Bubbling Baku

Oil pays for the city modern gaudy appearance, but the historical significance goes back to way before the time the sticky stuff was turned into petroleum. I take a trip out of town to see Zoroastrian fire temple. Which for well over a millennium served as a holy place, until the financial gains of oil wells started to become more appealing than religious enchantment.

But the region’s geographic wonders are not confined to the oil fields as I discover when I join a tour to see a barren land pockmarked with hills. These mounts of earth are produced by a little volcanoes of mud which quickly dry under Azerbaijan’s arid sun.

Though Baku’s old town is still an area where people live, work and go about their daily lives it has a feel of an open air museum with its city walls, sandstone colored mansions and its maze of narrow cobbled streets.

The area feels very different from the surrounding neighborhoods, though also impressive and obviously built by wealth that part of town is more influenced by familiar European architecture, and is more recent. Perhaps fitting for a city which owes its wealth to the trade in the 20th century most valuable commodity, fast paced consumerism has found a home in the city, something that is affirmed when I run into the world’s largest KFC, housed in an old Soviet train station.

onwards to Baku

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My first ride out of Ganja invites me to his village – he has a wife and daughter he says to reassure me. Where were you last night, I think, but I turn down the offer and a few hours later I arrive in Baku. I haven’t found a couchsurfing host yet, so when the last driver offers to drop me off in the city I ask if he happens to be heading to the center too. I leave him at the outskirts of the old town and after wandering through the maze-like streets a while I find a hostel, one of the few in Baku

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Seen from the main boulevard along the coast, Baku looks rich, obscenely so. I pass a yacht club, several empty high-brand shops, and I can see several tall skyscrapers. But the decadence is illusory. A person tells me later that one of the towers of the city’s most eye-catching architectural project is empty and in fact slowly sinking into the ground. Another person tells me that the fancy stores are used for money laundering, which explains how they can survive without any customers. Still, it’s an expensive place and I really wonder how people on an average salary can survive in the city.

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I have been to countries with personality cults before, but never one where it’s as strong as in Azerbaijan. The only thing that resembles it is what I saw of the Kadyrov cult in Chechnya. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that in both cases not the current leader but the father is being venerated.  Unfortunately the museum dedicated to Heydar Aliyev is closed when I get to it. But I feel his watchful gaze often in the form of the many portraits and statues I keep running into throughout the country.

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first day in Azerbaijan

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On my way out of town I get a ride from two men who have to take a small detour. Nothing in the conversation up to now has been out of the ordinary and I figure since it’s two of them it will be ok, but when we stop after about a kilometer I start to feel a bit panicked. Even though I was assaulted well over a week ago, it still bothers me – fear has crept into my unconscious. But after the guys hand something over to a friend of theirs we drive back to the highway and they drop me off a dozen or so kilometers further along.

I do not know why exactly but after I cross the border things feel very foreign. Even though I have only been in Georgia a few weeks it’s started to feel familiar. Now I’m in a strange place again, one that’s more authoritarian and has an entirely different language and religion. But the introduction goes smoothly. My first ride is given by a man who speaks a bit of English and holidays in Italy. It turns out he’s a lawyer working on behalf of the local prison, not for the prisoners but for the institution itself. I’ve been reading about legal persecution of dissidents in the country and it somehow unsettles me to attach a friendly face to such a despotic system. The next ride consists of five male relatives ranging in age from about six to 60. They seems a bit puzzled by my presence, but they do their best to squeeze together tightly to make space for me and my bags.

I’ve heard Ganja is nothing special, but the sun is setting so I figure I’ll spend the night here. I consider sleeping outside but smelling myself after having dragged my body and bags around for a good part of this incredibly hot mid-August day makes me realize I need a shower. But I have no place to go. I make my way over to the train station where I figure that if I look lost for five minutes some babushka is going to come over to rent out her spare room. I thought this was standard post-Soviet practice, but it doesn’t seem to work. All the hotel’s I’ve passed look incredibly expensive so I take my chances in a local park and hope somebody will invite me in for the night. It doesn’t take long to strike up a conversation with a few women, but the outcome disappoints: one of them calls a friend who’s a hotel receptionist. I can get a room for 50 dollars. I’m unhappy but not shocked: having done some research in Tbilisi I have no reason to believe there are cheaper options. I decide to take it and fork out the money for my most expensive shower ever.

