Azerbaijan — What’s That…?

16 Jan

That’s basically how I felt about Azerbaijan. Not that I felt any type of way about it; I just didn’t know anything about it, and I never thought I’d end up here. Before planning the Mystery Trip, I couldn’t have told you with 100% certainty that Azerbaijan was even a country, much less where it was located. And now here I am.  I spent about a week in this previously unknown part of the world.

 

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Views as you leave the train station.

 

The capital, Baku, is all the way on the eastern side of the country and about an 11-hour train ride from Tbilisi, Georgia. The train leaves every odd day (the 7th, the 9th, etc.) and returns every even day (the 8th, the10th, etc.). So after buying said overnight  train ticket from Georgia, I realized—haha, silly me— I didn’t have a visa. So dumb. #Rookiemistake. Lucky for me, they have this new system (seriously, thank goodness) where you can apply online for an Azerbaijani visa.

 

Quick riddle:

Sammi has a ticket to leave in 24 hours and needs an Azerbaijani visa. Her options are: 1) pay $20 USD and receive the visa in 3 days or 2) pay $50 USD and receive the visa in 3 hours. Which option does Sammi choose?

 

Option 2.  A hit to my budget but ultimately, buying an alternative train ticket would have been more expensive and delayed my travel.  Also, i’ve been wayyyy under budget for this entire trip.  But seriously, being able to apply for an Azerbaijani visa online has really changed how accessible the country is to foreigners.  They’ve seen a huge jump in tourism. During the whole visa process, I thought about how, although I paid slightly more, IT WAS SO EASY.  I’m extra lucky (like, SO LUCKY) to have been born with a strong passport (thank you, ancestors, who emigrated to the USA) that allows me to apply for visas online and occasionally get them granted overnight.  That could not have happened with my Iranian counterparts.  #neverforget  #Didiusethatcorrectly?

 

So back to the story…

On the train, I got lucky again. There were four bunk beds (two on top and two on the bottom), but there was only one other woman in the car—a very gentle, older woman who didn’t speak much English. We passed the time by showing each other photos, and I eventually learned that she’s a therapist.  

 

And now it’s time for a 1-second skit (feel free to grab a partner and act out the scene):

 

SAMMI: Oh! You’re a therapist?! I have a therapist and I love her!  Her name is Julia.

ALMA: Julia. (points to Sammi) Alma. (points to herself)

 

The whole situation was clearly lost in translation, and I couldn’t explain it given that my Russian is a little rusty (as in, I don’t speak Russian). So, it was easier that I just do a quick name change and go by Julia.  I hope I remember to tell my therapist that I assumed her name on a train to Azerbaijan, by accident, when I was trying to praise her.   Alma and her new friend Julia (aka me) weren’t allowed to go to sleep until we had passed through Azerbaijani customs, which was at about 11pm. We were individually called into a separate room (which is good because then she would’ve found out my name was, in fact, not Julia…and that might have been awkward), and our passports were examined. Because I had arrived in Armenia a week or so earlier, my passport was scrutinized extra thoroughly.

 

Just so you’re in the know, Azerbaijan and Armenia are in the midst of a war. Although there is currently a ceasefire, the borders between the two countries are entirely closed. Occasionally, there is a small flare up, but then Russia flexes its muscles (read: threatens Azerbaijan).  (Azerbaijan’s ally is Turkey; they’ve had a very fraternal relationship throughout history.)

 

Nagorno-Karabakh is the specific region where this fighting takes place. In 1992, there was a massacre here. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but has been totally taken over by Armenia. You are only able to access it through Armenia. This is a very sensitive topic for most Azerbaijani people, as you can well imagine. Including mmy train cabin-mate.  Her husband and brother had died in the war.  That being said, even though Azerbaijan and Armenia are direct neighbors, you can’t travel from Armenia to Azerbaijan and vice versa.

Now given all that info, you can imagine how much absolute FUN it was to try and explain the origin of my Armenian passport stamp (concept of mystery trip, traveling with friends, my past itinerary) while speaking 0 Azerbaijani (the language) and not a word of Russian (their begrudging, second language). I left a lot of details out, for simplicity’s sake and, after some time, I was allowed to go back into my cabin where I—ahem, sorry— where Julia and Alma slept. Alma snored loudly while I read my book, frantically learning all I could about the region, until eventually falling asleep myself.

When we woke up, we were in Azerbaijan. I got off the train and found myself in the nicest train station I’ve been to in a long time. Free, fast wifi, outlets, a bathroom (that you had to pay for but still). I ate the rest of my train snacks and used the free, fast WIFI for over anhour.  Including to book a hostel where I would stay that night.   

 

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Not a meal on the train, as they don’t serve food at all (or have any for purchase… not even bottled water). (My Mystery Trippers remember this well, I’m sure)  This was a #BYOfood and #BYOwater kind of party.   Pictured here, though, is a typical meal in Azerbaijan.

 

I stayed at the Cheeky Carabao hostel – it had fantastic reviews. It’s run by a young couple, half Azerbaijani, half Canadian. They had just opened 5 months ago and were doing very well. It reminded me to update my status on CouchSurfing and make my couch available when I get back home to Pittsburgh (heads up, Helen!). It also made me wonder: Do I want to turn my house into a hostel and host hundreds of travelers while they’re visiting Pittsburgh? (heads up, Helen!)

 

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Beautiful backstreets in Baku’s Old City.

 

Quick Tip. Do not smile in Azerbaijan.

As I was walking to my hostel (at 9am in broad daylight), I was beaming with joy because I had finally made it! All of a sudden, a boy in a car stopped and asked if I wanted to get in. Hmm..No thanks! I could give you a full list of reasons why not, but these two would suffice:

  1. We were literally going in opposite directions.
  2. I was 400 meters from where I need to be.

 

He asked if he could find somewhere to pull over so he could talk to me. I said, “Uh, sure!” And I waited for him to park. Now, I was just coming from the train station in Georgia where I couldn’t communicate with anyone for hours; the train where Alma thought I was Julia; and the Azerbaijan train station where I also couldn’t speak to anyone (I had tried a taxi driver, a police officer, a ticketing agent, and the man who exchanges money). I was pretty thrilled that this guy spoke English! I was ecstatic, actually, to talk to an Azerbaijani. We made small talk as he walked me towards my hostel. You know, the Small Talk Favorites:

  • What’s your name?
  • Where did you learn English? / When did you arrive in Azerbaijan?
  • How old are you? (He was 26.)
  • Are you married? (I am not, and neither was he).
  • Do you have a boyfriend?  Yes.
  • Do you have sex with him?

 

Yeah, you know… just your average, typical, good ol’ small talk.

 

Grab your acting partner! Here’s another 1-second skit you can act out!

Scene: 9am on a Tuesday, Sammi, badass traveler and inappropriate guy #1, skinny young kid, meet.

 

SAMMI: (gives side eye) No!

INAPPROPRIATE  GUY #1: Why?

SAMMI: Uhh. We’ve only been dating a couple months, and I’m really pure…

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: What about your boyfriends before this? Did you have sex with them?

SAMMI: No!

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: (being extra inappropriate) Oh. Well, do you want to have sex?

SAMMI: (with gusto) No thanks!

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: Okay, well, I gotta go. Bye!
I was worried he would show up at my hostel and badger me, so I told management when I arrived and they apologized profusely on behalf of their country.  They told me not to worry if he showed up, they would send him away.  And that’s when I got that hot tip:  Don’t smile at anyone. Okay, good to know.

 

Quick Tip #2. Absolutely do not make eye contact with anyone in Azerbaijan.

This time, I was on a bus.

Don’t smile, don’t smile, don’t smile, I kept repeating to myself as I caught people’s eyes as they got on and off the city bus.  I had, been on this bus for over 30 minutes, repeating my mantra, when we reached my stop.  I noticed one other guy got off the bus when I did. So, I sat down on a bench, gathered my stuff, and waited for him to go off in one direction so I could swiftly go in the completely opposite direction. He doesn’t go in any direction, but he also isn’t looking at me. So finally I leave, and he starts to follow.  

I walk really fast; he’s still behind me. I go into shops; he goes in them too. I walk for 45 minutes, and HE’S STILL BEHIND ME!!!!

My friends, I give you INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2.

I go into this castle (you have to pay to go in); he comes in too. I slow down so he will at least approach me. He does not.  He is looking at palace ruins; I see him and stare him down. He does not come to me, and he does not move. He just continues to look at the palace relics.

So, am I crazy? Does he also just walk really fast, and did his errands also include going to every single shop I went into? And was he also like, “hey, I probably live here but I’m going to go check out some palaces today and be a tourist in my own city”?

I cannot enjoy myself. At this point, I am very unsettled. He has totally unnerved me plus, it’s getting dark.  So, after an hour and a half of this guy following me, I finally just march right up to him.  

 

10-second skit. You know what to do.

SAMMI: Salem (hello). English? No. Russian?

INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2: (smiles) red flag

SAMMI: (yelling) Stop following me!  It’s not welcomed or appreciated!! I don’t like you! I hate that you’re doing this! You are disgusting! This is terrible! You think I haven’t noticed that you’ve been following me?? I’ve noticed! And I don’t want you to! You are awful! Nobody would like this!  Why are you doing this?!  If you don’t stop I’m going to go get the police.

INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2: Police?

