Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ugly Functionality is Eclipsed by Beautiful Nature; Polluted Waters are Eclipsed by Earth that Breathes Fire; Watchful Paranoia is Eclipsed by Unreserved Hospitality



26 March to 9 April, 2013 – Baku, Qusarçay Laza, Naxçivan, Qobustan, Abşeron Peninsula, Quba, Xinaliq, Şǝki - (Azerbaijan)

Azerbaijan is a land of amazing contrasts. We have seen some eye-sore oilfields with hundreds of oil derricks pumping. Then in the days following we were blown away by the amazing scenery found when hiking in the Caucasus Mountains. We have stood next to waters where the oil slicks glisten on the surface and the waste of construction rusts in piles, and then nearby we viewed natural gas vents that breathe through rock and have burnt for decades. We have watched over our shoulders in areas where the officers of the MNS, (Ministry of National Security, formerly the KGB), have either subtly and even blatantly checked up on us. But our enduring memories of Azerbaijan will be the hospitality shown to us repeatedly and unreservedly by strangers and chance encounters.

Before telling the stories, I should relay the “social faux pas” that Jo and I repeatedly did. I happened to encounter a web page about Azeri etiquette that described how the locals do not smile. Well, not to strangers. “They are warm but reserve smiling for friends and family.” OK, we had worked out they were not sour, but it explained the general straight faces. The site continued with “If you smile in public, particularly if you smile at someone you have not been introduced to, they may think you are mentally handicapped.” Hmmm, Jo and I do tend to smile at people... Oops!

We took the train from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

Baku Couchsurfing Feast
Baku Couchsurfing Feast
Our Baku host from couchsurfing, Çavid, and his mum. On our first night, they put on an amazing feast of traditional Azeri dishes. In fact, every meal we had was fantastic, but the food really kept coming this first night.


Baku's Flame Towers
Baku's Flame Towers
Three towers, shaped like flames. And at night, the lights on them make pictures, rotating through Azeri flags fluttering, flames flickering, and patriotic flag bearers waving their flags. They are not projected, but lights on the building generate the images. Up close, though, you can not see the lights at all, and it looks like standard reflective building glass.


The Eternal Flame and the Flame Towers
The Eternal Flame and the Flame Towers
View through the war memorial, Baku.


Baku Town Walls
Baku Town Walls
A section of the walls surrounding the old town of Baku, with the flame towers visible in the background.


Baku Town Walls Panorama
Baku Town Walls Panorama
Looking to Baku old town, from the İçari Şahǝr metro station.


We were a little concerned about the possible weather, and would not have headed up in to the mountains for a few more days at least, but a couchsurfing connection with a German and Azeri couple who were heading up led to us being in Laza earlier. While visibility was not great and light drizzle came our way more than once, it did not stop us from having a great time as a group, clambering up to snow-lined waterfalls, taking in mountain air, and talking all sorts of stuff, both deep and meaningful as well as light-hearted.

Five Couchsurfers in the Fog
Five Couchsurfers in the Fog
Arriving at Laza (Qusarçay Laza) in the fog. We got dropped a few kilometres away, and walked the rest of the way. That afternoon, we never got to see more than a few dozen metres. Us, Çavid, Andrej, and Vusala. All connected because of couchsurfing.


Cosy Bungalow in Laza
Cosy Bungalow in Laza
The five of us bunked down on the floor of this bungalow, fire roaring, super thick walls, and loads of covers. It truly was a cosy night considering the sub-zero temperatures outside.


The Washing Got Snowed On
The Washing Got Snowed On
Waking up in Laza, it was obviously cold overnight. Visibility had improved, though. We did not know that rocky formation was there when we went to sleep the night before. Between you and me, though, I would not have put the washing out given the prevailing weather, and I would have assumed locals would be better at picking that than I.


Frozen Spider Web
Frozen Spider Web
Condensation on the web has frozen during the night. The web strings across the rusting frame of a wrecked and abandoned car.


On our way back to Quba, we had our first KGB encounter. I know they are not called the KGB any more, but even the locals still refer to them as such. Not too subtly, he drove past our little group as we walked, stopping by the road a few hundred metres ahead. And then he was talking on his phone as we walked past. This was repeated three times. And minutes after he drove off, a pair of uniformed police stopped us, just to be polite and make light conversation. Strangely coincidental.

