Caucasus Adventures Redux

I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.

Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.

Soviet Stamp - Caucasian Goat

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 10

My last Azerbaijan Adventures post marked our return to civilization via some of the most obscure roads in the Caucasus. There are, however, many more exciting destinations in Azerbaijan, and today I’ll mention some of the interesting spots I visited during a previous trip.

Sticking to the mountain theme, if you’re not prepared for a long journey in the northeast region, you can try Lahic.

Azerbaijan Adventures - Lahic

Lahic (pronounced Lahij) is only a dozen miles from the Shamakha-Shaki road, which makes it a lot less isolated than remote Xinaliq. I even hear that the dirt road which constitutes the only access to the village will be asphalted soon, if it’s not already done (this is according to Mark Elliott’s invaluable Azerbaijan guide, as usual). In the meantime, it still takes almost an hour to cover that small distance.

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 9

We last left off our Azerbaijan adventures with our arrival in the remote village of Xinaliq:

Azerbaijan - XinaliqBetween the travel guides that present it as the Shangri-La of isolated picturesque mountain villages, and a new paved road that makes it accessible to any second-hand-Lada driver, there is enough interest in Xinaliq for the locals to have a modicum of organized tourist accommodation. You’re still unlikely to bump elbows with many foreigners (we didn’t see any others when we were there), but there’s a 3-room guest house with a bathroom and hot water (a rarity), and even a cell phone antenna in the middle of the village!

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 8

After our little pakhlava break, we finally reach Quba, the capital of the homonymous district in mountainous northeastern Azerbaijan. Capital is a big word for a town of less than 40,000 that you can visit in half a day, but this is the gateway for small villages much higher in the mountains, such as the famed Xinaliq…

Our stopover gets slightly extended, however, as I have the bright idea of losing my wallet. After spending a couple of hours looking for it and the evening mourning for it with a bottle of tutovka, I decide to stop at the police station on the way out of town the next morning.

Azerbaijan Travel - Quba - Police StationWhat follows is a quite unique succession of unlucky events.

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 7

Azerbaijan Cuisine - Road to Quba - Pakhlava Shop

It’s been almost 3 months since I last wrote about my adventures in the Caucasus. All this time, I’ve been planning to talk about the various kinds of baklava in Azerbaijan (locally known as pakhlava), but the task turned out to be harder than I anticipated.

There are almost as many kinds of pakhlava as there are regions in Azerbaijan. You’ll find different variations in Baku, Ganja, Qabala, Nakhchivan, Shaki, and finally, Quba. The bad news is that the distinctions between them seem to be poorly documented. My cookbooks gave me a handful of recipes for the Baku, Ganja, and Shaki varieties, but the others remain a mystery, even in the days of the Internet.

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 6

Azerbaijan Travel - Quba - Roadside Vendors

After entering the Quba region, the landscape changes rapidly and the climate becomes more suitable for cultivation. All the way to the town of Quba are scattered roadside vendors, whose stands range from the roof-covered small business above to the handful of precarious wooden shelves below.

Azerbaijan Travel - Quba - Roadside Vendors

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 5

In today’s installment, we’re leaving Baku and heading to the mountainous region of Quba. But before we get there, we’ll have a look at the quintessential post-Soviet landscape on the road outside the capital, near Sumqayit. Here’s how the Traiblazer Azerbaijan Guide describes Sumqayit:

“Until 1940 Sumqayit was a village of 4,000 souls set on an idyllic curve of white sandy beach. It might have been developed into the coutnry’s foremost resort. But Soviet planners had a better idea: a concrete tower city of 250,000 people and as many rusty pipes. By the 1980′s it was home to 80% of Azerbaijan’s heavy industry, a brave new world of chemical factories that belched colourful fumes so acrid that locals passing through by train found their white clothes stained yellow!” [There might be a bit of Caucasian exaggeration here.]

Now that most if not all factories have closed, there remains a photogenic dilapidated mess of funky buildings and equipment. I’m no specialist of factory design, but where else do you see such massive group installations like this one, outside of the post-Soviet space?

And what’s the story of this funny building? Why are there windows only on the top floors, and a gap in the middle? Is it supposed to look like it’s collapsing by design? Someone must have noticed that those vertical white lines weren’t all that vertical when they were making them, no?

