Etched in Religion and in the Heights Above [Armenia]

Travel

October 16, 2018 – Possibly the Most-Eventful Drive, Ever?

The sun had set on our time in Azerbaijan, or should I say, the “fire had been put out?” The Caucasus region required Robyn and I to research our travel routes in detail, avoiding all obstacles where possible. In my Azerbaijan blog, I referenced the bit of dispute between the region, particularly between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Because of this, we needed to fly through Georgia in order to enter Armenia, as there were no flights between Azerbaijan and Armenia due to dispute. The flight to Tbilisi was quite quick (one hour), and our driver Artak was waiting for us to make the drive to Yerevan. We decided it was economical and convenient to hire a local driver to make the trek from Tbilisi to Yerevan.

After all, it was autumn. Hours in the car on paper sounded potentially gut-wrenching, but quiet time with the windows cracked while we toured the countryside of rural Georgia was quite the opposite. We passed buildings that looked like they’d been vacant, run down from years of harsh weather. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for Midwesterners without a bit of road construction, which littered our trip through the towns of Marneuli and Sadakhlo. From time to time, we’d see cars and trucks alongside the road selling the latest autumn fruits and vegetables. Artak purchased a large box of persimmons and gave Robyn and I some to try. I wasn’t very familiar with persimmons – they weren’t something we had growing up. They were so delicious, almost a mix between a pear and peach. Eventually we reached the border with Armenia, which required us to get out of the car, walk to a building for passport clearance and then jump back into the car on the Armenian side.

Within the first mile of entering Armenia, we encountered a semi-truck flipped on its side – a bit eye-opening for a welcome! The road Artak took on our way to Yerevan contoured the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If you zoom in on a map, you can see the numerous enclaves and exclaves near the border. The tension was certainly felt on this route. We passed many military trucks and personnel, defending the territories and keeping the peace.

Peace was something nature always had. The beautiful mountains turned with fall colors made the trip easy to pass time. I gazed out of the window only to see Artak slow down quickly, and then I noticed an old Soviet car completely flipped upside-down in the middle of the road. A semi-truck, and now a car?! Luckily the driver was okay, and it was right next to a gas station. We pulled over into the gas station to get gas (Artak was also making transactions for bulk toilet paper and paper towels for some reason). While Artak did his business, Robyn and I got out for a quick casual cigarette and watched a group of old men hover over the flipped car. It reminded me of old men from the coffee shop with nothing better to do, having a debate about what actually happened in the accident.

Soon enough, we were on the road again, driving through towns of Berdavan, Koghb, Voskevan, Voskepar and Kirants (look these up on a map and you’ll see the border situation). Not even a mile from the town of Azatamut near the border, we became stalled in traffic. A traffic jam in rural Armenia? We assumed it was just a quick wait, but then noticed a group of Armenian soldiers talking and walking back-and-forth between cars. Artak, our driver, did not speak great English, so he tried to use his phone to translate for us. We were not able to see what was going on ahead because there was a hill. After about 30 minutes, I asked further what was going on. It was a little bit tense knowing that no one was getting out of their cars and with military involved. After a while, Artak got out and asked what was happening – apparently there was a protest going on a mile or so ahead demanding the resignation of the mayor a nearby town. You wouldn’t believe that we sat there for 1.5-2 hours until we were able to move. We also didn’t have any food besides a can of Pringles, a Coke and a couple persimmons.

Once we got moving, sunset was approaching, and I started to doze off after a full day of riding in a car. We passed Lake Sevan on our way to Yerevan, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. We arrived at dark in Armenia’s capital to a great Airbnb and a fabulous bathroom with *water pressure*. Depleted from little food and drink, we searched where to grab a bite to eat and landed on Cafe Central, where we enjoyed some chicken and vegetables, pumpkin soup and local Armenian wine. Night in Yerevan reminded me of the Balkans – dimly lit, the swirl of cigarette smoke and shadows of old buildings and centuries of history.

October 17, 2018 – Yerevan’s Core

We slept so well that night to say the least. We didn’t have too much of an itinerary for Yerevan, so we planned our day after some quick research. That’s one thing that I love about trips with Robyn. We both go-with-the-flow but also know what each other likes and doesn’t like. This day in Yerevan was spent enjoying the city’s iconic monuments:

The Opera Theatre – opened in 1933 and hosts opera and ballet performances. In front is a statue of Aram Khachaturian, a Soviet American composer and conductor.

