Azerbaijan 4 – The Caspian Sea – 6/2014

January 6, 2017

It was Sunday, June 15 now, and still no sign of the ferry. Sometime late that night or early Monday morning it docked and we woke up to find two Brits and an American who had arrived from Kazakhstan by ferry camping next to us. They were coming from Kabul, Afghanistan and headed for London. All day of the 16th we waited thinking we might load at any moment. Still nothing happened. The 17th, Tuesday, the whole crew left to take a day off, and the clock on our five-day transit visa kept ticking.

We were happy that the ferry crew placed our truck on the upper deck.

Finally, on the morning of the 18th, the complicated loading process began. A collection of rusting derelict equipment and parts lay scattered along the docks. By some stroke of luck, we were the first on board. A huge hydraulic lift raised us up to the upper deck where we were directed to park along the rail. The heat was sweltering but there was an occasional breeze. We sat behind our truck looking for shade and watching the show. Several of the huge semi-tractor trailers were raised and parked behind us, leaving space between them of less than a foot. Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon we finally sailed away from Baku.

At last we were on the ferry and we soon began to meet the friendly Turkish truck drivers. One guy spoke little English. They obviously knew the drill and began setting up their little travel kitchens and preparing dinner. They were most likely Muslim but no one blinked an eye when Monika emerged in shorts. She was undoubtedly the only female on board.

The long line of 18-wheelers slowly lumbered towards the loading ramp.

Arriving at the Turkmenistan port of Turkmenbashi it was 7:00 am and a strong wind was blowing. The tugboat that ushered us in was much smaller than what the captain had requested and was unable to be of much help in the wind. After several failed attempts to get close enough to the dock to tie off, we ended up motoring back out to sea where we spent the rest of the day and that night 5 miles offshore. We tried to imagine we were on a luxury cruise across the Caspian Sea. That’s stretching the imagination.

The Turkish truck drivers on the ferry were a friendly bunch.

Late in the afternoon, a strange thing happened. You may know that there are ongoing territorial and ethnic tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia called the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. In any case, the second machinist, pretty drunk, decided he didn’t like the map on the side of our truck. It showed our intended route through the small country of Azerbaijan and the tape covered up the name but not Armenia (which we did not visit). In a fit of patriotic violence, he pulled out his knife and attempted to scrape off Armenia on the map. Our Turkish truck driver friends grabbed him about the time I was going to. Probably a good idea since it might’ve ended in a conflict much more violent. I think they were about to throw him overboard when the captain was alerted and the offending crew member was locked in a cabin until he calmed down. It took several hours and in his rage, he smashed up everything inside and punched a hole through the window. The captain did not speak English but the chief engineer did. He was very apologetic, invited us for tea and snacks and offered to pay for the damage. We accepted a token one hundred dollars that he would deduct from the crewman’s wage. He wanted to fire him but we requested to refrain. The machinist came twice to apologize profusely to both of us and then one more time with the chief engineer in tow. It was quite embarrassing for him but we hope he got to keep his job. We weren’t very happy about the damage though it could have been worse. I guess I should have use the Louisiana bumper sticker: “Ever wonder about life after death?——Touch my Truck!”

It was 3:45 AM the next morning, Thursday, the 20th. The wind had died down and the larger tugboat arrived, enabling us to finally dock. Unloading went quickly for us since we were first and by far the most maneuverable. We barely had time to say farewells to our fellow passengers. We were directed to the Customs building where we spent the next 4 hours and 20 minutes going from office to office and window to window, 14 of them if I recall. Each office was in charge of something, we knew not always what for, but most of them had a small fee we had to pay before they put a rubber stamp and signature on our entry permit. Interestingly, they only accepted US dollars. The only thorough inspection was of our first aid kit. One of the few English speaking officials had luckily forewarned us that major painkillers will be taken away, so Monika hid them quickly in a place where the very efficient female officer would never even look. Finally, we were driving in Turkmenistan. 

Azerbaijan 3 – 6/2014

December 30, 2016

It was Saturday, June 14. No sign of the ferry which reportedly takes about 14 hours from Baku across the Caspian Sea to the port of Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and reportedly another four hours to get through customs. Our five-day transit visa through Turkmenistan would begin on Monday, June 16. It wasn’t looking good. Well, you know what they say about making lemonade from lemons. With our truck safely parked in the guarded customs compound, we walked out and caught the bus into town.

