XENIA IN BAKU
Greetings from Baku:
Hope all is well to everyone who reads this. Summer has finally arrived here in Baku. After what appeared to be the beginnings of a very mild summer, the heat has finally arrived. June was quite mild but recently the humidity has increased along with the heat making it very uncomfortable to be outside. Thank goodness for air conditioning.
This past month we finally were able to do some traveling around Azerbaijan. This would actually be both Nia’s and Xenia’s first venture outside of the confines of the city of Baku. Our first trip was south of Baku, along the coast of the Caspian Sea on the Baku – Alat road, to visit the infamous mud volcanoes. Mud volcanoes are just that – volcanoes which splutter forth cold mud rather than molten rock. Although not unique to Azerbaijan, the country has more of these odd geological attractions (300+) than any other country in the world. These volcanoes constantly emit flammable gases and throw gobs of mud and watery flows that vary seasonally. The behavior is more amusing than life threatening. Due to the terrible nature of the roads, it took us almost two hours to get to the volcanoes, which were only 65 miles south of Baku. The main highways are in just terrible condition. The road beds were never laid down correctly and grossly overweight trucks have torn up the roads. Just the ride on these bad roads really knocks the daylights out of you and you actually feel exhausted after just a two hour ride.
Since we were traveling into areas that are known to be snake infested, we all had to ensure that we had proper footwear. Both Nia and I had safety boots but we had to get boots for Xenia. Nia scoured all over Baku for boots for Xenia but as usual everyone had just two sizes – too big or too small. Also being summertime, boots are just not available. Nia finally went to one of the bazaars and found someone selling children’s shoes. With the help of our driver she told the man what she was looking for. He looked at her strangely. "Why are you buying boots in the summer? Boots are for the winter." Anyway he told her that he had boots at home and would bring them tomorrow. The next day Nia went back and got a nice pair of boots for Xenia. Xenia so loved her boots that she would not take them off. That evening we were walking around the Hyatt with Xenia wearing shorts and boots. She had them well broken in before the trip.
After the long drive and then about another 10 miles off road we finally got to the mud volcanoes. We got out of the car and walked over to the volcanoes. The first thing that Xenia does is stick her hand into one of the mud flows. She quickly realized how slimy the mud felt and starts shaking her hands and spatters mud all over her pants. Nia came quickly with a wipe and cleaned Xenia’s hands. We walked around the various cones and watched them spit mud. At one of the cones, Xenia starts to throw little rocks into the cone. I guess she angered the mud volcano god. Suddenly the volcano spits out a fine stream of mud that spatters both her and I with mud. We had mud on our clothes, in our hair, and on the camera. We had to do a fast clean up before leaving.
After we left the mud volcanoes, we went to see the petrolyphs in Gobustan. Neolithic man depicted various animal forms on the walls of the dwelling caves in the hills above the city of Gobustan. The collapse of many of the caves due to erosion and seismic activity have revealed thousands of carved figures including shamen, cattle, and deer. There was also a carving of an ancient ship that Thor Heyerdahl came to examine a year ago because the picture very closely resembled the type of ships that the Vikings had used. Anyway, we climbed over the rocks and into the caves and looked at as many of the carvings as we could. Finally we sat down and had a much deserved break of food and cold beverages before the long bumpy ride home.
Our next trip was a long weekend adventure into the Caucasus Mountains. We traveled north of Baku along the Baku - Rostov road. This road goes from Baku all the way to Rostov in Russia and I feel sorry for anyone who has to drive it. The road condition is just terrible with bumps and huge potholes. We traveled north to the city of Quba. The further north we went the more "green" the countryside got. The Baku area is very arid, however Quba is already in the Caucasus Mountains so there are sufficient rains to keep the landscape green. All along the road there were many people selling fruits and vegetables. What took a bit of getting used to was seeing individuals butchering animals along the road. You would see a man very methodically skinning the carcass and then hanging the carcass up for sale. Of course you could by any piece of the animal you want. Any one care for a sheep head?