Yerevan Cascade – under sunny skies, we walked to Yerevan’s most iconic landmark, the Cascade. The Cascade is a giant staircase of five levels made of limestone and contains multiple circular- and semi-circular-shaped fountains. We walked all the way to the top, with breaks of course. A large museum complex is planned at the top but is still unfinished.

Victory Park – Once you get to the top of the Cascade, you can cross a skybridge to the other side on the hill, which led us to Victory Park. Victory Park didn’t quite have the vibe to ladder up to its name, however, it has quite an interesting story. The park was developed and named for the victory of the Soviets over Nazi Germany in World War II. At the opening of the park, a huge statue of Joseph Stalin was implemented. 12 years later in 1962, the statue was dismantled and a statue of Mother Armenia was installed, where it still stands today overlooking Yerevan.

Matenadaran – we went back down the Cascade and over to the Matenadaran, which is a museum and repository of ancient manuscripts.

Can you believe it was just time for lunch? I had a refreshing salad with a “sea buckthorn” lemonade, yet another plant I had not encountered. They are tart berries that grow on a shrub and known as a superfood.

Republic Square – after lunch, we walked south to Republic Square, a beautiful central town square surrounded by pink stone buildings and intersected by a huge fountain. There were quite a bit of people out on Sunday, enjoying the weather and views of the fountain while also grabbing some Armenian flag-colored ice cream. The cornerstone of the town square is the history museum, which we did not browse, but I heard it was really spectacular if you have time. A local mentioned that they just discovered the world’s oldest shoe in one of Armenia’s many caves!

Sharhumyan Park & Children’s Park – a short walk from the city square. It was a nice place for locals to relax and take kids. Many old men with newspapers, just as you see in the movies.

Vernissage market – this is a recommended market in Yerevan for local art, including paintings, carvings and carpets. Right next to it is Garegin Park, where you can enjoy some quiet time with friends or family over a coffee or treat. After a while of people watching, we noticed that men greet other male friends with a peck on one side of the cheek. Lots of old men also hung out together and men in general walked in pairs. We also noticed throughout our day bandages on women’s noses – apparently Armenia is well-known for rhinoplasties (aka “nose jobs”).

In day one in Yerevan, we covered a lot! We saw most of Yerevan’s key sites and capped it off with a dinner at Mamoor, a European-fusion spot with our favorite, local wine.

October 18, 2018 – Monastery “Game Drive”

Many of Yerevan’s treasures are scattered from end to end of the country, so we knew we needed to spend some time exploring the historical markers from the region. The day before we had booked a day tour with a private driver. Our driver Artur and accompanied guide Armena picked us up at 8 a.m., and we set off to explore Armenia’s southern charm.

Mount Ararat – about an hour south of Yerevan lies Mount Ararat, a large, dormant snow-capped volcano across the border into neighboring Turkey. You can actually see Mt. Ararat quite well from the city of Yerevan, however, we were able to see it much clearer as we were at the border of Armenia and Turkey. Mt. Ararat is seen as sacred to many Armenians, as it is considered the resting place of Noah’s Ark. The tale says that Noah’s ark carved the shape of the side of Mt. Ararat and Noah chose to settle there. Mt. Ararat interestingly sits near a quadripoint of Turkey, Armenia, Iran and the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan.

Khor Virap – our actual first destination of the tour was one of Armenia’s most iconic monasteries, Khor Virap. Its name literally means “deep dungeon,” as it was used as a prison for those who were spreading Christianity. The ruler of Armenia in the late 200 A.D. (this is old, people!) followed a pagan religion and didn’t want his advisor, Gregory the Illuminator, to subject him to his Christian beliefs, so he sent him to prison here. Gregory was placed in the dungeon without food or water for 14 years and did not die, as it was said a local Christian widow was feeding him. Everyone assumed he died, but when someone went to check, he answered and was taken to the king. The king declared Christianity the religion of Armenia that year in 301 A.D., making Armenia the first declared Christian nation in the world. Cool stuff! I walked down the ladder to the dungeon myself – it was quite dark, cold and eerie.

