Armenia

It was around 18h00 when we finally passed the border. The scenery around us was a large expanses of grassy hills with herds of cow pasturing here and there punctuated by small villages. We had been told that the roads in Armenia were of dismal quality but we were still on decent pavement. The sun was setting and light was transitioning towards orange.

Armenian scenery

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

The first large city we passed through was Gyumri. On both sides of the road were old socialist style apartment blocks, one after the other and nothing else except for some large trees. It was gloomy. Once we had passed Gyumri we started encountering large abandoned industrial complexes, relics of a bygone era of Soviet Armenia. I was aching to visit one but given the hour an my companion unwillingness, I had to let go of that project.

Some more barren scenery of earth, pastures and industrial left overs and we arrived in Yegenadzor, another large city which given the diminishing light, appeared as gloomier than is previous counterparts. Careful not to generalize that impression to the rest of Armenia, we had however came to the conclusion that the country was much much poorer than it’s neighbors. Given the hardships of passing the border and my companion having fell ill the night before, this certainly did not set an uplifting mood. Anyway, we arrived quite late in Dilijan, which even at night, looked a lot more inviting than other cities in the region. After a good meal provided by the guesthouse, she went to sleep while I did some catching up on the writing.

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

At breakfast, we met an Austrian couple traveling within the region. That morning, they wanted to check out the two nearby monasteries, Haghartsin and Goshavank. Thinking it was a great idea, we offered our car in exchange for their companionship. Monasteries are the thing in Georgia in Armenia, they’re on almost every iconic picture of the region and always numerous in whatever region you may be. Though Armenia’s monasteries are slightly different than Georgia’s, we were not exactly thrilled of visiting yet another one but we felt we had to make the effort. The first monastery was nothing really picturesque but to our pleasant surprise, there was a priest in the chapel who decided to gave us blessings during a quick ceremony where we were given grapes and an a printed icon of Jesus Christ. At the second monastery, which offered us a more interesting visit due to having been restored more recently, was a family which according to the most plausible theory we came up with, was baptizing a newcomer to their circle. They had a sheep on leash, which again according to our analysis, would be eaten later on in the day during the ensuing celebrations. We did not stuck around long enough to witness the fate of the animal.

The Haghartsin monastery

So we dropped off our Austrian friends at a nearby lake and hit the road towards Lake Sevan, Armenia’s only sizable body of water and a popular destination for Yerevan’s inhabitants during hot summer days. One mountain pass and a bit of highway later, we had reached it. Not much time was spent there: we drove around, stopped for a grossly overpriced meal at a crappy restaurant and got the hell out. The Lonely Planet guide had made the place sound like a perfect spot for taking an afternoon off, but it was filthy and overcrowded. Every inch of coast was monopolized by a restaurant or bar competing with one another for the loudest sound system. There was so little room that people were forced to bathe in the boat launch.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Again on the road, going around the lake, we were hoping for pretty views of the landscape around but it was just an endless stream of poverty. Having not eaten enough in Sevan, we attempted to get some food at a supermarket but only got out with two bottles of wine to take back home. What we did also get was a good laugh at all the kitschy merchandise the place was selling and the gross incompetency of the staff working there. Our next objective was the Yeghegis valley, seemingly a nice place with plenty of ruins to check out and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon after an amazing drive in spectacular plateaus, mountains and canyons. To our amazement, the roads in Armenia were much better than we had expected. Bumpy, certainly, but at least continuously paved, wide and travelable at a good speed. With less truck traffic than Georgia, we were actually eating kilometers at a greater rate than up north, we the road system was supposedly better. At least this was true for the major roads, which I think were being financed by international aid as every other piece of public infrastructure was crumbling.

