Excursions

Mystic Azerbaijan

During my undergrad studies I became fascinated with religious mysticism. Mysticism is religious practice off the beaten path; basically the idea that one is not dependent on a religious hierarchy/structure to have a relationship with the divine — whatever that means to the individual. It is universal; movements all over the world have shaken organized religions to their cores and I appreciate anything that challenges the status quo when it becomes stagnant.

And don’t think that mysticism, with its desert-living hermits and vision-having nuns, is a thing of the past. It’s a thriving element of spiritual life the world-over, including Azerbaijan, a country seeking a coherent religious identity as it navigates independence. The two places described below are full of mystic qualities, and are worth visiting as day trips if you get the chance.

Sofi Hamid Cemetery

Legend has it that in the 14th century, an Arabian merchant named Sofi Hamid was traveling southward through the arid steppes of modern-day Azerbaijan when he suddenly realized that he was dying. He asked his entourage to bury him wherever his camel rested; and today we have Sofi Hamid Cemetery.

Out in the middle of nowhere

Out in the middle of nowhere

Once we arrived (we hired a driver for the day, that was taken care of by one of my lovely colleagues), we went to the courtyard that housed Sofi Hamid’s body.

Sofi Hamid 2

Sofi Hamid 3

Right outside is a white camel. Women who want to have a baby crawl under the camel three times, but you can wish for other things too. I witnessed a group of women perform this ritual, and it’s fascinating.

Sofi Hamid Camel

Next to the camel is a bunch of small trees. Women tie tiny cradles made from cloth to the trees, again asking for God’s blessing to raise families. It immediately reminded me of the house of Mary in Ephesus (Turkey), the only other place I had seen people tie cloth as a symbol of their desires.

Tiny cradle

Tiny cradle

Hundreds of prayers

Hundreds of prayers

Now for the actual cemetery. A striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing the same way:

Sofi Hamid 5

All faced towards Mecca…

Sofi Hamid 6

Differences abound in this cemetery compared to traditional Muslim cemeteries, and my local friends were great at pointing those out. For example, the plots you see above act as monuments and draw a lot of attention to that grave site. Traditionally, burial plots are meant to look this this:

A pile of stones, which in English we'd call "cairn" (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

A pile of stones, which in English we’d call “cairn” (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

Simple and basic. But those were in the minority…Sofi Hamid is famous for combining pre-Islamic traditions and themes to Islamic burial practices, which is better described in this article if you’re a nerd like me and want to know more details.

Colors

Imagine that you’re walking through this cool cemetery, you turn your head to the right and see…

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

Keep walking, climb over some random shrubs and suddenly…

An awesome shade of green

An awesome shade of green

And there’s more…

Like this...

Like this…

And that one

And that one

But there’s something for every taste, even more subtle ones…

Robin's egg blue, for example

Robin’s egg blue, for example

Gentle pastels...

Gentle pastels…

A breezy beach scene...

A breezy beach scene…

Motifs/Symbols

A majority of the grave sites had several images and motifs that indicated what that person accomplished in their life, such as a career.

This person was probably a driver

This person was probably a driver

Another driver? Construction worker?

Another driver? Construction worker?

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

My personal favorite was the samovar…I don’t know if that means they dealt with tea or made samovars; but it’s amazing.

Sofi Hamid 21

I want one on my grave stone when I pass

Sofi Hamid 20Then there are other motifs: snakes, deer, birds, fruit, etc etc…

Sofi Hamid 23

Sofi Hamid 24

Sofi Hamid 25

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid...

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid…

Sofi Hamid 28

Of course, I was fascinated by the combination of Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Seriously, where else in the world would you see this?

Sofi Hamid 29

Sofi Hamid 30

Sofi Hamid 31And don’t worry, I didn’t just obsess over the graves, I enjoyed the company of my friends too:

Friends 1

Friends 2

Friends 3

 Beş Barmaq (Five Fingers Rock Formation)

On a separate day, the other ETAs and I connected with one of the Fulbright Scholars who set up a trip to Beş Barmaq. Beş Barmaq is a pilgrimage site mainly tailored towards those who practice Shiite Islam (i.e. Azerbaijan and Iran). I believe the rock formation, in pre-Islamic times, was a hub for ancestral/spiritual worship, and some of those traditions are still practiced today.

