• Italy!

    Italy: Rome' historic buildings. Go Now!

    Italy
    Crumbling buildings in Rome (pictured) only add to the atmosphere in a country where old is redefined and western civilization begins. Explore Italy!

  • Ireland!

    Ireland: Cliffs of Moher! Go Now!

    Ireland
    The Emerald Isle is world famous for its landscapes, foods, beers, and culture. Explore Ireland!

  • Serbia!

    Serbia: Houses in the mountains. Go Now!

    Serbia
    Serbia is a historic power now looking internally to re-discovery their identity and future. Explore Serbia!

  • Armenia!

    Armenia: Noravank Monastery. Go Now!

    Armenia
    With a unique language, foods, architecture, and identity, Armenia is a fascinating country and culture unlike no other in the world. Begin Your Journey!

  • Switzerland!

    Switzerland: The Matterhorn. Go Now!

    Switzerland
    This mountainous country unites ethnic Germans, French, and Italians; making it home to a number of diverse cultures. Go Now!

  • Latvia!

    Latvia: Art Nouveau in Riga. Go Now!

    Latvia
    Latvia is small, but has a diverse history, foods, and architecture (shown), which includes aspects from both Eastern and Western Europe. Begin Your Journey!

Azerbaijan

Baku

Baku

August 10, 2005
Arrival

We awoke in Tbilisi, Georgia to get a cab to the bus station for the 9:00am bus to Baku, but found ourselves out of luck since only two buses go to Baku each week. After inquiring how to get to Baku today, a man said that he could take us to the border, then we can cross by foot, and get a bus at the border, which leaves every half hour to Baku.

We got to the border extremely quickly; our driver said that we were going faster than an airplane at one point… I don't doubt it. The border was a mess so we went by foot out of Georgia, which was no problem, then across Kracny Most (Red Bridge) to Azerbaijan. Here we first showed our passports, then we went through customs and declared everything along with a short interrogation. After this we continued on to the actual passport control, where we had to wait a little.

We asked a young guard carrying a semi-automatic where the buses to Baku were, he turned around, asked a guy in a mini bus if he was going to Baku and said that after our passports are cleared to meet him on the other side of the fence. It took a few minutes longer than expected due to Elizabeth's Bolivian passport, but we crossed the fence and a man met us there, however not the driver. We said that we already had a ride, but turns out this man was riding in the same car. This man looked extremely different from the Georgians and I felt like I had truly entered a new country, soon this was supported by the new language, religion, and culture we were submerged in... all vastly different from Georgia.

We got in the back of the mini bus with five other men; they said the price would be $10 a person for the six-hour ride. The first hour was strange; we sat in the back row looking at the balding heads of five Azerbaijanis, as Arabic music playing at full volume. At one point a police officer waved us over to the side, but one of the men in the second row of seats leaned forward and waved to the police officer, which made him immediately let us go as he waved us on. Again I felt oddly relaxed and comfortable in this seemingly uncomfortable situation.

We soon stopped at a wayside for what I assumed to be a bathroom break. I walked to the outhouse, which had a hose flooding the small concrete room then returned. Like everyone else I washed my hands in the public fountain-like sink and followed the rest of the passengers to a nice little area not far from the mini bus.

They told me that we would be having lunch; the tables were little more than picnic tables nicely decorated under the tree-covered area. I sat at the end of the table next to Elizabeth. The man sitting across from me introduced himself as Omar then the rest of the passengers proceeded to introduce themselves. They seemed nice enough, but I was not hungry and had none of the local currency: manat. I, however had little choice; it would have been rude to turn down not just the food, but their company, so we joined and offered to pay in US dollars.

The first course was bread, flat lavash and leavened bread sliced into thick pieces. With this was a taziki-type sauce, very good, but also very strong. Immediately afterwards the salad came out. This was no different from Georgian food: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and parsley. I went terribly wrong however at this point when Omar insisted that I serve myself before him serve himself. I took food from the bowl and placed it on my plate. As I looked around everyone else simply took one piece of food at a time from the communal bowl with their fork, slowly eating away at the vegetables. I felt bad, but Omar decided to follow my lead, probably to make me feel better, and put some food on his plate, in much the same fashion I did.