Arates Vank monastery

Arates Vank monastery

Scenery in ArmeniaThe Yeghegis valley held many sights but not wanting to be off-roading again with a compact car, we could only reach two of them: a church and a mysterious Jewish cemetery. Having had enough time, it would have been worth settling there for a day of two and explore the place on foot of with bikes. Far from any large agglomeration, the people inhabiting the small villages we passed were quick to give us directions and some even offered us freshly picked fruits. A pleasant departure from the general rudeness we had been exposed to so far. This seems to a rule that is true everywhere: the smaller and more remote the place, the nicer the people are. The original plan had been to spend the night there but with enough daylight to drive for two more hours but not to visit more sights,  we pushed to Yerevan, the capital at which we arrived around 21h00 but not without passing the impressive mount Ararat, towering 5 kilometers over the city.

While having our morning Armenian coffee (a Turkish coffee really), we read the guide and came up with a list of things we each wanted to visit in the city. First a visit of the nearby mosque  (the only one remaining in Yerevan), then, we proceeded to a quick tour of the contemporary art museum and after, we walked across the river to the Ararat Brandy distillery, which I really wanted to check out. Visits were normally by appointment only, but we managed to insert ourselves in an afternoon English tour. I did not know what to expect, it would either be a stupid museum of an actual visit of the installations. Regrettably, it was the former, with no chance of witnessing the actual brandy making process. It sort of reminded me of the Heineken museum in Amsterdam, which my brother really insisted we visit, but which I was certain would be a waste of time and money. The Ararat distillery was not as bad, but I was hoping for a lot more: I really really don’t give a damn about the evolution of the design your bottle, I want to see rows of casks, pipes, fermenters and alembics.

Yerevan's cathedral

Yerevan’s cathedral

Next up was the cathedral and a metro ride (also build soviet style) through the city to check out the Cascade, but not before having coffee in one of the numerous parks in downtown Yerevan. With its circular layout, the core of the city is belted by a large longitudinal park and dotted with other smaller green spaces. It is clean and well maintained and is obviously the focus all the investments as other districts are depressingly poor and run down. For that reason, Yerevan feels very different than the rest of Armenia. High-end restaurants, luxury cars, fashion outlets even we could not afford, it is an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. The cascade, a gigantic staircase decorated with recessed fountains sort of exemplifies the Yerevan reality.

In front of the Cascade. I had no reason to be sad, I had a great time there

At the bottom of the Cascade, making a sad face for no reason

Started in the 90s under Soviet rule, the project was halted for several years and then brought to a state of semi-completion though a donation from a rich Armenian. It’s a spectacular piece of urban architecture and from the bottom, it looks finished. The top part however, still a tangle of rebar and concrete littered with soviet machinery, has not been touched since the 90s. At the top of the stairs sits a run down monument celebrating 50 years of Soviet Armenia which offers a nice view of the city with mount Ararat in the background.

 

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

The day after, we had to get back in Georgia so to celebrate the end of the Armenian portion of the road-trip, we had dinner at a upper-class French-Armenian fusion restaurant. Several glasses of wine, appetizers and entrées costed us no more than your average meal out in Canada. They had truffles on the menu so upon asking if I could try one at a decent price, they offered me a slice of the black and the white variety free of charge. Afterwards, we had a beer at the hostel and that was it, we had to leave early the next morning.

Out on the road around nine, we again passed through Lake Sevan and Dilijan and at noon we found ourselves near the border at a small roadside restaurant, having a meal of kebab, shashlik and salad. Afterwards, we visited the Sanahrin monastery  which was highly recommended in the guide and frankly worth the detour and then reached the border an hour later. There, we still had to go through the mysterious custom broker employees to get our paperwork in order, but overall it was a lot simpler than on the way in. In line with us numerous poor souls trying to navigate Armenia’s border control bureaucratic mess. The weather was hot and so were the tempers. Thankfully, we were in and out quite fast.  On the Georgian side : a quick glance at our passports, a stamp and the friendly border guard wished us « Welcome back to Georgia! »

Armenia was beautiful, intriguing ( I would have loved to explore all this abandoned infrastructure and delve deeper in the country’s Soviet past), but somewhat depressing so we had mixed feelings about our short time there. We found everyone we interacted with unpleasant and the food did nothing to compensate for that. Then again, Armenians are sort of excused. They have suffered many hardships in recent history, have very limited access to resources, an economy in ruins and a limited ability to grow things due to their country being very mountainous and dry. Evidently, we were grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but we both felt like contrary to other countries in the region, there was not much there that would entice us to come back.

