Archive | August, 2006
August 27, 2006

The South Caucasus: From Tbilisi to Baku

Tbilisi mosque

For breakfast I had a chocolate croissant and a Coke float. Not quite the healthiest meal, but when you’re on vacation you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want, right? We were at a quaint little coffee shop/bookstore that specialized in English language books. Liz and Taline stocked up, and I purchased a mini Russian language dictionary because the phrase book I bought in Heathrow just wasn’t cutting it. As it would later turn out, this was a brilliant move on my part.

We bid farewell to Taline and Liz later that day, as they had to head back to Yerevan (work and all). Laura and I wandered around the old city, stopping in front of a synagogue to take some photos. An old man sitting nearby bid us to come inside, so we went, following him around as he pointed out the various features. The only language we had in common was Russian, so I did my best to translate.

We continued down the old city and stopped again to take photos of a beautiful mosque, the only one in Tbilisi, in fact, as Beria ordered the others destroyed in the 1930s.

Tbilisi mosque

While walking away, I was accosted by a woman across the street shouting “Devushka! Devushka!” Ah, devushka (young woman), a word familiar to anyone who has spent some time in Russia. I thought that perhaps she wasn’t happy with me taking photos of the mosque, so I shouted back “What?!” She started walking across the street towards us. “Are you a journalist?” she asked, pointing at my camera. “Uh…no.” (Keep in mind, this entire conversation is being shouted across the street in Russian.) She was an older woman, with bright purple hair and makeup so thick that it looked like it would just fall off her face in large slabs. “Oh, I am a journalist.” She proceeded to tell us her life story, describing how she used to work in Moscow when she was a “Soviet citizen.” She then startled rattling off the names of various American newspapers, asking if I read them. The New York Times? Yes, every day. The Los Angeles Times? Sometimes, but usually only when I’m back in California. Well then, did I know her friend so-and-so, who works for the NYTimes, or her other friend who works for the LATimes? When I sheepishly replied that no, I did not know who these people were, she seemed almost disgusted. The discussion then turned to politics, and I asked her what she thought of President Saakashvili, expecting to hear some praise for the “Rose Revolution.” Wrong again, Lindsay. She railed against Saakashvili and bemoaned the fact that he was “without talent.” Well, Misha, I guess you can’t win them all over, now can you?

Tbilisi Rose Revolution
Advertising the Rose Revolution

Tbilisi Georgian Parliament
Parliament. Georgia isn’t in the EU, but they fly the flag anyways

That night we had more greasy, cheese laden Georgian food for dinner and watched Italy win the World Cup amongst the diplomats and NGO workers at our hotel. I was rooting for France until Zidane headbutted Materazzi. I don’t care what Materazzi said, Zidane – that was just a ridiculously stupid thing to do to your team mates.

We were leaving for Baku the next day, so we only had a few hours left in Tbilisi until we had to head to the airport. Laura wanted to see Narikala Fortress since she was asleep when Crystal and I went a few days earlier, so we went there. We were the only people there, besides the babushka that kept following us around begging for money for eye medicine. Because I’m a complete sucker, I gave her a few lari.

Babushka at Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Babushka

Tbilisi Narikala fortress
At Narikala

We collected our bags from the hotel and hopped in a taxi to the airport. It was one of the fastest taxi rides in my entire life. When riding in a taxi in the former USSR, I often feel like I’m in a go-kart race on steroids, with the constant swerving in and out of lanes, and the drivers sticking their heads out of their windows to smirk at the slower cars. The main road to the airport was a smooth ride, not a pothole in site! Imagine our surprise then, when we passed by a large sign declaring that we were on “George W. Bush Street”! Jesus Christ, the Georgians named a street after that asshole? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The Tbilisi airport was a typical, dull structure that contained a few gift stands, a duty-free store, and the requisite bar where “biznesmen” passed the time watching old Soviet movies and drinking cheap Georgian beer. As we sat waiting to board our flight, other passengers would come up to us and ask questions “What time is it?”, “What flight is this gate for?” Why, in a room full of Georgians, do these people insist on asking the two Americans what the hell is going on? By that time, my brain was slowly turning into mush. I could hear the people addressing me in Russian, but my brain was refusing to translate it. I soon became incapable of saying anything other than “Uhhh….I….don’t…know.” God, Lindsay, this is not good. I hope they speak English in Baku.

We flew Azerbaijan Airlines to Baku. Except for the overriding fear that we would plummet to our deaths and some poor U.S. embassy worker would have to identify my remains, I was actually quite impressed with AZAL. The leg room was the most spacious I’d ever experienced, and they had those cool little maps on the TV screens in front of you so that you could track the progress of the flight. The flight was a little under an hour, and before we knew it the plane was banking over the Caspian Sea and preparing to land. There it was, the Caspian Sea! Offshore oil rigs all over the place! It was just as I had imagined.

The airport was modern and the customs procedure very orderly, much more so than in Yerevan. (For those of you who may stumble upon this via googling for Azeri visa requirements, all you have to do is fill out an application when you arrive at the airport and hand over $40 and two passport photos. If you don’t have passport photos, you can take them there for $6).

We hired a taxi (another NASCAR driver-in-training) to take us to our hotel, and we were soon on our way to the city center. Freshly planted trees lines the highway into Baku, most likely placed there to hide the ramshackle housing and rusting oil rigs. Don’t worry, President Aliyev, in a few more years they’ll grow a bit taller and your foreign investors won’t be able to see anything!

Once we arrived in Baku, I immediately noticed how different this city is from Yerevan and Tbilisi. High rise apartment buildings were being constructed on almost every street, and luxury cars seemed to outnumber Soviet Volgas and Ladas. It’s amazing what a few billion barrels of oil can do.

The hotel we stayed at was the Park Inn, which had only opened a few months earlier. The staff was incredibly friendly, and our room was awesome. Was I really in Baku?

Baku Park Inn
Our hotel – the white building with lots of glass

Baku Park Inn
A flat screen TV, mini-bar, and comfortable beds…whoa.

It was getting late, and we needed some dinner, so we set off in search of food. Our hotel was right on the Caspian Sea, so we walked along the seaside boulevard. We settled on a café, where a doting waiter was highly amused at our attempt to order off the menu. I had the usual meat, lavash, veggies, and beer. Simple fare, but I love it.

After dinner, we walked along the boulevard for a few minutes. Apparently this was the place to be in Baku, as there were many people strolling along the boulevard and enjoying the beautiful summer night. I liked being near the water, even though it stank of petroleum. The only light came from the full moon reflecting off the water’s oily surface and the distant lights of the offshore rigs. I had only been in Baku for a few hours and had already fallen in love with the city.

(Next up: More Baku-ey goodness, including a visit to a Caspian Beach)

August 22, 2006

Yeah, that was me

examiner_front_page.jpg

We interrupt this regularly scheduled South Caucasus travelogue to tell you that you totally shoulda picked up a copy of the Examiner yesterday from your local news rack. If you didn’t, you missed out on my front page debut showing off my mad wiffleball skillz:

examiner front page Yeah, that was me

examiner frontpage lg Yeah, that was me

Oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I play on a Wiffleball team in the Potomac Wiffleball League. We usually play every Sunday, but this past Sunday was an off-week, so our team took some batting practice on the National Mall. We created our own little field, using a mound of gravel as a backstop, and moved around some U.S. Park Service cones to mark the outfield. Ryan’s old California license plates made an excellent pitching rubber and home plate. We even used the multitude of tourists TO OUR ADVANTAGE (yes, it can be done!) and had them shagging foul balls for us. Now if only we can train them to stand on the right and walk on the left on the damn escalators! Anyways, a photographer from the Examiner snapped some photos of us playing ball and the rest is history. If you want me to autograph your copy, let me know…this is definitely the only time I will be in the paper for anything sports-related.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming…

August 16, 2006

The South Caucasus: This is the story of 5 girls who went on a Road trip to Tbilisi

Cattle in Armenia

We were supposed to pick up Crystal and Taline at 8:30 that morning. I say supposed to, because we didn’t. When 8:30am rolled around, Liz was running around the house banging on my bedroom door and shouting “AHHHH WE’RE LATE! WE ARE SOOOOO LATE!” We hurriedly packed, piled into Liz’s Rav4, and sped to Taline’s apartment. After we picked up Crystal and Taline, we made a quick stop at “Yum-Yum Donuts” for sustenance. I can’t exactly vouch for the authenticity of this particular Yum-Yum donuts franchise, as I’ve noticed that a few stores in the South Caucasus tend to blatantly rip-off the names of Western retailers (Victoria’s Secret, GAP, etc) that don’t have a presence in the country. Perhaps the most amusing example of this was when Taline pointed out the “In-N-Out” burger place in Yerevan. I’m guessing that some enterprising young Armenian went to visit some family members in SoCal and was so enamored with our favorite fast food chain that he decided to open up one in Yerevan. Although I didn’t try the Armenian In-N-Out, I’m quite sure that it can’t even come close to one in California.

Loaded down with a box of donuts and muffins, we were finally on our way out of the city. YEAH TBILISI HERE WE COME! The soundtrack for this road trip was a mix of 70s and 80s music, heavy on Abba and Madonna. The drive through the Armenian countryside went smoothly, if you discount the fact that Liz has apparently gone native and is an absolutely fucking crazy driver. Lucky for us, her red diplomatic license plates allowed her to breeze right past those bastard policeman extortionists.

Cattle in Armenia


Near Lake Sevan, we encountered this large herd of cattle that was crossing the highway. This doesn’t happen very often in California, or on the Beltway, so I had to take a few photos.

Lake Sevan
A view of Lake Sevan from the road. A brilliant blue color, the lake was surrounded by mountains smothered in clouds. On the side of the road, young boys waved at the cars passing by and stretched out their arms to indicate the size of the fish they had for sale. Apparently there are some very large fish in Sevan.

We took the same road up to the Georgian border that we had taken several days earlier when we visited the monasteries at Haghpat and Sanahin. Crystal, Laura, and myself were experts of sort with this route, and could advise on the bridge that was coming up and oh, by the way, it was only one lane because the other half had fallen into the canyon below…don’t look down!

We soon found ourselves at the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo border crossing. The process went quickly on the Armenian side, mostly due to the fact that Liz has a black diplomatic passport. We hopped back into the car and drove through the no-man’s land towards the Georgian border. There’s no real direction as to which building we are supposed to go to in order to have our passports stamped, but we see a group of people standing around a decrepit pre-fab trailer and figure we should give it a try. Inside the hot, dimly lit room, an overworked, sweating Georgian border guard sits in front of a computer, methodically typing in numbers. A large stack of passports sits on his desk, and outside the shack the crowd of Russians yells through the window for him to hurry up. We placed our passports on his desk, and he begins to process our documents. Several of the Russians rush in, angrily demanding to know why he is now tending to our passports rather than theirs. The officer merely shrugs, points to Liz’s passport, and says “I have a diplomat here.” (Oh, and, like, four of her friends who are most definitely not diplomats but shoved their passports under hers nevertheless). I don’t feel so bad that we cut in front of the Russians, considering how many times I’ve had to put up with their line techniques in Moscow and Petersburg.

After we get our passports stamped we are officially in Georgia and off to Tbilisi. The Georgian landscape is completely different from Armenia’s, with its small, rolling hills and vast fields of sunflowers. We passed an equipment depot and camp for the BTC Pipeline, which was exciting (for me, at least) because I wrote my master’s dissertation on that pipeline.

Road on the way to Tbilisi
Georgia

BTC Pipeline is buried somewhere out there
The BTC Pipeline is somewhere out there

The Georgian roads were rough and filled with potholes (yes, even worse than DC!) They weren’t marked very well, so sometimes we weren’t sure if we were heading in the right direction. All we could do is pull alongside a group of locals and shout “Tbilisi?!?” praying they would point us in the right direction.

Road on the way to Tbilisi
Georgian town on the way to Tbilisi
Small Georgian town

It pains me to say this, and some of you will probably disown me, but our first destination once we arrived in Tbilisi was McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s, the fine purveyor of Americana in a paper wrapper and cheap plastic toy. We didn’t know where the McDonald’s was, so we pulled over and asked a babushka for directions. She didn’t know, and shouted something to an elderly man missing most of his teeth. He hobbled over, and we asked again “Excuse me, do you know where McDonald’s is located?” He grinned and nodded “Ah, McDonald’s! Yes, yes!” and gave us proper directions. Now imagine this, a group of five American girls driving around Tbilisi in an SUV asking the locals where McDonald’s is. How…cliche.

McDonalds in Tbilisi
The all too familiar golden arches

The reason we had to go to McDonald’s is because there isn’t one in Yerevan, and Liz and Taline were craving a taste of home. I don’t blame them, as in my trips abroad, especially in Russia, I occasionally partook in a burger and fries. It’s always interesting to visit a McDonald’s in a foreign country, and is almost like a weird social experiment. Everything is so familiar (the smells, the taste, the decorations, the uniforms) yet so foreign (the incomprehensible menu, the locals, the cleanliness, yes! cleanliness).

After the expats had their fill of McDonald’s, we checked into our hotel, a charming lodge named Betsy’s Place. As soon as we pulled up to the hotel we noticed that ALL of the cars were SUVs with red diplomatic plates. Apparently this was the place to be if you were a diplomat. God only knows how I ended up there.

View from our hotel in Tbilisi
The view from our room. I could sit on our balcony for hours and just stare at the city below.

Once we checked in, Liz, Laura, and Taline promptly fell asleep, while Crystal and I headed out to explore the city. We wandered around for awhile, with no exact destination in mind, and passed the flea market where elderly Georgians stood around gossiping and begging passers-by to purchase their broken rotary telephones and yellowing photos of Stalin. We hailed a taxi and had the driver take us to Narikala Fortress. His car couldn’t make it up the steep hill, so we had quite a workout walking up there, which was great considering I was still feeling the effects of the previous night’s drinking. It was worth it, though, as the view from the fortress was incredible.

Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Narikala fortress – its earliest walls date from the 4th century

Tbilisi
Looking down on Tbilisi

Mtkvari River in Tbilisi
Houses on the cliffs overlooking the Mtkvari River. They looked as if any moment they could fall into the water below.

Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Back of the fortress

We walked down the hill and hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel in order to meet the rest of our group for dinner. We ended up with a friendly guy who didn’t know where our hotel was, and to be honest, neither did we. We just knew the address, not any details of where it was located in the city. We knew it was near McDonald’s, so had the driver take us there. When he dropped us off, though, I was a bit perplexed, as this McDonald’s looked a bit unfamiliar. Yes, that’s right…it was a different McDonald’s. You mean to tell me there are two McDonald’s in Tbilisi and Yerevan doesn’t even have one? Amazing.

After spending the entire day eating American junk food (donuts AND McDonald’s?! I mean, really!) we opted to have dinner at a traditional Georgian restaurant. Shashlik, kebabs, meat, meat, meat, red wine, and two different types of artery-clogging, heart stopping khachapuri. Khachapuri, a type of bread filled with cheese (and sometimes slabs of butter and eggs) is incredibly delicious, incredibly addicting and INCREDIBLY bad for you. It’s practically the national dish of Georgia, and can be found at virtually any kiosk or restaurant in Tbilisi.