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returning to leave

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Telavi once was a mighty city in Georgia. It’s glory has faded but at least there’s still a museum to preserve its legacy. Better yet, the museum is located in an old fortress. But when I get there first thing in the morning I discover it’s under renovation and won’t reopen for at least a couple of months. A trip to the local tourist office doesn’t generate much inspiration. But it’s a pleasant enough town to walk through.

As I walk out of town my left sandal finally comes apart. I find a temporary fix with the use of a spring I pry out of a clothespin and I long for the chance to get my things properly sorted. The one ride I need to get to back to Tbilisi is a very pleasant one. I feign some enthusiasm while talking about British and American baby boomer rock bands while being driven through the Georgian mountains. I don’t know if it’s the scenery or the prospect of being back in familiar surroundings but I’m actually starting to enjoy the music I’m usually sick of hearing.

A week in Tbilisi goes by fast, running errands, trying and failing to get my telephone fixed, replacing it and buying new sandals. I’m looking forward to spending the winter in a place I’m really starting to get to grips with, but before summer ends I decide to make one more trip: I arrange a visa and set off for Azerbaijan.

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restoring the balance

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The next day the son of the farm owner and a friend of his take me on a tour of the area including a visit to the stunning citadel church at Gremi. I stay in town one more night to explore the city of Kvareli itself. It’s mostly a typical small Georgian town with a very Soviet museum with a locally born writer thrown in for balance. The setting of the surrounding countryside is beautiful however and I’m not surprised to find out that former president Saakashvili had a villa built outside of town.

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Though there’s not much more to see in the city I’m not very enthusiastic about the prospect of hitchhiking to the next town. The experience of two days earlier is still very fresh in my mind and I realize that I’m quicker to get spooked by stuff than usual. I figure Gremi is a day’s walk away and the weather is good enough for camping, so perhaps I’ll just walk and see how far I get.

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During the two kilometers I walk out of town I am followed by some street dogs who I’d fed pizza the previous night. Their company is reassuring, but they head back to town once I get to the main road. I walk alone for maybe half an hour until a car stops. Two men tell ask me where I’m heading and when I say Telavi they tell me I can ride along if I want. I’ve always figured it’s safer to be in a car with two strangers than with one. I think that in almost all cases there’s mutual social control going on that prevents them from trying something. So I accept the offer. After some small talk in Russian the men switch to Georgian. When we get to a fork in the road where our ways are supposed to part the men offer to drive me all the way to Telavi, which including the ride back is something like half an hour’s detour for them. I try to convince them that it’s not necessary, but they insist and some time later drop me off at a bed and breakfast inside the city with my faith in humankind considerably restored.

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close encounter, close escape part 2

I hide, not too far from the water, underneath some plants. I had to choose between getting away and stopping making a noise as quickly as possible. But I am very thirsty and I have to pee. So after a little while I quietly get up to do my business and quietly climb up the steep slope. But when I spot the white van I panic. I go down again, but it’s so steep that I slip and slide down the bank. I manage to steer myself toward some thick thorn bushes and hide between them. My hands and arms have a million little cuts.

The fall was loud. He calls out my name and I realize he’s still down by the water. I curse myself for assuming he must have been up there by the van. I hear his footsteps and he walks past me, a little further and turns around and calls out I’m leaving,’ though I don’t trust things.

I don’t know how long I stay hidden. I can’t call anybody because the screen of my phone still isn’t working. But after what seems like forever I climb to the top again. The van seems gone, but I do see a bright reflection of something so I go back down. I don’t really hide. Instead I stay halfway up the slope figuring I have a head start either way.

Hey girl,’ somebody says. I turn my head up. I am still not wearing my glasses, and I assume the worst. The voice sounds familiar and I panic again. I yell back that he should just leave, and that if he takes my bags out of the car there’d be no problems. I slide down the hill and find another place to hide. About 15 minutes later I walk up to where the car was, and as I climb up my left eye is nervously twitching. I first see my bags, then a small car and a guy standing next to it. He looks pretty spooked

‘Sister, it’s ok, he says. I have a wife and a little daughter.’ He looks all right, I cautiously stick out my hand to shake his. And he introduces himself as Roman. ‘Do you speak English?’ I ask. He shakes his head ‘no’, as I try to figure out how to best explain what just happened with my limited Russian.

