Monday, January 31, 2011

The Lada Legend - On the Road to Dashkesan: Ganja

Ganja did not represent much of a stop on our way to Dashkesan. Despite it being Azerbaijan's second largest city (with a population of 300,000+), there is not that much to do there. All the fun, as we were soon to discover, exists in the regions around the city. Alas, we were hungry and had not the slightest clue how to get to where we wanted to go, so we parked the car on a bridge and proceeded to the heart of town.

Some little known history about Ganja before we continue. It used to be called Kirovabad. Stalin, on a whim, decided to rename the town in honour of Sergei Kirov (who you might recall was shot and killed, an order allegedly made by the Soviet leader, in 1934). Oh, to have the power to label cities as one pleases....

Well fed, and with the rain clouds approaching, we headed back towards to the Colonel with the intention of trying to figure out how to get to Dashkesan. When such a situation arises, there really is only one solution: find the oldest dude driving the oldest Lada. This was not a difficult endeavour. In fact, the hardest thing was choosing between the old dudes.

Eventually we settled on one and conducted negotiations. For a couple of Manats ($2.40) he promised to guide us out of town on the road to Dashkesan. Perfect. "We'll go and grab the car and be here in fifteen minutes," we told him. Traffic on the street we were about to drive down was getting worse. Horns were blaring, drivers becoming increasingly aggressive. When our turn came, it was no different. At one point, I am pretty sure a guy in a Zhiguli stationwagon gave me the head nod, as if to say, "You cut me off one more time...." You can finish that sentence as you please.

Eventually we met the old man and he, in a way only an old man can do, whipped a u-turn right in the middle of the street. Within five minutes the heavens opened. When our guide had gone for enough, he got out of his car into the pouring rain, came to the window and said, "Daskhesan is that way. Keep going straight."

Most excellent. Our end goal was upon us.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Lada Legend - On the Road to Dashkesan: Naftalan

It had been over a year since I last set foot in oil bath country (more info can be found in Part One and Two of a previous post). And what a glorious return it turned out to be. The village of Naftalan may be my favourite place in Azerbaijan. It has the truly unique combination of natural beauty, old timey Soviet-ness, and something that cannot be found in most other parts of the world: oil that you can actually bathe in.

The Colonel rolled up around 9:30 in all its resplendent glory. We took the requisite pictures at the city sign and then headed into town. For such a small place, there is a lot to do in Naftalan. On our list was: 1) Check out the old Soviet sanitarium, 2) Go by the new sanitarium and by some of the special oil, 3) Go out into the oil fields looking for pools of oil, and 4) Swing by the abandoned airport and bus station (which once brought people in from all over the Soviet Union).

First stop was the Soviet sanitarium. It stands near the centre of the village and overlooks what used to be some sort of athletic complex-cum-culture hall (it has no been converted into a tea house). An atrium complete with fountain and tile awaits you upon entrance into the building. It may not have the lustre it once did, but it speaks to the elegance that was no doubt prevalent at the time. We looked around, talked to some of the staff members, and then I stumbled across an epic discovery (moreso in my eyes than the rest of the roadtrip crew). Hidden away in a dark hallway was a coin-operated Soviet table hockey game! I had hoped for a Canada vs. USSR 1972 Summit Series edition, but it turned out to be just white vs. red.

We left the Soviet sanitarium in search of the new government sanitarium. It was there that I was acquainted with the oil bath phenomenon some fifteen months prior. One of our crew was interested in buying some of the oil, while the others wanted to see how the actual bathing process went down. To accomplish the former, we were led into the depths of the brand new building, along a dark, institution-white corridor. A small nook of an office awaited us, where sat a woman in her standard issue uniform. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about the many "healthy" uses of the magical oil, and then watched as she poured the liquid (the naphtalene had at that point been separated from the crude oil) from one plastic water bottle to another. The buyer was a happy man.

