Of Camels and Dokmak

Beware of CAMELS!
(Turkmenistan … 09.01.05 to 10.02.05)

Handade looking at our Malaysia Ringgit. We had to tackle cold rains, sweeping wind and 80km of almost desert stretch of road before arriving at our 1st Turkmen village, Belek. We were totally drenched and shivering by the time we managed to find a roof for the night.

Handade’s son, Elyas having breakfast before school. Typical Turkmen style of eating on the floor. Notice the embroidered cap on Elyas’ head. Every children wears such cap to school and the embroidery patterns differ according to tribes and regions.

Outside their house with Handade’s eldest son who will be leaving for Turkey to play football in Turkey’s famous club, Fernabache! Maybe he will turn out to be the next soccer star!

Oops, did not expect that our 1st encounter with a camel would be a DEAD one! Wonder if it was a victim of hit and run … 8-(

Deserts and camels, they seem to be inseparable. True to the saying, we really came face to face with camels on the road. It was our 1st sighting of a camel in this journey. More to come!

We met Suleyman along the way to Jebel village. He was on his motorbike, scouting for his camels which were grazing somewhere in the desert. Only a brief conversation later, he invited us back to his house for the night!

Aman, Suleyman’s best friend and a goldsmith by living.

Turkmen traditional dish – plov, a dish of rice cooked in oil with carrots and meat. We had camel meat that night! 1kg of camel meat costs around US$1.

With Suleyman’s family in front of their Kamaz truck that is used often to transport their camels, some grazing as far as 30km away in the desert.

“These were the 4 cyclists that visited our house in 1994.” Murat showing us the black and white photo of 4 Russian cycle-touring cyclists when we approached him for our lunch break. The Russians had posted that photo to him after their return to Russia.

A photo session with his truck and Lada after lunch. After we return home, we would post this photo to him to add to his collection. Maybe another 10 years later he will be able to show them to another cyclists on the road. *grin*

On the wind swept road out of Balkanabt. We have been cycling along such long desert road and in opposing wind ever since from Turkmenbashi. The Balkan mountain range lies in the background.

A Turkmen paying respects to Sean? We met Alyos while riding into Gumdag village. He approached us and offered to help. When we asked about the road to Ashgabat, Alyos began drawing the way out of Gumdag on the sand. Before leaving, he actually invited us to his place for the night. Wow, really cannot believe the luck and the people we have bumped into so far … *blink*

We came to know of a Chinese oil company nearby from Alyos and decided to pay a visit. China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has been drilling oil in Gumdag for 4 years already. There were only 4 staffs left at the Gumdag base as the rest had returned to China for the coming Spring festival, the Chinese New Year.

We had a surprise when we stepped into Alyos’ mother’s house – her daughter and niece were weaving carpets! Dokmak (carpet in Turkmen language) weaving is almost a household skill in Gumdag and many villages in Turkmenistan. The ladies weave carpet and sell to earn extra income for their family, especially in the winter.

A 1m x 0.5m carpet completed. The ladies making the finishing touches on the other carpet. Each lady takes around 5-7 days to weave a 1m x 0.5m carpet, selling to the bazaars at only, US$12.

We did not see Alyos until the next morning just before we were about to depart. (picture) With the weaving ladies and Alyos in their house compound.

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Previously known as “Krasnovodsk” in the Soviet days, this little port city was once a Soviet military base. Today, it has been renamed as “Turkmenbashi” – Head of Turkmen, a title given to their President. Turkmenbashi port city has since become a summer beach resort, flocked by Turkmens every summer.
(Turkmenistan … 09.01.05 to 10.02.05)

Malaysia ASSAM and RICE! 2300hrs, 9/Jan, our 1st host and 1st dinner in Turkmenistan. Zul, a fellow Malaysian, works for Petronas Carigali in their Supply Base in Turkmenbashi.

Outside Petronas Carigali Supply Base with ALL the Malaysians working there. Besides Zul, the rest of the Malaysians were sub-contractors working for Petronas’ offshore rig in Caspian sea.

Another rare treat of Malaysia meal, specially cooked by the Weatherford guys! A mixture of Indian and Malay cuisine … *slurps*

The view from Kuwat’s house, which sits on a hill overlooking the Caspian sea.

