My visit to the Crazy town of Vank

A crazy town in an unrecognized country that’s Vank. The crazy thing about this town laying in a valley surrounded by the Caucasian mountains and forest, is all the random objects that are put there by a former Russian-Armenian oligarch Levon Hayrapetyan who’s motivation it was to invest in the town of his birthplace. The man died a few years back and since then the town is also slowly dyeing. He wanted to attract tourists to Vank, for example to the Eclectica Titanic looking hotel that he build, which is now becoming more of a ruin. Not many people stay at the hotel anymore, the water reservoir next to the boat representing a river or the sea as you will, is now just completely dry. The terrace on the first floor has a swimming pool but not filled with water. Besides the hotel there are some statues in town like the flying donkeys, a big pirate ship, a replica of Michelangelo, some cars on poles , a Volga toilet, American eagle or maybe its the eagle of the emblem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a crocodile in a pond, a big Lion head that used to roar cause there was a sensor when you passed by that made the lion roar, but now its broken. Also the Azeri licence plate wall is pretty unique, cause now everybody in Nagorno-Karabakh drives with Armenian licence plates.
You don’t expect to see all these wacky stuff in a little mountain town in the middle of nowhere in Nagorno-Karabakh aka Artsakh. However for backpackers it’s a nice place to hang out.

Eclectica hotel

the front of the boat hotel

only half of the water reservoir with the small waterfall is left

where did the water go ?

The empty siwmming pool

Inside the nose of the boat

The bar with aquarium in the common room

Me in the mirror of the common room

The toilet with the Volga car on top = Volga toilet

Cars on poles

The Crocodile in the pond up close

The crocodile in the pond

The Eagle of Vank

Michelangelo statue

Me in front of the Azeri licence plates wall

The licence plates wall

Flying donkeys

The Pirate ship of Vank

The Lion of Vank

Me standing on the lions claw

The flags of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on the wall of a school in Vank

Weird statues at the kids playground in school

The other place worth seeing is the 13th century Gandzasar Monastery with its old graveyard in front of it.
It’s the most important Monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh from what I’ve heard.

 

The Gandzasar Monastery with the old graveyard

The town of Vank seen from the Monastery on a misty afternoon

 

It’s up hill and from here you can see the town of Vank down in the valley. If you visit Vank, it’s easy to check out the Monastery aswell as it’s about 3km away.
There is no entry fee to visit the monastery. Just outside the complex there is a museum with some old religious books, only here a small entry fee aplies. I took a picture from outside cause inside it was not allowed to take pictures of these old books.

Gandzasar church

The courtyard of the Monastery

 

Gandzasar courtyard

The old wooden door of the Gandzasar church

The altar inside

The Museum

Gandzasar book museum

 

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Welcome to Stepanakert the capital of Artsakh

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Artsakh what ? If you never heard of it then just relax don’t worry about it cause you might have already heard about Nagorno-Karabakh a disputed region in the Caucasus, a region claimed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia is controlling the region of Nagorno-Karabakh which nowadays looks like an Armenia enclave in Azerbaijan but really it has an independent status, just not recognized internationally just like the other breakaway republics like Transnistria and Abkhazia.
In the 90ies there was the war for Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Armenians won. They control it now and you can travel to almost the whole country of Nagorno Karabakh except to Agdam a city very near the border area with Azerbaijan.
I didn’t go to Agdam because I heard that taxi drivers who took curious tourists there got arrested and had o pay fines, the tourist go free after leaving their names for identification for whatever reason. There are already travelbloggers who have been there anyway and pictures of Agdam got on the Internet, so with a little research you will see that the place isn’t that great to walk around since the whole town of Agdam is destroyed, besides the Armenian army and some Azeri snipers there isn’t anybody there. Sometimes incidents happen, the last one was a year ago. Other than that it’s calm. I wont be writing too much about this place since I have not visited it only know the info from others and from what I have read about it. I will stick to the places I visited which is what my travelblog stands for (The places I visited).

My Nagorno Karabakh journey started in the capital Stepanakert.

