A Travellerspoint blog

Travelling by Mashrutka in Azerbaijan

seating etiquette

Thought I'd add this extra bit on while I'm waiting for photos to copy at the "Internet Klub".

As I mentioned before, one of the main ways to travel around the Caucasus, and also Central Asia, is by Mashrutka. These are usually Transit vans with seats - as many as can be fitted in. They either travel around towns and cities or go from one town or village to another, have a fixed route but in most cases only leave when full. And I mean full. This is not just with people, but also luggage, shopping that gets sent from a shop to someone in a village, furniture, bags of flour, vegetables, rice,you name it, if it fits in it gets crammed in.

Mashrutkas can run remarkably regularly and I know of several places in England that would benefit from public transport like that!

In these countries women, quite rightly I think, get given seats by men. There is also an age thing going on so a young woman will give her seat up to an old man. The best person to be on a Mashrutka is an old woman and the worst is a young man or boy.

As Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, this adds an extra dimension as men and women don't generally sit next to each other - I was in one when a the whole long seat at the front was taken up by an old lady. The young boy who was taking the fares and helping put the bags in had to wait for her to give him permission to sit down at the other end of the seat.

The way it work here is that the Mashrutka seating gets sorted out correctly at the beginning of the journey, however this soon needs to be rearranged as more people get on. You can see the intricate calculations of age and gender being worked out at every stop as it gets fuller and fuller. Often people have to stand in bent positions, clinging on to whatever they can. I did this for a short while in a city one and was held onto, very kindly, by a young girl who thought it very worrying that a tourist should have to do this.

On a long trip, the Mashrutka invariably stops just outside the first town, where there is a large group of old ladies with a large amount of bags, the passengers let out a collective groan, but then good naturedly arrange themselves to let them sit down.

Once I was on a full one which stopped at a village and about 12 schoolchildren got on to go to school - there was much pushing and shoving and it went on its way to the town.

Its a brilliant way to travel - especially if you are an older woman and costs next to nothing.

Posted by sue deegan 04:57 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (2)

Baku beyond

A 2 humped camel city

sunny 30 °C

Baku_at_night.jpg

Azerbaijan got off on a bad start with me - first of all I'd been woken up on the sleeper train by a man kneeling on the floor between my bunk and his wife's and talking in a very loud whisper - strangely all the English he knew before disappeared, or at least he didn't know what "Shut up I'm trying to sleep!" meant. Also the very sovietly (new word) officious train woman locked the toilet doors before we got to Baku and just stood and watched while I tried to open it. Lastly, the similarly officious toilet attendant at Baku station refused to let me in as I didn't have any Azeri money. You'll be relieved to hear that some nice ladies came along and gave her some money for me. Looking back I'm not sure why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and go in anyway, but early in the morning and a new country is a bad combination for me. Its so easy, when traveling, to fall into the trap of assuming that individual people represent a whole country, which, of course, is silly. I do think that different nationalities have a general "personality", but its impossible to form a proper impression of this after a few hours! However, I carried on with the feeling that the Azeris can be quite a forceful people and that you have to keep on your toes with them. They can also be very warm, hospitable and friendly people too.

We arrived in Baku, the capital, which is on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, across which is Turkmenistan, to the south is Iran and the north is Russia and Dagestan. Baku is a city rich in oil, the proceeds of which are obvious around the city, infact it has the poshest Debenham's I've ever seen. We went to the Old City and were immediately accosted by the local guide, Ali, who actually showed us comparatively cheap hotel ( his brother's of course, in the old city. As in Tbilisi, this was for the same price as a bed in an overcrowded dorm. The Caucasus seem to specialise in expensive hostels, knowing that foreign backpackers like to keep together. It is nice to meet other travellers, but its still possible to do so while having a bit more value for money.