At Kuwat’s house for ‘tea’ (Kuwat is Zul’s personal driver). Looking at the spread of food, one would think we were there for lunch!

After 2 days, 3 nights in Turkmenbashi dealing with our tourist registration (OVIR), we finally hit the road on 12/Jan. It was just a day after a typhoon alert in Turkmenbashi when we began our virgin ride on Central Asia soil, on the Great Silk Road.

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A Tale of Two Cities

January 7th midnight, we left Baku bound for Turkmenistan on a ferry across the Caspian Sea. We only stepped on Central Asia soil on Jan 9th. The unforgettable ordeal to cross the Caspian Sea started from Azerbaijan soil …

Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital

We spent a week in Baku, sourcing for ferry services across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi, a port city in western Turkmenistan. The lack of tourist traffic (and political reasons) across the Caspian Sea between the 2 cities led to a monopolised ferry service situation in Baku. With the assistance of our newfound friends in Caspian Shipyard, we finally managed to secure ferry tickets for the Jan 7th night. The tickets for 2 persons & 2 bicycles costed us US$230 – unbelievable cut-throat prices! Nobody could (or wanted) to explain to us how the US$230 was derived, except that it seemed to have some connection to the length of our bicycles. But why and how 2 units of 1.8m bicycles would cost so much for an insignificant space in a ferry left us dumbfounded and frustrated.

Jan 7th, 2300h, we bid farewell to our friends and rode to the Baku Port Customs. At the 1st customs post, I submitted the passports to a Customs Officer. After some data entries, he turned to me, holding on to the passports and made an astonishing request.
“US$5 for each of you. 2 of you, US$10. Give me and no problem.” he demanded in Azerli language.
I was stunned. It was our 1st time in a bribery situation so far in our journey. In broken Azerli language, I tried to explain that we have no money left as we are leaving Azerbaijan (soon)… we did not carry so much cash on hand as we only withdraw from banks in next cities … we are on a 1 1/2yr low-budget trip to home … blah blah blah.
The Officer simply brushed aside all my reasonings and repeated his demand. I attempted again, putting up a more desperate face but the Officer simply act blur, shoke his head and repeated his demand, again and again. All my attempts failed. The Officer must had several experiences before. That time, I was really clueless.
“Should I give him? If not, how and what to do?” I tossed over again and again in my mind but without any conclusion. I turned to look at Sean who was guarding our bicycles outside the post.
At that moment, a middle-aged Officer walked into the post. He was the Officer whom we have “befriended” several days ago when we came to the port for ticket enquiries. He knew about our travelling plans, our frustration with the monopolised & cut-throat ferry tickets situation. I grabbed him by the arm and threw my desperation at him.
“We have no money (left). The ferry tickets are so expensive. Where to find US$10 now?
What happened next completely caught me by surprise. He looked at the Officer sitting inside the booth, holding on to our passports. Almost instantly, he pulled out some Azerli bills from his wallet and THREW them into the booth!
The Officer cheekily picked up the scattered bills from the table and showed them to me – Azerli manats equivalent to US$10!
“This is US$10. You don’t have?” he sarcastically remarked as he returned our passports to me.
I turned and expressed my gratitude to the Officer who had helped us. He muttered a few words and gestured us to go to the gantry.
We pushed our bikes to the “2nd station” – the Customs inspection office. The Officers standing outside looked at the bikes and beckoned us to enter the room. They pointed to a seemingly new X-ray machine and told us to strip all our panniers and put them through the machine!
