31 January 2012

Old Stones In The Mist

Bad weather. Snow and fog. We tried very hard to see some of the sights of Syunik, this southernmost province of Armenia, but it was difficult. A day spent driving slowly, of Iranian trucks marooned on the side of the icy roads, of white fields, of cleaning windshield wipers, a day of vichyssoise visibility yielded only a few myopic glimpses. A rock here, a stone there, a church emerging from the mist.
People have been in this part of Armenia for thousands of years – some say twenty thousand, others say ten. For as long as they’ve lived here they’ve left markers, scratchings and standing stones. We wandered from cluster to cluster, seeing not much else. These sites were islands in the liquid white of our day, the only solid places we put our feet on the ground, the only things we took pictures of in the dispiriting light.
This is a grave marker set on a rock wall near the Monastery of Vorotnavank.
Vorotnavank was constructed on a ledge beside a chasm, high above the Vorotan river. We could barely see the water below, but the sound of it echoed up to the crumbled defensive walls. Built around 1000 by Queen Shahandukht, the monastery sits empty but whole, surrounded by graves. Some of the marking stones were used at some point to help shore up the walls. It was a silent, lonely place.
Similar gravestones stand around a newer church in Goris. Some are elaborate and finely carved. Others are much simpler, cut in the strange patterns of the place, their faces covered with sheep or human figures. There were men on horseback on some stones, and dancers. Also, small birds, wine jugs, even a pair of scissors.
A much bigger tomb punctuated the bleak air in the tiny hamlet of Aghitu. We found it beside some gas pipelines and a rusting, wheel-less bus. Dating from the sixth century, the arched monument commemorates the life of a forgotten figure – it is famous in part because it’s stayed upright through so many earthquakes. Around its base, a group of smaller graves has gathered.
In the monument’s stone, dozens of crosses have been carved, somewhat haphazardly. We stood in the arched space below the pillars for a while, looking out at the snow and the whitening road. A few cold candle stubs were glommed onto the wall in the back, the rock behind them blackened over the centuries.
Much older than these sites, the rocks of Zorats Kar are also a mystery. Stood up on a lonely hillside sometime between 2000 BC and 3000 BC, the two hundred monoliths are arranged in a spiked, almost-circular pattern. Some of the rocks have small holes cut through them – possibly for celestial purposes, though no-one can figure out exactly what the ancients were observing, or if the holes were intended for looking through at all.
Zorats Kar is a much quieter place than it could be. There is barely a sign, no parking lot, no people. We walked around for a little bit, trying to connect with the design and the scope of the place, but it was impossible in the fog. After a while, there was nothing to do but stand and look, trying to feel something of antiquity. The stones stood quietly. The snow fell. We got back in the car and moved on.

The North-South Highway

Driving the North-South Highway of Armenia was a study in borders. Crossing from Yerevan into its outskirts, we saw stork nests hover above a village. Beneath them, children returned to school from lunchtime at home. Only a few minutes later, we turned onto the highway proper and the landscape changed. Those borders, city to country, road to highway, were more physical and tangible than the infinitely less cross-able ones that would then exist all around us.
Somewhere on the mountain range to our right, Armenia ended and Turkey began. We drove along the border line for a while, with Mount Ararat peaking over the white(-capped) picket fence like a smug neighbor. The fabled mountain is planted in Turkey but remains an omnipresent part of the Armenian landscape, symbolizes a common history and even shared identity that has all but been erased by some pretty terrible recent history.
Just below, in the town of Yeraskh, we ricocheted off another border at such an angle it felt like the road planning equivalent of whacking a pinball away from the loser's abyss. We were led eastward toward the southern provinces of Armenia, Turkey in our rearview, Azerbaijan out my passenger window, the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabagh ahead (a whole other can of border issues).
It felt so strange, driving through the mountains on the beautiful highway, so simply laid it was named after its directionals. The North-South Highway is not built up at all. Almost all of it is a two lane stretch which many people call the 'backbone' of the country. Looking at a magnificent unending landscape of mountains and thinking about insurmountable border lines drawn somewhere within them felt like imaging a spot in the ocean where salt water gives way to fresh.
The borders within Armenia, between the provinces, were defined and enjoyable. Up we would go until we switch-backed through a mountain pass to find the sign welcoming us into a new region. The Tukh Manuk Pass brought us from the Ararat province to Vayots Dor then the Vorotan Pass acted as an escalator to the Syunik. Volcanic peaks with chimney-like stone protrusions in one place, sweeping round mounds in another. Between, life creeped up to the roadside, giving us some sense of what existed beyond the highway in each area. Painted fish signs springing up in bulk out of nowhere made us realize that we were passing the Armash Fishponds, easy to spot once we knew to look.
A veritable strip mall of roadside wine sellers made us notice the vineyards right there in Areni. We didn't stop for a taste, even though this woman invited us to park and sample. We marveled at the fact that the Coca Cola bottles in which almost all the multiple inventories were stored still had the red labels affixed. Later, we learned that this wasn't laziness at all. Highway wine is mostly sold to Iranian truck drivers who are heading home to their alcohol-free country with "soda."
In the southern corner of Armenia, Syunik province, many people are heading toward Iran. A man and woman about our age peddling heavily weighed bikes along the side of the highway were almost certainly tourists heading for that country. Unlike the ones with Turkey or Azerbaijan, this border is open, but - with our passports - is closed to us. It makes a place feel different to sit snugly in the corner of it knowing that the horizon, in almost every direction, is off limits to you. As we approached Goris, a mist began to set over everything in front of us. Snowcaps floated like clouds in some spots
and completely disappeared in others. We crossed a final mountain pass and dropped directly into the fog.

28 January 2012

A Different Kind of Market

We're really not that into shopping, we swear. As Merlin said, browsing a city's market(s) has become one of our favorite ways to jump head first into a new country. At a flea market, we're there to do exactly what everyone else is doing - rummaging through to find that something, that gem or oddity that we'll chose to take away with us. Vernissage Market peaked our interest because it was described as a "crafts market." Well, we've never been to one of those before!
It all started predictably enough. Handmade knitwear, Armenia-ccentric ceramics. Most of the crafts for sale at the first bunch of tables were clearly aimed at tourists. Magnets, figurines, flags. A good number of the items were shaped like pomegranates. We weren't in the market for souvenirs and felt a little too conspicuous browsing the area with our tourist uniforms on: backpacks, cameras, comfortable shoes, tiny flashlights hanging from the zippers of our jackets - you know, just in case.
As we continued on, the tchotchkes gave way to the crafts we were more interested in. Carpets were draped on trees, drums and flutes, woodcarvings and beadwork were set out by the artisans themselves. Or so we like to think. Some pieces were obviously handmade and others may have been brought from a workshop or a nearby town's factory. We began to see locals perusing the items. One woman delivered plastic cups of coffee to the vendors, made on a curbside stove she crouched down to use.
The glassware couldn't have all been blown, the porcelain had to have come from somewhere else. The "craft" element wasn't always present, but craftiness was still abundant. A group of pepper grinders were set up alongside little bowls of coffee beans. This, I believe, was an attempt to market the items as mini coffee grinders. Crafty, crafty, crafty you craft market vendor.
Then, things took a completely unexpected turn. The market transitioned into a shopping center for craftspeople themselves. Used paint tubes were on sale alongside palettes and easels. There was a staggering array of old cameras and lenses. Men with grease stained hands looked through boxes of car parts. An entire row of tables specialized in chef's tools, bookended by a man showcasing his peelers' (and peeling) ability. Every market needs a beet sculptor.
People bought beads and gems from this man. Another table sold the magnifiers one uses to appraise such items. Another sold the needle and wire sets used to make jewelry out of them. Maybe one of the first tables I saw, with bracelets and necklaces spilling over laid out newspaper, had been the lovechild off all these different pieces. It made me want to go back and get some earrings that may have been Vernissage Market originals, through and through. I didn't.
Every craft was provided for, not just material ones. This is where it started to get a little bizarre. There was a puzzling amount of medical equipment. Flat-ended scissors in the hundreds and syringes and whatever this thing is. Lab tools included bunsen burners and microscopes.
Then, came bags of powders and bottles of who knows what. These were set up between the medical supply section and the cooking section, so they could have gone either way.
Finally, it just divulged into a full blown flea market. If you can buy it, someone was selling it. This included the requisite Soviet metals and weaponry, used clothing, batteries, books and maps. We keep hearing that Yerevan is the sort of city you need to wander around to appreciate it. They say turning down side streets or going into that restaurant that looks unremarkable or bar that doesn't even look open will lead to great surprises. If this is true, than Vernissage Market was a pretty spot on first impression. Next to the bootleg dvds, there were puppies for sale.

27 January 2012

The Second Yerevan Shuka

How many countries do we begin with a market?
Walking through narrow aisles of pickles and apricots, we talked about how marketplaces are a window into a country's soul. If it's difficult to get a grip on a place - how friendly a people are, what they like to eat, what they're proud of, how much tradition has been overtaken by convenience - a good place to start is a city's food market. There's always lots to see, more to smell and to wonder about. It's a chance to glimpse real life.
This butcher specialized in hearts. There were some huge beef hearts, and a bowlful of these smaller organs, which we guessed were lamb hearts.
Of the two main covered markets (called shukas) in Yerevan, the more famous one (the Pak Shuka, on Mesrop Mashtots Poghota,) is a tourist mainstay in the central city. Known for its massive cement arches and tightly packed tables, the market was recently sold to Armenia's largest food import conglomerate, and is being fitted with an underground parking lot and more standardized booths - the renovation process has left an empty shell. There is some talk that the market could be closed from three to five years while work is carried out and the place is "sanitized."
That leaves Khorenatsi Shuka, which has none of the soviet, arched bluster of Pak Shuka, but also has far fewer tourists and a charm all its own.
In some parts of the world, the buildings where vendors gather to compete amongst themselves for business can be tiring places - lots of yelling, much pushing, too much attention paid to every passer-by. People in the Caucasus have a much more relaxed attitude toward the commercial process. Maybe they'll offer a sample, usually they just smile. Customers stand and chat, bargaining is done in friendly tones. Pictures are encouraged. The pace is slower.
This woman was almost lost amongst her mountains of pickles.
Khorenatsi Shuka smells different from other markets we've been to. Some of it is the shift toward Turkish and Lebanese spices - cumin, clove, turmeric, paprika, cardamom. Coffee is also in the air, and the scent of roasting chicken.
A group of eight or ten vendors were lined up along one outside street, selling nothing but beef hooves. The hair and keratin had been stripped off, leaving forked, pink clubs that looked almost plastic. Khash soup, made from bovine feet, is a semi-ritualistic breakfast food in Armenia, so there's more demand than in most places.
I was invited right into the butcher shops that line Khorenatsi Poghota opposite the main market building. Armenians love pork, unlike their neighbors, and there were several tons of pig hanging along the avenue. It seems that the animals are parted and then distributed along the row, so that every few windows the displayed meat's corporeal origin changes.
Perhaps the most impressive section of Khorenatsi Shuka was the lavash table; it stretched some sixty feet, and was piled high with hundreds - maybe thousands - of sheets along its length. A mess of floured bundles lay about behind the table, dozens of women sat or stood, waiting for customers.
When the bread was bought, it got wrapped up into neatly folded, compact packages that somehow, miraculously, held their shape until unfurled. It's a kind of origami trick, and was mesmerizing to watch.
After this man showed us his two largest fish, another, older man gestured for us to follow him into his shop. Surrounded by grubby tanks, a large pool lay in the center of his space - in the water, a multitude of fish. They were trout mostly, but a few sturgeon were mixed in. Near the bottom, a large, black sturgeon swam in circles - by far the biggest fish we'd see at the market. The older man got a net and began trying to catch the monster while a small crowd gathered.
It took him a while, and much grunting, but eventually the fishmonger got the big, flopping thing up onto the slimy floor. After we took a few (not very good) pictures, the man slid it back in the water, very satisfied with himself. We were duly impressed.

Azeri Food

Azerbaijan is a strange and unique country. We could call it anything we wanted, really - Islamic, ex-soviet, Asian, Middle Eastern, European... this is a people and a land that doesn't fit easily into any category. It's a country that's over 95 percent muslim, with a language that's very close to Turkish and a regional identity that hinges on the silk routes and the desert - but it still feels extremely Russian. Vodka is the drink of choice. Borsht is on every menu. Old Ladas clunk down the highways. Women wear short skirts, policemen have fur hats.
Their food is a great representation of this mixture of cultures. Much was introduced during soviet rule, much influence has been taken from Turkey and Georgia, the desert and mountains play their part.
This is how every Azeri meals begins - with a cluster of dishes meant to accentuate and compliment the meal. Usually there's salty sheep's cheese, some kind of yogurt, goy (greens, typically parsley and scallions) and pickles. Sometimes there's plum sauce or choban (peasant) salad, in the mountains they serve a kind of tomato paste.
At a road stop along the southern highway, on our way from Baku down to the Talysh region, I had this bowl of stewed meat and qreçki, or split bulgar wheat. The landscape at that point was just beginning to green as we left the brown desert and the land began rising toward the Lesser Caucasus and foothill farmland. It was a dry dish, but delicious - the nutty grains didn't need anything but a pinch of salt.
The heart and soul of Azeri food is Shashlyk, in all its myriad forms. Lamb is the most popular meat, but there was also lots of baliq (sturgeon) near the coast and whole chickens - toyuq kebab - on the high plains. This was the best grilled meat I had: in the little mountain hub of Lerik, we stopped at a bright, airy cafeteria where the air was heavy with the scent of grilling meat. Outside the windows, the jagged border with Iran loomed, a series of snowy peaks. The waiter "suggested" I have these bits of fatty, well-seasoned lamb's haunch. Really, he gave me no choice - this was the dish he brought to the table.
Qutab was something we discovered pretty late in the country - we needed a quick bite to take on a long bus ride with us; this was the closest thing to the parking lot. In a dark, one room shack, I bought a small stack of these crepe-like things. They can be stuffed with meat, cheese or - a later discovery - pumpkin, but these were more basic and probably the most common. A thin layer of spinach and parsley is folded between two halves of extra-thin lavash, then heated up over a flame.
In poorer places, often the only available thing would be a kind of egg scramble. Sometimes the egg was mixed with oily potatoes and sausage, sometimes with spinach. The dish above was just tomato and egg, with a few bits of parsley.
If the bulk of many Azeri meals is kebab, the backbone is soup. Alongside borscht and chicken soups, there is dovga, made with yoghurt, piti, a lamb broth soup and düşbərə, shown above. The tiny, ravioli like dumplings in düşbərə are hand-stuffed with lamb and herbs, the broth is light, the waiters especially proud.

Also, I should re-mention paxlava and lavangi.

26 January 2012

Things Azeri People Like

Tea. "Like," is an understatement. "Love," would be an understatement. "Subsist on," gets a little closer to the heart of it, but focuses too much on the consumption. Having tea in Azerbaijan is a social activity, a integral part of life. Mothers "decanting" tea to cool it off, pouring it into the saucer and holding it up for their children to sip, is the equivalent of a bed time story. Or a hug. It's all very ritualistic. Sugar cubes go in the mouth, not the cup. Candies are plopped in the cup, never the mouth. Jam can be added to tea or eaten with a spoon alongside it. As soon as one kettle is done, another is brought to a boil. We have never consumed so much tea in our entire lives. Azeris seemed to consume no liquid aside from it.
Bread. Sure, everyone likes bread. (Sorry, celiacs). But does everybody place it out in the yard for birds and animals to peck away at because it's too holy to put in the garbage with everything else? I didn't think so. Here, a man prepared long, flat loaves to replace the ones he'd just taken out of the oven at a restaurant. As soon as those were in, he would go about making more. And more. And more. Diners kept a piece of bread in their left hand as they ate with their right, using it to nudge food onto their forks or, topped with a small mound of something, making it into a separate utensil. Soups and stews were doubled in size with the addition of bread. Pieces would be ripped and dropped into the bowl until all liquid was soaked up. Then, the bready mash would be eaten. Of course, along with some more bread.
Outdoor Sinks. The omnipresence of this outdoor sinks were the result of another thing Azeri People like- washing their hands. A sink was placed outside the front door of every restaurant or tucked away behind a curtain right when you walked in. No one sat down without cleaning their hands first and we were beseeched by every host to make use of the sink upon arrival. In fact, we always made sure someone actually saw us wash our hands. That way, we wouldn't have to do it over again.
Statues. Sure, everyone likes statues. But Azeri people had a knack for them and really liked sprinkling them around public spaces. In almost every instance, the statues would depict regular people. In Baku, midriff baring women hailed a cab and baseball cap wearing men talked on cell phones. In Lankaran, two men laughed on a bench while another, stooped over with his hands clasped behind his back, consulted an information board. Behind this statue in Sheki you can see Heydar Aliyev waving from a billboard. Which brings me to my next point...
Pictures of Heydar Aliyev/Heydar Aliyev Museums/Heydar Aliyev. Former President Heydar Aliyev's picture is everywhere in Azerbaijan. Billboards show him in front of the flag or candidly laughing. Businesses hung enormous portraits of him shaking their CEO's hand. One cell phone company simply put up a banner with Heydar Aliyev, you guessed it, talking on a cell phone. Every town had a Heydar Aliyev Museum and at least one bust of the man. Anything that can be named after him is. You can tell his son, the current president, doesn't feel too competitive with his deceased old man.

Honorable Mentions

Cayxanas (Tea Rooms).
I know I already said "tea," but this deserves its own honorable mention. Behind almost every door in any Azeri town is a cayxana. Most have no sign at all, just a rumble emanating from inside and the shadow of a dozen black caps in the foggy window. Men sitting in tea houses, sharing kettles of tea and nary a drop of alcohol, become rowdy and congenial. Tea houses are their bars, diners, elks lodges, pool halls all rolled into one. They seemed to spend their entire day here and grew silent and wary any time I entered their realm. Tea houses are like secret clubs and they are fervently male only.

Private Dining Rooms. Speaking of rooms, if an establishment served more than tea, they always had at least one private room in addition to the main dining space. This is where, most often, the police would go - some of the only people who eat out regularly. Sometimes, we were hidden away in one if there was a big party going on. In one restaurant, our private room was a mini picnic table in an faux beer barrel. Very cozy.

Having Their Pictures Taken. Exhibit A. Exhibit B. Exhibit C.

Where Can I Park My Camel?

Caravanserais are the original motels. They were designed specifically for groups of travelers who needed a place to stay en route. Caravanserais began to pop up in great numbers along the Royal Road, a merchant trail that led into the Silk Road, all the way back around 600 BC. Open to the sky, the traditionally square courtyards were the "parking lots," as goods, people and animals were all settled into their appropriate places for the night. Some of these unique complexes still exist and a visit to one conjures up all sorts of images and scenes straight out of Arabian Nights.
Crafts and valuables were stored in cellar rooms, travelers stayed on the second floor and the courtyard level rooms were used for trading and selling. In Baku, a few caravanserai have been turned into restaurants. We dined at one called, simply, "Karavansara," which dates back to the 14th century. Ducking and squeezing into a slit of a doorway, we were shown our private dining room. A gas powered ring of fire was lit in the stone fireplace and we were left to imagine what kind of business deals went down centuries ago. Outside, a fez wearing quartet played traditional mugam music.
In Sheki, we were able to have an even more authentic caravanserai experience. The city, in Northwestern Azerbaijan, is famous for its silk factory. So, naturally, it was a major stop for merchants on the Silk Road. By the 17th century, four large caravanerais were built in the city - two of which remain. One of these historic travel lodges is restored and back to doing what it does best- giving weary travelers a place to rest their heads.
The 18th century Yukari Karavanerie Hotel is a huge square structure. Around the perimeter, facing out toward the sidewalk, small shops occupy the nooks and crannies. Simple tea spots, minimarkets, halva shops, copperworks, musical instruments restringing. The hotel's domed entry hall is incredible, spanning upwards in impressive narrow brickwork. Below the wooden balcony, a sign reads "WIFI."
Our room was not heated in the traditional way - carpets hung up on the walls - but, rather, with a radiator. It being wintertime, whose complaining? Even with the touches of modernity, it felt historic. A completely unique experience. We slept in one of at least a hundred identical rooms that wrapped around the moonlit arcade. The palm trees and courtyard benches were covered in snow.
The morning after our stay, we left before the sun rose. The front door was unlocked by a sleepy young man and we maneuvered our backpacks through and out of the door. The town was asleep, and popping out as we did, I felt like a cuckoo clock announcing the morning. Like the caravanserai's first visitors, we had a long route ahead of us. Onward west we went, over the border to Georgia and through to the capital of Armenia.

