Friday, February 25, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 6: Back in Baku

I spent a few more days in Baku working before it was time to move on to Kazakhstan. There were a few noteworthy things:

1. I met an Azeri who was more informed on Russian politics and more passionate about it than just about every Russian I knew. He showed me a clip of Leonid Parfyonov, a famous Russian journalist and a speech he delivered at an awards show about freedom of the press in Russia.

2. I had to get to a meeting and had directions to get there by bus, but, after several experiences getting fantastically lost in Russia on buses, I was nervous to go that way. Instead, I decided to go by metro. On a fixed track, you know where you're going, right? Wrong. It turns out that while the Baku Metro looks a lot like the St. Petersburg Metro, it doesn't run the same way. The biggest example? At a crossing station in St. Petersburg one side goes one way on a line and the other side goes the other way and you must go upstairs/downstairs to get to the other line. In Baku, they alternate trains; train 1 will go to the north and then train 2 will go to the south and so on. I didn't know that and wasn't helped by the complete lack of updated metro maps in the stations and on the trains; I ended up spending about an hour riding back and forth trying to figure it out before I asked somebody who set me straight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 5: Thanksgiving and the Sheki Bazaar

Part of the reason I go on my fall trip is to celebrate Thanksgiving with teachers. For many of them it's their first time not being home with family so I try to bring a little bit of the American holiday with me (cans of pumpkin are easy to pack). Since we were traveling on Thanksgiving, we didn't get a chance to make any of the traditional favorites; we wanted turkey but settled for a bit of Turkish food for Thanksgiving dinner. We then spent the rest of the day at the Sheki bazaar, killing time while we waited for our bus back to Baku in the evening. The bazaar was a lot of fun and was a great taste of the Caucasus. We weren't in cosmopolitan Baku anymore and I think many of the folks there didn't quite know what to do with us (and hadn't quite started charging tourist prices yet!).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 4: Kish

Enjoying our spread after a long day of hiking
The ancient Alban church
the Caucasus!
The timber industry in Kish

Do you remember the Sheki khan that cheekily told the Persian shah, "Come and see"? The ruins of his fortress where he defeated the Persians is on a hill near the neighboring village Kish; it's called "Gelesen Goresen," literally, "Come and See."

We went down to the bazaar and caught a bus (which was loaded to capacity with people on laps) to Kish. We got off at the edge of the city and began hiking in the direction of the fortress, passing a few locals engaged in the micro-logging trade. We hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked and couldn't find it; we came but we did not see. It was a nice day of hiking in the beautiful Caucasus mountains though. The only unpleasant part was dealing with a few soldiers apparently guarding the border to the Russian province of Dagestan! That's how lost we got!

Hungry and tired from our day of hiking, we headed back into town looking for an ancient Alban church. The Albans were a Christian civilization that disappeared followed the invasions of Arabs, Persians, and Turks and this church was supposedly founded in the first century. We found the church and found that our tour guide also ran a sort of informal cafe for visitors. We followed her next door to her house where she stuffed us with all sorts of Azeri foods. Her husband happened to be a taxi driver and took us back to Sheki and then kindly helped us with our arrangements to get back to Baku.

A to the Z to the erbaijan Pt. 3: Khansarai

With some new friends in front of the Khansarai
Scenes depicting the Sheki khan defeating the Persians
The sunset and the exquisite stained glass (for which the region has been famous for for hundreds of years) create some great photos

After arriving and getting situated in Sheki, we went and checked out the walled old city (from around the 17th-18th century). As we hadn't eaten breakfast, we found what seems to be the only cafe in the the old town and had some dolma (ground lamb and rice wrapped in grape leaves with a yogurt sauce; delicious and a favorite of mine) and piti (a Sheki specialty; a sort of lamb and vegetable soup with a large chunk of sheep's fat floating on top; not so delicious).

We then and checked out the Khansarai (Palce of the Khan). This part of the country has always swung back and forth from foreign domination and independence. Part of what I love about the Caucasus is the independent nature of the people. This tiny part of Azerbaijan stood up to the Persian Shah in the 17th century and refused to be subjugated. One enraged Shah sent a message to a Sheki Khan asking who dared defy the might of the Persians, to which the upstart khan replied: "Come and see." After defeating the Persian invaders he built this stunningly beautiful palace.

We went to tour it and I was having a really tough time communicating with our guide as our Russian left a lot to be desired. After quite a few difficult conversations, it became apparent that he spoke better English than Russian! He showed us around the rooms of the small palace and they were absolutely beautiful, especially the room that was decorated with scenes from the khan's victory over the Persians. If you ever make it to Sheki, Azerbaijan, I highly recommend you check out the Khansarai!