Naked & Afraid – Off Roadin’ the UAE/Oman Road Trip: Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, & Ras Al-Khaimah

Naked & Afraid – Off Roadin’ the UAE/Oman Road Trip: Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, & Ras Al-Khaimah

 

One of my most epic days of traveling ever. And this is days before we head into Afghanistan!

 

 

Following our whirlwind morning in Abu Dhabi, our driver Hosain took us up an hour’s drive towards Dubai at the ENOC Gas Station by Ibn Ba. There we rendezvous’ed with our local friend and expat living in the UAE, Sean — whom I met last May when I crashed a YPT trip in Iraq.

 

 

Despite a snafu with my debit card and the ATMs here (thanks Amanda for the rescue!) we paid Hosain 400 AED for his time as Sean took over for the driving (Amusingly, Sean also happened to be driving the same car as our Abu Dhabi driver).

  

Dubai

We then drove quickly up through Dubai, which I’ve profiled numerous times before

 

 

 

Sharjah

Promptly leaving Dubai behind, we first passed through Sharjah to the north, the third largest and third most populous city in the UAE.

Sharjah is known for its relative “poorer” status and yet staunch Islamic conservatism compared to its neighbors (ex. all alcohol and hookah/shisha is banned here):

 

 

Ajman

…we then passed Ajman, the smallest of the emirates:

 

 

Ras Al-Khaimah

Then driving further and passing by Umm Al Quwain, we reached Ras Al-Khaimah, aka RAK City and home to most of UAE’s residents.

The highlight in RAK city is the ghost town of Al Jazirah Al Hamra (aka The Red Island), which once housed 2500 residents.

Abandoned houses and mosques litter this area, which has been believed by locals to be haunted. Otherwise, this is the closest idea you can get to a traditional town that depicted life before oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates.

We spent about 20 minutes walking around and urbexin‘:

 

 

You can technically climb up the lone minaret here . . .

 

 

. . . but be careful of the rickety stairs! Some of the steps are NOT secure so test each one carefully before taking a step (I had to lunge up skipping a few).

 

 

Once you get to the top, hold to the wall lest you fall off (there’s no railings here):

 

 

But the views though:

 

 

Umm Al Quwain

After climbing down we then drove south back towards Umm Al Quwain, the least populous emirate in the UAE.

The crown jewel here is the ghost airport that still is home to a mysteriously abandoned Ilyushin IL 76 Soviet cargo plane emblazoned with Palma Beach Hotel on the sides.

 

 

Nobody truly knows its backstory. However, one theory is that an infamous Russian arms dealer had to crash land here in the UAE after running out of fuel, after which he absconded before finally being arrested by Interpol a few years later.

Whatever the story is, and if you find yourself alone and not turned away by the Sudanese official assigned to guard this cryptic relic, look for a ladder by the engine. And if it’s there, it obviously may exit for a certain purpose:

 

 

Hopefully you have a torch with you because the interior is nuts:

 

 

Head to the back for the cargo hold:

 

 

And then to the front cockpit where you can see what Soviet mechanical aviation used to look like before the computer age:

 

 

If you’re really feeling daring, climb up a conveniently placed rope so you can literally sit on top of the cockpit.

 

 

After about 20 minutes here, our aforementioned Sudanese guard finally caught us red handed!

We then quickly exited the aircraft, apologized thoroughly, gave him a can of Coke, and promptly took off as fast as that Russian arms dealer, heading towards Ajman.

 

Ajman

There we had dinner at a new and fancy Moroccan/Syrian restaurant and hookah lounge The Address Moroccan.

 

 

Sharjah

After a splendid meal with chicken and lamb tajines, complemented by a Morrocan/Syrian mixed grill, we headed back down to Sharjah to check out Flag Island.

 

 

Dubai

After about 15 minutes here walking around, Sean then drove us back to the Deira district in Dubai where we finally checked into our accommodations at Rove City Centre.

Just to recap: We spent the past 12 hours having summarily explored 6 out of the 7 Emirates in the UAE: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, and Ras Al Kaimah. And tomorrow we visit the 7th on the other side of the coast, Fujairah, as well as the UAE/Omani exclaves of Nahwa and Madha!

What a day.

 

 

- At time of posting in RAK City, it was 35 °C - Humidity: 67% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly clouded, seeded clouding, thick air

 

Czechmates For Life: Prague

Czechmates For Life: Prague

 

The last time I was in Prague 19 years ago, I was 11 years old. 

 

 

And I haven’t been back since. So does it count if I really don’t remember anything but this photo? NO IT DOESN’T.

 

 

Last month, when 7-time monsooner (Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait!) Ann Wen found out she had more days off than expected and asked me to extend my travels, the convenient thing was to ask her to join me in Fiji since I was already in the area. Of course, being based in NYC she balked so we had to find a compromise…where could we meet in the middle? And if she’s never let me down on past trips, how could I?

After finding ridiculously cheap flights from Fiji to Prague via layovers in Auckland, Shanghai, and Xi’an, it was meant to be. Prague was happening. 

15 more people signed up within 2 weeks, and then Ann recruited a random stranger she met at the airport on the way to Prague: a medical student from Kazakhstan studying in Prague named Aia. Another monsoon was forming.

For “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

 

 

And nearly 2 decades later, I was back in one of my first European cities: Prague.

 

 

After 3 weeks island hopping in the Pacific and the least visited countries in the world, I took off from Suva for a 3 hour flight to Auckland (on almost the one year anniversary I was last there!) where I had a few hours to transit to a 17 hour Emirates flight to Dubai, and then a few more hours there before finally getting on a 7 hour Emirates flight to Prague. And right after disembarking and stamping into the EU, I hailed an Uber for a 25 minute ride into the city to meet up with the rest of the monsooners at a pre-reserved lunch at Terasa U Prince.

 

 

It’s known for having one of the best rooftop views in the world for lunch, although I don’t know which governing body would determine that.

 

 

After lunch and introductions, we returned back to our hostel and immediately hit the ground running in monsooning Prague.

There are sights everywhere; right outside our hostel grows a little statue called Embryo. Designed by Czech sculptor David Černý, it was created as his statement about the difficulty of creating art in an unimaginative world

 

 

A few paces east we found Man Hanging Out, aka “Zavěšený muž”: Černý’s statue of a dangling Sigmud Freud as a critical statement about intellectualism in the 20th century.

 

 

About 5 minutes away south we walked by the Velvet Revolution Memorial, which commemorates November 17, 1989, the date that changed the Czech Republic forever.

 

 

It was that date when a crowd of students marched towards Wenceslas Square from Vyšehrad to demonstrate against the one-party rule of Communism, as well as to celebrate the anniversary of a similar student demonstration against Nazi occupation 50 years ago. After being met with fierce resistance by riot police, the students’ numbers swelled from 50,000 to 200,000 within days, leading to the eventual fall of Communist Czechoslovakia.

Across the street is popular Café Louvre, where we grabbed breakfast on our 2nd day.

