Reaching Azerbaijan and FIVE years of finding countries
Day 1,829 since October 10th 2013: 158 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
In the land of fire
The Saga has now successfully reached 74% of the world’s countries. Reaching Azerbaijan was a revisit for me as I dropped in on this unique country already in 2009. However it was a different country back then. I can’t believe how much it has changed – or has it?
Reaching Azerbaijan from Georgia is very easily done. In my case a visit to Azerbaijan requires a visa however it is done online with very little effort and typically only takes three days. Imagine if all countries were like that? What bliss it would be to travel to all of them. Alas, if it was that easy then anyone could do it. However I’m very thankful to Azerbaijan for being so visitor friendly. Before leaving Georgia I found a few hours to go and visit Mtskheta. You sort of pronounce it like “Threta” and it is an ancient town of extraordinary importance to the Georgian nation which is located about 20km (13 mi) outside of Tbilisi. It used to be the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. Mtskheta was also the site of Georgia's adoption of Christianity in 334 CE and remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. I partially went there to get a better understanding of Georgia’s history but certainly also just to feel that I was getting to see some of Georgia. I also met up with Ana and Georges from First Channel (1TV) which is a Georgian television channel (see interview here) owned and operated by Georgian Public Broadcasting since 1956. Mtskheta was surprisingly cold compared to Tbilisi but undeniably picturesque.
Mtskheta: above you see Svetiskhoveli Cathedral and below you can make out Jvari Monestery (which is 1600 years old)
You can easily take a bus from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. However I’ve been with 289 long distance busses since the Saga began and only 127 trains so I do prefer the trains whenever possible. I picked second class and showed up at the station in the evening for the overnight train. That’s always the question: “should I go by bus in the daytime and see the landscape or by night, have my accommodation covered and be time efficient?” I’m 193 cm tall (6’4) and that is hardly comfortable in most busses so trains are often welcome. Second class in the sleeper compartment means that there are four beds but I was fortunate only to share the cabin with one other person. It was an old woman from the region who didn’t speak any English but did speak some French so we got by.
Nobody reaches 158 countries by accident. And especially not without flying ;)
The next morning the train arrived pretty much on schedule. I made my way to the ticket counter and immediately bought another train ticket for my return to Georgia four days later. Azerbaijan and Armenia has some disagreements and it is not possible to travel directly between the two countries. Once my ticket was secured I was off to work out how to reach my hostel. I’ve been traveling for so long that I often forget to tell you about “the little things”. So much has simply become a part of my routine that I forget to mention it. Currency and currency conversion is a pretty obvious part of traveling. It takes a bit of time and going between countries all the time I often take a loss in the exchange process. So naturally I always try to calculate exactly how much I will need for any given country. Working out how to use the public transport system is also sometimes a riddle. It’s really straight forward in both Georgia and Azerbaijan though. And you can be sure to receive a lot of help from local people.
This 215 year old Baobab lived most of it life in Argentina. It moved to Azerbaijan in 2010 where it now enjoys a view of the Caspian Sea.
Georgia, Azerbaijan and seemingly also Armenia (based on my research), are very affordable countries to visit. You can definitely manage on a USD 20/day budget if you stay in a dorm room at a hostel and use public transportation. Good food also comes at very reasonable prices and all three countries have a ton of interesting sights and experiences to offer visitors. It’s a safe part of our world and the locals are truly helpful and kind. I found an ATM, drew some cash, bought a metro card, ventured deep underground and got on the metro to a stop near my hostel. It turned out to be a brilliant hostel at the picturesque waterfront near the old town. And the staff was friendly. All in all a pretty good start for my country number 158 in an unbroken journey completely without flying.
The metro runs deep under ground in Baku and is famously ornamented.
The Maiden Tower was completed in the 12th century.
The next thing I did was go for a walk and explore the streets. Back in 2009 I was working for a Danish company called Blue Water Shipping. They briefly sent me to Azerbaijan back then so this was not my first time in Baku. I remember being impressed with the waterfront back in 2009 but the city was less impressive once you walked 5-10 minutes inland. This time I wanted to do the same but after walking 45-50 minutes inland Baku continued to be an impressive, charming and interesting city. In fact it is amazing how much has changed in just nine years. At night I did however notice that a great deal of the windows above ground level were dark which made me think that the renovation of Baku might have some similarities to downtown Beirut in Lebanon, in which a lot of investors had bought out most of the apartments. Perhaps also that the new apartments were simply too expensive for many people. Nonetheless Baku has grown into a very nice capital city!
