Azerbaijan

From Baku to Istanbul

We arrived from Baku at past 8 am. The immigration lines were quite long in spite of many open counters for foreigners. Fortunately, the one manning the lines beckoned to me and a few others behind to an empty counter for Turks. The officer didn’t seem too happy about it as he was busy fiddling on his phone. He perused my passport for quite a bit of time, holding-up the page with my visa up to the light, most probably checking the hologram. He even did the same to my Azerbaijan visa. I just stood quietly but in my mind was like, “what the hell?” He finally stamped me in. Whew!

Collected our luggages and went out to the arrivals area. Our hotel didn’t answer my email asking for a hotel transfer so we were at the mercy of dozens of counters offering transportation. We went to the counter that was the least aggressive and paid USD 25 to bring us to Gulhane Corner Hotel at Sultanahmet.

After the peace and quiet of Baku, Istanbul came as a shock. The Sultanahmet area was choking with traffic as cars, people, and trams competed for space in its narrow streets. Our driver parked the car, took out our luggage and walked us down a side street to our hotel. It was too early to check-in so we just left our luggage. We headed down the street and stumbled on a branch of Golluogloo which my sister highly recommended for bakhlava.

Very good, indeed, especially when served with ice cream and thick Turkish coffee.

Our initial introduction to Turkey was via our taste buds! I’ve always loved bakhlava and finally I got to eat it at its home ground.

The guy manning the store was extremely friendly and chatty and said he wanted to go to the beaches in the Philippines. He was also nice enough to book tickets for us at the Hodjapashah for the 7pm “show” featuring Dervish spinning.

Spent the rest of the morning at the Topkapi Palace which was full of people being a weekend.

TIP: Buy the Museum Pass (125 TL) at the Archaeology Museum where there’s a shorter line. It’s enroute to the palace anyway.

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Bye, Beautiful Baku

My visit to this wonderful city has come to an end. Learned many new things at the conference, explored the city (albeit not all of it; an excuse to return?) and finally got hold of a music store and bought a few instruments. Baku is beautiful and I’m so glad that in spite of the cost, I did come here. I leave this pictures of Baku at night time as I bid this city good bye.

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Baku Eats

I’ve always enjoyed Mediterranean food with its fresh breads, greens, pilaf, and grilled meats. The flavors of Azerbaijan’s cuisine are therefore not alien to my palette. I do admit, though, that in the run – up to my trip here, I was eating pork like crazy. Even managed to snag a lunch buffet of Pinoy food with crispy pork belly in my busy schedule. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, you see, and I was gonna miss my pork amidst all the beef, chicken, mutton, and lamb.

Our first Turkic meal was at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul during our layover to Baku. Breakfast was served on the plane but like what happens everytime you’re back on the ground, hunger strikes. Bought some rolled pita sandwhiches filled with meat. Delicious! Couldn’t wait to go to Turkey to have more of those.

Arriving at Baku, we had a late lunch at a small restaurant at the Old City called Hanimeli. It was very cute as the glass walls could be opened up.

The friendly server, a young girl, recommended this rice dish with beef (15 AZN). She even pointed out the four pieces of beef — two for each of us.

The rice was pillowy with a hint of butter and the meat savory and tender. There were tomatoes and a sweet-sourish fruit (?) mixed in. Very interesting flavors.

We also had qutab which are thin tortilla-like breads filled with either cheese, beef, or spinach (1.50 AZN each). Very tasty.

The go-to place for conference attendees at the Baku Academy of Music is Koz Kofta and Diner. Service is friendly and food plentiful. The toyuq kofta with rice (5.50 AZN) was delicious! I love Mediterranean meatballs and these were so tasty and grilled perfectly. What I truly enjoyed was the rice which was “fried” in an aromatic oil. The meal came with a large piece of fresh bread — crisp on the outside, soft on the inside.

One other time, I had the kofta with fries. The diner was full so we were directed to its sweet shop just next door. Also got an order of this meat-filled phyllo pastry (5 AZN).

The food court At the Park Bulvar Mall just across the Hilton is lunch central for some conference attwndees. Tried a plate of iskander, thin slices of roast beef atop a large pan of toasty buttered bread cubes. Covered with a parmigiana-like sauce and dribbled with hot gravy and served with a grilled green chili and a generous dollop of cream, it was so yummy. Like I-wanna-cry yummy.

