, by the side of the road is the Georgian police checkpoint, where they pointed out the paperwork error on my permission form. But they let me continue.  By the way, should you want to use a toilet, ask the police and they’ll let you use theirs. Then you walk across the bridge, which takes about 10 minutes.  You can pay for a horse and cart to take you if you wish. Once across you go to a pillbox.  The Russian soldier found the same error in my letter. I showed the original forms I’d filled out to show I’d done it correctly.  Also he had a big book of lists of people, and on my entry the data was also correct. After a few phone calls he let me proceed. Next was an office where they went through the same procedure. I was guarded by soldiers, who seemed very severe and unfriendly at first, but after a few minutes became friendly and curious. The official (soldier) asked me if I could speak German, and then we could communicate. Finally they said it was ok and I walked out into Abkhazia.

There were no money changers across the border. Just the bus and taxis.

I a saw bus, and asked if it was going to Gali. It was, so I got on. It left after a while, and it took about 20 minutes to get there. You pay when you get off. About R40. I got off at the bus station, which is on the right just past the centre. A lady on the bus pointed it out. I found a bus going to Sukhumi and waited. About 45 minutes later we left.   The scenery was quite barren as it’s the end of winter, but white and pink peach blossoms were out, and some citrus farms were around. I asked the driver to drop me sort of near the hotel. It took about 2 hours. There was very little traffic.

I stayed in what Lonely Planet described as the top hotel in town.  The Ritz. Well, Hotel Ritsa. View of the Black Sea, promenade, fountains, palm trees etc., and with the beach just across the car-free promenade. The hotel is 104 years old, so it’s charm is somewhat faded, but it’s comfortable, has good WiFi, and the price is in roubles, making it far cheaper than the dive I stayed in in Tehran. One reason for staying there was that I hoped they’d speak English and would be able to help me a bit.  That worked to an extent.

The Ritsa Hotel’s winter rates and the low rouble meant that a room with a view was about €30. But they wanted to be paid upfront. Not having that many roubles I spent a lot of time looking for money exchange but couldn’t find one. LP said ATM’s wouldn’t work, but I found they did but issued only about € 60 worth of roubles, meaning a large loss in fees. The hotel finally said I could pay on Monday. So I had enough money to eat, but could find very few restaurants. One was fully booked, and this was an expensive restaurant. It seems here alcohol and public transport is cheap, but food is expensive. I walked to the train station, but it looked closed. I found out later that trains run from there to Russia, but otherwise there are no trains. However, it is the long distance bus station. I saw kind of gathering of buses there. I caught a passing bus back as it was a long walk. R10 for the bus and you pay on exit.

I went out several times in different directions trying to find a restaurant, and finally I did, but it was close to €10 for something very simple that cost me about GEL 6 that morning in Zugdidi. There are so many expensive new cars. Streets  are quite empty mostly and drivers treat them like a racetrack.

In this hotel, breakfast was run on a different system to which I was accustomed.  You choose from a menu, and there was an allowance of R300 after which you paid the rest.  They had an English menu.  On another morning the waitress denied they had one, but I insisted as I’d had it the previous day, so she produced it.

The hotel receptionist wrote directions on how to get to Novo Afon, a resort up the coast.

First I took a local bus, then showed her directions to the teenage girl who was sitting next to me. Almost no-one here speaks English. She spoke some English, and said she’d show me.  We got off at the market and she showed me the next bus, that goes to the station. She was also catching this one, so I went with her. But I found a money exchange right there. Finally. I’d searched for hours the previous day with no luck. So try the market if you need a money changer on the weekend.

The girl was from Donetsk, and came here with her family. But her mother is still there. She said her mother and her friends were somewhere safe.  She’d like to go back if it’s safe. She said she’d show me the minibus I needed to go the rest of the way.  This bus doubled back most of the way to the first bus stop I got on, and then went on to the station.

So bear in mind that locals’ directions are not necessarily logical. I could have easily walked to the bus stop the second bus stopped at, and save a small expense but quite a lot of time.

The girl showed me the bus and soon it departed. This was going too​ easily. We drove on for 20 minutes or so. Just 10 more minutes and we’d be there. And the bus broke down. Some tried to hitchhike, some caught a passing taxi. The rest of us waited and in about 15 minutes we were rescued and taken the rest of the way by another minibus.

First I wandered through the gardens across the road from the beach. Then it was uphill to the cave. There, when I tried to purchase a ticket, which was expensive at R500, the attendant insisted I needed two, and had to wait over an hour to use them. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to get for this, but that’s over half the price of my hotel room, so I declined. It was time to tackle the fort, climbing steep streets to get there.