Curiosity, more than anything else, led us to booking flights to go and visit Naxçivan. An exclave of Azerbaijan, isolated by a segment of Armenia. This is troublesome for Naxçivan as Armenia and Azerbaijan do not really get on. As far as many are concerned, they still are effectively at war. This is because that segment of Armenia used to be Azerbaijan until the Soviet Union redefined areas. Also, because of the actual war in the 1990's over the Nagorno Karabakh region, which finished with a cease-fire but no real conclusion or result and the territory has been occupied by Armenian forces ever since. So, the only practical way they are connected to the rest of the country is by air. They could overland, in theory, through Iran, but things are not always easy for that route, either.

We deemed 9:00 a.m. not too bad a time for a flight to Naxçivan, determining that 8:00 would be an ideal check-in time to aim for. Get up at 6:00, be on our way by 6:30, that should allow us enough time with public transport. Coming out of the metro for our connecting bus at about 7:00 was when an alarming fact became apparent. All the clocks we could see were saying 8:00, and we discovered daylight saving (summer time) had begun. We had lost an hour! And we were still a long way from the airport. As we flew down the road in a taxi, I tried not to think about the clause I had read on the tickets saying “check-in closes 40 minutes prior to flight time”. At 8:25, we ran up to the counter, received our boarding passes, and two minutes later stood on a shuttle bus from the terminal to the parked aircraft.

Arriving in Naxçivan we found an extraordinarily neat and orderly city, with wide and clean avenues and tidy parks, all with a strange emptiness. This exuded a feeling that something is not quite right, but the sort of thing you cannot put your finger on. For the two days we were there, we often had the feeling of being watched. We know, for instance, that sometimes we were being checked up on. A KGB agent politely asked us some questions as we hopped in to a taxi, and noted them down, including the taxi details. I know that not all those solo men looking suspicious in the parks on mobile phones were following us, but we are certain that at least one or two were.

For sure, though, the visit to Naxçivan was interesting, and thankfully not just because of the paranoia.

Möminǝ Xatun
Möminǝ Xatun
The iconic tower of Naxçivan, viewed through the beautiful stained windows of a nearby palace museum.


Ancient Grave Marker
Ancient Grave Marker
Rams appear to have often been used in this region as grave markers. Most have suffered terribly due to centuries of weathering, but this one, in great condition, retains very clear carvings.


Noah's Grave
Noah's Grave
Only in the last few years have some local archaeologists discovered a grave at this site. They claim to have ascertained that it is the final resting place of Noah. The monument is new, but we were disappointed to find that there was nothing to see inside. Single visitors will be pleased to know that you do not have to be in pairs to go inside...


View From Our Naxçivan Hotel
View From Our Naxçivan Hotel
Looking southeast, past the airport, to İlandağ, some 30 km away. The snow capped mountains in the distance are the Lesser Caucasus Mountains.


There Was No Dial Tone
There Was No Dial Tone
I was not expecting a dial tone, but locals thought it humorous that I picked up the hand piece and listened. I assume that rotary dial telephones are defunct in most places in 2013.


Çay
Çay
Azerbaijan's national drink. I cannot believe how many glasses we consume every day. I have not taken to the local method of drinking, by placing either a sugar cube or hard confectionery in one's mouth and drinking the tea through that.


Shoe Repair
Shoe Repair
Jo's boots were in a state. But we knew expert attention was required when the both soles came loose and began flapping when she walked. This man was just the expert required, and we hope they will now last the rest of the trip. On the other hand, we consider it a miracle every time that mine make it through another day.


How do you find a pocket knife you thought you had lost? Check in for a flight! Let the x-ray machine find it. Sure, you get the red face and have to tackle a “please explain” look from a security person with whom you share no common language. But you do find your pocket knife.

I don't know if or how this has anything to do with the situation in Naxçivan, but the flights, both ways, had many children and babies. At least one or two for every set of three seats. Children sat on adult laps or shared seats, as on buses, and babies were held everywhere. For the duration of the whole flight, there was a symphony of crying and wailing. Another thing, and while we have seen this many times before, but not to the same extent, people all through the plane talked on mobile phones and texted, during taxiing, take-off, and landing. And award for keenness to get ready for disembarkation goes to the man who got out of his seat and took his bags from the overhead locker, while the plane was still slowing down on the runway!

Back in Azerbaijan proper, (yes, amazingly, we did make it back in one piece), we spent a couple of days visiting some very interesting places close to Baku.

Scaling the Rocky Hills at Qobustan
Scaling the Rocky Hills at Qobustan
Çavid and me.