 

 

And if we hadn’t had enough memorials and monuments, A few paces more east is the fittingly enigmatic and constantly shifting Head of Franz Kafka:

 

 

We then walked 10 minutes more south, passing by the birthplace of Kafka (thanks Jommel for pointing it out!)

 

 

. . . to the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.

 

 

After assassinating SS-Obergrupenführer Reinhard Heydrich in the Operation Anthropoid, 7 brave Czech paratroopers escaped to this basement crypt and over the course of 20 days killed 700 Nazis before they ran out of ammunition and killed themselves.

 

 

And next door to the memorial we had to take obligatory photos with Dancing House, the famously curvy office building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

 

 

Get creative here!

 

 

We then headed back north, passing by the Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc memorial, which marks the site where Jan Palach immolated himself in 1969, followed a week later by his friend Jan Zajíc, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague.

 

 

10 minutes more north you’ll reach hit the eastern edge of Old Town at the Basilica of St. James, which is known for its art-filled baroque interior, as well as a 400-year old shriveled mummified hand of a thief dangling from a chain (having served as a warning to other kleptomaniacs).

 

spot the hand?

 

And from there we entered the gorgeous Old Town Main Square.

 

 

We made sure not to miss the Prague Meridian, which was used like a sundial to tell time back in the day.

 

 

And in the spirit of telling time, the creme de la creme would be the Prague Astronomical Clock. Installed in 1410, this gem exists as the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

 

 

Legend has it that its creator was forcibly blinded by the Prague Council in order to prevent him from making similar clocks for other nations. In response, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the clocks’ gears, hence placing a curse on anyone who attempted to repair the clock in the future.

Then we walked north to Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto. Once you pass by another odd Memorial sculpture to Kafka, you’re at the eastern edge of the former ghetto.

 

 

We first visited The Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest synagogue and Prague’s first building of Gothic design when it was completed in 1270. More famously, however, it is the reported legendary home of the Golem of Prague (that’s who that ladder on the outside is for!)

 

 

Next door we looked for the photogenic Old Jewish Cemetery, which houses over 12,000 tombstones of bodies up to 6 layers deep!

 

 

Leaving Josev to the south, we stopped in the Municipal Library of Prague, which features the “Idiom” installation: A literally literary (get it? hah!) tower that appears to stretch into infinity.

 

 

We then crossed the street to sneak into Prague City Hall, which is home to one of the world’s only Paternoster elevator, aka the elevator that never stops! Accessible after 10:00 Monday to Friday, we went through the huge doors on the front of the building, and then headed to either left or right to get around to the other end of the building where the lift is.

 

 

From the ground floor it goes up 4 floors but then it keeps going…I mean  you can stay on the lift after it passes the last stop but only If you dare…

 

 

… you really can’t say you’ve ridden a Paternoster unless you’ve gone over the top and around the bottom!

 

Then the sight that all tourists who come to Prague for: We finally crossed The Charles Bridge, Prague’s landmark stone bridge that links Old & New Towns.

 

 

Be careful of your stuff here! This is where Joanne got pickpocketed, losing both her wallet and green card! However, luckily she was able to get an emergency re-entry permit from the U.S. consulate within 24 hours despite the current shutdown.

 

 

When we approached New Town, we made a quick left for the John Lennon Wall.

 

 

We then made an about-face north and passed the narrowest street of Prague to our right, built originally as an emergency fire exit.

 

 

Steps away we had a laugh at Piss Sculpture, also designed by aforementioned David Černý, which features 2 statues that will piss out actual messages that you can text to +420 724 370 770

 

 

Then we walked over to St. Nicholas Church, a structure that took over a century & 3 generations of architects to complete when it was finished in the 1850s.

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes south to the Church of Our Lady Victorious and The Infant Jesus of Prague, open late and famous for its statue of infant Jesus and its constantly rotating wardrobe throughout the year. According to Jommel, this was the statue that inspired the spread of Christianity through The Philippines.

 

 

Finally we walked uphill to Prague Castle, the symbol of the city and the holder of The Guinness Book Of World Records title for being the largest ancient castle complex in the world at 70,000 sq. meters (750,000 sq. feet) and the official office of the President.

 

 

The group then split, with a third staying at the Prague Castle for the numerous art galleries and other exhibits, while the rest headed west to Loreto Prague just to take a gander at the peculiar Statue of St. Wilgefortis, a bearded female saint. We sang our heart out karaoke style to “I Want It That Way” here.

 

 

They also have a treasury on the 2nd floor, of which in their collection the most famous being the 6222-diamond encrusted monstrance, the Prague Sun:

 

 

Then we walked up to Petrin Tower, a 378m cast-iron tower that was built to be taller than the Eiffel Tower in 1892, featuring a deck for city views.

 

 

We paid for the elevator up just in time for sunset.

 

 

Then as we headed out of the park back towards the direction of old town, we sauntered past an equally sauntering Monument of Karel Hynek Mácha.

 

 

As we exited, we took pause at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which commemorates all the political prisoners jailed during Communist rule.

 

 

That’s pretty much most of central Prague, all of which can be done in 10-12 hours over the course of 2 days!

 

 

For our third and free day, some of us caught on the latest trip gossip over a lazy brunch at Café Savoy,

 

 

. . . with others checking out the weirdness of the Kafka Museum:

 

 

Later in the afternoon, some chilled out at one of the handful of beer spas in the city.

 

 

…and there was a lot of socializing at our gorgeous rooftop maisonettes at Old Prague House:

 

 

And what would a monsoon be without group dinners and drinks at some fine establishments? On our first night we pregamed at Hookah Place next to our hostel.

 

 

And then across the street at 5-story Karozy Lane — aka the largest nightclub in Central Europe — we were able to turn this:

 

 

. . . into this:

 

 

And finally we celebrated Katy’s birthday at Mlynec!

 

 

What To Eat In Prague

 

Open faced sandwiches at The Sisters Bistro:

 

 

Next door is Lukásskálacukrár for sumptuous Czech pastries:

 

 

They can be generous with free samples!

 

 

And don’t leave without trying the Pork Knuckle

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Prague, Czechia, it was n/a - Humidity: 86% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: snowy

 

Nauru, AKA The Marooned Diaries – New Year’s Eve In The #1 Least Visited Country In The World

Nauru, AKA The Marooned Diaries – New Year’s Eve In The #1 Least Visited Country In The World

 

Above cover photo credit: Mikhael Chai — thanks for that unplanned shot of me standing on the top of Nauru!

  

I’ve already had my fair share of New Year’s Eve celebrations in far flung corners of the globe:

 

But this year will be different. Today I will celebrate New Year’s Eve in the #1 smallest independent republic and LEAST visited country in the world at less than 160 visitors a year: Nauru.

I first heard of Nauru years ago on This American Life as one of the most difficult countries to visit and officially the #1 least visited country in the world. The 30 minute podcast episode is fascinating and I highly suggest you listen to it, if not read the transcript here. After all, it is about a country literally in the middle of nowhere.