The curiosity of this little girl caught our attention and we caught hers.

Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, situated on the southern tip of the Abşeron Peninsula overlooking the Bay of Baku, along the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It lies on an ancient trade route, (part of The Silk Road), from the Central Asian steppe towards Europe, being the main port that received trade from the east. Heading westwards from Baku, merchandise would either be transported north through the Caucasus Mountains and thus to the north of the Black Sea or would travel due east, into Turkey towards Istanbul.

Historically, Baku is a city founded upon oil. For its inexhaustible fountains of naphtha, it owes its very existence, its maintenance and its prosperity. The immense output in crude petroleum from this single city far surpasses that in any other district where oil is found. By the beginning of the 20th century almost half of world production was being extracted in Baku.

There are reports of oil being sourced from open wells around Baku as early as the Middle Ages and evidence of petroleum being used in trade as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries. Information on the production of oil on the Abşeron Peninsula can be found in the manuscripts of most Arabic and Persian authors. There is even a passage in the Scriptures: “—the rock poured me out rivers of oil.”

The main plaza in Baku had some interesting art on display.

The following paragraph from the accounts of the famous traveler Marco Polo is believed to be a reference to Baku oil: ‘Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil, and in all the neighborhood no other oil is burnt but this.”

One observer wrote: “Oil is in the air one breathes, in one’s nostrils, in one’s eyes, in the water of the morning bath, (though not in the drinking water, for that is brought in bottles from distant mineral springs), in one’s starched linen – everywhere. This is the impression one carries away from Baku, and it is certainly true in the environs.”

Needless to say, Baku has been an important and multicultural hub in the Caucasus region throughout history, and it’s actually quite a nice city. On the skyline the beautiful Flame Towers are the tallest skyscrapers in Baku at 190 m, (623 ft.). They are dramatic anytime of day, but especially at night when they look like huge flames or multicolored rainbows leaping into the sky. We took time to wander the streets of the old inner-city which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular interest was the fortress-like walls which may have guarded the old caravanserai, a stopping point along the Silk Road.

British automaker Manganese Bronze Holdings painted its normally black taxis violet at the behest of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijan plans to have 3,000 London-style cabs on the streets by next year.

Aside from the Flame Towers, the most notable landmark is The Maiden Tower, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is recognized as the symbol of the city. It has a mystique and hoary history that are linked to two periods, though none conclusively established. The story we liked the best was the legendary tale of the king willing to force his daughter to marry a man she didn’t love. She escaped by asking her father to first build a tower for her, and when it was finished, she committed suicide by jumping from the top.

Another version holds that the king on his return from his war campaign found that his wife had given birth to a daughter instead of a son. He became furious and ordered the killing of his baby daughter. However, the baby’s nanny took her away to a secret place where she grew up to a beautiful lady. At age seventeen she got engaged to a lover. At this juncture, the king chanced to see her, wanted to marry her and therefore took her away and kept her in the Maiden Tower. The girl’s lover was furious with this turn of events and he managed to kill the king. (Don’t you loved these legends?) He then ran to the Maiden Tower to rescue his lover. However, when the girl heard the sound of footsteps approaching towards the tower, she thought it was the king coming to get her and she immediately committed suicide by jumping down from the tower. These things never have a happy ending.

The streets of the old inner-city were lined with antique stores that tempted us, but the decisive question is always; “How are you going to get it back, and when you do, where are you going to put it in your house that is already full with travel treasures?” There were enough beautiful plazas and little coffee shops to keep my mind off buying stuff we didn’t need.

 

Azerbaijan 2 – 6/2014

December 22, 2016

The clock was ticking again as we arrived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and the port where the infamous ferry departs for Turkmenbashi, across the Caspian Sea to the country of Turkmenistan. We had gotten a letter instead of a visa in Istanbul. With this letter we were to go to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Baku. We had a vague idea of about where this embassy was supposed to be, but no one really seemed to know for sure. After finding a safe parking place on one of the main streets near the alleged location, we spent an hour wandering through alleys before finally finding the correct address. No sign, no flags, just an address, and of course it was closed for lunch. We waited along with others at the back entrance.

