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October 24, 2010

POTD: Bibi-Heybat Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan

Bibi-Heybat Mosque

Bibi-Heybat Mosque

The Bibi-Heybat Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan, undergoing renovation in 2006. The original mosque was built in the 13th century and destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s during an anti-religious campaign. This new mosque was built in the same site in the 1990s, following Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union.

October 3, 2010

POTD: Ramana Castle

Ramana Castle

Ramana Castle

Constructed in the 14th century, Ramana Castle is situated among the rusting oil derricks on the outskirts of Baku, Azerbaijan.

September 9, 2010

POTD: The oil fields of Baku

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. In July 2006, we drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.

April 29, 2008

BTC Pipeline wine


Despite being born and raised in the Great State of California, I was never a big fan of wine, one of our most popular exports. I always prefer a pint of beer. Barbaric, I know.

So, for this reason, I don’t have a very large collection of wine. In fact, I own only one bottle, as pictured below:


This is a bottle of Baku-Ceyhan wine produced by Tovuz-Baltiya Ltd, an Azeri wine company. I had some leftover manat burning a hole in my pocket and decided to waste a few minutes in the Baku airport duty free store while waiting for my flight back to Tbilisi. The store products consist mainly of caviar, vodka, and more caviar. I was hoping for a few oil-related souvenirs (I mean, seriously, this is Azerbaijan. What’s a girl gotta do to get a mini barrel of authentic Azeri crude with Aliyev’s face plastered on it?) but was thoroughly disappointed until I came across this bottle of Baku-Ceyhan wine. It’s named after (and the label has a map of) the 1,099 mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which begins at the Sangachal Terminal near Baku, runs through Georgia, and terminates at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, where Azeri crude is loaded onto tankers and transported to market. Having completed my master’s degree by writing a dissertation on the BTC pipeline, you could say it’s rather close to my heart. Not a bad souvenir for a few manat.

March 8, 2008

Azerbaijan: The nicer side of Baku

view of Old Town Baku from Maiden Tower

Poor Baku just can’t get a break. It’s like the Houston of the Caucasus. Forbes magazine recently listed it as the dirtiest city in the world, which is quite a blow to their long shot aspirations of hosting the 2016 summer Olympics:

Unless you’re in the oil business, there’s little reason to brave the choking pollution of Baku, Azerbaijan. Fetid water, oil ponds and life-threatening levels of air pollution emitted from drilling and shipping land the former Soviet manufacturing center at the bottom of this year’s list as the world’s dirtiest city.

On the contrary, I found Baku an interesting city to visit. It’s not all leaking pipelines and fetid pools of oil (but yes, there is plenty of that to see).

view of Old Town Baku from Maiden Tower

This is a view of Old Town Baku from the top of the Maiden Tower. Besides a large population of carpet salesmen, the Old Town consists of the aforementioned Maiden Tower (12th century), the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (15th century), and beautiful, narrow streets that would rival those in Dubrovnik. In 2000, the Walled City of Baku, the Maiden Tower, and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If this doesn’t quite win you over, you could always visit the gigantic Dubai like “Death Star” hotel they are building on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The beach, as shown in the artistic rendering of the hotel (complete with tiki torches and beachside dining), sure does look tempting.

November 22, 2006

The South Caucasus: Ignoring U.S. State Department travel warnings on the long road back to Yerevan

Ateshgah Fire Temple

And finally, continuing part whatever of our trip to the South Caucasus…which took place in July…
It was our last day in Baku, but our plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon so we had some time to kill. The day before, we found a travel agency that offered a tour of sights outside the city, so we signed up for a morning tour of the Abşeron peninsula. What better way to spend your last day in Baku than by gallivanting around an industrial wasteland? Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything better, either.

Our first stop was the Ateşgah Fire Temple, located in the village of Surakhany.

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Entrance to the temple

Ateshgah Fire Temple

This temple was built in the 17th century by Indian fire-worshippers who were attracted to this particular site due to the multitude of natural gas seeps in the area. Pilgrims would travel for thousands of miles to worship at the altar of the gas fed flames, and, if the bizarre wax figures on display were any indication, engage in incredibly painful self-mutilation.