The good old days of Soviet Armenia...

The good old days of Soviet Armenia…

 

Georgia, part 1

Freshly arrived in Georgia, a tour guide waiting for another customer at the border arranged for us a cheap cab to Tbilisi, the capital. It was a two hours ride by car that could have taken us three times as much time with the minibus, so it was well worth the meager 35$ or so the taxi was charging us.

Tbilisi old town

Tbilisi old town

Our things dropped at the hostel in Tbilisi, we walked towards the old down to get a coffee and a bit of food and then rode the ropeway up the hill to get a view of the city. Having accustomed ourselves to being lone tourists in Azerbaijan, the crowds up there felt obnoxious and annoying. In spite of heavy trafic and a complete lack of accomodation towards pedestrians, Tbilisi had a very European feel and a lot of potential for a very good time, but we were eager to pick up the car we had reserved for the week and tour around Georgia and Armenia.

Tbilisi at night

Tbilisi at night

Due to some differences on how street addresses are set up in Georgia, it took us a while to find the rental agency. Once we got there, everything went swiftly and in no time, we were on the road. First stop was a cell-phone company, were for 4$ we picked up lots of minutes and 500 MB of data in case something went wrong on the road. Then, we effortlessly got out of Tbilisi onto an highway towards the west. Our objective for the day was Mestia, a town deep in the Caucasus mountaisn, famous for the Svan people and their reputation for having resisted all attempts at conquering them over the centuries. The car was a Toyota Vitz, the North American Echo but for the Japanese market. I quickly noticed that something was off with the interior and through a couple of clues came to the conlusion that the car had had a previous career as a right-hand drive in Japan before being imported in Georgia and have its whole interior switched to the other side, except for a couple of items, like the controls on the steering columns and some other minor accessories.

Sooner than we expected though, the multilane highway transitionned into your two lane regional type of road with a lot of truck trafic and cars overtaking each other in a sometimes downright suicidal fashion. It was becoming dark when we arrived at the foot of the Caucasus, but decided on reaching our goal at no matter what the hour, we pushed on. The road was tortuous but in overall good condition. Worried it would turn to gravel anytime, our fears never materialised and even though it took us three hours to arrive in Mestia, we encountered little difficult surfaces. Happy but tired, we settled for a guest house which was referred to us by the owner of one that we intended to use but was full. We enjoyed a couple drinks at a restaurant on the main plaza and hit the sack to an early rise to do some hiking.

Approaching the Chaaladi glacier

Approaching the Chaaladi glacier

At the foot of the Chaaladi glacier

At the foot of the Chaaladi glacier

The next day, we woke up to impressive mountain scenery, high enough for it to have glaciers and eternal snow. For that matter, a glacier is what we had intended to check out that day so after a nourishing breakfast, we spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon walking the 12 km to the foot of the glacier. For the most part, we were following a dirt road along the river but with a quarter of the way remaining, the trail turned to forest and ended on the rocks. We both never had the chance to see a glacier from up close and there, we got our money’s worth. The return in town was long and tiresome, but well worth the scenery that had been unfolding before our eyes for the day.

Posing with Soviet trucksAn early departure from Mestia got us early at the down the mountains back on the large valley that is the center of Georgia. Our plans for the day were to reach Armenia or at least the border, which was really ambitious. Wanting to see the Black sea, we followed the coast until we ended up getting bogged down in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city and an extermely popular destination with both the Georgians and the Russians. Not having enough days to do all we wanted to, we had to sacrifice a stopover and decided that Batumi was lowest on our priority list. Now inside the city, among its kitschy or downright ugly buildings, crappy restaurants, casinos and seas of Russian vacationers, we for a minute regreted our choice : this would have provided premium people watching opportunities.

