A Day Out: The frozen waterfall

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It had to happen sooner or later. Eventually, if I kept at it, there had to be a day when a Bag Baku expedition would end up falling in the tiny, magical intersection on the Tourism Venn Diagram where Spectacular Scenery, Perfect Weather, Interesting Activities, Delicious Food and Good Scheduling all meet. On my first weekend back from the Christmas break I finally hit that sweet spot on a trip to the frozen waterfall at Giriz.

Giriz is a vanishingly tiny village in the north of Baku, not far from the Russian border and well into the southern tip of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It’s home to just 32 families.

The heart of downtown Giriz. Also the suburbs. And the Business District. And… well you get the idea. The wall in the foreground is constructed partly from rough stone and partly from bricks made with animal dung and straw.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Back to the beginning, which was at Nizami metro station at 7:30am on my first Sunday back. Unsurprisingly we got a late start because our driver overslept. This turned out to be fine though, because there was a brightly lit cafĂ© nearby where our small group could sit and have tea and little pastries and warm up while we were waiting. It was a civilised way to start. Once we were underway it was a two hour drive in the minivan to Quba, the small capital city of the northern Quba region of Azerbaijan. And that’s when the real adventure started. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall my friend and fellow adventurer Raul from the rainy trudge up to Chirag Gala (an outing that, while worthwhile, definitely was not an ideal Venn diagram of tourism bliss). Raul came along for this trip too, and had warned that the road between Quba and Giriz was, er, challenging. And he’d warned that in Quba we’d have to leave our comfy minivan and transfer to a much sturdier 4x4 for the trip up the winding mountain track.

Here’s our ride. A 1986 UAZ. The UAZ is a legendary Soviet-designed off-road military vehicle now available to the public. UAZ (pronounced like a word: YOU-az) are renowned for their ruggedness, go-anywhere abilities and ease of repair. And apparently some are still made in Azerbaijan!

Eight of us crammed into the car - two facing towards each other in the far back, four squeezed into the  back seat, and one in the front with the driver. I’ll admit I was nervous about the drive. I’ve heard tales of these mountain drives from others and I had uncomfortable visions of tipping slowly over the side of an unguarded edge or ending up under a sudden rock slide. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I don’t mind saying I now truly understand, deep in my bones, the origin on the phrase “white-knuckle ride”. Luckily it gradually emerged that our driver, who was celebrating his 63rd birthday that very day, grew up in Giriz, moved to Quba thirty years ago, and has been driving this same road, possibly even in the same UAZ, ever since. It was very reassuring. It was also simultaneously reassuring and alarming that he stopped to put on tire chains after we lurched off the main road and onto the track for the last stretch up to Giriz.

Stopping for the tire chains. As you might be able to tell from the photos so far, the weather was stunning. Perfectly clear blue sky with temperatures hovering just above freezing, but feeling much warmer in the strong sunshine. The only thing missing was the sunglasses forgotten on my desk back at the hotel, which is why most photos of me on the trip are decidedly squinty-looking.

As we finally rolled into Giriz, we saw an old gentleman waking up the road who turned out to be our driver’s 83 year old father, who still lives in the village with his mother. We also saw and waved to his mom in the distance who was busy with some outdoor chore near the family home. We, on the other hand, proceeded to a different family home where our guide Sabina had arranged for us to have lunch before we started the hike to the waterfall.

Here’s a not-great shot of the house - the two-story job on the left. With no plumbing inside, the family’s water source is the constantly trickling, icy flow of mountain run-off from the pipe in the foreground, dropping into a battered, flat metal basin, then overflowing and draining away. There was a bar of soap on the big rock.