Sean immediately started reasoning with them. He led the Officers to the bikes and tried to show them that the panniers were firmly attached to the bikes. Removing and installing would be an uphill task. However they kept insisting on removing the panniers. One Officer asked if we had bombs and guns, we angrily told them we were tourists, not terrorists! Another Officer asked if we were checked in other countries. When we replied that we had no problems so far, they laughed that maybe the other countries did not have X-ray machines.
Sean then went into the office with the Officers again, this time to see their Chief. Together they went outside to see the bikes. Once again, Sean demonstrated in despair the problematic tasks of removing our panniers. But the Chief merely shoke his head and strongly insisted on removing the panniers.
The Chief then asked to see the things inside Sean’s panniers. Without hesitation, Sean immediately opened and swiftly took out the contents, opening the various bags and plastics to show him – food, medicine, repair kits, clothings, etc. As he showed each item, he spoke and threw actions in the air in a bid to be as “detailed” as possible. The Chief pointed to another pannier and Sean again took out the contents and started similar explanations to the stuffs, what they were for, demonstrating as he spoke.
The Chief looked at the things, made a few more enquiries, looked at the rest of the panniers again (we have 8 panniers + 3 bags altogether), muttered a few words and then walked to his office. We were unsure of his verdict. We looked at the junior officers and they gestured us to go, GO! It had worked! Sean’s persistence and cooperation had paid off.
Last checkpoint. The ferry was in sight, in fact the ramp was just infront of the office. We submitted our passports, again. The young officers told us they would stamp our passports there and gestured us to enter their office. As they flipped through the passports, they started asking questions – where did we start? Where are we going? Who finance our trip? How long? blah blah blah. Even their Chief also joined in the conversation. We joked and laughed with them while keeping an eye on the officer who was doing data entries. Finally the officer stamped our passports (to our relief) and handed them back to us. We continued joking and laughing for a few rounds with them before finally leaving the office. Handshakes, thank yous and “Good road! Best wishes to Malaysia and families!” from the officers, we were out of the last Customs office.
Pushing our bikes towards the ferry, some men were waving and signalling to us to speed up. Once inside the lower deck where there were trucks and rail carriages, we were immediately surrounded by men who tried to converse with us in Russian. One man started asking US$5 from us for safeguarding our bicycles in the lower deck.
The lower deck was very spacious. Comparing to the space available and the size of our bicycles, I really felt cheated for the money we paid for “parking” our bicycles in the ferry. We refused to pay the so-called US$5 of safeguarding fee, citing reasons of no money as we had given to Customs Officers in the port previously. An older men who seemed to be a crew asked for our ticket. When he saw that our ticket was for “seats” only (Yes, US$230 is not even with cabin … really miserable), he asked if we wanted cabin. Previously when we bought the ticket, the operator had told us to give to the Captain US$10 and a cabin could be arranged for us to sleep. Normal price for a cabin of 2 would be additional US$100, according to the ticket seller.
I gave the US$10 to the old man and asked him for a cabin. He looked at the US$10 and laughed, asking for US$20 instead. I told him what the ticket seller had told us and the old man simply laughed at us, citing that the seller was joking. I looked at him helplessly and explained that our money had been given to the port customs officers and we had no money left. Other crews and men surrounding us simply laughed. Just at that moment, a younger crew pulled us out of the crowd and gestured us to follow him. He brought us up the winding stairs, past the kitchen, through several cabins before arriving at a cabin on the starboard. It seemed to be a crew cabin, his cabin in fact. It had a bed, a sofa and a toilet with showers, enough for the 12hr Caspian Sea crossing. After showing us the room, he shut the door. We were finally alone, in peace.
It was 000h and the ferry had just started to leave Baku port …