Tried a different joint the next day which had trays of pre-cooked food behind a glass counter.

I chose a beef dish with pilaf and an order of what looked like a spring roll filled with beef (14 AZN).

Just a few steps away from our hotel is this small air conditioned joint serving what it calls “gourmet fast food.”

I guess in this case, “fast food” simply means easy to prepare rather than your typical Western hamburger joint.

Service was wonderful and the recommended lavosh wrap (6.50 AZN) was filled with lots of meat and very tasty. The burgers being devoured by the 2 Europeans at the nearby table looked good too.

Near the main gates of the Old City are a myriad of restaurants each with its own staff calling out to tourists to try traditional Azerbaijan Cuisine.

Manqal with its wooden tables and furnishings seemed to have a following based on the number of people there.

This was supposed to be meatballs soup but the waiter seemed to have brought me something else as sticking out of the bowl are two veal shanks. The meat was soft and flavorful anyway.

By the way, in seemed more like a stew than a soup with its oily sauce which I mopped-up with the bread loaves that seemed to be served all the time (which when the bill came, wasn’t free after all; but it just cost 1 AZN and it was really good).

Ma’m P’s order which we were warmed would take 25 minutes finally arrived. It was served in a small saucepan. It was some kind of a baked dish of layers of meat, eggplant, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. The potatoes were a delight to eat as they were creamily soft. Ma’m P was quite full so I ate most of it.

Highly-rated and recommended is Sehrli Tendir also at the Old City. The place is quite small with just a few tables. I came at a half past one so I was able to snag a table. The large stone oven manned by a few middle-aged ladies making the large delicious crusty breads served to you indicates how homey and good the food is.

The dushbara, a clear soup with small dumplings was flavorful with hints of lamb and mint. It was so perfect with the bread.

For the main meal, I had a dish of chicken cooked in a skillet with tomatoes and eggs. Perfect with pilaf.

The food was really good. The kind of I’m-smiling-coz-it’s-so-delicious kind of good.

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Icheri Sheher Walk

Just one advice: ditch any map and just walk. Walk everywhere and anywhere, especially the narrow back streets where the locals live. The old city is beautiful and getting lost and finding your way again then getting lost again is the best way to experience it.

The medieval buildings have all been beautifully restored and many have been repurposed into boutique hotels, cafes, restaurants, and shops while new structures conform to the original architecture.

Take your time. Early morning is best so you can the city all to yourself.

Always look behind you. The view would be different.

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Hamming it up at the Hamam

Went for a morning walk at the Ischeri Seher around 8. The “city” was mostly empty. Took my time just savoring the emptiness and the lovely sights. Have been meaning to get a scrub at the Aga Miyakil Hamam just for the experience so it was serendipitous to stumble on it. The hamam was built in the 18th c and is the oldest in Baku.

The door was open and a female tourist was hovering by the doorway taking a peek.

Two men were busy sorting towels by the counter and paid no attention. The middle-aged one with white curly hairs on his chest gestured that she could go inside. I followed and found myself in the front room of the hamam.

After taking a quick look through, the young lady left exited as the middle-aged man gave her a pamphlet. He then turned to me and said, “hamam?” I nodded and he pointed to the prices: entrance – 10, scrub – 10, massage -10, tea – 10, towel – 10. I gestured that I didn’t want a massage, only a scrub. He totalled the price and drew the figure on the wall with his fingertip. I made picture-taking gestures and he nodded. I was the first customer of the day and there was no one else so I guess he thought it all right.

The room wasn’t very big. At the center was a small marble table underneath a domed ceiling. Around the room were wooden tables and chairs.

He pointed to some wooden lockers on the left side of the room, gave me a pink cloth, and made wrapping motions. I undressed, wrapped the cloth around me, wore the rubber slippers, locked my stuff in the locker, and followed him to the baths.

The bathing area was spacious. It was nothing fancy. No colorful tiles nor decors. There were three curtained shower stalls on one side, 2 saunas (1 was closed), a small elevated pool, 3 massage tables, and marble slabs with plastic basins along the side. At the center was a round marble “table.” He took my key, pointed to the number, and put it on the table.