From the fort I, along with others, took shortcuts to avoid the long winding path down. Then it was down the road. Halfway down I was offered a lift by a Russian couple. She’s from Moscow, and he from Kamchatka. They’d driven from Russia.  In the end they drive me to my next stop, the monastery, saving me perhaps 45 minutes walk, which was useful as the day was becoming a little late and transport starts to dry up. The monastery was amazing. Then it was a few minutes walk down the hill and when I found the correct spot for flagging minibuses, another 10 minutes to get one that brought me to the station, from where I took a local bus, which I already understood.

Getting a visa is all part of the travel experience.  This trip required two. Iran and Abkhazia. All the others were VOA, or no visa was required.

On Monday morning I came to the Abkhazian consular office which I’d looked for and found the previous day. The address in LP was incorrect, but the one on the MFA web site was correct.  I tried for 9am, but got a little confused with streets, and it was 9.20. The office had a sign in English. But no information desk or reception.  People are just waiting in a room. They look like manual workers. Already 12 people there. No idea what is best to do. Employees pass through the room occasionally. More people came. A few women, too. Some go into the office through the closed door and soon come back out. I would have thought that printing up some information would save the employees being annoyed all the time.

As I was just a tourist and didn’t need any complicated kind of visa I thought I’d better make myself known as they might sort me out quickly. Thus I went to another part of the office and talked – well, said “visa” to an employee who showed me through the waiting room to an office and indicated to sit down. Seemed good. But then a woman soon came in and asked me politely but severely in English to wait outside. She said the guy was coming in 10 minutes. Which would be 10am. Pity. I had made a bit of progress, but at least I got noticed. And now it’s after 10 and no one has come.  More people are waiting, though. Over 20. They come and go out and come back in.

Someone strode in looking like he was late, and one guy went in and stayed. Soon the severe women came out and said that I was welcome.  The other guy who went in and stayed had a bunch of green passports. They were being processed by the guy who’d strode in and was now sitting behind the desk. I sat in front of his desk. In a minute or two he picked up my passport and asked me if I had a credit card. Then he asked me how long I was staying. He gave me exactly how long I asked for. A sticker was printed but left loose. This was my visa. And he put the credit card in the machine.  It was all done in two minutes. It was 10.22.

So Lonely Planet’s info is out of date. The address for consular services is Sakharova (Street) 33. You can now pay by credit card and don’t need to go to the bank to make a draft. The fee was also a lot less than LP said. 350 Roubles.

The building is open at 9am, the office seems to open at 9.30, and perhaps the official starts at 10. It’s probably important to inoffensively make your presence as a tourist known. Otherwise you could wait a long time. I didn’t feel bad jumping the queue because I just wanted a simple tourist visa, and it seemed most or all of the others were after a residence or working visa, which should require much documentation and checking.

My room at the hotel hadn’t been made up yet, despite the sign on the door. Then I went out, went to the museum, had a coffee R25 and then to the Botanical Gardens at 250. The gardens were small, but had a very relaxing feel about them.

Back to the hotel, and my room was still not made up. Then I went out to walk along the Black Sea shore.  Paddled in the water, mislaid a sock and found it, then walked in the other direction. Sat on a bench and dozed a bit. Returned to the hotel. The maid had done almost nothing. Gave me a new soap. I did a bit more planning and research.

Then out for dinner. At the same place I’d found near the MFA and at which I’d eaten the previous evening. And after to the cathedral, which was still open.

On Tuesday I planned to return to Tbilisi.

I tried to get reception to write down on paper “to bus station” in Russian. After 10 minutes I gave up and used their Google translate to write it myself.  They watched me do this, but still didn’t help. After breakfast grabbed my bag and left.

I figure that it would be possible to flag the minivan down very near the hotel. I knew where. But they all insisted I should go to the bus station. Which is the wrong direction.  I know a better way to get there than they say, too. So I walked to the bus stop and when the bus came one minute later got on the front to show my paper to the driver to ensure it was going he right direction. He was just rude and shouted at me to get on the back, I suppose. I gave up and thought it was probably the right bus, but maybe a 50-50 chance. If not I’d get off. It was fine.

I got to station and I asked which minivan to Gari, using my paper with that in Russian on it.  This driver was friendly.

And I was right, a couple of people flagged him down.  I could have just caught it near the hotel. So much for the locals’ advice.

