Sunday, November 26, 2017

Off to the Caucasus v2

 (re-posted with pictures)

About the same time last year (November 2016) we went to Iran.  On our return, someone said you should have also gone to Georgia, it has fantastic wine.  Andrew stored this idea away and brought it out again when we were planning holidays this year.  We added in the neighbouring countries Azerbaijan and Armenia, and a 2 week trip in the Transcaucasus region was developed.

The superficial summary of a complicated geopolitical area would include a few facts such as
  • the populations in the 3 countries are Azerbaijan 8 million, Georgia 4 million and Armenia 3 million
  • Azerbaijan is classified as a Muslim country but it is extremely liberal and the other two countries are Orthodox Christian
  • All came into the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s and all achieved independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union about 1991. In between there were some pretty tense times.
  • Azerbaijan and Armenia are at still at war over disputed territories in the South, Armenia and Turkey have very strained relations going back to genocide in the early 20th century, Georgia has strained relations with Russia over 2 disputed territories, but otherwise they have good relations with the rest of the world.
  • Azerbaijan has oil revenues but Georgia and Armenia have some very good alcoholic beverages

We flew up to Dubai, overnighted, then hopped on a 3 hour flight to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

Leaving the airport in our purple”’London Cab” we soon realised we were no longer in Laos.  For a start we went from 0-120km/ph in quick time and stayed at that pace till we got into the urban centre maybe 10 minutes later. Along the way we got in the middle of a race between 2 Mercedes weaving in and out of lanes, dropping back and racing forward. 

We were staying in the walled Old Town, but there were plenty of modern architectural edifices everywhere, including a controversial Zaha Hadid museum/auditorium, which looked stunning (as we passed by at high speeds)

Eager to explore, we headed down to the newly developed waterfront park. With wide open spaces and great sea/cityscape views, it was well patronised by locals enjoying the warmth of a sunny autumn afternoon. 

Outside the Old Town there has been a lot of money spent on modern architecture.  The most visible are the Flame Towers which are on a hillside looking over the city.  A night there is a lightshow, with flames, water, the flag – all symbols of the country

The central pedestrianised shopping streets and other buildings certainly reflected the oil-wealth in this country.  There is so much new money, that since 2016, they host a street circuit .  The city was an interesting mix of old and new. The swirl building below, is the carpet museum.

The next day wandered and took in the various sights.  It proved difficult to find somewhere to eat lunch after walking along the foreshore to the area of town below the flame tower hill.  We saw plenty of business people, but couldn’t find any restaurants/cafes or even a mini-mart. We had a theory (based solely uneducated guessing) that maybe being ex-communist state there was a profusion of office canteens – so people ate there.  But finally we stumbled across a signboard offering a ‘business lunch’  So we walked down the stairs into the subterranean cellar. 

No menu and sitting on padded pallets as chairs, we awaited our business lunch looking at the bear skins on the walls and the hunting pictures.  And of course the lunch was exceedingly good and filling with soup and chicken and rice for the equivalent of $4 each

We wandered back to the funicular station for the small train that was supposed to whisk us up the hillside.  Sadly it was Monday, and the funicular doesn’t operate on a Monday.  So the only real option was to do some stair-walking.  Up, up, up and further up, only about 45 flights of stairs!  But once we got there and recovered our breath there were some lovely views from the top. The eternal flame and cemeteries are located at in this area.

We stayed at the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel (sister hotel to the more famous Sultan Inn) and had two meals at the Hard Rock Cafe.  The Hard Rock was a tactical choice while we were tired as the food & beer was good, it was nearby and they had partial non-smoking areas.  Smoking in restaurants is something we had forgotten about, and having experienced it again, are pleased to not see it most countries we go to.

The airport was modern and had some really nice design features.  Here while going through security we didnt need to remove our shoes and put them through the scanner.  Instead they had a machine that scanned each foot individually when you put your booted foot into the scanning area.  If only a few more airports had this it would reduce the pain of going through the security line!
Air-side the design feature was Pods, outer structures that enclosed seating or cafes. And in one case a library-cafe


Bye-Bye Baku, Tbilisi here we come.

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