Turkmenbashi port city, Turkmenistan
We only arrived in Turkmenistan waters 15hrs later. However, the ferry was not able to berth due to other vessels in port. In addition, there were also other vessels in queue too. We were told that the earliest we can enter port might be the NEXT DAY!
We were stranded on sea and on the miserable ferry. We were restricted in our movements on board the ferry, having been warned by some crew. Time never passed so slow before. As darkness fall, we could only stare helplessly at the flickering lights of the land so near yet so far.
The next day there were news that we might be able to berth by 1200h. However, everything was as calm as before after 1200h, pin drop silence in fact. We had run out of bread after brunch and did not really fancy another night on the ferry.
Around 1700h, sounds of anchor pulling and engine running broke the silence. We were finally entering port! By the time the ferry berthed, it was already after 1900h. We were led out of the ferry by a senior customs officer with our passports with him. When we met him, we were asked if we had visas and we explained that Malaysians can enter Turkmenistan for 30 days without visa and our purpose was for “sport”. He did not comment but gestured us to follow him to the Customs building. We crossed our fingers hoping for a smooth entry into Turkmenistan as we pushed the bikes into the building.
Inside the seemingly new Customs building, the Senior Officer was working on his PC and making some calls. He looked troubled. Turning to us, he said,”You have only 14 days as tourists in Turkmenistan without visa.”
We were shocked. From Turkmen’s embassy in Turkey, we understood that Malaysians have 30 days without visa requirements in Turkmen. The embassy even rejected our request for visa application then.
We explained what we gathered in Turkey but the senior officer insisted that his 1994 dated info was the only one available. He did not have any of the 1999 dated info that we saw in Turkey. Furthermore, he could not register us as “sports” because we did not have any official document from Malaysia or Turkmenistan’s sports authorities. (Note: If we are able to register as “sports” in the reason for entry to Turkmen, we can get 3 months without visa in Turkmen.)
To make things worse, he told us that as we had to register in Ashgabat’s Immigration Centre within 3 DAYS. To travel >600km within 3 DAYS to the capital by bikes? It was absolute nonsense and totally defeated our purpose of travel in Turkmenistan! @#$!@%^#!!
“We are on bicycles, not cars. How can we travel to Ashgabat in 3 days?”
“Maybe we will take 14 days to travel to Ashgabat!”
Irregardless of how we argued and reasoned with the senior officer, he still stick to his view. As a matter of fact, he was merely following the law and available data at that point. He suggested us to approach their Immigration Dept in the port city the next day for further assistance. With this, he stamped our passport and indicated on our entry card as “TOURIST”.
By the time the commotion ended, it was already 2200h Turkmen time (Turkmenistan is 1hr later than Azerbaijan). We were totally drained and hungry. Our last solution … to make a phone call to a Petronas personnel working in the Turkmenbashi.
The Customs officers helped us to connect the number we got from Petronas Ashgabat office.
“Hello, is this Mr.Mohd Khairizul?” Sean spoke over the phone.
“We are the 2 Malaysian cyclists. Sorry to trouble you at this late hour … Yes … Yes … er … we are now at the Port Customs … Yes … yes … Oh … Thank you.”
Sean turned to me after he hung up the phone.
“They are coming to pick us up.”
For the first time since leaving Baku port, our faces were beaming with joy. Shortly after we cleared the customs inspection (they merely requested us to fill in “No”, “No”, “No” to a form, declaration of money we bought into Turkmenistan and asked a few questions. No dismantle of panniers.), an Indian man appeared outside the Port Customs.
“WELCOME, WELCOME! I’m Ilias. Come, let’s go to the Petronas Supply Base to store your bikes. Then we will go to Zul’s house. Tonight, you will stay at his place.”
We rode around 700m to the supply base, stored the bikes in a container and went with Ilias and his driver in their car. Within minutes, we were in the port city.
You cannot imagine how delighted and relieved we were when we stepped inside Zul’s house. It was liked a meeting of old friends, familiar faces and unmistakable voices.
Most surprising of all, a hot meal of Malaysian assam, fried vegetables and rice was waiting for us …
That, was how we landed on Central Asia soil. The Baku port customs night encounter left a mark on us. However, we can never forget the Azerbaijan people we met along the 542km road leading to Baku, the people who seems to live on the code of hospitality.