SAMMI: (yelling) Yes, the freaking police! You are making me so uncomfortable! I haven’t been able to have a nice time because you won’t leave me alone!! (storms away)

 

A couple minutes later, I look around the compound. He’s gone. I breathe a sigh of relief, by now it’s already dark. As I leave and start to walk through the winding streets, I keep seeing shadows and thinking that it’s him, but it never is.

I get to the hostel for the night and share my stories with the other girls who are staying there (all of them live in Azerbaijan: A Peruvian, a girl from Kazakhstan, and a girl from Thailand).  They ALL have similar stories. Every single one of them. That’s just how the guys are here. But apparently, it’s pretty non-threatening…you know, besides being threatening.

 

How to not get followed by creepy men in Azerbaijan:

  1. Don’t smile (thought I had nailed this one).
  2. Don’t just *not smile*, don’t even make eye contact.
  3. Yell at Inappropriate Guy if he decides to follow you.
  4. Threaten to call the police if a man has mistaken your not smiling and your lack of eye contact for an invitation to follow you.

 

Apparently, according to the ex-pats living at the hostel, the Azerbaijani police always take the girl’s side. They are always watching out for women. If a girl complains to a policeman that a guy is giving her trouble, that guy gets in a lot of trouble with the police (or needs to cough up a large bribe to not be in trouble with the police).

 

Whew. It was a bunch of big laughs and chatting and lessons, and I was glad to have met some other women who could share in my experience. I can’t speak for them, but I think we all got a lot out of our solidarity and hearing each other’s stories. And for the rest of my time in Azerbaijan (at least in Baku, the capital), I kept my eyes down.  

 

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City views.

 

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Hanging out with the super intelligent, joyful Maryam on what looks like the set of the Bachelor.

 

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A memorial from when the Soviet Union murdered defenseless Azerbaijani citizens.  January, 1990.

 

A few days later, I decided to head to the mountains. I bought Dramamine and went for a 6-hour bus ride to Sheki, a town where I stayed in a wonderful 10-person hostel, which I had all to myself. The owners didn’t speak very much English but were very kind and generous. There was nothing to do when it got dark, and I spent most of my time getting caught up on these blogs and drinking tea. It was blissful.

 

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Rural Azerbaijan.

 

There was a hike that I wanted to take, and the weather was gorgeous. I was on the fence about it because I was going solo, and I was still a little shaken up about how men treated me in Baku. But I decided that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear, and I wasn’t going come all this way to the mountains and not get out to explore them.

 

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Hitchhiking!  Picked up by a friendly man who didn’t speak any English but also didn’t make me uncomfortable by following me!

 

I checked the weather.  It was a perfect day.  And so I did a combination of riding the bus and hitchhiking to get to the trailhead.

 

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Trying to get closer to those whitecaps!

 

It was a really nice hike. I felt safe and was safe the entire time. I didn’t see quite the views I had hoped for, but I also didn’t see any inappropriate guys sauntering around the mountainside, and I did get outside and explore, so overall, no complaints. I had brought teeny tiny oranges with me that I had purchased in town and rewarded myself at the end of my hike (okay, and also during) with their sweet and delicious juice!

I had a really nice time in Sheki, and I’m glad I went to Azerbaijan. I stayed under budget the entire time; it’s a very reasonably priced country! Then, since my dear friend, Dramamine, had worked so well for me during the bus ride to Sheki, I decided to keep his company once again and take some on the bus to Tbilisi (rather than go back to Baku and take the much more comfortable – but more expensive and much longer – overnight train to Georgia’s capital).

When the bus got to the border, we were let off and had to walk across, which is fairly typical for border crossings. This one was particularly long, though, and we walked for almost 2 kilometers.  

Once in Georgia, I took a taxi (which cost me more than my entire journey back to Tbilisi from Sheki) to the train station. I had timed my journey intentionally to arrive on an odd day (the day the train goes to Armenia). I bought a ticket and had many hours to kill until the train departed at 20:20. It was freezing outside, and I found a cozy-ish spot to read my book, interrupted by a couple of drunk Russians (so I moved and found another cozy-ish spot.  I was eager to sleep as much as possible on the night train and somewhat bummed that Azerbaijan and Armenia didn’t have better relations because, selfishly, I would have liked to take a bus directly from Sheki to Yerevan. #timesaver

 

But hey, when you’re a rolling stone, you learn that you can’t always get what you want…

…See what I did there?

‘mi

 

2 Responses to “Azerbaijan — What’s That…?”

  1. deekerson January 20, 2018 at 1:58 pm #

    I like what you did there, you know, the Stone’s thing. I didn’t like your creepy experiences in Baku, but glad you shared them after the fact especially that all turned out well. Loving you.

  2. Tina Witherspoon February 13, 2018 at 4:46 am #

    Great story! Love the 1-second skits haha

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