Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Overnight Train to Yerevan

Last night I took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan.

The train (#371) leaves on odd dates at 20:20 PM and arrives in Yerevan at 7 AM.

My name written in Russian

 You must have your passport in order to buy a ticket at the station.  All tickets for train travel between Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan are printed in Russian.

The train offers three classes of service.  Third class tickets are open plan sleepers.  Second class offers 4-berth sleepers while first class has 2-berth sleepers.  I opted for the first class option for 63,22 Lari ($38.37).  Not a bad price for both international transport and not having to pay for a night in a hotel.  

The cabin was old but still in decent condition.  The train attendants provided bed linen.  If only there had been a dining car.


At around 10:30 PM we got to the border.  The Georgian border guards collected our passports and walked through the train.  About an hour later our passports were returned.  We rode for a few minutes and then had to deal with the Armenian border guards.

This time everyone had to get off of the train while the guards inspected the train.  I was the first person whose passport they inspected.  When the guard asked for my visa I said that I have an e-Visa.  He had this digital monitor thing that read my passport but he still wanted some sort of visa so I gave him the photocopy of my Armenian e-Visa.  Then all of a sudden everything was fine.  It seems odd that I had to provide a photocopy of an electronic visa but no worries considering it worked.  After about an hour we were all back on the train and headed towards Yerevan.  The whole trip took almost 11 hours.  Now to check out Yerevan...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Uplistsikhe, Georgia

Uplistsikhe, უფლისციხე, translates to "the lord's fortress."  It is an ancient cave town above the Mtkvari River in eastern Georgia about 10 km (6.5 miles) east of Gori.


The town's 8 hectares (20 acres) make up one of the country's oldest urban settlements.  The first caves were cut out in the 10th century BC.  Most of the structures have very few decorations.



At the top of the complex is a Christian basilica built during the 9th and 10th centuries AD.

Overlooking the Mtkvari River



Since 2007, the Uplistsikhe cave complex has been on the tentative list to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gori, Georgia

Gori, გორი, is 76 km (47 miles) west of Tbilisi.  The town is the regional capital of Shida Kartli and has a population of around 49,500 people.

The area has been populated since the Bronze Age.  During the Middle Ages it was an important military stronghold.  During Soviet times, it was an important industrial area but all that changed with the economic collapse of the USSR and Georgia's independence.

Gori is located very close to South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali.  During the war in 2008, the town was bombed by the Russian Air Force and then occupied by troops on August 11th.  Russian and South Ossetian forces withdrew from Gori on August 22, 2008.

Gori was the birthplace of Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili.  He later changed his name to Joseph Stalin.  The town's primary attraction is the Joseph Stalin Museum.  The museum opened in 1957.


The exhibits give a very one-sided view of his accomplishments.  It was worth seeing but it was difficult for me to keep my mouth shut about the lack of information about all of the hideous thing he was responsible for.


The museum is one of the town's main sources of income.


Me at Stalin's birthplace
Behind the museum is the small wooden house where Stalin was born in 1879.  He lived there until he was four years old.

On the side of the museum is Stalin's personal train carriage.  It weighs 83 tons due to all of the armor plating.  Stalin used it from 1941 onwards.  I found it interesting that the leader of the Soviet Union used the carriage which formerly belonged to the Russian Imperial Family.

Mtskheta, Georgia

Mtskheta, მცხეთა, was established in 1000 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Georgia.  It's in eastern Georgia, about 20 km (~12.5 miles) from Tbilisi, where the Aragvi and Kura rivers meet.  The city is home to over 19,400 people.

From the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, Mtskheta was the capital of the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia.  In 337 AD, this is where Christianity was proclaimed as the state religion.  Today, the town is the home of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The Historical Monuments of Mtskheta were collectively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.  However, due to serious deterioration of the stonework and frescoes the monuments were recently placed on UNESCO's World Heritage in Danger list.

Today was Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church so all of the town's sites were extra busy.  Since there aren't a lot of palms in Georgia they use box-tree branches instead.  There were people selling branches on the street all weekend.

Jvari Monastery


The Jvari Monastery is known as the Monastery of the Cross.  It was built in the 6th century.  It sits on a cliff above the city.  The view of the city is great.
Overlooking Mtskheta


 The Samtavro Transfiguration Orthodox Church was built in the 4th century.  It was remodeled in the 11th century.  It is also home to a convent.  Inside of the church are the graves of the Georgian king Mirian, who adopted Christianity, and his wife.

St. Gabriel
Behind the church is the grave of St. Gabriel who passed away in 1995.  He was a very popular monk who was known for his clairvoyance and healing powers. 


