To get to the Azeri border I have to change 3 marshrutkas and at the end take a taxi. Thankfully I meet a lovely lady who is an English teacher and she finds a cheap taxi for me. The taxi even stops so I can exchange my last lari to manat. No commissions, no scam.
I walk through the border and the Azeri side is surprisingly strict. They inquire a lot if I had visited Armenia. Since I didn’t know they are at war, I am smiling and telling them: I didn’t have time on this trip, but maybe another time…ha-ha-ha.
They don’t smile.
Nevertheless, I go through. 10 taxi men immediately attack me and ask me where I am going….when I say ‘’I don’t know’’ they are even more confused than me.
I avoid the taxis and go into a marshrutka with an unknown destination. I decide to head to Naftalan…or Ganja- anyway-in that general direction. An elderly man, hereby known as perv #3 tries everything in his willpower to convince me to go to the north-the mountains with him. He pays for my marhsrutkas and keeps talking me into it. Little does he know, that I have reached my patience quota of pervs, so I pay him no heed and when we reach Zaqatala, I proceed to board a marshrutka headed to Gandja. It is already a very long trip, a long day, and I have 3 more hours ahead of me.
-Azeri people are darker, looking more Gypsy or Turkish-like
-Their music is very oriental- Turkish like
-There is no WiFi anywhere as opposed to Georgia
-The country doesn’t feel Muslim
-The country feels much richer, buildings are modern
-The people aren’t so nice or hospitable towards me, they are more avoiding me.
-The drivers drive muuuuch muuuuuuuuch slower
Upon arrival in Ganja, I realize I am in the middle of nowhere- taxi drivers attack me- but what am I supposed to tell them?
I begin looking for WiFi, asking a blond good looking merchant guy about directions. He says there’s no WiFi, no restaurants around, he basically says no to all my questions.
That starts well. I get a weird vibe of pushy but generous men, curious but prude, careful but very into your personal space.
I walk for a while and stumble into a hotel. I take WiFi , book a hostel and order a taxify. There is construction on the road leading to the hotel, so I go on the road where there is only 1 car parked appearing to be waiting for …me?!? I check quickly the plate number and it looks legit similar.
I get in and I am surprised for a moment that there are 2 men at the front seats. Never mind, I give my presumed driver the hostel address and he starts driving…
After a minute…he says in broken English :’’Well, I am no taxi, but I drive you. No problem.’’ I say: “You are not a taxi? Not taxify? You are not ‘’name of driver’’?’’
This can only happen to me. Most people do everything their power not to get kidnapped on holidays, but I walk right into my own potential kidnapping.
The confusion is absolutely hilarious. The two men probably think I am crazy because I burst into a wild laughter- it brings me to tears. This image in my head still makes me smile so wide-from ear to ear.
The men still drive me to my hostel. I learn they are army men and had just finished a very long 37 hour shift.
Ganja looks very pretty and nicely illuminated. It is the old capital of Azerbaijan. I learn there is a 4 day holiday/ spring welcoming/Novruz in the country. There are central markets with decoration and music stages.
They park the car and we walk at a pedestrian street- very clean and modern.
They carry my bags without asking. It is hard for me to make sense of the situation. But I roll with it. Are they actually sweet or trying to take advantage of me?
They don’t speak good English so they give me wifi hot-spot and I use google translate.
They assure me that they are conscious citizens and I should not worry. They are definitely sweet. We ring my hostel bell but nobody answers ( a sign). My new friends tell me this place isn’t good-they will take me somewhere else and they will take me to eat. I don’t accept the crazy offer right away. They say ‘’Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, we are good people’, my brain clicks- YES. Just say YES.
The wind is very cold and strong here. I am smelly, cold, exhausted and hungry.
They take me to eat in a typical place and I notice there are only men everywhere, both on the streets and in the restaurants. The traditional food resembles Turkish aka Bulgarian (sarmi, rice, meat and potatoes.)
There is no alcohol on the menu. Ayran and tea are mandatory.
They sit across from me to reassure me and show me not to be afraid. My new friends have 20 years contracts with the army during which aren’t allowed to travel Anywhere!!! They are at war with Armenia for territories and tell me not to visit there. Well- that explains the border questions.
I promise to return the favor when they travel abroad but my heart aches for them being prisoners of their government. I avoid telling them about my travels or the Georgian cuisine.
One of them says not to worry in case of problems to call him because his dad is the chief of police or something like that and they will help me at any time.
My army friends label me as interesting, original and funny.
They book a state run hotel for me and drive me there. The rooms are so fancy and I am so happy!!!
We make arrangement to meet when they don’t work tomorrow night.
I have this amazing big bed and I’m alone. I take the longest shower and pass out. The reception tries desperately to call my room all morning and invite me downstairs for breakfast.
