Tag Archives: taxi drivers
December 4, 2006

The South Caucasus: Museums / Lake Sevan / Taxicab Confessions: Armenia

Yerevan genocide museum

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.

“America.”

“Your mother, father, and grandparents?!”

“Uh, America.”

“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?

Yerevan genocide museum
The pillar and “Temple of Commemoration”

Mount Ararat
A view of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, sadly located in present day Turkey.

Yerevan genocide museum
Eternal flame

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.

Mashtots statue
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

ice cream sundae in Yerevan
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.

Lake Sevan
Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan
No surf here, either

We were offered fish, lavash, and beer by some hospitable Sevan locals:

Lake 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.”

“I know.”

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.)

pin it button The South Caucasus: Museums / Lake Sevan / Taxicab Confessions: Armenia
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?)

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