Mountains & Terrain – Most of Armenia is mountainous, and we certainly felt that throughout the remainder of the trip. The roads would curve in and out of mountainsides, up and down, back and forth. The roads were paved but in quite poor condition. Robyn and I had a flashback to our time in Africa from the “massage” of the road, and we also made jokes of calling this trip a “game drive” of monasteries. At this point, we were at 7.

Near Areni – Near the town of Areni we stopped alongside the road at a fruit vendor named Ana. She had fresh peaches, apples, pears, grapes and more, which were the most delicious I have tasted! We also noticed she had colored juices in recycled soda bottles. I asked what this was, and she said that they make their own wine and they reuse plastic bottles to sell it. We were lucky enough to try her freshly-made apricot and pomegranate wines, two new drinks I’ve never had before. Both were very yummy, especially the apricot wine. Armenia is well-known for its wines and for pomegranates for both food and drink but also in local culture and symbolism. Before we left, Ana gave us a sack full of peppers she had grown even though we insisted we didn’t need them – the people were so welcoming here.

Noravank – Our next stop turned right off the main road to a path surrounded by caves and steep mountains. The path led us up a hill to the Noravank monastery, a 13th-Century structure sitting within a gorge known for its brick red cliffs. Two churches (Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet) are on the site and look incredible with the backdrop of the cliffs. We spent some time exploring the two churches – there are lots of crosses engraved on the buildings, but none of them include the crucifix because it symbolizes death. At Karapet, I ran into a priest who was doing a prayer while spreading incense. Robyn and I agreed that these monasteries are really striking and a beautiful place to visit for anyone, religious or not.

Tatev – From Noravank, it was a long drive to Tatev Monastery which is on the southern end of Armenia. We passed through golden-colored mountains and occasionally encountered a herd of sheep taking over the main road. Tatev Monastery is near the town of Halidzor in the valley. The monastery sits on a mountain overlooking the valleys below, so it’s very challenging to get there by car. Instead, there is a cableway called the “Wings of Tatev” that takes you over the mountains to the vantage-point where Tatev sits. The site has three churches – St. Peter & Paul, St. Gregory and St. Mary. There are also several functional rooms and buildings such as the library hall, dining hall and mausoleum. Northeast of the complex is an olive press building, which has a nice demonstration of how to produce olive oil. Back on the site, there is an interesting pillar known as “Gavazan” which detects the direction of seismic activity but also was used to signal war. This monastery also holds significance for being host to Tatev University in the 14th- and 15th-century, which contributed a lot to science and philosophy.

The drive back to Yerevan was dark, especially on the rough mountain roads. We stopped near Areni for a quick dinner of lavash bread, vegetables, eggs and green beans. The final stop of our tour included wine tasting at the Areni Winery. We stopped to test several different local wines – cherry, quince, pomegranate, peach and regular grape wines. Peach was probably my favorite since it was so unique, but the regular red wines were just as good. Robyn grabbed a bottle to take back to the U.S., and off we went back to Yerevan. Because we were unable to get any radio stations in the rural parts of Armenia, the guides played the same CD the whole trip – Despacito, Michael Jackson, Dido and Eminem. Repeat.

October 19, 2018 – Armenian Staples: Carpet & Brandy

Back in Yerevan, the weather this time of year was warm in the sun but chilly in the shade, similar to fall in the U.S. This day, we walked back to Republic Square and to the outskirts of the city on the south side to Megerian Carpet Armenia, a carpet factory about an hour from the city center. The Megerian family carpet making has been around since 1917 and has produced carpets for many famous figures including George & Amal Clooney. We took a quick 30-minute tour and first learned how they dye the yarn (using pomegranate rinds, walnuts, oak bark and indigo). We then went into a big room with carpets hanging from the ceiling and local women working from the bottom up, double-knotting the yarn in place. Huge rugs can take up to 1.5 years to complete! The owner of the factory, who actually lives in New York, was coincidentally visiting Armenia, so we got to speak with him during the tour. The most important thing for productivity is matching up women with the same speed so they are consistent. After watching the ladies work to complete the carpets, we went to an area where completed carpets got a brushed and trimmed to get rid of extra hairs.