I thought it terminated at Gari. We got there much faster than I expected. But he was a good driver.  I almost alighted, but learnt it went on to the border at Enguri.  Another 15 minutes or so. R 300 fare.

There was a long queue for passport checks. 60 people. They let through 20 and then you wait a long time.  They gave me special attention when it was finally my turn, which just meant they asked a bunch of other soldiers and then let me through. Next was another queue for the same kind of check, and this time he took my visa paper. And that was it. I guess the whole thing took 45 minutes. I probably arrived in Enguri around 11. And I was through the border and crossed the bridge to the Georgia police around 12 Abkhazian time / 1300 Georgia time. Oh yes, there is a one hour time difference.

A guy asked me if I wanted a marshrutka to Tbilisi. I said no as I’d been thinking I’d need to get transport to Zugdidi, and then wait a few hours for the train.  But I asked the price, and after how many minutes it was leaving, the answer to both being 15.  This would be so easy compared to my plan. He collected the fare before we left at about 1330 with a full vehicle. I’d be in Tbilisi many hours before I would if I caught the train. The van had patchy WiFi. I gave up on it and used the mobile Internet. Limit how much you drink before catching minibuses as comfort stops are few and far between.  Very nice scenery on the way.

So I left the hotel in Sukhumi at around 9am and by 12.30pm Abkhazian  / 1.30pm Georgian time I was on a minibus to Tbilisi. Very good.

So that’s my experience and my hints.

Was it worth the effort to visit?  It was for me.  There wasn’t so much to see, and I expect that the scenery would be lusher as spring progressed into summer, but it was quite a different experience, and not particularly expensive to visit or difficult to arrange. The relatively minor inconveniences I suffered won’t affect anyone who heeds the hints I give here, and they’d have a smoother visit.

I couldn’t take photos near the border, but I could of the MFA building as I asked them if it was OK first.  I thought it would help others identify it.  So here are some photos, including the MFA building.

the bus from Gali to Sukhumi

the bus station at Gali

in the bus to Sukhumi

lots of trees blossoming

one of many rivers with snow-capped mountains in the distance

Sukhumi

the Black Sea at Sukhumi

Sukhumi water front

Hotel Ritsa in the centre of Sukhumi on the main promenade

the main promenade, opposite Hotel Ritsa

there are many small parks

a meal I tracked down

really delicious sweets

a local bus

the lake in the park at Novo Afon

the fort, Novo Afon

map

walking up to the fort

the chapel in the fort

the chapel in the fort

there is still snow on the mountains

view of the park and the Black Sea from the fort

view of St. Apostle Simon the Zealot from the fort

St. Apostle Simon the Zealot

St. Apostle Simon the Zealot

on the way back to Sukhumi

another meal – I never really knew what anything was as no one spoke English

the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – where you go for your visa

the beach at Sukhumi

part of the promenade

old fort on the promenade

another meal

cathedral in Sukhumi

Hotel Ritsa at night

back at Gali bus station returning to the border

What about Georgia?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

What’s not so great in Georgia? Smoking in restaurants is OK.  However, even if people were smoking at every table it somehow didn’t bother me – maybe the air, humidity level…?

And good? So much. It is just so easy there after travelling around the middle east.  You feel free.

 

The Caucasus flying across Georgia towards Tbilisi

a restaurant in the old town of Tbilisi serving traditional dishes

a restaurant in the old town serving traditional dishes

dumplings

eggplant and walnut spread

veal and vegetables

this one is filled with cheese

pork dish

there are wine shops eerywhere – sometimes every second shop

there are wine shops eerywhere – sometimes every second shop

and there are churches everywhere

the churches are amazingly beautiful inside

interesting bridge

interesting bridge

Mtkvari River in the centre of Tbilisi

old town

castle ruins on the hill behind old town

botanical garden

Mother Georgia statue

people seem to be free to set up a business anywhere

a very modern train – the train to Batumi on the Black Sea

inside the train

western Georgia heading towards the Black Sea

western Georgia heading towards the Black Sea

western Georgia heading towards the Black Sea

on the train – top speed about 150kph

the train runs beside the Black Sea a little

Batumi train station

the lake in Batumi

at the beach in Batumi

at the beach on the Black Sea in Batumi

Batumi has some striking buildings

it’s spring

the casinos etc. in Batumi

the road from Batumi to Zugdidi, in the north of Georgia

the minibus from the Abkhazian border to Tbilisi

an interesting exhibit

a bar in Tbilisi old town

a privately bottled wine

the night train from Tbilisi to Yerevan, Armenia

the sleeping compartment in the train

​What about Iran?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

In every country almost everyone talks on their mobile phone while driving. And if you wear a seat belt you’re a big sissy. Taxi drivers will make a show of kind of putting their seat belt on while laughing as if to say, I’m not a sissy, but I can see that police checkpoint is up ahead and I have to put the belt on. Then they’ll undo the seat belt after passing the checkpoint.

