To, and in and from Gabala – Azerbaijan

Transportation from one place to another continues to offer grist for the story mill.

On 24 October, Pat and I said good bye to Helen as she set off for the airport in the still dark hours of the morning. She’s headed to Tbilisi for a few days before continuing on to Paris. 

A few hours later we left the apartment key in the lock as our landlady had not appeared – as she’d promised she would – to check us out. We walked to the metro and took it – in rush hour – to the bus depot. We’d bought our bus tickets a couple of days previously so just confirmed that our bus to Gabala would load from platform B17. Departure time 1100hrs. 

We sat and waited. We watched for the light to flash up for our bus as it was for other busses a their respective platforms. We took turns scouting around and asking various people. “Yes, yes. Gabala,” with a hand waved at platform B17. 1050. 1055. 1059. Still no bus. We asked again. We were told it would come. 1104. An irate bus driver appears from around a corner, yelling, “Gabala!” at us. He indicates we should follow him. We did…. and around the corner, out of sight of B17 was a decrepit red mini van. He took our tickets and we climbed aboard into the two last seats. But not before we gave him a blast of our own for not being in the right place. The other passengers thought this was all pretty funny and we settled down for a pleasant three hour drive out of the brown dry flatlands, through brown dry hills, into higher treed hills. 

The trees are changing colour with the autumn and when we alight, the temperature has dropped several degrees. 

It’s a short walk to our guesthouse and we are met with a wonderful surprise. We have the entire little house to ourselves. It sits within a grassy walled garden with blooming roses and fruit trees. The pares – which we are given – are delicious. Hens peck around in the lush grass and there are geraniums at the front door. The place is spotless, well equipped, comfortable. The landlord and lady greet us with fresh roses on the table and warm smiles. Later their adult son comes and gives us some info about where we can hike and the nearby ski hill. At the local market we supply ourselves with groceries with which to cook dinner, and a bottle of not bad wine. Pat even finds an English news station – Aljazeera – on the TV. We settle in for a blissful relaxing couple of days in the quiet countryside.

The next day we hike about 8 kms up to the ski hill. There are numerous fancy resort hotels but all are closed. It turns out this place is predominantly frequented by Saudi’s and Russians. We suspect that is where a lot of the funding for the upscale facilities has originated. The resort’s gondola is in four independent sections. The lower two aren’t open but we continue hiking up and discover the top two are operational. We buy tickets and are soon riding to the top of a steep mountain. Snow-making machines sit at about 30 metre intervals. A man tells us that the place gets virtually no natural snow. At the top we enjoy delicious french fries at a very fancy restaurant. It’s brand new, carpeted with upholstered chairs and couches. How it’s going to look when ski boots tramp on the floor and wet ski pants sit on the seats is anyone’s guess but I expect it will age quickly. 

We sent pictures of the lifts and snow making machines to Pat’s sister Dot and my son Fly who both work in the ski industry. We wonder how big the moguls get – the slopes are too steep to groom without winch-cables and there are no anchor points to be seen. No groomers either come to think of it.

We found a really nice restaurant quite close to town and ended up going there twice. Meals haven’t always been marvellous on this trip. In fact some have been frightful. Azerbaijan is offering much improved fare! It is a relief to order dishes without wondering what the grease/oil content will be. Olives grow in Azerbaijan, and olive oil is evident in meal preparation. I’m not sure what was used in Central Asia, but expect much of it would have done better as engine oil than for cooking food.

Today – 27 October we are moving on again.

We were assured buses run from Gabala to Sheki every hour starting at 9am. We decided to catch the 10am bus. We’ve walked the three and a half kms to the bus station and immediately found the Sheki mini bus – its tires seem to be in good condition. The rest, especially the interior, leaves much to be desired. We’ve staked out our seats – such as they are. We’ve gone across the parking lot for tea. When we asked if there was any cake to go with the tea, the smiling man carefully cut up two Mars Bars and arranged the pieces on plates for us. A young boy has arrived at the bus. He has a box and a bag. In the box are three live geese and in the bag there are two. They smell a little and honk a lot. It is now after 11am. The boy, the geese and we continue to wait for the bus to depart.