The thing i can say about this city is that its way better than I expected, for a country that doesn’t exist and is not recognized they have a very nice capital city with nice shops, bars, cafés, pizza places. Its clean ! Not like in Western Europe where cities like Brussels the capital of my country where it’s dirty. People who want to argue about it save yourself the time and energy I know what I’m talking about, I go to Brussels every day and as a capital of not only Belgium but also Europe they should be ashamed that the streets , parks etc,… are full of dirt. Not like this in the unrecognized capital city Stepanakert of Nagorno Karabakh aka Artsakh.
I came at the Armenia and Nagonro Karabakh border in the late afternoon showed my passport they gave me a paper that I needed to fill in and with another paper in my passport I had to go get my Nagorno Karabakh visa in Stepanakert at the Ministry of Foreign affairs. The visa office is only open until 6pm and I didn’t make it in time, but that’s not a problem you can just go the next day and collect your visa. If you stick this visa into your passport you can’t go to Azerbaijan anymore on that passport cause they will not let you in as they see it as you entered their country illegally. I don’t care anymore about that I have been to Azerbaijan on my old passport about a year ago. So I got the visa in my passport, but you can choose not to if you want to go to Azerbaijan.

Border crossing between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh with the flags of both countries behind me

 

Stepanakert

I just walked around and visited the War Memorial, the museum of the fallen soldiers with a lot of photography on the walls of the Nagorno Karabakh war and weaponry on display.  Checked out the football stadium of Nagorno Karabakh.  I passed the Parliament building and the cathedral. Stepan Shahumyan statue, that’s where the city got its name from. Stepan was a hero to the Armenian people, he was a revolutionary politician from the Caucasus within the Soviet Union.

War Memorial

War Memorial

War Memorial

Outside the War Museum of Fallen Soldiers

Inside the museum

weaponry inside the museum of Fallen soldiers

Picture in the museum of the Military Parade in Stepanakert

War Photography Artsakh war

War photography

bazooka

AK47

knives and pistols

National Assembly building

Parliament building

Cathedral of Stepanakert

Stepan Shahumyan statue

Stepan Shahumyan statue

Me with the Stepan Shahumyan statue

Football stadium of Artsakh with the seats in the colors of the Nagorno Karabakh flag

seats also in the color of the Armenian flag

They just signed a Belgian goalkeeper 🙂

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Military propaganda on the buildings

Armenian & Nagorno Karabakh  propaganda

Old Russian car Wolga

 

Little bit outside the city centre I visited the “Tatik Papik” stone Monument which means “we are our mountains” although that’s not  literally translated. Its’ grandma and grandpa and it represents the people who live in the Mountains of Nagorno Karabakh which is obvious since it’s a Mountainous country.

We are our Mountains

Tatik Papik Monument

With the Nagorno-Karabakh flag at a souvenir stand near the Tatik Papik Monument

 

Believe it or not, Nagorno Karabakh also has a non operational airport, the building looks nice but no commercial flights. You can rent a small plane or a helicopter but thats about it. Most of the time not much flying going on there.

Artsakh airport

 

 

 

 

From Khor Verap to Goris and Tatev

Armenia is the land of Monasteries and churches, there are just so many of them and if you are only for a few days in the country like I was, it’s impossible to visit them all.

From the Capital Yerevan I did an excursion with a friend to the Khor Verap. The church of Khor Virap built in th 5th Century is a place of pilgrimage. To the right side of the altar there is a ladder leading down to a pit where according to legends Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years. He survived it and to the king Tridas the 3rd who imprisoned him that was a miracle and because of that he decided to be Christian just like Saint Gregory and decided that the whole nation of Armenia should be Christian and so Armenia became the first Christian nation in the world.
It’s a great story with no religious violence involved.

Khor Verap church

climbing down the ladder to the pit

Khor Verap Monastery

I also went down into the pit to see it for myself and its crazy that someone could survive for so long in this dark place deep in the underground of a church. Not even thinking how horrible it must have been during the wintertime.

Later that day I got to the town of Goris which is surrounded by mountainous area with limestone spires with caves carved into them. This is the old Goris where people used to live in these caves untill the 18th century which is not that long ago. So it’s not only something that dates back as far as to the medieval times.
You can hike there and maybe some dog from town will follow you from the town centre to the caves. I hiked a bit and passed a graveyard where cows were eating the grass from between the gravestones.

Limestone spires

Cave city of Old Goris

another picture of this superb place

The dog that followed me

the cows on the graveyard

Goris itself was very calm, not many cars as I was walking sometimes in the middle of the street. Its like live stood still.
The reason why I came to Goris was not only to see the caves and different rock formations but also cause its close to get to the Tatev Monastery.
I got there with a driver who had an old lada, and in Goris I saw quite a few lada’s.