Our US$10 cabin, just behind the ship’s control room, previously the room of a crew.

“Dagestan”, the 21-yrs old ferry that costed us a bomb to travel across the Caspian Sea. The ferry is among 6 others that travel across the sea ‘almost daily’ transporting cargo. In her peak days during the Soviet era, she used to ferry hundreds of tourists between Baku and Krasnovodsk (currently known as Turkmenbashi).

With some of the crews, the only kind and approachable souls on board.

A ferry leaving Turkmenbashi port. It was finally our chance to enter the port after 1-1/2 day of waiting in the Turkmen sea.

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New found friends from CSC

I believe the people who painted this big sign that we so happen to spot along the road never could have imagine the help it has rendered to us.

We ended up been invited for lunch in CSC’s canteen. And what a lunch it was – 2 pieces of meat, vegetables and big servings of rice with soup and salad, not forgetting the mandarin oranges and drinks. The CSC employees were indeed very well fed!

Baku’s oil fields, more than a hundred years old and among the oldest oil fields in the world. Even though rich in history and oil, the oil fields did not generate world attention until Hollywood came into picture. Well, they did not come to drill oil for sure. A few minutes of the James Bond film “The World is not enough” was shot on location! Can anyone recall that scene from the movie???

For almost a week, we put up with YC Liew, the Project Manager, in his City Mansion. While his colleagues, KC Leong & KP Low, painstakingly helped us to source for a vessel to cross the Caspian Sea. Other than being a fellow countryman, we have no family nor employment relationships yet the care, support and friendship we’ve received from them have been more than expected! Thanx guys! We couldn’t have asked for more … especially Tracy ‘drunken chicken’ *wink*

In their apartment, the President of CSC, Bill & his wife, Alicia, played host. We had dinner (quoted “the best cooking in Baku”), karaoke (quoted “the best singer”) and showcase to an extraordinary art gallery.

A tiger in Baku? This has been brilliantly painted by Alicia. Among her other works, there are a number of dogs, cats, a few rabbits, a couple of frogs and beetles, an owl, plenty of buildings and many more! Amazing! Simply incredible … she is totally self-taught!

This is the last view our friends saw of us, leaving for the pier … darkness awaits in silence …

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The Caspian Sea & … Baku

The Caspian Sea! Even though we barely parted with the Black Sea not so long ago, seeing the sea again still created that surge of excitement over us. Standing on the beach, looking across the horizon … thoughts ran of home and of the distant land across the sea, Central Asia! But before embarking on the silk road, we had to head first to Baku, “City of Wind” and the oil capital of Azerbaijan …
(Azerbaijan … 14.12.04 to 7.1.2005)

The spread of food and champagne you see on the table was not some feast. We approached Faik’s house in Sixlar village after buying bread to have our lunch. However, we were denied of our bread and treated to a spread of New Year food! During lunch, we were even asked to stay for the night at his place. What a pleasant start to the New Year! 8-)

Out for a shooting session with Faik, his brother-in-law and friend, Murat at the Caspian Sea coast. During the spring and summer seasons, they will frequent the coastline regularly for birds shooting. The coastline is in fact just a few minutes drive from their house.

“There are alot of Chinese here. Maybe 100!”
We were surprised to learn of such a big presence of Chinese workers near Faik’s worksite. (Picture) With the Chinese employees of “Sheng Li Group”. Sheng Li’s investment at that area is mainly in oil. The Chinese workers have high praises for the Azerbaijan people, “Though they are poor, the people have very good character, often exhibiting friendliness and hospitality irregardless of who they meet …”

With Faik’s colleagues in their tea house at their soil excavation worksite. The soil digging and transportation are on-going for 24hrs daily. Each excavator works 4 days, rest 4 days per shift and can earn up to US$100/day if 40 Kamaz trucks can be filled with soil for brick making.

Hot Water!! But it comes with a high price. Every month, Faik is footing almost US$40 for their family’s usage of electricity and gas. Without the current soil excavation job that Faik has worked for 13yrs, it is definitely impossible for their family to enjoy such luxury.

With our host, Faik and his family. His sister’s family were also around for the New Year occasion.

Our last Azerli host on the outskirts of Baku city. Aslan and his family are also refugees in their own land, been driven out from Karabakh region 13 years ago due to the Azerbaijan & Armenia war. For 6 years, they had been living in refugee camps and it was only 7 years ago did they move to the current site near Baku. The government provides them free water, gas and electricity and a minimal allowance per head monthly.

Aslan’s 4 units house used to be a Sports hall in the park during the Soviet times. It is still the only ‘residential compound’ in the park. The units were either part of the Sports hall or containerised homes. Only the kitchen (part of the hall) had a gas supplied stove. As the house sat on the hilly park facing the Caspian Sea (Yes, one can simply glance from his house the magnificent coastline and beautiful sunset), it was very prone to the sea wind that swept Baku coastline continuously. During the night, the planks and metal sheets around his house just kept banging and slapping non-stop due to the gale …

Aslan’s 57 years old father, Vazir. He is the sole breadwinner in the family, a taxi driver in Baku city. (Picture) Vazir with his 20 years old Lada, still looking brand new and in good condition!

Well, well, well, what a surprise! We were riding towards Baku city when a Kamaz truck horned us frm opposite lane. It was Murat, good friend of Faik, our host 2 days ago! Murat was on his way home after transporting soil to the brick factory around Baku when he spotted us. His Kamaz truck is in the background.

