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
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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: