Today we ventured out of Baku on our first trip to other parts of Azerbaijan. We were headed to Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan and situated approximately 320 km to the East of Baku and close to the Nagorno-Karabakh border.
Prior to my travels, I had read that pictures of the current president as well as his father, the former president, are hanging everywhere. I had not seen much of this in Baku and figured that people had been exaggerating the number of pictures hanging around. But in Ganja they are everywhere. On every corner, on every official building are large pictures sometimes more than three meters in height of Heydar Alijev and his son Ilham shaking hands looking prestigious and important.
Except from the tremendous amounts of colourful pictures of presidents, Ganja is a rural town with the population being a bit more conservative than in Baku. Two of the participants in our group were told off because they were non-Muslims who dared touching a copy of the Quran, which was sold alongside other religious items in a street souvenir shop.
In addition, it seems the women do not venture in to the many street cafés. I have been told that it is frowned upon if a woman should enter a café enjoying a çay or a kafe. Instead, women walk in the park with their children and sit on the benches there enjoying the outdoor life. The café is the domain of the man – a place where they seem to spend countless hours playing Nard, talking and enjoying the shadow.
Nard is a board game being closely related to Backgammon. At first glance it might even look like Backgammon, but in Nard there are different initial positions and rules. According to the vast resources on the web, Nard originated in southwest Asia or Persia before 800AD. The game has for centuries been extremely popular in Persia (Nardshir). After Russia and the Soviet Union for long periods of time occupied the Caucasus countries, it has also grown into a popular game in Russia and other former Soviet republics (Narde).
An ancient and unnamed source describes Nard as follows:
The board represents a year; each side contains 12 points for months of the year; the twenty-four points represent the hours in a day; the 30 checkers represent days of the month; the sum of opposing sides of the die represent the 7 days of the week; the contrasting colors of each set of checkers represent day and night.
In Azerbaijan it seems that the game is hugely popular among men and everywhere you go people are playing it.
A day of family
It is no coincidence that we visited Ganja. One of the organisers is originally from here and I am at the moment sitting in his parents’ yard writing my blog on a sheet of paper.
We came early this morning after a night on the train and as tired travellers we were welcomed by the mother and aunt who had organised the most amazing breakfast. We were stuffed with cake, Turkish yoghurt, white cow cheese, homemade bread and sweet bread, coffee, tea and baklava from Ganja. But the best part was the loving and caring hospitality of this family. What a treat!
After finishing breakfast and having a light nap, we went for a tour of Ganja centre, which included a visit to the Scientific Academy, where we had to suffer through two long and tiring speeches about how Ganja was a centre of civilization. I am not sure how I kept myself sitting straight, but I now know that it in truth was a man from Ganja who invented the communication software Skype. I know they meant well, but considering that we had little sleep on the train and a large breakfast with so much to still see in Ganja it seem tedious to sit through such speeches of puffed up importance.
But while I was sitting listening to all the talks of Ganja being the very epicenter of civilization, the family which had prepared us the amazing breakfast was spending their precious time setting up a fantastic picnic for us. When the speech was finally finished we drove out to the most beautiful mountain area near Ganja. Here we were welcomed by a table booming with kebab and other delicious Azeri treats. For the next many hours, we ate and ate while listening to local music, enjoying the atmosphere and using every last space on the memory cards of our cameras. The only part to dent this perfect imagery was the lack of any garbage cans. When asking where to get rid of the garbage I was shown in the direction of a massive ditch where it seemed that generations of Azeri had left their garbage. Right there in this beautiful nature area. Like an open wound that would never heal.
After dinner, we set out on a small walk. Further up the mountain side, we passed a village of somewhat destroyed shacks and with underweight chickens running around on the single mountain road leading through the village. The parked cars were old and crippled Ladas, while many of the houses were repaired in creative fashion from everyday utensils. Every now and again a large Mercedes or BMW would speed through the village with music blasting making an obnoxious contrast to the humble life of these villagers.
I was later informed that this area to the South of Ganja used to be inhabited by a large German minority, but after they left the villages had been left empty. Today, it had been revived by Azeri refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, who had crossed the mountains as war broke out. This explained the ramshackled look of the village. Not only were these people displaced and poor after moving from everything they ever knew, but highly likely they were also biding their time to one day return to their home.
Leaving Ganja on the Titanic
We are heading home to Baku, and I can’t help noticing how both in this bus and on all the local buses in Ganja the seats are covered with a white piece of fabric depicting a drawing of a boat and with the name Titanic written underneath. I really hope we arrive to Baku safely!
Waking up halfway to Baku. Tired. Plastic palm trees in various blinking colours. Glittering. All the Azeri guys smoking their slim cigarettes, looking at us strange and foreign people. One bus driver in particular is staring from his window in the bus, satisfyingly smiling at the view. The toilets off course are Turkish and no one is there to clean them, no toilet paper either, but that is normal. It smells and the night time butterflies gather in thousands on the white bathroom wall, while an Azeri woman helps her daughter to wash the hands with the one piece of hand soap which is shared by all. I am so tired.