Aug 27 2006

The South Caucasus: From Tbilisi to Baku

by in Azerbaijan, Eastern Europe & the Caucasus, Georgia

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

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

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

Tbilisi mosque

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

Tbilisi Rose Revolution
Advertising the Rose Revolution

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

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

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

Babushka at Narikala fortress in Tbilisi
Babushka

Tbilisi Narikala fortress
At Narikala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Responses to The South Caucasus: From Tbilisi to Baku

  1. From CIncysundevil:

    Great pics and great narrative. I almost feel like I’m there.

    Posted on September 2, 2006 at 7:58 pm #
  2. From JK:

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing:
    The “mosque” in the photo is a bathhouse.
    The flag in front of Parliament is the “flag of Europe,” used by the CoE–to which Georgia belongs.
    That asshole George Bush has been very good to Georgia, and paid about the longest visit he has to any country here.

    Posted on February 5, 2007 at 11:19 am #

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