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Sunday, August 28, 2005


Shalom Alekium

Adventure is most often found during the journey, not the destination. Yesterday, The Ho-M and I headed up the "town" of Samur, which is at the border crossing with Dagestan. I had read somewhere there's a carpet market there.

Do you know the way to Derbent?
If you don't already know the way to Derbent, this road sign, with the scratched out Cyrillic, is unlikely to be much help.

We can say with authority there is nothing in Samur except a selection of cafes offering international cuisine. There is, without a doubt, no carpet market. We couldn't even find so much as a bathmat. In fact, for the border between two major trading partners, it seemed rather sleepy and not at all sleazy. A taxi driver offered to drive us 30 kms to his house, certainly to show us his factory-made slag heap and look at our boobs, but we declined.

 Lezghi Bar
A Lezghi Bar

international cuisine
They have all kinds of food in Samur.

For foreigners, the road ends at Samur. The border is closed to us, so the best we can say is say "we saw Dagestan."

The other purpose of the journey was to visit the Mountain Jews. The village of Krasnaya Sloboda ("Big Red Village" in Russian), which lies across the river from the mildly interesting town of Guba, is home to a community of Jews who have lived there for centuries (how long, exactly, depends on who you ask). I've blogged about this place before, but we were there in the spring and it was as empty of Mountain Jews as Samur is of carpets. It didn't even come close to "mild" on the interesting scale.

But a friend who had just visited told us that most Mountain Jews live in Moscow, Tel Aviv and New York and come home to the village in July and August. That's when it's really hopping. We had to see for ourselves.

American synagogue
American-built synagogue

Visiting Krasnaya Sloboda is like leaving Azerbaijan for about 10 blocks. The streets are swept clean of garbage; there are streetlights; people drive in lanes; concrete-lined gutters channel wastewater and sidewalks are smooth and unbuckled. Pastel-painted mansions line the main drag, tin roofs sparkling in the sunshine. The overall impression is "clean and orderly." It hurt my eyes and made me feel disheveled.

Krasnaya Sloboda's main drag

There is no doubt you have just entered a different culture. We watched workers busily set up for a lavish wedding in a riverside pavillion, which isn't terribly unusual. The wall-sized photo of the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, however, looked a little out of place in Muslim Azerbaijan.

wedding pavillion with wailing wall picture
Western Wall Photo

Luxury cars like Hummers and Lexus SUVs are not unusual in Azerbaijan either. But they are usually driven by oil-powered Kleptocrats in Baku, not yarmulke-wearing, American-accented teenagers in a rural village near the Russian border.

Hummer and Horses
Hummer and horses

A shy teenager poked her head out from a doorway. She was wearing a brown Harvard t-shirt (and it wasn't spelled "Harverd" so it was probably real).

Residents are also a lot friendlier than most Azerbaijani villagers. "Hello Tourists!" a driver called out to us. "Where are you from?" In response, he informed us that he's a student in Brooklyn. A grandmother sitting outside her door asked us hopefully if we were from Israel. As we threaded our way through late-model Mercedeses parked outside the chaykhana, men in expensive suits interrupted their nard games to wave hello. We are almost positive they greeted us with "Shalom Alekium."

So if you read Carpetblog for helpful tourism suggestions, go to Krasnaya Sloboda in August if you're planning a trip to Azerbaijan. The produce is better too.



Scenic Sumgayit

I just cannot post enough photos of Sumgayit. The main north/south highway (more accurately, paved ribbon of fiery death) in Azerbaijan runs right through a wasteland of twisted metal pipes, defunct chemical factories and rusted scaffolds. Known once as The Chemical City, it is reportedly the most polluted stretch of real estate on earth. A nearby village is called "Polymer."

Honest to god, our eyes and throats burned after the five minutes it took to stop and take these photos. It doesn't seem to bother the sheep who graze around the wreckage, though.

Mad Max would feel very comfortable in Sumgayit

So very typical


Does anyone know who this is and why his photo is on a billboard along the Guba highway north of Sumgayit? I've never noticed it before. I theorize that it could be the 19th century Caucasian fighter Imam Shamil, but in all the pictures I've seen of him he looks a lot wilder and a lot less decorated.


Happy Birthday to The Producer

I took The Producer carpet shopping for his birthday and let him pick out this gorgeous Gazakh prayer rug. It's not really a prayer rug -- it's too big -- but the pattern is commonly seen on such rugs. It's so shimmery it's almost reptilian.

gazakh prayer

Friday, August 26, 2005


Do you like Monkeys? What about Iran?

My views on monkeys are well-known, but Expat Monkey's photos from Iran are certainly worth a look!

*Sorry about the bad links.

Friday, August 19, 2005


On Melons

Since I just finished juicing a 30 kilo watermelon, and in honor of Melon Day, I thought I'd break my hiatus for some summertime commentary on Caucasians' second favorite fruit: the watermelon. (Pomegranates are number one by a significant margin, but we won't see those for a few more weeks. Pomegranates in Baku are like squash in Portland: the only people buying them in the bazaar in summer are people who have no friends).

On the open commodities exchange, melons have dropped to 300 Manat a kilo, or about eight cents (I recall prices in Uzbekistan a few summers ago dropping to about two cents a kilo). You can't swing a dead cat in this town without smacking a green and yellow striped pyramid, taller than your head.

I've recently learned that buying a melon is fraught with peril. Not only do unscrupulous growers inject them with water to make them heavier, they also inject them with nitrites. While this is certainly plausible, whether it is indeed true is unverifiable. Furthermore, whether nitrites in your watermelon really matter to people who are already living on the world's most vibrant toxic waste dump is subject to debate.

And anyway, consider the source of this information: people who warn you, with dead seriousness, not to drink water and eat watermelon at the same time. The belief that the combination can kill you is widely held, even among people who appear sane in most other regards. These are the same people who blame their frequent urinary tract infections and kidney problems on getting cold, rather than the water that flows out of their taps.

So why did I juice the melon? For drinks at Saturday night's party, of course. We haven't yet named watermelon juice, mint and vodka, but nominations are floating around. Maybe we'll add a dash of olive oil to the chemicals and call it a Caspian.

Other favorites:

The Absheron: Named, obviously, for the beak-shaped peninsula jutting into the Caspian Sea that we call home. Simply pomegrante juice and vodka.

The Narimanov: Named after Nariman Narimanov, a Bolshevik leader known as "Lenin of the East," who, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, is still politically acceptable enough to be memorialized with one of Baku's biggest and most prominent statues and a potent cocktail. If I had a digital camera*, I'd post a photo fo the statuee. Anyway, a Narimanov is cheap Azeri champagne, mixed with vodka and pomegranate juice.

The Baku: A Manhattan made with, you guessed it, pomegranate juice. After looking high and low, I found Angostura bitters in Paris over the weekend so this drink will be certainly be the centerpiece of Saturday night's party.

And people say it can be hard to entertain yourself in Baku. I think I'll work on some recipes with figs. They are plentiful right now too.

*The digital camera issue should be resolved this weekend.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Off to the Dacha

When the heat in the kitchen gets too much, rather than curse the oven, Carpetblogger heads for cooler climes. Or at least, doesn't voluntarily turn up thermostat.

Carpetblogger is going on haitus, probably until November. Stories about ass fat, Neva adventures and petty complaints will wait.

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