Azerbaijan

Baku Flame Towers

We arrived in Azerbaijan via the overnight train from Tbilisi, which was cheap ($20) and easy. It left Tbilisi’s Station Square at 8:40 pm, arrived at the border just before midnight, and made it to Baku by 9 am. We had already applied for an e-visa for Azerbaijan ($55), which we printed out in Tbilisi, and they do the immigration stuff on the train. We had a 4-person sleeper berth which was fairly comfortable, aside from being super hot for a couple of hours before they turned off the heater.

Chris in our train cabin

Baku:

Our first day in Baku, we dropped our bags at our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to look at the huge Caspian Sea (the largest inland lake in the world). We got a late breakfast/early lunch at a cafe, and went back to the hotel and checked in and took a nap. We were staying at a hotel next to the train station/metro station so it was very easy with the transport. When we went out to dinner that night, we found a little basement tavern where no one spoke English. One patron who knew a few words helped us order, and we wound up with this delicious meal for under $20.

Pork chops, pickled veg, bread, cheese, herbs and beer

The next day we went on a walking tour of the capital city, Baku. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot. It’s a very interesting place, visually, with parts of the walled old city dating back to the Middle Ages, plus European-style buildings funded by oil-rich oligarchs in the early 1900s, and ultra-modern skyscrapers built with new oil money in the last few years. It’s quite a blend and yet it works.

Maiden Tower, 12th c
National Academy of Sciences, 1908
Baku is growing, up and out!

A brief history:

Early residents of this area of the world were Zoroastrian fire worshippers. When Islam arrived in the early 700s, the Zoroastrians were expelled towards India, and the area became Muslim. Assaulted by the Khazars and the Rus for the next few centuries, the city of Baku was also invaded by Mongols. The Persians finally took over the region in 1501, and even earlier than that were written records of oil being produced in Baku. The Russians and the Ottomans fought over Baku in the 1700s, with Russia eventually winning. Then the Russians fought the Persians for control of Baku (and their oil). By the 1890s, Baku supplied half the world’s oil. In 1920, the Russian 11th Red Army rolled into town and gave Baku an ultimatum: join Soviet Russia or be annihilated. Finally, in 1991, Azerbaijan achieved lasting independence.

Baku in 1861

Day trip to Qabala

We signed up to go on a day tour to Qabala, about 200 km from Baku. On the way we stopped in Shemakhi, to see Azerbaijan’s oldest mosque site. Built in 743, the mosque has been damaged and rebuilt after fires, earthquakes, and Soviet occupation. The residence of an Arabian caliphate in the 8th century, the mosque is the largest in the Caucases.

Inside Shemakhi Dzhuma

Then we drove to Qabala, an ancient capital city along the Silk Road. The area has a long and rich history, but was mostly destroyed during Soviet times. Now Qabala is undergoing a cultural comeback, with parks, green spaces, and recreational activities. We visited a ski resort there and a lake, which is probably really fun in deepest winter and in spring/summer. Although spring was just arriving in Azerbaijan while we were there, with warming-up temps and green buds starting to show, there was still snow in the mountains, but melting quickly.

Tufandag Ski Resort

Modern Baku

Back in Baku from our day trip, we took the metro to the Flame Towers (helpful hint: the funicular is closed on Mondays) and walked all around that area of town. When Chris visited Azerbaijan the first time in 2011, they were still constructing these towers. We also took the metro up a few stations to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Surrounded by a large park, we brought a picnic and sat by the “I ❤️ Baku” sign and ate lunch. The city gets winds coming in from the Caspian Sea- the name Baku actually means “wind pounded city”- but this day was warm and not too breezy. On the front steps leading up to the cultural center was an open-air exhibit of work by a photographer named Reza, which was really incredible work. His website can be found here. Inside the cultural center, designed by Zaha Hadid, are rotating exhibits- right now there’s one on classic cars and another on dolls.

The Flame Towers
I really need to stretch first next time

We enjoyed visiting Baku and Azerbaijan, but we’re ready to head back to Tbilisi to explore Georgia some more and then Armenia. We took the sleeper train back and got ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned for more Caucasus updates soon!