There’s a gallery of old Armenian carpets that have been discovered over the years. One story that stuck with me was a “parent trap”-like story from the times of the Armenian Genocide. A mother cut her blanket in half for her two babies to be able to find each other after everything they would go through during the hard time. Decades later, the two sisters found each other, both still having their half of the blanket. After the gallery, Robyn and I browsed through a room full of carpets – I was open to buying one but wanted to find the right design and story. I found one that I really liked with navy blue, gold, turquoise and red colors and ended up buying it to put at the foot of my bed back home. The design is called “Artsakh” which comes from the region with the same name. Artsakh is the Armenian-controlled part of western Azerbaijan, and is actually a “breakaway state,” claiming independence in 1991, but does not have any recognition from UN members.

The lovely owner was so surprised that we had walked to the factory and was impressed by our adventure to the country. He insisted he offer a ride back to the city, so we took a ride to our next stop, the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory (also known as Noy Brandy factory). The factory was founded in 1877(!) and produces brandy, which is distilled wine of heavy alcohol content (35-60%) and typically consumed after dinner. We signed up for a tour and made our way through the dark cellars where the brandy is aged in large barrels. We were lucky enough to taste a 1944 year brandy – a bottle which would cost $3k if purchased today! I don’t think I had brandy before, so this was a new experience for me. Fun fact, if you sit a brandy glass on its side, it should not spill if poured correctly. We heard more stories of how Noah was the first wine producer – here they tie themselves to Christianity and wine and keep the traditions alive to this day.

We were in need of food at this point, as my esophagus was still tingling from the high-proof spirit. Online we found a place called Derian, which is actually Syrian food. Robyn and I had never had Syrian food before, so we were interested to try. This was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had! A table full of olives, shish tawook, lavash, cheap wine – so delicious and everything paired well together. Little did we know we would love Syrian food so much, and the hospitality was so wonderful from the Syrian staff.

October 20, 2018 – Garni & Geghard

Our final day in Armenia came, and what else then to see another monastery? A popular trip for those who visit Yerevan is to visit Geghard and Garni. We joined a tour bus from the Cascade and drove through the city. Fun fact – locals call Armenia “Hayastan,” after the ancient warrior Hayk, the founder of Armenian nation. 97% of Armenia considers themselves Armenian, so it’s a very mono-ethnic country.

Eghishe Charent’s Arch – our first stop was an arch commemorating Eghishe Clarent, an Amernian poet. The arch overlooks a forest park.

Garni Temple – we passed through several small towns before arriving at Garni. Garni is a Greco-Roman pagan temple, which symobilzes pre-Christian Armenia. It’s disputed, but many believe the temple to date back to 77 A.D. It collapsed from a huge earthquake in the 17th-century but was reconstructed from the stone that was found after the devastation. There are 24 columns on the temple to mark the hours of the day. The steps to walk up the temple are particularly steep, symbolising that you must work hard to get to the altar. There are a few buildings next to the temple, including ruins of a Christian church and a building that used steam to heat floors. Many tourists were out enjoying the sights, fresh air and beautiful fall colors surrounding the landmark. Before we left, we watched locals make lavash bread. The cook rolls the dough very thin, lays it over a pillow, and then slaps it against the walls of the tandoor oven pit. After it cooks, they use tongs to remove the bread, then serve it with herbs and cheese (like a burrito).

Geghard Monastery – Our last monastery on the “game drive.” The monastery complex was founded in the 4th-century (again, old!) by our friend Gregory, who escaped from prison at Khor Virap. It was partly carved out of the cave on the side of the mountain. The monastery was famous for housing several relics, one of which is “geghard” or the spear that wounded Christ on the Cross. The UNESCO World Heritage site has many beautiful carvings of the Armenian crosses on its buildings. We entered the main chapel where several were making prayers with candles. There is a choir room and there are small holes in the walls so that other connecting rooms can hear the sounds of worship. On the outside of the church, local officials would write city laws so people would know about them, as it was certain you would get their attention at church! The dome of the building includes features and symbols from other regions so that they would share more in common than different. It’s eerie to think that people walked the same ground just hundreds of years after the death of Christ.