Petroglyphs – Qobustan
Petroglyphs – Qobustan

Jo and Çavid Survey the Expanse Below
Jo and Çavid Survey the Expanse Below
Yes, we were starting to look for a way back down!


Checking How Good the Mud is for One's Skin
Checking How Good the Mud is for One's Skin
Çavid and Jo did not hold back with the mud bubbling out of the little volcano-like mound. Note the bubble about to pop behind Çavid.


Mud Emulating Lava
Mud Emulating Lava
Excess mud bubbles out of the “volcanoes” and runs like lava flows down the mounds.


Close Observation
Close Observation
Jo and Çavid entertained by a bubbling pool of mud.


The Earth Breathes Fire
The Earth Breathes Fire
Yanar Dağ, Fire Mountain. In the 1950's, a farmer's discarded cigarette caused the gas seeping out of the ground to ignite. It has been ablaze ever since.


Oil Derricks
Oil Derricks
A not uncommon sight in these parts, especially on the Abşeron Peninsula. Dozens of oil derricks, nicknamed nodding donkeys, pumping “black gold”.


We thought we might consider moving on from Azerbaijan at about this time, but improved weather forecasts encouraged us to revisit the mountains. We are so glad we did. And the great time we had there lifted us from the sobering visit we made en-route.

Massacre Victims
Massacre Victims
The remains of hundreds of people massacred in 1918. Bones, skulls, and teeth; all that remains of the bodies of people slaughtered and buried in two trenches and two wells near the town of Quba. The remains were uncovered relatively recently when building works were begun in the area. This location, however, represents only a small sample of the horror, with figures quoting over 16,000 civilians from over 120 villages massacred in the Quba region.


Testimony to Brutality
Testimony to Brutality
Investigations revealed that the victims of this massacre died predominantly due to blunt force impact. The bodies were then bulldozed into the ground.


On the Way to Xinaliq
On the Way to Xinaliq
We took transport from Quba to Xinaliq. We did not even ask the driver to stop for photos – he knew the right spot to let us have some time to take in the beauty and attempt to capture it. No hope, really. Photos never do justice for places like this.


Looking Down to Xinaliq
Looking Down to Xinaliq
On the afternoon we arrived, we hiked up from Xinaliq to take it all in.


Hiking From Xinaliq
Hiking From Xinaliq
To leave Xinaliq, we just set out down the road to Quba. We passed through the best of the scenery, including expansive views to the mountains, and some pretty gorges with striking rock faces. When we got sick of walking, after 20km or so, we hitched a ride with a Russian couple, back to Quba.


It is Only for Sheep, Yeah-eah
It is Only for Sheep, Yeah-eah
A farmer waved us over as we walked down the road, close to the village of Çek. While we talked with him (well, gestured and pointed, as we had very few words common between us), his sheep just stood behind him, waiting for his next move.


Hospitality in Çek
Hospitality in Çek
To continue the story, that farmer I mentioned in the last picture, he lived in that house behind the sheep. His gestures indicated that he wanted us to join him for tea. And he did say one of those few words that we understood, çay. The family all came in, and the tea flowed, with the usual array of sweets, followed by home-made bread, home-churned butter, home-made cheese, and eggs (I assume from their own chickens). We tried to communicate about a number of things, both ways, some of it being understood, and other things ending in laughter at the realisation that the story was lost. They taught us a few words of their language, as Azeri is not what they speak in this area. We tried, but none of it stuck. Well, it wouldn't be useful anywhere else, in any case. After an hour and a bit, we continued on our way, and they came out, kissed us, and waved goodbye.


Looking Over to Çek
Looking Over to Çek
After a couple of kilometres, the road winds past Çek on the other side of the valley. Our friendly farmers live in the house a little to the right of the village there, with the red roof.


Besides the hospitality mentioned so far, I think I should mention some of the other stand-out incidents; Hopping in a shared taxi, and the other passenger paying for our fares; A group of teenage boys at a cafe who introduced themselves and then paid for our tea; When we were hiking, a passing car stopped and the family gave us fresh bread to enjoy while we continued on our way.

Last stop for Azerbaijan, on the way back to Georgia, with perfect timing for my birthday, was Şǝki.

Skyping Family on my Birthday
Skyping Family on my Birthday
In Şǝki, we took a room in the Karavansaray Hotel, a 250+ year old caravansarai. A perfect place in a pleasant town to have my birthday.


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