Besh Barmaq 1

A friend from home mentioned it looks like something from a Tolkien novel. I have to agree

Got a good work out too with these stairs

We met a woman on the stairs as she made her way down. She made sure we were covered correctly, and gave her scarf to Madeline without a second thought. I think we were each deeply touched by her willingness to help the obviously clueless tourists, and I’ll never forget her.

Bash Barmaq 3

Looking back

Looking back

Along the main path was a flatbed area where people stacked rocks. I’m sure there was some religious significance, but Dana mentioned that hikers often do this at the end of a long hike. So I’m going with that.

Besh Barmaq 5

Besh Barmaq 6

Then we climbed through the rock formation to reach one of the top peaks. Ladders and rails made from ersatz materials, and steps worn from heavy use made for a somewhat precarious climb. Not to mention having to worry about other people, especially the elderly women who somehow braved the trail. There was also a young woman who climbed in her wedge heels. Devout women, with the skirts of their chadors billowing behind them, drifted around the formation. We passed a couple others on the stairs and throughout the formation with faces uplifted, palms extended toward heaven, a friend conveniently nearby snapping pictures on her phone.

Hiking Besh Barmaq 1

Starting the ascent

It was intimidating, to say the least

It was intimidating, to say the least

View of the Caspian

View of the Caspian

In some places, old women stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat.

Besh Barmaq Offering

Or candy too, apparently

And like at Sofi Hamid above, people tied pieces of fabric in certain areas as they made a wish or said a prayer. Luckily our contact mentioned this detail to me, so I cut some strips for us to tie.

Make a Wish 1

Make a Wish 2

Of course, happy to be there  :)

Of course, happy to be there 🙂

And there you have it, another side of religious culture in Azerbaijan. I talked about the different mosques around Baku in this post, so I think it’s appropriate to add something different. Honestly, visiting Sofi Hamid Cemetery and the Beş Barmaq pilgrimage site are some of my top moments during my Fulbright year; and I encourage future Fulbrighters or adventurers in Azerbaijan to check them out.

Until next time…  😉

Long Weekend in Lənkəran/Lankaran

Prior to a few weekends ago (April 24 – 26), I imagined that southern Azerbaijan was nothing but a vast desert. Being my blonde self, I didn’t perform a simple Google search before the trip to see if I was correct. So when our bus lumbered its way over the bumpy two-way streets on our way to Lankaran, I was mesmerized by the richness of the landscape’s color. The Talysh Mountain range, which runs between Azerbaijan and Iran, slowly integrated itself into the landscape, becoming more prominent with each passing mile.

Speaking of Iran…

Iranian Border and Astara

Hayley by Iran

So happy to be by the Iranian border.

Iranian Border

Those mountains in the background are IN Iran!

We totally saw the Iranian border. F*ck yes.

Would you judge me if I admit that seeing the border was the main motivation for venturing to southern Azerbaijan (at least on my part), and that it’s one of the many reasons why I applied to be an ETA in this country? It’s inaccessible territory for most Americans, and to be *this* close to it was exhilerating. 

The taxi driver that we hired for the day didn’t really get it either. Ehmed was a funny guy, and was equally baffled by and impressed with us. He spoke in Russian to Madeline and Dana, and when they translated into English for me, I added a couple words in Azeri. If something was confusing, I would try to clarify in Azeri while they clarified in Russian.

This is not to say that I speak Azeri well. Definitely not. But I got the gist of situations, such as whenever Ehmed rolled down his window to ask for directions as he weaved through the calm streets of Astara, the town that leads to Iran. It went something like this: “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans in my taxi, and they want to see the Iranian border. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed, don’t advertise us!

But we made it just fine. And Ehmed’s excitement seemed to match ours because he accelerated toward the gate. “Ay Allah — dur, dur, DUR!!” I almost screamed. [“Oh my God — stop, stop, STOP!!”] We spent just a few minutes at the border before asking Ehmed to take us to a park next to the Caspian that was also close to the border.