Our tour had ended, and we returned to Yerevan one last time. The city was setting up for its 2800th (yes, two thousand eight hundredth) birthday! What a time to be in Yerevan! Back in Republic Square, I treated myself to one of those Armenian-flag colored ice cream cones but was quite confused of the flavors… possibly banana and bubble gum? We didn’t buy anything during our first visit to Vernissage market, so we browsed again and Robyn bought an interesting set of old Soviet stamps to add to her collection back home. A lot of old Soviet knick-knacks and books were on sale at the market in addition to artwork. That evening, we had a fresh meal and enjoyed the vibrancy of people out celebrating Yerevan’s birthday.

Back to where we started in Yerevan, the Opera Theatre, we joined a crowd enjoying traditional Armenian music. Over our time in Yerevan, we knew that people liked to stay out late. We’d wake up for our early days of sightseeing to only notice barren sidewalks and closed businesses. I can relate, as I am not a morning person. We packed up and prepared for our flight to Tbilisi the next morning (no long road trip with protest delays this time!). Armenia surprised me with its natural beauty and dedication to the stories told from generations before. I just imagine laying on a beautifully-made carpet, sipping a glass of Armenian wine on the grass next to one of Armenia’s storied monasteries – that’s probably the Armenian pinnacle! And, Happy Birthday, Yerevan – 2800 never looked so young!

-Michael

Earth, Water, Wind and Most Importantly, Fire [Azerbaijan]

Travel

I commonly get asked the question, “How do you decide on xyz country to travel to?” A few times I have a pretty good answer, but often, including this trip, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I look at a map and find parts of the world I don’t know much about and then decide to learn more by traveling there.” This time around, I zoomed in to the region that connects Europe and Asia to see what was going on. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — a region referred to as the Caucasus along the Caucasus Mountain range between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It’s an interesting spot in the world in terms of geographical semantics. Is it part of Europe? Is it part of Asia? Is it part of the Middle East? I’m not sure there’s a clear answer, but the majority of research I’ve done deems it part of Asia. 

It’s also a region still defining itself. The three countries historically were part of the Soviet Union and each have their own story of gaining independence and defining a national identity. Despite their proximity, the three countries are quite distinctly different in culture, appearance, cuisine, religion and political alignment. Also under definition are the region’s borders and land. There are a handful of autonomous regions, exclaves and separatist movements that prolong tensions that have lasted more than a century.

Interesting dynamics, right? With this background, Robyn and I were excited to explore a region that is foreign to most Westerners. Our first stop in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan, also known as “The Land of Fire,” sits right west of the Caspian Sea and has an autonomous exclave Nakhchivan to the south of Armenia. Note that there are several disputed areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan that I’ll get into later. Out of the three countries in this region, Azerbaijan is mostly unique based on its Islamic religion, majority being Shia Muslim. Azerbaijan is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with a wide variety of landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges, lush green valleys and dry plains. The country covers nine of the known 11 climate zones! Fun fact: more than half of the world’s “mud volcanoes” exist in this region, formed from hot water and gases beneath the earth’s surface. It is also known as the Land of Fire because of its natural gas preserves and Yanar Dağ, a natural burning hillside by the Caspian Sea. You remember the classical elements from science class, right? Well, Azerbaijan embodies them all. We kicked off the trip with a few days in Azerbaijan with home base in its capital, Baku. Ironically, Baku is also nicknamed “The City of Winds” due to its harsh winds off the sea, a close similarity to our home, Chicago.

October 12, 2018 – Long Legs, Long Flight

Our late evening flight to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines would take us roughly 10 hours. I had heard many great reviews of Turkish Airlines, however, the plane we were blessed with was an old one, you know, the ones that still use headphones instead of earphones and ones without charging options. Regardless, I had pre-downloaded enough Netflix material to cover most of the flight. Sometimes I really enjoy long flights since they allow me to catch up on all the shows I’d meant to watch much sooner. 

October 13, 2018 – Baku Welcomes with Bright Lights

Flying east across the world means that you do in fact lose time, and in our case, the next day arrived while we were in the air. We landed in Istanbul in early afternoon in time for our transfer. The Istanbul airport at the time was in its final days of operation before a shiny, state-of-the-art airport hub opened nearby. Unfortunately we would later return to the U.S. a day or two before the grand opening; even more reason to go back!

The short layover of one hour gave us enough time to weave through the waves of crowded passengers to the tiny restrooms. The next flight, also on Turkish Airlines, was shorter (only a few hours) and led us to our first destination on the trip, Baku, Azerbaijan. Upon arriving in the country’s capital, we had a pleasant time going through immigration and had a timely connection with Nijat, our car transfer, also our Airbnb host. 

