Printable recreational dive log sheet template

Having filled up the last page of my store bought dive log, I decided it was time I started printing my own log sheets. I wanted a template that could fit in a small binder (half letter (5.5″ x 8.5″) or A5), where there was enough space on the page to log two dives and that gave me ample space for comments while providing the standard diving data fields. Unfortunately, I could not find anything that suited my needs so I decided to put together my own.

Click here to download

Dive log demo

Printable dive log sheets full page

It features the following built in fields:

  • dive number
  • dive start time
  • visibility
  • air and bottom temperature
  • site
  • location
  • depth
  • air or nitrox (EANx)
  • gas consumed
  • weight
  • time under
  • safety stop
  • boat or shore dive
  • fresh or salt water dive
  • notes
  • buddy or divemaster signature and number

The layout is compact and text has been kept to a minimum: you write the units yourself. Once it has been printed (on good paper stock and double side preferably), cut the sheets in half along the dotted line, punch holes if you want to store them in a binder and go log some dives.

For those interested in the source, here it is. Suggestions for improvements are welcome!

Georgia, part 2

Georgia is small and can be traversed from one end to the other in a couple of hours provided there are not too many trucks: on a single day of driving, we departed from Yerevan in Armenia and made it to Stepansmida (formerly known as Kazbegi) deep in northern Georgia. Lauded as one of the best destination for hiking, Stepansmida lies close to the Russian border high in the Caucasus mountains but only a 2h30 drive away from Tbilisi  using the famous “Georgian military highway”. Our original goal was to spend two days there but due to unforeseen delays we only had one. Nonetheless, this would have provided us with half a day of hiking around as the rental car was not due until the middle of the afternoon.

The scenery on the way to Stepansmida

With hitchikers

With hitchikers

The drive up was spectacular, even more so than earlier mountain scenery we had been exposed to. The weather was noticeably cooler, the peaks higher, the valleys deeper and the terrain more abrupt. On the way there, we picked up three Ukrainian hitchhikers which we managed to cram in the car along with their backpacks and a guitar. Our vehicle, already struggling, was taxed almost to its capacity but it was worth taking our time as the view was worth it. Having dropped our guests at their destination, we kept going until we encountered some weird Soviet era monument a bit before the Jvari pass. The structure was curious, but it was the scenery that caught our attention the most. I might be breaking graphic design rules here but I think it’s worth two large photos in a row.

Monument on the way to Stepansmida

Monument on the way to Stepansmida

Going down into the clouds

 

We resumed the climb, crossed the Jvari pass and dived through a thick layer of clouds under which layed a large valley. However, something strange was profiling itself on the horizon. Trucks, and lots of them, stopped by the side of the road, with their drivers out just killing time with one another. What was wrong? Was the road damaged? The car we were following just kept going as if it was nothing important so we continued. For several kilometers and until we hit our destination we passed countless freight trucks stopped in the same fashion. Weird.

Having not booked any accommodation, we were turned down at the guesthouse we were hoping to sleep in. It was high season after all and that small town was one of the most popular destination in Georgia. After almost an hour of driving around to find beds, we finally had to settle for an expensive hotel that was offering us a (still expensive) discounted room. While eating diner that night, we asked the waiter about all the trucks lining the road. Turns out it was the lineup for the Russian customs. With the border in South-Ossetia and Abkhazia being closed to traffic coming from Georgia, that border crossing was the only one linking not only Georgia to Russia, but also Armenia and eastern Turkey.

The next day, I woke up to find out that my girlfriend had been sick all night from the a sketchy kebab we had eaten for lunch in Armenia. Some medication I gave her managed to improve her condition slightly, but she was in no shape to go on a hike. Anyway, the weather was foggy so in all cases our morning was ruined. The drive down from the mountains back to Tbilisi was not as spectacular so we went as fast as possible and managed to return the car on time but not without me informing the rental agency about all the issues the vehicle had. Independent rental agency tend to offer lower prices than franchises, but their cars are often in a rougher shape.