It was lovely that day. This is facing north...

It was lovely that day. This is facing north…

And this is facing south toward Iran

And this is facing south toward Iran

Astara Caspian 3

Brand new seaside park

 

Astara Park

Astara Shrek

lol

Astara Caspian Park 3

To add excitement to Ehmed’s day, the group needed to use the restroom. Off he went, about 15 steps ahead of us, asking random people where the nearest facility was located. It was hilarious and excrutiating at the same time, “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans and they need to use the bathroom. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed — stop advertising us!

Yanar Bulaq and Istisu

Crisis averted, we drove back north to see a few more points of interest. Yanar Bulaq (literally “combustible spring” in English) is right off the side of the road, and free to enter (at least we weren’t told to pay anything).

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

As implied in Yanar Bulaq’s name, you can set the water on fire. It’s crazy. Ehmed saved the day again when he hopped into the taxi and rushed to find matches when none of us had a lighter. He hustled back through the rusty gate and whipped out a match:

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Let there be light!!

Let there be light!!

Yanar Bulaq 4

We were told that drinking the water was “good for health reasons.” My mind jumped to gruesome images of my body bursting into flames after having a sip. Hahaha, is it, now? You couldn’t pay me to ingest any of that.

But I was willing to submerge parts of my body at our next stop: Istisu (literally “Hot water/springs”). Set off a ways in the Talysh hills, Istisu is a collection of natural hot springs that serve as a natural healing spa for tourists (Ehmed informed us that many Iranians come here every year). We only dipped our feet, but it felt oh-so-good and was oh-so-hot.

Our hut. You're only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

Our hut. You’re only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

But most of all, I enjoyed the views…

Talysh Pano

Talysh View

So green!

Lankaran

Now for the actual town. The events described above occurred on the second day of our trip. Our first day we spent in Lankaran after we arrived in the afternoon from Baku — a bus ride that took over 5 hours.

We stayed at Qızıl Tac Otel (Golden Crown Hotel), which we found thanks to our taxi driver who drove us from Lankaran’s Avtovağzal (central bus station) to the town’s mərkəzi (city center). We asked for the cheapest hotel in town, and he walked us to Qızıl Tac, leaving only after he negotiated a price for us: 10 manat per person per night. Sweet. It’s actually pretty nice; clean, safe, and located next to Lankaran’s largest park:

Main park, I'm 90% certain it's Heydar Aliev Park

Main park, I’m 90% certain it’s Heydar Aliev Park

Lankaran Park

Statue commemorating WWII.

Statue commemorating WWII.

Then we just meandered around.

It's a chill place

It’s a chill place

IMG_6314

Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Lankaran Stalin Prison

Lankaran is a tiny town, so we saw the main areas within a few hours. “How about we go to the beach? I want to see the water,” I insisted. Off we went, heading in the general direction of the Caspian…

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook mentioned these as "no-no places" but we accidentally walked by them.  :P

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook called these “no-no places” but we accidentally walked by them. 😛

Crossed the train tracks. I'll take this time to let you all know back home that every "Stop" sign I've seen in this country is in English. I don't know why.

Crossed the train tracks. I’ll take this time to let you all know back home that every “Stop” sign I’ve seen in this country is in English. I don’t know why.

It was challenging to find a road that led to the beach. We finally made it, but were discouraged at its condition:

Lankaran Caspian 1

You couldn't pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

You couldn’t pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

Lankaran Caspian 3

There is hope for Lankaran’s beach; we saw how nice Astara’s seaside walkway was the next day (in the pictures above). Azerbaijan is slowly developing its tourism industry outside of Baku, it will just take time.

Lankaran Train Tracks

Heading back to town

Lankaran Mosque

Mosque

Lankaran 20

 Are You Kidding Me?

