Azerbaijan

Uncovering Azerbaijan

August 10, 2014

“Allahu Akbar” the Imam shouts. It is afternoon prayer and I am standing foot to foot in a long horizontal line at the local mosque in the old Azerbaijani capital of Gabalar. My sandal tan sticks out among pale feet and I bring my right arm over my left in the first standing position of prayer. “What are the Arabic words to the Fatiha again” I ask myself, for some reason all I can think of is the Pali Buddhist chants I had become so accustomed to as a child, “Namo Tassa Bhagavato, Arahato…” “No no no…wrong chant” “Wrong god” I could almost imagine the Imam calling out to me. Focus. I had come to the Mosque to meditate and to be away from the constant bombardment of locals, but oddly enough had arrived minutes before prayer. Now at this time any place in the city would be more secluded than where I was. “OK” here we go……

Bismillahi-r Rahmanir-Rahim Al-hamdu lillahi Rabbilalamin Ar-Rahmanir Rahim Maliki yaumi din…..

Oldest Caravansari in Azerbaijan located on the silk road

Oldest Caravansari in Azerbaijan located on the silk road

After pedaling underneath a large sign that read “Azerbaijan Border Good Luck”, I handed my passport to three or four officials before finally being allowed through. Other than the long line of cars with Azer license plates waiting to enter Georgia, there were no dramatic changes. I had chosen the northern border as the roads were said to be less traveled offering a better glimpse at a remote life style. The towering snow-capped peaks, so frequently found in Georgia had disappeared and now all mountains were barren and dry like those found near the deserts of California. Farmers harvesting crops waved and whistled as I passed, and I dodged groups of cows and sheep heading towards the tall grass of a nearby field. I stopped at a small village town and picked up supplies for dinner. My eating habits are best compared to that of an ant; when I find food I like to carry it back to my tent where I can enjoy it in my own space.

Local Azerbaijan boys selling hazel nuts on the road side

Local Azerbaijan boys selling hazel nuts on the road side

The first thing that I noticed was that everything in the grocery store is expired. The challenge therefore became finding the items that had only expired recently. Dairy products, which are mostly sold over the counter (meaning you cannot personally inspect the expiry dates), can be as much as two months expired, and you really have to be adamant about getting the grocer to dig deep within the refrigerator to find something that has only recently expired. Bottled water, also a strange thing to inspect expiry dates, but very few locals buy water in containers larger than 500ml, yesterday I bought a 5 liter bottle that had expired 6 months ago, at first this didn’t bother me until I found jelly fish like algae growing off of the bottom. As a general rule of thumb, if what you are looking for is kept in a refrigerator it is likely to be expired and its cold environment is keeping it from stinking up the store. Raisins, apricots and nuts will almost all contain worms or other strange like creatures, so like being in England during the middle ages, boiling everything!

Azerbaijanis are into their compote, here is a road side assortment

Azerbaijanis are into their compote, here is a road side assortment

The once quiet northern border road eventually joined with the southern road and all hell broke loose on the tarmac. The road remained the same a two lane highway (one lane in each direction) with very little shoulder, but with the increased number of vehicles, an invisible third lane for passing appeared. Regardless of direction autos would speed pasted slower vehicles into the center of the road pushing the oncoming traffic into the shoulder and sometimes off of the road. There doesn’t seem to be any concern of having a head on collision, and I am often pushed off of the shoulder by an oncoming car. It is an absolutely terrifying experience! I sometimes have to play chicken with the oncoming cars so that they will give me space in my lane. The nicer the vehicle, the faster and more careless the driving. It is almost as if all Azerbaijan drivers are teenagers who have just received their license, they are completely ignorant of the dangers associated with their driving. If that is not enough I often see vehicles that seem to be driverless, only as it gets closer do I see an adolescent, barely able to see over the dashboard, speeding down the road. Police vehicles are ever-present but don’t seem to do much except throw their trash out their windows, and flag passing vehicles with long red poles to cite seat belt violations.

Roadside butcher, this guys sliced this bull up in minutes

Roadside butcher, this guys sliced this bull up in minutes

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Because of the cost and extreme difficulty in getting a tourist visa, locals rarely see foreigners, making their behavior quite annoying. The annoying whistle that I experienced so often in Albania is back, as well as the friendly honk. On a given day I am honked and whistled at least 50 times, almost to the point where I want to wear ear plugs. Just like in Albania if a local whistles at you and you don’t look in their direction they will continue for a while as if there is some sort of important message they are trying to convey. I often tell locals, that I am from Canada to see how the results will vary. If I say I am from Canada, the Azerbaijanis will tell me how much they like American movies, cowboys, Hollywood, “Have you ever seen a movie stars” etc. If I tell them that I am from the States they will tell me how much they dislike the politicians as well as American foreign policies. I guess it is best to say that I am from Canada and talk about how great American movies and movie stars are.

Azerbaijan fruit roll-ups

Azerbaijan fruit roll-ups

Overall the country is very expensive, and the local currency: the Manat has the same value as the Euro. Fruit, vegetables these staples are still rather cheap but bread, pasta, rice and other carbo rich sources are often several manat. A big change from the cheap and plentiful Georgia. A days ration of water can sometimes cost me close to $4, depending on what stores I pass. Some venders try to sell water at a price higher than gasoline! The heat and the road conditions make traveling difficult along with the long distances between cities.

The last 150 km stretch before Baku

The last 150 km stretch before Baku

The real feeling of Azerbaijan, being in central Asia didn’t set in until about 150 km from Baku. All of the sudden the farm country and oak tree forests gave way to a vast and almost inhabitable desert. A dry dusty head wind deterred my path and the minarets looked like large ice cream cones stuck out in the horizon. There is no hidden place to park ones tent out here and I must climb the steppe before being out of view.