The first time we had been in Tbilisi, we had opted for a dorm in an hostel but given my girlfriend’s condition, we had booked a proper hotel. However, they had an unpleasant surprise waiting for us on arrival: the prices advertised on the booking site were inaccurate so they wanted to charge us way more. Wanting to explore other options, we walked around for a while trying to find an alternative but soon realized rooms in the old town were pricier than expected. In the end we ended up taking the room we had booked. The owner, feeling very sorry, excused herself many times and explained that the price discrepancy was due to the booking site (hostelworld.com) not working properly. Feeling she was the problem rather than the site, I offered her my help so while my girlfriend was catching a nap, I painstakingly rebuilt her hotel’s page on the booking site.

It was easy and contrary to her belief, everything was working as expected. Her issue was a case of failing to RTFM (read the f*cking manual). It took two hours but I was enjoying the experience of guiding here through the interface and giving her marketing advice for her establishment. Immensely grateful for my aid, she offered me coffee and snacks while I was working, charged me the price we had originally expected to pay for the room, promised me free beers that night and a ride to the airport the next day. I had wanted to use that time for work, but instead I got to discover how to set up and hostel on hostelworld.com. For the remainder of the day, not much happened, she went to bed early while I caught up on blogging and work, sipping on my well deserved free drinks.

Inside Tbilisi Sameba cathedral

Inside Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral

Tbilisi Sameba cathedralThe following day, our last, she was doing much better so we checked out, left our bags at the hotel and proceeded to walk around Tbilisi. The Sameba Cathedral was our first objective. Built in 2004 to bolster faith and unity in a post-Soviet Georgia, nothing was spared in making it one of the most impressive structure in this corner of the world. It was immense, on many levels and took easily an hour to explore. The rest of the day was spent walking as far as we could and catching the metro back to the old town. We went through nice parts of town and some more popular ones, reminding us that Georgia is still a developing country and that our standard of living is the exception rather than the norm.

In the old town

In the old town

Our time in Georgia was almost over. We were leaving at 6h30 the next day and wanted to arrive at the airport around midnight to sleep there. There was however one more thing we needed to do: have a proper taste at Georgian wine and buy bottles to bring back home. That was what our last evening was devoted to. We visited a couple of shops which offered us cheap samples and poor service but settled on one that was a bit out of the way but about which I had a good feeling. I was right in my intuition, samples were plentiful, we got freebies and excellent service. Extremely satisfied with our experience and slightly inebriated, we decided we would give them the extra alcohol we had brought into the country but could not take back home. I had a bottle of Ouzo and some Quebec made Chic Choc spiced rum. I hope the gift was appreciated.

Tbilisi’s airport was small and crowded but we scored a pretty decent spot with an electrical outlet. She slept while I killed time on the computer until check-in started. After connections through Kiev and Amsterdam, we landed home at the end of the afternoon. It always takes a bit of time for the brain to switch out of traveling mode.  As we were gazing in amazement at cars and houses, It felt like Montreal, a city extremely familiar to us, was new and exotic. That was obviously not the case, but it was certainly much different that what we had been used to seeing over the last few weeks. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia had been feast for the eyes. Similar to each other in some aspects but very alike in others; it’s amazing how much diversity was packed in such a small area. The last weeks had been filled with amazing landscapes, amazing food and amazing encounters and our minds, not yet weened off the drug, was still craving for more even if a huge part of us, exhausted and in need of a rest, was happy to have arrived.

Our great disappointment was not having spent enough time in the region, but two weeks was all we could spare. In that time, we have barely brushed the surface of those three countries. We do not regret the ways we organized our time. It’s not like we can easily come back there; this may have been only chance to see that part of the world so doing a quick tour was in our opinion the best way to make the most of that trip. It’s hard for me to say what I enjoyed the most but I would most definitely put food and scenery at the top of the list so if I do come back, I’ll certainly orient my trip towards hiking expeditions, urban exploration of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and spend a bit of time in the wine making regions.

Oh yeah and if I do rent a vehicle, it’s going to be a 4×4.