One of my most vivid memories from each trip is the moment I step outside the airport doors: the breeze of fresh air hitting my skin after hours of being cooped inside airplanes, the yells and solicitation of local taxi drivers offering rides and the surrounding landscape of a country I know little to nothing about. After loading up in Nijat’s car, I first noticed the brilliant architecture of Baku’s airport (Heydar Aliyev International Airport), which began a flurry of architectural wonders we would see in Baku.

On the way to the city center we saw more interesting buildings lit up in the night, including Baku Crystal Hall, Heydar Aliyev Center and the iconic Flame Towers that overlook the city. I cannot overestimate the amount of neon, bright colored lights installed in the city of Baku. For a city located in some of the oldest parts of civilization, I was shocked to see the modern overuse of lighting accessories typically found in digital-first cities like Seoul or New York City. While cheesy at times, I saw the lights a bit charming to balance the muted stone features the city managed to maintain over centuries of tension. 

Our Airbnb was located within the stone walls of the Old City in Baku, a nice location for us to visit most of the city’s attractions. Weaving through the cobblestone streets, we arrived toward the west end of the Old City and took our bags in a walkway between two stone buildings, to the left in the dark, and up some old wooden creaky stairs to a metal door. Robyn and I peeked inside and slowly surveyed the place before getting too comfortable. Well, let’s just focus on the positives! – location, basic necessities, electricity, and actually, a decent view of the Flame Towers through barred windows. Even though the place had springy beds, a bathroom that anyone over 6′ could really not fit into and a floor so slanted a ball would roll, we were glad to be safe (and sound?) on vacation.

October 14, 2018 – The Old City and the Caspian Shore

Robyn and I took some time to sleep in and get adjusted to the local time, which is 10 hours earlier than Central Time in the U.S. After managing a shower in the small quarters, we got ready and found a place to grab lunch in the Old City. The Baku Old City restaurant had some options that worked for our appetite, including an omelet, coffee and kebabs. 

Along the Old City’s stone streets were small shops, restaurants, handicrafts, pomegranate juicers, ice cream vendors and tandoor bread. The Old City was recently added as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it reminded me of the stoned city we explored in Kotor, Montenegro, back in 2015. We ventured outside of the Old City walls into proper Baku. Not far you could see the blue Caspian Sea. It was Sunday, so many locals were out enjoying the beautiful weather and spending time with friends and family. We walked over to Dənizkənarı Milli Park, a park that covers the shoreline of the Sea. No beaches here; instead, many couples sat on the concrete steps spending a moment together before the work week began the next day. Robyn and I were impressed by the locals and their attire; most everyone we ran into in Baku looked put-together, presentable and at times, trendy. 

To the southern end of the park is the Azerbaijani Carpet Museum, a building that looks like a rolled-up carpet as well as the Caspian Waterfront Mall in a shape of a blossoming flower. (Again, the architecture was really one-of-a-kind!). Walking with a coffee in the park, we noticed men typically walked in pairs – and we don’t know why! The locals mostly had strong, dark features and were relatively tall. 

We returned to the Old City to check out one of the city’s main attractions, the Maiden Tower. It’s an odd attraction for sure, with little known about its actual purpose, dating back to at least the 12th Century. From above, it’s in the shape of a paisley buta, and inside, today, is a museum showing its history. To get to the top, you maneuver through interior small stone steps on each level. It didn’t take too terribly long to get to the top, and once we got there, we enjoyed the overlooking views of the city of Baku, the Caspian Sea and the Flame Towers. 

Next to the Maiden Tower is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a collection of existing and ruined buildings in the center of the Old City. Today, the site includes a main palace, the shah’s mosque with a minaret, burial vaults and a mausoleum. Nearby is a caravansary, a name we got to understand well in the region. A caravansary was an inn where travelers could rest and recover from a day’s journey. These were especially popular in this region, as the Silk Road passed through the Caucasus. 

Hunger started to set in, and we had dinner at a restaurant called “Dolma,” appropriately named for the popular dish consumed by locals. If you’re not familiar, dolma are stuffed dishes, typically meat or vegetable-stuffed grape leaves in Azerbaijan. I ordered lamb dolma, fresh olives and wine from the Qabala region of the country (northern Azerbaijan). The meal was delicious (cheap!) and a nice way to top off our first full day in the region.