The Old City in Baku is surrounded by its mostly original walls with a several gates, at one of which is the large Maiden Tower. Unfortunately, the buildings have been either rebuilt or sandblasted, giving it a rather sanitised look, in fact it reminded me of an oriental Poundbury! Still it was possible to imagine the Caravans arriving across the desert. When I was travelling along the Silk Road before I became very interested/obsessed with how many humps camels had in each country. To explain: when the Silk Caravans set out from China they used 2 humped, hairy mountain camels, but when they arrived in the Middle East, the camels were single-humped desert camels. Where, I wondered, did the camels loose a hump? The answer, as far as I could tell, was Uzbekistan, where there had been both types. Baku was also on one of the numerous Silk Roads but although it is surrounded by desert, the hairy mountain 2 humped variety was the one in most of the old pictures.

MORE PICTURES OF BAKU COMING SHORTLY>

baku_at_night_2.jpg

The Azeri people are of Turkic origin and their language is pretty close to Turkish. Here is a quick, but highly academic history of the Turkic people:
Quite a long time ago, a tribe called the Turks left the homelands somewhere around Mongolia, though they weren't Mongolian. They spread down through Xinjiang, which is now in western China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and into Turkey. There might be a few Stans left out of that. This is mainly Central Asia and Turkey. Its a massive area and explains why in China there are people whose language and culture are strongly related to Turkey, thousands of miles away. Now you know.

We were in Baku twice, but I'll tell you about the stuff we did there in one go.

Although the centre of Baku is very modern and wealthy, the areas surrounding it were full of filthy old oil wells and ecological destruction. This is being slowly cleared up but it makes for an interesting comparison. Out of the 3 Caucusus countries, Azerbaijan has the largest division between rich and poor. One of the places we went to was an old Zorastrian fire temple. This had an eternal flame, which was originally fueled by natural gasses, but now by the compliments of the gas company! The trip on the bus from Baku took us through areas that became more and more run down until we arrived in a dilapidated town full of old nodding donkeys and a train line full of oil tankers.

Fire_Temple_near_Baku.jpgFire_Temple_mr_Baku.jpg

We also did a couple of trips with the speedy but informative Ali to some mud volcanoes, the "James Bond Oil field" used in a Bond film, strangely enough, a mountain that has been on fire for a few hundred years - not fueled by the gas company, and a sea-side resort with oil fields in the distance.

Baku_Sea-scape.jpgFire_Mountain_nr_Baku.jpgMud_Volcano_1.jpgOil_Fields_of_Baku.jpg

After a couple of expensive days in Baku we decided to go south to the Talysh Mountains, which border on Iran.

Posted by sue deegan 04:35 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged people night trains backpacking baku azerbaijan caucusus Comments (2)

Tbilisi

And beyond

sunny 27 °C

Tbilisi river Mtkvar</p><p>Tbilisi has some of the worst pavements I've ever seen;  not only are they broken and have massive holes in them but in places they are quite severly buckled, making it often easier and safer to walk in the roads.  Well it would be if every driver in the city didn't drive like a boy racer, women included.  This makes crossing the road a bit of a chore.  You can try and stare them out and win the right to cross the road, but the odds aren't always strong enough to risk it!  This isn't done with an air of aggression at all, just bravado and incredibly bad parking.  Thats not to say the whole city has broken pavement as there are certainly some posh parts here, but even in the so there is a general lack of health and safety standards -  the steps of an underpass in the main square had unused buidling materials scattered on them after the workmen had gone home.  </p><p>[img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/295164/Tbilis_house.jpg

Tbilisi river Mtkvar

Tbilisi has some of the worst pavements I've ever seen; not only are they broken and have massive holes in them but in places they are quite severly buckled, making it often easier and safer to walk in the roads. Well it would be if every driver in the city didn't drive like a boy racer, women included. This makes crossing the road a bit of a chore. You can try and stare them out and win the right to cross the road, but the odds aren't always strong enough to risk it! This isn't done with an air of aggression at all, just bravado and incredibly bad parking. Thats not to say the whole city has broken pavement as there are certainly some posh parts here, but even in the so there is a general lack of health and safety standards - the steps of an underpass in the main square had unused buidling materials scattered on them after the workmen had gone home.

