Archive | 2006
November 13, 2006

So goodbye California, It’s been really nice

carmel_1.jpg

Got back from Carmel last night. Overall, it was a great trip. I haven’t been to that area of California since I was in high school, when my mom dragged me on a “You don’t really want to go to college on the East Coast when we have all these great schools in California” tour (obviously, I eventually ended up on the (l)east coast).

We stayed at a “ranch” which, in California, translates as a resort composed of a bunch of condominium type hotel rooms spread along a golf course. To get around said ranch, you would dial the operator, who would send a bellman to pick you up in a golf cart and deliver you to the destination of your choice. In the evening, a maid would deliver freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as part of the turndown service. Ideally, you would eat them while sitting beside your fireplace, or perhaps after taking a nice, warm bath, but I was usually stuffed from a 15 bazillion course meal and thus opted to save them for later. I was roughin’ it, indeed.

On Friday afternoon we went on a wine-tasting tour. Even though I hail from the best wine-producing state in the U.S., I’ve never toured a winery. Ya know, it’s probably because I’m more of a beer drinker.

Nevertheless, this beer aficionado enjoyed some excellent wines and I think I’ve even developed a fondness for port. That could be an expensive fondness, however, so I’ll stick to my Yuengling and Shiner Bock for now.

On Saturday, our meetings were over at noon (yes, this was a work trip, after all) so we had half a day to kill until our flights back to DC on Sunday morning. Where else to go for lunch, but the nearest In-N-Out, 20 miles away in Salinas? Sometimes I wonder if I hype In-N-Out too much, but once I step out of the car and the smell of those fries stirring in veggie oil hits me, I know that I’m about to eat the greatest fast-food burger known to man. God, I miss you In-N-Out. Those posers at Five Guys ain’t got nothin’ on ya.

After our appetites had been sufficiently sated thanks to number ones with onions and chocolate shakes, we headed down the coast to check out the scenery. The drive down Route One, through the Big Sur area, is perhaps one of the most beautiful road trips you will ever experience. I’m an idiot and forgot my camera, so visit this guy’s website for some amazing photos like these below:

big_sur_1.jpgbig_sur_2.jpgcarmel_1.jpg

That evening we went to downtown Carmel and walked down to the beach where I briefly tested the water temperature of the mighty Pacific. Cold? Oh yeah. No surfing here without a thick wetsuit.

I was in a great mood. Trips back to California do that to me. I should have moved to San Francisco after LSE…I don’t know what I was thinking. I love Southern California, but the Central Coast and Bay Area are amazing. There’s something about the smell of salt water mixed with pine trees, and the warmth of a fire on a chilly evening. Sometimes I’ll start daydreaming about cruising around my vineyard in a John Deere Gator (even though I know nothing about wine, not to mention making it), or perhaps owning a large chunk of land overlooking Big Sur and dropping a few happy California cows on it so passing motorists can smile and think to themselves “How quaint that this multi-million dollar piece of property only has a handful of cows on it.” And then you come crashing back to reality when you’re sitting at the San Francisco airport wondering if you’re going to make it to DC tonight because the idiots at United overbooked by 11 passengers and you don’t have an assigned seat yet. But at least you had Mexican food for lunch and your carry-on bag is stuffed with Red Vines and See’s Candies (it’s a California thing) so you can bring back a little taste of home.
And Washington? 46 degrees and pouring when I finally arrived at Dulles. Why the hell is it always raining whenever I come back from a trip? No joke, I think the only time it wasn’t raining upon my return to DC was when I came back from Armenia IN JULY. (Uh, speaking of which, gotta finish writing about that trip). At least I could drive myself home this time.

I should be back in California for Christmas…not sure for how long, but hopefully enough to catch up with friends and family over some In-N-Out, Mexican food, and pints at the Yard House.

October 29, 2006

This is my XTerra. There are many like it but this one is mine.

xterra_sm.jpg

A funny thing happened today. I bought a car, a 2006 XTerra S trim 4×4. It looks a lot like this (had to pull a stock photo because it was dark by the time I got home):

xterra_sm.jpg

Of course, while driving home from the dealership in Arlington, VA, I realized that, a) I now own a car, which feels totally bizarre; and b) I had NO IDEA where I was going. I guess that’s what happens when you take the metro everywhere. I got on 495 but instead of taking the 1 like I should have, I ended up in Anacostia. Signs for Annapolis and Baltimore = LINDSAY WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING?! I finally saw a sign for New York Avenue, and once I took that all the way down to the convention center I was in good shape. I’ll learn this area eventually.

Also, I’m tired of listening to people bitch about how Californians are bad drivers. Uh, have you guys been in the DC metro area? The drivers here are HORRIBLE.

As Lauren nicely put it: “lt’s a very Lindsay car. It screams, ‘I will drive over sandy flats to find oil and then go surfing.'”

October 25, 2006

In Houston again

No California hating taxi drivers this time. I chose the turkey sandwich over the tuna sandwich on my Continental flight, but it still sucked. Maybe it’s because I hate turkey? The weather here is horrible (raining) but it is still better than DC’s coldness (and yes, shutup, I think it is cold in DC these days. I’m from SoCal, what do you expect?).

Thank God for Mexican food and Shiner Bock.

I totally need to finish writing about my JULY Caucasus trip, huh?

October 8, 2006

Test drove the Nissan XTerra today

Lindsay wants. Oh yes, Lindsay reeeeally wants.

I know what you’re thinking “OMGWTF, Lindsay, an SUV?! Didn’t you see ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?!”

Yeah, I did…but the XTerra…it was so wonderful….so beautiful…soooooo powerful. Loved the movie, Al, (and the CGI polar bear drowning for lack of ice to sit on certainly tugged at the heart strings), but the XTerra is an amazing ride.

Will I purchase one, though? That remains to be seen.

October 2, 2006

Apparently flips flops are a threat to national security

I love the TSA, I really do. Making me put my flip flops through the x-ray machine? When did they implement this policy?! One of the great reasons for wearing flip-flops when travelling is that, unlike all those people wearing sneakers and heels and boots, you didn’t have to take your shoes off. Today, however, I found myself placing my flip-flops in one of those stupid grey trays and shuffling barefoot across the grimy floor of Washington National airport. And no, TSA, I’m not using those stupid goddamn booties you have provided “for my convenience.”

Oh yeah, and one of the wheels on my rolling suitcase fell off this morning while I was on my way to work. It’s probably chilling in a gutter somewhere while I’m dragging my gimp suitcase all over Washington, DC. When travelling, I prefer my large Columbia backpack, but you can’t exactly take one of those on a business trip, can you? Well, you could, but you would look ridiculous lugging that thing around while wearing a suit.
The flight itself sucked, as usual. Air travel has gotten absolutely ridiculous. Sitting in the row across from me was a Spanish couple that was well on their way to joining the mile high club, and behind me there were two little kids screaming their heads off and kicking my seat. I wanted to bang my head against my tray table and scream “OMG WTF WILL YOU PLEASE STFU!!! HOW MUCH LONGER UNTIL WE GET TO HOUSTON?!?!”
Oh, and Continental’s tuna sandwich sucks…like really, really sucks.

When I finally got to Houston, I caught a cab to my hotel. My driver wore cowboy hats, boots, and a spoke with a thick Texas drawl. When I told him I had just arrived from DC, he eyed me suspiciously and asked,

“You work for the guv’mint?”

“Naw, the energy industry.”

He liked this answer, as he apparently used to work in the oil fields when he was younger. He immediately started ranting about the federal government and its multitude of regulatory agencies that were just screwing everything up. He complained about the “liberals” blaming President Bush for high gas prices (which, he has a point…it’s ridiculous to pin high gas prices on Bush).

And THEN he says: “And these CAL-I-FORNIANS come on over here and bitch about the price of their gas while they’re spending $4 on a cup of Starbucks coffee!”

Uh….oh. Lindsay, now is NOT the time to say “But those caramel frappacinos suuuure are delicious! WESTSIDE IS THE BEST SIDE, CALI REPRESENT!”

But eventually, he learned where I was from:

“I can tell from your accent, you must be from the Midwest.”

My accent, from the Midwest? WTF? This is the second time in the past few months that I have heard this. WHY, GOD, WHY?!

“Uhh, a bit more west, actually.”

“Wyoming?”

“Uh, a bit farther.”

“Cal-i-fornia?”

“Yep.”

“Well, I heard a bit of Midwest in ya, so you must have some good roots there.” (I do…Illinois).

He bitched some more about Iraq and the Middle East. (His solution? Nuke them. Yikes!)

When we finally got to our hotel, he took my bags out of the car and said “Well, I heard this is a nice hotel…although it is French.” (The Sofitel…and yeah, everything is in both English and French. Bizarre, considering we’re in Houston.)

Ah, what a wonderful day.

September 26, 2006

The South Caucasus: Old Town Baku, the polluted Caspian, and conversations with an Azeri carpet salesman

Shirvan Shahs Palace

Don’t you love how my “New Baku post will be up in a few days” turned into a few weeks? Anyways…When I last left you, Laura and I had just arrived in Baku, the lovely capital city of Azerbaijan, situated on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea.

We woke up early and took advantage of our awesome hotel’s free breakfast. Fresh fruit, French toast, white linen, and the Gypsy King’s cover of “Hotel California” playing over the speakers. Where the hell am I again? I sized up the other hotel guests, and if their wardrobes were any indication, Laura and I were definitely the only people visiting Baku who weren’t there to sign multi-million dollar contracts regarding the extraction of Azerbaijan’s plethora of hydrocarbons. When we checked into our hotel the evening prior, the clerk asked us what company we were with. “Uhhh…we’re not here on business. We’re tourists.” (Although if I had actually answered with where I worked, I would have fit in quite well with the other guests). Yep, doesn’t seem to be many tourists in good ol’ Baku.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, located in Baku’s old city. Much of the Palace was built in the mid-1400s by the Shirvanshah dynasty (hence the name). The Palace is currently undergoing a major restoration project, so everything looks quite new. The place was devoid of tourists, so we basically had the place to ourselves.

Shirvan Shahs Palace
Shirvan Shahs Palace

Our next stop was Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century. No one is exactly sure why it’s called Maiden Tower, but there are several local legends you can choose from. Did a young Maiden throw herself off because her father wanted to marry her? Was it built as a fire-worshipper’s temple? The more pressing question, though, is why the hell did these guys not install an elevator when they built this thing? It was a long, winding walk to the top, but the view was well worth it. At the top, two Azeri guys started talking to us, asking us if we liked Baku, where we were from, etc. They said that someday they hoped to visit the U.S., but they were planning on avoiding California because there were too many Armenians there, and they hated Armenians. Avoiding the Great State of California because of its Armenian population? Are you guys out of your minds? We’ve got Disneyland, and beaches, and In-N-Out! Nothing could sway them, however. I was immediately reminded of a seminar at LSE that I attended…was forced to attend, I should add, but the promise of several pints afterwards was indeed tempting. This particular seminar was on the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno Karabakh (click here for the Wikipedia entry, because I’m too lazy to write about the conflict). Entire cities were razed, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the area, and over 35,000 people were killed. Needless to say, there is still a lot of resentment on both sides, and at this particular seminar I was convinced a fistfight was going to break out amongst the Armenians, Turks, and Azeris. Here were some of the most educated members of their respective countries, sitting in a classroom at the London School of Economics, and almost coming to blows over a war that “ended” in 1994. If these students were going back to their countries to work for the government, then I’ve just about lost hope that the region will ever find peace.

Maiden tower
Maiden Tower

Maiden tower
View from the top

We bid farewell to our new Azeri “friends” and told them to look us up if they ever come to D.C. I should also mention that we never told them that we were actually using Armenia as our base of operations and merely stopping over in Baku for a few days. “Uh yeah, we came from Tbilisi…and then we are going back to Tbilisi. But we love your city, it’s beautiful.” There were no lies in that sentence, so it’s all good.

I didn’t really have a next destination in mind, so I dragged Laura on an incredibly long walk that took us along the side of a highway and into the slums of Baku. If you’re ever going to travel with me, you better be prepared to walk A LOT because I will drag your ass all over whatever city we are visiting. No joke. Katerina nicknamed my penchant for walking everywhere the “Lindsay Fincher diet” because you will probably drop a few pounds, no matter how many crepes you eat.

I suggested we grab a taxi and check out a Caspian beach. My trusty Lonely Planet said the Crescent Beach hotel had a decent beach so we hopped in a taxi and were soon speeding down the freeway towards suburban Baku, which is NOTHING like suburban D.C. Instead of TGIFriday’s and California Pizza Kitchen, suburban Baku mainly consists of ramshackle houses and rusty nodding donkeys.

Once we arrived at the Crescent Beach Hotel, we headed straight for the restaurant because we were ridiculously hungry. I had a rather decent pad thai and a great view of the Caspian. After lunch we made our way down to the beach and stuck our feet in the Caspian while bewildered hotel guests watched. Perhaps they, too, read the Lonely Planet entry that stated “The beach may look clean, but the water is heavily polluted both by oil extraction and one of Baku’s main sewage outlets.” And yes, I did read that warning, and yes, I totally ignored it and still stepped foot in the Caspian. I’m still alive aren’t I?

Baku's Sixov BeachAh, the perfect view

Baku's Sixov Beach

Baku's Sixov BeachThe surf is most definitely NOT up

Baku's Sixov BeachSewage and petroleum? Count me in

After semi-frolicking in the cesspool that is the Caspian, we decided to go back to Baku proper. We grabbed a taxi, and in my horrible Russian I asked him to take us back to the city, but to first stop near the mosque on the side of the freeway, not because I wanted to take photos of the mosque, but rather wanted a few of the oil fields nearby. Yes, he thought I was crazy, but understood my request and that’s all that really matters. He was a cool guy, trying his best to narrate the drive in the few English words he knew.

Baku oil pollutionPollution, huh?

Our next destination was the carpet museum, which on the surface sounds incredibly boring but actually turned out to be very interesting. So while I was on this “OMG look at all these beautiful Azeri carpets” high, I did what any respectable tourist would do and bought one.

Baku Soviet crestAll power to the carpet producing peoples!

As we were exiting the carpet shop, we were accosted by two Peace Corps volunteers who were spending the weekend “in the big city.” They were a bit surprised to run into some fellow Americans and asked “Uh, are you guys…tourists?” Yeah, why? “Well, you don’t see many people who come to Baku as tourists.” Damn, really? It was just dawning on me that Baku wasn’t considered a vacation hotspot.

We ended up having dinner at a restaurant near Maiden’s Tower. The food was stellar, and the restaurant itself was located in a courtyard dotted with trees and fountains. There were several small shops on the second floor, and after dinner we headed up there to see if there was anything we wanted to waste our manat on.

azer manatThe Azeris put nodding donkeys and gushing oil rigs on their money. Seriously, how cool is this money?

The salesmen were, of course, interested in showing us more carpets even though I explained that I had just purchased one. My protests were futile, though, as they kept throwing the carpets on top of each other, turning them over to show you the high-quality materials and craftsmanship. The stack became so high, and my eyes grew so large, that I had to restrain myself from purchasing another. They were so incredibly beautiful that I wanted them all. Wood floors be damned, I was ready to cover the entire area of my room back in D.C.! Instead of buying another carpet, though, we opted to purchase a few tablecloths. The salesman invited us to have tea with him, sat us down on the balcony overlooking the restaurant, and ran downstairs. He returned with scalding hot chai, which turned sickingly sweet as we dumped large sugar cubes into our glasses.

Baku restaurantRestaurant where we ate

Baku salesmanThe cool salesman

We ended up talking to this guy for an hour or so, listening to stories of his time in the Soviet Army, and answering questions about life back in the States (again, all this done through my paltry Russian skills). He showed us a hand woven map that displayed Nagorno-Karabakh as firmly a part of Azerbaijan. Unlike the younger Azeris we had encountered earlier in the day, though, there was no hatred or anger in his voice, just sadness at this loss of “their” territory. He wanted to know what we thought of his country, his fellow citizens, and more importantly, his hometown, Baku. “I love it!” I told him. Really? “Oh yeah, I think I’d like to work here someday…for BP!” I partially joked. “Ah,” he grinned, “like David Voodvard!” I was a bit amazed he knew the name of the President of BP Azerbaijan. “Yes, like David Woodward!” When it finally came time to bid him farewell, I promised that I would stop in to purchase some carpets when I started working in Baku, whenever that may be. It could happen, right?

Baku boardwalk

On our way back to the hotel, I was almost killed by several children driving recklessly around the boulevard in their rental Power Wheels cars. Where are the traffic cops when you really need them?

(Next up: We visit a fire worshipper’s temple, mosque, and “fire mountain” on the outskirts of Baku, hop a plane back to Tbilisi, and drive back to Yerevan on a road that the U.S. Government, like, totally told us to avoid…yeah, all in one day!)

September 7, 2006

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean…I guess I should

The smell of surf wax and neoprene. A double-double from In-N-Out. The taste of salt-water. Homemade tortillas at the Old Town Cafe. The sound of crashing waves. Joe’s Crab Shack at Oceanside harbor. Tanned, happy people. Wiping out.

Oh, God, I never realized how much I missed all of it until this weekend.

I left DC Friday evening on a direct flight to San Diego, and arrived in “America’s Finest City” at 8pm. My family picked me up and we headed straight to Old Town San Diego for Mexican food. We have been frequenting the Old Town Cafe since I was a kid, and the place hasn’t changed much since then. They might have added another dining room or two, but the “tortilla ladies” are still there, making fresh tortillas while tourists watch through the windows. After dinner we drove down to our place in Oceanside. It’s a small place, but all you have to do is walk out the gate and you are on the beach. It doesn’t get any better than that. We’ve been coming to Oceanside since I was born. I know the place pretty well, and have seen it change a lot over the past 24 years. The last time I was in Oceanside was two years ago, before I left for London. I was a bit disappointed to see that the city is now becoming indistinguishable from its northern Orange County neighbours. The new townhouses are beautiful, but where did Robertito’s Taco Shop go?!

I hit-up Surfride boardshop the next morning to buy some surf wax. I also decided to purchase a neoprene top because I heard from reliable sources that the water temp was dropping. When I got in the chilly water I was amazed at how warm I was. I should have purchased one of these years ago! I spent the day surfing, bodyboarding, and frolicking in the waves (yes, I was so happy to be in the ocean again that I will admit to actually frolicking). By the end of the day my arms were KILLING me from all the paddling. (I need to work on my upper body strength or something…maybe lift weights? I don’t have a pool here in D.C. so any suggestions on how to get the arms back to strength would be appreciated.) Later that night we met up with some family friends for dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack. Joe’s Crab Shack is incredibly tacky and cheesy, but I love that place.

We were up early the next morning for the drive home to Palm Desert. My grandma hasn’t been doing well health-wise these past few years, so I went for a visit. I was in PD for maybe an hour and a half. Went home for a few minutes. No dog. New fountain thing in the front yard. New artwork. One of my walls was painted a maroon color. I picked out two books and a pair of soccer shorts and left. Back to the beach.

Sorry I didn’t tell any of you guys I was back in town. I was in a bad mood that morning anyways, so it was probably for the better. On the way back to Oceanside we stopped at In-N-Out. I devoured my burger and fries in less than 5 minutes. More surfing in the afternoon and a BBQ with some family friends that evening.
Monday was my last day in California, so I went to the beach for a few hours and then we went down to San Diego. That evening, before my 10pm flight, we went to a Padres game at Petco Park. I hadn’t been to the Padres new stadium yet and wanted to cross it off my list of ballparks to visit. The stadium is beautiful. If you visit, be sure to have a “Diego Dog” (bratwurst in a Kaiser roll-like bun topped with cabbage, pico de gallo, and a sauce with a hint of mustard). Also, check out the little kids playing wiffleball on the mini-diamond behind left-field. With the addition of Petco park, the revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter, and the new condos and apartment buildings, it appears that downtown San Diego is actually turning into an area worth living in.

My flight left at 10:20pm. Redeye. Didn’t sleep at all on the plane – I never really can. Landed in Dulles at 6am. Welcome back to a rainy and cold Washington. It took me over two hours to get home using the bus and metro. I took a quick shower, ironed my shirt, and was out the door and off to work. It was pouring rain, and there were pools of water half a foot deep collecting on the sides of the streets (typical DC incompetence). My pants and socks were soaked with putrid gutterwater. “Oh Lindsay,” I thought to myself “you made a terrible mistake coming back here.” Why, why, why did I move back to this goddamn hellhole swamp city?! It’s no secret that I despise this city, but I’ll be here for a few more years at least. Maybe I’ll go back to California after that, or overseas, or maybe even Houston. Who knows, it’s not really worth pondering right now.

This trip to California was exactly what I needed, but now I’m hurting for some more time in the water. I want to continue surfing, and I want to get better. I was really sucking it up this past weekend and it’s clear that I need a lot of practice. Therein lies the problem, however. The nearest beach is a 3+ hour drive and oh yeah, I don’t have a car. So, I’m going to start looking into purchasing a vehicle so I can take some weekend trips to Ocean City or Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks or wherever the hell the east coast surf is. I’ll probably buy some sort of gas-guzzling SUV, because didn’t ya hear, Chevron found all this oil out in the Gulf! Pretty sweet, eh?

Second, I’m looking into taking a surf trip to Costa Rica next summer. I know, I know…Lindsay might actually visit a country that wasn’t part of the Eastern Bloc. I’m about as surprised as you are.

So in a few months I guess we’ll find out if I’m a) going to buy a car; and b) going to Costa Rica.

New Baku post will be up in a few days.

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 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.)