Outside of Batumi, we opted for a road that cut straight through the south of Georgia, a mountaineous but certainly spectacular region. All was well and we were making good progress until halfway, where the pavement turned into gravel and dirt. For some time, we had hoped that this would only be a temporary condition but we eventually accepted the fact that the road would remain in this state at least until the next major town, which was actually not that far on the map. However, it still took us a solid five hours to negotiate that part of the way. Too concentrated avoiding pot holes to enjoy the scenery or simply unable to due to heavy rains and thick fog, the driving was intense.

Beware of cows!

Beware of cows!

The car, a Toyota Vitz, the Japanese version of the Toyota Echo, was not meant to handle that kind of punishment and at times I was seriously worried that we would get a flat or scrape at the wrong spot and puncture a line. Fortunately, none of that happened, but this little incursion into 4×4 territory imparted a serious delay on our day’s planning. Fed up, drained and with my girlfriend starting to feel sick, we stopped in Akhaltsikhe, about 100 km short of our goal. While she immediately went to bed, I went out in search of food and came back with the only palatable thing I could find in the whole town : a can of sardines in tomato sauce. I spend the remainder of the evening finishing the post on Azerbaidjan and sipping on Turkish Raki.

Inside a cave in Vardzia

Vardzia cave monasteries

Vardzia cave monasteries

Now close to Armenia, we figured the next day we could afford to visit the famous cave monasteries of Vardzia and actually take our time doing so. An impressive network of caverns and tunnels dug in the mountain, the site is huge and provides both excellent views and ample photographic opportunities. By chance, we encountered the guide whom we had me while getting into Georgia and he gave us a quick rundown on the history of the site, which used to be much much larger and housed as much as 50 000 persons in its heyday. Invasions, earthquake and communism have reduced it to what it is now. With no other option around, we had lunch at the restaurant on the site, which contrary to most establishments set on much visited locations, was affordable and decent.

Windy road leading to Vardzia

Approaching the Armenian border

Approaching the Armenian border

It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the border (set on a beautiful plateau). Leaving Georgia was effortless: passports, car papers, stamps and that was it. I was expecting the process of getting into Armenia to be convoluted, long and expensive and was correct on those accounts. We took our passports and car papers from office to office, payed fees, were forced to hire the service of a customs broker and purchased extra insurance at an exorbitant price but finally after two and a half hours, we were set free in Armenia. A German couple riding old 50cc scooters in the region and whom we had met a couple of hours ago in Vardzia was struggling through process along us: for them it took even more time and they ended up paying many more fees. Another traveler met later on told us that the Armenian border ranked really high in “the pain in the butt to pass border” list.

Azerbaijan – Sheki (Şəki)

All our time in Azerbaijan could have been spent in the capital: not that there was much to do there, but we had a very pleasant time soaking up its weird atmosphere and walking about in its mish mash of soviet architecture, outrageous buildings and modern infrastructure. However, we just had to explore another part of the country, and given our itinerary, we opted for Sheki. It was conveniently located near the border with Georgia and was, according to our research, a charming spot set in the mountains.

Baku's metro is deep

Baku’s metro is deep

KFC Azerbaijan style

KFC Azerbaijan style

Getting to Baku’s main bus station provided to be a bigger challenge than expected, but with a bit of perseverance, copious usage of the Azeri word for bus station (Avtovaĝzal) and the guidance of friendly strangers, we caught a bus towards our next destination at a decent hour in the day. At least this had given us the chance to ride the metro, which was dirt cheap and built after Moscow’s deep underground railways and lavishly decorated (some stations at least).

The scenery on the highway outside Baku

The scenery on the highway outside Baku

I had a bad feeling about the bus: it was not sounding right. Unsurprisingly, it broke down on the side of the highway an hour outside of Baku. The crew got busy filling her back up with coolant, but it soon became clear that they had little idea of what they were doing and that we would be stuck there until a replacement bus came and picked us up. The landscape around was arid and the sun hot. Without air conditioning, the interior of the bus soon became unbearable so everyone gathered outside in the shade. No one was complaining. It seems people, hardened by much more difficult times, were used to things not working the way they should. While all were patiently waiting for another transport, me and my girlfriend were standing under the hot sun watching the interesting and unusual (to us) spectacle that was the Azeri highway. Here is a breakdown in a list form:

  • cows crossing the highway;
  • rusty old Ladas;
  • rusty old Kamaz trucks;
  • rusty old Soviet era machinery;
  • a convoy of Chevrolet Suburban at full speed with flashers on so large that it might very well have been the president’s;
  • cars stopping at regular intervals to check us out, maybe to pick up passengers willing to use them as taxis;
  • a Mercedes breaking down behind us, and a Lada pulling by to tow it away.
Entering the Sheki region

Entering the Sheki region

At some point, maybe two hours later, another bus came and finally we were on our way. During a pit stop, we were offered a beer and some chickpeas by a man about our age  who had appeared to have taken us under his wing. He spoke no English and was very quiet in his ways, but he was kind enough to call his English speaking girlfriend who did give us a quick explanation of how stops worked here in Azerbaijan. When we arrived in Sheki, he lifted us to our hotel in his friend’s Lada and we parted ways. After some drinks at the hotel, we set out for a restaurant in which we had a feast of beer, Piti (lamb fat and vegetables cooked in earthenware and eaten with bread) and other samples of Azerbaijan’s cuisine. The country foodscape was by itself worth the trip: varied, exotic and tasty. Every meal was a source of excitement and discovery.

The next day, we walked around the town, which set in valley and with its little houses and flocks of Ladas, provided several picturesque moments. We checkout the caravanserai and the old fortified palace (which sucked) they had there and ended our tour in the bazaar. We had arrived to late to see it in action, but I still managed to get my jeans, torn during my motorcycle crash, fixed for 3 Canadian dollars; except for hotels, Azerbaijan is cheap. Still wanting for some more exploring, we took a minibus to a town deeper in the valley. According to the guide, it had an old christian church that could be visited. Back in Sheki on a Lada ride, we finished the day with some more walking around and a meal at the same restaurant we had been to the evening before. That night, we sat quietly in the town square enjoying a beer, telling each other how pleasant a time we had had in this country.

Up early to catch a minibus (markshruty) to the border with Georgia, we took the 10 o’clock towards Balakan. The road was bumpy, the scenery a bit desolate and we stopped at regular intervals to pick up and drop off passengers, but we arrived in Balakan at the planned time. A couple of polite taxi drivers inquired if we wanted a ride to the border but we were in no hurry and wanted to eat our last Azeri meal first. One was king enough to arrange that for us and later on, with bellies full, we hoped on his taxi towards Georgia.

Passing borders overland is always an eerie experience. It seems there are no two crossing alike. This one was basically a long corridor stuffed with cameras (which were plentiful in Azerbaijan) that eventually ended on a bridge over the river marking the delimitation between the two countries. Throughout the whole process we we were basically alone.

Conclusion

While waiting for the Azeri authorities to sort out something that had went wrong with my visa stamp at the airport, I had a quick conversation with the lieutenant in charge of the passport control at the border. He spoke good English and asked candidly what my impressions of his country had been. Given the situation, the answer I gave him was a prepackaged mix of compliments towards the people, the food and the scenery. But I meant every thing I said.

Propaganda poster of Heydar Aliev: Azerbaijan's greatest ruler

Propaganda poster of Heydar Aliev: Azerbaijan’s greatest ruler

Azerbaijan was either going to be a huge disappointment or an awesome surprise. It came out to be latter and might very well for me be the highlight of my trip to this part of the world. Azeris may not be smiley people, but they are friendly, caring, a bit weird but endearing; even if you don’t speak Russian (extremely useful in this region), they’ll do their best to interact with you and help you out. Travelling there is a bargain but everything you see is authentic: save for a couple of Russians, which are part of the landscape anyway in that region, you are alone as westerner in a country with a culture of its own, but on which its time withing the Soviet Union has had a lasting influence.

In so many aspects, it reminded me of North Korea.