[img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/295164/Tbilis_house.jpg

Tbilis graffitti

Tbilis graffitti

Tbilis block of flats

Tbilis block of flats

You might be thinking that this concern with health and safety is not like me, but if you read my last blog you will remember that I had a mangled knee and ankle so I was more concious of all these things. Not concious enough though, as 2 days later I was hobbling along a comparatively flat pavement ( have you noticed a pattern beginning to emerge here?) when all of a sudden the ground gave way and I realised my leg was trapped up to the knee in a swivelling sewerage cover! I was pretty quickly hauled out by two passers-by but unfortunately my good leg was a bit mangled up as well. The evening before we had walked around Tbilisi with some other travellers we'd met and were joking about the massive number of chemists in the streets which they kept pointing out to me incase of further injuries. Do you think I could find one then to get something to disinfect my injuries? Suddenly they had disappeared! I just hobbled back the way we'd come till we were back in the land of the chemists and then went back to the safety of my bed, muttering and sniveling about it always being me.

The next day I managed to pluck up enough courage to walk the streets again and then spent the next couple of days walking around Tbilisis feeling odder and odder until I realised that I had a temperature and that my original knee injury, which I hadn't really taken seriously , was infected.

It did make for interesting experiences on the Metro though. Tbilisi has a small Metro system left over from Soviet times, which has some of the longest escalators I've ever seen. You get vertigo just standing at the top of them. They are also quite scarily fast, but still it takes ages to get down to the bottom. In typical Georgian style, instead of a frantic rush of people walking down there, people just stand, or even sit quite happily, unless they are in a real rush, but its a rare sight. The air isn't the greatest down there, and in my slightly feverish state it all seemed very strange and echoey. The trains are pretty efficient and quick though.

Tbilisi typical Georgian group

Tbilisi typical Georgian group

The buildings in Tbilisi, like the pavements, are often very dilapidated but beautiful. Most houses have balconies, either wooden or metal and I imaginged the people living in the ones in the old part of the city were fairly poor. Thats until you realise that many of them have some pretty posh cars parked outside and then when you look in through the courtyards you realise that they are in better condition inside. Its hard to describe, and I haven't seen it anywhere else like here, but its a sort of mixture between poverty and shabby chic and also a strange sort of mixture of beauty and ugliness. There are some seriously big buildings here as well and second time aaround, I'm enjoying it all a lot more. Especially now I can walk (though I do have another injury which you'll hear about later on).

Tbilisi balcony with vines

Tbilisi balcony with vines

Tbilisi balcony

Tbilisi balcony

I spent a few painful days here, looking around, trying to buy difficult things like memory cards and womens walking boot ( if they have to go walking Georgian women would do so in a pair of high heels or plastic slippers) and then we booked a ticket on the overnight train to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan which went from the biggest, fanciest train station, with shopping mall, I've seen.

Clothes shop Tbilisi

Clothes shop Tbilisi

Posted by sue deegan 06:59 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains buildings trains backpacking georgia tbilisi caucusus Comments (1)

Mestia

Where I discover that the Caucusus Mountain consist of huge amounts of gravel and realise why hiking people have sticks, special drying clothes and hiking boots.

all seasons in one day 29 °C
View Mıddle East and Caucusus on sue deegan's travel map.

When I first heard about Mestia it was mentioned in a slightly older travel guide (2004). It described the area of Svaneti as wild and mysterious with a high risk of getting way-laid by bandits on the road up there - see previous blog. Things change. The bandits chiefs had been killed by the police a few years before, and the only risk of banditry in Mestia these days is being overcharged for transport around the area. Don't think I was disapointed by this, as it made for an easy life and during my whole stay there I had no lock on my door where I left my camera stuff and money and the house I was staying in was full of teenagers - but not as we know them. (Though I do have to point out here that all my children were perfect, model teenagers who never dissed their mother and were always willing to any chores at the drop of a hat.)

