Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

Garamjobat!

Churches! Men wearing shorts! No headscarves! Beer – everywhere!

Yes, I’ve made it back into this small island of Christianity amongst a vast ocean of tiled mosques and gamey lamb stews.

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

The clapped-out Azeri buses wish you a fond farewell

Crossing the border was far from straightforward, but of course, you knew that already. This time I was subject to the whims of a young adolescent toting an unfeasibly large automatic weapon, barking at the squadrons of exhausted Georgian Ladas which had jockeyed for position all morning to squeeze through the single entry gate. A thick smell of clutch hung in the air from the enthusiastic attempts to make it next in line.

Basking in this minor position of power, the guard delighted in seeing the crowds of pedestrians pile up for a good hour, unleashing his teenage angst on any foolhardy soul who dared stray across the line, making a break for passport control – before inviting a few lucky souls to set foot in no mans’ land. A few at a time. Just a few.

Eventually, I was selected amongst the seething crowds, and after a brief stroll across a dried-up river bed, I approached the Georgian side with trepidation.

More flicking through embarassing photos on my digital cameras?
Full-length explanations on why I had come to Georgia?
Picking through the pitiful selection of clothes in my backpack in pursuit of some chemical form of entertainment?

Not at all.

“Welcome to Georgia, my friend”. A handshake, a smile, and I was through.

What a tremendous place. I love it already.

Zaqatala

Yes, there’s been a veritable flurry of updates over the last hour – courtesy of the first decent internet connection this side of the Caspian! I did actually hear rumours of a decent spot in Seki last night although the place was inhabited by rabid thirteen-year-olds, so I gave them a good ol’ glare and headed on to the town square to sit and sip tea with the old folk.

So – scroll down and read what’s REALLY been going on when my expressions have not been limited to a small Nokia mobile phone screen.

And where might this pinnacle of electronic civilisation be, I hear you ask? Well, I’m here in the charming town of Zaqatala, which sounds as if it should be somewhere in the south of Mexico, but is, in fact, located just shy of the Georgian border here in the Azeri Caucasus.

Not much really going on in town – there’s the structural ghost of an old Russian orthodox church, plane trees supposedly planted over 700 years ago (since when were old trees guidebook-worthy?) and a few new, clean, sparkling mosques. BUT there is a Turkish pide restaurant, so we will have none of that tasteless sorpa nonsense tonight, thank you.

Tomorrow I’m off into the land of cheese pies and Georgian wine of questionable quality. Azerbaijan has been good to me – people here have been incredibly tolerant of my bad Russian, largely because nobody here actually speaks it any better than I do. The scraps of my Kyrgyz/Uzbek are helpful in bantering with the guys in the ice cream shops, but I don’t think I’ll be having too many in-depth conversations with a lexicon of around 9 words.

Highlight of the day was the trip from Seki to Zaqatala where I was befriended by an Imam.

“Don’t go to Armenia” he warned. “They are Christians. They fought many people in Karabakh.”

Despite my almost total lack of spoken Russian, I gathered that this chap was not entirely all there. He was adamant that I understood what he was saying about Allah being good and saving us all – but I couldn’t really engage in a noteworthy conversation. Kind of like the French exchange partner who opens the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses who keep him chatting in a one-way conversation for an hour or two.

So that was fun.

Anyway – enough of all that. More photos are up for your amusement.

 

 

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Mission from God – no, seriously

“I think tomorrow you will have some difficulty getting down the hill”, Dadas, the charming father of my homestay family informed me with a large grin. “In Lahic now there is floods!”.

I wasn’t in a rush. I’d arranged to meet Francesco and Romina in Seki, only two hours down the road. I could leave at any point the next day – get a bus down the hill after a lazy lunch, find any mashrutka heading west towards the Georgian border and jump out at one of Azerbaijan’s largest – and most interesting – cities in the north of the country. A simple plan, but it didn’t seem overly naive.

I emerged the next morning stuffed with a hearty breakfast of delicious local honey, fresh bread, cheese and butter, having drained about two teapots as I flicked through Dadas’s homestay guestbook. There had been around five or six chaps who had stayed with his family before me; I was the first this year. Somewhat coincidentally, the last person to have stayed a year or so ago was also called Ewan, with an equally Scottish name. For lack of more interesting conversation set-pieces, I brought this up.

“The Scottish are excellent. I like them. Mel Gibson”, he attested.

The smell of rain in the mountains reminded me of the drenching I had had in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks before. The sky didn’t look too threatening, so I hoped I’d be able to make it out without pulling out my swimming trunks. I clung to the hope that there’d been some progress on the road situation which appeared bleak the night before.  

