Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Christmas in Baku
A lot of mixed messages get sent and there's a lot of hollow iconography, like this rather bedraggled Santa.
I've also noticed a lot more artificial Christmas trees in the shops this year. Vendors on Fountain Square sell long stings of metallic garlands, gaudy lights. grotesque Santa masks and lots of stuffed toys.
How to drink vodka without getting drunk
Of course, to successfully implement the program, you must eat copious amounts of herring and mayonnaise salads, but sacrifices must be made.
Carpetblogger will nowhere near herring and mayonnaise salads on New Years. She will be trying to prevent the Producer from sampling the raw stuffed mussels sold on the street in Istanbul.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Is there anything that cannot be improved by pickling?
A wise person asked this question this very blog not long ago. According to Samaya, our cleaning lady, the answer is an emphatic "YOX."
Let me give a brief tour of our refrigerator right now, highlighting all the different agricultural products that she improved by pickling:
- chili peppers;
- green bell peppers
- special white cucumbers from Sheki;
- ordinary everyday green cucumbers from someone's dacha;
- a caper-like flower;
- mushrooms, and,
- red bell peppers.
If Samaya was president of Azerbaijan, I'd buy stock in brine.
And this doesn't even count all the varenekis, or jams, she's made for us:
- Fig jam;
- three different kinds of jam made from a cherry-like thing that people have insisted would cure a migraine (pure quackery, not surprisingly);
- persimmon jam;
- sweet apple sauce;
- rose hip jam;
- raspberry jam;
- walnut jam;
- blackberry jam
- and about three others I have never been able to identify.
Azeris sweeten their tea with these jams so they go through them quickly. We aren't big tea drinkers so we serve them with ice cream at dinner parties. It hardly makes a dent in our supply. No one eats as many pickles as we've got on hand now.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
Plane crash in Baku
Tragically, 23 people were killed, including two westerners. Baku and Aktau are the capitals of their respective countries' oil industries, so it was probably a planeload of oil workers. Usually, Azal isn't that bad, but a reporter friend told me the plane that crashed was one of four new ones the airline recently purchased from Ukraine. One of those planes typically flies to Tbilisi. Probably I'll take the train from now on.
After going through a mental checklist making sure everyone I know who was planning to leave had already left Baku, I wondered next who important was on that plane, trying to make a hasty, low profile exit.
One report I read said the wreckage suggested an explosion. Maybe I've been here too long but I'm not going to lay awake nights waiting for them to find the black box and report the real cause, . It's going to be much more interesting -- and probably more enlightening -- to listen to the rumors.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
As One of Turkmenbashy's Biggest Fans
Here are some photos of his personal mosque outside of Ashgabat where many of the celebrations took place yesterday. The Gypjak Mosque is really something. It has quotations from the Ruhnama engraved in gold encircling the minarets.
Above the main entrance: "The Ruhnama is a good book, the Koran is God's book."
How cagey is that? Can you think of anyone more deserving of a Fatwa?
More Turkmenistan pictures at Carpetblogger's photos on
Flickr, or easily accessble from that Flickr bar to the left.
The Loyal Citizen's Contract
The Rude Pundit has developed a Loyal Citizen's Contract. I urge you to sign it and pass it on to your friends.
"I (the undersigned) believe President George W. Bush when he says that the United States of America is fighting a 'new kind of enemy' that requires 'new thinking' about how to wage war. Therefore, as a loyal citizen of President Bush’s United States, my signature below indicates my agreement to the following:
"1. I believe wholeheartedly in the Patriot Act as initially passed by Congress in 2001, as well as the provisions of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act. Therefore, I grant the FBI access to:
"a. my library records, so it may determine if I am reading material that might designate me an enemy of the nation;
"b. my financial records, including credit reports, so it may determine if I am contributing monetarily to any governmentally proscribed activities or organizations;
"c. my medical records, so it may determine if my prescriptions, injuries, or other conditions are indicative of terrorist activity on my part;
"d. any and all other personal records including, but not limited to, my store purchases, my school records, my web browsing history, and anything else determined as a 'tangible thing' necessary to engage in a secret investigation of me.
"I agree that I do not need to be notified if my records have come under scrutiny by the FBI, and, furthermore, I agree that no warrant is needed for the FBI to engage in this examination of my personal records. Additionally, I agree that the FBI should be allowed to monitor any groups it believes may be linked to what it determines to be terrorist activity.