We drive back to the nut farm and run into a shepherd along the way. They talk, the only word I understand is ‘pederast’. We get to the farm, where Roman works, and as we approach the guy who assaulted me drives away. Is that him? Roman asks. I wonder what he was doing there in the first place, but I’m mostly relieved I don’t have to see him again.

When we get there the farm workers are having lunch. Roman says something, but the only word I understand is again ‘pederast’. There’s a few guys working at the nut farm, about half of them speak Russian. Two guys do so particularly well: a guy in his twenties who seems like a real friendly and sweet guy, and and elderly guy with a good sense of humor. I can drive you to Kvareli this evening,’ Roman says, and I take him up on the offer.

I head to the living room and try to read my book, but I get distracted. I start to wonder what the guy who assaulted me was doing at the farm just before I left. Did he know I was coming? Did he perhaps go to Roman panicked and asking for help? I get paranoid. I get up and check a few pictures hanging on the wall: they seem to be of a pretty average family, maybe the owner of the farm, but what if it’s some Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing.

I need to stop this thought pattern, so I go to the veranda where two guys, including the younger one, are just starting to shuck corn. I join in and afterwards the young guy shows me around. We walk into a two-storey building where the nuts are sorted. We talk. He makes 125 dollars a month, which is enough for himself but not a family, he says. We walk up a flight of stairs in a new farm building. I am alone with the guy and start to feel scared again. I try hard not to let it show. But I’m clearly still spooked.

When I get back I run into Roman again. He tells me that the guy who assaulted me is actually a relative of his. Earlier I had mentioned that I had taken a picture of the guy’s license plates and that I intended to go to the police. He seems pretty distraught by the prospect. So he asks me not to. I think it over for a minute and figure the guys at the farm seem genuinely nice, and I hope and suspect that the social repercussions will be strong in themselves.

Back in the living room I meet a guy who speaks perfect English. It turns out he’s the son of the owner of the farm. We hang out for a bit, before he drives me to Kvareli and drops me off at a hostel.

close encounter, close escape part 1

Given that the couple’s friend who’s also going to Kvareli has already taken a few gulps of white wine I’m not super enthusiastic to travel with him, but thinking about the several kilometers walk it would be back to the highway I take up the offer anyway. Initially nothing is out of the ordinary. We stop at a place close to the road to eat a watermelon the driver has bought along. But when he sees two shepherds we drive on in search of a better place.

A few kilometers further we leave the road again and drive two or three kilometers down a track. The driver mentions that he’s never been married since he was always too busy with work. Something starts to feel off, but since he is a friend of the people I stayed with last night I figure he won’t try anything. Out of safety I remind him what I told his friends: that I have a boyfriend. Which is not true, but a little white lie can offer some degree of protection: a girl by herself saying no doesn’t really mean much, a girl in a relationship should be left to the boyfriend.

We stop at a steep path to a little stream. He takes a beer, lemonade, a knife and the melon. I get a bad feeling, so I take a picture of the license plates, flip open my pocket knife and put it in my pocket. Not long after we sit down he asks something I don’t understand. When I tell him I don’t understand, he makes a kissing face. I want to get back to the car but he’s blocking the way back up the path and when I say no again he keeps insisting. So I start to walk towards the car thinking I can brush past him but he puts his arms around me. ‘Relax, relax,’ I say perhaps more to myself than to him.

I don’t really know how to handle the situation. First I try to talk my way out of it. I keep repeating I have a boyfriend. I ask him if he is religious – this being Georgia it is a good bet. He answers yes, and I remind him that God sees everything. I know for sure I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m not so sure about the existence of God, but it’s better if he believes both are out there. He says my boyfriend must be a bad guy if he allows me to travel by myself. I’m not sure whether or not to invoke the potential wrath of the police – I don’t want to escalate things and make him act out of fear. I decide to just stick to the more abstract potential wrath of God. And then he sticks his hand down the backside of my pants.

I have money, I say. ‘How much? he asks. ‘ A hundred dollars.’ He thinks for a minute then answers: ‘I don’t want your money.’ Seeing how the carrot is not working, I try the stick approach again. ‘I have a knife.’ I immediately regret saying it as again I don’t want to escalate the situation further. ‘What?’ he asks, and I try to brush it off. Finally he lets me go when I say I need some water. I take a few steps, bend down to scoop up some water and slowly start backing away. After about three meters he starts to bolt and I turn to take a step. But he grabs hold of my arm and I curse the fact that my reactions are too slow to get away from a fat middle-aged man.

