So, I’m currently dodging large bugs even larger african militias in West Africa right now. One new country down this trip, and four more to go, which will bring me to having just six left to check off. Currently in Ziguinchor, Senegal right now, on the way to Guinea-Bissau. Assuming I get a visa tomorrow. Assuming I find a taxi, assuming, well, just assuming things don’t go tits up. It’s Africa after all!
Since Ian (who I traveled to Israel and Palestine with in 2014, and went to Chad, CAR, Togo, and Benin with in 2015) appears to have a few fans on my blog, he agreed to write a guest blog for me while I was busy over the coming weeks. The first part is below…so feel free to leave him lots of feedback and encouragement. Enjoy this a break from my usual picture-heavy writing style, and get to explore strange out of the way places even I haven’t made it to yet! Here goes!
I don’t have a big family. Just my parents, me, and some extended relatives who don’t live anywhere close and we don’t like very much anyway. Consequently, holidays really mean nothing to me and never result in any familial obligations which prevent me from travelling. Thanksgiving has therefore become just another day off from work and one which becomes a part of yearly trip overseas, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Last five years have been Israel, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Las Vegas. 2015 would be similar. I would go, park myself for a week, and dive into the area.
The planning and the pieces of the puzzle that would become this year’s trip took shape throughout the year. The first part was the outbound, which really was the back end of my inbound from the African adventure I had with Jason back in September. When booking in February, I found an $1165 round trip business class fare on Etihad from CAI-AUH-JFK, with a return leg leaving JFK on 11/22. A few months later, the ex-OSL mistake fare on OneWorld came up, and I found myself with a round trip OSL-HEL-JFK for $480 in business class, leaving on 12/1. And until September, all I could definitively tell anyone about my Thanksgiving plans were that they were taking place between Cairo and Oslo.
Figuring out where that place was, and making it work into my budget, mileage balances, flight times, etc. became a task. I had toyed with abandoning the “park myself” bit and bouncing around Africa, but that was going to be far too expensive. Cape Town sounded nice, but ate up to much time/money/miles getting down there from CAI and then back up to Oslo for the outbound. And then I started focusing in on the Caucasus region. Looked at Georgia, and flight connections through IST were decent, but I thought it more prudent to go there in the spring or summer when the weather was better. The visa for Azerbaijan would be a pain. And so I set my sights on Armenia. More specifically, I set my sights on Nagorno-Karabakh.
I’m a political science/current events/history junkie. If you have such an affliction, unrecognized states and “frozen conflicts” are better than cocaine. Not that I’ve used cocaine (but if you know a guy…). For a brief history, the current Nagorno-Karabakh came about as a result of ethnic tensions, ethnic cleansing, and outright war between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the USSR crumbled and gave birth to new republics. In the early/mid 90s, Armenian (and Russian) backed forces ended up fighting (Russian backed) Azeri forces occupying a large chunk of Azerbaijan, creating a buffer zone, and forming a quasi-independent country…which no one recognizes and has just been hanging out for the past 20 years.
I wanted to go there. Getting there though, was a process.
There is an airport outside of the nominal capital, Stepanakert. Up to all the latest standards, but there’s a slight hiccup in that the Azeris threaten to shoot down any plane, military or civilian, that would try and use it. So that would mean flying to Yerevan (EVN) and then going by road hundreds of miles to get there. But flights into EVN from CAI weren’t working for me, with very few airlines flying there to begin with. I ultimately found the best use of time and money was to drop my last leg to CAI, take a taxi from AUH, overnight at the Hilton in Sharjah (8,000 HHonors points + $45), and then go DXB-EVN the following morning on FlyDubai (coach, $280), landing at about 15:00 local time. The final flights I booked were an award on Aeroflot in business (25,000 DL Skymiles) going EVN-SVO-OSL on 11/30.
Now, getting from Yerevan to Stepanakert. The sensible side in me said “you don’t know the roads, it will be getting dark, you should just hire a driver for the 5+ hour drive. Or overnight in Yerevan and take a bus in the morning.” The other side of me said “rent a Lada Niva with 4wd, make the drive yourself, and that have your own wheels for the week.” The Lada Niva side won, and so I rented a car through Caravan (www.caravan.am) for around $300 for the entire week, with a GPS.
Hotels in Stepanakert were fairly straightforward. The two best options seemed to be the Hotel Armenia or the Vallex Garden Hotel ( http://vallexgarden.com ), and since the latter had a gym and an indoor pool, it won.
A trip was born.