 

Specifically, the middle of nowhere is an island, isolated even by Pacific Ocean standards, 1,200 miles from the nearest smudge of land. A third the size of Manhattan, way east of New Guinea. On a map, a tiny dot in a massive hole in the middle of the sea.
 
This place is called Nauru. Heard of it? Don’t worry. Almost no one has. Nauru is the place you’ve never heard of until you’ve heard of it, and then can’t stop hearing of it. Part of the pleasure of knowing about Nauru is watching it pop up, Zelig-like, at the strangest world events. A covert spy operation involving a fake embassy in China. The world premiere of a London musical. The dark back room scheming of global terrorism. A dramatic rescue on the high seas. And an incident of international bankruptcy, as Jonathan Winer discovered. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

 

 

 

The Least Visited Country In The World

 

For those of you unfamiliar with Nauru, this tiny sliver of land boasts 11,300 residents covering a 21 sq km (or 8 sq. mi) area. This makes Nauru the world’s smallest independent republic and 3rd smallest state by area behind Vatican City 

 

 

More notably, Nauru’s phosphate-rock deposits once made it the richest country per-capita in the world in the late 1980s. Then international mining companies completely stripped the mines and thus nearly Nauru’s entire source of income:

 

This discovery [of phosphate] plunged Nauru into the Industrial Age in the most brutal way. It became a strip mine, with a succession of different owners. First Germany, then Japan during World War II, and then Australia until the late ’60s when colonialism went out of fashion. Nauru became an independent nation in 1968 and took control of the mines. The money poured in. By the late ’80s, Nauru was the richest country per capita in the world. And they luxuriated in it. Everyone bought a car, even though the drive around the entire perimeter of the nation can’t last much more than 30 minutes. They built cinder block houses, the hotel went up. Everyone got satellite TV, Western food arrived. Nauru Airline started flying. And in the final sign of post-colonial arrival, they built a golf course in the middle of nowhere.

And just like for everyone else in the ’90s, the bubble burst. Nauru’s financial advisers in the west robbed them blind. One of them, Adrian Powles of London, looted $60 million. Another boondoggle was producing a play in London. Maybe you missed the musical based on the amorous adventures of da Vinci, called Leonardo, A Portrait of Love. It closed a few weeks after it opened, losing tens of millions of dollars for its principal backer, Nauru. By the late ’90s, the country was in ruins. With the money gone, it was easier to turn around and see what they’d done to their homeland. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

Probably 70% of the island is mined out ruins. You can’t walk through it, it’s of no use to you. So the people on this island are in big trouble. They can no longer really get from the island those life support functions one needs in order to live somewhere. 

– Carl McDaniel, This American Life

 

When you’re on Nauru, there’s a palpable sense of shame at what they’ve done. Bring up the mining with anyone, a hotel clerk, a cab driver, a postal worker, and their face goes tense. It’s hard to understand because the Nauruans have done something almost unparalleled. Imagine if France had paved Bordeaux, or if Japan had carted away Fujiyama by the truckload. The Nauruans literally sold off their homeland for a pot of wealth, which is now lost. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

In desperation and after leagues of further bad investments, Nauru became a tax haven and illegal center for money laundering for various illicit government factions and mafias around the world.

 

For a while in the 90s, Nauru advertised on the internet permitting anyone to start a bank there for as little as $20,000. Make up a name, like the Panacea Bank. . . . Here was the advantage. Most banks are required to keep an audit trail of money coming in and going out, like a standard statement for a checking account. Nauru didn’t burden its banks with such fussiness. Nor did Nauru require that they ever tell anyone just who ran the bank. So when investigators went to track illicit money flows and got to the Panacea Bank, there would be no record of where the money came from. The trail would vanish. And Nauru would be under no obligation to say who ran it or where they lived.
 
Banks that would hide your tracks for you have always been around, but it was more of a gentleman’s sport practiced with old world grandeur in Switzerland. Nauru led the way in democratizing offshore banking, taking it to the internet, lowering the cost to make it easier on middle income international criminal syndicates.
 
– Jack Hitt, This American Life
 
 

Even more notoriously, Nauru has accepted aid and money from the Nauru Regional Processing Centre: an offshore Australian immigration detention facility. As a result of its heavy dependence on Australia, Nauru now has been considered a client state of Australia.

 

A boatload of refugees, mostly Afghans [were] fleeing the Taliban. Their wooden ship was sinking in the waters off Australia, and the Aussies flew helicopters out over them for three days, taking no action until they spotted a Norwegian cargo vessel nearby. The Australians then radioed the captain, told him of the SOS situation, and advised him to take the wreckage to Indonesia. The Norwegian captain hurried to the sinking boat and pulled over 400 refugees onto his cargo ship, ill equipped to handle such a crowd. Obviously, he had to take immediate action, heading for the closest port that could handle them. Australia. But Australia didn’t want these people, so for days there was a standoff at sea until Australia came up with a solution.

What the Norwegian captain didn’t know was that he had sailed right into the middle of an ugly national election. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was down in the polls and seemed destined to lose. Then he stood his ground regarding the refugees. He declared, “We will decide who comes into this country.” After he ordered his Navy to board the Norwegian vessel and remove the refugees to Nauru, his ratings shot right up and he easily won reelection. In exchange for locating the refugees on this distant island, he agreed to pay the Nauruan government a first installment of $20 million, with more to come.

You won’t be hearing from the refugees. Since they landed on the island in September 2001, Nauru has closed its borders. No tourists or journalists are allowed. The refugees cannot receive visitors. And Australia has picked up other refugees on the water and sent them into the camps, including Iraqis escaping Saddam Hussein. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

This would lead Nauru to become a breeding ground of a staggering mental health crisis almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world:

From the start, the authorities recognized that the detainees were becoming lethargic and morose. So they hired Maarten Dormaar, a Dutch psychiatrist, who came to Nauru. He was hampered by the fact that rural people from Afghanistan and Iraq don’t have a rich tradition of talk therapy, or opening up to a grief counselor. So their anxiety manifested itself in physical ways.

 

There was a boy who only came to me because of his stuttering. He said, I can’t speak anymore, properly. And the more emotionally loaded my questions were, then he started to stutter. As soon as he had to pronounce a word like brother or father, he couldn’t go on talking. It was clearly an emotional reaction, a reaction to his being overloaded with, how do you call, [DUTCH WORD] how do you call that in English? Longing for, hey, he was a young boy. Longing to see his mother, longing to be comforted, longing to have an arm around his shoulders. And there he is, all alone, in a long house with people that he cannot trust and he cannot confide in. It’s very understandable. 

Most of them didn’t sleep. That is their main complaint. They didn’t sleep till 4:00 or so. And then they said, did you sleep afterwards. No, I didn’t sleep, I just rested a little. Pain in their back, in their head. I mean, they always want sleeping pills and pills for headache. Fear of dying. Feeling of fainting. And so the feeling that you can’t breathe anymore. Self mutilation, with a knife over the chest and over the arms and so on, a lot of blood. This happened at least a dozen of times. 