The same scenario repeats itself. But this time his hands move to undo the top button of my shirt. I block his hands. We’re clearly at a standoff and neither one of us knows how to proceed. I think again of my knife but realize I have no clue what to actually do with it. Do I stab him? If so, where? How would a potential fight go? Could he take the knife from me? And even if all goes well, how would I fare in the Georgian legal system? Finally I have a decent idea, one so simple that I immediately wonder why I didn’t come up with it sooner. I feel around for the knife. My left hand grabs it. He anticipates something is coming. What do you have there?’ he asks. I take off my glasses, put them in my right pocket and shift my weight to my left leg. He stands up straighter. ‘What do you have there? he asks again. I raise my knee to his nuts, turn around and run.

village life

There’s not much traffic on the road but it still doesn’t take very long to get a ride. I start the conversation in my best Russian but get a more puzzled response than I’m used to. Turns out the people in the car are fellow tourists – a British couple with their daughter – which allows for an actual flowing conversation for a change.

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But for the next ride I’m back to bewilderment. A small van full of villagers coming back from the city. It doesn’t take long for me to get invited for lunch by a woman and her husband. With nothing much better to do I accept the invitation. We turn down a country lane and continue for a few kilometers until we get dropped off by the couple’s house. And before I know it the table is filled with food and wine. Though the region is famed for its viniculture I stick to water as I always do when traveling alone.

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The dishes keep coming and the flow of visiting neighbors doesn’t stop either, so as lunch blurs into dinner the couple invites me to spend the night. Since my telephone won’t work and I like to keep the homefront updated on my location, a person offers me the possibly of going to his house to use the internet for a few minutes. The contrast between his multi-storied house with flatscreens and a computer and the two-room dwelling where I’m staying is huge. I’m a bit surprised to see such a wealth gap in a small village. But out on the street the visible differences dissipate when I spend the evening together with the women and girls of the village sitting eating watermelon on a bench by the roadside.

When I shuffle over to the other room of the house where I’m staying next morning breakfast has already begun. A bottle of homemade wine sits on the table from which the husband and a friend have already poured a glass while the wife runs around trying to keep everybody pleased.

 

into the valley

I meet up with two friends in Sochi, and we travel together for a few weeks through the Caucasus. I plan to spend the winter in Tbilisi, but I still have some time before it gets cold so I decide to travel a bit more. I choose to hitch through Georgia’s wine country,   Kakheti. First I head out to Sighnaghi, a lazy half day hitchhike from Tbilisi. It is one of the country’s most attractive towns. At least, the renovated part. The guy who gives me a ride into town says one of the reasons why the ambitious former president Saakashvili lost power was that he chose to invest in things that look nice, instead of thoroughly improving hospitals, schools and other social services.

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But the plan to make Sighnaghi tourist friendlier certainly seems to have paid off. Finding places to eat and sleep proves easy and though it’s not a large place there’s plenty to see along the city’s cobbled streets and at a monastery and holy spring close by.

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I get an unpleasant surprise the day before I continue on when I discover my newly acquired phone does not seem to work, so I can’t use its map. The screen does not respond to touch. No matter, there’s nothing to getting out of town and after that I basically only have to follow the highway until I get back to Tbilisi, plus I got a map at the local tourist information office.

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to the black sea in the front seat

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dscn4721It’s time for Daryl and I to part ways. He’s hitchhiking back to Volgograd while I continue further east to meet two Dutch friends in Sochi. It’s been nice to travel together with someone and I’m glad I don’t have very far to go on my own. The rides come fairly easily – I don’t even have to stick out my thumb for the last one. The big burly driver offers me a ride to Maykop when I walk past his car. I’m not quite sure what to make of him – not long after I get in the car he asks if I want to have sex with him; when I turn it down he says that it was a test and that he’s a baptist minister, though I have my doubts about his intentions. But the remainder of the conversation has an entirely different tone and meanders through topics relating to his faith. He takes a little detour and drops me off by a forest on the outskirts of town, a strategic place from which to leave in the morning.

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A few hours after sunrise I am finally in a car to Sochi. I’ve needed 119 rides to cross all of Russia, from Vladivostok to the Black Sea (with numerous detours). And it’s a pretty great ride. As we drive over the beautiful but sometimes very narrow and steep roads I catch an occasional glimpse of the sea.

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