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.

Greece, the end

In retrospect, Athens was seriously so-so, riding around was obviously awesome, and Thessaloniki, which I only got to spend a full day in, had some serious potential for a good time. A lot cheaper, a lot more relax, a lot more walkable (most of its seafront is a park), it’s worth checking out. Athens is obviously a must see since it’s packed with history, but if you’d like a glimpse of actual Greece, don’t linger there.

 

Thessaloniki's seafront park

Thessaloniki’s seafront park

With the exception of the Meteoras (monasteries), the further I was from the popular routes, the better it was. Not only was it more authentic, but it had a quality that was lacking elsewhere: it was made for the Greeks by the Greeks. Sadly, it feels like most of  coastline has become one large resort catered to eastern Europe and Italy, with the loss of culture, architecture and pollution that comes with it. Greece has much to offer, which explains its popularity with the rest of the world, but it’s tough to enjoy it to the fullest when it’s such a hassle all the time.Tourism is great, but only up to a given concentration, otherwise it becomes a destructive force.

Hot dogs and café, a popular combination

Hot dogs and coffee, a popular combination

The Greeks are great. Their economy is in shambles (which the common person does not have much to do with) but they are friendly, joyful and helpful. Still those abandoned buildings, closed stores and stray dogs (everywhere, some still with collars) were generally a sad sight, but did provide me with a few urban exploring and « feels like a movie » experiences. Food, to my surprise, was a huge disappointment; I was expecting a lot more from a Mediterranean country with the ability to grow such a variety of crops. My diet revolved for the most part around gyros, sandwiches and a salad here and there. Granted, I stayed away from the actual restaurants that could have had a better selection of dishes for me to try, but I maintain that generally what’s available on at a cheap price is a good indication of a culture’s culinary diversity. In Greece, it was mostly gyros and your standard burger and fries.

Otherwise, I’ll keep fond memories of the country. I saw only a handful of ruins and only went to the beach once and for 30 minutes, but man did I see some excellent scenery and rode on the most enjoyable roads of my life. However, I’ve missed the hiking, I’ve missed the food, I’ve missed the diving, I’ve missed the islands, I’ve missed the wine (but not the Ouzo) I’ve missed so many things so Greece, we will see each other again.

Conquering Greece – Outro

ScratchThe next day, I returned the bike at the planned time. I was hoping my little accident of day 1 would go unnoticed, but they found out. I’m an honest person, but the bike was already scratched all over, and I did not really know what their policy was on cosmetic damage. After a phone call to the Honda dealership, they decided to charge me the price of a paint job: 110 Euros. I’m sure they are going to buff the fairing and pocket the money but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. For the safety of the next customer, I did give them a list of all the other (more serious) issue the motorcycle had.

When dealing with the paperwork, the girl paused for a moment, got up and checked the bike, phones someone and had a conversation where the word « kilometros » came up quite often. Lucky for me, they had made a mistake on the contract (and the website) and had given me unlimited distance where normally there would have been a cap. I explained to her that this had been a major selling point for me to which she replied that even if there was an advertised limit, things could always be arranged. What they wanted to avoid, beside extra maintenance, was Germans (and she specified Germans) renting cheap scooters and driving them all over sort of like I did. Cheers to you Germans, abusing scooters all over the world.

An approximation of the total route

An approximation of the total route

So the tally is 2192 kilometers. A big loop around during which I saw a lot of Greece and I tell you, it’s beautiful. This adventure ended up costing me more than expected (what a surprise), but it was worth every euro. I wish I would have brought my camping gear as the landscape was full of opportunities to set up a tent and enjoy the view, but all that extra equipment would have made the remainder of my travels more logistically difficult.

While driving Greece, I learned a few leasons and feel like I improved a lot on my driving skills. The roads were nowhere as difficult as those in Vietnam or Thailand, but I had a much bigger motorcycle and was driving generally much faster because the bike allowed me to (all while keeping a safe margin of error (except that time I crashed (which was almost unavoidable))).

I’ll call this my 4th adventure riding trip and just like the three previous ones, it will be memorable and will be the stuff of stories for years to come. While walking around Thessaloniki that afternoon, I felt a sense of relief not to be riding a motorcycle.

But that’s only going to last a short time before the open road calls again.

Posing