By sheer chance, we struck up a conversation with Intigam Ismayilov (Volcano Travel, i.ismayilov@volcanotravel.az), a gentleman who seemed to know his way around visas. He was able to speak to the guard and get us into the waiting room where we waited, and waited. Finally, with his help, we were able to get into the office of the person in charge of visas. Inspecting our letter, he made several long phone calls and we finally got our five-day Transit Visa that we had requested.

We found safe parking near the Europa Hotel that was in the general vicinity of the address we had for the Turkmenistan Embassy.

According to the ferry schedule, (joke), it was to leave the following day. Not a lot of time for sightseeing. We rushed to the port area and after a couple of U-turns, we found the terminal, and then the other terminal where the Row-Row ferry docks. Of course, it had not arrived yet, and no one seemed to know where it was.

We had heard all the funny stories about this ferry, that it was a rust bucket and always late. Some wondered why it hadn’t sunk already. After entering the gated compound, we were told where to park and we found the Customs Office. It was closed. We were a bit concerned that the ferry had not arrived yet. We knew that once it departed it would take about 14 hours to get to Turkmenistan. We gauged our five-day transit visa on the probability, (joke), that the ferry would leave on time. The distance on miserable roads from the entry point at Turkmenbashi via Ashgabat to the border of Uzbekistan was 733 miles. At a reported speed of 35 mph due to road conditions, five days sounded possible with a stop at the “Door to Hell”. “Good Luck”!!

Azerbaijan 1 – 6/2014

December 16, 2016

“AZERBAIJAN BORDER—GOOD LUCK” read the sign as we rolled slowly towards the big entry gate. The name Azerbaijan has a magical mystery sound to it. We’re familiar with country names like Italy, Spain, Turkey, even Georgia, the country we were just leaving. They all sound familiar, but Azerbaijan? Where is it? Situated at the crossroads of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe, it is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south, in a geographical region called “Transcaucasia” or “South Caucasus”.

Kids always loved pins and we had a good supply of Simple Green lapel pins with the Simple Green mascot, a green alligator, holding an American flag.

Kids always loved pins and we had a good supply of Simple Green lapel pins with the Simple Green mascot, a green alligator, holding an American flag.

After numerous earlier attempts, the country declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union on Aug. 30, 1991. Today it is a member state of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the NATO Partnership for Peace. Its president, Ilham Aliyev, has served since taking over from his popular father in 2003. While the majority of the population is Shiite Muslim, the Constitution of Azerbaijan does not declare an official religion and all major political forces in the country are secularist, which, among other things, gives Azerbaijan the right to be free from religious ruling and teaching, an interesting freedom for a country with over 99% literacy.

We had actually hoped to visit the country of Armenia before that, but were advised that it might be difficult to enter Azerbaijan with an Armenian stamp in our passport due to an ongoing land dispute between the two countries.

azerbaijan-blog-07Entering Azerbaijan was relatively straightforward. It felt like most of the insane drivers were left at the Georgian border. Traffic was light and often included cows, pigs, sheep, horses and pedestrians. Houses were what we might have expected from a Third World Ex-Soviet satellite. Homes were simple brick-and-mortar. Those near the main highway all had natural gas, and as we had seen in Georgia, all the gas lines run above ground in front of the homes.

It was late afternoon and we hadn’t found any great places to stop for the night. A dirt road ran off into farmlands and after a quarter of a mile we saw a dirt driveway going to a brick home. Just as we came to it a Lada Niva was exiting, so we flagged it down and asked the driver if he would mind if we parked just off the main dirt road. As if we had been in Russia again, with their overwhelming hospitality, he smiled and motioned that we should park up by his house. We did, and soon we were inside meeting his family, drinking tea and being invited for dinner, which eventually turned into an interesting party with at least one bottle of vodka being passed around. (Remember, this is a Moslem country.)

azerbaijan-blog-32Our host was very proud of his relatively new home. We did notice, with a smile, the standard Soviet-style washbasin outside, controlled with a push-up valve in the bottom of the water tank. It’s actually quite an ingenious system. His wife was a wonderful lady with a warm smile who never blinked when he said “Honey, we have company for dinner.” Unfortunately, she did not join us at the table (which is most likely their custom), but Monika quickly made friends with her and the children. We came supplied with an assortment of balloons and little pins from Simple Green with an alligator, (their mascot), and an American flag. Kids in all these countries love pins and balloons.