Once I learned how to eat the salad I could very easily and subtly eat only the tomatoes, peppers, and onions, skipping the cucumbers; it's considered rude to pick at the food, but as long as you don't obviously pick at it, it's accepted. We ate and talked about soccer and hockey along with the numerous Americans in Baku. Omar said that there is a lot of anti-Americanism in Azerbaijan and Baku particularly, but that he loves everyone, except for Russia, who he particularly hates. We talked about American sports for some time and it was a nice relief that someone in the world outside of the U.S. knows about football and it's a shock that anyone in the Middle East knows anything about hockey including being able to name every NHL team: I would say a city and he'd give me the team, unbelievable.

Omar told me that he is a "businessman;" I guess this may explain why we didn't get pulled over earlier. I know better than to push any further so dropped it and asked in which city he works. Omar works in Tbilisi along with the rest of the men, they all work together and his nephew is the driver, but Omar owns the car. I realized at this moment, confirming my suspicions that we were not in a public bus, but rather a private mini bus of "businessmen." They seemed nice enough so I didn't mind much and soon the main course came out, shashlik.

Omar told me to use the napkin to clean my hands and mouth every so often and that I must eat the shashlik by hand. I did as he asked and found it to be quite good. At this moment they also gave me Azeri lemonade, which was more like pear-flavored soda, and a bottle of vodka. It was 10:00am and I had little interest in drinking alcohol, but again it would be rude to turn it down and the first toast is always to the guests. So in between the salad and meat we had a shot of vodka and continued the toasting until the bottle's completion (mostly thanks to Omar and his friends) around the same time we were finishing our shashlik. The food was good and Omar extremely intelligent. Besides naming every NHL team he asked Elizabeth where she was from and he said not only that the capital of Bolivia is La Paz, but also said that Bolivia has vast amounts of natural gas, a fact few people outside Bolivia itself know.

Once we were finishing lunch, Omar explained that he was the boss so we could drink in the bus. At this point he told us that lunch was his treat and then proceeded to buy beers for the ride. We got in the bus after everyone had washed their hands and we went on our way with beer in hand; two in Omar's hands.

The conversation went on and off for the rest of the ride as Omar first explained to us that he is not a terrorist, I think to ease any fear we may have had, then he proceeded to tell us about his position under Soviet rule. He is fluent in Russian, Azeri, and German so he was an intelligence officer in the Soviet army for much of his life. He was fairly sporadic and quite excitable, best exemplified near the beginning of the ride when a song came on and he yelled "Hoo-raa!" then sang along, after which our conversation continued as if nothing happened.

I couldn't help but notice Omar's nephew continuously looking back at us in the rear-view-mirror and laughing. His nephew is the son of his brother; however he also has two sisters, all of whom live in Baku. We only stopped one more time, at a bathroom that was little more than a trough at the side of the road.

We eventually reached the Iranian highway or the old Silk Road. The landscape here resembles the stereotypical Middle Eastern desert: completely arid, little to no plant life, and in the distance what appeared to be nothing more than sand mounds at the end of the lesser Caucus range; to the right lies the Caspian Sea. People were walking the street, not hitching, just walking as if this were a different age, an age when time mattered not and to hurry was to waste a greater gift, the gift of now.

As we approached Baku three things struck me, first the oil derricks to the right, second a large plant with an eternal flame at the top, and finally our Azeri friends playing cards and smoking. I became Omar's money drawer as he showed me the money and explained how much each bill was worth in US dollars. Each man fell out one by one until only two men had money left. Omar seemed upset at first that he was one of the first to go, but he soon relaxed and looked out the window and occasionally talked to us or insist we join him at his sister's house over the course of our stay.