Rocks in a variety of sizes were strewn around the village, carried down by the torrents the evening before. As I reached the ford at the start of the village, the scale of the problem became clear. The road had been entirely washed down the mountain.

“I think this will take a long time to fix”, explained the local English teacher, who approached me out of a large crowd of locals who had gathered to gawp at the destruction. “Maybe three days. Maybe a week. But it will not be fixed today.”
“Does this happen often?” I enquired.
“Like this? No.” He replied bluntly.

Lahic is indeed beautiful, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that I’d need another seven days on the hillsides and chilling with the coppersmiths. At some point, Dadas’s family would probably want their front room back.

“You want to walk?” Dadas thought I was crazy. “It is 36 kilometres to the main road. You have your bags. And then there’s the rain”. The sky had turned black and more rain lashed down. “Today, you are not a tourist. You are my guest. If you want to stay, there is no problem. It is an exam from Allah. You will stay and I will take no money”.

It was hard to argue with such an impassioned offer of hospitality.

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Lahician Mountains

All the tourist brochures on Azerbaijan – yes, they do exist – speak of a staggering variety of landscapes all crammed into a small nation hemmed in between the Caspian and Caucasus. Nine of eleven possible varieties, they boasted. Intriguing, non?

Heading west from the capital, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that I’d need to negotiate four hours of the hitherto unmentioned ‘Featureless Desert’ varietal before any of the good stuff kicked in.

Thankfully, before locating my mashrutka in the bowels of Baku Central avtovagzal (a semi-converted Ford Transit), I had already spent a riveting hour ferrying my backpack around the Baku metro system, politely questioning the municipal government’s decision not to display a single map, and instead to change a few names of the key stations in case any visitor might think they were actually getting somewhere. Genius.

The new-found oil riches of Baku have been unable to hide the fact that the desert is encroaching on the wannabe Mediterranean paradise at an alarming rate. Within moments of leaving the city limits, the manicured gardens give way to endless expanses of dust, sand and desert, with an ugly caravan of freight trucks and overloaded Ladas heading west. Mashrutkas speed between them all like flies. The glity and glamour of Monte Carlo-on-Caspian had vanished.

With the unfortunate exception of a crazed Caucasian bear on display at the ancient town of Samaxi, there was little to report as the desert morphed into the foothills of the black mountains that loomed to the north. Half a snooze later and we were cruising through rolling, verdant countryside, with plane trees lining both sides of the road. Ignore the makeshift mosques and headscarved old women selling hazelnuts at the side of the road, and we had inadvertently wandered into a French watercolour.

My destination was the village of Lahic, a community of Persian-speaking coppersmiths who had inhabited the Girdiman valley for a good thousand years. Their ancestors had brought their handicraft skills from the bazaars of Baghdad and Esfahan, and Lahic copper wares used to fetch a high price along the Central Asian trade routes, being bartered, no doubt, for such exotic goods as ground rhubarb leaf.

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Visa Woes Part XIX

I actually entered Azerbaijan twice – the first time courtesy of an entirely disinterested border guard on passport control.

Wearing that exasperated expression common to all people who find themselves suffering from serious computer issues, the (female) guard smashed two hammy fists on her keyboard and thumbed through my passport repeated.

“Where is your visa?”, she enquired, wearily. I pointed at the large sign above the desk which read ‘NO VISA’, and mentioned that I wanted to get one at the airport.

She rolled her eyes, muttered something inaudible (and likely unprintable), stamped my passport, and ushered me through. I was in. I had managed to save myself USD100, courtesy of an unconcerned border guard. I skipped to the luggage carousel, and began to think of the delights on which I could spend this unexpected windfall.

My recent experiences of Uzbekistan nagged away in the back of my mind. All the police roadblocks, the passport checks ad nauseam in the Tashkent metro, each minor official and hotel-owner examining my visa with unparalleled precision: I had no idea whether I’d find another paranoid police state in Azerbaijan – given the hefty price tag for the visa, it suggested as much.

My Swiss travelling companions had been dispatched tail between legs to the ‘Visa’ desk in the corner, which was closed. I looked inquisitively in their direction; my lost expression soon alerted another guard. Moments later, I was surrounded by half a dozen men and women in green uniform, demanding to know why I didn’t have a visa.

“You have entered the country illegally”, explained a hysterical woman with fierce green eyes and chestnut hair. “Where is your visa?”
“They let me through!”, I explained, the word ‘illegally’ still ringing in my ears, and visions of being chained to a radiator pipe in darkness multiplying in my mind.
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