 

Armenia

It was around 18h00 when we finally passed the border. The scenery around us was a large expanses of grassy hills with herds of cow pasturing here and there punctuated by small villages. We had been told that the roads in Armenia were of dismal quality but we were still on decent pavement. The sun was setting and light was transitioning towards orange.

Armenian scenery

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

The first large city we passed through was Gyumri. On both sides of the road were old socialist style apartment blocks, one after the other and nothing else except for some large trees. It was gloomy. Once we had passed Gyumri we started encountering large abandoned industrial complexes, relics of a bygone era of Soviet Armenia. I was aching to visit one but given the hour an my companion unwillingness, I had to let go of that project.

Some more barren scenery of earth, pastures and industrial left overs and we arrived in Yegenadzor, another large city which given the diminishing light, appeared as gloomier than is previous counterparts. Careful not to generalize that impression to the rest of Armenia, we had however came to the conclusion that the country was much much poorer than it’s neighbors. Given the hardships of passing the border and my companion having fell ill the night before, this certainly did not set an uplifting mood. Anyway, we arrived quite late in Dilijan, which even at night, looked a lot more inviting than other cities in the region. After a good meal provided by the guesthouse, she went to sleep while I did some catching up on the writing.

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

At breakfast, we met an Austrian couple traveling within the region. That morning, they wanted to check out the two nearby monasteries, Haghartsin and Goshavank. Thinking it was a great idea, we offered our car in exchange for their companionship. Monasteries are the thing in Georgia in Armenia, they’re on almost every iconic picture of the region and always numerous in whatever region you may be. Though Armenia’s monasteries are slightly different than Georgia’s, we were not exactly thrilled of visiting yet another one but we felt we had to make the effort. The first monastery was nothing really picturesque but to our pleasant surprise, there was a priest in the chapel who decided to gave us blessings during a quick ceremony where we were given grapes and an a printed icon of Jesus Christ. At the second monastery, which offered us a more interesting visit due to having been restored more recently, was a family which according to the most plausible theory we came up with, was baptizing a newcomer to their circle. They had a sheep on leash, which again according to our analysis, would be eaten later on in the day during the ensuing celebrations. We did not stuck around long enough to witness the fate of the animal.

The Haghartsin monastery

So we dropped off our Austrian friends at a nearby lake and hit the road towards Lake Sevan, Armenia’s only sizable body of water and a popular destination for Yerevan’s inhabitants during hot summer days. One mountain pass and a bit of highway later, we had reached it. Not much time was spent there: we drove around, stopped for a grossly overpriced meal at a crappy restaurant and got the hell out. The Lonely Planet guide had made the place sound like a perfect spot for taking an afternoon off, but it was filthy and overcrowded. Every inch of coast was monopolized by a restaurant or bar competing with one another for the loudest sound system. There was so little room that people were forced to bathe in the boat launch.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Again on the road, going around the lake, we were hoping for pretty views of the landscape around but it was just an endless stream of poverty. Having not eaten enough in Sevan, we attempted to get some food at a supermarket but only got out with two bottles of wine to take back home. What we did also get was a good laugh at all the kitschy merchandise the place was selling and the gross incompetency of the staff working there. Our next objective was the Yeghegis valley, seemingly a nice place with plenty of ruins to check out and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon after an amazing drive in spectacular plateaus, mountains and canyons. To our amazement, the roads in Armenia were much better than we had expected. Bumpy, certainly, but at least continuously paved, wide and travelable at a good speed. With less truck traffic than Georgia, we were actually eating kilometers at a greater rate than up north, we the road system was supposedly better. At least this was true for the major roads, which I think were being financed by international aid as every other piece of public infrastructure was crumbling.