After a long lull in conversation, Omar turned to me and asked if I thought Texas could succeed from the United States. I was confused by the question, hesitated then said that they probably could, but wouldn't. I explained that they are truly American, although their past and history may say otherwise and that in a different age it may have been possible, but the sun has set on that day.

We were soon in Baku, stopping once at a mosque where every Muslim is supposed to stop at to pray when crossing this sacred place. Ten minutes later we were at Marty's building (Elizabeth's friend) and we had no trouble finding her. We grabbed a taxi and went to her house; a beautiful building fit for a king, oil baron, or ex-pat. After settling down and grabbing water from the shop we went to eat at a local Indian restaurant. Marty explained that she doesn't like Azeri food, but life isn't too tough since there are many western and ethnic restaurants in the city.

August 11, 2005
Markets & the Royal Life

We slept in today, getting up late, watching some TV in English, grabbing some food and carpet shopping for a bit. The food was a schwarma, a local kebab that is only meat and pickles... I had no problem footing the 40 cent bill. After lunch, Elizabeth was itching to shop and I was itching to spend some time people watching so we split up.

Most carpet shops I visited didn't appeal to me, except for one in particular. There were dozens of silk sumacs, but the prices were steep. I soon found another place with the same sumac essentially, but for about half the price. At one place I walked in during the call to prayers. The owner was participating in the prayers and I was careful not to disturb him as he prayed aloud and turned his head from side to side in a very ritualistic method.

Once finished with his prayers, he showed me beautiful silk carpets for a thousand dollars each, I observed, enjoyed, but soon left and headed back to meet Elizabeth for dinner at a Georgian restaurant, then headed back to Marty's to watch more TV. Typically I would never want to watch TV on vacation, especially American TV, but I had been living aboard on and off for two years all the while without a TV, so I was thrilled.

August 12, 2005

I bought the carpet that I had my eye on and the salesman, Samir was great. I was happy with my purchase and was soon off to the apartment to wait for Marty. Dinner was at a Georgian restaurant with some of Marty's friends. The food was good, Georgian, but the atmosphere made me realize that the ex-pat life is not a life for me. The highlight of the night was when a kid of about 12 who spoke great English, along with about 5 other languages, named nearly every world capital as we quizzed him. This kid was from Baku and I really liked him.

Living abroad for too long makes a person crave what he or she knows, much like I craved that American television. For many, it also makes them blinded to the reality in front of them, wherever they may be. I travel to submerge myself in the culture and the more time I spend abroad the harder this becomes, since I naively believe I understand a region, country, or culture before I've even been introduced to it. On this trip I realized this same effect with many of these ex-pats; together they can continue to live their foreign lifestyle and have become hardened to the reality of the local culture and social issues, which they are here to address and try to assist with. However, for others, they submerge themselves wholeheartedly; one man in this group was married to an Azeri. He had to meet her with her parents for quite a few dates before being allowed to go alone. Additionally, he was not allowed to touch her until marriage. But he allowed the culture to change him and he benefited from that susceptibility he exposed himself to.

I suppose it's just easier to see what you want and blame a foreign society for being wrong as you fall back into living your own lifestyle, but people must see the faults in themselves and in their own society first, only then can try to change another society, but not by force, by education. How can I change someone else, or an entire foreign society, before I first change myself?

Qubustan

August 12, 2005
Hieroglyphs & Mud Volcanoes

We slept in today then rushed out to get to Qubustan to see the petro glyphs and mud volcanoes. We grabbed some food at a corner shop, got a taxi and headed south. We arrived without a problem and soon got a tour of the petro glyphs. The tour was good in that the man was extremely knowledgeable and had great English. The "pictures" or petro glyphs were alright and I only enjoyed "cave one," however Elizabeth loved every minute of the tour. I guess petro glyphs just don't interest me; however Elizabeth enjoyed it so the trip was worth it.

We also saw some "Roman graffiti" on a stone not far from here, written by a centurion about 2,000 years ago, the furthest east Roman script has ever been found. They say the soldier must have been here on a mission from the Roman stronghold in what is now Iran.