The bus did finally depart at 1145. There were only four passengers including us – excluding the geese. “How does this bus afford to run?” we wondered. We soon had that question answered. It stoped numerous time along the route and soon filled well past capacity. More people were crammed in the isle than were in the seats. For a time, a two metre roll of rug was added to the isle congestion. By the time we arrived in Sheki most of the other passengers had left. The geese, their boy and we remain. The geese were mostly quiet during the journey but they were beginning to smell a bit.

Baku – Azerbaijan

We have spent four interesting days in the capital of Azerbaijan – Baku. Described by many as a mini Dubai due to numerous fantastical buildings being built, Baku also has plenty of old world charm. There are lovely green parks tucked between and above major traffic arteries, an old city hidden behind high walls, a beautiful wide treed promenade along the shore front,  cafes, restaurants and museums galore. 

We stayed in an older Soviet built apartment. It was a bit crumbly, but spacious. An enormous living room, kitchen with clothes washing machine, two decks – one enclosed, the other open and two bedrooms. After frequently sharing sometimes cramped accommodation, being able to go to bed, get up, read, make coffees etc without fear of disturbing each other was a bonus. The wiring was on the sketchy side, the landing light outside the door was burnt out so we had to fumble for the lock in the dark, the bathroom wasn’t grand, the furniture was pretty worn, there was a power failure on our last day, but we enjoyed properly washing clothes, making our own breakfasts and keeping beer cold in the fridge!

We met up with Alan – our British friend from the boat – for dinner one evening and had an entertaining time. We were encouraged to go to a particular restaurant by one of those funny guys who cajole people into their restaurant. This guy was good at his shtick and in we went. We had a traditional meal, presented by the chef himself and I’m pretty sure the fellow who got us in the place earned some sort of commission based on what we spent because he kept encouraging us to order some of the more pricey options. Even so – dining out in Azerbaijan is quite easy on the pocket.

Baku has several museums but we only made time for one. The carpet museum is built to look like a rolled up carpet. There are huge displays of beautiful carpets, some new, others as old as the 17th century as well as other woven goods. Lots of information to enable us to be aware of some of the scams unscrupulous carpet vendors pull when trying to sell tourists overpriced handmade camel wool carpets that are probably polyester and machine made in China.

Curious about the famous flaming mountains just outside the city, we took a tour to see this natural wonder. Hmm. The flames of yanardag were underwhelming. The history though is interesting. They’ve burned for thousands of years. Zoroastrians flourished in this area, understanding the natural phenomenon of burning rock to be divine. Stalin tried burying the flames so Hitler couldn’t use them as makers for bombing runs on Baku. The flames did not take well to burial and found their way to the surface. We had expected to see a mountain side flaming away but there’s only a small patch of flame in a dusty amphitheater with small museum nearby. All around oil derricks pump oil from just below the surface of the industrial scared ground.  

We also went to a Zoroastrian temple that had been built around some similarly flaming rocks. During the drilling and extraction of oil in the 19th century, the eternal flames ran out and the temple declined. You have to feel badly for those Zoroastrians. The temple has been repaired, flames burn again – helped along by human intervention, and travellers come once more.

Having explored Baku, we were ready to move inland – this time by bus.

Judging from the comments received, several of you thought our train adventures had elements of difficulty. Wait until you hear about our ferry trip from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. 

We arrived in the lovely new port facilities which include a hotel and fancy terminal building at lunch time on 18 October. Less than a year old, the hotel already has cracked marble steps etc. But that’s another story.

We arrived to hear the good news that the ferry we were catching would arrive at about 4pm that day. It needs about 24 hours to unload and reload. This is because of the tight customs controls and that most of the cargo space on the ferry is occupied by large transport trucks. We checked into the port hotel. Our guide, who was hired to remain with us until we were safely through the doors exiting Turkmenistan, left. He had another assignment. 

We whiled away the afternoon hand washing laundry in the sink – getting rid of desert sand and grime – and stringing drying lines in our rooms. 

An early night. The next morning we checked on the proposed departure time. We were told later in the afternoon. Checkout was at noon. We checked out, dawdled over lunch, checked ferry times. We were told to go to the terminal at 6pm. The ferry would depart at 8pm or so.