The houses are constructed with thick walls from the same blocks of porous yellow stone that is the basic building material in Azerbaijan. And though the house had several rooms and a whole upstairs, all the activity was in the room with the stove. There was no furniture, but the floor was covered in layers of carpets and pillows. (“Where is my carpet, there is my home”) The walls were hung with coloured fabrics, and it was warm and welcoming. And there was a feast laid out on a big plastic tablecloth on the floor

There’s so much in this photo. The mom, wearing a traditional head covering that she’s probably worn every day of her adult life. Behind her is a high table with a two burner hotplate and an old electric counter-top oven, though all the cooking that day was done on the woodstove. Two of the men of the house, also very traditionally dressed. And the little boy, who never budged from his warm cushions, but often played with the remote control for the tv that was on constantly in the back corner. And the food! Homemade salty sheep milk cheese, plates of pink salt-pickled cabbage, and bread for days. Of course we also had a plov made with rice, lamb and dried fruit. And tea. Endless tea, with ample cubes of sugar.

And here’s the heart of the room - the stove and samovar. Strong black tea is stewing in the red pot on the stove and the samovar holds hot water to thin out the potent brew. 

Fuel for the stove was dried animal dung. And the flat dish behind the teapots held the most delicious potatoes I’ve eaten in some time. I think they were approximately equal parts potato and homemade butter, with perhaps a touch of turmeric for colour, slow cooked into a soft and utterly irresistible dream. We had the potatoes when we returned to the house after the waterfall hike, so I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, but whatever. Also, weirdly, when I was commenting about the deliciousness of the potatoes that afternoon it came out as “Belicious topatoes”. I plead tiredness and extreme butter poisoning, but now whenever I think of that dish now I think “Damn, those really were some belicious topatoes.” When we came back for the topatoes, there were also tiny dishes of powdery, dirty coloured salt. This was another homemade treat where salt is ground with a blend of herbs and spices into a special mixture that complemented the topatoes perfectly.

Fortified with tea and plov, we set out for the walk to the waterfall, and it was lovely. A bit steep but not at all unmanageable. And the pace was pleasant, and the group was small, and the scenery was, to put it mildly, not bad.

Me squinting in the sun with the mighty Caucasus behind me.

Vivek's Photo
And here’s a fun shot of the group at our designated stopping point, where the rule seemed to be that you were supposed to stand on the very edge and have your picture taken posing like Leonardo di Caprio in “Titanic”. So we did.

The hike was less than an hour long, though it didn’t feel hurried and it did feel like a proper effort. And I’m embarrassed to report I don’t even know the name of the watercourse that tumbles through the rocks and freezes into a fantastic, ever-changing sculpture every year.

But we found it just inside here

And I’d say it was worth the trip.

It’s not big, but it is impressive, and we had it all to ourselves.

Mandatory shot of me at frozen waterfall

You could hear the water running behind the ice, and see it dripping slowly down the face of the sculpture. We hung around taking photos, slipping on the ice, goofing around, and having a warming shot of tea-and-vodka thoughtfully provided by Julie, who’d done the hike three times before and clearly had things sorted out. (A fellow Canadian, naturally)  And then it was time for the hike back to the village for tea and belicious topatoes.

I think we’d all have preferred to curl up for a quick nap after the food, but we soon had to pile back into the trusty UAZ for the trip back down because it was VERY IMPORTANT that we not end up on the difficult part of the road after sunset. However, this didn’t prevent us from stopping the car on the way out of the village to greet the driver’s dad in person, who was once again spotted trudging through a field alongside the road. He was on the other side of a low stone wall, and came over when we stopped. A few of us went to help him over the wall but he brushed us off and nimbly stepped over like a man half his age.

Version 3
I think you’ll agree this guy is totally excellent. And has the best moustache EVER.

Finally there was nothing to do but confront the road. It was another white-knuckle job, perhaps worse because this time we were at least partially giving ourselves over to gravity. (I took a video of a short section of hairpin turn. It’s here.) Unbelievably, Sabina actually FELL ASLEEP for part of the descent, which I suppose I should find reassuring. And then were were back in Quba and saying good bye to our lovely driver, whose name I never learned but who got a deeply heartfelt thank you and happy birthday from me before we parted.

The drive from Quba to Baku was dark and quiet and sleepy. Raul and I chatted and contemplated what a completely different place Azerbaijan is when you get out of Baku. I’m glad I’m taking the opportunity to see some more of the country this time. As Raul often reminds me, about ten percent of the population of Azerbaijan are still subsistence farmers like the family we visited. They live off what they grow, the animals they raise, and a heartbreakingly tiny state pension. I’m also glad that some of the 50 manat we each paid for the day’s tour went to that driver and his trusty UAZ, and that family and their belicious topatoes.

