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Visa Guide to Azerbaijan for Filipinos

There was very scant information on the internet on how to get a visa for Azerbaijan. The honorary consulate in the Philippines has no authority to grant visas which means you have to get it elsewhere.

One blogger used a visa service while another sent hers to the embassy in KL.

Since the nearest consulate is in Kuala Lumpur, I decided to apply there. I looked up their website ( http://kualalumpur.mfa.gov.az) and sent an email to the address in the contact page. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick reply from one of the consuls, Mr. Eldaniz Musayev. who not only gave me the instructions on visa application but gave his Whatsapp number too.

This is how my co-faculty and I applied for the visa as we were attending a conference in Baku:

1. We made photocopies of the ff. documents:

Information page of passport

Hotel booking

Flight reservation

Letter of invitation from the conference organizer

Employment certificate

Downloaded and signed visa application

2. I sent the above documents, 2 pcs of passport-size photos, and our passports to the Azerbaijan Embassy in KL via DHL. It was addressed to Consul Eldaniv Musayev. I inserted RM 400 (RM 200 for each of us) inside my passport.

After leaving the DHL office, I sent a Whatsapp message to Mr. Eldaniv to inform him that the documents were on its way.

3. Our passports with the sticker visas were ready in 5 working days!

Unfortunately, I forgot to send an additional RM 25 with my documents so our passports could be couriered back to my address. Mr. Eldaniz sent me a Whatsapp message and I made arrangements for my co-faculty’s friend to just get the passports from him as she was heading back to Manila in a couple of days.

The entire process was very easy. Mr. Eldaniv was very responsive to my emails and Whatsapp messages. He updated me when he received our documents and when our passports were ready.

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Istanbul Practicals

I stayed 9 days in Istanbul and still couldn’t get enough of this historic city. I really enjoyed myself and want to share how me and my colleague managed our trip.

Transport

To/From Airport

There is a metro line that connects Ataturk to the city center.

To save us the hassle of looking for our hotel at Sultanhamet, we just booked transport from one of the numerous kiosks at the arrivals area of Ataturk airport. Cost was 25 USD.

When we transferred hotel to Taksim, we hailed a cab off the street for 35 lira. We could have taken the tram to Kabatas then the funicular to Taksim but we worried how we would manage the narrow turnstiles with our luggages.

From our hotel in Taksim to Atatur k, we booked transport with our hotel for 90 lira.

Around the City

Of course, the Istanbulkart is the way to go. Rides are cheaper with the card rather than paying per route. We bought our cards at the magazine kiosk near the Serciki station for 10 lira. Much cheaper to buy direct from the machine at 6 lira. We never took the bus but we used the card for both tram, metro, and boat.

The tram and metro have stops that connect with each other. We mostly used the tram.

Useful stations are:

Kabatas – Funicular to Taksim

Karakoy – Funicular to Tunel for Galata Tower

Eminonu – Bosphorous boat tours, ferry to Uskudar

Gulhane – Topkapi Palace, National Archaeological Museum

Sultanahmet – Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque

Beyazit – Grand Bazaar

Sleeping

Sultanhamet or Beyoglu? I too asked that when deciding where to stay. Since we were staying 9 nights, we decide to spend 4 at Sultanhamet and 5 at Beyoglu. Good decision.

Staying at Sultanhamet allowed us to just walk or take the tram (if we were tired) to the main sights such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, and the Blue Mosque.

At Beyoglu, specifically at Taksim, we were able to shop and shop and enjoy the vibe of Istikal street with its crowds, shops, street musicians, cafes, and restaurants.

You can say that by staying at both areas, we experienced two sides of Istanbul — the historical at Sultanhamet and the modern at Beyoglu.

Eating

The Sultanhamet area seems to have the monopoly on kebab and doner meals.

I enjoyed eating more at Taksim as there were more varied choices and there were places that were like fastfoods with main meals on display. There are many along Istikal Caddesi.

Much cheaper are those on the streets away from Istikal. We found this place at a narrow street just opposite the street of our hotel. We ate here many times.

The price is much lower and the food is much better than the one we had along Istikal.

All of these plus a small bottle of Sprite is only 20.50 lira. The desserts here such as sutlac are also much cheaper. I didn’t notice anything different from the 3 lira version I had here to the more expensive one at a cafe along Istikal.

The fact that many locals eat here says a lot.

