Category Archives: Azerbaijan

Georgia, or George

Heather and I were observing that we have reached a point in life when we no longer try not to act like tourists. We cheerfully announce it when the circumstances call for disclosure: “Tourist!” It used to be that I’d try to fit in, or simply not to be noticed. Whether this was because I thought it was “cooler” to seem like a “local” or because I was afraid of being ripped off or of missing out on “authentic” experience, or because I just didn’t want to be bothered by touts, I can’t quite say. Probably some of all of the above.

I don’t find any trouble in fending off most touts anymore—they tend to be even more obviously touts than I am a tourist; I can’t keep up with what’s cool and don’t have the energy to try to fake it; I have no illusions about being taken for a local (not even with my fit-in-anywhere complexion); and authentic experience is whatever experience you have, as long as you’re having it with all your senses engaged, whether it’s riding on the funicular in Baku, which is a sort of souvenir-in-motion, or riding a bus that breaks down in 105-degree heat on the road into the Azerbaijani hinterlands two days later.

For the last two days, Heather and I have been in K(Q)azbegi, Georgia, taking hikes of various distances up into the heights that reach toward the eponymous 17,000-foot mountain. We’ve seen hundreds, possibly actual thousands, of other hikers on the trails. Kazbegi might be the most touristy place in Georgia. But that doesn’t detract one bit from the authenticity of the beauty of the mountain, which is rising up spectacularly outside our hotel window as I write this, the Mount Rainier of the Caucasus (I just made that up, don’t Google it) and showing yet another of its personalities in this post-rain, half-clearing, cloud-wisped, late-afternoon light.

Equally authentic is the rashly overbuilt and rather cantankerous, grubby, oddly inhospitable town of Kazbegi, which has found a way to smash one identity into another and find a third; authentic, too, the strange swamp-gassy smell one gets occasional whiffs of, coming from somewhere down on the hotel’s lawn; and, to get us here from Tbilisi, the fraught minibus ride—actually two-minibus ride, because the first minibus broke down and had to be replaced by another (an hourlong roadside delay, our second in our last three bus rides). Authentic tourism is whatever you fully observe and sense. Like George.

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Azerbaijan 2: Baku, the Incomprehensible

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On the promenade by the Caspian, everything seems to be made of marble, even the underground passageway that leads to it from underneath the boulevard. Once you emerge, Russian ballet music is coming from somewhere: speakers mounted in light posts, it turns out. A sparkling white fountain is populated by statues of swans. All along the promenade runs a grassy park shaded with trees and lined with benches. One section of the promenade is called “Little Venice”: you go up and down over more marble steps above a network of canals where gondoliers row visitors in the twilight. At the far end of the promenade is an enormous, flower-shaped architectural wonder known as the pearl. Beyond that, around a bend, is a giant, glittering ferris wheel.

At nightfall, around nine o’clock, the promenade is at its most crowded, especially around the fountain of swans. The open plaza yields a good view up and away from the Caspian toward the “Flame Towers.” Once it’s dark, these three high-rises light up in undulations of red-orange, then sea-blue. (Or is it gas-flame blue? This is oil-rich Azerbaijan, after all.) Now each tower takes on its own color: one blue, one red, one green, the colors of Azerbaijan’s flag. After another minute, the image changes to a giant white-on-black silhouette of a heroic figure waving that flag. All around the fountain of swans, people are taking selfies with these images as backdrop, the music as soundtrack.

It’s something else (really, check it out), which I mean not as a figure of speech but as literally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Baku might be the city of the future, yet perhaps the future it’s the city of will never come to be; if it does, it will have no America in it, because no American city has even begun to remake itself in the twenty-first-century image that cities like Baku are shaping. More and more, America seems to me a place caught between two eras: detached from the traditionalism that gives durable cultures the lifeblood that sustains them through epochal change (for example, in the part of Georgia we’re in now, they’ve been making wine the same semi-primitive way for hundreds if not thousands of years); but lagging way behind the innovation and reimagining that mark the vanguard of civilization. It sometimes seems plausible that the US is so stuck on and in itself, so paralyzed by its divisions and addictions, and still so pitiably longing for the late twentieth century (i.e. the time before 9/11 that we will wake up one day to find that the world we thought we were leading has taken an alternate and faster route to some completely different destination and left us still driving our cars to nowhere while civilization is soaring up and away to heights undreamt.

Meanwhile, as Baku leaps, probably too quickly, toward the future, there are so many metaphors for/symbols of its paradoxes of simultaneous obviousness and indecipherability, of novelty and backwardness, of stylishness and awkwardness, authenticity and counterfeit, wealth and poverty, that you’d have to be asleep not to notice them. Here are a few:

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Azerbaijan 1: The Caspian Sea

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I’ve gotten way ahead of myself: between Albania and Baku, I was reunited with Heather (my wife, if you should happen to be reading this and somehow not know me); we spent time in Greece, traveling all the way across its northern stretch, and then Istanbul, where we met up with a couple of her best friends, big-time jet-setters. From there we flew to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For now, my travelogue is flying over Greece and Turkey. This is mainly because there has been no time to write until now—Heather and I were first telling stories to each other of our independent experiences (she was in Ireland while I was in Albania), and then we were on the move from Paxos to Ioannina to Meteora to Thessaloniki to Istanbul to Azerbaijan. In fact, we’re not even in Azerbaijan anymore but actually Georgia, so I’m both ahead and behind.

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