–  Maarten Dormaar

 

Dormaar tried to convince the authorities that none of the detainees had any mental illness. Simply put, they are being driven crazy. The cure was simple. Freedom, work, friends, life. All things he was powerless to provide. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

And to top it off into the extreme, our very own US government simply would make things even worse by means of international espionage involving a fake embassy in China.

[U.S. State Department] paperwork, including emails, personal correspondence, and memos on state department stationery, detailed a quid pro quo between Washington and Nauru. Washington offered to return Nauru to paradise with fisheries, health clinics, schools, desalination plants, the works. In return, Nauru had to stop its banking and passport business, set up a listening post for US intelligence agencies, and sign Article 98, exempting the US from all war criminal proceedings in the international courts. Standard stuff requested by the Bush administration these days. Oh, and there was one other thing. Nauru had to go on a secret mission.

The way it was described to the Nauruans was this. The US wanted to use Nauruan diplomatic facilities in China to help facilitate the safe defection to the west of senior North Korean military and scientific personnel. Nauru would set up an embassy in China, and it would also set up an embassy car. And the car would be used, with a Nauruan flag, to help move people around the country. And the embassy would be used as a possible safe house to hold a defector until they could be safely moved to the West. The operation, they describe as Operation Weasel. 

– Cameron Stewart

. . . But when the state department was asked publicly about aid to Nauru, they not only denied the deal, but insisted that the men who made the arrangements with Nauru had no official authority. Meanwhile, understand, the Nauruans had held up their side of the deal. They outlawed offshore banking, which had cut off a big part of their income. So Nauru took the United States to court in Australia. . . . No matter what happens, it’s hard to see this as a win for Nauru. It’s a desperate act, even for a country so intimate with desperation. You know you’re really running out of options when you’re dunning the CIA for money owed on failed covert ops.

 

. . .How often you get to watch a country die? For a modern nation state, however small, to furl its flag, push in its UN chair and turn off the lights, is unthinkable. But for Nauru, it’s not only thinkable, but likely. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

  

Day 1 – Dec 30, 2018

Arrival

 

Given that things have turned around for Nauru lately, and that its borders were beginning to open up again to tourism, we had to see this very place for ourselves. We began our morning with 7:30am vans to Majuro airport.

 

So I traveled to Brisbane, Australia to catch the Nauru plane. I say the plane because Nauru Airways owns only one, a Boeing 737, all that connects this island to the world. I was told I was lucky to be aboard since the president often commandeers it to fly in party supplies, or sometimes creditors trying to collect on one of Nauru’s many debts seize it right on the runway. On the flight out, half the plane was taken up with giant plastic containers customized to fit ceiling to floor in the passenger seats. See, almost everything, including fresh water, has to be imported. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

Once at the airport we checked in with printed copies of our pre-purchased tickets.

 

 

There’s a pretty decent restaurant inside Majuro airport if you want to grab a omelette or a hearty spam musubi. They also sell a very rare copy of the highly vaunted “BAMON VS MAJURO.”

 

 

Afterwards we boarded our 3 hour 40 minute 9:25am flight from the Marshall Islands via Nauru Airlines.

 

 

 

I expected it to up there in charm with Air Koryo but Nauru Air is actually a very normal airline.

 

 

Before arriving in Nauru, we first stopped in Kiribati for a 20 minute layover on the runway before eventually arriving in Nauru airport at 1:05pm in the afternoon.

 

 

The energy was palpable on the runway, with nearly everyone stopping every few paces to take photos around them. In any other country this would have been a huge security no-no, but expected in Nauru.

 

 

There we waited for them to process our pre-arranged visas ($50 AUD).

 

 

 Getting a visa was relatively straightforward although prolonged. We applied months in advance, filling out a multi-page form and submitting a 2×2 passport photo, a screenshot copy of our passport, and an official letter of employment.

 


 

After 5 minutes at the passport counter and a relatively thorough customs check, we finally set foot into Arrivals and otherwise the world’s least visited country.

 

 

We quickly got picked up by our hotel outside arrivals…

 

 

…and checked into one of reportedly only 3 hotels in the country, The Menen Hotel, which is the the main international hotel of Nauru:

 

 

For the record, there are currently 8 ATMs on the island, one being at the Menen Hotel, one at Cappelle & Partner Department Store, and 4 at Bendigo Bank at the Civic Center. However, the guarantee of actual hard cash in these ATMs is not guaranteed — after a day our ATM at the Menen Hotel was run dry, leading us to make trips to Yaren to get out cash. And credit cards at the time of posting are still not accepted here.

Afterwards we wandered about Anibare Beach and the surrounding area. 

 

 

 

We then had dinner at Anibare Restaurant by the hotel before doing a night’s walk in the pouring rain.

     

     

    We happened upon Anibare Community Harbor, financed by the Japanese government and the only place on the island where you can have a safe swim. A few of us jumped in the warm waters here with some local kids.

     

     

     

     

    Day 2 – Dec 31, 2018

    New Year’s Eve

     

    Because Nauru’s size allows for it to lack an official capital city, it does boast a “capital village” in Yaren (aka where the airport is). So we headed there after an 8am breakfast to check out the Parliament Building and the Office of the President:

     

     

    If you’re in need of souvenirs, there is a “main gift shop” and post office for some memorabilia at the Civic Center past the airport. This is also the only other place to get cash from an ATM.

     

     

    Down towards the coast are the surreal ruins of the former phosphate mining facilities of Nauru’s richer past. Here you can find plenty of abandoned industry and shipwrecks at the port.

     

     

    And up the road is Nauru College:

     

     

    Obviously, my people are everywhere: 8% of people here are Chinese! 

    So we meandered over for a hearty Chinese lunch at the adjacent Anibare Harbor Restaurant we decided to obtain bragging rights to say we walked around a country in one day — Nauru is the only country in the world where it is actually possible to do this in 4-5 hours!

     

     

    And while doing our first loop around the country, we stopped by “Chinatown” which is more of a line of dollar shops than it is a town:

     

     

    These toys are all wrong though!

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Near the north part of the country is “downtown” in the vein of a giant Cappelle & Partner Department Store, the largest of which on the island:

     

     

    Luckily the best party in town for New Year’s would be held right at our own hotel, so we headed back for dinner and a few drinks before congregating at the hotel’s poolside. 

     

     

    At midnight we all jumped into the pool with an eclectic mix of refugees, expats and locals to see 2019 in no other random, crazy way than in the least visited country in the world!

     

     

    Unfortunately for music we lacked a DJ. As random people were scrambling through songs on YouTube to keep the party going, I stepped in to help out with my playlists of parties past. Speaking of which, this makes Melissa’s and my 3rd new year’s eve together!

     

     

      

    Day 3 – Jan 1, 2019

    Starting Off The Year By Walking

    An Entire Country In One Day!

     

    And what should we do as our first item of business for the new year?