Goris

Central square of Goris

not many traffic in the streets besides some old lada’s

one of the nicer houses in Goris with the Eagle of the Roman empire

Once you get to Tatev you will see you not the only tourist there, buy a ticket and go with the longest cableline in the world (6km) up to Tatev which is on top of a mountain plateau overlooking the area. Most people buy a return ticket also. I didn’t cause my friend who was with me on this trip had been before to Tatev and there is a secret way to get out of the Monastery by a hole in the ground that eventually leads you out to a whole in the side wall of the Monastery. Once we got out by this secret passage, we hiked down, crossed a little river and hiked up another small hill back to find our driver and his Lada.

Tatev

Chapel at the Tatev Monastery

old bell at the Tatev Monastery

Tatev Church

view over the area

the hole in the side wall of the Monastery, from here I got out and hiked my way out of the area. Saved me some money on the retour ticket for the cabelline

I got out and this is the view

another closer view after I got out by the secret passage

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Armenia Day in Yerevan

It’s always great to be in a country or city where some festivities and activities are being held. I didn’t know that the 21st of September is Armenia’s Independence day and that on this day I would be in Yerevan and witness the celebrations during the day and at night on Yerevan’s Republic square.
After doing some research it’s the day Armenia got it’s freedom and independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 on the 21st september, 27 years ago.
Early that day I was outside the capital city visiting the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple. When I came back to Yerevan I saw that the streets were crowded and someone at the hostel told me it’s Armenia day and festivities were going on in the city. Some roads were cut off from traffic and stages were set up with dj’s and performances by local artists. The most people came to Republic square to listen to music, to play games, to taste the Armenian folklore. Some food stands and tents with local products were present aswell. People wearing traditional clothes from different parts of the country or just the national flag around their body.
Everywhere Armenian flags which is common on Independence days in every country. I remember Albania day a few years ago which I also attended by coincidence, not in Albania but in Pristina the capital of Kosovo.
In the evening music was played and the water fountains where moving to the rhythm of the music just like in Las Vegas at the Bellagio hotel. Spectacular fireworks where the end conclusion of what was and is a great day for all Armenians.

This girl has a traditional Armenian outfit – Armenia Day

Girls in uniform

Girl waving proudly the big Armenian flag in the middle of Republic Square

Concert and other performances on stage

Kids having fun with different activities and games organised for them

Even Transformers on Armenia day doing a dance

Me almost all by myself at the Republic Square in Yerevan , days before Armenia Day

Republic Square very calm few days before Armenia day

This is me in earlier that day at the Garni Temple in Garni

Mountainous landscape in Garni

Geghard Monastery

Geghard

Geghard Monastery

Me at the Geghard Monastery

Inside the Geghard Monastery church

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fireworks at Republic Square

Fountains at Republic Square

Daytrip from Sliema to Gozo & Comino Islands

Just a cross the street of my hotel “The Sliema Marina” where I was staying I saw these boats leaving everyday with tourists to Valletta or to Gozo and Comino Island bringing them back in the evening when it was already dark. Around 6 or 7 pm. Since I have been in Malta in november this means it’s already dark around 5 pm in this time of the year. To complete my Malta trip I had to visit those Islands even if it would be for a short time and just to go out there and see something. Continue reading

SMOM The country with no land

The only country recognised by the United Nations that has no land is located in Fort St Angelo in Birgu on the Island of Malta.
If you have not heard about this before, then its nothing to feel embarrassed of as I also didn’t knew about its existence untill a friend of mine Jonny backpacked it. Continue reading

Malta

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Malta a stone in water was what I heard someone once say, and yes its little Island but not as little as Easter Island. Malta got 3 Islands the Island of Malta itself, Gozo and Comino. I visited all of them although it was not planned to do so cause my time there was limited. Continue reading

The Land of Fire

My next trip brought me back to the Caucasus, after being in Georgia and Abkhazia (still part of Georgia) 3 years back, it was time to visit the region again by going to the land of Fire aka Azerbaijan. It was a short trip this time to its capital Baku which in Azeri language means the city of winds cause there is wind everyday, although it’s pretty alright for me coming from Belgium where it’s wind and rain for most of the year.
Baku is laying at the Caspian sea, no wonder there is wind but it’s good cause it can be pretty hot out here. 24 degrees Celsius in October not bad at all and the sun was more than welcome for me.

Flame Towers seen from Maiden Tower

Why is it called the land of fire ?
Because the people who used to live here before the Islam and Soviet times where Zoroastrians, Zoroastrianism was a type of religion that had influences from the old Persian empire and the ancient Indian Hindu time. Zoroastrians were worshipping fire and near Baku I visited their fire temple of Atashgah.

What did I do in Baku ?

I visited the old town as well as the modern part of the city with the Flame Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Center by architect Zaha Hadid.

Heydar Aliyev Center (Museum)

Inside Museum

Very modern

Another modern building near the Caspian Sea is the Carpet museum.

Carpet museum, building is a giant rolled up carpet

In the old town I visited mosques, caravanserai, Maiden Tower from which you have a view over the city of Baku, The palace of Shirvanshahs and more.

Maiden Tower

Maiden Tower from the other side of the street

Palace of the Shirvanshahs

Inside the Juma Mosque

War Memorial for the victims of the Soviet attack in 1990 and the Karabakh war with Armenia of 1994.

Eternal Flame @ the War Memorial monument

The War Memorial is on Martyrs Lane which is up hill and from here you got a superb view over the City and its Caspian sea bay

 

Places visited outside Baku but near the capital on a half day trip were : Atashgah, burning mountain Yanartag and the Ramana Castle.
The tour companies in Baku also offer day trips to Qobustan park with its petroglyphs and the mud volcanos. I didn’t do the last one since I have seen petroglyphs in Kyrgyzstan and mud volcanos in Yellowstone or something very similar to it.
I personally was not interested in stones and mud, but if it’s your thing then go and book this tour when you are in Baku

Atashgah Fire temple of the Zoroastrians

Inside Fire Temple

Ramana Castle

Burning mountain – Yanartag

Because of the gas in the surface this mountain is burning for 5000 years, something else then Darvaza in Turkmenistan which is burning since  1971

Outside Baku, Azerbaijan is different , landscape, roads , houses it all changes and it seems there is a big gap between those who live their lives in the great capital city and those who live in the countryside.
I saw oil fields and the impact the black gold has on the environment and found this more interesting to see all these oil derricks going up and down pumping it up out of the oil wells, then a park with petroglyphs on stones.

oil derrick working

more of them pumping oil

oil field and the impact on the environment

countryside

Houses in the countryside, just a few km from Baku

 

 

 

Sankt-Petersburg Russia’s Pride

The City of Peter The Great !

I came to St. Petersburg by high-speed train “Sapsan” from Moscow, only 4 hours to the City that lays at the Finish Gulf. I didn’t bring the hot Moscow weather with me cause in Sankt-Peter there were moments with a lot of rain and besides the touristic sites I wasn’t in the mood to explore the city more on my own. Sometimes the sun came out peeking and that was usually when I wanted to take picture of something that it stopped raining for a moment, call it crazy luck.
Sankt-Peter as the Russian call the city, is the pride of Russia, it has so much to offer for tourists, that you need several days to see everything.
Despite the rain it’s a city with a nice vibe, nice European style streets and houses to walk by, many ways to get around by tram, bus and metro.

Peter The Great

Places that I visited were the Blue & white Smolny Complex with its cloister and Cathedral build for Elizabeth Peter The Great’s Daughter who became a nun.
Peter & Paul Fortress by the Neva River that was built on a small Island to protect the city from Swedish invasion. It also served as a prison and nowadays it’s a museum with a Cathedral that you can visit. This Cathedral with its bell tower contains a big carillon that was a gift from the city of Mechelen in Flanders (Belgium) for Peter the Great, it contains 51 bells. It was Peters idea to bring back the musical revival in his city.

Smolny Complex

Peter & Paul Cathedral

Peter & Paul Fortress

The Alexander Nevsky monastery with its cemetery where historically famous Russians like Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky are buried.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral which is the biggest Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Sankt-Peterburg and it really stands out with its doors of bronze and its golden dome, you can see it from different parts of the city.
The interior is also stunning and makes your mouth fall open. From all parts of Russia multicolored granites and marbles were gathered to compose the internal features such as columns, pilasters, floors.
At Palace Square I visited the Hermitage with the Diamant room which unfortunately was not allowed to take photos of.

