The Nearly Neutral Cup 🏆

On our last overnight train in Kazakhstan a couple of weeks ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a first class compartment, a few beers and an argument, all in honour of the Football World Cup. I should explain – we thought we’d have a go at a knockout tournament of our own to see whether we could decide where was our favourite overnight stop on our trip to date.

Very solemn preparations

In preparation, we:

  1. Listed all the villages, towns and cities we’d visited since leaving London (only where we’d stayed at least one night and not including overnight trains and ferries)
  2. Secretly noted our top picks, which remained tightly sealed in envelopes until we’d finished the tournament (and by tightly sealed envelopes, I mean the notes apps on our phones)
  3. Used a random number generator to build the two sides of the draw and decide which destinations would face each other in the first round
  4. Cracked open our beers and snacks
  5. Got ourselves fired up for a really good argument (using phrases like, “You always do this!”) – just kidding, we didn’t need any warm up 😉

What follows is a highly subjective, completely arbitrary and totally unreliable (it turns out we don’t always agree with ourselves, reading the results back!) view of our favourite places between London and Almaty.

🏅and the winner is…

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre!

This was one of the first places we visited on our trip, and it feels like a very worthy winner, combining the most stunning coastal scenery, charming villages, excellent hiking, delicious food and an epic kayaking argument.

The draw

For brevity, we’ll just show the final 16, although there were 41 destinations competing in the first round of the tournament.

Our sealed top picks

After weeks of secrecy and suspense (not really), we’ve just compared notes on our top picks. It was surprisingly difficult to select these and anticipate what might progress to the final, but it turns out we had quite a lot of overlap.

Matera, Italy 🇮🇹Cinque Terre, Italy 🇮🇹
Cinque Terre, Italy 🇮🇹Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲
Meteora, Greece 🇬🇷Lucca, Italy 🇮🇹
Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲Astana, Kazakhstan 🇰🇿

Between us, we reckon we’ve got a pretty comprehensive view of our top faves (because I also loved Matera and Meteora, and Oli also loved Lucca and Astana). Of course, our liking for any place is as much down to the weather, our moods and how many things went wrong that day as anything really to do with the destination, so I’m sure we could revisit all of our stops between London and Almaty and come up with a totally different list.

Meteora Monasteries, Greece


We decided before we started that if we really couldn’t agree, we’d flip a coin. We only needed to do this once, in the tie between Batumi and Istanbul after we’d debated for absolutely ages. Oli’s preferred option of Istanbul went through, but on balance I probably preferred Batumi, where we ate delicious khinkali, drank in a Soviet beer hall, explored the old town, walked the promenade, rode the ferris wheel and cable car, and generally just had a lovely time. Istanbul was good but perhaps my expectations were just set too high and it felt very ‘European’, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Batumi, Georgia

I’m still a bit bitter that Matera (one of Oli’s top picks) knocked out Astana (one of my top picks), but I think he just shouted louder than me! Matera was absolutely gorgeous, but there wasn’t a lot to actually do there.

Matera, Italy

Finally, it might seem a bit surprising that Athens knocked out Matera (one of Oli’s top picks), but we both suddenly remembered how much we had enjoyed Athens! As a big city, it had a lot to offer.

Athens, Greece

Overall, though, we both picked out Cinque Terre as a highlight, so in my books that makes it a worthy winner. Of course, none of the above nonsense constitutes useful travel advice, but we had a lot of fun revisiting our journey so far and so thought we would share it! We’ll get back to normal scheduled programming in our next post with a diary of our temple stay in Gyeongsangbuk-do province.

Armenia round up 🇦🇲

Our Armenian adventure started in Yerevan, traced a circle around the northern cities of Gyumri, Vanadzor (with a day trip to the Debed Canyon) and Dilijan, before returning to Yerevan. We were struck by quite how different the capital was compared with the rest of the country – Yerevan felt developed and had no shortage of fashionable restaurants and cafes, while the rest of Armenia felt much quieter in comparison. Still, I’m really glad we travelled beyond Yerevan to get a more balanced view of the country.

We travelled exclusively by local buses and long distance marshrutky in Armenia, with the exceptions of our train ride between Yerevan and Gyumri and a late night taxi to Yerevan airport.


Our travel in Armenia emitted a little more than half of the carbon resulting from our travel in Georgia. This was due to both travelling more distance by train in Armenia, while also travelling less distance overall. Still, this didn’t seem to save us any time, as we spent just over 23 hours in transit in both countries.

This brings our total carbon emissions since leaving London up to 786 kgCO2e, and increasingly close to the 1,000 kgCO2e minimum offset size.


Although we spent less money in Armenia than any other country so far, I was surprised that our spend per day in Armenia was slightly higher than it was in Georgia. This seems to be due to a slightly higher proportion of our spend on transport and accommodation, since we travelled more distance per day in Armenia, while also making the most of Yerevan, a real foodie city.


Armenia just managed to beat Georgia, coming in with 6.2 cats per day. At this point I’m wondering if anywhere will come close to Greece or Turkey.

