Georgia borders Russia to the north, the Black Sea to the West, Turkey and Armenia to the South and Azerbaijan to the East. After a year and a half in Georgia I have visited all but Azerbaijan. So I arranged with a travel agent to offer a three day trip over the July 4th week-end. David Sainsbury, the IMF budget advisor from Australia and my companion on several other expeditions was the only other taker.
On Friday afternoon after work we were met by two representatives from the travel agent, a driver and a friend of the travel agent who was getting a ride to his home near the border. After driving for a couple hours we arrived in the town of Lagodechi where our passengerís parents invited us to dinner. We explored the garden and orchard behind their house. They grew lots of apples, cherries, grapes, tomatoes and more. None of them spoke English but their hospitality was up to the high standards of Georgia with plenty of good food and wine. The father offered to accompany us to the border to help expedite crossing.
It was after 8:00 by the time we finally headed for the border. When we got there the guards were friendly and wrote our name by hand in several books. It was a three step process: first the Georgians check our documents before they will let us leave, then the Azerbaijanis check the visas we had gotten at the Azerbaijan embassy then we go through customs. Even though we were the only people leaving at the time the process took more than an hour. The Georgians did not need visas but there seemed to be some confusion about paper work for the van.
We drove through farm land and forests, past several small villages, seeing fewer and fewer cars as it got later. Finally we saw the lights our destination, the city of Sheki in the distance and turned off the highway to find our way. There were still people standing and sitting by the side of the road. Then suddenly all the lights went out at midnight.
We found our way to a big Stalinist hotel. It took a few minutes to find someone to show us to our rooms, but eventually we walked up several floors by candle light. Each room had a private bath but the water didnít seem to be working. I slept well.
In the morning we discovered that there was an Islamic school across the square from the hotel. The students happily showed off their prayer room and welcomed us in the few words of English they had learned. Then we had breakfast on the porch of the hotel and headed on our way.
Before leaving Sheki we stopped to explore an old palace. It had a garden and fine mosaics covering the outside.
We drove through a lot of desert between Sheki and Baku. There was a whole lot of nothing between a few small villages.
In Baku we stayed in a nice apartment not far from the waterfront. It was well furnished in your basic communist apartment building. The building was in good condition. Unlike Tbilisi, the electricity seemed to be on all the time. The only problem was that the water was often not working. They had buckets full of water everywhere, just in case. The boys playing basketball in the parking lot were eager to talk to foreigners. They all seemed to know at least a little English and several of them could converse fine. They directed us to the right bus line to go back to the waterfront.
We began exploring Baku at a memorial high above the Caspian Sea commemorating at least two groups. Russian soldiers had fired on a crowd of civilians shortly before the break-up of the Soviet Union and killed many of them. The same thing had happened in Tbilisi. Both countries remember those martyrs in solemn holidays. The second group memorialized were soldiers who had been killed just a few years ago fighting Armenia over a province inside Azerbaijan where the majority of the population are Armenians.
Then we went down the hill to a long park on the waterfront. There were many restaurants and even more street vendors. There was a Ferris wheel and other amusement park rides. Many people seemed to be enjoying a relaxed evening.
In the morning we went to the ďMaidenís TowerĒ which was built in the twelfth century and had a fine view of the Caspian and much of the city. Azerbaijaniís compare its view to that of a famous tower in Venice. Not having been to Venice I canít comment! There seemed to be several versions of the story of the maiden and the tower. All agreed she was exiled here for while, but some had her jumping off to commit suicide and others had her winning back her love.
Just North of the city was a remarkable monument. For several hundred years a flame has been burning naturally as gas seeps up out of the ground. It didnít take a whole lot of effort to discover gas and oil in Baku! So itís not surprising that it was one of the first major oil exporters in the world. For centuries people have been coming to worship various gods here. Many of the pilgrims come from India. For a time it was a monastery of sorts, now it is just a monument. Inside the buildings were very strange statues of people who looked like they were dying.>
We saw many oil wells. I was a bit surprised that they werenít concentrated in big oil fields. Instead they were scattered around. We would be driving down the road and suddenly there would be one or two with a shepherd watching his sheep in front of them.
Baku seemed to be in better repair than Tbilisi, no doubt a result of the oil money flowing in. We spent most of our time exploring the old city and its surroundings and never made it to the business center where the buildings looked taller and newer. We explored a couple mosques. They were adorned with colorful carpets and wall hangings but not spectacular.
On the way back we stopped at a tiny monastery dug into a cliff near a small village in the middle of the desert. Itís hard to understand why anyone chose this place to live except that it is probably quite safe!
There were dozens of small restaurants lining the highway in some hills rising out of the desert. I guess people stop here because it is cooler and there are shade trees. The restaurant we chose for lunch had numerous tables spread out in the woods nearby, giving everyone their own picnic. I thought that Azeri food was very similar to Georgian food except that the Azeri shishkebabs are lamb instead of pork and they are less likely to have wine because they are mostly Moslems, but our Georgian guides wanted their pork and were determined to get back to Georgia in time for dinner. Across the street we saw a small cage with several baby foxes. We never heard the story of why they had been caught or what they would do.
Our driver had been very careful in Azerbaijan where he didnít want to get stopped by the traffic police. He wasnít so careful back in Georgia and we were stopped several times. His speed didnít save us any time and probably cost him small payments to the police officers. Our guides were happy to have dinner at a small Georgian restaurant at a small bazaar next to the highway.