After dinner, we walked the streets back to the Old City walls. The nightlife in Baku was bustling on a Sunday night, especially in restaurants, cafes and those enjoying the weather. There are two arched entry points for cars and pedestrians to enter the city walls. Anyone can enter by foot, but the entrances are gated off, allowing for only vehicles with permission. I noticed the automatic gate (similar to toll booth gates) open, and so I started walking inside the city walls and all of a sudden got whacked in the side of the head! At first, I had no idea what happened. I thought someone had hit me or something was thrown at me. Come to find out, the gate was coming down right as I walked in, and boy, did that hurt! Luckily I did not fall down and walked it off, but I could feel a small bump developing on the side of my head. Robyn and I kept walking and stopped at a cafe for some Turkish coffee and hookah (me hoping the hookah would ease a little bit of the head trauma!) Even though we really wanted coffee at the time, we learned from our waiter that Azerbaijanis mostly prefer tea, and they accompany their tea with jam. Before drinking the tea, one takes a scoop of fruit jam and places it in their mouth before drinking the hot tea. I love learning about all the interesting takes on coffee and teas in the countries we visit. Eventually we were off to bed, back on the springy beds and slanted floor.

October 15, 2018 – The Highest Place in Azerbaijan

Robyn and I decided we wanted to experience Azerbaijan outside of Baku for a change, so we booked an excursion to Khinaliq, an ancient Caucasian village located high up in the mountains of the Quba region, which is in the northeastern part of Azerbaijan, close to the southern border of Russia. Before we left for the day, we grabbed a “smoothie” to carry us over until lunch. We laughed as we asked what was in the smoothie, and the barista said, “We use ice cream.” Nothing like being truly American and having ice cream for breakfast.

We met our tour guide Alex and our fellow tour attendees, and let me tell you, we learned it would be quite the crew. In the van was a local Azerbaijani driver, Alex, the tour guide who was part Azerbaijani and part Irish, one Israeli, one Colombian, one Pakistani, Robyn and myself. The Israeli started out asking political questions about Trump and making charged statements to the guide about Turkey, Israel, relationships, everything. The 4-4.5 hour each way was going to be a long day!

As I mentioned before, the country has a lot of different climates and terrains, and it was really great to see this along our drive. Azerbaijan is an oil- and gas-rich country, and it was evident those assets were being put to use for infrastructure. The highways were so smooth and updated, and many large trucks lined the road for cross-country transport.

Partway, we stopped at Besh Barmag Mountain, also known as the Five Finger Mountain. It is a popular pilgrimage spot for Azerbaijanis, known for its mythical legends and sacred nature. At the foot of the mountain is a mosque where many come and ask for blessings for their families. We then stopped for snacks at Bolmart, where I couldn’t stop laughing about the similarity in rhyming to Walmart. The inside of the supermarket was the cleanest I’ve ever seen, with seemingly nothing out of place and no item not fully stocked. 

The terrain changed quite a bit the further we got north and closer we got to the Caucasus Mountains. Most of the trip was a dry, grey landscape, which later turned into beautiful fall colors and tree canopies, usually consisting of birch trees. Each larger city that we passed had an entry marker built in a light stone with the city’s name engraved in large letters. In many instances, a large color picture of what I assumed was the Azerbaijani president accompanied the entrance. Each town’s entrance was so similar and seemed characterless. 

We arrived in Quba (pronounced like Cuba), the closest larger city to our destination Khinaliq. For the interest of our favorite Israeli tourist, we stopped at the Grand Synagogue, which lies in a Jewish neighborhood that hosts the largest community of Mountain Jews. There are bird markers on the corners of homes in the area to signify Jewish presence in the home, which was interesting to see. Overall, Quba had beautiful homes, bridges and colors in autumn.

On to Khinaliq we continued on a paved (but bumpy) road through the Caucasus Mountains. From time to time we would maneuver a hill of switchbacks, but for the most part, it was just a long road that gained elevation over time. We stopped partway to take some pictures of the red granite rock protruding from the mountains. Robyn and I dressed appropriately with sweaters and coats, however, our fellow tourists were shocked by the brisk weather at altitude. Or maybe our skin was prepared given Chicago winters?

