In the background of this photo is 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. Photo taken during our July 2006 trip to the South Caucasus.
While looking through my files, I noticed that I had a few videos that I never uploaded. While none of these are really entertaining or incredibly mind-blowing, I’m uploading them because I really have nothing else to post at this moment (37 days until North Korea!).
This clip is from July 2006, when Crystal, Laura and I traveled to the South Caucasus to visit some friends who were working in Yerevan. The three of us hired a driver and guide to take us to the Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries in northeast Armenia, about a three hour drive from Yerevan. Unfortunately, the Ford minivan we were riding in broke down shortly before arriving at the first monastery, forcing us to take a village bus, hitch a ride with an Armenian family from Los Angeles, and then enjoy an incredibly delicious meal of khorovats at a sketchy roadside restaurant while our driver and guide figured out what to do. Our driver had somehow managed to enlist the help of one of his friends, and we soon found ourselves speeding through small towns and villages in an old Volga. Unfortunately, I did not capture any footage of our driver swerving to avoid the occasional pig and cow standing in the middle of the road. Just massive potholes in this one. Bonus: Random small fire on the side of the street.
Deposit several scoops of ice cream into a tall glass, garnish with an entire orchard’s worth of fruit and one ice cream cone. Serve with a dash of disinterested Eastern European customer service.
This is the most bizarre sundae I’ve ever seen in my life, and that’s saying something, considering how much ice cream I eat. I love ice cream, and, in particular, that delicious soft serve ice cream that costs less than 25 cents and can be found throughout the former Soviet republics.
Late one evening in Yerevan, after finishing dinner at a decent Chinese restaurant, everyone hopped in their respective SUVs (American diplomats, natch) for a morozhenoe run. We ended up at some outdoor pseudo Middle Eastern cafe that looked as if it had been jacked from a Hollywood movie set and deposited in downtown Yerevan. All that mattered, though, was that they served ice cream and coffee. I opted for a traditional vanilla/chocolate combination, but Andrew decided to be the brave man in the group and order the descriptionless “Sharm-El” sundae. The above photo shows what he ended up with. I’m glad I stuck with my highly unoriginal ice cream order, as a smörgåsbord of fruit only serves to defile the ice cream. Too damn healthy.
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).
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.
In many cities throughout the former USSR, the utility lines (gas, water, etc.) were run above ground rather than buried below. This particular water line was right in front of Liz’s apartment, and surrounded by a large, and constantly growing, pool of water. Check out the awesome “repair” job performed by the local utility workers (or, most likely, a frustrated local). At the very least, the pipe was no longer hemorrhaging water.
Our flight out of Yerevan left a little after 10am. Prior to leaving, we had to pay a “departure fee”, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard of. You guys made me buy two visas and yet I still have to PAY to LEAVE your country? Whatev.
The flight to Heathrow absolutely sucked. It was full of wild diaspora kids (on their way back to LA, I’m guessing) who were running up and down the aisles screaming their heads off and knocking down the flight attendants who were serving everyone their drinks. I had to try very hard to restrain myself from sticking my arm out and clotheslining one of the brats. Hey parents, wanna control your kids? Oh, right, you’re too busy fidgeting with your iPod to notice that little Aram and Stepan are terrorizing your fellow passengers and convincing Lindsay that she will never EVER EVER want kids…EVER!
I had purposely spaced out my Yerevan – London and London – Washington flights (8 hour layover) so I could head into the wonderful city of London and have a few pints at a pub I used to frequent. We went to Churchill Arms in Notting Hill, which has the most amazing Thai food for six quid (yeah, the dishes went up a few pence since I lived there, but I’m not complaining). When I was at LSE, we’d eat or drink at Churchill Arms at last once a week, so I have some very fond memories of that pub. Saalim, a friend of mine from LSE, met up with us. Just like the old times, innit? (Thanks for the Strongbow and Pimm’s, dude, looking forward to seeing you in January.)
I rode the Heathrow Express back to the airport in a semi-inebriated, near catatonic state. I couldn’t believe I had to go back to Washington-effin’-DC, that goddamn hellhole swamp. I missed London’s pubs, outdoor markets, black cabs, red double decker buses, efficient train system, and generally polite population.
Maybe…MAYBE I could just stay here…no, that would be pretty goddamn irresponsible, eh? Anyways, my visa’s long since expired.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, I purchased two bottles of Pimm’s from duty-free, because I needed some gin-based liqueur to blunt the trauma of my imminent departure from London. The flight was two hours late leaving Heathrow, due to the fact that it’s, well, Heathrow, and massive screwups seem to be par for the course at that airport.
Nothing memorable happened on the flight to Dulles, which arrived a bit past midnight. Customs was surprisingly easy. There weren’t any ridiculous questions that the agents at LAX like to ask: “How did you get to all these countries?”
“Uh, by airplane.”
Or, “Armenia? Were you participating in jihad against the United States of America?”
“Uh, Armenia is a Christian nation, but no.”
Got home at 1:30am, 21 hours after leaving Armenia. Four former Soviet republics down, eleven to go!
THE END…of the most drawn-out vacation description EVER. Took this trip in July and finished writing about it in December…way to go, Lindsay!
Anyways, this post wouldn’t be complete without a big thanks to Liz and Taline for putting us up (and more importantly, putting up with us). Thanks to Brian and Andrew for their brilliant toastmaster skills at our welcome dinner…and for ensuring that the Russki Standart vodka was constantly flowing.
I’m trying to figure out where to go for my next trip. I was thinking of hitting up London over President’s Day weekend, but might switch that to Berlin because flights are cheap and I’ve never been to Germany. A summer surf trip to Costa Rica might be in the works. Let me know if you want to come along.
Also, I’ll post to this “blog” (I still hate that word) a bit more often, so you guys can stop complaining about how I never update it.
Damn, dudes I’m on a roll. This entry includes two – count ’em, two! – days worth of stuff. This has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that we didn’t do much those past two days in Yerevan!
With only two days left in Yerevan, we were trying to hit as many as the “must see” sites as possible.
Luckily, Yerevan is a rather small city, so the list wasn’t very long. We grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the Armenian Genocide Museum and Monument. Naturally, he was curious as to where we were from. When I answered California, he replied that had family members in (where else?) Los Angeles…Hollywood, of course. From my short time in Yerevan, I am now convinced that 90 percent of LA’s population is Armenian. He then asked me where my family is from.
“Your mother, father, and grandparents?!”
“NO!,” he replied angrily “America is NOT a nation!”
Uh, sorry dude, but some of my ancestors were in the United States before the Revolutionary War. I consider myself to be pretty goddamned American, thankyouverymuch. I didn’t want to use any brain power trying to explain this in Russian, so I just started listing countries that I knew some of my ancestors were from: Ireland, Germany, England, Sweden…typical Euro mutt heritage.
Our driver agreed to wait for us while we looked around the Genocide Museum and Monument. What to say about this museum? Depressing, to say the least, but very educational. I must admit that before visiting Armenia I did not know much about the country’s history, of which the genocide played a large role. You couldn’t help but be moved by reading the multitude of documents on display, or viewing the photos of grinning Turkish troops, proudly displaying their pistols, with the decapitated heads of Armenian men on a platter before them. And the Turks? Well, according to them it wasn’t a genocide. War is a messy business, they say. The Armenians were separatists, backed by the Russians. Sure, some 300,000 Armenians (the number the Turks use – more accurate estimates place the death toll at one million plus) died during the relocation process, but that’s hardly a genocide, right? Denial is official government policy. Those who stray from this policy are ostracized by the media and harassed by Turkish nationalist groups. When a foreign government recognizes the Armenian genocide, the Turkish government behaves like a petulant child and warns of “negative consequences.”
The U.S. government, by the way, does not dare mention the word “genocide.” When the former American ambassador to Armenia mentioned the “g-word” in a speech, he was subsequently recalled to Washington and removed from his position. We wouldn’t want to alienate Turkey, our dear ally, now would we?
The pillar and “Temple of Commemoration”
A view of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, sadly located in present day Turkey.
After the genocide museum, we went to the Matenadaran, a manuscript museum. I know what you’re thinking, “Lindsay, a manuscript museum? How totally boring!” It was actually really cool. If you’re ever in Yerevan, make sure you stop by…and pay the few extra dram for the English-speaking guide. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Statue of Mashtots (inventor of the Armenian alphabet) in front of the Matenadaran manuscripts library
The rest of the day was spent attempting to log into my GMail account from an internet café with a ridiculously shitty internet connection, and lounging around an outdoor café eating the Armenian version of a hamburger (not bad, but it ain’t In-N-Out). We had decent Chinese food for dinner, and afterwards piled into everyone’s SUVs to make a run for some morozhenoye
Andrew ordered the craziest ice cream concoction the world has ever seen. Seriously, WTF is this?