I wake up at 12 when they call again and I finally understand that this breakfast is included and it’s Today! My Russian knowledge is growing by the day. The staff in the hotel is so friendly and curious about me. I am again- the only woman. It feels somehow like an apocalyptic men world so far.
Important Notice!!! Everyone here has a uni brow.
I decide to check the bazaar. It is time to get some fake branded Guccis and Chanels/Manels. I take a taxi to the markets and I try to negotiate with the merchants- things are not as cheap as Bulgaria.
Going through the bazaar shops is tiring because the merchants all follow me and then want to know where I’m from etc. I try to smile and be polite, so I drive most prices down.
A shoes merchant gets curious about me too- like everybody- he asks me why do I travel alone? He offers me coffee and his business card-if I run into trouble.
I end up buying: 2 shirts, 1 jacket, sneakers, 1 skirt and a dress for 65 euros. I could buy a lot more, but I remember the amounts of clothes I have back home.
Ganja’s tourist attractions are not too exciting for me, and I am super tired from the shopping.
I only go to see the famous house of glass bottles.
I see many gypsies. And every single man has a uni brow.
An interesting phenomenon: there are so many cafes but they don’t offer anything sweet, they are in fact restaurants.
The tea culture is very rich here: they drink a lot of black tea, and not much coffee.
After the markets I go to one of those cafes and end up just getting a hot cocoa. Nothing is as simple as it sounds. There are 6 servers-all men again- trying to serve me and everything I ask about, they call for someone else to help them out, although I ask in Russian. ‘is this building the university?’.
They really have a blank look about them. The same situation occurs with the taxi drivers.
I try to get back to my hotel: A very prominent hotel. I say the name of it, I show them the map on my phone and on a paper map, I tell them 10 different street intersections, locations and landmarks, I tell them to check their Google maps and nothing. Just a lot of shouting and talking. And that same blank look. There are around 8 taxi drivers discussing this complex situation. (sarcasm) They expect me to guide them in their city. I become exasperated. That 15 minutes of my trip was the most annoyed I ever get.
Back at the hotel I agree with my friend to go eat but he says he can only at 10 pm and I’m already starving.
I go explore a restaurant similar to the other last night in the neighborhood.
Why why why- there are again ONLY men on the streets and in the restaurant. They are all staring at me. I attempt to order and a man helps me. He speaks English!
He is a Turkish Construction/Real Estate businessman eating there with his employees. He invites me to their table. I say Yes.
He tries to flaunt his wealth in awkward ways.
‘Usually I don’t eat in such shitty places, usually I have 2 security guards with me, I have a flat in Baku facing the sea on the 22nd floor, you can stay there if you want, I buy only original brands, I have businesses in a few countries, I had scholarship for university, I have 3 degrees, my employees respect me a lot, I have 180 employees.’
He says: don’t look at me now, now I’m after job. (because he was dressed sporty).
I say: don’t worry, I’m not looking at you (And I laugh internally).
But him and his colleagues are nice and funny, I sample more cuisine.
The Turkish guy offers me a drive back to the hotel and says to call him after I meet my friend so we can smoke shisha or drink jaeger with coke. (The drink I hate the most- bad luck).
He says women are Queens in this culture and puts me in front seat of the car- while his employees are behind. He even asks if I need any money.
Both him and my army friends are quite dumbstruck when I talk about how I travel alone and how I don’t like kids. I don’t think other women ever told them this.
Everyone is also surprised I’ve come to Ganja.
What most fascinates me about my new friend is when he shows me the buildings they are working on. All the modern architectural wonders in Baku. I am deeply impressed and interested to hear more about their process. From idea to realization.
Later on, he brings his business card at the hotel and says he has stayed in this hotel for a few weeks while working on projects.
He offers if I need, I could stay in his empty apartment in Baku, I could just call him. He needs to fly to Turkey soon though-for work.
He has such a superior attitude, it’s laughable. I immediately get a bad vibe from him, so I don’t respond to his messages and don’t accept his generous invite.
Until I leave Azerbaijan-he keeps texting me and I keep ignoring him. Then he miraculously texts from Baku/so did not go on his business trip/.
Always trust your instincts.
My army friend cancels and it’s OK.
I lock the door of my fancy hotel room, watch some Kazakhstan music channels and fall asleep.
Next morning I have an offer to wait for my army friends to finish work at 13, go smoke shisha and they drive me to the bus station but I know it will take too long and don’t want to arrive in Baku too late/too dark.
I research Naftalan which was my original plan because of the petroleum spa treatments and decide it is not worth to spend a night there. I don’t have so many diseases that need curing yet.
I feel guilty I will not get to see again my two guardian angels from Ganja. Rest assured- I will never forget the goodness of your hearts.
It is time to see Baku- the pearl of the Caucasus
The bus station is completely surrounded by men and their cars offering a ride to Baku, only 5 manat more expensive than the bus. I consider the option but decide I don’t want to be quizzed again about my travels and life history.
Little do I know, the woman next to me on the bus is going to do exactly that…and more.
This time, I make some kind of plan (wow). I contact my Azeri friends from the Tbilisi hostel and one of them says he will greet me at the bus station. He recommends a hostel too.
The bus to Baku takes forever. Not because it’s a long trip, but because every driver here is also a postman. He delivers 3 packages and makes 3 stops in the first hour.
The lady who is sitting next to me starts trying to speak to me, and I can’t even pretend to listen to music because she insists I go to her town and meet her nephew who is an 18 year old boxing champion.
The bus makes a stop midway and we go for tea. There is no food or any other options on the menu. Everyone is just sitting in a large room drinking tea accompanied by candies.
The lady insists to pay for me. I draft a plan in my head and reach my friend in Baku to tell him to write me in Azeri we have dinner plans. The translation works and the lady leaves me alone.
Suddenly- I see it. The Caspian Sea and all the oil platforms. It’s so gray. The landscape is very deserty with sandy colors.
BAKU- final stop
The arrival at bus terminal leaves me speechless. Women- at last! LOL- just kidding. No women!!! Once again there are 1 million men and taxi drivers. As well as in the metro.
My friend meets me and I am actually relieved that someone will guide me and I don’t need to ask directions.
Unfortunately, we discover the hostel I booked is quite shit, so we explore a few meters down the street and end up in Amsterdam hostel. Cool vibe and employees.
I am sure at that point Booking.com can’t keep up with my change of plans and are probably getting annoyed with me. Thank you in advance for accommodating my change of plans.
Tonight celebrations are on the menu. My friend contacts his cousin (that I also know from Tbilisi’s hostel) and his girlfriend and we head out to the center to eat delicious food.
His girlfriend is so beautiful and confident, strikes me as such a strong, independent and intelligent woman. One is immediately drawn to her aura.
My friends say:’ don’t be surprised if you get someone following you. Men are quite shy here, but this is their way of showing they like you.’
They tell me of a case from England where a girl was being followed for days and she called the police. The Azeri man was detained and said they should call the embassy which explained this culture deviation and he was released.
We walk around the pedestrian city center of Baku which reminds me so much of any other European city with lights and chandeliers, and paved streets with boutiques and souvenir shops. We go through the old town with its little streets, hidden alleyways and dead ends. We listen to traditional music and I feel like I’ve landed straight into a fairy tale. We see the Formula 1 fences and seats being installed. The race is just a few weeks away. We reach the sea-side boardwalk. Everywhere is very clean and in order.
My friend was a tour guide during the Eurovision contest, so he tells me a lot about the country’s history. This was the first Muslim country to become a republic and Baku means Windy city. (Wholeheartedly agree with this as it is freezing).
We get some unique tea, olives jam and shisha.
The next day, I change hostels and chose a very modern and clean one, although not social. I am very surprised to see there are no walking tours and pub crawls. It seems like I am on my own. The receptionists always says : I don’t know-look around or ask other travelers. She spends most time crying and arguing with her Indian boyfriend on the couch. The care and hospitality here can’t reach the Georgian level. There is free and unlimited tea in the hostel .The other travelers are mostly Iranian and Indian. What was also quite strange is that the other tourists are always inside the hostel?! They never go out to visit anything.
In Baku, there is a Nutella caffe with amazing creations. This is where I get breakfast and I am certain then I have never had a sweeter breakfast.
I also see a Kinder place to eat other incredible desserts.
I tour the seaside and am amazed to see the Carpet museum and the new mall that takes inspiration from the Sidney opera. I LOVE how creative they are with architecture.
Here is also where I get myself a stalker! It is actually a guy whom I’ve asked to take pictures of me about 20 minutes prior. He was walking around with his friend/girlfriend and now here he is -stalking me. Ugh! So creepy.
Just following me and staring without saying a word.
Unfortunately for me, there is no wide-spread wifi in Baku, but I manage to take a taxify and see him in the back window brooding. He looks so sad! WTF!
The taxify takes me to a huge meat and food market instead of clothing one. Oops. I see pork meat being sold. I walk from there to the train station- kind of getting used to the outlook of the city . I withdraw money and go to the shops there where I get my infamous red dress and some fake brands.