Hanging Meat and Sharpened Axes

How does a person cut up an animal? It’s a cultural thing. In America they do it in secret. In Azerbaijan they do it on the roadside, with axes.
This man, lovably, wanted to know if he should put on his white butcher’s coat. From the look of it, the coat was worn only for photos. We were standing on a muddy sidewalk next to a fetid gutter, looking in through the open front of this man’s shop. Granted, it was around forty degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the same as the inside of a refrigerator – but meat isn’t treated the same way here. Butchers practice their craft proudly, in the open. The cutting of meat isn’t treated like a vice to be ashamed of. Packaging doesn’t exist. To buy meat is to buy a piece of an animal, often still steaming with life.
The strange difference between this kind of display - overt savaging of tissue and bone - and the American version - secretive and sanitary - isn't what is produced but the attitude towards cleanliness. In the west, we're terrified of food and meat. It's perceived as automatically dirty, almost sinful by default, and the people who work with it are supposed to hide the worst of this filth from our consumer's eyes. In places like Azerbaijan, where refrigeration (viable electricity, in some places) is rare, to eat meat is to accept a level of dirt and risk. There's no clean water, the facilities have dirt floors, the flesh will be contaminated whether you can see it or not.
We came across this man on the road from Lankaran to Lerik. We pulled over and asked if we could take his picture – he nodded, but didn’t stop working. The sheep was still limber, its head and forelegs discarded casually in the dirt. The man worked like anyone accustomed to their job - comfortably and efficiently.
The first Azeri butchers we came across were in Baku, at the Təzə Bazar. Men grabbed bloody chunks of muscle and held them out to us – “beef,” they said, or “steak.” There were hearts and lungs, cleaned tripe, trotters and testicles, brains sitting on semi-cleaned tile counters. The butchers worked – as they do everywhere in Azerbaijan – on large chopping blocks fashioned from sections of tree trunk, the bark still on.
At first, I was struck by how casually these vendors handled their products. How is it that that’s surprising? Millions of pounds of meat are cut up every day. Is every slice committed squeamishly? Is every piece parted with closed eyes? Does an employee in a slaughterhouse shudder at the sight of intestine?
In Azerbaijan, meat hangs right over the sidewalk, like burly men having a conversation in front of the store. Unwanted scraps are tossed to the dogs. Customers can touch and smell the flesh, the butchers will make alterations.
Meat is expensive here, and selling it is a proud trade. This woman motioned for us to take her picture, cleaning up her workspace. Imagine an American supermarket butcher, hidden away in the back room, working in (what we assume is) glistening sterility, his hands in plastic, his product sealed up as quickly as possible. Imagine that butcher wanting his picture taken - it seems almost like taking a picture of a mortician or a doctor, not of someone preparing food.
In the markets and on the roadsides of Azerbaijan, the butchers see this red stuff for what it is: food. I remember one man holding up a cut of beef appreciatively, palpating it a little with his red hands - "beef" he said. "No problem. Very good." His eyes were proud. What he was showing me was something he saw as tasty, like a baker holding up a pie or a grocer displaying fruit.