Our last day in the South Caucasus was rather relaxing, as we opted to spend the day at Lake Sevan. As usual, our driver was stopped by police on the way there and forced to pay a bribe. It wouldn’t be a proper post-communist vacation if you weren’t witness to a bit of corruption every day.
No surf here, either
We were offered fish, lavash, and beer by some hospitable Sevan locals:
When leaving, a group of Armenians playing volleyball in ridiculous looking speedos asked us where we were from. When I replied that I was from California, they mentioned that they were from “the OC.” Goddammit, people, don’t call Orange County “the OC”!!!!!!
We arrived back in Yerevan and caught a taxi to the U.S. Embassy, where we had earlier planned to meet up with Liz for happy hour at the Marine house. I told him we wanted to go to the American embassy. He responded by pulling out a map and pointing at the offices of the Peace Corps.
“Uh, no, we want to go to the embassy…at 1 American Avenue. This is the Peace Corps office.”
Then WTF are you showing me this map for?
The usual small talk ensued, Where are you from? I have relatives in LA, blah blah blah. And then….AND THEN…he says “Many Armenians love America, but I do not. I hate America.” At first, I thought that perhaps I just wasn’t translating the Russian correctly. Did this guy really just tell me, an American, that he absolutely hated my country? Yes, he did, as he then proceeded to lecture me on his hatred of our foreign policy.
“You bomb Yugoslavia! You bomb Iraq! Why? WHY?!?!”
I just sat there silently, held hostage to this crazy taxi driver’s rants against my own country. Christ, who do you think I am, Donald Rumsfeld? I vote, my dudes never win, I pay my taxes, and the government does with the money as it pleases. Oh, and by the way, great job your former Soviet masters did invading Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan! But I’m not gonna blame ya, dear taxi driver, for the munitions dropped back then or the protesters crushed by T-72 tanks, because I know how to distinguish the policy of a government from the citizens of that country. My eyes glazed over while he continued his rant, and my silence must have bothered him, because he kept shouting at me, “You do not understand! You do not understand!” I just grinned and shrugged, “Whatever, dude” and we stopped conversing. For those of you familiar with Russian, he kept addressing me as “ty” (informal), which irked me for some reason. Dude, I don’t know you, you better be addressing me as “vy” (formal).
At last, the embassy was in sight. I have never been so happy to see the stars and stripes. He asked me if I worked at the embassy.
“Uhhh…no…my friend does. I, uh, work in America.” I do not live in Washington, D.C., the capital of the country you so hate, and where all the bombing decisions are made.
We stumbled into the embassy, where the security guards proceeded to strip us of everything: passports, cameras, memory cards, batteries, flashlights, Advil. Compared to these guys, the TSA is full of a bunch of amateurs.
The embassy itself is an impressive, albeit architecturally bland structure. Think of a typical D.C. federal building with impeccable landscaping. The complex exudes raw, American power. The entire complex was immaculately clean, with its perfectly aligned concrete sidewalks and freshly cut grass. Even the damn parking lot was perfectly laid out with proper “suburban” asphalt and white lines to separate the gleaming SUVs parked side by side. It was almost hard to believe you were in Armenia at that moment.
We headed over to the Marine House, which, as you might suspect, is a home away from home for the U.S. Marines attached to the embassy. You can drink Corona, eat pizza, listen to American music, and play pool and air hockey with the Marines and diplomats. As much as I enjoy immersing myself in the local culture, it’s nice to take the occasional break and enjoy the familiarity of home. We hung out there for awhile before meeting up with some people at a restaurant called “Beirut.” (“Hey, isn’t Beirut getting bombed right now…ha ha!” Yeah, that not-so-politically correct joke got old quick). Anyways, the food there made me sick, which was convenient, considering we were leaving the next day. After nine days in the South Caucuses, we were finally headed home.
(Next up: We leave Yerevan and venture into London for Strongbow during our layover. And then I am forced to leave London and go back to the United States…well, not really forced, per se, but that whole concept of responsibility rears its ugly head.)
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.
Entrance to the 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.
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.
Great job covering up those pipes, guys
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.
After visiting the mosque, we made a quick stop at a small castle built in the 14th-century.
The castle was closed for “renovations”, but there were some great views of the oil fields below.
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.
Perfect for smores?
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.
No man’s land between Georgia and Armenia. Photography strictly forbidden, what?
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?)
The South Caucasus: Old Town Baku, the polluted Caspian, and conversations with an Azeri carpet salesman
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!)
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.
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?
Advertising the Rose Revolution
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.
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?
Our hotel – the white building with lots of glass
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)