There was a line of people at his grave today.  Everyone was touching their crucifixes to the earth on his grave and saying prayers.




The best known landmark in Mtskheta is the Svetitskhovli Cathedral.  It is the country's second largest church.  It too was built in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 11th century.  The church is home to the throne of the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  A few of Georgia's past kings are buried here too.  It is believed by many that the robe Jesus Christ wore following his crucifixion is buried underneath the cathedral.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

In Azerbaijan...Sort of

I actually made it to Azerbaijan...well, sort of.  So here's the deal.  Currently, I'm dead tired and feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.  I was supposed to fly, last night, from Prague to Tbilisi, Georgia.  When I went to check in for my Czech Airlines flight I was told that my flight was oversold.  The good news was that I could still board my original flight.  However, if I was willing to give up my seat, take an alternate route with a different airline and have a six hour delay then I would receive €300.  Hmmm...not a bad deal.

New Václav Havel Airport Sign
My flight plan was to depart Prague at 10 PM and get to Tbilisi around 3 AM.  Now I would fly from Prague to Baku on Azerbaijan Airlines, stay there for six hours, then arrive in Tbilisi at 11 AM.


Originally, I would not arrive to my hotel until around 4 AM on Saturday morning so I still had to pay for the Friday night stay.  Even if I arrived six hours later I would still need to pay for the Friday night stay so it's not like I'm out any additional money.  Plus I won't have to deal with getting from the airport to the hotel in the middle of the night.

I took the deal.  Along with 12 Russians.  Now here's where things get interesting.

As soon as we got off the plane in Baku we found ourselves immediately facing Azeri immigration.  Remember that I still don't have a visa for Azerbaijan yet.  The 13 of us were told, in Russian, to stand to the side and wait.  A few minutes later, someone came and escorted us through some random airport hallway to our international departure lounge.  I had to show my passport, luggage tag, my ongoing boarding pass, promise not to leave the transit lounge and sign a document pledging not to remain in Azerbaijan without a visa.  It's a good thing that my Russian, while very rusty, seems to be working.    

So I'm waiting in front of gate 5 at Heydar Aliyev International Airport for my flight to Georgia.  There's not a lot going on here.  There are no ATMs but there is an exchange kiosk so I changed €20 for 20 Manat so that I could get some coffee.  There are soldiers who routinely pass by and the chairs are not exactly made for taking a nap.  Fortunately there is free Wi-Fi.  I'm tired and ready to fly on.  But if I'm unable to get my Azeri visa in Tbilisi then I guess this will be as close to visiting Azerbaijan as I get.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Azeri Visa

Getting a visa for Azerbaijan is a pain in the arse.  There is no visa on arrival.  It's mandatory to apply for a visa through an Azeri embassy.  The challenge is that Azeri embassy rules for what's required in order to obtain a visa can change overnight.  Plus, each embassy interprets the regulations differently.

All of the embassies require a completed visa application.  The application requires each person to declare if they have ever visited Nagorno-Karabakh.  If you have, then you can kiss your visa request good-bye.  You have to present your original passport, plus a photo copy of the data page.  The passport must be valid, at a minimum, for three months longer than the end of the visa.  Two passport photos are also required.

Of course there's an application fee.  For a single-entry, up to one month tourist visa EU citizens generally pay €60 while Americans pay $160 due to reciprocity.  

Azeri embassy in Vienna
If I apply for my visa at the Azeri embassy in Vienna then I have to provide a hotel reservation with a signature and a stamp on actual hotel letterhead.  This means at least an extra two weeks of lead time for the hotel in Azerbaijan to snail-mail it to me.  I also need to show a flight ticket or some other proof of transportation in and out of the country that corresponds to the requested dates on the visa application.  The application fee has to be paid in advance at an Austrian bank and the receipt needs to be given to the embassy.

Processing time is 3 to 7 business days.  The embassy in Vienna only handles visa requests on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9:30 to 12:30.  This would cost me to take two days off of work, the first to apply and the second to pick up the visa, plus the travel expense to Vienna.

Azeri embassy in Prague
The embassy in Prague takes 5 to 10 business days to process visa applications.  The visa section is open from 10 AM to 12:30 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  Again, this would require me to take off two days from work.

For the Prague embassy, the visa will be issued for the exact dates of one's hotel reservations.  It too requires the hotel confirmation to be on original letterhead but the reservation must all be prepaid.  A letter of invitation is also required and it must be approved by the Azeri Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Most companies charge an additional $50 to $200 for this depending on how quickly you need it.  The MFA can take 2 days to 2 weeks.

After some serious Internet research I found a travel agency in Tbilisi that can sort out my Azeri visa.  I had to e-mail them the completed application, a scanned passport photo, passport data page and the dates that I wanted the visa issued for.  For $180 they could get me a visa issued in one day.  By far, this would be the easiest option.  I would just need to visit the travel agency once I get to Tbilisi.  So I made my arrangements with the agency over a month ago.  Then last week they notified me that the embassy in Tbilisi changed the rules and there are no more same day requests.  Visas in Georgia now take five days.  Ugghhh!!!

My original holiday plans for the Caucasus were to spend a couple of days in Tbilisi, get my visa for Azerbaijan in one day and immediately head to Baku for five days.  Then back to Tbilisi and down to Armenia with a possible visit to Nagorno-Karabakh.  This last minute hiccup with the visa change has caused me to alter my entire trip and change every hotel reservation I had.

Azeri embassy in Tbilisi
Now I'll have to apply for my visa on a Monday morning and hopefully it will be ready to pick up on Friday afternoon.  If I go to Armenia between these days then I won't have time to get to Nagorno-Karabakh.  Besides, if I did then my Azeri visa would be voided.  So I'll head to Georgia, try to get the visa and play a few things by ear.  Something tells me that this adventure will have a few more twists and turns.  Wish me luck.

Update:  I finally received my Azeri visa.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Candy Store

Yesterday, several of us met up for brunch at my new happy place - the East Village Bar & Diner.  It was awesome.  They have real American pancakes and Aunt Jemima syrup.  We started talking to the owner and he told us about where he gets a lot of his supplies of American goodies and it turns out that there is a new place in Brno called The Candy Store.

The Candy Store opened earlier this year and is only a 15 minute walk from my flat.  I had heard about this store in Prague but I didn't realize that there was now a location here.  I almost lost my mind when I walked through the door.  They have all kinds of yummy good things.

They have Dr. Pepper, A&W Root Beet and Cream Soda, Arizona Ice Tea, Duncan Hines cake mixes and frosting, Jack Daniels BBQ sauce, Fluff, Hersey's chocolate syrup, Aunt Jemima syrup, Reese's peanut butter cups, Pop Tarts...  The list goes on and on.

Real Jelly Belly jelly beans
This place will be popular with my colleagues because they have Jelly Belly jelly beans.  This is great news for me because now I no longer need to have them shipped over from the USA.  Now to figure out what I can eliminate from my care package lists.


Some items are a bit pricey.  A box of Pop Tarts cost 109 Kč ($5.62).  A big box of Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which is almost pure sugar, costs 219 Kč ($11.30).  I wouldn't mind the occasional bowl of breakfast cereal but there's no way that I see paying $11 a box for it.  But at least I can now get proper marshmallows and pumpkin pie filling for Thanksgiving.  I wonder if the store takes requests? 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Visas

Since moving to Euroland in July 2009, I've been to 37 countries.  So far I've been fortunate that I haven't really had to deal with obtaining visas.  A visa is a common requirement, depending on your citizenship, to be able to visit a particular country.  There are tourist visas, transit visas, business visas, student visas, residence visas, etc., and each visa is good only for a specific period of time.  Visas can be for a single entry, double entry or multiple entries.  Visas usually take up one whole passport page which is a downer.  We're talking prime passport real estate.

Visas fees are all over the place.  There's this reciprocity thing where countries tend to charge tit-for-tat.  For example, the USA charges Uzbeks $180 for an American tourist visa so Uzbeks turn right around and require Americans to pay $160 for a visa to Uzbekistan whereas they only charge $60 to someone with a Danish passport and $4 for someone from Tajikistan.

Sometimes the more obscure the country the higher the visa fees.  It seems to me that lower visa fees would encourage more tourists to visit Country X and spend their money there. 

Henley & Partners is a law firm that publishes an annual list ranking the ease of travel by citizenship.  The higher the score then the more countries one can visit without needing a visa.  In 2012, Denmark came in 1st place.  If you hold a Danish passport then you can visit 169 countries without needing a visa.  The USA tied for 4th place with Italy and Luxembourg at 166 countries.  The Czech Republic came in 15th place with 152 countries not requiring visas for Czech citizens.  Afghanistan scored the lowest with only 26 countries not requiring visas.

Arrival visa stamps for UAE & Oman
Now these numbers are for countries that do not require visas.  This does not include the "visa on arrival".  The UAE requires Americans to have a visa but it is given as you pass through immigration.  And it was free so for me I still consider this as a non-issue.

Turkish on arrival visa sticker


Americans need a visa for Turkey, but it too is available on arrival.  It only costs €15 and I didn't have to apply in advance at the nearest embassy.

This is what's so nice about the Schengen area.  Once you're in, you can travel around and not have to deal with visas and passport control as you cross borders.

Full page Czech residency visa
Most times the visa application process can be extremely complicated and time consuming.  I decided against going to Belarus because the application process was more than I was willing to deal with this year.  I've been told by many of my Eurocrew that getting a visa to visit the USA is super difficult and often requires an in-person interview at the embassy.

Traditionally, applying for a Russian tourist visa was a pain in the arse.  A single entry visa is $180.  However, as of last year, Americans can now apply for a 3-year, multiple entry visa, for only $235.  Hmmm...I might need to start planning some trips to Russia.

My Armenian E-Visa
Nest week I'm off to the Caucasus.  I don't need a visa for Georgia.  Americans do need a visa for Armenia but they have this nifty e-visa.  You apply on-line and the visa is e-mailed to you.  I just have to print it out and take it with me.  The e-visa costs $40 but the cool thing is that it won't take up a full page in my passport.  The trick will be getting an Azeri visa.  Apparently, it order to visit Azerbaijan, there's a requirement for foreigners to jump through bureaucratic hoops like trained circus poodles.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Need Another Temporary Visa

My work permit was approved last week which means that the government will continue to process my residency permit extension.  My current biometric ID card expires on April 30th.  This is and isn't a problem.  

I can be in CZ with my expired residency permit.  No worries.  If I'm stopped by the police or something then they can check in the computer to show that I have an extension pending approval and I'll be good to go.

The problem is that on the 26th I'm headed off to the Caucasus for a couple of weeks.  So I'll be outside of the Schengen zone when my ID card expires.  I've been told that, with an American passport, I probably won't have any difficulty coming back in CZ.  Americans can be inside the zone for 90 days every 180 days.  However, if I get an overzealous immigration officer who decides to start adding up the dates of my entry and exit stamps then I could be held up for a while.  In order to insure that I won't have any problems at immigration I need to pick up a three month temporary visa.

I've had to do this before so it's not a big deal.  The thing about getting a temporary visa is that it uses up a whole blank page in my passport.  One full page is prime passport real estate but, oh well, what can you do?  I prefer to guarantee that I won't have any problem coming back home.

Yesterday, I set off early in the morning so that I would be in front of the queue at the Interior Ministry.  Of course when I get there I was told that the computer system is down across the entire country.  So I need to try again next week before I fly out.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

UAE & Oman Trip

I'm back from my little get away to the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and away from the Czech cold.  It was great.  And the weather was nice and sunny.  35°C (95°F).  Thank goodness for plenty of SPF 55.

I flew in to Abu Dhabi and made my way the 2.5 hours to Sharjah.  It's basically a suburb of Dubai.  With all of the traffic it's a little more than an hour to Dubai from Sharjah but I guess that's what happens when gas is so cheap.


The next day was my day trip to Khasab.  This was by far my favorite day.  It was absolutely brilliant!  I loved cruising down the fjords in an Omani dhow.


Dubai wasn't quite what I was expecting.  I think it's like when you're the last person to see a new movie.  Everyone has built it up so much that by the time you get around to seeing it, you're like ehhh, whatever.


It wasn't bad but not quite what I expected.  It was very smoggy while I was there so the mega skyscrapers were impressive but not as much as they could have been.  The Dubai metro isn't really geared for tourists.  Every cool building seemed to be an hour away, from each other, on the other side of town.

Plus it didn't really feel like the Middle East.  I did come across people in traditional Arab dress but it wasn't the majority.  Almost everyone working in the UAE is an expat with most coming from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and parts of Africa.  On the upside there were plenty of really good Indian restaurants and almost everyone spoke English.


It was kind of fun though seeing Baskin-Robbins, Hardee's, Pizza Hut, KFC, etc., advertised in both English and Arabic.

I preferred Abu Dhabi to Dubai.  Even though it is the capital, Abu Dhabi seems to be the underdog since Dubai normally gets all of the attention.  And I tend to root for the underdog.  Abu Dhabi had more of a Middle East feeling.  And with the amount of construction going on there I'm sure that it will out marvel  Dubai in a few short years.

With the whole gay thing being illegal in the UAE, I know that my mother is glad that I'm now back in Euroland.  But it's not like I was there to hook up or to lead a parade or something.  However, I was curious to see to what extent censorship runs.  It's there alright.  I wasn't even able to log in to a gay chat room.

So overall, the trip did what it was supposed to do.  I got to relax for a few days.  There was plenty of sunshine.  I got to enjoy some very cool architecture.  I extended my travel adventures from Europe to the Middle East.  And with Dubai checked off the list I can now look at visiting Israel sometime in the next year or two.