We knew we would find people like them throughout Azerbaijan, but unfortunately we were forced into a march route to the capital, Baku, and the port where we hoped to catch an unreliable ferry across the Caspian Sea. Taking the ferry would eliminate the problems of driving around the Caspian through Iran, which necessitates among other things, a Carnet du Passage (basically a passport for your car which requires a large amount of cash deposit) for the vehicle.

Back on the highway, we followed a fertile valley along the Kura River that drains into the Caspian Sea. We couldn’t resists stopping at roadside fruit and vegetable stands, not knowing what we might find in Baku. Being mostly mountainous, Azerbaijan has less than 23% of arable land, so they must use it wisely for wheat and animal feed. Like Russia, almost everyone has a vegetable and potato patch.

We had been warned that the ferry was a rust bucket and always late, and we had to allow time to go to the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku to try and get our visa for that country. Like the sign said, “Good Luck”!!

 

 

 

 

Our Hearts Beat The Same, Georgia 10 – 6/2014

December 9, 2016

If you pick up a handful of dirt in Los Angeles or a handful in Istanbul, it’s the same stuff. Part of what makes travel fascinating for us is the people and their lives in the unique countries they live in. But there is something else interesting about these individuals, whether adults or children, regardless of religion or politics. Let me tell you a quick story:

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At our first camp in Georgia, these kids paid us a visit. They were very curious yet polite and rather shy.

It was 1995 and we were sitting in the living room of a Russian friend in the suburbs of Moscow. Marc Podolsky had been on the Russian Camel Trophy team, an international rally that I covered for U.S. magazines. We were talking about our plans to drive across Siberia and the former Soviet Union alone, ocean-to-ocean. There were fears of fuel and food shortages, impassible roads, bandits, and mafia. If there was a road, however bad, we were confident that The Turtle IV could handle it. It was the danger from people we could not control.

In the midst of this conversation about unknown problems and dangers, suddenly Marc’s father-in-law looked at me and put his hand on his wrist. “Feel your pulse”, he said. Marc translated. I did. He then moved his hand to his neck. “Feel your pulse.” he said again, so I did. Then he placed his hand to his heart and spoke quietly, as his eyes met mine, he said, “Our hearts beat the same.” What a powerful statement!

This sheepskin hat would have been perfect for skiing in Park City, the only one on the slopes but Monika didn’t like the sheepy smell.

This sheepskin hat would have been perfect for skiing in Park City, the only one on the slopes but Monika didn’t like the sheepy smell.

Monika and I looked at each other and knew instantly that we could travel across Russia alone and be safe.

What you will notice about the people below from the country of Georgia is that their hearts beat the same as yours and ours.

The people we meet in the poorer Third World countries are worried about their children, their animals, their crops, their friends and relatives, putting food on the table, having a roof over their heads — most of the stuff that everyone in the World thinks about to some degree. If you treat 99.9% of all those people with a smile and respect, it will come back to you tenfold.

Markets, Georgia 9 – 6/2014

December 2, 2016

Years ago when we traveled in Mexico, we used to laugh at people coming south with their motorhomes or campers full of canned food, on the assumption that people in Mexico didn’t have anything to eat. Now, as we travel through some of the most remote countries in the world, some may wonder how do we survive? What’s for dinner?

georgia-market-7-54You may see some interesting answers in the photos below as we traveled through the country of Georgia. There may be twenty ladies selling tomatoes, onions, beets, peppers, cabbage and more than you can imagine. The question is, who has the best? What does the cheese taste like? Can we taste? Of course!! Is it “moo”, (cow) or “baa”, (goat)? Is that meat pig “oink-oink”, or moo? Seriously, the biggest problem of finding food in these countries is limiting our selection to what we can use in the next few days, because little roadside stands are often selling the same as we drive along.

When we’re home in California, people ask how we cook on the road. The answer is, exactly the same as we do here, except often the selection of food is better and fresher that your local supermarket.

 

A few more things, Georgia 8 – 6/2014

November 29, 2016

Our friend Tom Hughey back in California loves to read about our experiences, the people and the interesting places we visit but being a practical kind of guy, he was wondering, about the local infrastructure, so we started photographing items of different nature. Much of Georgia’s economy reminded us of what we had seen in Russia in 1996, so for us, it was not new. Gary already mentioned the above ground gas lines in Sighnaghi (blog Georgia 4). Here is a collection of few other things you might find interesting. 