Alexander Nevsky Monastery, view from my Hotel

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral

Palace Square

Hermitage

Inside the Hermitage

Throne room

25km outside of the City I visited Peterhof, the Palace of Peter The Great at the Finish Gulf. This residence has magnificent rooms, in different styles, it gives you an idea about how life was for the rulers of Russia. Golden statues and fountains of the Grand Cascade in the garden makes this place look unique.

Peterhof

Grand Cascade with its golden statues

the sea channel in back of me

Another Palace about 35km away from Sankt-Petersburg is the Catharina Palace or Pushkin Palace. It used to be Katherina’s summer palace with its famous Amber room (no pictures allowed, but you can find them on google anyway) and the ball room.
I liked walking around here and see this for myself and I must say Russians can be proud of Sankt-Petersburg and their palaces.

Pushkin Palace

Pol the Great

The Ball room with gold on the sidings and a the biggest ceiling painting I ‘ve ever seen

room with Flemish and Dutch paintings

lunch room

at the Gardens park

 

 

Visiting the Biggest Country on Earth

A Country that’s almost on the news everyday and I haven’t been there yet ? I’m talking about Russia.
The biggest country on earth, historically a lot in common with Europe and partly being part of the old continent and also of Asia.
Wonder how life is there, how Russians are. Since this is my first visit to Russia I decided to do a classic trip visiting its capital Moscow and Sankt-Petersburg.

Kremlin

Starting in Moscow.

One of the biggest cities in the world, a lot of traffic, took me 1 hour to get from the airport to the city centre and its only 30km !
I saw big expensive cars, but also old lada’s, yes they are still present which is nice, it gives you a feeling for Russia, you realizing you really are in a post-sovjet country. On some buildings still the hammer and sickle is showing and the red star.

What is there to see ?

There is a lot to see in Moscow, everywhere you go you see nice buildings in different styles, but since my visit was only 2 days, I did the classic touristic sites such as : The Red Square (which was half closed because they were preparing for some military festivity), off course the famous Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin with the Tsar-bell and Tsar-cannon and its many cathedrals and churches with golden domes.

On my way to the Red Square

The gate through which I entered the Red Square

preparations for celebrating the Russian army – Red Square

Saint Basil’s Cathedral

Tsar-cannon

Tsar-Bell

Cathedrals and churches behind the Kremlin walls

However the first place I went to see was the Novodevichy Convent aka New Maidens’ Monastery a Unesco site surrounded by a park behind big walls with twelve towers. The most famous building at the convent is “the Cathedral of our lady of Smolensk” which was under construction so I didn’t get to see that. To be honest all the cathedrals in Russia are nice but they all look a bit the same to me, it’s the little towers and the golden domes that make them all look beautiful and spectacular looking in the distance. When you drive into the city you see them domes standing out from these Orthodox Cathedrals and churches it has something special.

Novodevichy Convent

One of the towers of the Novodevichy convent in my back

Next stop was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour situated on the northern bank of the Moskva River, on the backside of the cathedral there is a bridge over the river from which you have a view on a big statue of Peter the Great standing in the river on one side and a view over the Kremlin on the other side of that bridge.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Statue of Peter The Great in the Moskva River

Then I made my way towards the red square, where there is a big mall next to it, the GUM department store, there I had lunch in a Russian restaurant on the top floor, really good and not expensive at all, besides tourist a lot of locals were als eating there, can’t remember the name of the restaurant but there are many places to eat, besides restaurants, there are shops and even a movieteatr.

GUM Department store

A nice place to see Moscow is at Vorobyovy gory (Sparrow hill) from here you can see a great panoramic view over Russia’s Capital city, its adjacent to the Moscow state University which is just another bombastic building, real piece of architecture.
It’s easy to get there by metro, you step out at Vorobyovy station and from there you just walk to the observation point up hill.

Moscow State University

Panorama of Moscow with the Luzhniki Stadium, which will host the Opening Match and Final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Vendors selling Russian suvenirs, the Matroshka’s

Russian hats

Putin shirts

Going down the Metro

Speaking about metro, the one of Moscow is worth a visit many stations are well decorated, with sculptures, glass work, statuettes, mosaics on walls and ceilings. It’s really an underground palace, if only the metro in Brussels could be like that.

look at the ceilings in the metro, decorated with Mosaics

Walls are also decorated with Mosaics

“Mir” which means peace

Hammer and Sickle, the symbol of the Soviet Union

Metro station decorated with glasswork on the walls

 

 

Statuettes as decoration