We ended the night with drinks in the hotel bar and headed off to bed. Our electricity kept flickering on and off while we were trying to read ourselves to sleep. Welcome to the former Soviet Union.

(So I lied, took me longer than a week to get the next post up…I’m too lazy about posting, I realize…this is bad. Next up: we spend some more time in Georgia and then fly to Baku, Azerbaijan)

August 6, 2006

The South Caucasus: Military hardware, art, and too much vodka

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

For our second day in Armenia, we promised Taline and Liz that we would be staying in the city of Yerevan rather than gallivanting around the northern regions of the country. This time, we assured them, we would definitely make it to dinner. Our first sight of the morning was the Cascade, a series of steps built into a hill. At the top of the Cascade is a monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of Armenia’s integration into the Soviet Union. In other words, the Cascade is another typical grandiose and useless Soviet-era construction project. The construction of the Cascade was never actually finished, as the funding dried up after the Soviet Union collapsed. Rather than climbing the 800 steps to the top, Laura and I opted to take the indoor escalators that run along the side of the Cascade. The escalators don’t actually run the entire length of the Cascade, so we did have to hike to the top of the monument. The view of Yerevan that awaited us at the top was totally worth it, though.

Mount Ararat from Yerevan

We got our first glimpse of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia. There are literally hundreds of products and institutions that are named after this mountain: Ararat wine, Ararat vodka, Ararat cognac, Ararat bank…it’s even on the Armenian coat of arms. In a sad twist of irony, however, Mount Ararat lies not within the borders of Armenia, but those of Turkey. While the citizens of Yerevan may gaze upon Ararat, they may not cross the closed Armenian-Turkish border and travel the mere 20 miles to actually visit it. What a cruel joke has been played on the Armenians, to place their national symbol within the borders of a country responsible for the genocide of 1.5 million of their countrymen.

Mount Ararat is also supposedly where Noah’s Ark landed, if you believe that a 600 year-old man single-handedly rounded up “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female” and put them in a large boat. Personally, I don’t, but that’s just me.

Statue in Yerevan
An odd statue near the top of the Soviet monument

After risking our lives by running across several lanes of traffic, we arrived at Victory Park, an overgrown wooded area with a typical Soviet-era amusement park. While the rusty ferris wheel and roller coaster looked tempting, we chose to visit the “Mother Armenia” statue instead.

Mother Armenia statue

Mother Armenia statue
Mother Armenia looks toward the Turkish border.

This being a Soviet-era monument, there was plenty of military equipment around the plaza.

Armenian artillery
Artillery pointed towards Turkey.

Soviet tank in Yerevan
Soviet tank

Soviet Katyusha
Katyusha rocket launcher

Soviet missile
Missile


I had too much fun here.

Inside the Mother Armenia statue there is a small museum dedicated to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The entire museum was in Armenian though, so we could only look at the pictures, dioramas, and military equipment and guess what the labels said.
Our final sight of the day was the National Art Gallery. It was definitely an impressive museum, but my knowledge of art is a bit lacking, so I can’t really describe the place very well (as in the various artists and so forth). Oddly enough, there were artists in various rooms that were painting exact copies of some of the museum’s artwork. And some of them were actually better than the originals.

After the art museum, we met up with Liz, Taline, and Crystal and headed over to a restaurant to meet up with some of their expat friends and enjoy a delicious khoravats meal.

To be honest, I don’t really remember most of it, due to the amount of Russki Standart that I consumed. This was a very, very, bad idea considering we were leaving Yerevan at 8:30am tomorrow to go to Tbilisi. I do remember that the food was incredibly good, though. That’s gotta count for something, eh?

Russki Standart Russian Standard vodka
Best vodka ever


Brian, the toastmaster


Oh God…not another toast.


Uhhh we have to wake up at 8am tomorrow and drive to Tbilisi. Insert obligatory “I’m never going to drink this much again.”

(Next up: Five American girls go on a road trip to Tbilisi. I promise it won’t take me a week to get that post up.)