Arates Vank monastery

Arates Vank monastery

Scenery in ArmeniaThe Yeghegis valley held many sights but not wanting to be off-roading again with a compact car, we could only reach two of them: a church and a mysterious Jewish cemetery. Having had enough time, it would have been worth settling there for a day of two and explore the place on foot of with bikes. Far from any large agglomeration, the people inhabiting the small villages we passed were quick to give us directions and some even offered us freshly picked fruits. A pleasant departure from the general rudeness we had been exposed to so far. This seems to a rule that is true everywhere: the smaller and more remote the place, the nicer the people are. The original plan had been to spend the night there but with enough daylight to drive for two more hours but not to visit more sights,  we pushed to Yerevan, the capital at which we arrived around 21h00 but not without passing the impressive mount Ararat, towering 5 kilometers over the city.

While having our morning Armenian coffee (a Turkish coffee really), we read the guide and came up with a list of things we each wanted to visit in the city. First a visit of the nearby mosque  (the only one remaining in Yerevan), then, we proceeded to a quick tour of the contemporary art museum and after, we walked across the river to the Ararat Brandy distillery, which I really wanted to check out. Visits were normally by appointment only, but we managed to insert ourselves in an afternoon English tour. I did not know what to expect, it would either be a stupid museum of an actual visit of the installations. Regrettably, it was the former, with no chance of witnessing the actual brandy making process. It sort of reminded me of the Heineken museum in Amsterdam, which my brother really insisted we visit, but which I was certain would be a waste of time and money. The Ararat distillery was not as bad, but I was hoping for a lot more: I really really don’t give a damn about the evolution of the design your bottle, I want to see rows of casks, pipes, fermenters and alembics.

Yerevan's cathedral

Yerevan’s cathedral

Next up was the cathedral and a metro ride (also build soviet style) through the city to check out the Cascade, but not before having coffee in one of the numerous parks in downtown Yerevan. With its circular layout, the core of the city is belted by a large longitudinal park and dotted with other smaller green spaces. It is clean and well maintained and is obviously the focus all the investments as other districts are depressingly poor and run down. For that reason, Yerevan feels very different than the rest of Armenia. High-end restaurants, luxury cars, fashion outlets even we could not afford, it is an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. The cascade, a gigantic staircase decorated with recessed fountains sort of exemplifies the Yerevan reality.

In front of the Cascade. I had no reason to be sad, I had a great time there

At the bottom of the Cascade, making a sad face for no reason

Started in the 90s under Soviet rule, the project was halted for several years and then brought to a state of semi-completion though a donation from a rich Armenian. It’s a spectacular piece of urban architecture and from the bottom, it looks finished. The top part however, still a tangle of rebar and concrete littered with soviet machinery, has not been touched since the 90s. At the top of the stairs sits a run down monument celebrating 50 years of Soviet Armenia which offers a nice view of the city with mount Ararat in the background.

 

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

The day after, we had to get back in Georgia so to celebrate the end of the Armenian portion of the road-trip, we had dinner at a upper-class French-Armenian fusion restaurant. Several glasses of wine, appetizers and entrées costed us no more than your average meal out in Canada. They had truffles on the menu so upon asking if I could try one at a decent price, they offered me a slice of the black and the white variety free of charge. Afterwards, we had a beer at the hostel and that was it, we had to leave early the next morning.

Out on the road around nine, we again passed through Lake Sevan and Dilijan and at noon we found ourselves near the border at a small roadside restaurant, having a meal of kebab, shashlik and salad. Afterwards, we visited the Sanahrin monastery  which was highly recommended in the guide and frankly worth the detour and then reached the border an hour later. There, we still had to go through the mysterious custom broker employees to get our paperwork in order, but overall it was a lot simpler than on the way in. In line with us numerous poor souls trying to navigate Armenia’s border control bureaucratic mess. The weather was hot and so were the tempers. Thankfully, we were in and out quite fast.  On the Georgian side : a quick glance at our passports, a stamp and the friendly border guard wished us « Welcome back to Georgia! »

Armenia was beautiful, intriguing ( I would have loved to explore all this abandoned infrastructure and delve deeper in the country’s Soviet past), but somewhat depressing so we had mixed feelings about our short time there. We found everyone we interacted with unpleasant and the food did nothing to compensate for that. Then again, Armenians are sort of excused. They have suffered many hardships in recent history, have very limited access to resources, an economy in ruins and a limited ability to grow things due to their country being very mountainous and dry. Evidently, we were grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but we both felt like contrary to other countries in the region, there was not much there that would entice us to come back.