Cruising the Indian Ocean: Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Reunion

Costa Cruise boat Indian Ocean

We had planned to go to Central Asia after India, but since it’s cold and wintry there in February, we spotted a cruise that was visiting four Indian Ocean islands. After considering the prices for lodging, meals, and airfare to such remote places, the cruise turned out to be a good deal- being flexible with our dates, we were able to get a heavily discounted fare for an upcoming sailing. We signed up- and got a free $50 onboard credit from Expedia!

Mauritius

Leaving the Maldives, we transited through Dubai and arrived in Mauritius a few days before the cruise. The small island has a fascinating history: known to Arab traders and the Portuguese but settled by neither, it was the Dutch in 1598 that populated the island for a hundred years- and completely wiped out the Dodo bird and the black ebony trees. In 1712 came the French, who valiantly fought the British during the Napoleonic Wars- the 1810 battle of Grand Port in Mauritius was the only naval battle the French won. But… four months later the Brits returned and prevailed, taking possession of the island. After the British abolished slavery, they produced sugar cane with the labor of half a million indentured laborers from India in what was called “The Grand Experiment”. Finally, in 1968, Mauritius gained its independence.

The sugar cane fields seem to go on forever here

We stayed three nights in the small village of La Gaulette on the southwest side of the island, in a fabulous roomy studio apartment (a place I really loved). We swam at La Morne beach, saw the UNESCO memorial commemorating the end of the slave trade, and teamed up with our hotel neighbors to drive to waterfalls and a nature reserve in the interior of this picturesque volcanic island. Then we moved north for two days, staying in Grand Baie, where we went scuba diving (and saw a very cool scorpionfish trying to camouflage himself next to a sunken wreck we were exploring). A barrier reef encircles the entire island of Mauritius and makes for some of the best diving in the world. That night we had a delicious Creole seafood dinner. The next morning we boarded our Costa cruise at Port Louis.

Chamarel Falls

Seven Colored Earth Natural Reserve

Touristing with friends

Seychelles

After two northbound days at sea, our first port of call was Victoria, Seychelles. The Seychelles are a collection of 115 islands, most of which are uninhabited. We felt like the tour excursions were rather pricey, so we set off on our own. We took a public bus up and over the granite spine of the island, and arrived at a postcard-perfect beach. On the other side of the street: a small shop, where we purchased cold Seybrew beers and Slow Turtle Ciders, which we enjoyed while sunbathing. The water was warm, the beach was clean, and the waves were perfect for body surfing. The next day we took another bus to Beau Vallon beach on the other side of the island, and enjoyed that one too. Some fellow cruisers we met the second day told us “This beach is just like the excursion we took yesterday except it didn’t cost €140!”.

Madagascar

After two and a half days in the Seychelles, we sailed southwest for one day and arrived at Nosy Be, Madagascar (“Nosy” means island, and “Be” means bay in Malagasy). Originally settled by explorers from Indonesian Borneo, Madagascar has a little different feel to it than the rest of the Indian Ocean islands- part Indonesian, part Indian, and part African, along with some remnants from European exploration as well. On Nosy Be, Chris and I took a tuk-tuk to a lemur sanctuary, where we were able to check out 15 of Madagascar’s 71 lemur species. In a “semi-free” environment, the primates live on their own little islands- they don’t like to cross water- not in cages, but fairly domesticated by this point, cared for and fed by tourists and park staff.

On our second day in Madagascar, our boat docked in a different city- Antsiranana, previously known as Diego Suarez. After a stroll around the small city (it was a quiet Sunday, so not much going on), we found a bar with cold Three Horses Beer and not-so-blazing-fast WiFi, and caught up on some communications.

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Chris in Madagascar

 

We had another day at sea while we sailed up and around Madagascar- did I mention that our time onboard our cruise is mainly spent trying out the culinary creations of the 106 cooks, served by the 145-person restaurant(s) staff? Of course we also make time each day for the four hot tubs, two pools, theater, five clubs, two coffee bars, and the gym. Plus lying on the loungers up on the solarium deck at night watching the Southern Cross rise in the jet black sky- so clear you can see the Milky Way. It’s just beautiful.

A fisherman approaches our cruise ship

Anyway. On our third Madagascar day, we docked at Tamatave (also called Toamasina), where we decided to visit another lemur park, because they are just so danged cute. I didn’t like this one as much, because they kept some in cages- as they are getting acclimatized to the park- but the park does stretch for acres and acres where other semi-wild lemurs roam free (we spotted two in the trees). As most of the wild lemur species are endangered, I guess this is better than losing them all.