    After a quick swim at Anibare Community Harbor and another Chinese lunch at the adjacent Anibare Harbor Restaurant, we decided to obtain bragging rights to say we walked around a country in one day — Nauru is the only country in the world where it is actually possible to do this in 4-5 hours!

     

     

     

     

    Of note, we passed by the emblematic phosphate deposits on Anibare Beach:

     

     

    And a special tree house:

     

     

    I finished the whole walk in 4.5 hours, having taken 30,000 steps across 15 miles. I am never going to do this again.

     

       

       

      Day 4 – Jan 2, 2019

      Inland aka “Topside”

       

      For our fourth day in Nauru, we headed inland first first to explore much of the abandoned and nearly scuttled phosphate mines that once dominated Nauru’s economy.

       

       

      Even if people are still kinda working here, this can be a playground for any urban explorers. Make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus!

       

      Nature always finds a way

       

      Our next stop was an empty Supermax prison, population: 0.

       

       

      Later in the afternoon we took a quick look at the infamous detention and regional processing center, which has now  been shuttered and mostly another refugee camp.

       

       

      We met a few Rohingya Muslims still living here who recently had fled Myanmar. They even invited us into their room for a few minutes to speak with us about their lives here.

       

       

      We then explored a few World War 2 relics still scattered about, including an old Japanese gun:

       

       

      …as well as an old Japanese prison:

       

       

      …and finally a giant Japanese artillery cannon on top of Command Ridge which takes a quick 10 minute hike up a hill and Nauru’s highest point.

       

       

      You can even climb inside and try to start it up again:

       

       

      From here you also can get glimpses of the leftover phosphate stockpiles that still remain on the island. This sun-bleached forsaken area is also known as Topside:

       

      The next day though, I realized that Nauru was also at the center of a completely different story. I called the cab for an island tour. The driver this day, whose name sounded like Brian, took me on a slow tour around the outer edge of the island. Then he asked me if I wanted to see the interior, known as Topside. When I said I did, the mood in the cab noticeably darkened. But he turned off one of the few side roads, and we headed in. Right away the trees disappeared. I immediately saw that the palms and pandanas you see on the shore are kind of scrim. A curtain, hiding from sight one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.
       
      Almost all of Nauru is missing. Picked clean, right down to the coral skeletons supporting the island. It’s a haunting landscape of dugout stone channels formed by limestone towers and coral outcroppings, all blindingly white under an intense equatorial sun. The winding channels among these coral spires are lined with an appallingly silky dirt, and old, filthy trash, too expensive to export from the island, blows around this blistering desert. Shreds of plastic bags snag on bits of coral, and feral dogs hunt in the canals.
       
      Brian told me how when he was a boy, all this was dense tropical forest. We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant. – Jack Hitt, This American Life
       

       

       

      After all this we definitely needed a drink, so we began the country’s first official pub crawl at Jules bar:

       

       

      Then we had dinner at one of the only non-Chinese restaurant in the country, The Bay Restaurant:

       

       

      And finally finishing up at Reef Bar next to our hotel:

       

        

      Day 5 – Jan 3, 2019

      Our Last Day

       

      For our last day in Nauru, we hiked over to Buada Lagoon, the only freshwater lagoon on the island and an otherwise peaceful area surrounded by palm trees.

       

       

      After a 10 minute walk around the lagoon, we drove off for some cave spelunking. We first stopped by a mosquito-infested cavern in the Anibare area, where a tribe of 500 villagers were massacred many years ago. 

       

       

      Be careful crawling in — you’ll have crouch down pretty low to see where it leads as you’re getting eaten alive by the plenty of mosquitoes breeding here.

       

       

      After about 20 minutes here we drove towards to the airport to check out Moqua Well, a secret cave that once served as the country’s primary source of fresh drinking water during the Japanese occupation. 

      You’ll need a guide to help you find where it is, or ask some villagers to point you in the right direction. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you take a small 4 minute hike through some shrubbery to see this graffiti’ed wall.

       

       

      Afterwards we all headed back for an early end to our day; tomorrow we wake up at 3am to make our 5:15am flight to Kiribati. 

      It’s been real, Nauru. 

       

      Update: At the time of posting, it appears that the detention situation has dramatically improved. Citing the “devastating mental health crisis”, there has been a large-scale evacuation of nearly all the refugee children off of Nauru in the past week.

       

      - At time of posting in Nauru, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

       

      The Return To Yerevan

      The Return To Yerevan

       

      After 3 days in Artsakh it was time to return home. We woke up at 9am, had breakfast and quickly packed our bags ontop of Yerish’s car, who had come just in time to drive us back to Yerevan. 

      Instead of the southern route we took to reach Artsakh, we would return instead via the northern area of Karabakh today, known for leading us to new vistas along Lake Sevan.

       

       

      Quickly glancing around the village of Martakert, we continued up north and took a northwest weave towards Yerevan.

       

       

      We passed through a few canyons…

       

       

      … and made our first pit stop at Dadivank Monastery, built somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries.

       

       

      Free to enter, the monastery boasts superb views over the Karabakh region.

       

       

      After about 20 minutes here we continued our drive and within the hour reached the norther border outpost to get stamped out of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh.

       

       

      If you’re feeling a little peckish, there’s a perfunctory rest stop nearby and a coffee vending machine that also serves cups of “Whiskey Cappuccino” and “Whiskey with Milk.” They both tasted…odd.

       

       

      Another hour away was another rest stop where we got real food: a wrap of herbs and fried chicken. It was so good I got 2.

       

       

      After about another hour’s drive, we reached Noraduz/Noratus Cemetery, a medieval-era burial ground and  the largest cluster of khachkars in Armenia. 

      Following the destruction of the khachkars in Old Julfa, Nakhchivan by the government of Azerbaijan, this is currently the largest surviving cemetery of khachkars.

       

       

      Finally, we got to see beloved Lake Sevan one more time.

       

       

      After about 6 hours total on the road, we finally returned to the capital city of Yerevan, where we re-checked in back at our hostel (once again having it all to ourselves) and grabbed coffee at this adorable “Starbus Café” down the block.

       

       

      Then we had some free time for a few hours before reuniting with Sandie and a friend she made at her hostel, Abby, for dinner at CEO3 BBQ.

       

       

      We followed up with some drinks and shisha at Malkhas Jazz Club talking up into the wee hours of the night.

       

       

      We finally turned in at 4am while Fanny on the other hand got hungry and made an attempt to find food, and got herself a delivery of stuffed peppers.

      We also goodbye to Nishant who was to leave on an early morning flight in a few hours. 

       

       

      We’ll miss you Nishant!

       

       

      Thank god our flight was the next afternoon, otherwise I don’t think we would have made it.

       

       

      Time to explore Kiev! Good to be back. It’s been 6 years!

       

       

      - At time of posting in Gandzasar, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 90% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

       

      Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

      Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

       

      From Tatev we turned and drove up north towards the town Goris, famous for being the home to the Settlement of old Kores, a series of previous inhabited rock caves similar to the cave homes in Cappadocia.