It took us a while to get to the top of the region. We passed by a few villages and wondered, “Is this it? Is that it?” Eventually we reached the road’s end, with the village of Khinaliq overlooking the path below. It’s majestic, breathtaking. The mountains looked like an oil painting in the background, and you pinch yourself thinking, “Where the hell am I?” 

Khinaliq is the highest (~8,000 feet), most remote village in Azerbaijan that sits in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountains that divide Russia and the Southern Caucasus. Despite just a spattering of small tin and stone buildings in the village, an estimated 2,000 people live there. The village only inter-marries, elongating traditions and culture for years to come. The villagers speak a slightly different language than Azerbaijani that has been around for centuries. The village practices Sunni Islam and has a mosque at the top of the village.

Before we could explore too much, our guide met up with our village host, and we entered a small, low ceiling home. Outside of the home was an outhouse, with a hole in the ground to go the restroom. There was a grill of sorts outside as well, where some of the lamb was being prepared. We were guided to a room in the back of the shanty where a dining table awaited us. Also in the room was a kid’s bed and a window overlooking the mountains. The man of the house chatted with all of us in Azerbaijani with our guide acting as translator. He turned out to be quite the jokester, poking fun at all of us and things associated to our home countries. The housewife served us a delicious meal of potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, rice pilaf and lamb. At the end of the meal, traditional black tea with jam was served, a tasty way to end a meal. 

We were then turned loose to explore the village. Most of the buildings are made of packed stone or manure blocks. In recent years, the government provided the village with tin and building supplies, which was met by some with welcoming arms and others with resistance. Chickens, dogs, cats and kids roamed the dirt and rock paths up the mountain, looking at us with wonder and awe. 

The mountains surrounding the village were a grey/green mixture of color with hints of yellow from the autumn season. I took some time to take in the views, snap a few pics and breathe heavily in and out, a hint of meditation in a peaceful, nearly untouched place in the world.

We took back to the road, and everyone eventually fell asleep in the van. I was awake the majority of the time and made good conversation with the Pakistani. He was on vacation by himself and had an interest in the region’s unexpected fascination with crypto-currency such as Bitcoin. 

Back in Baku, we were dropped off at the Old City, and to make things interesting on the walk home, we noticed our section of the Old City was dark. We thought maybe just a few businesses were closed but walked to our Airbnb and realized we did not have power. We decided to drop our things off and head back out because other places had electricity. We had dinner at Qazbaq, where live saxophone played in the corner. I had chicken, rice pilaf and olives, a similar meal to what we had earlier in the day in Khinaliq. After dinner, we grabbed some fresh pomegranate juice as we walked through the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Pomegranates are popular in the region and are found in many handicrafts, wines and flavors. After a long trek to the north end of Azerbaijan and back to Baku, we were dead tired. 

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October 16, 2018 – Caucasus Step 1, Complete

Our stint in Azerbaijan had come to an end as we then headed to Georgia and Armenia. We had quite the experience leaving via the airport. After figuring out we were in a different terminal, we waited in a long line among many confused travelers and attendants. I had never seen so many airport staff with confused looks on their faces as they checked people’s bags and printed tickets. Robyn and I eventually had our checked bags done and then headed to the regular security line. A first for me, after checking IDs, we had to place each foot in a foot scanner. I assume it checks for anything in the shoes so that you don’t have to take them off – interesting. Robyn and I proceeded to the scanner, and got held up by staff for not having a “bag tag” on our backpacks. We had never heard of this, so we had to go all the way back to the first counter to get “bag tags” – literally just a paper tag given from the desk staff. We eventually made it through the strange airport experience and boarded a flight to Tbilisi, Georgia. 

I’m glad Robyn and I took the time to check out Azerbaijan on this trip. Out of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, it was the most unique of the three and opened our eyes to the dynamics of the region. The people were welcoming and excited we paid a visit to a country sometimes overlooked for shinier vacation spots in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. While I loved the black tea I purchased from the country, the small bump on my head from the traffic gate incident would not let me forget The Land of Fire.

Check out my next posts as Robyn and I travel to Azerbaijan’s neighbors, Georgia and Armenia.

-Michael