Guess who we met? Malaysian workers in Baku! (Picture) Speaking to some Malaysians outside Caspian Shipyard (CSC). We had the contact of CSC from our embassy in Turkey previously so we decided to pop by for a visit. We were thrilled to meet so many Malaysians there, even Singaporeans, Chinese, Pakistanis and Indians!
More on Baku and our new found friends from CSC coming up … in the later months … *grin*

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2004 … 2005

The new year is approaching. We have previously been requested several times to stay longer in other hosts’ houses in order to celebrate the coming of 2005. However, (and unfortunately) we had to turned down the offers, not any fault of the hosts but due to the distance we were from Baku at that time, the unknown ferry schedule and the validity of our visas.
New year in the end, was celebrated in a little village some 100km away from Baku, the capital.
(Azerbaijan … 14.12.04 to 7.01.2005)

With the kids who brought us to this “mansion”. Our 1st attempt with another household earlier resulted in the possibility of staying in a motel instead. Even though the earlier host insisted on paying, we had to decline the offer. We left in the late evening, braving the cold to start searching again. We met these kids outside their house. However, we could not put up at their place as their father was not at home. Instead, they brought us to this “mansion”. We found out later that it was in fact the house of Qarasu village’s Head! The kids were his grandsons.

A red cloth tied over the gate, symbolising the celebration of a joyful event. This was the house of Baybala in Atbulag village. They had recently celebrated their adopted son’s circumcising, a grand event held in the manner alike a wedding.

Gulsam, Baybala’s wife, making yayima coret, a very thin bread. Though we had eaten similar kind of this bread in Turkey before, it was our 1st time to witness the making. Yayima coret is also more frequently eaten in that area than the normal round bread popular in rest of the country.

Gulsam cleaning a chicken (just slaughtered by a neighbour) in preparation for the New Year dinner. 2005 New Year? Yes! we were invited to stay over 31st Dec at Baybala’s house to celebrate the coming of the 2005. Gulsam started since the morning preparing the food, from minced meat wrapped with grape leaves (yagma dolmasi) to boiled/stewed chicken and fried rice. Hungry? Dinner’s 9hrs later. *wink*

Baybala’s nieces and adopted son decorating the hall for the New Year

Finally, dinner is approaching! *slurps* Gulsam distributing the chicken and fried rice in her kitchen.

With Baybala’s family at the 2005 New Year dinner. The couple made a great effort to host the dinner; preserved tomatoes, cucumbers, preserved plum syrup and fruits were brought out just for the event. Even the cooking oil, rice and champagne were “bought” from the grocery store on credit.

Happy 2005! A shot with the family on the 1st day of 2005. A wonderful dinner, peaceful night and great hospitality, we crossed over to a new year in Azerbaijan!

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On the road quiz # 01

Hey guys! We’ve found out a few surprising things along this journey. heehee … want to make a guess for the findings?

1. Which has been the most mentioned country’s name by us & locals?

2. Which word has been the most universally understood (accepted)? eg. ‘Hello’ can be used almost everywhere as a form of greetings.

3. The most famous Chinese actor.

4. The most expensive tropical fruit.

5. The craziest enquiry about our travel.

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Disastrous waves …

We were on the roads of Azerbaijan when we were told by the locals that our country has suffered an enormous earthquake! For the next few days, as we saw footage of the disaster on the local news (not knowing actually what has happened) we were totally shocked. Only 2 days ago that we’ve read more reports of the tsunami terror which has hit the regions near our homeland …

To the people affected by the disastrous waves, keep on living and be strong. The world is with you. We’re a survivor species. You will be the reminder and evidence of our human spirit!

To the people out of the tsunami affected regions (physically or emotionally), how much does your petty misery, dispute & stress from friends, loved ones, family and work weigh? Start counting your blessings!!

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After Ganja … into the works of man

The roads out of Ganja were as good as those when we entered. Here it’s the central region of Azerbaijan. Here there are more open fields. Here we discovered a new baijan …
(Azerbaijan … 14.12.04 to 7.01.2005)

This is Mohammad from the town of Aran in the Yevlax district. We’re standing on his land, a few hectares wide where his handful of cows & 150 sheeps & goats graze freely. While in Summer, the land will be transformed into a field of wheat and together with other fruit trees. He has come far to achieve all these. The unrest between his country and Armenia has driven him out of his homeland, around 100km to the south in the district of Karabakh. He showed us a ook of the torments his countrymen have went through, but fortunately for him & his family, they could still lead a peaceful & comfortable life here.