Ateshgah Fire Temple cells
Cells where pilgrims slept and mutilated themselves

By the late 19th century, however, the gas vents were exhausted (oops!) so the flames you currently see at Ateşgah are actually fed by Baku’s local gas lines.

Ateshgah Fire Temple gas pipes
Great job covering up those pipes, guys

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Oh natural gas, you are so good to meeeeee, you are the reason I was able to come to Baku!

Our next stop was a beautiful Shi’a mosque in Ramana. I had never visited a mosque before, so the tour was extremely interesting. At the same time, however, I was unsure of the proper etiquette. Are we really supposed to be in here? Well, our guide talked to the caretaker and he welcomed us inside…even told us we could take photos, but on that point we demurred, as I just didn’t feel comfortable photographing inside the mosque. Odd, considering I ran around St. Peter’s in Rome taking as many photos as possible of the dead Popes.

Baku mosque

After visiting the mosque, we made a quick stop at a small castle built in the 14th-century.

Ramana castle

The castle was closed for “renovations”, but there were some great views of the oil fields below.

Ramana castle

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. We drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.

We eventually made our way to our final stop, Yanar Dağ, or “Fire Mountain.” According to local legend, the mountain is “on fire” because a young shepherd accidentally lit a natural gas seep when he carelessly tossed his cigarette (or something like that) and the steady flow of natural gas has kept the mountain burning ever since. It was a pretty cool sight…not something you see everyday, for sure, but all I could think of was, wow, look at all that natural gas just going to waste.

Yanar Dag fire mountain
Perfect for smores?

Aliyev billboard

Across from “Fire Mountain” was this billboard of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. As you can see, a Soviet-esque cult of personality is alive and well in this country. Billboards and posters of the Aliyevs adorn buildings throughout Baku and line the streets of even the smallest villages. More than once our driver would point out the window and remark that the particular sight was “named after our former president.” Of course, because name one thing in this city that isn’t?!

We climbed to the top of a small hill in order to take in the surrounding area. Off in the distance you could see the glimmering Caspian. It looked clean from afar. Our guide asked us if we went swimming in the Caspian. “Er…well, no.” He seemed taken aback. “Well, next time you must. You know, the oil is good for your skin.” Right, if I remember correctly, the latest craze to hit the skincare world was the inclusion of Azeri light crude in Estée Lauder’s “Intense Hydration” moisturizer. “Now, with 25% more crude oil!” Or not.
Our tour of Abşeron complete, we headed back to the airport. After experiencing the clusterfucks that were Tbilisi International Airport and Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, I was amazed at the efficiency and cleanliness of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport (told ya they named everything after him!). After the ticket agent handed us our boarding passes, he placed two pens on the counter. Laura and I stood there like idiots. “Uh, are we supposed to sign something?” No, he replied, they were a gift. Sweet, I got a Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Glad to see those petrodollars being put to good use.

As to be expected, our plane was an hour and a half late taking off, so we had a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. A lady sitting across from us asked if we were in the Peace Corps. Much like the Peace Corps volunteers we ran into earlier in our trip, she did not believe that someone would visit Baku for fun. If you were a foreigner in Baku, you were either working for the Peace Corps or an oil company. It turned out that she was a contractor working on the BTC Pipeline, so we talked for awhile. Having written by master’s dissertation on that very pipeline, you could say I was a bit familiar with her employer.

Our plane finally got off the ground, and we were on our way to Tbilisi. Goodbye Baku! I’ll be back when I’m running BP Azerbaijan! I highly recommend visiting Baku if you find yourself in the South Caucasus. My particular reason for visiting was to finally see the damn place after spending god knows how many hours in the LSE library attempting to write a coherent dissertation about the BTC Pipeline and Russian energy policy. For the average visitor who may not have a slight obsession with Caspian oil production, you will still find that there is much to do in Baku and the surrounding region. And if you run out of things to do, well, there’s always caviar and vodka, right?

After a short flight, we soon found ourselves fighting our way through the tremendously long lines at passport control in Tbilisi. In between pushing and shoving some testy Eastern Europeans trying to cut in line, I was silently praying that our ride to Armenia was waiting outside…because if he wasn’t, we would be totally screwed. Before leaving Baku, I contacted a Tbilisi-based travel agency and arranged, via e-mail, to have a taxi take us back to Yerevan. Taking a taxi from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia? Lindsay, you outta your mind? Well, the trains don’t run too regularly between the two cities, and several people advised me that a taxi was the way to go. Besides, Crystal and I had taken a taxi from Bosnia to Montenegro to Croatia and weren’t killed or seriously injured (and Christ, that trip involved landmines, so what’s a five hour drive between two friendly nations, right?).

Laura spotted a guy holding a sign with my name on it, so we said hello to him, threw our luggage into his tiny SUV, and started on our way to Yerevan. I once again spotted the billboard of Bush waving and grinning like a goddamn idiot, announcing that we were travelling into the city via “George W. Bush Street” (Sorry, I still can’t get over the absurdity of it all). Our driver was a quiet fellow, so I decided the best way to strike up a conversation was by asking him, in Russian, “So, this is George Bush street, eh?” It was one of the few times I saw our driver smile. “Yes, our President Saakashvili looooooooves George Bush.” The way he said it in Russian, though, was quite amusing. The “love”, in this case, was not the kind of “love” that English speakers interject so carelessly into their sentences. It wasn’t like “Oh man, I loooove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” but rather more like “I looove George Clooney and wouldn’t kick him outta my bed, ya know what I’m sayin’?” According to our driver, it was that kind of love between our respective leaders. Uh, thanks but I’d rather not have that mental picture.

Our driver drove like a bat out of hell, cigarette dangling from his mouth, swerving to avoid the corpses of dead livestock, speeding through villages laden with idle men in 1980s Adidas tracksuits, and past the vast fields of sunflowers. It was 8pm by the time we arrived at the border crossing, and hence not very busy. We were stuck in Georgia for a few minutes while our driver argued with a malnourished teenage soldier manning the gates. The soldier finally relented and opened the gate after a Mafioso type sitting in a plastic chair (most likely stolen from an outdoor café) ordered him to let us through. We drove between the no-man’s land separating Georgia and Armenia and sat in the car for 45 minutes while our driver spoke with the Armenian guards and attempted to find the driver who would take us the rest of the way to Yerevan (the company told me that we would have to switch drivers once we arrived in Armenia). This was definitely a lot easier when Liz and her diplomatic passport were accompanying us.

Georgia Armenia border
Goodbye, Georgia!

Georgia Armenia border
No man’s land between Georgia and Armenia. Photography strictly forbidden, what?

Georgia Armenia border
Waiting for Armenia to let us in

Our driver finally came back for us so that we could start the process of acquiring an Armenian visa.
Compared to the Georgians, the Armenians make it such a complete pain in the ass to get into their country. I hadn’t a clue why it was taking so damn long to get our visa, considering we were the only people there waiting in the visa line. While the gruff border officer attended to his oh-so-important business out there in the middle of nowhere, I entertained the two Armenian soldiers with my horrible Russian. One of them kept asking me if I had a kartochka (small photo for the visa), but I thought he said kartoshka so I was wondering why the hell he was asking me for a potato. These dudes that hungry out here? The officer finally gave us our applications, and while Laura was filling hers out one of the soldiers continually remarked that Laura had a “pretty” pen. I was like, Dude, what pen are you using that this guy thinks is so pretty? “Well, you know…the only pen I have.” Ah yes, she completed her application for an Armenian visa with her official Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Classic. These guys are never gonna let us in the country now.