"2. I believe that the President of the United States has the power to mitigate any and all laws passed by the Congress and that he has such power granted to him by his status as Commander-in-Chief in the Constitution as well as the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, passed by the Congress, which states that the President can use 'all necessary and appropriate force' in prosecution of the war. Therefore, I grant the United States government the following powers:
"a. that the National Security Agency, under the direction of the President, may tap my phone lines and intercept my e-mail without warrant or FISA oversight;
"b. that the President may hold me or other detainees without access to the legal system for a period of time determined by the President or his agents;
"c. that the President may authorize physical force against me or other individual detainees in order to gain intelligence and that he may define whether such physical force may be called 'torture':
"d. that the President may set aside any and all laws he sees as hindering the gathering of intelligence and prevention of terrorist acts for a period as time determined by the President, including, but not limited to, rights to political protest.
"I agree that the Judicial and Legislative branch should be allowed no oversight of these activities, and that such oversight merely emboldens the terrorists. I also agree that virtually all of these activities may be conducted in complete secrecy and that revelation of these activities amount to treasonous behavior on the part of those who reveal these activities to the press and the citizenry.
"3. Finally, this document is my statement that I believe the President of the United States and the entire executive branch, as well as all departments and agencies involved, as well as all of its personnel, will treat these powers I have granted them with utmost respect. I believe that these powers will not be abused, nor will any of the information I have given them permission to examine be misinterpreted. However, should such abuse or misinterpretation occur, I agree that such actions are mere errors and no one should be subject to investigation, arrest, or employment action as a result.
"My consent freely given,
In my experience, it's very easy to get used to having your phones tapped and email read, to the point where such violations no longer feel like violations, rather normal and acceptable.
It's not. Protection from such privacy invasions are what separate "us" from "them." In some places, the Loyal Citizen's Contract isn't tongue in cheek.
Friday, December 16, 2005
The Aid Industrial Complex is Going to Love This
A Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 60's, Theroux writes in Dark Star Safari about his return to Africa 40 years later to that, after decades of loans and direct foreign aid, not much has changed. He hits many of those same themes again, this time on the opinion page of the New York Times yesterday.
I agree with him that sane people should not attempt to ride from Moyale, Ethiopia to Isiolo, Kenya on top of a cattle truck (that journey still makes me want to cry) and I agree with him that the last thing Africa (or most places in the developing world) need is Bill Gate's computers or a lot more your tax money. What they do need is better governance, fewer rigged elections and less corruption.
Paul Theroux, as I understand it, got kicked out of Peace Corps for mixing Peace Corpsitude with domestic politics. Good on you, Paul.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Polo's Bastards has some decent stories about "going places you're not supposed to", though I do take issue with including Syria and Pakistan on the list. The only folks afraid of going there are paranoid Americans who worry about some foreign policy chickens coming home to roost.
I've always held the view that if the US State Department tells you not to go somewhere, that alone is a good enough reason to go check it out for yourself.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The final nail in the coffin
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Restaurant Review: Asiana
I know we shouldn't complain about our restaurants, but we do. Sure, we've got four Chinese, a a terrible Thai, a passable Mexican, a few pizza joints, two Lebanese, several Indian, two sushi places, a decent Italian or two and dozens of Georgian and Turkish. We can have a different style of world cuisine every night of the week. You can't say that about Tbilisi or Bishkek or Tashkent.
Even so, in a lot of cases we pay western prices for sullen service, mediocre food and watered down liquor. Sometimes memories of a meal stay with you much longer than you'd prefer.
You should never make jokes about earthquakes in Baku, but a seismic shift has altered the city's dining landscape. Personally, I hope that most of these mediocre restaurants disappear with the opening of Asiana.
It's that good.
The best part of Asiana is, for the duration of your meal, you can completely purge all sounds and images of Baku from your life. Every last item in the restaurant, from the chef to the teak fittings to the place settings were imported. Gentle bamboo shades obscure the activity outside the floor-to-ceiling picture windows but allow light in. Extra thick panes reflect the sound of shrieking police loudspeakers and Godfather-themed car horns back onto the obnoxious street beyond its doors. The Malyasian-style decor is meticulous and understated.
No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't detect one iota of Azeri tackiness in the entire restaurant (except for the Europa -Plus music at lunch. Given the restaurant's state-of-the-art sound system, that was a forgivable misstep by rogue staff that the meticulous owner would certainly not allowed had he been there. I suggest a flogging to ensure discipline in the future).