As for Iran, I’ve never seen worse driving. As I like to walk everywhere if at all possible, it made Tehran and Shiraz a nightmare. I wanted to cycle in Shiraz, but it was too dangerous. Esfahan,  it seems, was much better. I really like it. It’s apparently the most popular city in Iran for both domestic and international tourism.  And there was no noticeable litter there, too​ – another eyesore in most places. I liked Yadz, too. In the old city the streets / alleys are very narrow, and in many cases, too narrow for cars.

But the people in Iran were really nice. Amazingly nice.  And you learn not to expect any ulterior motive.

If I go again I’d want to visit the smaller towns and the natural landscapes.

As for me getting a visa:

I had read that some people were turned away when they applied for visa on arrival. And I read the Iranian government website. It seemed better to have a confirmed hotel booking and this printed out to show when one applied for visa on arrival. As I was travelling standby I didn’t know for sure when I would arrive, so a confirmed hotel booking that was non-refundable that I couldn’t use would be more expensive than using a company to get visa approval for me, and also more expensive than me going down to KL to apply. Using such a company was supposed to be much faster, too. A week or ten days at the most to get approval.

I used Iranian visa.com, who were terrible, threatening, rude, inefficient,  didn’t send the right documentation to the ministry, and took more than a month.  If you want a visa in advance, either go to a handy consulate or find a company that has good reviews from many people to get the approval for you.

The idea is that the company gets pre-approval for your visa and you then go to the consulate in the country you’ve nominated, give the approval number, fill out the application form, and go to a local bank to transfer the visa fee to the consulate.

I had nominated Rabat, Morocco. When I finally got the approval I went to the consulate, but they told me all was not in order.  They asked for proof of health insurance, details of an Iranian friend who lives in Iran, my plans there etc. In the end the consul himself came out and gave me a visa, but only for 15 days. All staff were polite and friendly, and the consul particularly so. It should have been 30 days, but given the circumstances, and also because I had got the visa far later than I planned, 15 days was enough.

As for visa on arrival: when you arrive in Tehran by air there is an area before the immigration counters where there is a bank window so you can buy rials, a health insurance booth where you pay for that, the amount depending on how long you’re staying ($16 for 15 days) and which you pay in dollars, and the visa window, where I’d guess you pay in rials. Then there was just one queue for foreigners for immigration. I didn’t see any dramas while I waited about an hour in the queue.  As I already had the visa I didn’t need to bother with any of that including paying for the health insurance.

A few other things about Iran, which I will mention:

  • Iran and elsewhere in middle East still has lots of small shops and businesses. As it used to be decades ago in English speaking countries, but which now are replaced by chain stores, franchises and multinationals.
  • Many women seem to have had nose jobs – so many women walk around with bandages on their noses. All women must wear hijabs, including tourists, but women’s faces are not hidden, except for women who dress like Saudis, of which there are not so many.
  • As a man one doesn’tt really talk to women except if they are working in a shop or at a ticket counter, etc.
  • Normal native Iranians do the cleaning, not immigrants
  • Everyone drives and talks on their phones
  • No-one wears seat belts except if there are police around.
  • There are so many expensive new cars around
  • Iran has hordes of motorbikes, other countries in this region have only cars

Milad Tower, Tehran

Milad Tower, Tehran

view from Milad Tower, Tehran

view from Milad Tower, Tehran

Tehran Station

Tehran to Shiraz night train

Tehran to Shiraz night train

train trip between Tehran and Shriaz

dinner in the dining car on the train

the train dining car

train trip between Tehran and Shriaz

on the train

train trip between Tehran and Shiraz

arrived in Shiraz

Shiraz station

barren hills in the background of the city centre of Shiraz

baths in the fort, Shiraz

Persepolis ruins – thanks to Alexander the great destroyer

Persepolis ruins – thanks to Alexander the great destroyer

Persepolis ruins – thanks to Alexander the great destroyer

Persepolis ruins – thanks to Alexander the great destroyer

Esfahan

delicious pottage from a shop in Esfahan

Shah Mosque, Esfahan

mosque in main square, Esfahan

Shah Mosque, Esfahan

Shah Mosque, Esfahan

park next to the river, Esfahan

bridge over river, Esfahan

night time view of bridge

in a park, Esfahan

Church of Holy Bethlehem

Church of Holy Bethlehem

Esfahan Railway Station

Jameh Mosque, Yadz, Iran

Jameh Mosque, Yadz, Iran

street in Yadz old town, Iran

street in Yadz old town, Iran

rooftop view, Yadz old town

wind tower – used for cooling

the tallest wind tower in Yadz

Yadz at night

I’ve forgotten this one

desert scenery from the train from Yadz to Tehran

 