 

Azerbaijan – Baku (Bakı)

My girlfriend and I wanted to do a bit of traveling this summer. I had for a long time really wanted to visit Central Asia, but given the hassle of getting there and around, we opted for the Caucasus as a destination that was closer and more accessible but did little compromises in terms of exoticism. I had a month to spare while she had only two weeks, so it was going to be short but intense. Our mainstay was to be Georgia and Armenia, with their pristine alpine scenery and millennium old monasteries perched high up in the mountains, but given the proximity of Azerbaijan, we had to drop by for a couple days at least. We both felt like the chance to come in this region again would not come round at least in the foreseeable future so it was our only chance to set foot in this mysterious country.

On the Bulevar in Baku

On the Bulevar in Baku

Getting a visa for Azerbaijan was a complex process which required us to book all hotels in advance, get invitation letters and give a detailed plan of our itinerary. We did not expect much to be honest, but we were both open minded. So after spending my first two weeks of solo traveling in Greece, we had planned to meet in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Having arrived two hours earlier than my girlfriend, I frenetically searched for an electrical outlet to plug my laptop in. According to the brochure the airport,  a state of the art hub through which millions of passengers transited every year, had been awarded four stars by a prestigious airport rating firm. It was empty and somewhat kitschy: every piece of vegetation was made of plastic and there was not electrical outlet to be found. Eventually, I encountered one and spent the hour that was remaining publishing posts about Greece. I had prepared a nice written sign with my girlfriend’s name on it to welcome her among the expected crowd of chauffeurs holding similar signs, but she made it through the customs and baggage claim faster than expected. Obviously happy to see each other on foreign lands, we took a taxi to out hostel, settled down a bit and went for excellent Azeri food at a nearby restaurant and decided to walk for a short while before calling it a night.

That night, we encountered the Bulevar, a seafront park several kilometers long which basically ran the entire coastline of central Baku. There were a few rides, cafés and junk food stands with a handful of Bakuvians walking about. There, it struck us, we were basically alone as foreigners. Save for a couple of Russian faces, we could see no other westerners and it would remain so until we left the country (actually, we crossed path with 4 or 5). We contented ourselves with some beers and headed back to the hotel. Speaking of beers, Azerbaidjan might be an islamic country, decades of Soviet rule has done a stellar job at eliminating most traces of religion from the public sphere. Very few women are veiled, mosques are rare and alcohol is available everywhere and consumed in public without shame. Azeris appeared to be fairly liberal people, at least on the outside and in Baku.

Strolling on the Bulevar

Strolling on the Bulevar

I had envisioned Baku to be a dirtier and less crowded version of Istanbul. I was correct on the population density part, the center, which we spent most of out time felt empty and devoid of life. As to the cleanliness aspect, I was wrong. Central Baku was immaculate, shiny and perfectly landscaped. No thrash to be seen and there were more city employees (lots watering the lawn with hoses) doing maintenance on the park than actual citizens or tourist using it. So the next day, eager to explore the capital, we started our day with a walk in the Bulevar along the sea towards the massive flagpole on the other end of the city. Apparently, that pole was the second tallest in the world. The first position belongs to, you might have guessed it, the North Koreans. On the way there, we passed several rows of exotic trees we suspect the city had imported fully grown from their place of origin, more employees watering the lawn with hoses and finally, we reached the foot of the massive base the flagpole was on.

Baku's flagpole

Baku’s flagpole

Most entrances were fenced off, but some were only guarded by a policeman. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Canada” we replied, thinking he was just being curious. “You go back. Walk, turn right and continue … ” “We can’t climb the base? We’d like to see the flagpole from up close.” “No, go back!” he told us with an irritated voice.

Alright, it appeared that being in close proximity to the national flagpole was not permitted to Canadians. Go figure. Azerbaidjan is basically a dictatorship. It labels itself as being a democratic country, but a quick glance at its short history since it became independent from the Soviet Union reveals quite the opposite. Only two men have held the highest office since things have became sort of stable, a father and his son. A democratic country will not plaster huge billboards displaying its defunct president ( the current one’s father) along patriotic slogan everywhere, it’s called a personality cult and some people in Azerbaijan have been hard at work building one for some time now.