Then there's the food. We consulted Kenneth, the imported Malaysian chef, for his recommendations before ordering. The man knows his food. The street noodles he suggested were the best noodles I've ever had not purchased on the street in Bangkok. The Producer's garlic, ginger shrimp was delicate and perfectly balanced. Best of all, it wasn't the refrozen-multiple-times rubber that passes for seafood in most places in Baku. The tofu in steamed Broccoli had a faint flavor of soybeans and the broccoli tender and crunchy.
The five us of nearly cried at during dinner. Then, they brought us complementary fried ice cream (a scoop of ice cream stuffed inside a warm donut) after we slavishly heaped praise on the chef. Tears flowed.
There's an impressive wine list of careful selections from South Africa and Chile. Those bottles are pretty steep, but you won't feel deprived ordering the perfectly acceptable eight ($16) Shirvan French house red. It's better than paying five Shirvan ($10) for the repellent Azeri Seven Beauties served at a lot of places.
Even better than the atmosphere, food, fried ice cream and wine are the prices. Most dinner entrees were priced fairly between three ($6) and six ($12) Shirvan. How they keep the prices so reasonable when they import nearly every last ingredient is a mystery (actually, it isn't) but you can easily pay a lot more for a mediocre meal at a dozen other places.
Sure, you can quibble. The service is a little sluggish and the lunch menu substandard. But the restaurant has only been open a couple weeks. Having learned our lesson in the past, we normally invoke the "two-month" rule for new restaurants, a policy lifted with glee for Asiana.
After our meal, we were reluctant to venture out into the streets where something or someone, probably a young male and/or a vehicle, would pop our perfect bubble of anti-Baku, so we retired to the rattan seats of the bar in the back. There was no TV showing any kind of sport or music video.
Since the point of many establishments in Baku is to cleanse, rather than generate, money, most of the crap joints that cater to those with more cash than taste will simply sit empty every night now that Asiana is open, rather than close their doors.
I plan to set up a permanent basecamp in the bar, with a plate of street noodles and a glass of house wine. Maybe they will make a me a non-fat latte in the morning before I leave for work.
Hilarious Story for the Easily Entertained
They were released after questioning. The white powder? Flour.
I'm too lazy to investigate this further, but I'm pretty sure they were marking the Hash route. "The Hash" is a ubiquitous British ex-pat running/social club (or more as they describe it, "a drinking club with a running problem") that runs pre-set routes throughout the city twice a week, then ends up (or starts out at) one of Baku's dozens of pubs.
Please stand by
I do have a lot of the photos up on flickr.com already -- many of which will never make it on the blog. Search carpetblogger or just explore the Azerbaijan and Baku groups.
Friday, December 09, 2005
Have you ever wondered about Volgas?
Although this RFE/RL article delivers the bad news that the brand has been discontinued, it also provides more history and customer feedback on the old Soviet standby than you ever really needed to know.
I have mixed feelings about Volgas. Our drivers have them and while they are sturdy and reasonably comfortable (lack of air conditioning notwithstanding), every model looks the same to the untrained eye. They only seem to come in black and white, and white is the overwhelming consumer favorite. After 18 months, I can almost always identify our white Volgas in a large parking lot or traffic jam without looking at the license plate. Movsom's has unique seat covers and Rashid's has a certain slope to the hood, along with the dent on the back seat passenger that happened one cold January day in Sumgayit.
"We'd better buy now before the prices go up!" suggested Expat Monkey, marking probably the first time such a recommendation has been made in the history of Volgas.
At least they aren't Zhigulis. Every fifth car in Baku is one of those cranky little four door sedans. These are totally devoid of the Neva's and Volga's style and class. Discontinuing them would be no great loss.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Holiday Carpet Shopping
Three girls spent Saturday afternoon with their dealer, hoping for a little satisfaction. Everyone needed to fulfill a client's (or a relative's) needs. Everyone found something for the people on her list, and took home one, or two, or three for herself. Ruslan probably got the most satisfaction from these transactions.
I violated a personal policy and purchased this Afghan. Because of my "buy local" policy, I have stuck almost exclusively with Azeri carpets, with a brief, and completely understandable, foray into Daghestani Sumacs.