Fresh from a water bottle shower, camping under a canopy of invasive species

Fresh from a water bottle shower, camping under a canopy of invasive species

60 km from Baku I pedaled through an unexpected oasis, by oasis I mean a large group of tamarix trees. I was too hot and dry to continue but had little more than 2 manat in my pocket, my dirty and sweaty appearance won me over some tomatoes, bread and a half price deal on a 5 liter bottle of water. I then pushed Gaby through a tumble weed ravine to find a spot of shade to sleep in. Alone and cool at last, I spent the rest of the day resting to the sound of the desert winds rattle the trees.

Azerbaijan, the small bit on land on the left is the infamous Nagorno karabakh region, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, the small bit on land on the left is the infamous Nagorno karabakh region, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan

I have just arrived in Baku, and not sure if the allure of the city is due to it being at the end of a 100 mile desert road. I will be in the city for several days awaiting my Uzbekistan visa, and will post again before I depart for Kazakhstan.

Deportation and Uncertainty in the Azerbaijan capital

August 17, 2014

“Here sign this” the government official said, “It is an official writ of deportation”, “Once you sign you will be deported to Kazakhstan and will be banned from returning to Azerbaijan for 2 years”……

An predawn stroll through Baku's old city

An predawn stroll through Baku’s old city

I am officially being deported from Azerbaijan! Unfortunately, upon entering the country I wasn’t informed of the tourist registration law. (All tourist must register at hotels, guest houses or police stations within three days). Arriving in Baku I quickly learned the unwritten rule from some unlucky tourists who had been fined 300 euros each and had missed their departing ferry to Kazakhstan. According to their story there was no way to avoid a 300 euro fine and it seemed that I was pretty much fucked! The words of the 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta echoed in my head, “It is better to negotiate your fate voluntarily, than to be coerced into service”. I decided to travel to the Regional Migration Department, and see if there was anything I could do to avoid the hefty fine.

Ateshgah, Zoroastrian fire temple, Baku outskirts

Ateshgah, Zoroastrian fire temple, Baku outskirts

A tribute to the everlasting flames that were once worshiped here. In the early 1900's Azerbaijan learned that money could be made from their natural gas source, the true life and flames of the temple never returned

A tribute to the everlasting flames that were once worshiped here. In the early 1900’s Azerbaijan learned that money could be made from their natural gas source, the true spirit and flames of the temple never returned

After an hour of standing in random lines and trying to find an official that spoke English I was directed to a small interrogation room with several military personal. I explained my situation and pleaded that a 300 euro fine would completely ruin my pilgrimage. After talking amongst themselves in Azeri, the official who spoke the best English produced a contract written entirely in Azeri. “Sign this” he said, “It is an official writ of deportation”, “Once you sign you will be deported to Kazakhstan and will be banned for 2 years from returning to Azerbaijan”…..”But no 300 euro fine”.

Downtown mosque

Downtown bazaar hours before opening

Caucasus style mosque

Caucasus style mosque

Baku is a mix between Dubai and Paris, but lacks the fragrance of a historically epic metropolis. Flame shaped skyscrapers, visible from miles away pinpoint downtown. Towering J.W Marriot, Hilton and Ramada hotels provide afternoon shade near the Caspian Sea boardwalk. City water fountains provide evening entertainment by showering streams of water to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky.

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Downtown is composed of designer clothing stores, McDonald’s, KFC and exotic automobile showrooms. It is impossible to find anything not overpriced as even bottles of water marked at 0.5 manat will cost 1. The city is undergoing a rapid change as it has recently been awarded the opportunity to host the Euro Games in 2015. Large landscaped medians adorn colored flower arrangements with EUROGAMES 2015 clearly written in the patriotic colors of the country flag; blue, red and green.

A once underwater coral reef, Qobustan was inhabited thousands of year ago.

A once underwater coral reef, Qobustan was inhabited thousands of year ago.

My first few days moved about and wandered through the daytime heat. It is at night that this city truly comes alive. Clubs, bar and restaurants open their doors as the streets quickly become crowded with a multicultural hodgepodge. Like a Christmas pine taken from the wild to a suburban living room, the old city becomes completely illuminated taking on an ephemeral beauty, broken only by the radiance of dawn.

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How difficult I have found Baku. If I could I would re-name the city Al Sa’Ab taken from the Arabic word MEN Al SA ‘AB meaning “troublesome”. I have found most of the residents in poor moods and the first few days I shuffled between residences looking for a mellow place to lay my head while waiting for my Uzbekistan visa. After my second attempt I gave up on Baku and cycled 60 km south to a primitive man site called “Qobustan”. There I found a secluded rock cave and carrying close to 20 liters of water camped inside for the duration of 3 days. A real retreat, I wandered about the desert, meditated, read and wrote tirelessly in my journal.

I then pedaled back to Baku only to find that my visa was still not processed, however my luck changed as I met a Pakistani man working in the city who invited me to stay at his apartment. We became good friends and he invited me out to dinner with his friends, bought me food for the road and gave me new clothes. Thanks Cay Jay!

Cay Jay Pakistani friend working in Baku

Cay Jay Pakistani friend working in Baku

I met a few British expats who waited in Baku for 13 days each day expecting a Uzbek visa only on the last day to give up and travel through Kazakhstan. Today marks a full week that I have been on the western edge of the Caspian sea and I am disappointed at my situation. Tomorrow I will go to the Kazakhstan embassy and apply for a 30 days visa, if the Uzbekistan visa does not come through by Wednesday I will pedal the length of Kazakhstan (2,700 km of desert) to the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek. I will write again as soon as I know my plans. -Julian

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