Shopping

Typical tourist souvenirs such as magnets, carpet-design pouches, and keychains were cheapest at the old city than at the Grand Bazaar or at Taksim. If you want to buy the cloth used for scrubs in the hamam, you can get them at shops along Galip Dede Caddesi at the end of Istikal. They’re just 5 lira compared to the 10 lira I got at a small convenience store in the old city. At the Grand Bazaar, it was 20 lira. I also bought a pestemal at the same street for 10 lira. It’s similar to the ones I used in the hamam.

Take note that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

There’s a grocery called Ucler just across the Uskudar pier on the Asian side. I bought my olive oil soaps there for just 8.90 lira for a pack of 5 soaps. Much cheaper than the 5 lira soaps at souvenir shops. The bakeshop there also sells bahklava at a much lower price– 54 lira/kilo for hazelnut compared to 68 lira at the fancier shops.

July seems to be sale season (“indirim” means sale) as all the shops at Istikal and at the Forum Mall were on sale and prices were really slashed down.

My favorite shop was LC Waikiki which seemed to be the Turkish version of H & M. Clothes and shoes were really cheap.

Even items that weren’t on sale were quite cheap (39.95 for shirts, for example).

Istanbul is a city that demands to be discovered and explored. I never felt that the 9 days spent there was too much.

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A Trip to the Asia Side: Uskudar

Took the ferry boat from Eminonu pier to Uskudar. I was surprised how big and nice the ferry was. There were two large air-conditioned cabins with nice cushioned seats and an open upper deck with wooden benches where I stayed.

The 12:30 trip didnt have too many passengers. I boarded the ferry just as it was about to pull-out and there were still empty seats at the often full upper deck. The ferry was definitely much better than the one we boarded for the Bosphorous tour a few days back. The 15-minute trip across the strait was very relaxing. The weather was just right.

It had been showering in the morning the past few days but the sky was clear today.

Disembarked the ferry and headed to the two mosques just across.

It was time for Friday prayers and the mosques were filled with men doing their Friday obligations.

Outside the prayer hall, women waited. It was atmospheric just sitting in one of the wooden benches and listening to the Imam’s voice blaring out of the speakers.

Had a soup break at an outdoor cafe just outside the mosque. The soup for the day was a creamy rice and vegetable chowder which had a strong minty flavor — a taste I have gotten quite used to since having an oily meat soup in Baku.

Nearby was a narrow cobbled street lined with fish shops and restaurants, spice shops, and a stall selling fried sweets.

Snacks of fried dough.

This fried dough drenched in honey is called citir halka (2.50 lira). It’s delicious and every bite sends honey drooling down your chin. Definitely not for those watching their sugar intake.

Unlike the European side of Istanbul, Uskudar has a more local feel.

This used to be a bath house designed by the famous architect, Sinan. It has been restored to house shops, a cafe, and a restaurant.

How to get there from Taksim

1. Take the Taksim – Kabatas funicular. Upon arrival in Kabatas, follow the sign that points to the Taksim tram stop. Go up the stairs and you’ll find yourself at the Kabatas tram station. This is the last stop of the tram.

2. Ride the tram to Eminonu.

3. Exit the Eminonu tram ststion and cross the road. You’ll see the ferry station to Uskandar. Use yoir Istanbulkart to pay.

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How I Ended Up with 7 shirts, 2 sports shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 1 joggers, and 3 pairs of shoes

I never imagined I would go on a shopping spree for Western clothes in Istanbul. Perhaps, in one of those other cities where retail reigns such as Bangkok or Hongkong; but Istanbul? Nah! Istanbul is culture, objects d’ art, and carpets not H&M style clothes.

We headed to the Grand Bazaar in the morning with high expectations. I had envisioned a souk with curios and treasures. Unfortunately, except for the music instrument shops, I was a bit disappointed. Tourist trinkets such as magnets, bookmarks, wallets, and key chains were more expensive than those at the shops near our hotel. Or perhaps, we weren’t really looking as Madame P was more oriented towards Western consumer goods and seemed disinterested. I did get a few small music instruments such as a thin flute and some finger cymbals. Had to bargain really well and stand my ground to lower it to half price. Also bought some of those metallic kebab skewers from a nice shop with a seller who wasn’t pushy. He had nice shiny things that Aladdin would probably go crazy for.

I did enjoy the bazaar interiors with its colorful ceilings and arches.

I can’t recall how many times I said, “Filipino” to merchants beckoning at doorways who think I’m Malaysian. One carpet guy even thought we were from Columbia! Hahaha!