Well, the Armenians did eventually place a shiny new Armenian visa in our passport, so we were finally allowed to enter the country. We bid farewell to the soldiers, who were by then wholly neglecting their guard duties in favour of talking to us, much to the chagrin of their senior officer and the family in the Trabant waiting to be let through. We said a brief hello to our driver, but that was about it. My Russian had regressed to the point where I sounded like a three year old peasant girl with a limited vocabulary, (only, the peasant girl would have had a far better accent) and I just didn’t feel like attempting any discussion with my brain in a state of incoherent mush. I much preferred to sit back in the creaking 1980s era BMW and watch the sun set behind the mountains. The road we started out on was windy and treacherous, but our driver was great (something you don’t come across very often in this part of the world). Obviously, this was not the same road that we had taken to Tbilisi, as I didn’t recognize anything. And then I saw the sign for Noyemberyan. Ah yes, I suddenly remembered….this is the road the State Department told us we weren’t supposed to take due to random sniper fire:

Travelers should avoid the old highway between the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberyan in the Tavush region, as well as the main highway between the towns of Kirants and Baghanis/Voskevan. The U.S. Embassy has designated this portion of the road off-limits to all U.S. government personnel because of its proximity to the cease fire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, a line which has seen numerous cease fire violations over the years.

Yes, twelve years after the cease-fire was announced, the Azeris and Armenians are still taking the occasional shot at each other. We drove past a few military bases and the ruins of several homes…relics from the war, I guess…courtesy of Azeri artillery shells. Remember, it’s not a true Lindsay vacation if it doesn’t involve landmines or massive displays of firepower.

I dozed off for a bit and woke up just as we were coming out of the mountain tunnel that leads to Lake Sevan. Our driver turned to me, with a toothy grin and said, in his thick accent “Good morning!” I just started laughing, it was so surreal. He offered a cigarette (No thanks, I’m from California. Christ, why do these people smoke so goddamn much?), and we started talking in a mixture of Russian and English. His name was Stefan. Cool guy. He has two sisters in….where else? Los Angeles – North Hollywood to be exact. Like I said before, you’d be hard pressed to find an Armenian who doesn’t have a family member or two in LA. We finally got into Yerevan around 1:30am.

THREE COUNTRIES IN ONE DAY…AGAIN! And the hardest part of the trip? Trying to unlock the door to Liz’s apartment. Sorry we woke ya up, dude. Those Eastern Euro locks confuse the hell outta me.

(Wow, that was a long post and it took me entirely too long to write it. I blame it on my laziness. I would write three sentences, say “Whatever, I’ll finish it later” and then find something more entertaining to do. My next posts won’t be as long…I think I still have three days to cover, but they’ll be short…except for perhaps the post on London. It may turn into some long-winded diatribe about how great of a city London is and how much DC sucks. Also, some people have asked me how I can remember everything even though I took this trip in July. It’s simple…whenever I travel, I carry a small notebook along and write a short sketch at the end of each day so that when I get home I can write a somewhat semi-coherent account of the trip. Secondly, some friends have asked what’s up with the Californian wearing the Texas shirts. I like that burnt orange color, alright? And, I dunno, maybe a bit of irony?)

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!)

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

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)

July 23, 2006

364 photos of South Kavkaz goodness

As always, here is a small sample:

The album is located here.
I actually have a few more I need to upload, and I will get those up soon (You’re probably thinking, “MORE?!”…yes, more)

Now comes the fun part, though…writing the travelogue of our trip around the South Caucasus. I promise that I will try to make it as entertaining as possible.

Also, Crystal and I are convinced that the NYTimes is stalking us. EVERY TIME we go somewhere, an article will appear in the NY Times travel section soon thereafer. Take, for instance, this article on Georgia that recently came out: “Dodging Traffic and Pitfalls in Gourmet Georgia

Trendsetters? Yes we are.

July 16, 2006

I will bring you stories and bleary-eyed photos, like a regular tourist

After 24 hours of non-stop traveling (damn you Heathrow!), I’m finally back from my incredible journey to the Caucasus. I took over 400 photos, so it will take me awhile to get them all sorted, labeled, and uploaded, but I expect that by the end of this week they will be available for your viewing pleasure. In addition, I’ll be posting a day by day account of our travels throughout the South Caucasus so you can read all about our road trip to Tbilisi, broken down car in northern Armenia, interactions with crazy local cab drivers, and more!