The good old days of Soviet Armenia...

The good old days of Soviet Armenia…

 

Georgia, part 1

Freshly arrived in Georgia, a tour guide waiting for another customer at the border arranged for us a cheap cab to Tbilisi, the capital. It was a two hours ride by car that could have taken us three times as much time with the minibus, so it was well worth the meager 35$ or so the taxi was charging us.

Tbilisi old town

Tbilisi old town

Our things dropped at the hostel in Tbilisi, we walked towards the old down to get a coffee and a bit of food and then rode the ropeway up the hill to get a view of the city. Having accustomed ourselves to being lone tourists in Azerbaijan, the crowds up there felt obnoxious and annoying. In spite of heavy trafic and a complete lack of accomodation towards pedestrians, Tbilisi had a very European feel and a lot of potential for a very good time, but we were eager to pick up the car we had reserved for the week and tour around Georgia and Armenia.

Tbilisi at night

Tbilisi at night

Due to some differences on how street addresses are set up in Georgia, it took us a while to find the rental agency. Once we got there, everything went swiftly and in no time, we were on the road. First stop was a cell-phone company, were for 4$ we picked up lots of minutes and 500 MB of data in case something went wrong on the road. Then, we effortlessly got out of Tbilisi onto an highway towards the west. Our objective for the day was Mestia, a town deep in the Caucasus mountaisn, famous for the Svan people and their reputation for having resisted all attempts at conquering them over the centuries. The car was a Toyota Vitz, the North American Echo but for the Japanese market. I quickly noticed that something was off with the interior and through a couple of clues came to the conlusion that the car had had a previous career as a right-hand drive in Japan before being imported in Georgia and have its whole interior switched to the other side, except for a couple of items, like the controls on the steering columns and some other minor accessories.

Sooner than we expected though, the multilane highway transitionned into your two lane regional type of road with a lot of truck trafic and cars overtaking each other in a sometimes downright suicidal fashion. It was becoming dark when we arrived at the foot of the Caucasus, but decided on reaching our goal at no matter what the hour, we pushed on. The road was tortuous but in overall good condition. Worried it would turn to gravel anytime, our fears never materialised and even though it took us three hours to arrive in Mestia, we encountered little difficult surfaces. Happy but tired, we settled for a guest house which was referred to us by the owner of one that we intended to use but was full. We enjoyed a couple drinks at a restaurant on the main plaza and hit the sack to an early rise to do some hiking.

Approaching the Chaaladi glacier

Approaching the Chaaladi glacier

At the foot of the Chaaladi glacier

At the foot of the Chaaladi glacier

The next day, we woke up to impressive mountain scenery, high enough for it to have glaciers and eternal snow. For that matter, a glacier is what we had intended to check out that day so after a nourishing breakfast, we spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon walking the 12 km to the foot of the glacier. For the most part, we were following a dirt road along the river but with a quarter of the way remaining, the trail turned to forest and ended on the rocks. We both never had the chance to see a glacier from up close and there, we got our money’s worth. The return in town was long and tiresome, but well worth the scenery that had been unfolding before our eyes for the day.

Posing with Soviet trucksAn early departure from Mestia got us early at the down the mountains back on the large valley that is the center of Georgia. Our plans for the day were to reach Armenia or at least the border, which was really ambitious. Wanting to see the Black sea, we followed the coast until we ended up getting bogged down in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city and an extermely popular destination with both the Georgians and the Russians. Not having enough days to do all we wanted to, we had to sacrifice a stopover and decided that Batumi was lowest on our priority list. Now inside the city, among its kitschy or downright ugly buildings, crappy restaurants, casinos and seas of Russian vacationers, we for a minute regreted our choice : this would have provided premium people watching opportunities.

Outside of Batumi, we opted for a road that cut straight through the south of Georgia, a mountaineous but certainly spectacular region. All was well and we were making good progress until halfway, where the pavement turned into gravel and dirt. For some time, we had hoped that this would only be a temporary condition but we eventually accepted the fact that the road would remain in this state at least until the next major town, which was actually not that far on the map. However, it still took us a solid five hours to negotiate that part of the way. Too concentrated avoiding pot holes to enjoy the scenery or simply unable to due to heavy rains and thick fog, the driving was intense.

Beware of cows!

Beware of cows!

The car, a Toyota Vitz, the Japanese version of the Toyota Echo, was not meant to handle that kind of punishment and at times I was seriously worried that we would get a flat or scrape at the wrong spot and puncture a line. Fortunately, none of that happened, but this little incursion into 4×4 territory imparted a serious delay on our day’s planning. Fed up, drained and with my girlfriend starting to feel sick, we stopped in Akhaltsikhe, about 100 km short of our goal. While she immediately went to bed, I went out in search of food and came back with the only palatable thing I could find in the whole town : a can of sardines in tomato sauce. I spend the remainder of the evening finishing the post on Azerbaidjan and sipping on Turkish Raki.

Inside a cave in Vardzia

Vardzia cave monasteries

Vardzia cave monasteries

Now close to Armenia, we figured the next day we could afford to visit the famous cave monasteries of Vardzia and actually take our time doing so. An impressive network of caverns and tunnels dug in the mountain, the site is huge and provides both excellent views and ample photographic opportunities. By chance, we encountered the guide whom we had me while getting into Georgia and he gave us a quick rundown on the history of the site, which used to be much much larger and housed as much as 50 000 persons in its heyday. Invasions, earthquake and communism have reduced it to what it is now. With no other option around, we had lunch at the restaurant on the site, which contrary to most establishments set on much visited locations, was affordable and decent.

Windy road leading to Vardzia

Approaching the Armenian border

Approaching the Armenian border

It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the border (set on a beautiful plateau). Leaving Georgia was effortless: passports, car papers, stamps and that was it. I was expecting the process of getting into Armenia to be convoluted, long and expensive and was correct on those accounts. We took our passports and car papers from office to office, payed fees, were forced to hire the service of a customs broker and purchased extra insurance at an exorbitant price but finally after two and a half hours, we were set free in Armenia. A German couple riding old 50cc scooters in the region and whom we had met a couple of hours ago in Vardzia was struggling through process along us: for them it took even more time and they ended up paying many more fees. Another traveler met later on told us that the Armenian border ranked really high in “the pain in the butt to pass border” list.

Azerbaijan – Sheki (Şəki)

All our time in Azerbaijan could have been spent in the capital: not that there was much to do there, but we had a very pleasant time soaking up its weird atmosphere and walking about in its mish mash of soviet architecture, outrageous buildings and modern infrastructure. However, we just had to explore another part of the country, and given our itinerary, we opted for Sheki. It was conveniently located near the border with Georgia and was, according to our research, a charming spot set in the mountains.

Baku's metro is deep

Baku’s metro is deep

KFC Azerbaijan style

KFC Azerbaijan style

Getting to Baku’s main bus station provided to be a bigger challenge than expected, but with a bit of perseverance, copious usage of the Azeri word for bus station (Avtovaĝzal) and the guidance of friendly strangers, we caught a bus towards our next destination at a decent hour in the day. At least this had given us the chance to ride the metro, which was dirt cheap and built after Moscow’s deep underground railways and lavishly decorated (some stations at least).