       

       

      And thus began our final leg of our roadtrip into Nagorno-Karabakh, aka Artsakh, a disputed 8200 sq. km. territory that has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been de facto governed by the Republic of Artsakh, an independent state populated by an Armenian ethnic majority.

      With the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994 and the recent 4-day war in 2016, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to dispute over the region’s political status and is still regarded as an active conflict zone between two hostile countries.

      And similarly to how Armenia claims Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh within the politically recognized geographic landmass of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan claims the exclave of Nakhchivan, which we had visited just 2 months ago, as is its own “disputed territory” inside the politically recognized geographic landmass of Armenia.

      For a visual idea of how complicated the situation is, here’s a pretty good map I got from newsonia.com (ignore the part where it says “nuclear strikes” since there obviously haven’t been any…think they mean “nuclear powers”).

       

      Graphic credit: Newsonia.com

       

      This regional hodgepodge has been the result of Soviet bureaucratic insanity where back in the days of the USSR, Soviet leaders would “gift” regions arbitrarily to its subjected communities in order to sow discord (aka divide and conquer) and maintain ultimate power. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the leaders of these once subjected communities — now newly independent — would be quick to quarrel with each other over their rightful ownership of these lands while the common people on the ground would continue to suffer. 

      And despite the USSR’s collapse, this current-day divisiveness would maintain Russia’s dominance and influence over the region. You can also see this today similarly with India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Israel and Palestine over Gaza, North Korea and South Korea over the villages in the DMZ and each other . . . .when you ensure that your formerly occupied territories continue to fight each other, a status quo maintains its power.

      So what does this mean for the average traveler? In this case, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan via Azerbaijan whereas Azerbaijan does care if you visit Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh via Armenia; for example when you register for an Azerbaijan visa the final question on their form is: “Do you intend or have you ever visited the territory known as ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’?”

      So if you as a traveler want to “win the game” or “have your cake and eat it too” without any drama, visit Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan FIRST before visiting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. If you try to do it the other way around you will be banned from ever visiting Azerbaijan as long as this conflict continues. In other words, you’ll be on an international blacklist forever. A Russian blogger even was jailed and extradited to Azerbaijan prison for traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh.

      For those of you who feel you should be more “lawful”, there is also the option of visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh “legally” via Azerbaijan, but that requires enduring a bureaucratic nightmare where you have to claim an official reason for going such as being a Red Cross volunteer. In other words, the opportunity cost for doing the “illegal” way has been extremely nonexistent; every year thousands of tourists have been visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh through Armenia every year without any difficulty or retribution. While the Russian blogger has been the only exception, mind you he was traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh multiple times and flaunting his nonchalance with a giant middle finger; in the words of many travelers who know about his situation: “he was asking for it.”

      But we knew the costs going in so after driving up from Goris for 20-30 minutes we towed the “internationally recognized” border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

       

       

      …and continued to drive onwards without a hitch.

       

       

      After another 20 minutes we reached the southern border outpost where we submitted our passports for registration.

       

       

      Although they’ll tell you not to take photos here, it was the most cheerful warning I ever received.

       

       

      After 10 minutes of processing, you get this slip reminding you to get your official visa in the capital city of Stepanakert.

       

       

      As we drove further north, darkness began to set and it didn’t help we were driving into a thick fog with zero visibility. We were also running out of gas.

       

       

      We drove for nearly another hour in this fog and not to mention up the side of countless mountains, while avoiding being swerved off the road by incoming cars who barely saw us coming. This night drive is not for the faint of heart.

       

       

      We finally reached the capital city of Stepanakert at 7pm where our host Susanna greeted us with open arms at her guesthouse Qirs Hotel. Although we found her on one of many listings on AirBnB, she is quite famous all over Karabakh and also has been strongly recommended by both the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel communities. She has been leading tourists around for the past 20 years since she was 17 years old.

      Having skipped lunch, our first order of business was FOOD FOOD FOOD, so Susanna drove us herself to the “first and best restaurant in Karabakh”: Ureni Restaurant.

       

       

      Afterwards we returned to our guesthouse and stayed up watching a Russian edition of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (so that would make it Russia’s Funniest Home Videos?) before turning in at around midnight for our morning walking tour the next day. 

       

       

      We arose the next day at 8:30am for breakfast in our guesthouse living room, after which we re-packed our bags and headed out into the city for our walking tour, led by Susanna’s 17 year old son Valery.

      Unlike the ghost town vibes of Nakhchivan, or the odd Soviet time warp of Tiraspol, Stepanakert seemed to be an otherwise normal small city that felt like it was trying to place one foot towards progress with one still trapped by the circumstances of history.

       

       

      We first walked by the Stepanakert Bus Station, which would be your first point of arrival if you took the 8 hour matrushka bus or shared car from Yerevan, Georgia, or Russia.

       

       

      After about 10 minutes of walking through the city we reached the Foreign Ministry where we registered our passports for the highly coveted and rare Artsakh visa. 

       

       

      The process takes about 20 minutes and costs 3000 drams per person. If you want to have the slim chance to visit Azerbaijan ever again, there’s the option of having your visa issued separately from your passport where you can always stick it in later.

       

       

      We continued to walk south along the main road to the center of the city, marked by a statue of the founder of the city.

       

       

      To the east of the center lies the humble Stepanakert History Museum where it’s free to enter and you get an included English-speaking guide taking you from room to room up to the 2nd floor starting with the prehistoric history of the region to the current day strife between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

       

       

      After about 30 minutes in the museum, we left and walked the large public plaza/square marked by a few government buildings and upscale hotels.

       

       

      We then walked up the longest street in Stepanakert to reach a partially constructed church.

       

       

      We then turned around and returned to the city center to visit the Fallen Soldiers Museum, with the first part dedicated to soldiers killed in action.

       

       

      There’s also a second part dedicated to soldiers that remained missing in action. For the past 23 years since the 1994 war, families of these soldiers keep their doors unlocked at their homes in the hopes that any of them may still return.

       

       

      After about 30 minutes at the museum complex we returned to the city center.

       

       

      We finally finished our walking tour at the local city market.

       

       

      There Susanna picked us up and treated us for lunch with Jengalov Hats, a local type of delicious wrap of herbs and vegetables.

       

       

      Susanna then drove us up north to the Tatik Papik Memorial, aka “We Are Our Mountains” that serves as the symbol of the region. It is a tradition for a new husband to carry his wife in his arms down the steps from here once they’re married.

       

       

      As we drove on outside of Stepanakert and then south towards Shoushi we passed by a few war memorials that the entire city gathers around every year on May 9th to commemorate their independence and Azerbaijan/Armenia ceasefire.

       

       

      We continued onwards to the next half our day that would be devoted to the more war-torn areas of Shoushi and Agdam

       

       

      - At time of posting in Stepanakert, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers

       

      Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

      Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

       

      It’s time to shift monsooning back into higher gears — today we’re visiting Nakhchivan!