He pointed to the showers so I took a quick shower. He then pointed to the sauna holding up 8 fingers indicating how long I should stay inside. Perhaps it was indeed 8 minutes, he entered the sauna, this time just wearing his blue nylon shirts. He was going to be my scrub master. He again pointed to the shower while saying something like “doszh.” I took a shower to cool off the heat and then went to my scrub master who was standing by a low table. He showed me containers of honey, salt, and coffee. An extra 10 manat and I could have those too instead of just soap. I nodded. He then pointed to one of the massage tables and indicated I should sit. Putting on a mitt, he introduced himself as Ali then started scrubbing. I had expected a hard scrub given his stocky built but his hand had just the right weight and vigour. Through gestures, he got me to lie on my back and face down all the while scrubbing and asking “okay?” in a gruff voice. He expertly wrapped and re-wrapped the cloth around me so I was never fully in the buff. After about 15 minutes, he indicated I should take a shower. I washed the scrub off my body. My skin felt so clean and new. I was then asked to lie on the bed again while Ali lathered with me honey, followed by salt, and then coffee. The salt really felt good. I headed to the sauna where I let all that goo on my body seep in. After about 10 minutes, Ali opened the sauna door, pointed to the shower and said “dozhe.” He then led me to the small cold pool at the corner of the hamam and made motions that I should remove my cloth and then plunge into the water. It felt so good. After a few minutes in the water, I was back on the massage table where I was lathered with soap and washed away with water. The foam bath I had read so much about came next. Ali took a medium-sized pillow case-like wash cloth, drenched it with soapy water, started waving it in the air then blew into it until it inflated. He then wrung it over me, releasing a cloud of bubbles. “Finished,” Ali exclaimed as he covered me with suds which he later washed away. I indicated I wanted to go back to the sauna and he nodded. Did another round of the shower-sauna-shower-pool routine then dried myself with the cloth Ali had left for me.

Opening the door to the front room, I saw Ali seated by some chairs and table and he motioned for me to stop. He handed me a towel, gestured to put it around my shoulders, and led me to a seat for some hot cay (tea) with lemon. A few other men had arrived by now. I paid a total of 32 manat for the entire thing. I could have stayed longer but I had to get back to the hotel by 11.

The experience was so enjoyable and I wished I had done it earlier. The fact that I was all alone made it easy for a first-timer like me as I didn’t have to suffer the awkwardness of being around locals who knew what to do.

What to expect

1. The facilities are so-so. Don’t expect anything fancy. It seems more local than touristy.

2. You pay for towel, soap, and shampoo so bring your own.

3. Women get to use the facilities Mondays and Wednesdays.

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Baku City Bus Tour

Heading back to the Hilton from the mall, Madame P and I saw the red Baku City Bus Tour parked near the pedestrian subway entrance. Curious, we asked the driver how much it would cost. “20 manat,” came the reply. We looked at each other and decided to skip the early afternoon sessions of the conference and just take the tour. We paid the fare and were given earphones. Went up to the upper deck plugged-in the earphones and joined four other tourists for the joyride around Baku.

The tour took in the major sights such as the Heydar Aliyez Cultural Center, the Maiden Tower, the Flame Towers, Crystal Palace, and the National Flag Square. To get off at the designated stops, you had to push the red stop button by the stairwell. We decided to just stay put at the bus. All throughout, the recorded narration pointed out interesting buildings.

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If you want to take a quick tour of the city, it comes recommended considering you pay around 5 manats for a cab to get from one point to another. The entire route lasted for an hour and ended right where it started.

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The State Museum of Music and Culture

Skipped the morning sessions at the conference today (topics weren’t up my sleeve) and walked instead to the grandiose-sounding State Museum of Music and Culture. Unfortunately, other than the colossal building, there was nothing grand about it.

Upon entering the large receiving area, I was asked to leave my bag at the bag room (it wasn’t just a counter, it looked like a cloak room at an opera house). A middle-aged lady who was called by the guard to receive my bag seemed befuddled. She took my bag, hanged it, and looked at the guard who motioned me to head to the 2nd floor. I have gotten used by now to the easy security in Baku.

The LP does say Baku is safe. I cross the large empty hall and up the stairs where I am met by a young lady who looks like Helena Bonham Carter in Edward Scissorhands. She beckons me to a hall at the side saying, “Music.” She tells me to pay 1 manat as entrance fee. I explain to her that I need to go down to get some money as my bag was downstairs. She doesn’t seem to understand and looks sad. She must think I don’t wanna pay. I head back down and motion to the guard that I will be getting something from my bag which is hanging by its lonesome self. My tourist sense tells me to get my passport as well.