As dusk fell, the sherpards (Mohammad sons) returned with the cows, sheeps & goats. To our surprise, as they opened the gate to the ‘koyun jai’ (sheep’s house), schools of little ones ran out, crying for their mothers … actually for their mother’s milk. A public mass feeding in seesion :)

The family handle their livestocks from head to toes, be it food, shelter, medical & reproduction. Here they are giving them vitamins … hmmm … C or A or E?

The Mohammad workforce altogether, here in their new land, their new home. Keep it up Sir!

This is Qulu, a good friend of another Mohammad (you’ll meet in a while). He has taken us for a tour of Agdas city with his family & to their new house. There they made BBQ for us, after already taking a meal in their old flat. Aaaaa …. I can’t eat anymore ….

This bazar in the city sells everything, local food, herbs, spices, fruits, meat, vegetables and … rice! Long time no see these cute little seeds!

This is man is called Tehran (coincidently, the capital of Iran). He owes this provision shop, situated right in the centre of Laki Town in the Agdas district. Gums for you?

These are men in the wood business. Each cart sells for 6000 manat, slightly more than a US dollar (1 : 5000). Doesn’t looks very profitable to you? However, it means a lot to them, their wife and their children.

This young man is Elssan. He works in the teahouse, a place where men and only men are allowed. They came for tea, chat, a game of cards and of dices. The pots beside Elssan are used for cooking water. Very efficient and practical in a place like this.

This is the Mohammad of Laki town. When we found his house, he was coming from the teahouse at the opposite side. At once he took us in as guests from a foreign land & not long later, informed us that we’ll be attending a wedding! Our 1st Azerbaijan village wedding party! *food-music-dance* Sorry guys, we didn’t bring cameras as all things seemed to happen so fast! We have entered the world of ‘Mohmad-baijan’ For 3 days we stayed with him, little by little listening to the struggles he has overcame to enjoy the life he & his family has at present. With all our hearts, we salute you, Sir!

Mr ‘honeyman’, Fuad. We spotted him with his wagons of honeybees boxes 10m away from the roadside. Had a cup of tea with him, but received a bite on the leg from his ferocious dog. It didn’t like the way SK got too close to the bees while trying to take photos, & broke free from its leash to show us who’s boss. Ouch …

Kurdemir *sigh* … the city which we didn’t find home.We met many foreigners, including a Filipino and Indonesian at their central office. They have been here for a pipeline project, to transport oil through Georgia to Turkey. Sadly, as they were staying within the office compound, they were unable to accomodate us. We had to ride on into the evening sky, until we were called by this man. He owns a roadside restaurant and offered to take us in for the night.

This kindness, regretfully, turned out to bear a hurting outcome. We woke up the next morning to find that our bikes been tempered with. Damages due to improper riding & uninvited writings have been found on our panniers. We couldn’t point out the culprit but suspect those were the foolish acts of our host’s friends (who had stay in other quarters). It was a painful mistake which we only have ourselves to blame. With the lesson in mind, we have to move on … the road lies ahead.

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Azerbaijan … To Ganja

Azerbaijan, the country of Fire. If you recall the well-known Chinese tale, ‘Journey to the West’, there were mentions of ‘Mountain of Five Fingers’ and ‘Firey Mountain’. These can be found here in Azerbaijan! Long long time ago … there was an abundance of natural gas and in one particular mountain, fire was ablazed in many places. Today, a few of those flames remains, so it seemed that the Monkey God didn’t actually put out all of them with the borrowed ‘Banana Leaf Fan’. For us, with the asphalt roads, we need not tackle the mountains, as we make our journey to the East.
(Azerbaijan … 14.12.04 to 7.01.2005)

As we rode into the custom, the sentence poured to us “you have dollars?” Felt like a sign of beware in this country … once we got our stamp on the passport, and after an officer proudly wrote “En buyuk Azerbaycan” on my bag, we rode into the afternoon sun. Shortly afterwards, we came to a village call ‘Birinci Sixli’ (1st light) and decided to spend the night. The Bashirov family giving us a picturesque view of their neighbourhood. This river has flowed from Turkey … the 2 countries are in fact, Sister Country.