At some point on the hike I managed to get this panoramic shot that caught Raul being offered a bag of Lay’s from someone just off camera. I like to call it: 
“Behold the Grandeur of the Mighty Caucasus Mountai… Oooooh! Crisps!"

P.S. There are a lot more photos in a Flickr album, which I'd recommend having a look at, because they include a shot of... you guessed it... some truly belicious topatoes.

Facing forward, looking back

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Happy New Year! I know it’s a bit late for New Year’s wishes, but I took the holidays off from blogging so I could concentrate on enjoying the break and the people and the food and the being home. (Aside: not true. I took the holidays off from blogging because I was generally lazy and unmotivated and indifferent to the notion of trying to string words together, but the end result is the same.)

It was a nice long break - a bit more than three weeks, and I got to spend some time in London and some time in Canada. The boat was tucked up right where I left it and there was very little drama in getting back on board. I lit the stove to get the chill off and it felt reassuringly like home. (My suitcase also found it nice to get home, especially because it had an unscheduled extra night in Istanbul before arriving a day and a half after I did.)

How cozy does this look? How could you NOT want to come home to this?

And now I’m back in Baku. It was hard coming back. This time around the job feels like less of an adventure and more of a chore, and it’s taken some effort to get my head back in the game. It’s mostly ok now, and we’ve moved out to the stadium this week so that’s distracting. And I’ve got a couple vacation days to use up, and pretty soon things will start moving so fast that the time will (I hope) fly by.

Last week, after getting all the unpacking done and stocking the cupboards again, I had a quiet evening and ended up spending a bit of time looking back. More specifically, I looked back at my old blog, Go See Run Eat Drink. I do this sometimes - open up the old blog and pick a country at random and go back and read all the posts from when I was there. It’s great to be reminded of all the places I saw and the people I met and the fun and crazy and amazing things I got to do. That was one of the reasons I decided to blog in the first place - so I could go back later and remember.

This time though, I went right back to the very first post. I started Go See Run Eat Drink way back in 2008 (before Barack Obama was elected the FIRST time) when I was at the beginning stages of a plan to quit a job I’d been at for eleven years, sell a house I’d had for a decade, and spend a year traveling around the world. At the time I was 39 years old and living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And though the blog did not go public until January 2009, that first post - for a select group of invited friends - was on July 30, 2008. That was six and a half years and 426 blog posts ago. (Astute GSREDGSWPL Readers will know that’s 275 at Go See Run Eat Drink and 151 at Go Stay Work Play Live. Oh, plus this one. 427.)

Test Pack Dat 004
Me on May 16, 2009. From this post about an experiment in packing my then-brand-new Aeronaut

I started reading from that first post and slowly moved forward in time, and it was wild. That far back I still wasn’t sure if I was really going to do it. Not at all sure if I’d really step off the cliff edge and pitch my life as I knew it in the bin and see what was out there. (Also back then I would have said “Throw my life in the garbage”).

Those first few posts are very different. Much shorter than an average post now (and with many fewer exotic locations and more frequent haircuts) but I could feel myself warming up a bit. Testing out gear, ordering luggage, planning the itinerary, and starting to deal with the thousand things that went along with wrapping up my life in a neat bundle. But over and over I could hear the hesitation. The reluctance to commit. I kept puttering on, researching one-bag travel, prowling Mountain Equipment Co-op, checking out package tours and gradually knocking the house into shape to sell, but not really doing anything irreversible like giving my notice at work.