The scenery on the highway outside Baku

The scenery on the highway outside Baku

I had a bad feeling about the bus: it was not sounding right. Unsurprisingly, it broke down on the side of the highway an hour outside of Baku. The crew got busy filling her back up with coolant, but it soon became clear that they had little idea of what they were doing and that we would be stuck there until a replacement bus came and picked us up. The landscape around was arid and the sun hot. Without air conditioning, the interior of the bus soon became unbearable so everyone gathered outside in the shade. No one was complaining. It seems people, hardened by much more difficult times, were used to things not working the way they should. While all were patiently waiting for another transport, me and my girlfriend were standing under the hot sun watching the interesting and unusual (to us) spectacle that was the Azeri highway. Here is a breakdown in a list form:

  • cows crossing the highway;
  • rusty old Ladas;
  • rusty old Kamaz trucks;
  • rusty old Soviet era machinery;
  • a convoy of Chevrolet Suburban at full speed with flashers on so large that it might very well have been the president’s;
  • cars stopping at regular intervals to check us out, maybe to pick up passengers willing to use them as taxis;
  • a Mercedes breaking down behind us, and a Lada pulling by to tow it away.
Entering the Sheki region

Entering the Sheki region

At some point, maybe two hours later, another bus came and finally we were on our way. During a pit stop, we were offered a beer and some chickpeas by a man about our age  who had appeared to have taken us under his wing. He spoke no English and was very quiet in his ways, but he was kind enough to call his English speaking girlfriend who did give us a quick explanation of how stops worked here in Azerbaijan. When we arrived in Sheki, he lifted us to our hotel in his friend’s Lada and we parted ways. After some drinks at the hotel, we set out for a restaurant in which we had a feast of beer, Piti (lamb fat and vegetables cooked in earthenware and eaten with bread) and other samples of Azerbaijan’s cuisine. The country foodscape was by itself worth the trip: varied, exotic and tasty. Every meal was a source of excitement and discovery.

The next day, we walked around the town, which set in valley and with its little houses and flocks of Ladas, provided several picturesque moments. We checkout the caravanserai and the old fortified palace (which sucked) they had there and ended our tour in the bazaar. We had arrived to late to see it in action, but I still managed to get my jeans, torn during my motorcycle crash, fixed for 3 Canadian dollars; except for hotels, Azerbaijan is cheap. Still wanting for some more exploring, we took a minibus to a town deeper in the valley. According to the guide, it had an old christian church that could be visited. Back in Sheki on a Lada ride, we finished the day with some more walking around and a meal at the same restaurant we had been to the evening before. That night, we sat quietly in the town square enjoying a beer, telling each other how pleasant a time we had had in this country.

Up early to catch a minibus (markshruty) to the border with Georgia, we took the 10 o’clock towards Balakan. The road was bumpy, the scenery a bit desolate and we stopped at regular intervals to pick up and drop off passengers, but we arrived in Balakan at the planned time. A couple of polite taxi drivers inquired if we wanted a ride to the border but we were in no hurry and wanted to eat our last Azeri meal first. One was king enough to arrange that for us and later on, with bellies full, we hoped on his taxi towards Georgia.

Passing borders overland is always an eerie experience. It seems there are no two crossing alike. This one was basically a long corridor stuffed with cameras (which were plentiful in Azerbaijan) that eventually ended on a bridge over the river marking the delimitation between the two countries. Throughout the whole process we we were basically alone.

Conclusion

While waiting for the Azeri authorities to sort out something that had went wrong with my visa stamp at the airport, I had a quick conversation with the lieutenant in charge of the passport control at the border. He spoke good English and asked candidly what my impressions of his country had been. Given the situation, the answer I gave him was a prepackaged mix of compliments towards the people, the food and the scenery. But I meant every thing I said.

Propaganda poster of Heydar Aliev: Azerbaijan's greatest ruler

Propaganda poster of Heydar Aliev: Azerbaijan’s greatest ruler

Azerbaijan was either going to be a huge disappointment or an awesome surprise. It came out to be latter and might very well for me be the highlight of my trip to this part of the world. Azeris may not be smiley people, but they are friendly, caring, a bit weird but endearing; even if you don’t speak Russian (extremely useful in this region), they’ll do their best to interact with you and help you out. Travelling there is a bargain but everything you see is authentic: save for a couple of Russians, which are part of the landscape anyway in that region, you are alone as westerner in a country with a culture of its own, but on which its time withing the Soviet Union has had a lasting influence.

In so many aspects, it reminded me of North Korea.