Fifty Shades of Sweat

It’s eight o’clock at night, and we’re boarding a train to Baku. The train is a literal sauna, having been left in the sun all day long. We wait outside and add another addition to the slav squat catalog. People are already taking their shirts off and getting drunk all over the train, as it must be around 110 degrees in here. The train leaves, and we huddle around the windows that can only be opened a sliver to sip sweet air from the Georgian steppe. It’s unreasonably hot, as the train was made during the 90’s and offers a pretty limited cooling system. We ride with this for about an hour, when we get to the Georgian border. It’s pretty relaxed, as a Georgian police officer comes to every cabin and collects passports. He then goes back into the border office, stamping all of them and returning them. The whole process takes about thirty minutes, but luckily they let us sit outside and stargaze while they work.

We have to board the sauna train again for about thirty minutes through no-man’s land before getting to the Azerbaijani side. This is a bit more stringent. An officer comes around, collecting passports.

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He then sets up shop in the stewardesses cabin, and calls everyone in one-by-one to take a photo and have their information typed up. He stamps the passport, and we return. Then a man comes by to check our cabin for anything hidden, and keeps moving on. Then another man comes in and asks “American. Armenian?” I shake my head. “Have you been to Armenia?” I shake my head again. Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a ceasefire over their border territories, and travel to Azerbaijan with Armenian passport stamps is strictly prohibited. All the while, I’m sitting in a heated box sweating beads wishing I could have a plunge pool to hop in. It got pretty stinky. The whole Azerbaijani check took about fourty minutes, at which point they finally let us out to relax for another thirty minutes in the midnight breeze. Sweeter air has never touched these lips. We eventually have to get back on, and the train begins again. The faster it goes, the more the air conditioning works. So eventually it cooled down, allowing us to snuggle into the cots for a nice night of sleep. When the sun eventually shines through, we find ourselves on a train through mars. 

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IMG_4356.jpgWe pass oil fields, broken villages, and seas of sulfur before eventually arriving in Baku at 9 o’clock. Azerbaijan’s nickname of The Land of Fire is aptly named. It’s a billion degrees here. They also continuously show off fire with their Torch towers, which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

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We find a little cafe to get some tea and bread for breakfast, and I get something called kükü which is just an herb-stuffed omelet. What kind of herbs? Every herb. Our waiter is a little bit too accommodating. I can’t honestly tell if he’s legitimate, or if he’s just trying to get the tip. But he’s got a cute smile so I can’t really judge him that much. After eating, he stops by with a flame shaped flower, giving it to Ivana saying “A gift.” Not only am I jealous of his smile, but he’s also given flowers to Ivana before me. Embarrassing.

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Fresh. Near the flame towers is a flame monument with an eternal fire that never runs out. We visit both, and grab a chance to take part in our slav squat and invisible selfie series.

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I really adore the flame towers. The come out of nowhere in a really tasteful way, and it’s, of course, a lot better than having a big ugly block skyscraper. Below is a mosque, offering a chance to see the Azerbaijan that was and the Azerbaijan that is.

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Azerbaijan has had a flood of oil and natural resources for a little over a century. This, as you would expect, has created a large gap in wealth as you see in most other Middle Eastern countries. People sit in the dirt on arid streets as golden Mercedes drive by. But Baku is an extremely clean city, perhaps more clean than a lot of Western European capitals. I saw one window being washed by three women at once. People are continuously sweeping streets or hosing them down, and in the main streets it’s hard to find a single piece of garbage. However, wander off the main promenade and one will find some pretty bad infrastructural problems. Giant holes in the sidewalk, broken pipes, and garbage strewn here and there. Along with that, roaming power outages occur often, at least when we were there, and one even lasted from midnight until about seven in the morning. Baku accommodates a lot of foreigners, mainly businessmen who are in town for an energy conference or work for an oil company. We saw many American businessmen look at us and wonder “Why are you tourists here?”

Fair question, good sir.

For the whole day, I was in a bit of a rotten mood. It was extremely hot, there wasn’t much to see, the food was underwhelming, and everything is extremely overpriced (on par with European costs). We packed ourselves into a steamy subway, and I wondered why I had even come here. We get off and wander up stars, and there I see a majestic hologram standing on the horizon. Like a mirage of a giant migrating sand dune, we approach Zaha Hadid’s epic Heydar Aliyev Center.

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It’s larger than I ever could have anticipated, and looks like a piece of special effects rather than an actual building. But we get closer, and I touch it’s tan walls and realize the megalithic structure is more than just an image in an architectural magazine. Every angle is perfect, as we almost religiously circle the structure twice. It’s exquisite, and I’ll let the building talk for itself.

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We sit in the grass and walk the colors dance along as the sun goes down, and let the night light take us over. I was so cranky before this point, but the cool air and Zaha Hadid made the trip feel worth it. Part of me feels like I’d be more impressed by this building than by seeing the pyramids. But that’s probably a little ignorant, I haven’t been to the pyramids yet so I’ll let you know when I get there.

The world cup is on tonight, meaning locals are packed into bars. We find a little one with extremely cheap beers and settle in watching Japan-Belgium next to a table of Japanese tourists. We celebrate and say “Konpai”, then cry together in the last minutes as Japan loses, but I feel like it was a good way to spend a night. My appreciation of Baku was certainly heightened just by its architectural wonder.

