The Wizard of Az(erbaijan)

***So sorry for the lack of posts. Internet access kept evading me from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. I hope these next few posts will make up for it!

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Ok, there were no wizards, no yellow brick roads and no red shoes to bring me back to Kansas.

But in Azerbaijan, there was TEA! Ah, tea, how I have missed you since Turkey. If you dont already know, Chinese people love tea and always drink tea, so it was a delight to enter Azerbaijan and sit down at a proper chay evi (tea house).

From Tbilisi I cycled my way along the Caucasus mountains to Baku, Azerbaijan where I would finish the first phase of my journey, West of the Caspian Sea.

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Tbilisi -> Signagi

On a bright sunny Wednesday morning, I bade goodbye to my wonderful Persian friends in Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) and began cycling towards the Caucasus mountains. I was headed for Lagodekhi and the northern border post with Azerbaijan. The road was good and surrounded by many vineyards and quaint churches along the way. In the evening I set up camp in the forest near Signagi — it was quite a nice campspot–away from any villages and a bit jungle-like. I fell asleep in my tent on the mossy ground and listening to all sorts of chirping insects.

P1010111not a bike tourist, but a Georgian with a lot of bottles!

P1010109vineyards and countryside

P1010100 P1010102fruit stands and “Georgian snickers’

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Signagi -> Katex, Azerbaijan

The next morning I rode past some Georgian villages and a game reserve. It was interesting that some people greeted me with ‘Salam’, the standard greeting in Azerbaijan, but I was still in Georgia at that point. The Caucausus Mountains got closer and closer, until they loomed over me as the road followed the base of the mountains. Since it was my last day in Georgia, I bought some fresh khachapuri for lunch. Khachapuri is a Georgian specialty, a savory pastry filled with cheese or meat or both. Very yummy! Although, I bet this would be even tastier if you cycled here in the winter time when you really crave something hot, cheesy, and salty. With the blazing sun for the past few days, I was more in the mood for ice cream. Luckily, there are many local brands of ice cream in Georgia, so ice cream is cheap and you can find it in every village, even the remote ones. And  so, I started the wonderful habit of having ice cream once a day.  Surely, my favorite time of day!

P1010143one last cross before the border

P1010132khachapuri

P1010103fruit rollups, anyone?

I was a little worried about the border crossing into Azerbaijan, since I had visited Armenia. To my surprise, no questions were asked and before long I entered the Land of Azerbaijan.

P1010147

Without giving a long history lesson, Azerbaijan was once part of the Ottoman Empire before it was absorbed by the USSR. Their main language, Azerbaijani, is very similar to Turkish (the languages are discernible) and most of the population also speaks Russian.  So, I found myself speaking Turksian (Turkish – Russian).

P1010152typical town sign with Azeri flag

P1010151 Caucasus mountains!

P1010154 P1010153 interesting architecture

In the evening I rode through Balaken and entered the town called Katex. It was nice to speak Turkish again–I was able to communicate more than in Georgia or Armenia. As I was riding along, a car stopped for me and the guy Gugush invited me for chai then dinner at a nearby restaurant where he had many friends. I have been secretly missing Turkish hospitality so I was really excited to be invited for chai again. The rest of the evening was spent eating and drinking with his friends. Gugush kept ordering food until I really couldnt eat anymore. Ye! Ye! (Eat! Eat!) He kept saying. Eventually Gugush arranged for me to camp at the restaurant, and he left with his friends around midnight. That night there were some crazy lightning storms in the distance.

P1010161 P1010160Gugush invites me to dinner and drinks. camping at the restaurant with nice view and crazy lightning storms!

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Katex -> Seki

P1010162P1010165many pretty statues

P1010166typical Azerbaijani traffic in Zaqatala: cluster****

P1010164P1010172

P1010175some nice ladies in Qax invite me for tea. Tea here is served with Iranian and Russian candy

P1010177P1010178met crazy Russian cycle tourist who looked like he just woke out of bed and went for a bike ride

P1010179Azerbaijan–land of manicured roundabouts

P1010180also land of quaint towns

P1010186and quaint villages

P1010196 P1010191 Seki town, another night of crazy lightning storms (in the distance)

Seki -> Bunut

P1010199P1010201P1010202P1010204hazelnut snickers!

P1010205P1010208World War II memorialP1010211P1010213Azeri decor

P1010214some very cute kids waling on a pipeline

P1010215

P1010216Parvis and his wife hosts me after I asked them if I can camp on their farm

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Bunut -> Muganli

P1010220P1010221

P1010224local cheese from the local butcher

P1010226

P1010227rewarded with nice views after some kick-butt climbs

Muganli -> 80 km before Baku

P1010230more fruitrollups for me from this friendly vendor

P1010233

P1010234village well

P1010236cool streetside carvings of famous anicent scholars

P1010239heydar aliyev, apparently man of current-day Azerbaijan

P1010240

P1010252P1010253village women beating and washing wool in river

P1010259solar in Azerbaijan!