I return to the hall where glass cabinets display a myriad of traditional Azeri music instruments. She tries her best to explain the instruments to me with her limited English.

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This small hall is used for mini-concerts such as this one I’m pretending to play at 🙂

Music instruments from other countries such as Turkey and China are on display here.

Other rooms are dedicated to notable Azeri composers and musicians.

There are no English labels and there are no explanations for the displays. However, if you’re interested in Azeri instruments, it’s an opportunity to see them up close and even photograph them , albeit behind glass cases. i sure wish the relevant government agencies pay more attention to the museum. I didn’t head up to the floors above to see the art galleries so I can’t say anything about it.

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The Palace of the Shirvanashas

Spent the late afternoon just exploring the back streets of the Old City and stumbled on the palace. That’s what I love about the Old City. Just ditch any street map and just get lost going anywhere and everywhere. I turned a corner and there it was.

The palace was built in the 15th c and is made of sandstone, a common building material in Azerbaijan.

There are more than 50 rooms with some displaying interesting exhibits about the palace, its former occupants, and some artifacts.

Other structures in the complex include this spacious bath house. That room on the upper right corner was probably a steam room.

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The Land of Fire

Fire has always been mysterious. Even the very word itself, uttered with a short sigh, sounds sensuous. So when it appears on the hillside it’s apt to attract attention— tourist attention. Yanadar is an area about 30 km from Baku that’s blessed with natural gas resulting in flames that leap from the ground.

This was the first stop in our 3-stop private tour we booked at our hotel for USD 45 each. Quite steep but still cheaper than the USD 65 being offered at the conference.

A young lady gave us a short background about the site and even showed us a video on her mobile phone on how it looks at night (looks more interesting). She also showed us a photo of it during winter. Apparently, it never ceases to burn.

It’s actually quite underwhelming as only a small section of the hill side is in flames. You can go down from the viewing platform and get really close as it isn’t very hot.

There are steps that lead to the top of the small hill (more of a bump really) but the views are so-so. Just an empty expanse of land.

The site could have been better developed with large colored information boards.

Unless it’s part of a tour, I would give it a miss.

More interesting is Ashtenaga, the fire temple that attracted ancient Zoroasters and Hindus to cleanse themselves via its sacred flames.

The castle-like temple complex has interesting chambers that house some exhibits. You may not feel like Lara Croft in one of the Angkor temples but it’s still worth a visit. I could imagine how mystical this site would have been during its time when it was still surrounded by desert and you can see the fire burning from afar.

The cremation slab.

Across the temple are a few souvenir shops and some closed restaurants.

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The Long Way to Baku

Azerbaijan was never in my bucket list. I wasn’t even familiar with the country. I knew about the “stans” — Khazakstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan but Azerbaijan? Nope. But life has its own twists and turns and it was a conference that brought me here. It was my colleague who showed me the call for proposals for the ISME Conference in… tadaa!.. Azerbaijan. After the initial excitement had worn-off, we counted the costs and the logistics (visa application had to be done at the embassy in KL) we decided it was just too expensive. But then, life dealt another twist. We had forgotten to tell another colleague that we had crossed-off the conference. She sent one and…. was accepted. After the guilt had worn off, the thought of going to Azerbaijan suddenly became exciting. Never mind that I should be writing my dissertation instead of heading to a trip. It was too enticing. Besides, I get to have an excuse for a vacation counted as official business.

So 18 hours and 2 flights after, I’m writing this in the spacious room at the Jireh Baku Hotel in the Old City I share with my colleague. Our home until the 21st for the International Society for Music Education (ISME) World Conference. Already, I sense I’m gonna like Baku. The drive from the airport to the Old City showed wide highways and avenues flanked with beautiful modernist buildings and grand architecture.

It did take a lot of work to come here. We had to contact the Azerbaijan Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to ask if they could process our visas, send our passports to them via DHL and get them back. We had originally planned to enter Azerbaijan from Georgia but I was denied an e-visa. We flew from instead Manila to Istanbul then a 3-hour layover before the 2 hour plus flight to Baku.

However, it was surprisingly painless and hassle free. Even the 11 plus hour flight to Istanbul didn’t seem that long (finally go to see “The Greatest Show on Earth”). More importantly, Baku, at least on first impression is beautiful. I’m excited.

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