There were a few moments during the trip that left us all in bewilderment. Blame it on cultural differences, language barriers, maybe the local quirks of people clashed with our quirks…whatever the reason, we experienced the following awkward interactions:

“You Are Too Noisy”

Okay friends, I hate talking badly about places and people, but I’ll make an exception for this restaurant, which is called “Titanic”:

Don't eat here!

Don’t eat here!

We tried this place out because it was raved about in the guidebook; supposedly they prepared the best levengi, a whole chicken stuffed with a walnutty herb paste. Especially tasty when paired with plov, or rice.

Long story short, we were ripped off. That’s what you get sometimes as young, single lady travellers. The chicken was small, and the rice was old. [Note: The next day we went to a different restaurant and ordered the same thing. It was MUCH better in terms of quality and for the price. That restaurant is called “Dalğa.”] The service at “Titanic” was also a little strange, like when we chatted as we waited downstairs for a taxi.

Waiter (walking over to our group): You are too noisy. Too noisy for the other guests.

Me: Sorry, but I am also a guest.

Waiter (after mumbling with another waiter): “Where are you from?”

Me (making a disgusted sound): No, I don’t think so — you can’t yell at me for being noisy one minute and then expect me to let you know where I’m from. [I’m usually sensitive and careful about my word choice when I talk in English to non-native speakers. But he was rude first so I did not care.]

Waiter (slowly blinking confused eyes): …I don’t understand.

Me: That’s fine, you don’t need to understand.

Just then music blasted from the kitchen downstairs. Like, it was WAY louder than our talking level, and much ruder to the other guests he referred to. Now it was our turn to be confused, “You said that WE were loud? This is VERY loud!” He smirked, “It is for you,” meaning that the music was to drown us out. Why I oughta….I wanted to lurch forward and strangle him.

But I didn’t. They did call us a taxi, which thankfully came a minute later, but which ended up being another strange interaction….

“Germany, NOOO!”

We established the fare with our driver and settled in the car (Note: Don’t pay more than a couple manat to get around Lankaran). It didn’t take long before he asked what languages we knew, where we were from, and why we’re in Azerbaijan. Like many, he was impressed with my friends’ knowledge of Russian and that they learned it in the States.

He made small talk in Russian, at one point commenting, “This car is a Mercedes; it’s from America.”

I pondered aloud, “I think Mercedes is a German brand…right? From Germany?”

His literal response was to yell half in English, half in Russian, “Germany NEYYYYYYYYYYT!!!!!!” [НЕЕЕЕЕТ/NOOOOOO]. It totally caught us off-guard, and all we could do was laugh at his outburst as he pouted. Sir, do you want me to pay you? THEN DON’T YELL AT ME. Truly bizarre, like when our hotel manager didn’t want to give us our passports…

What Passport?

The next morning we were on our way to Astara and the other places I talked about above. Since we were leaving the city, and going close to Iran, we wanted our passports. It’s not unusual for hotels to hold them for a night while they make copies of the front page for their records. But this manager treated it too casually and took his sweet time to make scans. When we asked him about our passports that second morning, he blew us off and made some crappy jokes in Russian.

There we stood in the office, anger simmering in each of us — at least in me. If you know me, you can imagine how annoyed I got by this dude. He beckoned us to sit, we all refused, but we weren’t getting anywhere with Russian or English. I stared down at him and summoned my brave side, “Pasaport, indi.” [Passport now.]

He looked up and sighed, grabbed our passports, and rushed out the hotel. He came back a few minutes later with the originals and scanned copies. I was happy to be reunited with my official form of identity, but was irked by his offer to drive us around that day for free. Ugh, seriously? You held my passport hostage and you tell bad jokes, there is no way in hell I’m going to spend a full day with you.

Despite all this, I had a good time in Lankaran. And I felt comfortable in the sense that I knew I could handle whatever life decided to throw my way, a feeling that I didn’t have during earlier travels in Azerbaijan. Of course, I have Dana and Madeline to thank since I survived off of their awesome Russian skills, and I hope that future ETAs will be able to bond over seeing the Iranian border and surviving weird social moments.

