Azerbaijan to Armenia (and an unexpected intro to Georgia)

As soon as the wheels touched down in Baku, Azerbaijan, the entire plane erupted in applause.  I had heard of cultures that do this but never experienced it firsthand.  It was quite surreal.

Azerbaijan is a country that some consider to be part of Central Asia while others consider it to be part of the Middle East.  The people have a Turkish descent, and that’s evident in their appearance, so it really is a unique place in the world where Central Asia, the Middle East, and Turkey all come together.  The culture most definitely molded around those three parts of the world.  But what is Azerbaijan famous for?  Well, Formula 1 racing, of course.  I missed it by a few weeks but for those that don’t obviously know, it’s held right here in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Like all other flights, once we landed, I had a ‘pusher’ to help me through the airport.  This particular pusher wasn’t bad (and I’m pretty much reaching my threshold of patience for men over 50 pushing me around, which they most usually are).  He saw that I was trying to connect to the airport WiFi but it wasn’t working.  My cell data also wasn’t connecting, but this can take a few minutes after arriving into a new country.  I kept trying to load the Bolt app, a ride-sharing service, to get myself a car to my hotel.  As we were about to part ways, he knelt down next to me and opened up his Bolt app.  He asked where I was going, in broken English, and was going to order me a car from his phone.  In most parts of the world, it is an option to pay for ride-sharing services with cash, but I didn’t have the local currency and really wanted to avoid getting any if I could (I usually just end up with extra that cost me a high conversion rate and isn’t budget-friendly).  I explained that I would like to use my app so I could pay with a credit card and he kept pushing me to let him help.

I really should have let him.  I ended up leaving the airport, which cannot be re-entered, with no cell phone signal and no cash.  I never did connect to the WiFi and I had no car ordered.  So I sat outside, hoping my phone would eventually connect, for about 20 minutes before I kindly begged three different officers to let me back inside, either to connect to the WiFi or to get some money from an ATM for an actual taxi.  One of them did let me in and stood next to me the entire time, watching my every move.  Eventually, I did get connected to the WiFi for just a few seconds, but enough time to get a car to the hotel.

It was almost sunset and I needed to get some bottled water.  I ventured just a few blocks from the hotel to find a market and immediately noticed that there are no ramps in Baku.  Every street crossing is a pretty big jump down and back up, so large that I couldn’t just easily pop up and down in my chair.  These were big steps that I had to get in and out of my chair to get over.  I knew it was going to be a challenging city (and it was, for that exact reason).

The next morning, knowing I only had 24 hours in the city, I was up at sunrise and out the door shortly thereafter.  I found a small café with few people and had an egg dish, some bread and cheese, and a small side salad.  Please remember this side salad – it reappears later in this story!

While most people in Baku speak Russian like many of the former Soviet countries, there were more English speakers here than I’ve experienced in the prior two weeks, so ordering coffee wasn’t nearly as challenging.  The city, and country, itself is wealthy from the oil they discovered years and years ago.  The streets are lined with Soviet buildings intermingled with new and modern buildings, and the shopping areas have stores like Gucci, and Hermes, and Tiffany’s.  The wealth, though, is greatly divided, and the people are either living in poverty or driving Ferraris.

There is a beautiful promenade that runs along the Caspian Sea and this is where I spent most of my time.  I had read that the city itself smells of oil.  And it does.  It’s a beautiful city with a horrible smell.  I suppose a reminder of how and why they have money.

I don’t have any outrageously spectacular stories from Baku.  It was a quiet city – few people were out – and the culture reminded me much of Dubai, which I personally think is lacking.  But there were a few funny things that happened to me…

While I was down on the promenade, I stopped in a market to get a big bottle of water.  Many of you have seen in my photos the red bag I carry with me.  In that bag are a few things I bring with me every day – a big water bottle (I make sure to drink at least two liters of water a day), a phone charging cable, and a power bank to charge my phone (I never want to be caught out and about without a working cell phone).  In this market, I found liters of water for about 70 cents.  The cheapest ones were made my Coca-Cola but outside of that, I did not understand any of the words on the bottle.  There were two bottles that looked the same, just different colors.  I assumed one had gas and one did not.  I took my best guess, shook the bottle a little to see if it fizzed, and paid.  If it ended up having gas, I would drink it anyway.  I was really just looking for hydration.  Well, it turns out I chose the one with gas.  Again, not a big deal.  I found a place outside the store where I could transfer the water into my thermos to keep it cold and have one less thing to carry.  And I was on my way.