I love those sweet lemur faces!

Reunion

After another day at sea, we arrived at the last of our stops in the Mascarene archipelago , the island of Reunion. Originally known as Isle de Bourbon, it’s now a French overseas department. The island is dominated by a volcanic caldera, and surrounded by both black sand and white sand beaches. Roaming around the small town of Le Port on our first day there, it seemed so European after our other stops. We found a bar and settled in for some cold beverages and people-watching. The next day, we took a bus to the beach town of St-Gilles-des-Bains, and played in the ocean for a while. Standing at the back of the boat that night, we watched the glittering lights of Reunion fade away as we headed back to Mauritius.

The dodo might be extinct, but you can still find a cold one at this bar

We arrived in Mauritius and docked, and spent the day in Port Louis, visiting some historic buildings there including the Caudan Waterfront and the Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Museum that tells the story of the 462,000 indentured servants brought from India, China, Comoros, Madagascar, and Yemen to work in sugar cane plantations. Most modern-day Mauritians are descended from these laborers, so it’s a big part of their history. It’s a good museum to visit and includes parts of the original processing buildings for the immigrants.

Aapravasi Ghats Heritage Museum, Port Louis

After one last night on the boat, we were done with our cruise. We left Port Louis, and stayed at a BandB on the southeast end of Mauritius for two more nights. Tomorrow we fly from here to South Africa, to visit some friends in Durban.

Have you been to the Indian Ocean islands? What was your favorite?

The Maldives

Maldives Thulusdhoo boat island water beach

If the sea level continues to rise at the current rate, the Maldives will be the first country to cease to exist due to climate change. At 2.4 meters, it has the lowest high point in the world. Made up of over 1200 islands grouped over 26 atolls, it is the smallest country in Asia by both population and landmass. It is the first country in the world to aim to be carbon neutral by 2020, and tourism and “green taxes” provide a large source of income for the islands, which have seen tourism numbers double over the past ten years. Even with the threat of rising sea levels, there is still quite a lot of economic a activity going on here, such as skyscrapers being built, artificial islands being created, and metals being mined.

Maldives atoll as seen from space

So if you want to see the Maldives, you better hurry! Since we were just in India for two months, we found that the budget airline Indigo has $116 fares to the Maldives, so we decided to visit. Visitors to the Maldives have three choices: a private island owned completely by a luxury resort, a local island populated by Maldivians with guest houses and small restaurants, or a live-aboard boat. We chose a local island.

A resort island we passed by on the ferry

Flying in, we could see the ring-shaped atolls, surrounded by coral reefs, from the airplane. We landed at Velana airport, which is situated on a completely man-made island. From there you can take a sea plane to a resort island (Maldives has the largest seaplane operations in the world), take a speedboat to any number of desired islands, or take a public ferry to Malè, the capital, which is located just next to the airport.

Taking the ferry from Velana airport

We stayed overnight in Malè, which is about 6 sq km and holds around 1/3 of the 500,000 Maldivian population. Male was originally founded by Dravidian people from southern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was a monarchy until 1968, and in that year the old palace and fort were destroyed. Only the home of the last sultan- now the National Museum building- and the Friday Mosque remain from ancient times.

Male, the capital

The next morning, we took a speedboat to Thulusdhoo, a medium-sized island in the Kaafu atoll. Less than 1400 Maldivians live on the island, which is only 2.8 sq km. We stayed in a small guesthouse which served a delicious breakfast each morning, and we tried out a different local restaurant each evening. Maldivian specialties include masuni (flatbread served with shredded tuna and shaved coconut flavored with limes and onion and spices), and roshi (a mixture of sauce, chopped up flatbread, and fish/chicken/ or beef cooked together). Also on the island is a Coca Cola factory- the only one in the world that uses desalinized water.

Masuni
Chris at the Coke factory

The Maldives make up 3% of the world’s coral reefs. So of course we went diving, and were able to see a tiger shark, lots of moray and honeycomb eels, black tip reef sharks, triggerfish, sting rays, eagle rays, tuna, batfish, sea turtles, and more. The corals are not very vibrant here- apparently a warm El Niño in 2015 and 2016 causes pretty severe loss of coral life. However, the array of aquatic life in the area is still one of the most diverse in the world.