 

What about Jordan?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often. Otherwise I read some blogs and online forums for more up to date information.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

I think my guide-book described Jordan as “Middle East Lite”. You get the Biblical and Islamic sites, but without the political problems and implications, or indeed the danger, of a visit to many of the other countries in the region. Alcohol is freely available. So are shishas. English seemed widely understood, people are honest and friendly.

What was bad? Well, it was kind of expensive compared to other countries in the area, but alcohol was very expensive, even though, compared to some countries, it is actually available.  500ml beer cost USD$5 or more.

And the good? Well, it was magic to stand where Moses stood for his first view of the promised land. Mind you, it’s barren, dry and hard to scratch a living from. The many other sites and places I saw, the landscapes just as I imagined from when I was a child, the food… They were good. But seeing the view from Mt. Nebo as Moses had done was magic.

Not many hints to give. I based myself in Madaba rather than Amman as it’s a comfortable small town and a bit closer to many of the sites you’ll probably want to visit, while the town itself also has many things of interest. You can go there directly from the airport without passing through Amman, the airport being between Amman and Madaba.

I organised taxis through the hotel and so had no problems with taxis cheating me. A hotel will often also arrange airport pickup for you. If you do this you won’t need a SIM until in town, where it may be cheaper than the airport.

Some photos:

there’s shisha

there’s beer and wine

there’s statues

and lovely Christian churches

inside one

St. George at work

another church

and another beautiful interior

and another beautiful interior

local restaurant

dinner

sunrise over Madaba

one of the historic sites in Madaba

Madaba has many mosaics

Madaba has many mosaics

local transport to Amman

local transport to Amman

olive groves on the way to Amman

Amman

how else would you tow a cart?

in the centre of Amman

from the citadel on the hill

in the town centre – taken from the citadel

citadel ruins

citadel ruins

and there are mosques

Amman

interesting building

In the market in central Amman

Church at Mt. Nebo

looking east

the view of the promised land that Moses saw

it seems not much has changed for some in the last few thousand years

where Jesus was baptised

where Jesus was baptised

across the Jordan River looking at Palestine – people are getting baptised

a church celebrating the baptism of Jesus

a church celebrating the baptism of Jesus

goat herding

at the Dead Sea

at the Dead Sea

at the Dead Sea

so dry

What about Lebanon?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often. Otherwise I read some blogs and online forums for more up to date information.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

I’d wanted to visit Lebanon for decades, but every time I thought it was safe another war started or incident occurred, and it just seemed too dangerous. At the moment is seems OK, but apparently the south is not safe because of rocket attacks from Israel, and Tripoli in the north is not safe because it’s a stronghold for terrorists, and sometimes demonstrations block the road to the airport so you can be stuck and unable to fly out. In addition, people are sometimes kidnapped from taxis or private buses, so you must use a reputable taxi company or government buses only. More normal crime is also a problem.

Despite minimal tourism, hotels are still quite expensive.

So I came up with a plan. To fly in early in the morning, get a prearranged taxi to pick me up and show me some of Beirut, Byblos and Tyre, and drop me back at the airport in time for a night-time flight. In doing so I could avoid expensive hotels, crime, and minimise exposure to the other dangers. Only one day, but I could fit the equivalent of two or three days sightseeing and it’s better than not visiting at all. A few weeks before my trip I arranged a one day tour with Comfort Taxis, and they were happy to correspond with me, despite being a one-time customer. It all worked out well and very conveniently. I flew out to Jordan that night.

What was disappointing was the airport. I arrived very early in the morning, but there weren’t really any facilities. No free WiFi. You could buy WiFi by the hour, but it was expensive, or you could buy a SIM card for $75! In Europe around $7 buys you a SIM card and 5GB of data for around a month. Celcom Malaysia has a roaming “deal” of RM38 ($8) for a Malaysian time-zone day – i.e. it expires at midnight Malaysian time – for a tiny amount of data – it may have been 50MB. It was the cheapest choice, and the data allowance ran out almost immediately, but at least I could contact the taxi company.