About ten minutes later, in my own world snapping pictures of the architecture, with literally no one around, I heard this loud ‘BANG.’  I jumped, looked around, and couldn’t figure out what it was.  At the same time, I noticed that my lap was getting wet, as though I had peed my pants.  Yep, that’s right.  As I was wheeling around, the gas water in my bottle got shaken up and created enough pressure to blow the lid off of my bottle.  The loud bang was me, and the moisture on my pants was carbonated water.  I proceeded to take all of the things out of my bag and dump – literally dump – a liter of water out.  I set them all out on a marble step nearby knowing that it was upwards of 90 degrees and they should dry out soon enough.  They did, of course, and anyone that passed by offered to help however they could.  Lesson learned: do not overfill bottles with gas water.

At one of the monuments I was visiting, I saw a young couple taking a selfie.  I offered to take their photo and they gratefully accepted.  We asked where each other where we were from and they told me Pakistan.  I asked if they would take my picture and they, of course, agreed.  As I positioned myself in front of the monumnet, this young Pakistani woman sat down next to me and took a selfie of the two of us.  I wasn’t sure what was going on – why would I want a picture with a strange woman from Pakistan – so I smiled big, and then asked again if I could get a picture with just me.

On my way to the airport the next morning, around 6:30 am, my driver reached for his bottle of Pepsi and right before taking a sip, stopped himself and asked me if I wanted some.  It was 6:30 am, so of course I wasn’t interested in Pepsi.  But also, why would I want to take a drink from my ride-sharing driver’s Pepsi bottle?

So back to that salad.  I had read mixed reviews on whether the water in Azerbaijan is potable.  Most of what I read was that it was okay but might give you a little bit of an upset stomach.  When I read things like this, I always veer on the side of caution and just get bottled water.  Honestly, in most of where I have visited, the water has been drinkable.  So, when I was served a small side salad for breakfast, I quickly thought about whether it was safe to eat, knowing that it was probably rinsed in the local water.  It was such a small amount so I went for it.  After all, I’ve been eating all over the world, and things like horse meat, wild boar, rice made in a giant public bowl in Central Asia, street foods, breads that have been handled by god knows how many people.  I was eating it all, and loving every minute of it.

That night, as I was getting ready for bed, I could tell my stomach wasn’t settling well.  I figured it was just a short little stink of ‘something’ and would be better by the next day.  I made it on my flight and to my hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia and ended up spending the next day and a half sick in bed.  I only made it out of my room for a short bit to get some crackers from a market two blocks away.  After about 48 hours, I knew I needed to get some medicine in me and dug deep in my bag to find the antibiotics I had packed three months ago.  It only took a few hours and I was feeling so much better.