Typical Mestia House

Typical Mestia House

We actually slept next door to the famous Nino's Homestay but ate our meals in hers. This was great for us as we had a big room off the main upstairs veranda - which was like a room in itself with a table and chairs and ran the length of the house. The neighbour spoke no English, but the teenagers did and so we all managed to communicate. After a week of staying theré, we'd all become very fond of each other and I was sorry to go. Nino's itself was a very organised guest house where food was served with frightening regularity. Not just food, but dish after dish of home-cooked feasts. The house was, surprisingly, full of Israelis. A few weeks down the line I realise that I now assume most tourists in Georgia are Israeli, (however apparently there were 17 Uk tourists in Tbilisi the other day according to the tourist info).

The town of Mestia is long and thin and full of stone Svan Towers, which were used for defense purposes and some date back to the 12th C. Its a strange mixture of ancient, ex-soviet dilapiration and new building - due to its impending tourism boom. I'm so glad to have seen it before it changes too much. Pigs and cows happily roam around free-range with the chickens and old soviet vehicles rattle along the streets. The fastest river in Georgia, the Enguri, thunders through it, its wide stony bed is several feet wider than the actual river ever gets.

Lorries by Enguri River, Nestia

Lorries by Enguri River, Nestia

View from roof of Svan Tower

View from roof of Svan Tower

bus, Mestia

bus, Mestia

There's not much there, just a few shops, which you need to take a while to realise they are shops, a cafe where everyone is miserable (unusual for Georgians and food, but the food is also unusually bad for Georgian food so no wonder!), a church, a very basic hospital, a school and a couple of Museums. I'm not a great museum person, but I loved these. The big one was full of amazing gold and silver icons, ancient books and manuscripts and some very old domestic stuff - cooking things, furniture etc. The best thing about it was that you could actually get right up close and touch the stuff - not the manuscripts ofcourse, though it would have been possible. Svaneti was so removed from the rest of Georgia that whe maurading Russiians and Turks weren't able to get up there to get their hands on all their treasures. The other museum was an old house arranged as it would have been in over the last few centuries. Svaneti has its own language, which broke away from Georgian several hundred years ago and is quite different now.

Boy on Horse, Mestia

Boy on Horse, Mestia

Stairs, Mestia

Stairs, Mestia

The weather wasd definately cooler up in Mestia but the days were hot and sunny, that is until we went for hikes! Every time we slogged up the steep slipery bit in full hot sun and the moment we got somewhere good, the skies would open. Rain, hail, thunder and lightening! Once we were wet (and hurt from the hail) and just wanted to go back down, the sun would come out again. Thats often when the trouble would start for me though - I didn't imagine that the Caucusus were made nearly entirely from slidey gravel and shingle and that sports sandals didn't really do the job! It was suggested that if we'd got up earlier and walked in the morning we might have walked up in cooler weather and then missed the late afternoon storms, but what do they know?

8cross_over.._mestia.jpg

The following 2 photos are how it looked when we were walking up:

Enguri river,  Mestia

Enguri river, Mestia

Bridge to the glacier

Bridge to the glacier

This is how it looked when we got there!

hailstorm_..Glacier.jpg

I was sad to go back down the mountains again to stay in the town of Zugdidi for the night before going to Tbilisi, the capital, the next day on the overnight train. We had wanted to go the same night but the train was full, a fact I only realised half-way through attempting to buy the tickets in Russian. I now know the Russian for tomorrow quite well. It was lucky there were no tickets, as on the way to the hotel from the station, after days of careful manouvering down shingly, slidey mountains, I slipped on a pebble on the street and went sprawling on my face in the dust, trapped by the weight of my rucksack! Result - one mangled knee and twisted ankle.

Posted by sue deegan 10:10 Archived in Georgia Tagged landscapes mountains buildings people backpacking caucusus Comments (3)

(Entries 13 - 16 of 22) « Page 1 2 3 [4] 5 6 »