Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Azerbaijan, Land of Fire

Gurban, our Azeri guide met us in Baku, cheerfully letting us know he was at our disposal 24/7! We quickly discovered he loves his tea and also drinks it with a sugar cube behind his teeth. We had a busy program but he constantly reassured us there was “No rush, no hurry”.

In Baku, the flame towers are the most spectacular at night with the flame projections on them.

But the most impressive building is the HeydarAliyev Cultural Centre which had different countries’ flags converted into wrapped lollies out the front.

An easy drive from Baku lies the Absheron Peninsula, where fields of nodding donkeys extract oil from the ground.

At the “burning mountain”, Yanar Dag, flames about 6m wide were blazing.
And at the Ateshgah Fire Temple, sacred to the Zoroastrians, a natural fire vent once blazed. Now it’s exhausted and they use the natural gas supply to keep it flickering.

It wasn't quite comparable to the Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan. However, nearby they did have a stall selling draft beer where locals couldn’t empty out their water bottles quickly enough to fill them up with beer, myself included! Mmm... draft beer and chips for the road!

Gobustan is another easy drive from Baku and Gurban worked here for 15 years so he knew it inside out. He plucked some fresh figs from a tree for us then explained all the petroglyphs.

Knowing I liked rock climbing, Gurban took me on a kind of rock scramble up to the top of the mountain (wearing his suit!) He hadn’t climbed up here for over 5 years so he’d forgotten the way down and had to keep peering over the edge to find the right way. After more scrambling and a few slides we finished off with a swing from a tree branch.

From there we drove to the bubbling mud volcanoes, where it was so windy we could hardly stand still and mud splattered onto our clothing.

Here I picked up 10 pieces,
then Gurban whipped out his saz (musical instrument) and started serenading us!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Alive and well in Nackchivan…

Aaaand, I’m back! I may not have blogged about North Korea or Bali (polar opposites!) yet, but I’m getting back on the wagon with my latest trip to the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) with my Mum. Why those countries most people ask? (some even ask where are they?!) Mum and I visited Uzbekistan in 2007 then Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. So we wanted to do another ‘Stan trip – though really it’s a ‘Jan… (or a 'Van)!

Mum surprised me on the flight over to Baku (via Singapore and Istanbul). She doesn’t normally drink, but I heard the flight attendant ask her whether or not she wanted ice in her “Johnny Walker” to which she confidently replied “no ice”. Well, after 72 years, you never know whether she wants to branch out and start drinking the hard stuff. Good on her I thought. But then once she was handed her stiff drink she gasped in horror thinking she had ordered tonic water! Ha.
After around 36 hours of flying and transit and only a few hours sleep in Baku, we set off back to the airport for our Azerbaijan Airlines flight to Nackchivan. I’d given this 2 day side trip to Mum for her Christmas present last year, making up a fake boarding pass and writing ‘in-flight entertainment’ on a miniature pack of cards for us to play given we didn’t think there’d be any. Nonetheless the flight was pretty good and fairly quick.

We nearly had to stay here for more than the 2 days we’d planned as our return flight hadn’t been booked and it was school holidays and hence an extremely popular time of year for the locals to travel back and forth. “Probleme” we overheard our guide, Hasan, say on his mobile, but fortunately, as it turns out he had the right connections and booked us on the one we wanted.

Secure in the knowledge we’d be able to return to Baku, we started our private tour. Hasan explained how in the 90s, Russia joined forces with the Armenians and cut off Nackchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan by enabling them to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh – the region in between. During this time, they had no electricity and had to cut down most of the trees there to heat their houses in winter. He pointed out a few saplings recently planted. Along with no electricity, there was no infrastructure and there were no factories. Food was flown in from Baku and heavily rationed. People had to queue for everything. They had money, they just couldn’t buy anything with it. In 1992, this changed as they began to trade with Turkey then Iran.
We soon discovered road rules are crazy here and in the whole of the Caucasus for that matter! No-one sticks to their lanes. On one road, a truck was driving towards us on our side, so we simply switched to the other (wrong) side to avoid it.

Our first stop was Daridagh, an arsenic sulphur hot spring in the Julfa region.
The sulphur smell permeated the air and hot sulphurous water was flowing down a pipe that funnelled into a thermal pool. We were shown the hot pool where you were only allowed to spend 15 minutes maximum and only if your blood pressure was normal. I couldn’t resist the temptation to experience arsenic sulphurous water. Call me crazy. But then if you’ve been following my African adventures and/or know me well then you won’t be surprised.

The doctor took my blood pressure and made a worried noise but then laughed and ushered me though – a funny joke perhaps?! I was told “Do not swim!” otherwise I would overheat, was given a towel and had to strip down to my undies. A woman and her daughter were already in there. I waded around – did not swim – and found a layer of sulphur coating the edges. From what I could tell you’re supposed to let the sulphurous water from the pipe run over your shoulder and scoop it over yourself from a bucket to rinse off after your 15 minutes is up. Apparently it’s also good to swish it around in your mouth and spit it back into the pool you’re sharing with others. Lovely! I didn’t really think swishing arsenic around in my mouth was a good idea, so I abstained from that activity.
Another lady joined with her daughter and another one after that. They were very curious as to my presence and I believe they were wondering what my “probleme” was from their use of the word multiple times and multiple gestures in my direction. I’m convinced it was an accident but one woman sat by me and her fingers interlaced with mine. Eeek! I quickly retracted my hand and waded away. My 15 minutes was up soon enough anyway and I was keen to get out! My face was bright red for at least the next half hour. Well that certainly was a cultural experience.