Here are a few photos:

driving through Beirut

driving through Beirut

monument to Napoleon north of Beirut

north of Beirut

orthodox church in Byblos

ruins in Byblos

ruins in Byblos

beach at Byblos

ruins in Byblos

ruins in Byblos

old church in Byblos

old church in Byblos

harbour in Byblos

harbour in Byblos

mosque in Beirut

ruins in Tyre

ruins in Tyre

ruins in Tyre

ruins in Tyre

Mediterranean at Tyre

My driver tracked down this food – we ate the lot

Tyre

Tyre

north towards Beirut

​What about Morocco?

I am just back from a trip around Morocco and some of the countries which used to be part of the Persian Empire at some stage in the past – Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Georgia, Armenia.

For information I used Lonely Planet: Morocco; Middle East; Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan. These three books. I uploaded the electronic version to Google Play Books and saved the weight of real books. They served their purpose pretty well. I bought them when on special, which LP does quite often.

For each country I’ll be writing of one good and one bad experience. And then include some hints and a few photos of the country.

In every country almost everyone talks on their mobile phone while driving. And if you wear a seat belt you’re a big sissy. Taxi drivers will make a show of kind of putting their seat belt on while laughing as if to say, I’m not a sissy, but I can see that police checkpoint is up ahead and I have to put the belt on. Then they’ll undo the seat belt after passing the checkpoint.

First the meaning of a few words. Kasbah means castle. Medina means city. Souq means streets of market stalls.

OK, and here is the bad experience. Small boys will want to guide you somewhere. And then demand ridiculous sums for their service. Say $30. They’ll ask you where you’re going, then walk in front of you even if you know where you’re going, and then demand money as they’ll say they guided you.  If you want to use them, negotiate beforehand.  If you don’t, and don’t answer their questions they’ll walk in front of you anyway for a bit, but mostly they give up. On one occasion they didn’t give up, and they were extremely rude, swearing in English like you would wouldn’t believe. I can’t say I want to encourage such obnoxiousness. It leaves a bad taste. This is mainly a problem in Marrakesh.

The good experience: I had a good time with people. I couchsurfed just once as mostly I couldn’t schedule much in advance. But it was on the weekend, and my host was kind enough to share it with me and introduce me to friends and show me around Rabat, in addition to experiencing how someone lives. As luck would have it, his place was also easily walkable to the Iranian consulate, which was a bonus as I had to go there for a visa.

In the Medina of Marrakesh is the most amazing maze of  alleys.  Some go straight for a while, and others lead off them, and some come to a dead-end.  Maps don’t help much as they’re not accurate enough, and GPS doesn’t work as they are too narrow with thick-walled buildings on either side.  So it’s not easy-going to where to want in the Medina. If you remember what turns you took you can retrace your steps and try a different turn. Or just keep on trying to go in the direction you want, and go back from dead ends and try what you think is another way.  Some areas are teeming with people, some have a few, and some are eerily deserted. You can ask shopkeepers or someone the direction to, for example, the main square. If you ask before every turn, you might get there.  If you use roads on the outskirts, combined with some of the larger alleys that are accurately drawn on a map, combined with remembering from past experience and noting landmarks, you do get better at it.

Taxi drivers are often dishonest, but in the capital, Rabat, they use their meters, and thus present no problems to use.

If you are a pedestrian be very careful as the drivers are bad.

Thus where possible catch trains for travel as it’s safer and more comfortable. There are trains to many places you might like to visit. Otherwise you will have to catch buses.

I was told that they’re not allowed to sell alcohol in the Medina, so if you want it you’ll have to go to the new town.

Change any leftover money before you go through immigration to the airside of the airport. Airside there are no change facilities, and they don’t accept their local currency in the shops. Just Euros. The information desk people will unofficially change your money, but at a shockingly bad rate. The one shop I found where you could use the local currency was the shop selling Moroccan crafts.

souq in the medina, Rabat

main street, Rabat

Rabat

Rabat

Tangier

Tangier

in the medina in Marrakesh

souq in the medina in Marrakesh

garden in Marrakesh

in the medina in Marrakesh

in the medina in Marrakesh

mountains near Marrakesh

dinner in Marrakesh

Marrakesh station

typical long distance train – to Marrakesh

lunch in El Jadida

lamb tangine in El Jadida

sunrise in lamb El Jadida

beach in El Jadida

Portugese fort in El Jadida

colourful house