Baku has had its financial ups and downs over the years and is a city with a very long and very rich history. I spotted the Maiden Tower and decided to take a closer look. The tower is subject of great debate among scholars. What was it built for? Was it built for defense, for protection, for science, for religion or for something completely different? Back in the day there was no clear distinction between science and religion so it could easily have been both. And perhaps it also doubled for defense purposes? The interesting thing is that the tower offers evidence which both supports and contradicts the scholars beliefs. So it kind of remains a mystery and a charming one at that. The panoramic view from the top is worth the visit in any case.
Julia Keiser from Instagram reached out to hear if I needed any help in Azerbaijan. I was pretty much set on my own but Julia had already contacted a bunch of people and before I knew it I was on a minibus along with a group of jolly Azerbaijanis. My contact person was Elkhan who hardly spoke any English but knew some German. Elkhan soon had me connected to Viktoriya who knew some English and off we went. I was basically told that we were going to see a waterfall and that it would be a good way for me to experience more of Azerbaijan. Little did I know that we would head to Masalli 261 km (162 mi) from Baku. It was a full day trip in which I was clearly the youngest and definitely the only one who did not speak Azerbaijani or to several of the passengers bewilderment also not Russian! Now, I’m from Denmark in which we speak Danish but that wouldn’t get you very far in life on its own. So we learn English as well as our international language. I speculate if Russian might just serve as that second language for many people in this part of the world. Especially given the history with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 so that is already 27 years ago and most young people would not necessarily have grown up learning Russian. However it would be a very handy second language to have around these parts.
Click on the image or right HERE to see the video :)
We ended up having a great time with food, dancing, talking, gaming, sightseeing and I was served a bit of vodka as well. In Azerbaijan vodka is considered Russian while wine is Azerbaijani. However I was not offered any wine. I was really well taken care of and it was truly a great day in which I got to see much more of Azerbaijan. I find that in many countries there is a clear divide between the development in the city and in the countryside. Azerbaijan is a very beautiful country and no one can take that away from them. It even has 9 out the worlds 11 climate zones. In the countryside I saw a lot more Lada’s, muddy markets, cows and chicken. It really stands in contrast to Baku’s prominent city center. Some Azerbaijani’s even joke and say that it is “like Dubai”. While in Masalli and after a meal I was seated next to Almas. I was fiddling with a paper tissue and decided to fold a rose which is something I learned how to do long ago. Alma was closely observing my rose coming to life and as a result I handed it to her when it was done. She observed it and ten minutes later she handed me a bouquet of paper flowers!! Her creations were in far greater detail than mine and I was completely “out-flowered” :) We never did see any waterfalls that day but we got back to Baku around 9pm tired and happy. Good people.
Completely out-flowered! That's mine on the right and Almas on the left!
The following day I met up with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society who were formed already back in 1920 but really began to come to life after 1991. I met up with some really dedicated staffers and volunteers. First at the HQ in Baku where we had tea and did a little meet and greet. Tea is by the way the preferred beverage in Azerbaijan and not coffee. After a brief introduction to several key programs such as disaster preparedness, disaster response, youth and volunteer programs, dissemination about HIV and AIDS and the promotion of blood donation we headed out to visit Sumgayit branch a bit outside of Baku. In Sumgayit I got to meet a lot of motivated volunteers who at the same time are students at a nearby school. I am a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross however I most often see myself as a glorified volunteer and I really identify with the volunteers that I meet. The volunteers are the backbone of the movement and it makes me happy to see an active youth within the world’s largest humanitarian organization.
I tip my hat to the RC volunteers all around the world!