I return to my hostel to rest. We have a pizza dinner with my new friends then head to a popular wine bar. They always insist on paying!!! We get quite drunk with my friends and begin playing Never Have I Ever. Crazy game. The live music inside this wine bar is amazing. Then we proceed to another bar in old town which is small but super fun. We dance a lot and sample all the shots on the menu. MY TIME HAS COME AND ON THIS TRIP This time- I pay. Finally. Its 1AM, we take a taxi to a viewpoint. The ride is a blur but the taxi driver is racing like a race driver. The flame towers are not illuminated sadly but the rest of the view is stunning. The Eurovision building is twinkling like stars, you can also see the new building that will be a half moon. Oh, there is no beach in the city, you need to drive to villages around. Me and Hikmat continue the party by asking the taxi driver which club is open but the others go home. Here, as well as Tbilisi, partying is only on Friday and Saturday. It’s Thursday so clubbing is limited.
Me and Hikmat end up in a huge Arabic club which he did not like. He gets annoyed how many local girls there are dancing to the Arab music and Arab tourists. I feel bad for my friend, having to witness this unpleasant image. Oh, have I mentioned that he lives in Latvia, so he is also kind of a tourist in his own country. We dance a bit and I am having fun but he wants to leave and we take the eggplant style taxi.
Eventually I book a walking tour online but when I show up on location, only the tour guide is there. Wow! I decide to skip.
My friends are busy on the weekend, so I make my own plan.
NOTE: I am so thankful for having met them in Tbilisi- They make my trip a thousand times better and memorable. At the end, we mostly remember how we were treated . And I remember laughing and smiling a Lot.
I visit the Heydar Aliev cultural center- absolute highlight of my trip. I spend 4 hours there and it is not enough.
4 hours- I smile from ear to ear. I am the last one to leave, they have to literally kick me out.
Adding another tab on my life chapters. Another deeply personal and emotional moment for me. The visits to Oslo’s opera, Amsterdam’s The Eye, Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow, Niteroi’s Art museum, Valencia’s city of Arts and Sciences..and now Baku’s cultural center. Each and every time is the same intensity of feelings. I am in utter awe facing the genius of white, smooth, modern architecture. And it is just as stunning(if not more) from the inside.
The exhibitions leave me speechless. Here is where I gain respect and deeper understanding of the Azeri history and culture. Their iconic president Heydar Aliev absolutely deserves this homage.
I go back to my hostel and decide to stay in. I am really cold and emotionally drained. Friday night I am boring and anti social. I watch some Netflix and reflect on how long this trip feels like. It’s the first time I feel that 2 weeks might be a bit too much. I could have done it in less time. I wander upon if I am just lazy or exhausted. My clothes are all dirty and I am so tired of combining them. My face and back are splatters with pimples. I need more makeup but I am tired of applying so much makeup.- HEY! Traveling isn’t always unicorns and roses.
Since it’s my last day-I need to go get souvenirs and the promised Georgian and Azeri books for my colleague.
I make a surprise last minute friendship with my room mate from India and we go for dinner. She is an English teacher here. In the restaurant, we meet one of her students who is Turkish and is so happy to see her and practice her English.
She has to greet some professors at the airport , so we agree to go clubbing later. I google some popular bars in the area that I can check before I fly away at 4 am.
That’s a whole new adventure.
Bar1: cute barman! I sit next to a prostitute with fake hair, eyelashes, boobs and lips. She is nice but later on becomes a stalker ;(
Bar3: very dark and cozy atmosphere. Funny menu. I make friends with the 2 guys next to me. A guy across the bar buys me a drink, comes talk and offers to show me around the national parks. He is organizing events like the formula 1 and inviting famous singers. He says this year is James Arthur. I tell him I leave in 2 hours to the airport 😀
I say I need to go to another bar and return to the 1st bar.
Bar 1 The prostitute offers me to chat up the barman who likes me. We take a picture and I see he has already added me on fb!?! How!? 😀
I meet some expats working here in gas and oil. They are Irish and we head to another bar.
Bar 4: It is still quite empty but I need to head to the airport at 2AM, so I cannot wait for it to fill up.
Bar 5: Funky bar, but my new friends are a bit too calm, and I don’t want to get drunker.
I head back to my hostel having made 7 new friends and I take a short nap.
I get a taxi to the airport, a 30 min ride for 4 euros, and along the way, there are so many amazing designs and modern buildings. The roads are super clean, new, smooth and large.
I take a last glimpse back at the Cultural Center. I am SO IN LOVE with it.
The airport is also an emblem of modern architecture. Inside of it there are different capsules: for painting, music, cuisine, etc.
I take the watercolors and paint away.
I am super sleepy because of all the booze so the flight feels short. In Minsk I also make a bed and sleep on the benches. When I fall asleep the airport is empty and wake up, there are so many people around me. The Minsk airport is very poor with horrible design, very strict border control, and no food options. I however spot 2 celebrities going through: A Metal band and an Italian singer from the older generation which names I will not disclose.
I am back to Prague. Taxis are exactly 5 x more expensive.