Who knows when I'll get to Herat, and this was lovely. I'll have to read up on the patterns.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Comic Book Hero Suffers Indignity in Baku
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Trump Trumped by Central Asian Dictator with Better Brand, Hair
Turkmenistan President Sapurmurat Niyazov, known amongst friends as Turkmenbashy and the self-proclaimed Leader of All Turks, has balls as big as cantaloupes (and if I see that phrase written on any public building in Ashgabat, devoid of irony, I demand compensation in the form of a productive oil lease). He kicks The Donald's skinny little ass in all areas related to personality cults. The Donald may want to consider some of his techniques.
Let's start with the obvious stuff.
Someone in Ashgabat told me a story about how a tour guide/government minder told her group of German doctors -- in all seriousness -- that the President had just returned from Germany where he underwent age reversal surgery. This explained why his hair, which had been gray when he left for Germany, was black when he returned to Ashgabat. The German doctors' response: The only doctor he saw was in Germany Dr. Swartzkopf (Swartzkopf is a European brand of hair color).
No competition there. T-bashy wins hands down.
T-bashy has penned the "Ruhnama" or "book of the soul." It is full of helpful uplifting advice on morals, philosophy and life conduct for Turkmen, such "chew on bones like dogs and you will have strong white teeth, not gold implants." It is designed to eliminate all shortcomings and raise the spirit of the Turkmen people. It is placed next to the Koran in mosques.
If you could buy Ruhnama on Amazon, the reviews would be overwhelmingly positive, no question.
Thanks to the ever-so-useful Wikipedia for those bits of T-bashy trivia.
The Donald does OK in the literary department, but according to the Amazon reviews, Trump's "Think Like a Billionaire" doesn't add up to much.
"Unfortunately, the book is packed with more cliches and glowing comments about his various properties than practical advice. For instance, his advice on how to spot a fraud is, "If it seems too good to be true, it is," and his counsel on grooming is, 'Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.'"
It's probably not even translated into Turkmen.
Winner: Hands down, Turkmenbashy
This is sort a throw-away. If Trump can't beat a Central Asian dictator in the hot wife department, he shouldn't even play the game. However. T-Bashy can have more than one wife all at the same time which might throw this category into question, but I'll toss a bone to the Donald.
Thanks to the ever helpful polygamyinfo.com
Turkmenbashy fired his interior minister on national television, calling him an incompetent and scolding him thusly: "I cannot say that you had any great merits nor did much to combat crime." Not the sort of catchy sound bite that enters the pop-culture lexicon, but give Turkmenbashy some credit for trying to avoid cliches.
I'm really trying to be objective here, but advantage: T-bashy
Establishing "The Brand"
Donald has the Trump Tower, casino and lots of other things that I can hardly be assed to look up.
But T-bashy built the 75m Arch of Neutrality, which sits in downtown Ashgabat and is topped by 12m tall gold statue of himself which rotates with the sun. He has renamed planets, months and a major port city after himself and his mother. His face is on all currency and on most public buildings. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", Niyazov has said.
Winner: No contest. T-Bashy.
Here's where I think that Trump really puts the heat on T-bashy.
According to the authoritative Defamer, Trump is launching his own brand of premium liquor. Brilliant move there, Donald. Truly visionary approach to enhancing your brand.
...What? Repeat that? You say Turkmenbashy already has his own brand of vodka? He does!
In fact, don't you just think that this press release, written specifically for the Trump Brand, would be just as, if not more, compelling if you searched "Trump" and replaced with "Turkmenbashy?"
J. Patrick Kenny, CEO of Drinks Americas explains, "In our view, the Trump name is one of the most recognizable and valuable global trademarks in existence today, synonymous with the very best of class. Our agreement is to search the world and work to develop the very best super premium vodka, and then to deliver that product to consumers in packaging and style worthy of the Trump trademark. Donald Trump commented, 'Trump Super Premium Vodka is a big idea. Drinks Americas' management team understands our vision for the Trump trademark. The Premium Vodka category is where the very best of fashionable spirits brands compete. That is the place for the Trump brand. By the summer of '06, I fully expect the most called for cocktail in America to be the T&T' or the 'Trump and Tonic'".
Finally, a casual visitor to Ashgabat could not be blamed for concluding that the national motto is "Halk! Watan! Turkmenbashy!" (People! Nation! Turkmenbashy!) since it is plastered on nearly every flat surface around town.
People! Nation! Trump! doesnt have the same ring.