Monday, December 06, 2010

The Lada Legend - On the Road to Dashkesan: In and Around Mingechevir

 The Summer of '86

Kim and her Street Cred 

The Spider (this place is a nightclub in the summer, I'm told)

Friday, December 03, 2010

Razor Ramblings: Baku Blades Edition

Location: Somewhere near Yuri Gagarin bridge
# of Nicks: Too many to count
Rating: 4/5

What do you do when you have to go to a wedding at night but have no water to clean yourself up with? Venture out onto the streets of Baku looking for a guy that will not only cut the mop on your head, but will oblige you with a spin of the ol' straight blade.

Even after three years I had yet to test the quality of the local blade wielders. Every once and a while you catch a glimpse of some guy, leaning back in a chair, face lathered up with foam, his life in the hands of a moustached man named Arif. But it's not a particularly common sight. India and Egypt in comparison had much more vibrant shaving industries. Perhaps this explains my initial hesitancy.

The "men's salon" I found seemed reasonable enough--a real estate agent rented out the back office (definitely not uncommon) so there was a steady stream of people in and out. My barber was of the rotund variety, but his age spoke of experience and an understanding of the way things used to be done. I felt like I would be in good hands.

After the hair got lopped off, I motioned to my face. It was go time. Would my skin withstand the increased punishment of a straight blade? Probably not. Months upon months of shaving once a week at the hamam surely meant facial destruction.

The barber went to work with the preparations: a small bowl to mix the lather, a piece of paper to wipe the shavings onto (this was new), multiple sprays and creams, and a little pot of hot water fetched by the tea lady. He started by squeezing some lather into the bowl, covering it with hot water, and then mashing the brush into it. Hot foam started rising up out of the bowl. He gathered it up and applied the brush to my face. It took no time at all to cover my face and neck with lather. This was in stark contrast to the Indian masters who would repeatedly grind the brush into your face until the lather was thick.

First time through was a breeze. The barber worked the blade with pride and skill. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, this guy is good. If he keeps this up, he could get the elusive 5 out of 5 rating." Famous last words. Why I continue to think such thoughts knowing the the second run through is always where the trouble happens...

He lathered my face up with hot foam again and then went to work. Up, down, side to side. The guy had it all working. As he approached my oh-so-sensitive chin, I could sense the impending doom. Scrape. Ouch. Scrape. Ouch. That hamam skin really wasn't holding up well. Maybe I need to start using sandpaper.

When he was done with the blade work, he gestured a "Would you like a facial massage?". I gestured back, "No that's probably not a good idea. Do you have anything to stop the bleeding?" First he started with cream, which soothed but did little to shore up the oozing red stuff. Then came a cologne-type spray. It burned a little, but was ineffective. Finally we went where most barbers go: the strange rock thing that I can only identify as "the thing that stops the bleeding". He rubbed that on my face and all was well. I got up, paid, and walked out feeling ready to face an Azerbaijani wedding.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Lada Legend - On the Road to Dashkesan: Mingechevir

Our epic thousand kilometre four-day roadtrip start with a seven hour drive to Mingechevir--a town constructed by Germans and Soviets due to the dam building activities that were taking place there in 1948. It was also the home of a former Peace Corps volunteer, Kim Joyce. Our plan was to show up unannounced and find out just how much street cred Kim had. We figured that if we asked around, people would likely point us in the right direction. Kim remained skeptical, but was indeed interested in the results of the test.

The ride out of Baku was highlighted mainly by a trip up to some mud volcanoes and a gigantic pan of tomatoes and eggs for lunch. I was impressed at how the Colonel handled himself against decidedly faster and more modern traffic. Even with five people and a loaded trunk, the old boy managed to cruise along without much in the way of difficulty.

Upon arrival in Ming (as Kim likes to call it), we hit the bazaar and started asking around. At first we were pointed in the direction of a "Yugoslavian" teacher's house. Not surprisingly there was no one at the place from Yugoslavia. It took us about 30 minutes to find a guy that knew who we were talking about. He sold eggs to Kim on a regular basis. "Ah yes, I know her. She lives somewhere over there," and pointed in the direction we needed to walk. It was a mere thirty seconds away, but we asked someone else just in case. She confirmed the egg man's directions, so we continued into a courtyard. One of the old ladies looking down at the courtyard from her balcony (as old ladies do so often here) simply pointed at Kim's apartment and said "4th floor".

*Knock knock* "You gotta be f****** kidding me!" Kim has street cred. Simple as that.

Mingechevir is known for two things: the reservoir created by the dam and the Kur river. At night, residents like to head down to the riverside and drink tea at makeshift plastic tables. During the day in the summer months, they head to the reservoir to go swimming. Strangely, the buildings in and around the "beach" have not received a makeover. They remain the brilliant Soviet relics they were forty years ago. Case in point: a deserted underground restaurant.

It's pitch black and decrepit now but at one time it must've been quite the dining experience. Descending into it is like going into a cave. Fake stalactites and stalagmites are everywhere and there is even a little stream. And there is no mistaking that musty "I'm in an underground restaurant" smell. The natural instinct would be to get out of there as soon as possible. But I had heard there was a giant cement spider lurking somewhere. This is not something you want to miss. Stay tuned for pictures.

Back on the "beach", we took our customary pictures with the Colonel and took off back to Kim's. Mingechevir treated us well, but it was now time to head for Yevlax to see our favourite decapitated former Soviet leader.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Circus

The circus is one of the few remaining Soviet-era relics in Baku. Given the rate of aesthetic change in this city, I figured it was only a matter of time before the place was shutdown and re-modelled. Unfortunately, circus season is about as unpredictable as the ferry schedule--you never really know when a circus might come to town. And when it does, tickets sell out fast.

Call it luck, I guess. I just happened to stroll by the circus one day and noticed that a circus was scheduled for the near future. Even better was the promise of kangaroo boxing. More on that later. The ticket procurement experience was standard, although I can't say I am envious of the women who sit behind a thick brick wall and communicate with customers through a narrow slit in said wall. It really is an awkwardly narrow slit.

You know what else is awkward? Kangaroo boxing.

Finally the day of the circus arrived. As we stood outside waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, a forgotten reality dawned on me: the circus is for kids and their accommodating parents, not for 20-somethings looking for a good time. In hindsight, I'm pretty sure I was more interested in seeing the inside of the building than the actual circus itself.

Glowing cell phones and a sparkly sign that says "2010" are about the only things that make you remember that you're not in 1976 when you enter the circus. The decor, the brass brand, the was the closest thing to a time warp as I have experienced here. I couldn't help but wonder what the famed circuses of the Soviet Union were like.

The performance itself was bizarre. Monkeys riding ostriches and donkeys, cracking whip routines, middle-aged men in tights dancing with horrified girl from the audience, kangaroos kicking guys in hockey pads, guy in hockey pads entering the ring do a male cover of "Oops! I did it again", drugged lions and tigers jumping from post to post for meat. There was a cool trapeze show by who I could only assume was a gold medal winning gymnast from the 1992 Olympics. I have no way to verify that, of course.

Definitely don't plan on going back, but it was good to get one thing checked off the Baku to-do list.