Not that I wasn’t aware I was hedging. There was a post in October of 2008 that consisted almost entirely of just this quote:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

- W. H. Murray in "The Scottish Himalaya Expedition", 1951
As I was poking around Go See Run Eat Drink I also stumbled on a post I wrote but never published. The working title was simply “Anxiety” and was a kind of airing out of all my worries at the time. As I read it I couldn’t help but smile from my smug place in the future. Here, six years late, is that unpublished list of fears, along with comments from Future Pam about how it all turned out:
  • I'm scared my house will sit, unsold, until after my scheduled departure date. (It was fine. Sold quickly and easily.)
  • I'm scared that when or if my house does sell I won't get the price I need to make the budget for the trip work. (And it sold for a bit over the asking price.)
  • I'm scared about quitting my job - it's comfortable and pays well and I'm good at it and I like the people I work with. (All that was true but I’ve now found that same combination again and again in other situations. Well maybe not “comfortable” but everything else.)
  • I'm scared that I might give my notice at work and then something will make the trip fall through and then I'd have no job and no trip. (Obviously that didn’t happen.)
  • I'm scared about finding a new job. (This took longer than I thought, but then again I was starting from scratch in a new country and I was ridiculously ambitious about how long it would take.)
  • I'm scared about starting a new job and not being very good at it, at least at first. (It was fine. It turns out I really am actually pretty good at what I do regardless of what country it’s in.)
  • I'm scared a new job will never be as good as the old job. (Wow, was this ever wrong. Not that the old place was bad. But, well… this.)
  • I'm scared about giving up a lot of my stuff. (As I later predicted, and as EVERYONE who’s done this says, I got back to my 5’ x 10’ storage space and thought, “Why do I have all this STUFF??”. And now I live in the space of four-and-a-half tatami mats. And yet I still rent a storage space...)
  • I'm scared the trip won't be as great as it sounds. (*derisive snort*)
  • I'm scared I might be trying to fit in too much traveling in too little time. (I definitely did that. But now sometimes when I go somewhere I stay for months.)
  • I'm scared that I'll get locked into an itinerary and not be able to change. (Nope.)
  • I'm scared that I might wimp out. (Didn’t)
  • I'm scared that I won't wimp out. (Didn’t)
  • I'm scared that if I do wimp out, I'll never see Petra, or the pyramids, or the Great Wall, or ever actually leave Winnipeg and move my life forward (professionally and personally). (I saw all those places and more. And my life has moved leaps and bounds. And then more bounds. And anther leap or two after that.)
I didn’t read all of Go See Run Eat Drink again, because I have a job and didn't have 13 hours to spare that evening. But I did scroll through most of it up to the point when I actually left Canada. And what really struck me, if it’s not blindingly obvious, is how far I’ve come. Geographically, of course. That much is obvious: I started in Winnipeg and I’m now typing this sitting on my couch in Azerbaijan, with more than a few far-flung stops in between. But equally, or perhaps more so, I looked back and realised how many more big decisions and big changes I’ve made since I bundled up my life into that carry-on sized bag and boarded a plane.

I was in that old life - Winnipeg, the job, the house, the dog - for twelve years, and for most of those years not much big changed. In half that amount of time - the six years since I left - I’ve been around the world. Literally - I actually went all the way around. I visited 33 different countries on that first big trip and have chalked up a few more since. More importantly though, after I got back I turned right around and moved to a whole different country. Then I got to work on the biggest show on earth, the Olympic Opening Ceremony. And then I got to move to another other country and do that all again, expect in Russian. And now that’s kind of just what I do - go to odd and interesting places and help to put on huge exciting shows. And when I’m not doing that I live on a boat in the greatest city in the world. I say this not to brag, but because I feel really lucky.

And here I am on August 4, 2016.

I often remember a few years ago when friends came to visit in London, bringing their two kids with them. It was in the spring before the 2012 Olympics, and as we walked through Trafalgar Square we went past the big countdown clock that was ticking away the days left before the games started. I remember commenting on how lucky I felt to be there - living in the city, working in the most amazing job, even just strolling with them through that spot. And then it struck me: yes, I am lucky. A lot of things had to go right for me to be there then and for me to be here now, starting with being born in a good country with a great family and a respectable brain.

But there’s something else too. Those advantages in life set me up, but where I am now is something I think I can take credit for. I had the idea and I took the chance, and that opened up a whole cascade of new ideas and new chances. And they're still coming.

In a way, I made this luck in my life.

How could I have named the boat anything else?