A truck cemetery nearby completes this picture of desolation:

The same factories, shot by William Oger in black-and-white:

A little bit further on the road, we hit a small derrick field. The old oil derrick is such a fixture in Azerbaijan’s landscape that it deserves a separate post (coming soon).

There are many other abandoned factories in the country, especially in the South and the central region, but they’re further away from the touristy track — insofar as you can talk of tourism when the only other foreigners I’ve seen were there on business trips.

There are also, however, other Soviet relics that a trained eye will notice. Such as this residential gate sporting the logo of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow:

And of course, the bus stops. As per usual in the Caucasus (and everywhere else, really), the locals are pictured living a simple life. In Georgia, people indulged in music, wine, and food. In Azerbaijan, proud men in traditional costumes ride their horses and and hunt game with recurve bows:

Others watch their flocks or harvest their fields. Makes it seem a bit like Azeris are hard-working, while Georgians just like to feast and party!

Of course, the “new” regime, led first by the same former communist boss who used to be the head of the KGB and the country, and then by his son, added its own marks to the landscape, in the form of various billboards in every town and on every road. One classic version represents the patriarch Heydar Aliyev alone (see my Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 2 for a short bio), and the other shows father and son Ilham in deep discussion, the son absorbing the lessons of a man who ruled Azerbaijan in various functions over 30 years. Note to sonny: when daddy’s billboards start fading, they should be refreshed to keep inspiring respect in the populace.

Finally, we’re now entering the region of Quba, whose singular location between the mountains and the sea is, as we’ll see next time, well-suited for growing produce.

Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 4

After exploring Baku’s restaurants, now we’re heading to the city’s main market, Taza Bazaar. Much larger than the central markets of Yerevan and Tbilisi, Taza Bazaar is probably the largest of its kind in the Caucasus. Not only will you find a variety of foods, with a strong emphasis on vegetables (in summer, at least!), but a whole section is dedicated to various hardware, and, more opportunely, kitchen utensils. This is a great place to buy a samovar or a special cast-iron pan for your Chicken Tabaka.

The wide variety of climates throughout Azerbaijan allows for a phenomenal variety of fruits. Pineapples and bananas, apples and pears, stone fruits, citrus fruits, berries —  this country has it all.

Not to forget the ubiquitous watermelon. FYI, if a vendor tries to convince you that it costs $40 a piece, even if he seems to be doing very complicated operations on his scale, he’s lying.

Vegetables and herbs are about as diverse. I particularly like this next shot, where you can see all the classic vegetables of a typical Caucasian meal neatly stacked side by side: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Vine leaves to make dolma (lots and lots of them):

For the winter months, you can find nearly the same selection in jars. Every produce under the sun — mushrooms, garlic bulbs, tomatoes, gherkins, olives, cherries, plums, apricots, pineapple, kiwi, walnuts, just to name a few — is neatly lined up in a colorful display.

In the dairy department, this booth gets the gold medal for the largest piling of curious junk. I counted no fewer than 6 vintage refrigerators, despite the fact that most of the merchandise is left outside. And what’s up with all the plastic pails? The large sacks on the left contain cheese, I know that much. Given the size of the space, the variety of dairy products isn’t actually all that impressive: from what I could tell, we’re talking about cream, butter, milk, yogurt, and maybe half a dozen cheeses.

Although you may not see it on display because of the heat (over 100 F that day), there are also several vendors selling smoked fish. Just look for the antiquated freezers next to the stands that seem empty. I don’t remember exactly if the selection was limited to sturgeon, but we ended up tasting only that. Again, because of the heat, and despite the advent of refrigeration, expect it to be tasty but very salty. Luckily, the saltiness can be somewhat tempered by serving the fish with heavy cream and pancakes or potatoes.

Caviar follows a similar pattern. You probably won’t see it on display, as it is kept in refrigerators somewhere else. Ask around, and someone will take you to a small structure away from prying eyes, where the Great Game of Caviar Bargaining can begin. I should dedicate a separate post to the subject (The Art!), so for now I’ll just focus on my Baku experience.

The only thing that takes more time than buying caviar is buying a carpet. Incidentally, depending on their respective amount and size, they can cost about the same. First, we tasted a few “different” kinds. I say different between quotation marks because when the vendor has a tool to open and reseal caviar jars, and tends to carelessly stack lids of various colors on the table, there’s no way to know what’s what. The guy could get hold of a stock of beluga lids and run a pretty lucrative scam — he wouldn’t be B.S.ing his customers more than he already is. And speaking of B.S., the small jars in the picture used to be a standard 4 oz. Now the glass at the bottom is thicker, and the weight of the contents is down to 3.5 oz… except in every other jar, the thickness of that bottom is different!