We whiled away more time then went to the terminal.

Confusing clusters of people were gathered by the gate. Pat went to check on what the cluster  was about and talked to an English tourist, who was safely tucked away behind the rope and near an exit door. His guide told us to come over and he’d help us. This he did and soon we too were on the uncluttered side of the rope. This is clearly what our long-gone guide should have been doing for us.

The English man – Alan, the three of us and a Swiss couple were soon being whisked along through the complex multiple-stops exit immigration process. Thumb prints, eye scans, pictures, close passport inspections, notations made digitally and in a hand written ledger.

Finally into a crisp clean waiting lounge. Here we met a lovely young woman from the UK who had spent the past 24 hours in this lounge because her visa had expired the previous day.

We waited for an hour or so then boarded the ferry. No cabins were available for us as they are all taken by the many truck drivers who travel with their rigs. Fair enough.

We eight tourists – we’d been joined by a young woman from Calgary – settled into seats arranged in groups of three. The arm rests raised so three seats had the potential of creating space for sleeping horizontally. 

By 11pm the ferry had yet to move but we lay down, covered ourselves with sleeping bags or jackets etc and went to sleep. When we woke in the morning – around 7 or so for most of us – we were exactly where we’d been the night before. We’d not moved an inch.

Finally at about 8:30am on 20 Oct, the ferry left on it’s 13 hour crossing of the Caspian Sea.

An uneventful crossing. We passed a couple of other ships and several large oil platforms. The sea was calm. We were given two meals. Not marvellous but somewhat edible. We chatted and visited with our new friends and counted the hours.

We all had a bit too much Turkmenistan cash left over and despite our best efforts we’d not been able to exchange it before leaving the country. No surprise really, Turkmen seem to despise and avoid their country’s currency. I went to the pursers desk and asked the causally dressed woman there if I could exchange 150.00 Turkmen manat. A fellow passenger immediately said she’d take it off my hands for USD 5.00. On the black market 150.00 manat is worth 15.00 USD. At a bank it is worth about 42.00 USD. I said I’d pass. An enormous row broke out with the behind-the-counter woman eliciting the reluctant help of several passengers to loudly discuss the merits of the “Black Bazaar” with me and anyone else who cared to listen. The Black Bazaar is of course her rendition of the Black Market. What amazed us was the volume of this harangue. No one seemed too concerned about advertising the Black Bazaar.

We decided to keep our worthless Turkmen manat just to annoy the hell out of these shysters. 

So if you are planning a trip to Turkmenistan – have we got a deal for you!

Finally at about 8pm we docked at a port about 50 kms south of Baku. We were all looking forward to getting off the damn boat. About three hours later we did. It took three hours for our passports to be returned, for the truck drivers to be processed and for the few other passengers to slowly make their way through immigration. For a good portion of that time, we stood with our packs on in a crush of people all struggling to be first out the doors after the drivers who kept clambering through the throng. Total Asian confusion at it’s best.

Once off the boat – down a gangplank with oddly slanting stairs so it was like climbing down on rungs, not stepping down stairs – and on the other side of immigration, we had to take a bus through the port to where the taxis waited outside. Inconceivably, the bus driver would not stop and when various taxis tried to stop him by driving in front, he tried to run them down. We passengers stared shouting at the bus driver and he finally stopped and we piled off. It was about 11pm.

Our taxi driver had quite a time finding the apartment we are staying in. It is about the oldest apartment building still standing in Baku – built without much finesse in early Soviet times.

But that is part of the next chapter.

Helen is leaving us here in Baku. She’s not as interested in Asia Minor as she was in Central Asia and her family and friends in France are a more compelling attraction. She may join us for our last few days in Istanbul. 

More about Azerbaijan in the next chapter.

Turkmenistan

There’s not too many places I’ve been that I’ve left with a mental promise to never set foot there again. Turkmenistan tops the list.

Our tour there was enjoyable on some levels but there’s an undercurrent of repression and corruption that isn’t even hidden beneath the dusty surface. With over 70% of the country being desert and mostly flat, a little wind creates a whole bunch of dust.

