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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Visiting Azerbaijan-- Some Basics

See the dancing cave drawing over my head?

Two of my favorite congressmen advised me on my trip to Azerbaijan-- and one did even more than that, which I'll explain in a moment. The other congressman urged me to visit a statue in Baku of the current president's father, the former president (dictator), Heydar Aliyev. Statues of human beings are rare in Muslim-majority countries to begin with; it's something the religion proscribes, but Azerbaijan is a very secular country and there are statues of admired people all over. This particular one of Papa Aliyev depicts him sitting with one leg crossed and the sole of his shoe partially showing. Showing the sole of a shoe is generally perceived as an insult because the feet are often seen as unclean and shoes are always removed before entering a mosque or a home. My congressional friend told me he had asked his guide at the time if the statue was somewhat offensive to the Muslim population? The guide said yes, that was the point, to show that Azerbaijan's government is secular even though over 90% of the population is Muslim. Blunt-- but dictatorial oligarchs can be that way-- and often are.

Heydar Aliyev shows the soles of his shoe

The other congressman urged me to go see Gobustan (prehistoric caves, a nearby museum and, in the same region, Azerbaijan's famous mud volcanoes), the ancient Zoroastrian Atashgah Fire Temple in Surakhani, and Yanar Dag (the burning mountainside). We went to all of them and it was a much better use of time than just hanging around Baku (or Moscow).

Gobustan is about 40 miles southwest of Baku and we hired a taxi to take us there. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, primarily because of its easily-accessible caves with their rock art engravings showing life in prehistoric times, some dating back 40,000 years.

Azerbaijan has hundreds of mud volcanoes and I have a feeling the few dozen we saw might not have been the most impressive ones. They were hard to get to-- no paved roads-- and not really erupting, more like bubbling and burping out mud. Every twenty years or so one of them really explodes shooting fire and mud hundreds of feet into the air. So far, this wasn't one of those years. But we did get to climb around the hillocks and Roland dipped his hands into the bubbling mud.

The Atashgah Fire Temple is very close to Baku, a site dated as far back as 730 AD but destroyed and rebuilt several times since. What we saw was a pentagonal complex from the 17th century, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for pilgrims and monks and a fire alter structure in the middle. It's the principal Zoroastrian site of pre-Islamic Azerbaijan and the guide I hired made sure to tell me that famous Zoroastrians included Indira Gandhi, Freddie Mercury, Zubin Mehta and Meher Baba.

Yanar Dag was kind of a dud. It's a not especially impressive natural gas fire that burns eternally on the side of a hill and I was mixing it up in my mind with a similar but bigger phenomenum in Derweze, Turkmenistan, on the other side of the Caspian Sea, east of Azerbaijan, called the Gates of Hell.

Not many American tourists go to Azerbaijan. We nearly didn't ourselves. But our trip to Russia looked like we had planned on too many days in Moscow-- even with a trip to the Golden Ring towns of Vladimir and Suzdal-- so we decided on a side trip to Baku. It's not very far by plane and Azerbaijan has a good airline with new, well-maintained planes and it's relatively inexpensive-- both the plane flights and everything in the city itself. But it isn't easy to get to because of the visa situation. You have to have a visa and Azerbaijan inadvertantly-- I think inadvertently-- makes it difficult by channeling would-be tourists to Travisa, a private company/middleman that "helps" travelers get visas. Except they don't. They just charge a inordinate amount of money and get in the way, making it more difficult to get the visas. I had a nightmare experience with them once before-- when I was forced to use them for an Indian visa-- and I would never voluntarily use them.

When you want a Russian visa, you have no choice any longer except to go through one of these "helpful" contractors, Invisa Logistics Service (ILS), although scammers like Travisa are happy to charge you for sending your application on to ILS. When you apply for an Azerbaijani visa, there is a strong implication that there is a similar mandate and that you must go through Travisa, an implication that Travisa doesn't discourage. When I tried getting my Azerbaijani visa through Travisa, nothing worked and lots of time was wasted. They also kept trying to get me to give them money with the warning that if I couldn't get the visa for any reason-- which looked likely judging by their jaw-dropping incompetence-- they still kept the money. Excuses ranged from their online application doesn't work with Apple computers to I can't use their in-office computer-- after they asked me to drive to their office to do just that-- because they couldn't give me the pass code for their WiFi network because of "security." I decided to give up and go to Georgia or Armenia instead when someone who overheard my conversation with the unhelpful staffer who was guaranteeing I couldn't go to Azerbaijan, told me to just go to the Azerbaijan consulate in L.A. and that it would be faster and cheaper. And it was. And easy as pie. That's your free tip of the day. Get your visa directly from the Azerbaijan consulate and skip the Travisa horror show.

Roland, meanwhile, had his passport tied up in the regular Travisa hell-- weeks and weeks of complete nonsense and wasted time. Like, two weeks wasted on "you have to change the name of your hotel from the Leningrad Hotel to the St. Petersburg Hotel." But the name of the hotel is the Leningrad Hotel. It doesn't matter. You can't get a visa if you write you're going to a hotel named for Lenin. His application and passport went back and forth across the country three times before we realized there was no way he could get the Russian visa done in time to also get the Azerbaijani visa. That's where it's helpful to have a good congressman. For a civilian it's impossible-- in takes a minimum of 10days-- but for a congressman asking for a constituent... it takes a few hours. Roland got his visa just hours before he departed and off we went... to a country with the good sense to not patronize a glitzy, gaudy new Trump Tower that was forced to close down in less than a week due to lack of business.

There's a mosque between my hotel and the funicular

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