Ironically, I had built in a few extra days of downtime in Tbilisi, Georgia, knowing that I was coming off of some intense days in Central Asia and would need the rest.  I had no idea, of course, that I would need the time to recover from a small side salad in Baku, Azerbaijan.

~~~

Fortunately, I was 90% back to normal on my second full day in Tbilisi, Georgia.  I hadn’t seen anything in Georgia yet, but I had an already scheduled day trip to Armenia.  I would have to see Georgia in the following days.

I arrived at the office of the tour company and to no surprise, they challenged me on whether I would be able to participate in the tour because of my wheelchair.  Quite honestly, I get pretty tired of having to convince people of what I can and cannot do.  I know my limits and I wish people would just believe me.  Anyway, they let me go on this trip, telling me I might not be able to see all of the sites and I would just have to listen to the guide in the van to get as much out of the tour as possible.  Whatever…I thought.  If I want to see the site, I will find a way to get there.  And if I don’t, I’ll happily sit in the van.  But I will not miss out on Armenia!

The tour itself turned out to be quite fantastic (and I’m not one for group tours).  There were four young men, a female guide about my age, and Arthur, our driver.  They seated me in the front seat of our van, telling me it would be easier for me, and I just complied, knowing I wouldn’t have to share sweat with a stranger crammed in the back.

In this van were eight people, all from different parts of the world – Korea, Holland, Spain, Britain, Georgia, Armenia, and America.  This was my 97th country, and sitting in this melting pot with so many interesting people intimidated me.  I felt so uncultured, all of them knowing different things about the world that I didn’t know.  How am I ever going to learn it all?

We drove for a few hours to the Armenia border, all sharing travel stories and talking about what brought us to Georgia.  My stomach was still a little upset and the less than perfect roads weren’t helping, so I was pretty quiet.  But I was really enjoying the conversation, and it hit me that I hadn’t been part of a fully fluent English conversation in two weeks.

When we got to the border, all passengers are expected to get out of the vehicle and cross over on foot.  Arthur worked with the immigration police at each border – that’s two to get over and two to get back – to let me stay in the van through the crossing with him.  He didn’t speak English – only Russian, Armenian, and Georgian, as he said – but he was such a friendly man.

Azerbaijan, where I had just come from, and Armenia are in an active conflict on their borders right now.  They haven’t gotten along for quite some time and neither country wants to let someone in who has been to the other country.  I had read about this and knew Armenia was much more likely to let someone in than Azerbaijan, and thus, I went to Azerbaijan first.  One of the other guests did the same as me, and we both had stamps from Azerbaijan in our passports.  We told our guide and she said to stick with her so she could negotiate with the border control police (and I would stay with Arthur who would do the same).

To explain the severity of this, a few weeks back, a man was arrested for nine days by the Armenian police just for trying to cross the border with an Azerbaijan stamp in his passport.  Knowing that our guide and Arthur were with us, I was less concerned, but it did cross my mind that I might be spending the night in a jail cell with my fellow tourist friend.

I didn’t understand a word of what Arthur was saying to the police as they stared at my passport.  I just sat quietly and obediently and let Arthur do the negotiating.  I heard ‘Azerbaijan’ a few times and just hoped they would let me across.  I wasn’t concerned about getting back into Georgia; they don’t have an issue with either country.

I heard the stamp hit my passport and we drove away – whew!  I saw Arthur take a sigh of relief and that’s when I knew it was sketchy for a minute there.  Arthur and I waited for at least 30 minutes on the rest of the group who were inside the building.  My fellow tourist friend was drilled about his Azerbaijani stamp, and we all had a little celebration in the van after we both made it across the border.

We spent the day exploring Armenia, which is deep in history.  We saw monasteries that were built in the 900s!  Armenia was the first country in the world to declare Christianity as it’s religion, so you can imagine the amazingness of these buildings built over 1,000 years ago.  Oh, and this amazing group of people that I was with didn’t let me miss a thing.  They quickly learned how to pick up my chair and me and carry us across rocks, ancient steps, big hills.  You name it and I saw it.  It was phenomenal and I will forever continue to be amazed at how kind people can be.  Not a one of these people signed up to be a wheelchair carrier that day, yet they all stepped up and ‘just did it,’ not even a question that they wouldn’t.

Before crossing back over the border, we stopped and had lunch with a local Armenian family.  This was one of my favorite parts.  I just love meeting locals and experiencing their culture.  I took it easy given my still recovering digestive system, and was a little bummed because the food looked amazing! I would be remiss if I didn’t express how poor Armenia has become.  I wasn’t expecting it but there were abandoned factories lining the streets, and vacant homes, just completely left behind, like a ghost town.  There are nearly eight million Armenians in the world, and only two million actually live in Armenia.  Most of the rest have left to go to Europe and America where they can make better wages and have a better lifestyle.  As I’ve said before, I just cannot imagine leaving my home, knowing I might never come back, but knowing it’s the only way to a better life.

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