Saturday, May 31, 2008

What do you do when you need pork in Azerbaijan?

Go to the local Georgian restaurant and ask them to order you some.

I wonder if I can get fish shipments from the sushi restaurants....

Friday, May 30, 2008

If You Don't Like Rap Music, Move to Iran

Borders are my nemesis. Just over three years ago, I ended up in a holding cell "trying" to enter Russia without a visa. Just under three years ago, I sat sweating like a waterfall at the Pakistani-Indian border. Last year, I travelled by armed bus convoy at 4am to as close to the Sudanese border as one could ever hope to get.

Borders make me nervous. Entering my own country even gives me the butterflies, let alone a country I don't have a visa for. Not sure why, but I fear the worst. As my luck would have it, the border guard/customs official would be having a terrible day and decide that he didn't like the cut of my jib. Off to deportationville I go....

I approached the border with apprehension. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how stupid I was being. Loitering around border crossings is exactly what got me into trouble the first time. At least we didn't have a Lonely Planet...

Seriously. Who goes to the Iranian border without a visa expecting just to hang out?

Locals kept pointing us down the road. Where was this border? Alas, we turned a corner. A narrow, pedestrian-only walkway greeted us. There were cafes on either side, along with a shop specializing in packaging loose goods together with tape. We stopped to marvel at the pots filled with a fusion of Iranian and Azeri food on display outside one of the cafes.

Well, at least we knew where we were eating on the way back. Provided we weren't thrown in jail.

We approached what was ostensibly the Azeri side of the border. It wasn't much more than an enclosed, open air space with one door leading to Iran. A guard approached us.

Oh, here we go....

He asked us what we were doing and if we had a visa. I said no, but that we just wanted to see. He then asked where we were from. After pondering for about ten seconds, he decided that the answers we gave were good enough to allow us to take a look. "Well, there's nothing to see, but you can go through the door," were is parting words.

Past the first level.

Through the door, we ran into another border guard. He was younger and much more curious. We chatted about this and that. The thought of baksheeshing the guy to let us into Iran for a quick look momentarily crossed my mind.

Ha. No wonder I get into trouble at borders.

It became clear that we weren't getting into Iran on this day. We bid adieu to the guard and went to the cafe for lunch. Safe and sound.

Monday, May 26, 2008


"Wasn't Lankaran the name of the planet that was blown up in Star Wars?" I pondered. Or, no, that was Alderon. Close enough.

Lankaran is that sleepy town that you sometimes read about in books. Nothing really happens, the neighbours all know each other, and anyone with a future leaves for the big city.

The main park was much too big for its own good. A statue celebrating victory over fascism stood at one corner, a museum in the other. We walked amongst the meagre crowd; most of whom were older men talking about days gone by. It was then that Julian suggested he should move here and learn to farm.

I offered that he should work the bread ovens.

We continued to walk. Further on, we came to a bridge. Sheep grazed on the green grass below and we could see the river wind its way up into the hills. On its banks were brick houses found only in Lankaran.

They looked somewhat like the Doukhbour houses in my hometown.

We made our way down to the river's edge. There was a substantial grassy area for the sheep. I watched the frogs lurking on the surface of the water as Julian conversed with some local fisherman. It seemed a popular activity in this "sub-tropical" town.

I doubt there was much else to do.

Later we found the sea. This was no tourist friendly sea. The beach was black and it was really difficult to get to. Perhaps it got better in the summer.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Room

The Sink in the Corner

The Beds

The Bathroom

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Train

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Accommodation Idea

Dilapidated Soviet-era buses heading to and returning from the most inaccessible of mountain towns pulled in and out of the bus stand. A perpetual smog shrouded the area. How anyone could last more than twenty years in this environment, I will never know. Horns blared, people clambered. Was I in Azerbaijan?

It was the first time since India that I had seen such a blatant disregard for a bus stand. It was packed with buses, all old, and it hosted multiple tea stands, a barber shop, and a mobile phone store. The pace, albeit slower than India, was scintillating. There was life in this city.

The main bazaar street was crawling with vendors selling everything from door handles to ostensibly fresh fish. Old ladies offering fresh vegetables discussed the news of the day in the market. Who had conned who into buying rotten eggplants and so on. Silver fish sparkled as the merchant sprinkled water on them. They looked particularly catastrophic to the stomach, not to mention the nose.

One cop was tasked with patrolling the area. We approached him thinking he would know where we could stay.

"You want hotel? Go through those doors, turn left at the samovar table, go up the stairs to the 3rd floor, and look for an old guy. He'll have rooms you can stay in."

Awesome. Can it get any cooler than staying above the main bazaar?

We ascended the stairs, passing the Lankaran Bazaar Association and a dental office along the way. We were greeted at the top by a hesitant (perhaps explained by the sight of two foreigners), yet congenial man. He knew what we were coming for and ushered us to one of the rooms. On first look, this was no Hilton. On second look, it wasn't even a Motel 6.

I quickly calculated that this was the second "worst" place I had stayed in. The first being Sukhbaatar, Mongolia. Seeing as how I actively seek out the "worst" places, this felt just like home.

A sink and mirror adorned the corner of the room. Three beds sat idle. Sitting on one revealed that it was going to be a tough sleep. Imagine sleeping on a spring fence.... The room was barely eight feet wide, but long enough to comfortably fit two beds back-to-back.

We were shown the bathroom a few minutes later. It was down the hall and to the right. The toilets were of the squat variety. Such a long time had passed since I used them. Could this place get any better?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Party Members Must've Travelled this Way

The old woman chuckled when I told her my name was "like the cigarettes." Her solid gold smile glistened in the fluorescent light. There was no doubt she had been doing this job for a long time. Gone were the days of hand-printed tickets, here were the days of computers. And she had been there to witness it all.

I had been speaking Russian to her, while Julian chose Azeri. She seemed positively thrilled at this phenomenon. Then Julian mentioned that his last name was the same as "sugar" in Azeri. The woman could hardly contain herself. What were the chances that two white guys would show up with names resembling such commonly purchased items? Perhaps ironically, she still managed to spell our names wrong on the tickets.

We ended up with two Platzkarten seats costing a total of 5 AZN (6 US). Anything that cheap cannot warrant high expectations, right?

Julian and I met amidst the bustling metro station traffic. It was 8am. The train station square, which adjoined three different train stations and a metro station, was surprisingly busy. We passed through the doors of the old Soviet station building and made our way through the cold, musty air (a trait similar to all Soviet-era buildings) into the tunnel.

Up on the platform, the train idled while would-be travellers loaded cargo and bade farewell to loved ones. Julian and I were expectedly confused by the numbers on the printed ticket. Why can't they just print the carriage number in the carriage number square, we pondered? One attendant was particularly helpful. She found us our carriage and on we went.

Our jaws dropped when we saw the luxury we'd be sitting in for the next five hours. Only three seats per row instead of four, oil paintings on the wall, two TVs at either end, a pay phone, and a restaurant car. Was this Platzkarten or a carriage party members used to travel in?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Coming Soon

There remains much to talk about. A trip to Lankaran in southern Azerbaijan, to Estonia, and a few other random things.

I also have a new blogment that will make me think long and hard about the places I've been and the things I've seen. Details to come.

So, expect these things over the next couple of weeks. Hopefully starting sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Estonia, Here I Come

In less than 7 hours, I will be on a plane heading to Riga. Shortly thereafter, I will be on a bus on my way to Tallinn.

Can't wait for some serious sauna time, cured herring, and all the other wondrous delicacies Estonia has to offer.