Monday, October 31, 2016

October 2016; Two Weeks in Aberbaijan

Awhile back, I traveled in Armenia and Georgia but didn't  take the three-day add-on to Baku.  Later, I read Ralph Peters' Looking for Trouble which included a bit about the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict. Azerbaijan  promptly went on my bucket list.  And now, having spent two weeks there  I am so glad I waited, for three days in Baku would have not shown me much, other than an urban oil rich Islamic city, overlooking the Caspian Sea.  Two weeks gave me a flavor of the regions and nationalities  populating this most diverse country.

This was a two person tour, arranged through a British travel agency, Travel the Unknown.  We had local guides  with a driver in Azerbaijan. And with time to wander about on our own, or not.  We were based in Baku, passing through as we traveled on the Absheron Peninsula, and into Naxcivan  plus  the Northwestern, Northern, and Southern  parts of the country.  Since I had a twelve year   old Lonely Planet guide, we were able to appreciate  recent changes.

I had traveled with my friend at least a dozen time: we both liked to explore various bits of the world's landscape.    Good company, she instructed me in things, computerwise.  If not for her, I never would have had an I-pad.  And would have even less understanding of the internet world.  She is a birder and trekker; I'm more history and people oriented.
Our Azeri guide was a middle aged man, precise in movement and language.  He  taught himself English and been a guide for ten years.  One of the Azeri refugees from Armenia after the difficulty over Nagorno Karabakh, he had spent two years with the Russian army in Siberia.  The Naxcivan guide was a younger man, married with several children.  Both wanted the present regime to continue:  the so-called Aliyev dynasty had brought stability to long conflicted territories.

Baku is a contrast  of old and new, religious and secular..  Lots of shiny, new architecture: some appropriate and some tasteless. in places, a bit Las Vegas.    Three glass sky scrapers molded into the shape of three flames over look the Old Town, related to the Zoroastrian tradition  Baku, the City of Wind and Flame.  We wandered about the waterfront area, a lovely park where families were enjoying a Sunday outing.  Nizami Street was a walking street with a collection  of upscale stores.  Most buildings, old and new, had a Islamic motif.

Most of a day was spent in the Old Town: starting at the glassed flamed buildings and working our way down,   we climbed up the Maiden's Tower, likely a defensive stronghold in early times, and wandered about the Palace of Shirvan Shahs, and the pathways of   old city.  This was the last of the sunny days -  wet and fog the rest of the visit!     On a second try, we got into the Rostropovich Museum, a collection of memorabilia in his childhood home.  I didn't get the feeling they got many visitors. We missed the carpet museum.

Another day and we  moved onto the oil rigs and fire temples of the Abseron Peninsula.  Plus YanarDag, a natural gas outlet,  very unique! So back through Baku and onto the Greater Caucasus., ending up at Sheki., where we spent several nights.  There were stops at a small mountain village, various historical sites dating from 12th-18th Century, including a palace built by one of the early rulers:  glorious glass work.  Wonderful mountain country, though weather limited some planned explorations.

Then  two nights at Ganja, in the Lesser Caucasus, noted for its Mosque, Mausoleum  and the Bottle House,  And an  Archaeological museum, mud volcanoes and petroglyphs - all at Qobustan.

Then back through Baku and on to Quba, the principal northern town  with its sad little zoo.  Here we were invited for tea at a local weavers home, after spending time in a rug factory.   In visiting  a local synagogue - there is an small Jewish population nearby -  we ran into two young,  impolite  Israelis, looking for religious services.  Quite moving was a Memorial - the unrestored skeletons of  Azeri victims from 1918 Armenian activity..

We then flew out for a day in Naxcivan, that bit of Azerbaijan, briefly independent, that is not connected with the mainland but rather,  surrounded by Iran, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Pristine and lovingly restored, there wasn't a trace of trash about.  We were taken to  mosques and mausoleums but most interesting was the collection of musical instruments, ancient and contemporary; the carpet museum,. and the unusual salt caves now used for medicinal purposes. 

The final segment was a trip to Lerik, in the South - high in the mountains, through rain and fog and over bad roads courtesy of rock bearing trucks.  A dark and spooky ride!  It's an  area inhabited by  a long living  Caucasian Talysh ethnic group  We made stops at Shirvan Nattion al  with its affable manager, at Lankaran at a tea plant and then, the prison and lighthouse where Stalin been and then escaped. 

Now back to Baku and flights home.  It was a good trip, The    exchanges with local people  were friendly with no feeling of tension with the extant regime.  While some women were covered, many weren't.  There were several check points but they were seemed quite routine..  Not a lot of tourists, but that's to be expected this time of year.

 Azerjbaijan looks like what it is:  a secularly run Moslem majority country.  With money.  With scenery. At the moment, peaceful.

Accommodations:  From a quite authentic Karavansaray to standard 3-star to resort hotels.  All comfortable and all with wi fi albeit standing outside in the Karavansaray's courtyard for use.

Food:  Various breads, lentil and chicken (with a bony piece of chlcken included) soups, eggs,tomatoes and  cucumber were standard.  Both of us were non red meat eaters so occasional chicken  kabobs and fish,.  A couple of exceptional meals but mostly routine.  One horrible greasy breakfast omlet with equally unappetizing male companions at the Karavansaray forced us to pay for breakfast at a hotel across the way. Estimate:  $250,

Transportation:   Turkish Air, Economy.  Coming over, had several seats together for the long segment:  SF to Istanbul.  No such luck returning.   $775.

Travel the Unknown:  $3200pp plus approximately $150pp tips to driver and guides. 

Cat Care:  $550..

Comment:  You really have to understand this country in relation to the other parts of the Pinochle:  Armenia and Georgia and Russia (and Turkey?)  All have had part  of the action over the years and thus influence the present.