As we crossed the boarder from Uzbekistan, we quickly understood that while Uzbekistan has rolled out the carpet to welcome tourists, Turkmenistan isn’t that excited about the prospect of foreign eyes peeking at their country. Foreign cameras are particularly unpopular. We had to be very careful about where we pointed the lens. For sure there were no pictures allowed at the boarder.

We were ferried across the Uzbekistan side of no man’s land in a nice little van with seats. On the Turkmenistan side, the vans were deplorable filthy rust buckets with benches tied down with loading straps. The guy who accepted payment for our visa tried to short change us, but we were wise to his tricks so made him cough up the rest of our change. 

Our guide Batyr appeared and took over. Soon we were in a nice vehicle driven by a manic. We quickly discovered that this type of driving is normal in Turkmenistan. The only place where there is some degree of caution is on the main highways that are monitored by cameras and gates at intervals. Speeders arrive from one gate to the next too quickly and are pulled over to pay their fines or bribes – whichever. While we were driving on the highways the speed was within normal parameters. On the side roads our drivers drove as fast as possible down the centre and slammed on the brakes for pot holes, cows, camels, oncoming traffic etc. Very uncomfortable.

We spent two nights in Mary – in a Turkmenistan version of a three star hotel. It was disgustingly filthy. The first room Pat and I had reeked of smoke so we were moved to nicer single rooms. Despite the revolting conditions of carpets and bedspreads we caught no bugs. We each had a fabulous view of an enormous mosque across the street and were treated to the call for prayer a couple of times in the evenings and at an ungodly early hour both mornings.

From Mary we took a long day trip out to the ruins of Margosh. For me the highlight was feeding the left overs of our picnic lunches to the resident dogs who were delighted. 

We stayed a night in Ashgabat. It is a showpiece city of gleaming white modern buildings set within treed parks. The roads are wide and pothole free. Crossing them as a pedestrian is nearly impossible as vehicles are not required to stop at crosswalks. The only places we crossed were crosswalks supervised by policemen who stepped out into traffic and stopped it.

Yes I said policemen. That was not a slip up. We saw no police women. However our guide’s mum was a retired military major, so clearly some women get jobs in male dominated fields.

This brings me to what disturbed us most about Turkmenistan.

The systematic subjugation of women.

Have you read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale?” If not maybe you’ve seen the series.

In Turkmenistan, school girls must wear green dresses and wear their hair in two braids. Female university students must wear red dresses and wear their hair in a variety of styles. Both age groups wear the national beaded cap. The dresses for both age groups are full length – to the ground. They are not shapeless. In fact the women’s curves are evident beneath the somewhat clinging fabric. A State mandated dress code that both de-individualizes and sexualizes its educated women. Wow. How is that OK?

Back to gleaming Ashgabat. We went for a walk to a mall in search of an ATM, and crossed a wide section of land where it was obvious an older part of town had been torn down and flattened. Where has that community been moved to? There is no doubt that they have been moved to make way for another grand white edifice. Once at the mall we decided to buy a few snacks but quickly changed our minds. The prices were much more than what we’d pay at home. The next day our guide explained that all imports are priced high to encourage people to buy local lower priced products. 

We did find an ATM. Here’s another remarkable aspect of Turkmenistan. At the ATM our official exchange rate was approximately 3 Turkmen Manat to 1USD. At a hotel desk the day before our guide bought us 200 Turkmen Manat for 20 USD. No one in Turkmenistan wants to receive local currency from tourists and in some cases – such as buying our 100 USD ferry ticket, as tourists we had to pay in USD. There are numerous reasons no doubt but none of them good.

One morning as we were finishing up breakfast, a person slipped into the otherwise empty dining room. Looking anxiously towards the kitchen the person quietly said, “I have five children.” The person then proceeded to remove all the bits of food we’d left. A scrap of stale cake, some stale bread, a couple of pats of butter, a hard boiled egg… this all went into pockets, before the person slipped away. I am deliberately not giving the gender or the city.

I don’t know what sort of internet monitoring goes on once a tourist has left the country but that person is still there and I want to preserve their safety. So why tell you this story? Because I think it is the reality of life for many people who live/survive under this rigid regime. 