Building oil rigs

Building oil rigs

Then, I spotted the bus line that I remembered could take us to the Baku oil fields. I had wanted to see them even before arriving in Azerbaidjan, but my interest was not quite shared by my companion. I knew there was a mosque  that way so I was quick to convince her that devoting an hour or so taking a bus out of the city to see the fields and the mosque was a great plan. And it was, we managed to get a glimpse of how life was outside of rich and affluent central Baku, we passed hordes of petroleum pumps nodding up and down in huge oil fields and as a bonus, we got a panorama of Caspian ship building company workers busy assembling offshore oil rigs. However, the mosque, named Bibi Heyat, was nothing really amazing. Upon reaching it, we donned out « decent » clothes (me a pair of pants and her a scarf) and entered it only to notice it was not really a place of worship but rather a shrine devoted to one of the daughters of the first imams of Islam.

The Bibi Heyat mosque

The Bibi Heyat mosque

Back in the city, we proceeded to the Alley of the dead, a monument to those killed during a Russian incursion in the 90s and then started walking towards the old town. Central Baku is a spectacular city, with imposing government buildings and huge avenues. There is little publicity and little people walking its streets. In June of that year, Baku had been the host of the 1st European games, something they were immensely proud of. On my flight in the day before,  I had picked up a blatantly propagandist brochure about the games which read that the 1st European Games in Baku would be forever remembered as one of the finest sporting event of recorded history. For the occasion the authorities had built a lot of infrastructure which I think had not been converted for civilian use just yet. Anyway, this seemed to be a plausible explanation for the surprisingly large quantity of brand new but vacant buildings in the city.

Imposing architecture in central Baku

Imposing architecture in central Baku

 

A narrow passage in Baku old town

A narrow passage in Baku old town

The old town was itself inhabited, but had been seriously renovated and restored in the last years so contrary to most old towns around the world, it was orderly and clean. We toured around it, trying to follow the route the Lonely Planet guide was suggesting and eventually, we exited it into the shopping district. After a meal and some beers at tables which appeared to be reserved for westerners (There were “reserved” signs; Azeris were directed to sit elsewhere but we we encouraged to take one) we resumed waking among luxury brand outlets. It seemed that this was the hanging out spot for the rich minority of the country, those that have profited from the oil boom and that were on the nicer side of Azerbaijan’s massive wealth gap. The display of luxury was somewhat outrageous given the living conditions we had witnessed a couple of kilometers away on the outskirts of the city. After a short resupply stop at our hostel, we were back out sipping a local beer facing the massive presidential palace and its parade square. Afterwards, tired, we rent to be in our strangely decorated room with violet wallpaper, brown sheets and creepy paintings for some well deserved rest.

In Baku's shopping district

In Baku’s shopping district

 

Istanbul, Turkey

The Great Agia Sophia

The Great Agia Sophia

With my flight to Azerbaijan leaving from Istanbul, I had to spend a day there. Something I was definetly looking forward to. In 2012, I had had the chance to travel in Turkey and had a blast being in this world-renowned city,. Hence, I knew what I was going into and had a laundry list of things I wanted to do with my short time there:

  1. Visit something I had not had the chance to check last time.
  2. Eat kokoreç
  3. Get a gift at the bazar
  4. Stroll around
  5. Eat baklavas

My bus ride from Thessaloniki having not been the most restful one (long custom stops and coolant replenishment sessions on the side of the highway), I took a nap and proceeded with my day’s objectives with the intention of taking the metro to my departure point and walking back to my hostel. First stop was the cistern in Sultanhamet, the district where the Blue mosque and Agia Sofia are located. Once that had been checked out, I walked to the Bazaar, found a nice set of worry beads to give as a gift. Then outside, a few minutes walk and I spotted a kokoreç restaurant (minced sheep intestines with tomatoes and spices in a bread). Afterwards, around Istikal street, I encountered a baklava shop and had some with tea.

At the end if the day, content with my performance, I enjoyed some beers with the staff and the travelers back at the hostel. The day after, I was up early for my flight, made my way to the airport, and took off at the planned time for Baku, Azerbaijan, where I would begin the second part of my travels and meet my girlfriend.