Monday, April 28, 2008

Greetings from Nakchivan

A typical greeting from Nakchivan (literally translated):

 

How are you?

Good.

What do you have and what do you not have?

Umm...?

What else don't you have?

Hmm...?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mullets

What's the deal with all the mullets in Baku? Someone needs to tell these people that the 80s have come and gone.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Golden Era of Soviet Track Cycling

Baku is home to a cement velodrome. For those who don't know what a velodrome is, it's a track, normally made of wood, that you ride around on a fixed-wheel bike that lacks the ever so important braking mechanism. Professionals fly around the track at speeds in the neighbourhood of 60 km/h. It's impressive, but the sheer magnitude of the sport isn't realized until you actually step onto the track.

Well, after much hassling from my dad, I finally made it. My riding partner: an old Peugot road bike. The track looked worn, but in relatively good condition (one could only imagine its state during Brezhnev's hay day). I started out riding on the inner track (it's perfectly flat), petrified of what would happen if I ventured onto the more-than-45-degree-banked corners. I'm no physics major, but I just couldn't see how such a corner was possible at speeds less than 45 km/hr. It was seriously like riding next to a wall.

A couple of times I got the speed up to the point where I thought maybe the first ring on the banked corners was possible. Alas, only twice I was able to make it the full away around without chickening out. Maybe next time I'll man up and go higher up on the corners.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Real Barnburner

I feel like running through the streets of Baku with my Calgary Flames flag. My team just came back from being down 3-0 early in the first period to win 4-3.

There's something about listening to the game on the radio at 7 AM that makes everything that much more intense. Everyone in this office thinks I'm insane because I scream and yell when Calgary scores (not to mention cursing loudly when San Jose scores). My poor neighbours probably feel the same way.

More importantly, it's the only time of the year when I feel truly 100% Canadian.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

See for Yourself

Freedom Square

View of the City from the Hill

The River that Cuts through the City

Rustaveli Avenue (the main street)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Tbilisi

What is the first image that comes to mind when you think "Tbilisi"? Some far away city nested in the Caucasus left with the residue of a giant piece of metaphorical Soviet graffiti touting "We were here."?

You wouldn't be far off with that thought. The Soviets were definitely there, but perhaps not to the same extreme as other countries. As any history buff will know Josef Stalin hailed from Georgia. We all know how good political leaders are to their homelands (ask Jean Chretien), so it was no surprise that Mr. Stalin kept Tbilisi in rather original condition. Well, that was until Krushchev came on the scene and scattered apartment block after apartment block on the outskirts of the city. Georgians lined up in droves to thank the late Soviet leader for that, I'm sure.

Tbilisi now represents the Prague of the Caucasus; a dirtier, not-preserved, "I can't get no EU money" version of Prague. Its European "heart" has remained untouched, so there is no evidence of symmetrical Soviet planning. Perhaps the Soviets looked at the hilly nature of the city and decided to give up. If it isn't flat, they thought, why bother? Let's just put up a big unknown soldier monument on the top of the nearest mountain and call it a day. All in agreement, say "Da."

A beautiful river runs right through the middle of the city. It's banks have been developed to include housing in on part that literally leans out over the water. If there is one major difference, however, between Tbilisi and Prague, it's that the former has road on either side of the river, whereas the latter has none (the preferable option, in my opinion).

Where Tbilisi takes Baku and publicly stones it to death is ambience. Baku, pretentious and fake in all its Dubai-esque glory, feels cold and square. Tbilisi, relaxed and modest in its medieval European splendor, tells you "this is who I am. If you don't like it, go somewhere else."

That's my kind of city. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

"If It's Brown, Drink it Down.

If it's black, send it back." - Homer Simpson

 

Drinking cultures. Where would the world be without them? Ever participated in a North American drinking game called the "Boat Race"? Or how about going shot for shot with a tequila factory worker? Or maybe three bottles of vodka with a Finn over a meal of salted fish?

If you answered "Yes" to any of the above questions, chances are you've woken up in a dumpster at least once. If not a dumpster, then definitely a bathtub.

Georgians have their own drinking traditions. The men are seasoned consumers brought up on Chacha (distilled red wine tipping the alcoholic content scale at 61%), vodka, and home wine (a brown liquid, purportedly made from grapes, that resembles cloudy apple juice). That combination would rile even the most experienced beer-swilling frat boy.

A typical afternoon/evening starts with a trip to a local restaurant. Groups of four or five men, equipped with a five litre jug of the aforementioned home wine, are the usual participants. Snacks, kebab, and xingali (dumplings) are promptly ordered to help soak up the impending onslaught of alcohol. It's going to be a long night.

The first toast, and by no means the last one, starts with everyone standing up and holding their full glass of wine. Words are exchanged. Somebody makes a joke. Everyone laughs. Then it's down to business. You tip your glass up and polish off the whole glass in a single gulp. Subsequent toasts tend to involve nonsense as opposed to coherent speech. The men get more affectionate and, if I could understand Georgian, much more complimentary.

Two hours later, everyone is drunk. It's right about now that approaching the foreigners sitting at the table next to you becomes appropriate. Language barriers are broken down (the foreigners are likely under the same alcoholic spell you are), pleasantries such as "you are my brother" and "I hope you like my country" are verbalized. You can just feel the camaraderie permeating the room. Alas, the drunken man stumbles away back to his friends.

"Same time, same place tomorrow?" he confirms.