Next we made our way out into the fields surrounding the village looking for giant pools of oil. Rumour has it that a few years back, a group of Russians showed up to one of the small pools, got out of the van they were travelling in, stripped naked, and then jumped in the black oil. We were not so adventurous. Instead, a couple of the crew contented themselves with lobbing rocks into the crude, while myself and another dealt with a local who had come down the mountain trying to figure out what we were up to. At one point he received a call from someone who was obviously looking at us through binoculars. "They are just tourists!" we kept hearing the guy shout.

On our way out of town, we made a quick pass by the bus station and then headed on to the airport. For whatever reason the barrier to the road had been removed, so we decided to drive right up to the abandoned terminal. As we arrived, another car arrived in the parking lot. The driver made some motions for us to stop and get out of the car. We disobeyed, so he got out of the car and came to the window. "What are you doing here?" he inquired. "I don't understand," I replied. He attempted exert some sort of influence, which was the cue to get out of there. In the rearview mirror, I could see the guys 13 year old son getting in the driver's side. Looks like driving school was in session.

A glorious few hours in Naftalan, indeed. Next stop: Genje, the second largest city in Azerbaijan.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

If I Ever Move to Morocco...

...I am totally getting myself one of these. A Renault 4 GTL.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Lada Legend - On the Road to Dashkesan: Yevlax

Yevlax, a city of 60,000 or so, was, according to Wikipedia, famous for having a "bad reputation for fever in [the] summer" of 1914. We took that into consideration before starting out from Kim's in Mingecevir. We had a couple of things we needed to get done. One was visiting the one thing Yevlax is not famous for even though it should be, another was meeting a friend who was told to get on a bus in Baku and head to Yevlax to meet us, and the final one was to meet up with Narmin (who has been one of the Colonel's biggest fans) and her family.

The road betwen Ming and Yev is one of those roads that was made for cars like the Colonel. Narrow, no traffic, gentle curves, minimal potholes. And a lot of villagers ready brimming with local knowledge. We set out with only a general idea of where exactly in Yevlax we were going. We knew the infamous "chopped-in-half" Lenin statue was there somewhere, but where? It wasn't like the old days when finding the Lenin statue meant going to the central square.

Our first attempt at asking a local was met with limited success. "What? There's a Lenin statue with its head cut off?" Next.

Next up, a taxi driver loitering about like taxi drivers do. He knew the answer but didn't want to give it to us. The entrepreneur in him suggested that we pay him to guide us there. Where's the fun in that? Eventually he relented and told us that the infamous statue stood not two minutes from where we were. His instructions were pretty clear: go up the road, turn right onto a road that is full of potholes, and then you will see it.

It's an impressive sight when you come upon it. There, in the middle of a junk yard, is a massive Lenin statue chopped in half. There some other Soviet-era relics scattered about which really add to the ambience. We took our customary photos, paid our respects, and rolled off down the road to find the bus station.

Our friend managed to make it in one piece; a pretty impressive feat for someone who touched down for the first time in Azerbaijan a mere twelve hours before jumping on a bus to the regions. Next stop was Narmin's for a little Yevlaxian hospitality.

Narmin has been a big fan of the Colonel since day one. She and her parents welcomed us with open arms, fed us, allowed us to cook kebab, and housed us for the night. Two expressions were coined that night that will go down in Lada Legend lore: "Meat hands" and "We're on the express train to meat town". Needless to say, there was a lot of meat consumed that night.

In the morning, we bade farewell to our gracious hosts and continued on to the oil bath capital of the world: Naftalan.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The "Hotel Belarus" on the left. Brilliant piece of Soviet architecture.

Lenin Ave. None of the street names have been changed.

Entrance to a metro station. All of the Soviet symbolism remains.

Central Square and the "Head Christmas Tree of the Country"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brest - Pure, Unadultered Sovietski

Entrance to the War Memorial Complex

Yes, that's a giant dude carved out of a giant rock

Fighting for every inch