So basically, don’t listen much to the sellers. Just pick what you like best. From the almost-black color of the eggs, you can tell all the jars in the picture are very salty (the heat, remember?). It’s not bad, but it’s not the best kind either, and it’s not particularly cheap. And believe me, I tried. I haggled, and haggled, and haggled, until my friends got nervous we were going to end up in a fight. My recommendation (as of the summer of 2011, at least) would be to skip the caviar in Baku and pay a visit to the central market in Kiev instead (Kiev happens to be a very convenient stopover if, like me, you have to travel half the globe to get to Azerbaijan): the prices are lower and the quality higher.

Also, FYI, Baku has discovered molecular gastronomy. What this means to the caviar buyer is that there are stores that sell black alginate pearls. The ones I saw were clearly marked as such in the ingredient list (provided you know how to read Azerbaijani or Russian), and the price was obviously way too good to be the real thing, but this could change is some vendor decides to be unscrupulous…

Off to the meat department. Lamb is king, of course. If, like Stalik Khankishiev, you believe it should never be refrigerated, you buy from the booth out front (did I say the temperature was over 100 F?). If, on the other hand, you agree that food safety is not a myth, the word bacteria rings a bell, and maybe you’ve even heard of the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F, the butchers in the back will help you.

Here are two interesting cuts! The cut on the left probably looks unfamiliar: it’s the tail of a fat-tailed sheep (kurdyuk in Russian), the preferred fat for any good kebabs east of Chechnya. On the right, the offals, all in one piece, for the proponents of nose-to-tail eating.

The selection goes beyond lamb, though, as Azerbaijan is one of the rare Muslim countries where you can buy pork at the market! It’s also one of the few Muslim countries where you can drink as much as you want as long as you’re sober when you go to the mosque. The latter is even truer of Abkazia, but 1.) it’s not really a country, and 2.) they solved the dilemma by not building mosques.

And of course, with all your fatty tail and liver kebabs, you will want some narsharab, a sauce made of reduced pomegranate juice:

Next time, we’ll be hitting the road again to travel north to the mountain village of Quba!

Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 3

Adventure is a big word for today’s post. Sure, it mostly takes place in caravanserais and some of the meals were of epic proportions, but I’m still just talking about restaurants and food. After our short trip to Nakhchivan, nest of spies, we’re back in Baku, ready to enjoy the opportunity to eat something other than lamb kebabs and tomatoes.

Baku offers a wide selection of international cuisines, with an emphasis on Turkish, Georgian, and Russian. Save for the Georgian restaurants which you may not be able to find back home, it’s wisest to focus on the Azeri cuisine. And while simple local places and out-of-the-way outdoor restaurants abound and usually serve good food, in the old city you also have the rather unique option to eat in converted cavaranserais.

Mugam Club is my favorite such caravanserai restaurant. The fact that it’s a fairly expensive (by Azerbaijan’s standards) and touristy (by Azerbaijan’s standards) place with occasional mugam performances, folk dances, and even belly dancers shouldn’t dissuade even the most cynical among you from enjoying the atmosphere of the remarkable 16th century premises for the time of a meal. More pictures of the courtyard here.

Without exploring the more obscure corners of Azeri cuisine, the menu covers the classics, often in many versions. The dolma, vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and served with yogurt, can be had in grape leaves, tomatoes, eggplants, or — of course — peppers.

The kutab, a stuffed flatbread sprinkled with sumac, comes with four possible fillings: greens, pumpkin, meat, or cheese.

In the vegetable appetizers, you’ll find various combinations of the ubiquitous peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions. Here’s the eggplant caviar.

The eggplant chikhirtma consists of onion, eggplant, and egg fried in oil.

The similarly prepared vegetable ragu (no Azeri name) combines eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato, onion, and greens.

Of course even in Baku, it’s hard to escape the kebabs. Here is a serious platter of lavash-wrapped lyulya-kebabs with grilled vegetables. These were among the best kebabs I’ve ever eaten.

There are lamb chops and lamb kebabs, chicken kebabs, and “special” beef kebabs, but also skewers of sturgeon chunks and sturgeon lyulya-kebabs. Seasoned with spices and properly grilled, sturgeon can be soft and delicious.