In contrast to in hand around Ashgabat, where there is a great deal of irrigation and millions of pine trees planted, the countryside is parched. We saw camels grazing in the sparse scrub. Sometimes we roared past shepherds riding donkeys as they herded sheep, goats or cows in clouds of dust from one grazing area to another. We drove past salt flats stretching to the horizon. At times the road was particularly covered with blown sand. At one point a large plot was clearing the sand, just as plots at home clear snow. We saw a couple of small nerds of wild horses eking out an existence from meagre desert fodder. 

The traders of Silk Road fame crossed this land by camel train. We saw a few reminders that Alexander the Great had come here before that, and other ruins attested to various conquests through the ages. After the wonders of Uzbekistan, and the richness of ancient sites there, the ruins we saw in Turkmenistan were underwhelming.

Our seven days there did produce a couple of highlights.

One was a visit a farm for Akhal-Teke horses. These are a special breed of Turkmen horses known for their speed and beautiful glowing coats. We all had an opportunity to ride but the horses were very frisky and definitely one-person mounts. Pat decided to watch the shenanigans from the safety of the ground. Helen was walked around the ring and I went for a longer ride away from the farm but with the security of a lead rope as the horse did not respond well to my feeble attempts to command it. I eventually did get a few short canters within the ring, but only under the close supervision of two escorts. While the riding wasn’t quite what we’d expected, the horses were fabulous creatures. They pranced around, reared and spun on their hind legs. We enjoyed a show of superb horsemanship by their regular riders and were suitably impressed.

Another highlight was our visit to Yanykala Canyon. I’m not sure why the area is called a canyon. What we saw was heavily eroded white and red chalk cliffs which were once a sea bed. The cliffs rose out of the brown desert scrub land in bands of brilliant striated rock. We camped in three little tents on the flat top of one and enjoyed a desert sunset with our fire cooked kebabs. Despite everything getting thoroughly coated and impregnated with fine sand, it was the best night of the trip. We weren’t too keen on sharing our camping area with poisonous snakes – we saw one – but we coped. We’d spent the previous night sleeping on inadequate lumpy mats on the floor of a home stay so the tents in the desert were a treat. It was warm enough to have the tent doors open so we could watch the stars circle over head until the moon rose and then we admired that from behind the screens. The screens necessary to keep the scorpions and snakes outside!

I’ll send another blog about our departure from Turkmenistan as that is a story in itself.

To Khiva and back to Bukhara

We are now back in Bukhara after a wonderful few days exploring the much restored ancient Silk Road city of Khiva.

Our accommodation was right outside on of the city gates which meant no time wasted in travel to and from the tourist mecca inside the walls. Madrasahs, mosques and bazaars crowned with blue tiled domes and facades crowded the cobbled pedestrian streets. Along every street, within every courtyard and around every corner, craft shops and eager venders clambered for attention. Silk scarves, wool rugs, embroidered clothes, cloths and bags, fur hats, bright woven mats, pottery pots and bronze or copper jugs fluttered in the breeze or sat in enticing stacks. Deals to be made at every turn. We did not act as the ancient Silk Road traders may have done. We bought nothing except coffees and beers and other restaurant fare. But looking was fun none the less.

The old city flocks with tourists from around the world. Many are from Europe. Once again we are reminded of how eagerly Uzbekistan is welcoming us foreign travellers.

We shared our breakfasts at the hotel with a very interesting couple of antiquities experts from the Smithsonian in Washington. They were here assessing the many Khiva museums for a world bank that funds museums to assist them in improving how their collections are interpreted, displayed and protected from degradation. We enjoyed dinner with these two on our last evening and learned a bit about the world of artifacts. 

Our train trip to Khiva from Bukhara was just a regular six hour train trip. We sat in comfortable seats and watched the brown dry landscape rush by. The area around Bukhara has many cotton fields and people were out in the harsh sun harvesting. Further towards Khiva it became desert.

Our train trip back to Bukhara wasn’t quite the same.

Here we go – another train trip story.

We bought 1st class tickets to ensure we didn’t have another uncomfortable experience.

Haha – we got on the train and noticed it was a bit rundown looking and the seats were set up for sleeping four to a cupe. Helen and I each had bottom seats (beds) in one cabin. Pat was supposed to have a bottom seat in the next. She had a top. We all sat in our assigned places and hoped for an empty train.

