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Much to everyone's surprise, no I am not a terrorist. I may look like one at times, but alas no I am not, never have been, never will be.
The Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi doesn't seem to think so. After applying for my visa, and paying an extortionate price to do so, I was asked to come in for a 1-on-1 interview. I happily obliged, thinking there would be no foreseeable problems. Unfortunately it was not to be. I spoke with some guy for about 20-30 minutes, who seemed nice enough but had to keep coming up with excuses to delay my visa application.
"Your dad is Indian, therefore you are a potential terrorist".
"But I have a British passport and have lived in England for donkey's years."
"You wrote you are going to the north for trekking. That is where the terrorists are."
"If I had anything to do with that would I really write down I was going there?! (not in those words of course)"
"Why didn't you apply in the UK?"
"I've written down twice on the application form that I lived in Japan for 2 years before coming to India, and I told you the same thing about 5 minutes ago. I had to apply in India."
"Why didn't you apply in the UK?"(again)
To be fair he didn't deny me the visa, he just said that it would take 4-8 weeks for background checks to be performed. I couldnt afford to wait around this long. As I was leaving, I asked if I could pay Indian visa prices if he was going to be treating me as an Indian. He said no. Shame really.
And so on to...Azerbaijan!
Why Azerbaijan? I don't know really, it just seemed like a totally random place. And it is!
It is also, I have discovered, an unknown little India. Here the cows rule the streets with a might as great as their cousins in my Homeland. The locals, on discovering that I'm Indian (many cannot comprehend that I'm also English - it is like the anti-Japan), start shouting out names like Shah Rukh Khan (sp?) and Amir Khan (Indian actors). What's more, I have recently acquired the runs (don't worry, I now have Imodium on me!). It is almost like I never left India.
And so onto the trip...
I flew from Delhi to Baku, via Istanbul. (I wandered around Istanbul for 2 hours - what a fantastic place! It was amazing and I finally caught a glimpse of the fabled fusion of East and West. It is a shame that I could not stay longer.)
Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, was a hidden gem. Having only known 3 days prior that I was coming here I had little idea of where to go or what to do. But the place was so tiny that it was easy to navigate around. There were not many tourist attractions but I had a great time in the city and time passed quickly. Walking by the Caspian Sea gave the city a truly Mediterranean feeling. The ambience of the Old Town was also unique to me; a conglomeration of cobbled streets, carpet makers busy at work and ancient architecture (which usually bores me) was enough to last me until dinner time.
But then I came across some kids playing football. I sat down and watched for a bit and when they finished their game they came over to say hello. They were aged between 14 and 16 and, bar 2 of them, they could not speak English. One of them, Fuad, became my unofficial guide for the night. He decided to show me around to all the places I would not have gone to (including his house where I met his mother!) and gave great explanations about what everything was in the town - he could probably have been a great guide, but his heart (like so many youngsters in Baku) was set on entering the oil industry. It was lucky that I met him; otherwise I would have missed out much that this great city had to offer. At 1030, having exhausted both ourselves and the places we could see in the evening, he took me to the tube station. He was worried I would not find my way to my hotel via the metro (the metro is stupidly complicated to the newbie) and wanted to show me the way, but I insisted he didnt. I tried to pay him for his "tour" that night but he refused to take any money, insisting I was a guest of his country. Wow.
Next stop was Guba. On arriving there I was tempted to return to Baku within the first hour. It seemed dead; noone was around, I didnt know where anything was and there didnt seem anything to do. I did eventually find a hotel, which was more like a massive apartment for me, and it was very cheap! Almost instantly I met a few people who spoke English and we chatted for a few minutes. I said goodbye to them but about 20 minutes later they came searching for me.
"We look everywhere for you. Do you want to drink tea with us?"
"Sure, why not?"
Some delicious tea (Azeri tea is great), a game of pool and a couple of hours later I thanked them and continued on my way. I crossed the river in town to find what seemed like a totally different town. Everything was clean and new. And then someone said, "Shalom." Oh no!!! I had entered the famous Jewish settlement of Azerbaijan!
The place was actually really nice with, as everywhere else in Azerbaijan, great people. On leaving this part of town later on, I had met some nice people and taken back with me a free bottle of water and a free pear. That evening my chances of finding a restaurant were thwarted on every attempt. I was continuously accosted by locals eager to chat with the foreigner, either in English, or (for one hour with 2 lads) in Azeri! The guys were nice enough; I just thought they were taking me to a restaurant. In the end, I returned to my hotel at 11:30, starving more than a German without sauerkraut. But the hotel manager was a legend. He didnt speak a word of English but on my late return he asked if I had found a restaurant. No problems, he was going to cook food and make extra for me!!
He also brought in a bottle of vodka, which we drank straight with our meal. Getting drunk with an old dude, who spoke no English, and eating the nicest food in Azerbaijan yet (onions, tomatoes and an egg made on one of those camping stoves -simple yet exquisite) has probably been my best experience in my one week in Azerbaijan.
Next stop, Lahic. It took forever to get here, but it was worth it. Lahic is a tiny place in the middle of the mountains with a population of roughly 2,000 people. Like everywhere else, anyone above 25 years old didnt speak a word of English. Anyone younger than this was either well versed to have simple conversations, or at least tried to speak as much English as they could with me. Is this an international phenomenon?
I digress. Lahic was nice and a great place to escape the heat and city life. I walked around a lot, spoke with the locals and did a little hiking.
It took me a day to reach where I am now, Sheki, the last major stopover before I enter Georgia tomorrow. It was not easy getting here, with many people telling me many different things. 2 taxi rides, 2 bus rides (one of them free for some reason) and an unintentional hitchhike later and I finally arrived at the famous Karavan Sarai Hotel. This place is fantastic. It is still in the same design as when it was built years and years and years ago, entirely made of stone. It was used by the silk traders crossing from China to the West and, apart from the small modern amenities, like electric light bulbs, it doesnt seem like much has changed. And it is also cheap (which is surprising as Azerbaijan is quite expensive - stupid oil boom).
And so on to Georgia. Azerbaijan has been a fantastic place. I am happy that in not going through with my original plan that I at least discovered this hidden country in the Caucasus. The people are nice, almost too nice. Because they are so nice it was, at times, distracting, and made it difficult for me to do what I wanted to do (like finding that restaurant!). But this is not that bad. On my first day, people paid for me to get from the airport to my hotel, (without wanting anything back). Oh yeah, I just remembered, there is one really bad thing about Azerbaijan. A few policemen on the metro ask to go through your things. Watch your money carefully and if they want to look at it ask them to call the British Consulate first. They are scared of the Brits, land of real kebabs and hooligans.
I hope all are well, wherever you. Pictures will follow when I get a chance to upload them.
Sagol ("thank you, goodbye" in Azeri) and Shalom