The man from the museum insisted that the mud volcanoes are 20 kilometers away and they're impossible to find so we should hire him for $10 in addition to paying our driver another $10 for the extra distance. This seems to be typical in Azerbaijan, in that the people often times work together to help each other, however this at times come at the expense of the traveler. We had directions to the mud volcanoes though so we passed on the guide.

The route to the mud volcanoes was rough, both for the car and for distinguishing what roads are actually roads. We went a long ways; however I believe at the end our driver said it was 6 kilometers each way. We finally decided that the volcanoes must be atop a hill so headed up without our driver, who was behind us in the car. We were right and the volcanoes were incredible... well worth the trip.

Our driver was incredibly impressed and actually thanked us for showing him. These volcanoes bubbled and spewed mud down hills in little valleys of mud. Much of the earth was hard as a rock from the thick mud and beating sun, however the fresh mud was a darker grey and even the mud a few days old was darker and not yet cracked.

The surrounding was also unique, not a living plant or creature for miles around, the Caspian Sea could be viewed in the distance with the Iranian highway close by. The old sea bed lay beside the water and only where we were, on this hill and west of here was the terrain elevated. To the west the hills were rigid and the dirt created an almost sand-like appearance from the distance. In places there were sporadic dead bushes and the heat coming off of the earth made me feel like I was in a foreign land. The atmosphere here is very unlike that of Baku or anywhere I have ever been.

The mud volcanoes were hands down one of the geographic highlights I've ever seen. The trip back was quick and our driver so enthralled by the sight, he bought us ice cream and explained that he'd be bringing his family here over the weekend.

Yanar Dag

August 13, 2005
Fire Mountain & Caravansarai

We got a taxi to head out to Ateşgah Fire Temple. It was an old caravansary dressed up... the electrician, yes you read that correct, electrician, told us about the complex and showed us the displays for the tourists. The building itself was nice although the displays didn't encourage the fantasy of an old Silk Road trade route stop.

Our cab driver got lost several times on the way from here to the "fire wall," Yanar Dağ, or Fire Mountain. This was much more impressive than the fire temple as fire was literally spewing out of the dry dirt. The area was arid and out of some random rocks there was a fire wall about 20 feet wide, not wood, nothing like a fire typically looks like. The ground is simply spewing natural gas and since this fire was accidentally set fifty years ago it has not stopped.

Our driver stared at the ground in awe. We had tea and candies as we looked at the wall and fed the local dog and cat, both of whom looked less than healthy. The cab driver kept yelling at the dog and I noticed everyone's cruelty to dogs here. Dogs are often kicked and beaten or receive stones from the evil hand of their human hunters. I guess the Azeri people and I are very different in our opinions of dogs.

Baku

August 13, 2005
Dinner & Departure

It's Saturday and I got up early to see the city walls, the palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, the Maiden's Tower, on to a carpet shop, and finally to eat caviar before heading out of town. I only decided to have caviar since this is the source of the world's best caviar. And after that meal, well, I don't think I'll have it again.

For dinner we headed out to an Azeri restaurant, which our taxi driver recommended. The setting was nice, with a waterfall and stage as the tables were set throughout the yard. I had a lulə kebab, basically ground up lamb meat with herbs and small bits of fat to bring out the flavor.

Half way through the dinner the music began and kids started dancing, this is where one could definitely tell we were in a different culture, the kids danced with odd leg kicks and foot twists as they slowly moved in a circle with long hip movements resembling the music's slow tempo and beat.

August 14, 2005

I left Baku today and everywhere there were billboards of Həydar Aliyev, the former president. His son is now president and there seems to be an effort to start a "cult of personality" of sorts... although not a good old-fashioned cult like Stalin, Mao, or Kim had. We got to the airport and headed out to Ankara via Istanbul.

Continue the above trip to: Turkey

Learn more about Azerbaijan Return to Justin's Travel Blog