      A landlocked exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia (or as some say, physically located within Armenia), but an otherwise autonomous region under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is similar to exclaves like Alaska (thanks Alan Sedgwick!) and on a level less extreme than Transnistria and Kurdistan, in that this region has its own elected “federal” government that largely functions independently and yet remains a dependent within another sovereignty. Whether you count it as a separate country depends if you think places like Alaska should be considered separate from the USA (aka if you visited Alaska, can you really say you visited the USA? Or if you visited Hong Kong, can you really say you visited China?). 

      Nakhchivan first gained international recognition in January 1990 when it became one of the first “nations” to declare independence from the USSR as it was collapsing. Unfortunately, despite being one of the pioneers of independence from the Soviet Union as well as the birthplace of Azeri hero and president Heydar Aliyev, Nakhchivan could never keep up as it has continue to suffer from the turmoil of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as a mass exodus of its locals to Baku and Turkey. Whereas Baku is teeming with growth and wealth, Nakhchivan has remained forgotten in stagnation since the 1990s.

      FYI, Nakhchivan’s pseudo-counterpart in Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh) — although that region physically lies in and internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, it functions as an “independent” state that Azerbaijan no longer exerts political control over since the Karabakh movement in 1988. For many travelers Nagorno-Karabakh can be accessed easily but illegally overland via Armenia, and such an action will lead you to being banned from future travel to Azerbaijan if they ever found out.

      On the flipside, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan; so if you have any wishes to visit both regions either head to Nakhchivan first, or enter Nagorno-Karabakh legally by applying for permission from the Azerbaijan government.

       

       

      Beginning our journey, Brandon, Elizabeth and I got up at 5:30am and hailed a 10 manat Uber ride to the airport to catch our 8:10am Azal Air flight from Baku to Nakhchivan.

      Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 2 and not the fancy International Terminal (or Terminal 1).

      You can tell the difference because where Terminal 1 is super fancy and won 5 stars from Skytrax…

       

       

      ….Terminal 2 has seen better days.

       

       

      If you end up at Terminal 1 anyway, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk through the parking lot. 

      When you enter Terminal 2 at the main entrance, turn left. Flights departing to Nakhchivan has its own board and separate terminal. 

       

       

      At this point staff and locals will try to usher you to the other terminal thinking that you’re making a big mistake. Reassure them or pay them no heed; insist that you’re going to Nakhchivan and you’ll get a variety assortment of looks ranging among confusion, amusement, bafflement, and dismay.

      Either way we were initially confused too; we went through security checks 4 different looking for the right desk to check in (it’s hidden in a corner somewhere upstairs) until we decided to be assertive and insist on flying to Nakhchivan despite protests from the staff.

      Once at the right check-in desk, the agent didn’t think I was serious. However, I had already booked our flights on Azerbaijan Airlines’ website prior to the trip as the option of purchasing them remotely had just became possible last month. The only catch is that you have to have the physical credit card you used to purchase the flights on you when you check in. So when I showed the ticket agent my confirmation and passport, he relented and asked if I had that credit card on me.

      After checking us in and being relaxed with the baggage restrictions, we had to remind him to print us our tickets. He insisted he had no clue what we were talking about…eventually, he got it. What is going on here?!

       

       

      Nothing much else to do otherwise; they do have a business lounge posting a sign that allows Priority Pass holders to enter, but it was closed when we were there.

       

       

      Boarding began promptly at 7:30am and we took off without delay at 8am. A legion of officers in military fatigues boarded with us; they may shoot you quizzical looks as well as remind you where you’re going is a war zone. Oh well. I guess you can thank them for their service.

      The whole flight takes about an hour. It would’ve otherwise been much shorter if it were not for the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; our flightpath had to be redirected around Armenia and through Iranian airspace to get to Nakhchivan:

       

       

      We landed at 9am.

       

       

      Disembarking was quick as we were in arrivals within 5 minutes, hailing a cab to our hotel in the city center for 5 manats (apparently this is the morning rate — it can be up to 8 manats later in the day) without any haggling needed. Love this place already!

       

       

      We got to our lodgings at Tebriz Hotel in 10 minutes, quickly checking in and then scurrying up to their rooftop restaurant to snag their free breakfast before it ended at 10am.

       

       

      After settling in for a bit and vegging out after a whirlwind morning of traveling, we headed back out to explore the rest of the city at noon, beginning with signing the guestbook at their cozy but empty tourist information center. 

      The staff there was very surprised at our presence and it seemed their guestbook entries were spaced out from every few days to weeks at a time.

       

       

      While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice how the streets are nearly always empty, wide avenues have not seen cars in days, and there is a calm, pervading silence wherever you roam. 

      From the tourist information center we walked south, entering a large park and walking past what seemed to look like an outdoor movie theater.

       

       

      We then headed downhill from here towards Maiden Fountain, an esplanade with a pleasant footbridge leading around to a natural spring and small waterfall.

       

       

       

      We then headed back upstairs and into the southern half of the park to visit the Momina Khatun Mausoleum, one of many you can find in Nakhchivan:

       

       

      Each mausoleum has one entrance for its basement crypt:

       

       

      …and a regular ground level entrance that usually hosts an exhibition about the burial grounds:

       

       

      Next door to the mausoleum is an open air museum and sculpture park:

       

       

      Down the steps from the mausoleum will lead you to the former Khan’s Palace, now converted to a simple carpet museum:

       

       

      Afterwards we headed out of the park and walked southeast to the Mausoleum to Yusif İbn Kuseyr:

       

       

      Unlike the previous mausoleum to Momina Khatun, this one is completely empty:

       

       

      We then walked further south from here, entering the huge city cemetery from the north. 

      The goal was instead of walking around the entire cemetery to our next destination (as Google Maps would indicate), we hoped that there would be a shortcut via an exit on the south side of the cemetery…however, we instead made due with what previous like-minded souls had created for us:

       

       

      Much to our dismay, later on we’d found out just steps away is a legitimate southern gate. Oh well. Fences are meant to be overcome, rules are meant to be broken.

       

       

      Our shortcut through the cemetery nevertheless saved us 15 minutes of walking in the midday sun, as parked right by the cemetery is the Naxçıvan Qala Tarix Memarlıq Abidəsi fort complex:

       

       

      It was completely empty and devoid of souls when we entered through the open door. No guards, no security, no tickets, and totally open. It felt like I was playing a game of Myst/Riven.

       

       

      You can go inside the central dome structure for a free exhibition on the excavation findings in the area:

       

       

      You can also climb the fort walls for an elevated view of the fort and its surroundings, as well as the cemetery we just strolled through:

       

       

      We then exited from the fort from its southwestern gate and walked a few steps down to the Mausoleum to the Prophet Noah.

      Yes, that Noah, of Noah’s Ark fame. It is believed that the ark had finished its journeys in this area where Noah then settled until his death. His assumed remains were found right in this spot and thus, a mausoleum was fashioned over his tomb:

       

       

      The mausoleum closes from 1pm-2pm for lunch so we waited about 30 minutes outside for someone to arrive and show us in. We didn’t come this far to give up so easily!