Unfortunately, our time in Georgia was cut short. China was calling. The exact entry date was set, August 28, 2014, and we still had to travel thousands of miles through five other countries. Someday, we hope to return to Georgia to explore the rest of the country and get to meet more of its friendly people.

Visit to the Numisi Farm, Georgia 7 – 6/2014

November 25, 2016

While visiting the Numisi Winery in Velistsikhe, Misha, the Russian husband of Nunu, invited us to tag along to visit their farm where he wanted to pick up some fresh milk. We learned that the whole Kakheti Valley has hundreds of Artesian wells. There was only one on their land. Unfortunately, the water had a very bitter taste and to our amazement, it was flammable. Only the cows drank it. We walked around admiring the cows and the tractors. A young Azerbaijani family was taking care of the farm. Nunu had whispered into Monika’s ear that they were Moslem “but” that they were very nice and honest. (Remember, Georgia is a Christian nation!) They lived an extremely humble existence. It rather looked like they were camping out. The young mother was preparing dinner on a discarded plow disk while her husband was milking the cows. Both were very gracious and didn’t mind us taking pictures.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

November 24, 2016
Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world. If you have money in the bank, your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the words’s wealthy. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering. If you can read this message you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read it at all.

Aren’t we lucky?

Gary and Monika

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Kakheti Valley, Georgia 6 – 6/2014

November 18, 2016

We had been looking forward to Georgian wines since we had our last sip of Italian Nero d’Avila. To our disappointment, most of the stores in Georgia stocked plenty of beer, vodka and juices, but rarely more than a few wines. Much of the table wine we found in the country was either homemade or produced by wineries and sold in 5-liter plastic containers. It was invariably on the sweet side. This was not Napa Valley, where there is a winery every couple of miles advertising their wine-tasting rooms, tours and picknick facilities. If these exist at all in the Kakheti wine country valley, they are set up for tour buses, not individuals.

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The old wine cellar at the Numisi Winery still had the original amphorae buried in the floor where wine is traditionally aged in Georgia.

At length, we did find two wineries that were very interesting. The Numisi winery in Velistsikhe was located on a dirt side road with no signs outside of any kind. It had an interesting museum of antique wine making equipment. The old winery itself still had the huge amphorae called qvervri buried in the ground where wine was traditionally aged. For $10 each they offered a tour of the museum and a generous sample of their red, rosé and white wines, plus a dangerous chacha brandy, (grappa style), also called “vine vodka” or “grape vodka”, distilled from the seeds and stems. All was accompanied by fresh cheese and bread.

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Nunu, the owner of the Numisi Winery gave us the full tour on a personal level.

We learned that they are apparently known for their Saperavi wine made from an indigenous red grape. Saperavi is Georgia’s most widely planted red wine grape, and is often blended with other grape varieties. The owner, Nunu, a delightful lady herself, gave us the tour and let us peek into the cellar where 10–year old cognac was aging in barrels. Quite content that we had discovered Georgian wine, we camped right in front of the winery that night.

The second winery we visited with the help of the informative Tourist Information Office in Telavi was the Twins Old Cellar Winery. Obviously set up for tour buses, we would have never found it on our own. They had a fabulous museum and exhibits of how their traditional wines were made. Even then, their best dry red they called “The Black One” because of its incredibly dark color, was sold in beautiful ceramic 1-liter bottles, ($25) or a 5-liter plastic jugs, ($35), an unfortunate choice since this type of wine deteriorates quickly once exposed to air.

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These strange looking boards have flint or shale embedded in them. They were used to drag over a plowed field to break up dirt clots. We’ve seen similar version before in Spain and Turkey.

We were fortunate to see the next generation of giant amphorae being prepared and buried in the ground for the unique aging process. Once the special clay amphorae (urns) are fired and aged, they are treated with a lime type cement on the outside and then again heated with fire on the inside. A coat of liquid bees’ wax permanently seals the surface. Buried in the ground, the year’s vintage is sealed and stored for at least one year. These amphorae are cleaned and re-used for generations.

We were told that Russia has banned the importation of Georgian wines, mostly sweet, and wineries are now adapting to more modern vinting processes to produce the dry wines preferred by the European and US markets, but we found few examples that were both good and affordable.

Driving through the Kakheti Valley, we could have been in the Napa, Sonoma or any other valley in California, but clearly, the way to explore the wines of Georgia is with a private guide or by tour bus.