A coral reef keeps the area around the island’s bikini beach calm and protected
Chris and Deah, in between dives

Aside from diving- and eating- we pretty much just… lounged around. We watched dolphins swim by. We read books, and played card games. We walked around the whole island, which only takes about 40 minutes. We watched snorkelers and paddle boarders. We could take a boat to a nearby resort island but we didn’t feel like it. Basically, we just enjoyed the sun, the cool breeze, lots of fresh Coca Cola, and relaxed.

Dolphins swimming next to our boat

That is not to say that the islands are relaxing for everybody. The Maldives have the 7th highest incarceration rate in the world, and Islamic Sharia law is in full force here- homosexuality is illegal, flogging is a common punishment, and extramarital relations are outlawed. In February of 2018, the then-President (who was half-brother to the President from 1978-2008) declared a state of emergency and had several judges arrested, which was followed by mass protests in the streets of Malè. However, in September 2018, a new president was elected, who ran on a platform of upholding human rights, including releasing several political prisoners.

And so- the Maldives remain a unique tourism spot in the world. Wholly populated by Muslims, but selling pricey licenses to resorts to sell alcohol and pork to their guests. All Maldivian women wear the hijab, but western (and Chinese and Indian) tourists wear shorts on the streets and bikinis on the beach. The islands may not survive another fifty years, but 10-story hotels are being constructed at a rapid pace. With a new president and political party in power, the world will be watching to see how they face upcoming challenges.

Sunny skies ahead for Maldivians?

Next up for us: we fly to Mauritius, to hop on a cruise of the “Vanilla Islands”!

Maldives Country Costs:

Flight from Mumbai: $116 each

Visas: free

Daily costs: about $140 for two (slightly higher than normal for us because of scuba diving four times each)

India: Mysore, Chennai, Pondicherry

In the most recent installment of our adventures, we were in the southern part of India, leaving Hampi.

We headed south to Mysore, where the main attraction is the Old Fort Palace, built in the 15th century but sadly burned in the late 1800s. However, it was rebuilt by 1912, blending Mughal, Hindu, Rajput, and Gothic styles. It’s quite a sight, and by some counts is India’s second-most visited attraction. On weekends and holidays, and during their month long Dashara festival, the palace is lit at night with over 100,000 light bulbs, and a sound and light show. It’s really beautiful and worth going to- and it only costs 50 rupees!

Mysore Palace

From Mysore we planned to go to Kerala, but we both started feeling pretty run down. Ultimately we decided to skip it, and start heading east. We passed through Bangalore (which actually has a pretty solid craft beer scene and a nice state library!) and then on to Yelagiri.

Yelagiri is a hill station halfway between Bangalore and Chennai, and was a quiet place to take a break for a couple of days in the cooler mountain air amid the eucalyptus trees. Our place had a sunny balcony overlooking a banana plantation and felt very rustic. We walked around the lake up there and ate as much jackfruit as we could. We even found a chocolate shop!

Jackfruits average about 25 pounds each!

From Yelagiri we took a train to Chennai, and arrived on a holiday- Pongal, a day in which South Indians celebrate the harvest and the northward journey of the sun. Colored rangolis and small palm trees dotted the pavements. We needed to get to the Consulate to pick up our new passport, but they were closed for two days (travel tip: don’t wash your passport in a washing machine mid-trip).

A rangoli celebrating Pongal

Happily, the next day, the Chennai Museum was open, so we visited and were impressed by the array of items in the six buildings. Traditional art, contemporary art, ancient bronzes, armor, folklore, religious items, even a hall of taxidermied mammals and reptiles- they’ve got it all. We also ran into a friend from our time in Northern India- a one in a billion chance! India might be a big country, but sometimes it’s a small world.

A 14th century bronze statue of Shiva

Finally the consulate re-opened and we picked up our new passport, then high-tailed it down to Pondicherry using our Ola app (it’s like Uber but India-specific). We enjoyed the unique French/Indian blend that is Pondicherry, which was originally colonized by the French East India Company in 1674. It remained part of French India up until 1954, and is now a union territory in India (not a state, like Tamil Nadu or Rajasthan). They favor such French specialties as real coffee, cheese, and coq-au-vin, but with plenty of biryani and idli at every other restaurant.