Azerbaijan is a really great country and it is also the last country in the world starting with an A if you go alphabetically :) It’s a proud nation of people who definitely cherish dancing, socializing, eating and having a good time. It is a Shia Muslim majority country which is mostly secular, drinks wine and gets along with Israel. That alone makes Azerbaijan stand out on its own. Azerbaijan has really good foreign relations and I read it has so with up to 160 countries! In 2011 Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest and went on to host it the following year. The food is good and as I already mentioned it is really affordable. A main source of income for Azerbaijan comes from fossil fuels and the country is so loaded with gas that it even has a “burning mountain” just outside of Baku. You can make a trip out there and see the flames rising from the ground. They do so all year long no matter of the weather conditions. This might have given name to the country as “the land of fire”. The Maiden Tower I mentioned earlier also has evidence as to having been used by fire worshipers. It kind of makes sense to worship fire when you think about it. A flame can be seen as earth’s representation of the Sun and the Sun is after all life giving. There is also something magically about looking into a flame or handling fire. You can’t touch it but in small amounts you can manipulate it and use it. I however rather like the late comedian George Carlin’s bit in which he says he prays to Joe Pesci (American actor). Mostly because George found that praying to anything usually had a fifty-fifty outcome. So he might as well pray to Joe Pesci and he does so especially because Joe looks like a guy who can get things done! ;)
Mr Gunnar Garfors in the flesh! He is the youngest guy to visit every country in the world while keeping a job! Heia Norge. In Baku we managed to meet up with each other for the third time. We have also met in Tunis and in Istanbul. Travelers unite!! Gunnar has several world records and is now working on his second book. You should definitely check him out: www.garfors.com
I had the very special pleasure of speaking before the staff at Blue Water Shipping in Baku! It was really special because the short period I worked in Baku back in 2009 was the last job I had with Blue Water Shipping throughout an eight year employment. I afterwards went on to work in places such as Bangladesh, The Netherlands and The Arctic Circle before eventually launching the Saga in 2013. Blue Water is a great company with great international reach. The HQ is in Denmark where it was founded in the 70s. What an amazing team I met with! The Blue Water crew had a few laughs with me and asked some great questions. Thank you all :)
Ilkin is an Azerbaijani dentist who's been following the Saga for a little while. We met up and went for a walk. Good guy!
I met Celeste from the Netherlands just before boarding the train in Baku. The following day we met up again in Tbilisi and had dinner. Great girl who has set out to see the world over the next six months or more.
A train got me back to Tbilisi where Tribeca Hotel was ready to host me for another night. I really like Nino who’s the General Manager at the hotel. And it truly is a great hotel. The hotels theme is Tribeca in New York and they’ve done a really good job keeping it classy. Tribeca is by the way a neighborhood in Manhattan, New York, and the name stems from “Triangle Below Canal Street”.
Once again I’d recommend that you stay a night or two at Tribeca Hotel in Tbilisi. It is a few minutes away from a metro station and it is on the historical Aghmashenbeli Avenue placing it right in the middle of Georgia’s capital. You will not regret it! And the breakfast buffet is just brilliant! ;)
Before I wrap this one up I just want to say: “can you believe it has been five years since I left Denmark?” I originally thought the Saga would take less than four years to complete but now we are way past that. It is not for the weak: staying away from your country, your friends, your loved ones, your culture and constantly being on the move without having the opportunity to create a base...it does something to you. Why have I not gone home? It’s a question which remains to be answered...
The world is in my experience a far better place than what most people believe. It’s certainly not without its flaws and people suffer daily. It is however a VERY LARGE world and for the most part life appears really ordinary. Had the world been evil, cruel and dangerous then I highly doubt that I would have made it to 158 countries, on a $20/day budget with the primary use of public transportation? A stranger has far more often proven to be a friend than anything else. Between selfies, social media, food, music, sports, family, games, passion, education, work, traffic and weather I really find that we have a lot in common. We just want to be. We want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. We just want safety and something to smile about once in a while.
October 10th 2018 marked five full years of wearing Salomon footwear thanks to Salomon, Lars Stigmo and Michael Hundebøl.
Five years with Berghaus apparel thanks to Berghaus in Norway.
Five years with logistical solutions for currier shipments thanks to DB Schenker in Copenhagen.
Five years with a website provided by Skabertrang.
Five years of “deeper understanding” with Ross Offshore.
Five years of promoting the Red Cross and Red Crescent as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross.
Five years of promoting the world in a positive way.
Five years of never leaving a country behind.
And five years of not giving up no matter what life threw at us...
We’ve got 45 countries left. Let’s keep on keeping on!
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - pretty determined!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga