In which I learn where Vikings come from

Can't beat a good chandelier.

Can’t beat a good light fitting.

The village museum in Kiş, in northern Azerbaijan, is housed in the tiny, beautifully restored medieval church.The museum tells the story of Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the Balkan variety), one of the many Transcaucasian statelets that foundered in the face of repeated Persian, Turkish and/or Mongol invasions; it has quite a good chandelier, some glass panels in the floor with skeletons underneath, and a reasonable quota of ancient pots. It also has Thor Heyerdahl.

Continue reading


Baku to Almaty #1: the Caspian ferry

Crossing the Caspian in an academic. Surprisingly comfortable.

Waiting for the Kazakhstan ferry proved a depressingly Beckettian state of affairs. My companion in this endeavour was Juergen, a German backpacker who’d missed the previous ferry by twenty minutes, having waited a week for it beforehand and was thus understandably losing his sense of humour slightly. After a week, the only news that we had received was from a rather wild-eyed Filippino tourist who’d just taken the ferry from Turkmenistan and whose English wasn’t great, but the phrase (accompanied by a lot of emphatic gesticulating) “it’s hell” came across pretty clearly; we had just begun to reluctantly investigate flying, when I got a phone call from the tourist office. “The ferry is leaving in an hour. I think maybe you should go now!”. Right.

Continue reading

Thalassa, thalassa

Not quite the North Sea, but it'll do.

I’ve reached the Caspian Sea! I haven’t seen the sea for a very long time so it’s good to be back by the water. Even if said water carries a certain oily sheen. Baku has been an oil boom town for over a century, and boy does the landscape around the city show it. I believe the correct adjective is “dystopian”. I am apparently going to have a lot of time to appreciate it, as the next ferry to Aktau in Kazakhstan is unlikely to leave until Friday or so. The concept of timetables or schedules for this kind of transportation has yet to catch on here.

Azerbaijan has been a pleasant surprise so far. I was extremely grumpy about having to leave Tbilisi with its coffee shops and wireless hotspots and dilapidated European architecture and khachapuri and plum conserve for a country which I expected to be expensive, time-consuming and tiresome (an impression based, entirely unfairly, on my experience of getting the bloody visa, but six separate embassy visits can do that to a person). And then I spent my first night in a tiny village eating the greatest dolma in the world because I’d met a girl on the bus, and the second at the best hotel in the next town being wined and dined for absolutely nothing, because her father knew someone. Good going, Azerbaijan!

Something I’ve really missed: Central Asian grannies, lurking under their multicoloured headscarves, sweet and innocent right up until the alcohol comes out and you find that the words “No thanks, I think I’ve had enough!” have no meaning for them. Still, mulberry vodka is pretty damned good *collapses*