And now it’s time to call out our animal highlights…

🏅Cutest used car salesperson

This salescat was playing hard-to-get when we enquired about prices

🏅Furriest water fountain Visitor

Water fountains, also known as Pulpulaks, are pervasive across the country, and seem to be an important part of Armenian street culture (and pet hydration)

🏅flirtiest bus station attendant

We were trying to buy a bus ticket when this friendly little attention seeker rolled onto Sara’s feet


Our friends from the Tbilisi-Yerevan sleeper train gave us a whole list of food, drink and restaurants to try while we were in Armenia, and we were nothing if not obedient. The most impressive of these was probably Ghapama, which consists of a pumpkin filled with rice, dried fruit and buttery fried flat bread. This was beautifully presented at the Lavash Restaurant, where the top of the pumpkin was removed, the sides sliced and the whole thing opened up like a flower.

This concluded our brief 10 day tour of Armenia, and also our time in the Caucasus. Now only 200 km of Caspian Sea and 400 km of semi-arid steppe separated us from the Silk Road city of Khiva, Uzbekistan.

Falling in love with Yerevan

We’d read lots of nice things about Yerevan and it’s been on my to-visit list for a while, but I was still a bit surprised to find that it turned out to be one of those rare places we’ve visited where we both agreed that we could happily live.

We arrived from Dilijan on our wedding anniversary without any firm plans but with a few restaurants in mind for a fancier-than-usual dinner that evening, and immediately found out that even Monday evenings in Yerevan are lively! We eventually found a table at Abovyan 12, another excellent recommendation from our Tbilisi – Yerevan train friends, and proceeded to order half the menu. I was pretty confident we could handle it all until the waiter finished writing down our order and then asked whether we were expecting anyone to join us. Whoops! Anyway, it was a really nice meal and we washed it down with a bottle of pomegranate wine, an Armenian speciality.

The next day, we set out to explore the Cascade complex, a rather unusual area of central Yerevan that combines an enormous flight of 750 steps, terraced fountains, and an underground art gallery. Dotted around the whole complex are a huge number of art installations, and from the top there is a panoramic view of Yerevan, and on a clear day, across to Mount Ararat. In typical style, we didn’t make it to the top until fairly late in the day, and the afternoon haze meant we could only see a faint outline of the mountain. Still, it was an excellent view and a fun area to explore.

We spent the rest of the day walking around central Yerevan and appreciating the beautiful rose-coloured stone from which much of the city is built.

At one point, we found ourselves in the English Park. We’re still not quite sure what gave it its name (confusingly, it is sandwiched between the French and Italian Embassies) but I did lose Oli for a minute…

On our second full day, our main agenda item was to visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. We spent a sobering few hours learning about the events of 1915, the historical context that lead up to the atrocities, and the events following. It was truly horrendous and there are many lessons that we still need to learn today. Like visiting other similar museums and memorials around the world, it didn’t make for a fun morning, but it did feel like a very important part of understanding Armenia and we were glad that we had taken the time to visit.

Anticipating that we would need some mood repair, Oli had planned a very different activity for the afternoon, and so we made our way to the Yerevan Brandy Company for a tour and tasting. Planned is actually quite a strong word, since it turned out that we should have booked online, but thankfully the staff took pity on our sad little faces when they told us this and managed to squeeze us onto a tour.

The company have pledged to open this barrel only when the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute (with Azerbaijan) is resolved peacefully

The tour itself was super slick and I really enjoyed it, but everyone knows these kinds of attractions are all about the tasting, so imagine my alarm when I discovered that I really, really don’t like neat brandy! I think Oli was ashamed to be seen with me and quickly finished off my glasses as well as his own.

Our flight to Aktau was departing after midnight so we had lots of time to kill on our third day. We began at the Blue Mosque, Armenia’s only remaining mosque. We’d read that neighbouring Iran has been given access to restore and run the mosque, and in a reciprocal arrangement, Armenia has been able to restore several churches that sit on Iranian soil. We were welcomed warmly and even met a couple of resident cats in the beautiful garden courtyard.

After a lunch of Georgian khinkali (we just can’t get enough), we headed on a walk through the Kond Pedestrian Tunnel to reach the Hrazdan Gorge. Based on what we’d read, we were expecting lots of couples out for romantic strolls, but actually it was just quite dodgy! It was very dimly lit, the sides of the tunnel were bowing slightly and there were some small areas where it had actually caved in – I was very pleased to get out the other side.

Once again, Yerevan surprised us here. As well as the rushing river and autumnal trees in the gorge, we came across the Children’s Railway, a miniature station building, trains and track that were built in Soviet times to allow children to learn about engineering. Like many things in Armenia, it embodied faded grandeur (or maybe in this case, more like faded fun) and was in need of some love. But still, it was an amazingly inventive facility and apparently is still in use during the summer months, despite being a little rough round the edges. We certainly had a great time nosing around the train carriages, admiring the bird-themed stained glass windows in the station building and wandering along the track.

Finally, after some drinks and dinner at the lovely Mirzoyan Library and some time watching the dancing fountains in Republic Square, we reluctantly headed to the airport (we genuinely were not very enthusiastic about the thought of flying after a relaxed few months on ground transport).

Joining the ranks of stupid things that formerly frequent flyers have done at airport security post-Covid (I’ve heard a few good stories from people), Oli unintentionally brought through a Swiss army knife AND a full picnic cutlery set in his hand baggage. The security staff were not impressed (unsurprisingly) but somehow in the end didn’t confiscate them! I can’t say this gave me much confidence for what else people might have been able to bring onto the flight…

Luckily, as you can probably guess, we lived to tell the tale and were very excited to be off to Central Asia! First stop: Aktau, Kazakhstan.