Scenes from Pondicherry

After a couple of days of walking the Promenade, eating gelato at the beach (it’s not French but it was good!), and resisting the temptation of street-stalls full of Old Navy factory reject clothes, we took a bus back to Chennai, went to the airport, and left India, our home of adventure for the past two months. We didn’t see it all but we sure tried!

Next up: a week in the Maldives!

Country costs:

Bus from Hampi to Mysore: $20

Visa: $100 for two months

Daily costs: about $75 for two people (including getting a new passport)

India: The Southwest

India Mumbai Arch Taj Palace Hotel black and white

After a short “staycation” with friends for the holidays, we were ready to spend our final three weeks in India in the warmer southern states!

Mumbai

We started off in Mumbai on January first, eager to see the amazing architecture and coastal atmosphere that makes up the bustling city of Mumbai. From the Mughal Gujarati rulers in the 15th century, Portuguese colonization in the 16th century, and a wedding gift to the British King Charles II in the 17th century, Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was previously called), has had a multicultural past.

Not every city has a municipal building that looks like this!

We went on a walking tour with YoTours, beginning at the Gateway of India arch, which was a tribute to King George V in 1911, but was not finished in time for his visit, and- ironically- was the spot where the last of the departing British troops filed out in 1947, the end of the British empire in India.

The Gateway of India, inaugurated 1924

Opposite the arch is the grand Taj Mahal Palace, which in my opinion is the loveliest hotel in India, as it was built to be. Chris and I walked around the posh interior a bit- they still had their lovely holiday decorations up.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, 566 rooms of splendor

Other stops on the walking tour were the David Sassoon Reading Room and the Asiatic Library (which has one of only two original editions of Dante’s Inferno!!), the grandest of all railway station facades, the Victoria Terminus (now officially renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja), and Marine Drive, also called “the Queen’s Necklace” for the way it glitters along the curved coastline at night. The tour guide also recommended a historic Mumbai dinner spot, Bademiya, still at their original location since 1946.

Seriously good seekh kebabs

On another day in Mumbai we took the ferry out to Elephanta Island, to see the UNESCO heritage cave temples, with 6th century carvings of various Hindu gods. You can easily take a ferry to the islands from the Gateway of India arch; it costs about $2 and takes an hour to get to the caves, 10 km from Mumbai.

Trimurti Sadashiva- the three-headed Shiva

On our last day in Mumbai, we cafe-hopped in our neighborhood near the port and strolled around the quiet lanes, draped with banyan trees. We watched the businessmen of Mumbai on their lunch breaks and the graceful ladies in their multicolored sarees, until it was time for our night bus.

Goa

Normally I hate night busses, because I cannot sleep on them, but here in India we discovered lie-flat sleeper busses! We booked a double berth, and in the morning we were in Goa- a beach state that feels more like Thailand than India! One of the few places in India where shorts or a beach dress are totally okay. We stayed at Baga Beach, and enjoyed a few days of breakfasting on the beach, napping away the hot afternoons, and strolling through the villages near Baga around dinner time. At night the beaches transform into open-air nightclubs, and the party goes on as late as you want it to.

Time for a beach break

Hampi

Another night bus, and we woke up in Hampi, 320 km inland from Goa. It’s a very small village- maybe four blocks by four blocks- and surrounding it is a huge 16 square mile plain filled with hundreds of falling-down temples dating back to the Vijayanagara dynasty of the 14th century. A World Heritage Site, it is definitely worth a visit. A small river separates the area into two distinct bits- in the south side, a full days’ (or several, really) exploration of the temples, while on the north side, there are a dozen eco-lodges and yoga camps, offering classes in yoga, meditation, sound healing, bouldering, and rock climbing. The best thing to do on the north side of the river is just find a patch of boulders, climb them, and spend some time soaking in the view.

Sunset in Hampi
Chris and Deah take it all in

January is definitely a nice time to visit these three locations! You can get a fan room (no a/c needed) for quite cheap (under $25), and the days aren’t too hot, while the nights are perfect for sipping a cold beer outside. Transport links are easy here- both by train and bus- and prices are low. By June, in Goa in particular, it’s too hot and most of the workers in that area have headed up to northern India for tourism jobs.

Next up for us: our final stops in SE India. And then…..?

Flight to Mumbai from Chennai: $100 each

Visa: $100 each for two months

Daily costs: $75 for two people