      At around 2:05pm a girl came by and opened the door for us, giving us a great rundown of the history of the mausoleum. Totally worth the wait.

       

       

      You can head down into the basement crypt; right beneath is Noah’s tomb.

       

       

      With that, we were done with our entire tour of Nakhchivan City! We then walked 20 minutes up Heydar Aliyev Street north back to our hotel, where we had lunch at the adjacent Zumrud Restoran and recharged for 2 hours.

      At 5:30pm we returned to the lobby and hired a driver to take us to Alinja Fortress for 40 manats.

       

       

      About a 35 minute drive outside of Nakhchivan, the 2,000 year old Alinja Fortress — or “The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan” — is inexplicably unmentioned in any travel guides to Nakhchivan, but don’t be fooled: this was the main event. 

      Dating back to the 1st century, the fortress was formerly known as an Armenian fortress called Yernjak and was one of the most impenetrable in its time. It currently now exists as an open park that local villagers and their families venture to freely in the evenings. 

       

       

      Why they would choose this spot as a place of leisure baffles me — it’s a 1600+ step climb up 100+ flights of stairs! That’s not what I call fun with the family on a Tuesday evening! But alas, we found tons of kids with their families running around when we climbed back down.

       

       

      Take your time, drink lots of water, and know that the end result will be worth it. If that doesn’t help, some of these views will mitigate any effect of the battery acid pumping from your muscles during your long climb up:

       

       

      Don’t be surprised if local families next to you ask for a photo — months to years can go by before they see another tourist in these parts!

       

       

      One even added me on Instagram.

       

       

      About 2/3 of the way up you can walk around and through the fortress “ruins” themselves, although it now feels more like a renovated public park than a sacred historical site.

       

       

      Views from the fortress:

       

       

      Climb up a little more and you’ll know you’ve made it when you see this:

       

       

      But why stop here? More stairs await you.

       

       

      Even when you’ve reached the last step (which ends suddenly and arbitrarily), you can climb up some more up a well trodden hill. Because why not? You’ve gone this far already and when will you ever be back here again?

       

       

      This is physically as high as you can get:

       

       

      Photo credit: Elizabeth Silberholz

       

      We spent about 20 minutes here taking it all in and hanging out with a local villager who came up with us, before heading back down:

       

       

      And from here we admired Alinja in all its majestic beauty as the sun began to set behind it (more photos here). Linger a little longer and Alinja lights up suddenly in the night at around 8:10pm:

       

       

      Take it all in and take your time; like every other thing we saw today whether they be mausoleums or museums, Alinja is free to enter. Moreover, Alinja is open 24/7!

      We headed back down to the car park at 9pm, rendezvous’ed with our driver who waited for us patiently all this time, and had dinner back in Nakhchivan city at Deyirmanci Kafe, where they were so shocked and grateful to our presence they gave us free tea and dessert when we asked for the check.

      After a workout like that where we walked 22,700 steps over 12 miles up 102 flights of stairs (thanks Apple), it was a dinner well worth the wait.

       

       

      We then returned to our hotel at 11pm and crashed, hard. I woke up about 8 hours later for the free breakfast and enjoyed a few hours using up our hotel’s basement gym, spa, sauna, and swimming pool.

      After check-out at noon, we decided to make a run for the last thing to see in Nakhchivan, Duzdag, a massive salt cave converted into a sanatorium. And like every other place we’ve been to in Nakhchivan, it’s free to enter.

      Built in early 20th century, Duzdag was designed to house various clinics/hospital beds for any patient eager to treat (or cure, as they say here) their chronic bronchitis and asthma from the salt emanating from the mines. It’s much like how you go to a fancy spa featuring sauna rooms that have been built with salt lining the walls.

       

       

      The similarities otherwise end here, however, as it’s not exactly a full on spa where you pack a swimsuit on you, change, and lounge around. Rather it’s more of a place to stop by, walk up and down, and spend as long as you like. Whether you chill in the café or sit on the various benches parked along the path, imagine as if your lungs are being cleaned out.

       

       

      It’s about a 10 minute walk up and down. You’ll know when you reached the end when a bunch of staff members cross their arms telling you you’re being too loud or that “patients only” are allowed through.

       

       

      From here we walked back and with the rest of our hour we had some tea for 2 manats total at the indoor café.

       

       

      After that we headed back to our hotel, had dinner back at the adjacent Zumrud Café, and hailed one more cab ride back (whereas it was 5 manats when we took a cab from the airport yesterday morning, this time we paid 8 manats for a cab to the airport at some kind of apparent afternoon/evening rate) to the airport for our 8:40pm flight back to Baku.

       

       

      Despite what other travel blogs say about this airport being so basic you shouldn’t arrive early lest you’d be bored to tears, my recommendation is to either arrive early before the crowds or risk the stress and come at the very last minute: Checking in at Nakhchivan for Baku can be a shitshow; when we arrived to check-in there was no semblance of a queue as dozens of families mixed in to drop off a huge number of goods for their folks back in Baku. 

       

      However, there does exist a separate section all the way to the right for people without any check in luggage, as a helpful local directed us there (the sign displaying this is in Azeri and not in English, so we wouldn’t have known). Either way, even when we switched over and waited in this particular line, we still had to assert ourselves and fight our way through the stampede to get our tickets.

      After receiving our boarding passes, we then had to present those and our passports to a separate “Migration Desk” by security for a recheck and verification. They then give you a tiny sliver of paper that you have to hold onto for security to let you through. Looks like a wifi password.

       

       

      Once you’re go through security, it’s another stampede at the gate to board your flight.

       

       

      Despite a chaotic ending to an otherwise ethereally pleasant 48 hours, I’m going to miss you Nakhchivan. 

      For the record, everywhere we went we’ve been showered with overwhelming hospitality by everyone, as well as having the rare opportunity to explore a gorgeous land filled with beauty and awe-inspiring sights totally alone — it felt like we had this place all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. And despite the border conflicts around this region, we never once felt like we were in danger.

       

       

      We landed back in Baku at Terminal 2 by 10pm, where we were picked up by an Uber driver who initially refused to take us and instead took another passenger right in front of our faces. Oh boy, this was the moment when I knew I was far removed from the hospitality of Nakhchivan and back in the hustle of Baku.

      Knowing that it can take up to another 30 minutes to get an Uber to come to Terminal 2 (most are parked outside Terminal 1 and refuse to move, making you walk to them), I responded by showing the driver that he was supposed to pick me up, with his license plate number displayed on my phone/Uber app. He then asked me to cancel, and when I refused, he asked again. Eventually the other passenger got out of the car and we were begrudgingly driven back to our lodgings at Stay Inn Hostel. That was pretty weird.

      This otherwise concludes the official itinerary through Azerbaijan! We now have a full free day tomorrow in Baku before Brandon and Elizabeth head out on night flights and I depart for Japan early the following morning for the next monsoon!

       

      - At time of posting in Nakhchivan, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 36km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with periodic clouds