His little boy showing his driving skill. Woah … his father has left him to drive us back. Luckily it was only a short stretch … I was holding my breath …

And the parting shot. Though we haven’t picked up enough local tongue to strike much conversation (hey, it’s our 1st day in the country!), the family wouldn’t let us leave until we have taken lunch.

He is Zejnalov, a soldier, relieved of duty (ORD), now enjoy leading a rural life tending to cows, sheeps, chickens and spending time with his parents and family. His country ‘reward’ to him, an endless supply of free electricity, gas and water. These come with much importance particularly during the cold winter months, mainly on heating.

Manse, his father and Marus, his mother, in their kitchen where walss are made out from cardboards and canvas sacks. Linked to their sleeping quarters, which are train carriages. We experienced a short blackout, but candles are never too far away. That night, a chicken wasa slaughtered for the guests, us. Yummy :)

Anyone for onions? We knocked on a few doors, but none was interested. After another short ride, we came upon this house filled to every corner of their yards with tonnes of onions. They were busy packing for the bazar, but never too busy to receive us with warm extended arms.

The onion family of Kuschu Kandi, Tovus. The son, Anar (1st left) greeted us with a friendly and welcoming smile, one which we have been longing for this evening. SK wasn’t feeling at his best due to stomach upset and was tired and strengthless. As the sun began to sun, he was in need of a rest. Thank you so much!

In the small small village, Konulu Shamkir, this is Mother Rosa, her electric baking oven and a almost ready bread for the table. Wood is not readily available in this country & with the electric being the only feasible energy, this good-for-1-bread oven proved to be the ideal solution. Nonetheless, timing in equally important. Electricity supply comes with a fairly reliable timetable.

They have a queer yet keen interest to send their mother and sisters away. Specially when we told about the many tropical fruits we enjoyed back home. “One box of pineapples for my mother!” Zamedin & his brother held seasonal jobs, making good earnings in the bazars in Moscow, Russia and return home in the winter season to tend their sheeps. This seemed to be a promising opportunity as his sister’s husband has gone to Moscow too. Significantly, the clock in their house was tuned an hour before local time.
On the 3rd day, SK was feeling much better. As we were preparing to leave, his father, Medat, helf me by the hand and urged us to stay for 1 more night … Here, we joked with the family for 3 nights. What a cheerful bunch!

A little out of the city of Ganje, we found a quiet village, Aliu Sagi Kandi. We approached a young man talking to a lady in front of a house with “Salam! We Malaysia…tommorrow Baku (and signal to the east)…this night we your house sleep…OK?” (*in broken local language) “Aha…guest has arrived”, he spoke and led us away, 4 streets after, to his house. This is Vagif’s family. Our presence also attracted their neighbour, Sajgov Islam, who later gave us his wife’s sister address, far away in the country of Uzekistan. What a meeting it’ll be then!

Azerbaijan rice pudding, Yayima. It tasted as fantastic as it looked! Wish you were here with us! :)

Vagif’s house shared the same front gate with his uncle’s family. The 2 families maintained very close link, sharing a baking oven, toilet and ‘hamam’ (bathing house). This is his aunt, feeding the numerous hindishka (turkey) the reared.

The next day, then family insisted that we cannot leave without a visit to the landmark of Ganje. This is the village school which Vagif studied. We chated with the teachers, principal in their office around a small heating stove. Just enough heat for us all …

Looks like we weren’t the only foreigners to step foot here.

The Great Man, Nizami of Ganje. Our lady tourguide keenly gave a detail account of his deeds, but with our little knowledge of Azeri, we only managed to catch “philosopher…scientist…the religion Islam…5 books..” Do you know him?

This truck provided drinking water to the people. It comes once a week in winter, while twrice during summer. Kemine, Vagif’s sister, took 100 litres, but wouldn’t let us help her with it. She single handedly rolled the tank back into her house with much ease. My lady friends back home …. can you do it not or?! *raise brow*

Do not be mistaken, this is the spirit of New year. Here pinetrees and ‘Shakta Baba (our Santa Claus) are associated with the celebration. There are many setups here in the square and professional photographers are always on standy to take the picture for you with a price.

This is the 5th day and we’re finally preparing to bid farewell, after much insistance to convince our warm family to let us part. We have to go for we belong elsewhere, but with a heavy heart we say goodbye. It have been 4 cheerful, & sunny days with our Ganje family.

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