Cuttino's Georgian Life

A journal of my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Georgia, 2006-2008.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Azerbaijan, Part 2--Pit Stop on the Silk Road

I'm posting these entries on Georgian time, so when I say "tomorrow," I actually mean "whenever I get around to it." Anyway, continuing with my travel story...

I left for Azerbaijan early in the morning with only a vague idea of where I was going. Tbilisi is close enough to the border that you can take a cab to the checkpoint for about $30. I crossed over with no problems. It is a bit disconcerting that the minute you leave Georgia, the Georgian language (which I slaved over for weeks) becomes utterly useless. Instead, I had to rely on Russian, which I found was being gradually displaced by Georgian. For the first day in Azerbaijan I found that Georgian words continued to come out of my mouth ("ara" instead of "nyet," "kho" instead of "da"), much to the confusion of the Azeris.

The first stop on my trip was Sheki, a town in the northwest corner of the country at the base of the Caucasus. Sheki is probably the second biggest tourist town in Azerbaijan, and for good reason. It is a gorgeous town with some amazing views of the mountains. The town was a stopping point on the historic Silk Road. Traders would often stop here en route from Europe to Asia. In the 18th and 19th century, the Sheiks built the caravansari (Caravan Palace), which was basically a hotel for traders. The place still functions as a hotel today.

The caravansarai.

In Sheki, I met up with a few Peace Corps Volunteers who had come to visit me in Gori last Christmas. Sheki is an ideal placement--lots of nature, clean streets, a 4-star hotel. They even worked out a deal with the hotel restaurant to get a weekly meal (actual cheeseburgers!) in exchange for free English lessons. Oh, the things we do for free food...

I spent a day and a half in Sheki and traveled with the local PCVs Charlie and Magda to a gathering on the other side of the country. We were planning on taking the night train to Baku and moving on from there. However, when Charlie called to order the tickets, the operator curtly stated that there were none and hung up. Now, I've traveled enough in former-Soviet countries to understand the train system (they're the same no matter where you go). Both he and I knew that this guy was could show up five minutes before and get a ticket. However, in Azerbaijan there seems to be a strong system of patronage. Charlie called up a friend and asked him to be "a sacrifice" for him--"be a good guy, do this for me, talk to your friend, pull some strings." The guy talked to a guy who talked to a guy... A few minutes later, Charlie got a call from an unidentified man at the train station, who begrudgingly told us to come and get the tickets.

Living in the Caucasus sometimes feels like being in an episode of The Sopranos. You talk to a guy, he gets things done, one of these days he's going to call on you for a favor...

Tomorrow: America Day just above of Iran...


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