Monday, May 16.
Goodby Georgia, hello Ajerbaijan! It was a perfect riding day. Crystal blue sky and relatively cool. As we descended in elevation, we exited a quaint Georgian village and received a magnificent, full frontal view of the Caucasus mountains. This is a range that essentially runs through Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It rises dramatically from near sea level to snow capped peaks. Reminded me a bit of the Grand Tetons in the U,S.
At the border crossing we met Mark Elliott, an English travel writer best known for books on Azerbaijan. He was coming into the country to update his Azerbaijan travel guide. He has also written extensively for Lonely Planet. We had a nice chat and exchanged contact information.
Azerbaijan is a very beautiful country. The people are pretty and friendly. Its roads are lined with carefully manicured trees, the bases of which are painted white. There is little, if any, litter and each township proudly displays sculptures and other art at the entrances and exits. Unlike Georgia, the children wave. The gasoline is cheap. We paid $10 per gallon in Turkey. Here I filled my tank for that amount!
It is getting hotter. It has consistently been in the 50's and 60's for the past two weeks. Today it reached 80.
We spend our first night in Sheki, Azerbaijan. Our hotel is luxurious. There are many Mercedes automobiles. A festival is going on outside my window. I like this place very much!
Tuesday, May 17
The ride out of Sheki was fabulous. Another beautiful day, through the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. High passes with beautiful vistas. As we descended to the Caspian Sea, the wind picked up and the land abruptly tuned barren and arid.
Baku is like an Asian Houston -- a modern mega metropolis built with oil money. It has about 4 million people and snarled traffic jams. Modern skyscrapers are everywhere, and new construction is everywhere. The Opera is designed after the one in Monte Carlo.
The people in the busses have that glazed look that we see in big cities in America. The cars are generally expensive and their drivers aggressive.
Motorcycles are not common. Last night we were joined by a biker gang at an elegant underground restaurant/nightclub. Although the language was not common, there was a motorcycle-enthusiast congeniality nevertheless.
Our guide informed me that although over 90 percent of the people are Islamic, they do not practice their religion. There are few (like four) mosques in town. Religious activity was not encouraged during the USSR years, and with the affluence, one would not expect a return to traditional values by the young people, and especially the women! They wear high heels and tight clothing. Head covering is rare. They do not display cleavage, but otherwise appear typically western. They enjoy singing and dancing. There is no evidence of female repression, and the schools appear to teach both genders fully. I now understand the concept of Eurasia much better than before.
May 18 -- Sightseeing in Baku
Our rest days are sometimes not so restful! We began our tour at the top of the city, and meandered down through old Baku. This dates back to medieval times, and is exceptionally well preserved. A high, rock wall protects a maze of narrow streets. (Photo.) You can easily imagine a 12th century invading force being stopped at the walls. I particularly enjoyed the throne room, harem room and courtroom, where the accused was held BELOW the Court and interrogated through a metal grating.
The parks and landscaping surrounding the fortress are breathtaking. It is a center for young love and community activity. We then toured the carpet museum. This part of the world is, of course, Mecca for oriental rugs.
We were also emotionally moved by a "wall" dedicated to local protestators who were massacred by Russian troups on January 20, 1990. There are photos of the deceased etched into granite, along with their names and ages. They look modern and young. There were some married couples killed. Hundreds more were injured.
We travelled by bus about 1 hour, through the old oilfields, which are shoulder to shoulder with stripper wells, many of which are still pumping oil, which spills into large pools on the ground. In America we would make it a Superfund site. Here, it is not even noticed. We then saw a "mountain of fire!" It is a somewhat exaggerated river bed where methane gas escapes uncaptured from the ground and is allowed to burn. It has been doing so since ancient times. Baku is truly a city for the ages.
May 19 -- Time to leave Eurasia
Hurry up and wait! We wait until 4:00 p.m. to receive the call to go to the ship. Our guidebook said "cabins on the ferry are rustic!" What an understatement! Folks, this ain't no luxury liner! It is a ferry that carries rail cars and trucks. There are some cabins, but there is virtually no maintenance. Not a place for our loved ones. We were, however, able to "ease the pain" with plenty of vodka, which we had purchased at a supermarket in anticipation of our voyage from hell! We began with a romantic picnic on the inoperable lifeboat (see photo below), and unfortunately, things went downhill from there. I am sworn to secrecy, however, on the mutual agreement that "what happens on the boat from hell stays on the boat from hell."
24 hours later, we were sober and across the Caspian Sea. Welcome to Turkmenistan and the real Asia!
If Wikipedia is correct in describing Turkmenistan as a police state, it is a nice one! The President's picture is everywhere, but the people seen to love and take great pride in him. Our required "escort" quickly scatters out, and we are largely on our own as we drive through the Kara-kum Desert, the third largest desert in the world! Gas now costs us $.80 per gallon! It was almost 100 degrees. For some reason, this is the land of BMW automobiles. They are everywhere. We arrive at the Capital, Ashkhabad, after a hard day of riding a rutted, potholed, barely paved highway. Once again, however, the city is amazing.
An earthquake destroyed the place a few decades ago, and it is flush with oil and gas, so new construction is everywhere. It is like an Asian Abu Dhabi, or Oz's Emerald City. Shiny, white marbled skyscrapers are everywhere. On the other hand, at the museum today I saw antiquities dating back to 12,000 B.C.
The women no longer dress as westerners. Ankle length, silk dresses are the norm, even by school girls. The people, and their clothing, are stunning.
We attended the Sunday market. Disappointingly, it has become modernized! While thousands of people still come from far and wide, and camels are still traded, the sand has become concrete, the tents have become pavilions, and the oxcarts have become Japanese cars. It reminded me of the world's largest factory outlet mall. I fear that someday soon it will have a Walmart and GAP!
We visited a horse farm, and saw Akhalteke horses that were beautiful. Smaller than what I see in America, they sell for about $60,000 each, but unless your name is Putin, you will not be able to get one out of the country. We are only a few miles from Iran! In the photo, I am pointing at the border. It is a wall on top of the mountain. GPS, please don't fail me now!
I'm ready to venture deeper into the real Asia. We have seen the commercial result of the trading of Marco Polo. We should soon start learning about the destruction of Ghengis Kahn!