Quba is actually the center of the Jewish community of Azerbaijan. The city at one time contained many synagogues that were closed or desecrated during the Soviet era. Just outside of the city is a very large Jewish Cemetery. Judaism along with Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are some of the "official" religions of Azerbaijan. There is a move right now in Azerbaijan to legally restrict or even prohibit other "newer" religions due to their potential destabilizing effect. A government agency is being set up to monitor and control these religions.
Our plans were to stay outside of Quba in a chalet that we had rented in a resort called Long Forest. The drive from Quba to the chalet was just awful. The road was all rock along a dried river bed. The chalet was quite nice as long as you remember two very important concepts - rustic and third world country. The chalet had basic furnishings, a small kitchen area, small living area with fold out couch, bedroom and bathroom with hot water. It did not have a TV or radio. The resort had a full service restaurant, bar, an area for playing pool and darts, outside children's play area, sauna, volleyball, and horseback riding.
But again remember - rustic and third world country. What the restaurant had on the menu and what they actually served were two very different things. In Azerbaijan, there is a custom that you do not eat fish in any months that do not have the letter "r". Therefore it is nearly impossible to get fish anytime from May to August. Part of this is due to the lack of refrigeration in the old days. Anyway, we made due with what we could at the restaurant. We also brought with us some food and water just in case.
The weather was very nice the entire weekend. Warm days and cool nights due to the elevation in the mountains. Xenia wanted to spend all her time on the children's playset. We seem to have pictures of her on playsets all over the world. We also hiked in the woods and looked for "treasures" i.e. pretty rocks in the dried river bed. At night, we were far enough from any cities that the sky got really dark and you could see just an unbelievable amount of stars.
The first night was very interesting. We went to bed and everything seemed ok. I woke up during the night and thought I felt something crawling on me. However, feeling around I did not find anything and thought it was just my imagination. Well it wasn't. We had ants crawling on us most of the night. Not a lot, just an occasional ant walking by. Rustic - third world country. The next night we sprayed insect repellent all around the legs of the bed. Just in case Xenia decided to get up in the middle of the night we had left the light on the bathroom. At two o'clock in the morning, all the electricity is turned off throughout the resort until 6 o'clock. Rustic - third world country. Good thing I brought a flash light with me. We did not see or hear any animals, however we did see tracks of animals in the mud in the riverbed. The drive home was just as bad as the drive up. Only going home we made several stops to check out local stores and markets. Good thing I did not have to do the driving.
With the warm weather, the attendance at the Cathedral has dropped off markedly just like the United States. Our Bishop has been travelling, first to Moscow and then to China for various meetings and conferences. The one thing to remember here is that many places, including the Cathedral are not air conditioned. Sunday services can be very warm. What is really funny is watching the arguments over the opening of the windows. Many of the older people I have to assume have really bad circulation problems. They wear many layers of clothing including several pairs of socks even during the hot summer days. The younger people are just wilting from the heat. There are constant arguments over the opening of the windows. In one case, a person opened the window near us. An old baba from clear on the other side of the Cathedral comes running over, the fastest I have ever seen her move, and slams the window shut yelling at this poor women and telling her how cold it was. The old baba then went back to the other side of the Cathedral and kept glaring back making sure no one opens the window.
One Sunday I was given a lesson on how to pray correctly. I was standing there in the Cathedral minding my own business when this gentleman walks up to me and slaps me on the hands and tells me that I am not praying correctly. To "pray" correctly one must stand with one's arms hanging at one's side. Folding your hands in front of you is disrespectful to God. Nia and Xenia were standing behind me and thought that it was very funny watching this man yell at me. He has not been around the past several weeks so I regressed back to praying incorrectly.
Anyway that’s about it for now. Hope everyone is enjoying their summer and keeping cool.
Nick, Nia and Xenia