Not going to happen.

A young woman and an older (but not as old as us) woman shuffled in with Helen and me. I was asked to put my pack under the seat to make way for an enormous suitcase – seeing as my pack was on my seat I declined. The suitcase was lifted to the woman’s top bunk. She didn’t seem inclined or capable to make the climb so I offered her a seat with me. I wasn’t planning to stretch out anyway.

A family of four meanwhile arrived in Pat’s cupe. Pat wasn’t about to climb up top either so she came down to us. We three put our packs up on Pat’s bunk and she sat beside Helen. The young lady climbed up to her bunk. Then the old lady started to whine and carry on indicating that Pat was to go up, I was to go up, Helen was to go up  – to her top bunk so she could make her bed and sleep on my seat. 

“No. You can sit here, but we’re sitting here too,” we mimed.

Oh how she carried on. She even swung her feet up and tried putting them in my lap.

I quickly indicated that would not do. She was to sit up at her end of the bench or get up top.

After some time of much dramatic moaning and begging she decided she really needed to lie down. It was by now about 4pm or so. She had made a previous attempt, wanting Helen to lift her. Helen had not tried anything so foolish. Now her fussing and carrying on brought the little old man conductor. He looked horrified. This woman was very corpulent and short. The bunks have no ladders and are quite high. They are not easy for a fit tall person to get into. This was going to be a mission.

The bed began sagging as she started putting weight on it. I begged Pat and Helen to get out from under as I was sure it would collapse and crush them. After considerable effort, much groaning and some help from the little conductor she made it up. Then we all noticed that the bed was insecure at one end and indeed in imminent danger of folding down to dump its considerable load on the floor at our feet. Helen and the conductor pushed it up while he managed to fix the latch. Good grief. The woman then began an hour’s loud lament – she went on and on without pause until she finally fell asleep and we all got some peace.

We gladly disembarked in Bukhara and wondered if the woman would manage to get down safely to sleep for the remainder of her journey in the lower bunk or if someone else was bordering to take our place.

We are enjoying a relaxed pace back here in Bukhara. Yesterday we went to a 500 year old hammam for women. Every hammamming experience is a little different. At this one we sat to be washed, then lay on the floor to be slathered in ginger then massaged. As usual the rinsing is with buckets of hot water being dumped over us. This hammam’s long history is etched in its intricate brick worked domes and worn marble floor slabs. A domain of women, we sipped tea throughout the cleansing process while the voices of our washers mingled with the sounds of  running water and scrubbing. 

So is hammamming really a verb?

While we enjoyed our early dinner we watched an interesting vignette take place. A black car drove up to the curb. A man hopped out and placed two cauldrons on the sidewalk. He poked at them and then got back in his vehicle and drove away. Pat watched this and then mentioned it to Helen and me. We three all became curious and started looking around. A man with green runners came along, glanced at the cauldrons and kept walking to stop a little distance away to study them surreptitiously. Meanwhile we covertly studied him and took a picture. Then the man ran away only to return a while later with two other men. We took more pictures. The three men stood around, looked around, picked up the cauldrons and carried them away. The end.

We have no idea what that was all about but are pretty sure there are shady deals happening in the hotel where we are staying.

Today we were supposed to ride the Big Red Bus but it was a no show so we went for a walk instead and discovered a very interesting museum about water in Bukhara. There is very little water in this part of the world. The Aral Sea is nearly dry. Several riveters have disappeared. The Soviets are blamed for much of this due to the vast amounts of water needed for their cotton manufacturing. There is however a longer history of water diversion for agricultural and urban needs.

Tomorrow we head to Turkmenistan. We plan on crossing the border at about 8:30. We will spend a week there in the company of a mandatory guide. We have to stay in certain hotels and are only permitted to go to the places listed on our itinerary. Social media is blocked and foreign news is limited in Turkmenistan so we’ll have limited knowledge of what’s happening in the world until we get to Azerbaijan in a week or so. We hope to catch a ferry to Baku on 19 Oct but sometimes people have to wait two or three days for the ferry to go.