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Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”

We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”

The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.

Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.

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Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

Our destination was big: not here — but still we found it hard to find. It was either linguistically or culturally impossible to ask directions, so we turned like explorers of old to our (iPhone) compass and sought a course north and west out of Baku. We ended up going south in heavy traffic. So we paid five manat and followed a taxi, our Azeri Sacajawea, to lead us to the great wide west. And very suddenly, over a few hills and around a bend or two, the city was gone.

After such inauspicious beginnings, a traveler may succumb — opting for a nap instead of ten hours on the open road. But should you defy the dead end, you explode like a stallion from the starting gate of every detour. Extend your middle finger to lockers of gates. This is your lightening rod.

The M1 highway was quiet; old Russian cars straining to go highway speed, a few new models, rickety sedans filled to burst with apples. The road flattened and the scenery changed instantly. Thirty miles inland, the capital seemed a continent away, with its industry and trade and petroleum. Here, a man sold sweet, ruby red pomegranates by the roadside. A couple dollars for a kilogram.


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Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة

(Click photos to make big)


Stocked with only a hostel address and a belly full of McDonalds, we boarded an airplane in Dubai, half full with Brobdingnagian body builders and others who looked like they knew where they were going. We didn’t. Shouldn’t I feel like I’m going home at long last? said the Caucasian in me. It is, after all, the Caucasus. But the feeling didn’t take, and I settled in excitedly for our trip north (“it’s north right?”) — to a capital city whose name I’d learned a month earlier, in a country I couldn’t yet place on a globe.

Baku is calculated city filled with spontaneous people. Or is it the other way around… somehow, in the hustle and bustle that surrounds and penetrates the walls of the millenium-old “Inner City,” a sense of order prevails — the sense that someone knows exactly what’s supposed to be going on. The popular section of downtown near İçəri Şəhər (ih-cherry sha-har), the “Old” or “Inner’ City, could compete for most fountains per-capita, with wide, immaculate stone boulevards reminiscent of Vienna or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. In this small section of town where Medieval meets Soviet and the urban plans of a new and liberated city, folks mingle to the sounds of construction and cultures smashing together.

But a traveler also gets the feeling that most of the smashing is in yesterday’s history — that Persian traditions, Turkish culture and Russian influence have already been absorbed, and that the modern result is a cocktail that is almost exclusively Azeri. This is not like the New York of today, where we eat sitting on the floor to “try something new”. This is like the New York of tomorrow, where we pick up tacos with chopsticks because it’s what we’ve been doing for years.

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Keepin’ it Rial in Doha

Last Sunday, I decided I’d go to Azerbaijan. Monday, I dropped my passport off at the Embassy (which, to our bad luck stopped issuing visas in the Baku Airport only two weeks ago) hoping to have it back before the weekend. Thursday, I picked it up just in time, and with passport in hand, I was more than ready for a trip Friday to Doha, the capital of every country in the world that begins with the letter Q.

At 4:45 in the morning we left Abu Dhabi by cab for the Dubai budget airlines terminal (flights to Kabul, Baghdad, Peshawar) and our 7:30 am flight. We launched out over the world’s tallest building, the world’s highest concentration of investment bankers, and the dredged archipelago that resembles the world itself, this one parched and abandoned.

And there we were, headed for Doha — or just “Dah,” as our Brit captain said — where the weather is “virtually exactly the same as it is here”. In fact, at first glance, it was like we hadn’t even left the Emirates. Just like in Abu Dhabi, the corniche winds quietly along the waterfront and its well-kept grass. The tall glass buildings, too, are set apart from everything more than four years old. There was a film festival, playing almost identical screenings to the last week’s in Abu Dhabi. And with a flight of exactly sixty minutes and the Qatar time zone one hour slow, we even arrived at exactly the same time we left.
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Malik 2 / The Lohan Ranger — مالك ٢ \ الحارس لوهان

Videos after the jump.


The road from Nizwa to the Indian Ocean is paved with surprises, but mostly, the hundreds of kilometers that roll by are lined with a whole lot of very little. The mountains of the Omani Interior are like blurry photographs — up close, towering piles of dirt and rubble, but from afar, sharp and rugged like camels’ toenails.


Off the straight, flat highway stems variety, where a 10 minute drive can take you up into the mountains and back down to a valley river, or into the desert, red sand dunes appearing out of the blue. We did both, teaching Omani children how to skip rocks (they were naturals), and seeing if our Altima could manage a road made of sand (it couldn’t). The pavement snakes into the 5,000 square miles of the Wahiba Sands, until, all at once, it just stops. And there at the end of the road, we were called in for coffee.



I had turned down a young Omani’s offer to go dune bashing and he had responded by offering me into his home — the very last stop in town — cooled by a thick straw roof and a floor of sand.

We left and raced for the Gulf, hoping to catch the sunset before we made the final stretch for the coast. We kept pushing, motivated to stay above the speed limit of almost 90 mph, flying through the tiny towns with everything in our control except… except that the Gulf of Oman faces north. And the Arabian Sea coast faces east. And the sun sets in the west, doesn’t it.

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Malik 1 — مالك ١

This border is not one-dimensional like the fine, fountain pen line between the US and Canada; the vague area between the Emirati back door and the entrance to Oman could be drawn faithfully with a Crayola marker on a globe. But after ten minutes of driving through no man’s land, we were in every man’s land.

Fiftyish men puffed fiftyish shishas, drank tea, and watched us be Western at a roadside cafe half-hour into the country. A huge projector blasted Spanish soccer to the going-out crowd of northwestern Oman. The coffee tasted dark and sweet, not like the light brew served too often in the Emirates, and the mint tea smelled like Morocco and older traditions. I went to ask for more coals for the shisha.

“You speak Arabic?” The owner asked me. Again, same words — completely different question. A minute later, he was introducing me to his favorite customers — a group of five Omani men — and we three American travelers were welcomed into their circle.

We talked about soccer, about Oman, and about finding a wife for the owner in Washington before telling them our travel plans (drawn on a napkin) and the difficulties of making reservations anywhere without phones or internet.

“Ahmed, go get a SIM from the car.”

My useless Emirati phone was taken from me, popped open, and charged with Omani hospitality (and a ton of credit). And after sitting for hours, Malik paid for everything we’d touched the entire night. No, no, a friend explained as we squirmed at the niceness, he’s the boss.

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إيجاد الطرق — Finding Ways

To the sound of the afternoon call to prayer, we set off in our Nissan toward Oman… east. Yeah, let’s go east.

Our car of three sped away from the eyes of city-center radars, toward Al Ain where we aimed to cross the border. Once there, I found myself having trouble finding the biggest thing I’d ever looked for — a whole country. We knew it was there — three million people were right there hanging out — but according to the map, it seemed to have been out for the afternoon.

My friend asked a shopowner in Arabic where we could find Oman, and I listened as he gave us directions that were clear, but seemed to contradict the existence a dead-end I’d seen. So I tried to clarify. And in that moment, he said something that had been said to me so many times before gently and in surprise, this time curt and with disdain: “Do you speak Arabic?”

I had never had a relationship that was purely based on Arabic — even Arabs I’ve met and known only through Arabic have understood that it was a foreign language for me, taking my words at more (or less) than face value, and giving me more credit than I pronounced. But here I was assumed to be an Arabophone. The jab echoed the sarcastic taunts of “You speak English?” heard a million times on the streets of New York, always with the assumption that the insulted does speak English, fluently in fact, but misheard. In his assumptions, this salesman was — in a way so rare and re-encouraging — a total douchebag.

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