The selection of plovs is equally impressive. Unlike its Uzbek counterpart which is quite oily and where all the ingredients are cooked together, Azeri plov is usually a combination of a garnish (fruits, vegetables, or meat) and rice cooked separately. The rice is sometimes served with gazmag, a simple dough placed at the bottom of the pot that turns into crust during the cooking. I say sometimes, because I’ve read about gazmag in cookbooks but was never able to land a piece on my plate when I was in Azerbaijan! The different kinds of plov served at Mugam Club are:

  • Shirin, which means sweet, with chestnuts, dried apricots, dates, and raisins (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Chikhirtma. with chicken and egg (picture and recipe in English here)
  • Albali, with chicken and cherries
  • Fisinjan, with chicken or lamb meatballs, walnuts, and onion (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Turshu-Govurma, turshu meaning acid and govurma meaning roast meat, with lamb, onion, chestnuts, and plum (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)
  • Giyma-Badimjan, giyma meaning ground meat and badimjan, eggplant
  • Sabzi-Govurma, with lamb and various green herbs such as coriander, tarragon, and dill; quite similar to Georgian chakapuli (pictures and recipe in Azeri here)

The next most popular caravanserai restaurant in the city is named Karavansara. There used to be this large sign above the building that you couldn’t miss when you entered the Old City, but I don’t remember seeing it last time I was in Baku so it may have been taken down.

I didn’t document our meals there as thoroughly (it’s harder work than it looks), but here are a few appetizers. You’ll notice that the eggplant caviar, though containing a similar mix of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, looks completely different from the one at Mugam Club. The plate of smoked fish consists of sturgeon, salmon, and potatoes. Because the climate is so hot, smoked fish in Azerbaijan (as well as caviar) has traditionally been very salty, and the availability of refrigeration hasn’t really changed that yet.

The choice of kebabs is more or less the same as at Mugam Club. I seem to remember that you can order the complete assortment on a dramatic presentation tray with coals in the middle (like this one).

Finally, if you have the appetite, time, and money, spend another couple hours drinking tea with an assortment of sweets — Azeri baklava, candied fruits, and walnuts in honey. Enjoying a local “cognac” isn’t a bad idea either, and Tovuz is the most famous brand. You can even finish your evening with a hookah.

Speaking of hookahs, Azerbaijan makes the best ones I’ve had so far, although I can’t really pinpoint what makes the difference. The bowl where the tobacco goes is often replaced with a carved out half-apple, and it’s not rare to be offered a variety of options to fill the base with — water, milk, wine, or cognac! However, keep in mind that weirder isn’t necessarily tastier. Below is the craziest configuration I encountered.

On the final night of our last time in Baku, we wanted to have one last hookah while enjoying views of the old city from one of the rooftop cafes (I know, I know, I’m such a tourist :)). We placed our order with the waiter without even suspecting what was coming. Tobacco flavor? Mix of watermelon and mint. Liquid for the base? Milk, please. Regular bowl, apple bowl, or watermelon? (At this point I’m mentally trying to picture what the hell an actual watermelon has to do with a hookah pipe.) Hmmm, let’s try the watermelon thing, whatever that means. Next thing we knew (OK, not exactly next — it took about half an hour for them to prepare the beast), the waiter came back with a whole watermelon transformed into a hookah base.

Now, is a watermelon hookah really better than a well-prepared one, with the apple bowl and milk? No.

Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 2

Reading about the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in a travel book leaves you under the impression that the place suffers from acute spying paranoia. Here’s what the Traiblazer Azerbaijan Guide (now in its 4th edition) has to say:

“while local people are very friendly and hospitable, the same can’t be said for the police and officials in smaller Nakhchivani towns where your presence is liable to cause confusion, suspicion, and thinly veiled accusations of spying”

“wandering around town [in Ordubad] without local contacts might cause considerable suspicion”

Traveling by train sounds particularly memorable:

“Foreigners are liable to be under intense scrutiny from both staff and police who can only conceive of one reason that you’d take the ultra-slow train instead of a vastly faster taxi or minibus: you’re a spy. Try if you dare. The experience should add handsomely to your KGB-encounter tales. Don’t take photos without a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

But then, taking a taxi doesn’t seem to be much different:

“The taxi driver will report your movement to the authorities before departing so won’t [sic] want to deviate from the plan”

Nakhchivan, nest of spies? Read on to find out!

Getting there is not all that easy. A landlocked exclave, Nakhchivan can only be reached from the rest of Azerbaijan by air. Azal, the Azerbaijan airline, lets you book your flight online for any destination — except Nakhchivan. The tickets only go on sale approximately 15 days in advance, and you have to buy them at an Azal office in person, or through a travel agency with a commission.

Things started getting interesting when we landed at the airport, which sees only a handful of flights per day. As passengers entered the terminal, a police officer checked their passports, letting the Azerbaijan citizens through and putting aside the foreign passports. As one could expect, we were the only foreigners. After some vague attempts at interrogating us (he spoke only Azeri), he finally took us straight to a taxi and told the driver to bring us to our hotel, leaving us wondering if we got a local kind of VIP treatment or our first taste of Nakhchivani suspicion.

Tabriz Hotel. Don’t bother making a reservation. As far as I can tell, the staff counts only one English speaker and one Russian speaker, and the chances that either of them happens to be near the reception desk when you make your call are pretty slim. Anyway, if you do get lucky, they’ll just tell you to call back a couple days in advance of your arrival. And indeed there’s no shortage of rooms. The building is 13 stories tall, but if it hadn’t been for a group attending a conference we would have been the only guests.

At this point you may ask yourself what there is to see in Nakhchivan. The Mausoleum of Momine Khatun is nice enough, but it certainly doesn’t justify all this trouble. Then of course, Nakhchivan is the birth place of Heydar Aliyev, and the museum dedicated to him reaches Vladimir-Illich-like proportions:

But it’s really the semi-desert and mountainous landscapes that make the region so impressive. The Zangezur Mountains follow the entire northern border with Armenia:

The road from Nakhchivan City to Ordubad is particularly spectacular:

While you contemplate the pictures, let me tell you a little bit more about the exciting life of Heydar Aliyev, a man who dominated the political life of Azerbaijan with an iron hand for over 30 years. Two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, four-time holder of the Order of Lenin, he “started” his career as Deputy Chairman of the Azerbaijani KGB in 1964, and became Chairman in 1967. He was then appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Communist Party by Brezhnev in 1969, fighting against corruption (i.e., purging his opponents) and increasing economic growth (particularly his own, with the mafia’s help). His ascension continued with the post of Candidate member of the Politburo in 1976, and full member in 1982.

Gorbachev and his perestroika caused an abrupt turn of fate. Aliyev was forced to resign from the Politburo in 1987 because of his alleged corruption and ties with the mafia. He returned to his native Nakhchivan in 1990, and took the reins of the autonomous republic without any subordination to the official government in Baku. He returned to the capital in the middle of the political turmoil of 1993 and was elected President of Azerbaijan shortly after. Not only did he keep this post until his death in 2003, he also secured his son’s succession. Ilham Aliyev still holds the presidency to this day.

Anyhow, the road to Ordubad also passes right next to the Iranian border, which can be crossed at Julfa.

I already mentioned Ordubad in a previous post, when I wrote about the typical Azerbaijan outdoors restaurant experience. The town, an hour and a half away from Nakhchivan City,  is worth visiting for its charming sleepy atmosphere:

… and its abandoned Soviet factory, located right in the center:

You can roam freely in the office buildings and the production plant, although as usual, nearly everything’s been looted.

Here’s an old newspaper, dating from April 3, 1990, probably around the time the factory was abandoned. Back then, Azeri was still written in Cyrillic.

The cafeteria.

The kitchen. I find it hard to believe, but there was just a single stove to prepare all the meals!

Now, here’s an interesting encounter. As we were walking the streets, we were approached by a guy in his twenties who told us he studied French and offered to take us out for lunch and visit the town with us. He even drove us back to Nakhchivan City in his Lada, with a lengthy stop at the castle of Alinja. As he had to go home to see his wife and sick child, he arranged for us to meet one of his French-speaking friends to spend the rest of the evening with us until our return flight to Baku.

Much food and many beverages were had, and my recollections of the end of the day are a blurry mix of kebabs eaten at an outdoors restaurant in the middle of a rainstorm and attempts to smuggle bottles of vodka in carry-on luggage past airport security.

Some of the details of this story still puzzle me. What was this “student” doing on an empty street in a sleepy town, on a week day, alone, without his family, nearly two hours from his house? Why didn’t he want us to take pictures of him? Was he… a spy???