We get back to the hostel, and the power instantly goes out. The room quickly heats up to the same temperature as the train, and we sleep in a sauna once again. The air conditioning finally comes back on at around seven and we get a few hours of non sweating sleep. I do sleep a lot deeper without air conditioning though. It’s like my body just shuts off from the heat, which I guess is nice.

We were planning on staying another day in Baku to go visit Gobustan’s petroglyphs in the south or a Zoroastrian temple in the East. Tours were a bit too expensive, and the heat combined with our general attitudes have changed to the point where we decide to get on the train that evening. We head to the train station to grab a tea and wait for our chance to buy a ticket back to Tbilisi for the following night.

It’s even hotter today, the kind of heat where you’re worried your eyebrows may catch fire. We don’t see much, but we wander around trying to find redeeming factors other than the Heydar Aliyev center. When reading blogs, I was excited by all the lovely words people had said about Azerbaijan. They said it was the cheapest and nicest place in the Caucasus. Not the case. Dinner at a local hole in the wall still cost us about twice what it would in Georgia. As well, toilet paper is hard to come by. Spray hoses are in fashion in the land of fire. On paper, it makes sense. If I had a dollop of excrement on my face, for example, I’d wash my face with hot soapy water. I certainly would not wipe it off with paper and consider it clean. Maybe a combination of the two. I’m not opposed, as I do enjoy a refreshing bum rinse every now and again, but do I feel like my freshest self? No.

People are on polar opposites of the scales in terms of friendliness. Either they seem to hate your guts, and anything you ask is ridiculous or nonsense to them. Perhaps they’re shy about their language, or still aren’t used to tourists. But I still do certainly get a lot more scorns here than in other parts of the world. On the other end, some people are so extremely courteous to the point when you question their sanity. For example, the guy who gave us the plant. Or a coffee barista who wanted to make sure he made it just right for us, giving us a sample of the beans and making sure everything was perfect. Or a cucumber salesman who gave us extra cucumbers. Then there’s someone who got mad at me for ordering a black coffee, yelled at his employee, and proceeded to take fifteen minutes to make it. But I certainly can’t judge an entire country off of one city, especially the capital city. But Tbilisi certainly offers a better glimpse of Georgian life than Baku does for Azerbaijani. The culture is awfully perplexing to me as well. More so, the lack of it. There doesn’t seem to be any offerings of ‘Azerbaijani’ culture here. The language is similar to Turkish, and they seem to want to rule the country like a rich oil Gulf state. There’s nothing unique about the city, other than the few works of extraordinary architecture. But I digress. 

If we had had more time, I would have loved to go to the mountains by Russia. The only problem is it seems a bit more difficult to travel around Azerbaijan than Georgia. When we get back to Tbilisi, we plan to take a marshrutka to the mountains. They run at almost all hours of the day, and cost about $6…so it’s fairly reliable. In Baku, we could have paid a driver to take us up to the mountains, which would have cost about $100. It’s too bad I couldn’t have given the land of fire a more fair chance to win my soul, but I’m still glad I made the journey. The train rides are kinda fun and include a free sauna. The culture is mainly Turkic, but their oil money makes them turn a bit South culturally. As well it’s just an odd place to end up.

But I’m excited to leave. I haven’t felt this excited since I was in Punta Arenas in the very most southern tip of Chile. I had three days there, where there was nothing to do and no one to talk to and people would look at the Gringo and wonder “Why?” With that, we board the train and head to Tbilisi.

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The train leaves and everything is fine. The air conditioning is working decently smoothly, and we leave twenty minutes behind schedule…pretty decent for this part of the globe. But we seem to be stopping every twenty minutes for no apparent reason. We think nothing of it, and tuck in for a good nights rest. We wake up around eight in the morning, realizing we should have past Azerbaijani border control an hour or so ago. Then we realize we’re nowhere near the border. The train’s continuous stops add up, and we’re drastically far from arriving at the scheduled 9:30 time. We settle in, read a bit, and just thank the stars that there’s air conditioning. At about two o’clock, we still haven’t reached the border. I get up to go to the bathroom and find our train cart bathrooms are full. Therefore, I go to the next car to use their bathroom. Standard procedure.

Not the case. That cars attendant sees my tall white face and shrieks “Ne!!!” and shouts a whole lot of jibberish at me that I can only understand as “stay in your own god damn car, idiot.” I say our bathrooms are full, to which she pushes me out of the cart and walks me to our bathroom. I offer her to open the door, to which she discovers it’s locked. “That’s what I said, ya crazy hoe…” She pushes me into the corridor and follows me down the hall to the next bathroom. Now, this bathroom is vacant…so she screams at me for a little while longer while I pat my hands in the air saying “chill, goddammit chill I really gotta pee and you’re rambling isn’t letting me.” She decides her screaming isn’t getting through to me, so she starts screaming at my cars attendant. Our attendant, tired and sad and probably sore in her feet gives me the look of a woman who just can’t give a shit anymore. I blink at her and say “Sorry,” and go and do my business.

We finally arrive at the Azerbaijani border an hour later, to which they do the same procedure as arrival and turn off the air condition. This time, it takes twice as long as getting into the country (not sure why) and we finally get off and going around 4:30. We reach the Georgian border and get through it all in a pretty long time as well. All in all, we didn’t arrive in Tbilisi until about 6 in the evening. That’s a good nine-hour delay. Endless fun, in the Land of Fire.

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