We spent less than two hours just walking around then heid off to a nearby cafe to rest a bit. Madame P was really bent on going to a mall. Since the entire day was really allotted for shopping, might as well. Google came up with Forum Mall as the nearest and most accessible via tram and metro.

While at the tram, we sat across a young lady who smiled and waved her hand in greeting. Turns out she’s a Pinay from Bulacan whose been working as a nanny in Istanbul for 4 months. She seemed fine working so far from home. She says she’s fortunate to have good employers who even brought her to Canada with them. We bade her goodbye as we exited at our stop to change to the metro.

Madame P and I went our separate ways at the large mall and agreed to meet after two hours. I saw a Decathlon billboard outside the mall and went looking for the store. It seems to be sale season now as all the shops were on sale, just like in Baku. Checked out a shop called LC Waikiki which looked like a Turkic version of H&M. Indeed it was. Clothes were at 19.95 – 49.95 L and shoes at 39.95! That’s less than Php 500! Really cheap. The clothes were really nice, too. I especially liked the light cotton shirts. The best thing is they have large sizes! I spent the next 2 hours hoarding stuff. One local looks at my basket and jokingly asks: “Where’s one for me?”

I’ve never shopped so much in my life. By the time Madame P and I caught up with each other at our meeting point, we were both loaded with bags. The Madame had also gone panic buying at Collezione which had 10 L shirts. Stuff was really cheap at the shops. I had to stop myself from buying more stuff at the other stores. We took the metro and the tram back to the hotel just before rush hour began.

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Luxury at the Cagaloglu Hamami

After my pleasant hamam experience at the Baku Old City, I was ready for more and Istanbul is the place for it. After all, Turkey = Turkish bath.

There are a few distinct hamam at the Sultanahamet area being the old district of Istanbul. Galatasaray, Sultanhayime, AyaSofya, and Cemberlitas are just a few.

I chose Cagaloglu Hamami as it was just 10 minutes walk up hill from our hotel in Sultanahamet. I was supposed to head to another, cheaper one, but two recent reviews at TripAdvisor mentioned being robbed of their stuff at the lockers. I didn’t want to take the risk. Cagaloglu had excellent reviews that mentioned how clean it was and how pleasant the staff were (the other hamam had rude staff as reviewed by others).

The hamami is one of the oldest in Istanbul having been built in 1741 and have just been renovated. According to its pamphlet, Franz Liszt was believed to have visited! Perhaps, to unwind after a concert?

I descended the marble to steps to the entrance hall where a friendly English-speaking male receptionist explained the prices to me. Behind him was the lounging area and the private changing cabins which I mistook for massage rooms (how naive of me).

I would have wanted to have the grandiose-sounding Ottoman Luxury Service, a 2- hour treatment that includes a 45-m aromatherapy massage; but at 120 Euros, it was waaay off my budget. I got the Istanbul Dream (50 Euros) instead which was a 15-minute hot room rest followed by a 10-minute scrub and finished with a 20-minute bubble bath.

I was led to my small private cabin by my kese (scrubber) where I put on my pestemel and rubber slippers.

He then led me to the toilet then to the baths, a large mable room dominated by the large marble plinth where the scrubbing takes place. We walked past the plinth and into the steam room where a dad and his son, Europeans, were “steaming.” A few minutes later, they were called by their kese for their scrubbing. Mine soon came after and I was led to the marble plinth. I then had the most wonderful scrub and bath. What made it even better was it included a msssage that no matter how brief, hit all the right points on my back and my legs. The best part was yet to come. When he released the bubble “bag.” An enormous cloud of bubbles exploded on my body and it felt so good as it cascaded down. I never knew bubbles could caress. Staring up at the domed star ceiling, it felt like I had gone to bubble heaven. I love oil massages but getting massaged with soap suds is even better. My kese had very good hands and it really felt like he knew what he was doing and doing it so well. I could cry from pleasure.

More water splashes then he led me to one of the marble water basins and doused me with water. He then led me out to a room where I was given a new pestemel and a towel. I gestured to him that I wanted to use the baths some more. I went back in and stayed in one of the coves just enjoying the heat and the water. Two other people (another father and son pair) came in and had a scrub. After half an hour, I felt I had enough so I went to the changing area. I didn’t see my kese but I saw a new pestemal and two towels on the marble bench. I changed into the new pestemal just as an attendant came in, draped the large towel over my shoulders then covered my head with a smaller towel, wrapping its ends together at the back of my hand like an Arabian head gear. I felt like I was ready to conquer the world. He then led me back to the entrance hall where I was served hot tea, juice, and turkish delight.

I rested a bit on the narrow bed at my cabin before heading out.

I really enjoyed my stay at the baths. It was clean and I like having that private cabin. I wonder how long you could stay? Perhaps, sleep at the cabin then go back to the baths again. I could easily have spent half a day there.

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Hagia Sofia

Aaaah…. I truly enjoyed myself at amazing Hagia Sofia, one of the jewelled crowns of Istanbul.

I have always loved Byzantine churches with their icons, mosaics, and vaults. Unfortunately, my only opportunity to visit some were during a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem a couple of years ago and my experience was not very good. We were on a private tour and our guide was rushing things. Unfortunately, none of my companions seemed to care about art and architecture so the guide’s really bad narratives were ignored. It went something like this, “This church was built on so-so. Around it are Byzantine icons. Look. Ok? Let’s go.” I was so disappointed. I couldn’t even take pictures as we were really rushing. So at the Hagia Sofia, I took my time enjoying every bit of the place in spite of the crowds.

The church was under restoration so certain parts were not open and a huge scaffolding was at the centre. Fortunately, the apse was visible.

The Virgin Mary on the dome above the apse.

Of course, the beautiful ceilings.

On the rear are stone ramps that climb to the second level. It’s a bit claustrophobic as it’s like walking through a tunnel. If it weren’t for all the people all going up, I would have liked to walk slowly, imagining myself as a medieval monk or a Muslim cleric back in those ancient days.

Seeing the church from the second level, you get a clearer sense of its enormity and its layout.

TIP:

As expected, there were long lines at the ticket counter. Make sure you have the Museum Pass. It allowed us to simply head to the entrance.

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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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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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How Do You Mime a Fever in Baku?

Went looking for a pharmacy across the Icherisheher Metro to buy some cough medicines and found it. Madame P has been coughing intermittently and she seems to be coming down with a cold. She blames the 40 degree heat last Sunday.

I had asked the young guy at the hotel reception to write “medicine for cough” in Azeri on a slip of paper and showed it the lady at the counter. She brought me a bottle of cough medicine. Ah. I should have asked him to write “flu.” She brought a box of lemon-flavored lozenges. That I could use. Next came herbal tea sachets. “Good,” she said. I figured it was much better than the coffee Ma’m P had been drinking to induce a sweat. But I needed some tablets. “Ibuprofen?” She understood that and brought a stack of tablets. “Bioflu?” No success. How do you mime a fever? I wrapped my arms around me to indicate a chill but we both just ended-up giggling. Fortunately, the lady was very patient. My eyes desperately scanned the shelf where she had gotten the ibuprofen. “Coldrex,” a box said. Success! Paid for my purchases and went back to the hotel.

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Back in Kathmandu

Returned to Kathmandu afternoon via the hotel shuttle (NR 1000) from Bakhtapur driven by the most reckless and laziest driver in Kathmandu who dropped me off a few blocks before Thamel.

Picked- up my laundry on the way to Avalon House which by now, has become a very welcoming place for me.  Actually, feels like coming home especially with the wide smile from the elderly security guard greeting me (gotta give him a good tip when I check-out for good) each time I arrive.  I got the same room (104) at the first floor.  

Just got settled a bit and then went off to Mandalay Book Point a block away from the Garden of Dreams.

Its reputation as the most well-stocked academic bookstore is well-deserved.  The store is crammed full with sgelves overflowing with books with titles in the humanities, social sciences, history,  religion, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and fiction.  Most of the  books are arranged topically.  I didn’t see any shelf marked “music” the shop keeper pulled out some books somewhere.  Spent about NR 5500 for 5 books, three  of which are ethnomusicological books on Newari music and musicians.  Jackpot!  Have chrcked out the bookshops at Thamel and none handed yielded any books on Nepali music.  Mpst have guide books, maps, and books on Buddhism and yoga.  

Had dinner at the ever reliable and ever delicious Gilingche Restaurant.  Tried the sizzling buff momo, a Westernized take on the dumplings which was topped with mushroom gravy and came with a siding of vegetables and fries all served on a hot iron plate.  It’s a good way to have momo differently from the usual steamed, panfried, or deep fried.  Downed a glass of lassi to help keep my acidity at bay which had been troubling me since the hike last New Year’ Day where I skipped lunch.

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