Our trip also included:

·        a mosque where the Imam was very curious about Catholicism and asked us all about it in spite of us not being Catholic

·        a cave with 500 steps at the bottom of which was a mosque where a local woman was singing, which echoed beautifully

·        Yusif Ibn Kuseyir’s tomb from the 12th century

·       Came mosque

·       the Momina Khatun monument built in 1186 where one pillar in the middle of the burial chamber underneath supports the entire monument
·        the open air museum which contained many rams used for burials, symbolising strength

·        Prophet Noah’s grave monument

·       Nackchivan City Citadel; and

·        Garabaghlar village with Jahan Kudi Khatun mausoleum where I picked up 10 pieces of litter – mostly plastic and glass bottles. The caretaker let me sit on his horse – though my leg got stuck whilst mounting it as I forgot I was wearing a skirt!

Another highlight was the Duzdagh salt mine cave, used as a physiotherapy treatment centre. It was cool inside and I was amazed by the amount of salt lying on the ground. The smell was vomit-inducing until you get used to it, though apparently it helps to relieve asthma. We were shown rooms with beds where people sleep at night surrounded by the salt – as well as multi-plugs so you can charge up all your devices. Snoring could be heard from one of the halls.

The Azeri food was good but perhaps our favourite thing was “compote”, bottled cherry juice complete with over 30 or so cherries in each bottle.
We soon developed an embarrassing habit of drinking the cherry juice then tipping out all the cherries onto a plate and either eating them with slightly sour yoghurt or eating them on their own. Dill features quite strongly on the menu as do tomatoes, cucumbers, and huge plates of herbs that you’re just meant to stuff into your mouth. I’m still not so sure about ‘Ayran’, yoghurt and water.
But I am fond of Nackchivan draft beer accompanied by ‘pendir’, smoky stringy cheese.
My favourite place in Nackchivan, which we ended up visiting twice, was a hammam that had been converted into a teahouse. Hasan introduced us to the Azeri way of drinking tea – placing a sugar cube behind your teeth and slowly sipping your tea through it. Repeat with each glass. I found myself having so much sugar due to the copious amounts of tea I was drinking. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Things that remind me of Beijing

  • Hocking up gobs of spit and spitting onto the pavement
  • Face masks
  • Buick cars, Hyundai Elantra taxis
  • Smog/pollution
  • Pressure to buy
  • Busy but organised/orderly
  • People wanting to get photos with me
  • No Facebook!
  • Rickshaws
  • Dumplings
  • Tea
  •  Jade
  • Street sweepers
  • Huge tour groups with tour leader holding flag and tourists wearing same hat for easy identification
  • Red Chinese characters
  • Panda clothing (hats, t-shirts, bags, you name it)

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The World’s Worst Vegetarian

On my 9 month trip overlanding in Africa, I was often referred to as “The World’s Worst Vegetarian”. Let me explain. 99% of the time I am vegetarian. But I also eat seafood. And prosciutto. And the odd sausage – though that probably doesn’t even classify as meat. And then I often try unusual things whilst travelling.

In Beijing, I started out with the best of intentions on my first night, eating tasty and wholesome chilli spaghetti with beans at the Veggie Café. It was not very Chinese per se although as the theory goes, they were apparently the first ones to make pasta.

On the way back to my hotel, I went via Donghuamen night market as I’d been wanting to try something unusual (as an after dinner snack rather than a full size meal). Chefs were hawking their dishes with pride gesturing towards their trays full of ready-to-cook silk worms, tripe, spiders, bamboo worms, snake, crickets, cicadas, starfish, sea urchins, scorpion, cat, dog and the more normal dumplings, noodles, veggies and candied fruits.

It seemed the ‘stranger’ their food, the more proud they were. Those most proud had sheep’s testicles and lamb penis on offer and would shout it out with glee and grab their groin and shake it up and down for added emphasis!

The scorpion skewer was calling me. I walked up and down to try to find the best stall and lingered in front of it, contemplating the critters. Then I realised my problem. There was no-one to egg me on. In order for me to eat something bizarre, I need peer pressure. Lacking it, I chickened out and went home.

The following day, I met a lovely couple who were travelling around the world for 9 months – Julen and Sabrina. They must’ve taken pity on me lamenting I was unable to eat a scorpion on my own and accompanied me back to Donghuamen night market.

We strolled up and down and selected an appropriate scorpion skewer. There was a choice between 'small' ones and a an oversized one. The small ones somehow seemed more appetising.

Two come on a stick – perfect for sharing. Julen had the first one and I had the second. The tail on mine was curled up angrily and looked threatening despite it being deep-fried. I bit it in half and was actually surprised – it was oily, salty and crunchy – and actually relatively tasty. Even the curled tail went down well.

Next off the mark was snake, which had the consistency of chewy calamari, though it had no flavour aside from the sauce and herbs added to it.
Satisfied with my non-vegetarianism for the night, I then switched to candied fruit which to be honest was far tastier.

The World’s Worst Vegetarian? A fairly appropriate title, don't you think?