P1010260

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80 km before Baku -> Baku

P1010262Once leaving the mountains towards the sea, the landscape changes dramatically from lush green to pretty dry and boring landscape

P1010264This car of 1 man with 6 women invited me for tea on the roadside. And even gave me water to wash my feet!  They were taking a break from farmwork.The 6 women were really hearty and we shared many laughs together for a good hour in Azeri-Turkish. They didnt want their picture taken though.

P1010265This is what you call a CROSSWIND!

P1010272P1010273Entering Baku, the big city!

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Baku

I arrived a few days earlier in Baku than I expected. I guess I should be more confident about my biking abilities in the future. When I arrived in town, I met my couchsurfing host Gulmira, and she arranged for me to sleep at her friend Alex’s apartment. Alex lived in a nice place in the center of town, so it would be convenient for me to run errands. Also I would get a room with a full size bed all to myself, and even get to use a bathtub–practially like a 5-star hotel. I felt so incredibly lucky.

I had 7 days to get my Turkmenistan visa and find out about the ferry to Turkmenistan. Although 5 days seemed like a lot of time at first, but it turns out that people here dont get things done here like they do in the US or Europe or China. There is a saying in Azerbaijan, ‘Bugun git, sabah gel’ which means ‘Go today, come tomorrow’, which also means that things dont really get done.

First, the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan does not have a timetable. It leaves whenever it fills up with cargo and there are often delays, which is to say, it leaves whenever it feels like it. When I asked the ticket lady how often the ferry leaves, she replied ’50/50′. AFter a few gestures, I interpreted that she meant the ferry leaves every other day. But really, who knows. The ticket office was also in a non-descript building off a dirt road with no sign or anything.

Second was the case with my Turkmenistan visa. Even though I had applied for the visa already in Ankara, and I just had to pick up the visa in Baku, it was not as easy a task as it would seem. I went to the embassy on the Wednesday morning. The officer at the embassy said the embassy was only open on Fridays and Mondays from 9.30am-12pm. ‘Come back Friday’, he says. When Gulmira tried to explain to him (in Azeri) that I was in a hurry to catch the ferry, the officer said ‘Is she a tourist? Why dont you go show her around?’ *sigh* Not believing the officer, I went back again on Thursday morning, and a different officer said the same thing. Finally on Friday I went again, but by 10am, there were already a lot of people in front of me in line. When it was my turn 2 hours later, the consul said ‘Come back Monday. I give you visa.’ I tried to complain, but was shortly hurried away. I was worried because my Turkmen visa dates were set for Wednesday, which means I would have to catch the ferry on Monday, and I would rather not have to deal with the embassy again on Monday. Such is life I guess, and these lessons teach you really how to manage things that are out of your control. Better to enjoy the moment instead of worrying about the things you cannot control!

So I spent the weekend entertaining my hosts and exploring Baku. Baku is a main hub for oil companies and therefore has a lot of expats working for companies like BP. Because of the oil industry, Baku has many fancy buildings (tyring to be like another Dubai), but because of the way things get done in Azerbaijan, Baku doesnt feel quite like other ‘modern’ cities. There is an uncertainty in the identity in Baku–a mix of old and new.

My hosts: Alex is from the UK and works as a contractor for an oil company in Baku. HIs career has brought him throughout North Africa, and he reminisced greatly about his life in Libya. I shared my own wonderful experiences when I biked through Sudan in 2009. I had several meals with his coworkers and got a taste of expat life in Baku, mainly expats working for BP. Gulmira is a local Azerbaijani, an English teacher trying to figure out life as the new generation in Azerbaijan. She actually lived in the US for 5 months several years ago on an internship.

Gulmira and Alex took me to a beautiful traditional Azeri carpet store in the old town and we saw the worlds tallest flagpole.

P1010304 P1010306 P1010300 P1010295 azeri carpets

P1010293 P1010291ancient things in the old city P1010287 P1010289McDonalds

P1010286fried food stand

P1010285 non-descript location of the ticket office for Caspian Sea ferry. uh yeah, its one of those doors.P1010283 fancy building, beatup truck

P1010278 helicopter and fighter jet flyovers for Army day!

P1010276 P1010275

One Thought on “The Wizard of Az(erbaijan)

  1. Peach on June 28, 2013 at 6:22 am said:

    Minwah,
    Your trip continues to look absolutely stunning. I greatly appreciate the lovely postcards I received; they have a special place on my refridgerator (I’ve cleared out all others!), and an even special-er place in my heart.

    Every time I see a panda picture, I just think PANNNDAAAAAAAA. Is this what you think the entire time you are biking? PANNNNNDAAAAAAAAAAA. Maybe you could get a Pandana? You know, a panda-colored covering for you head!

    Were Parvis and his wife superduper in love? For some reason, they look so from your picture of them.

    <3<3<3
    Keep pedalin',
    peachy

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