Until next time…  : )

#2 and #3

With just over a month left, things are winding down here in Azerbaijan in terms of my teaching responsibilities. That means I’ve had time to think, which also means an opportunity to see what I’ve forgotten to talk about on my blog.

I’ve been fortunate to travel fairly extensively throughout Azerbaijan (I’ll add a list of places with links to my posts about them below), and a couple of places got lost in the shuffle. So in this post I’ll share some photos and impressions of Gəncə and Sumqayit, the second and third largest cities in Azerbaijan, respectively.

First, let’s see where these cities are located. I’ll give you a hint: Gəncə is located north-west of the center of the country, and Sumqayit is located due north of Baku.

Gəncə (Ganja)

I spent two days in Gəncə back in January on the way home from Georgia (click here to see that post if you so desire). My friend’s aunt kindly hosted us and I stuffed myself with delicious homemade dishes. Besides eating, other highlights in Gəncə included…

Highlights

  • Learning some literary history. Two famous poets called Ganja their hometown in the 12th century: Nizami and Mahsati. Luckily, several of their works are available to us today. Nizami is most famous for Leyli və Mejnun, a love story similar to Romeo and Juliet (tragic death included). Mahsati was a pretty bad-ass woman for her time as she traveled extensively, had numerous love affairs, and purportedly was a fixture at the court of Sultan Sanjar. Most of her surviving works are quatrains.
  • Getting a nice dose of sunshine before returning to Baku.
  • I like Gəncə, I really do. The atmosphere is what I would imagine Baku’s to have been like before the modern oil boom. It’s a pretty chill place, and nice to stop over during a longer trip.

Photos

Sumqayit (Sumgayit/Sumgait)

Sumqayit is the home of fellow ETA Dana (who I’ve mentioned in numerous posts). I’ve visited Sumqayit a handful of times, and contrary to what other people say about it, it’s NOT some Detroit-esque, worthless city. It’s pleasant and reminds me of small midwestern towns in the U.S. In the last few years it’s undergone a LOT of recovery work because it’s famous for not-so-glamorous reasons…

Sumqayit Run-Down

  • There is a reason why people grimace whenever you mention Sumqayit…it was one of the main industrial hubs of the USSR, resulting in mad pollution. So yeah, maybe 10 to 20 years ago it was as run-down as Detroit currently is, but a lot of work has been done to improve that.
  • Many, many people commute between Sumqayit and Baku for work and school, in fact, several students of mine live in Sumqayit.
  • When the Peace Corps was active in Azerbaijan, Sumqayit was home to new volunteers during their training period.
  • Sumqayit’s first coffee shop opened up this last year, called London Coffee House. No website or anything for it, but it’s good and cheap!
  • It’s pretty easy to get to Sumqayit from Baku. Step #1: Get to 20 Yanvar metro. Step #2: Find the correct exit to catch a shared taxi to Sumqayit. You’ll know it’s the right one when about 6 taxi drivers crowd around you crowing at the tops of their lungs, “Sumqayit, Sumqayit! Bir manat — Sumqayit!!” Step #3: Expect to pay one manat for daytime travel; two or three manats for night time travel. Really, you shouldn’t pay more than two, but sometimes they’re jerks.
  • For more on life in Sumqayit and in case you’re sick of my blabbering, here is a link to Dana’s blog: “Salam Sumqayit”

Photos

Selling narlar (pomegranates) from the back of a car. Classic.

Selling narlar (pomegranates) from the back of a car. Classic.

Sumgayit 2

The famous Dove statue

The famous Dove statue

Sumqayit 's parks are fresh and impressive

Sumqayit’s parks are fresh and impressive

Walked through an outdoor theater

Walked through an outdoor theater

Walking on the beach. If only some money was dedicated to cleaning it up and taking care of it. It would be so much nicer...

Walking on the beach. If only some money was dedicated to cleaning it up and taking care of it. It would be so much nicer…

Sumgayit 7

Almost got hit by a car; nothing surprises me anymore!

Almost got hit by a car; nothing surprises me anymore!

So there you go, another little taste of Azerbaijan. I personally believe that a place is worth visiting one time, and if you happen to find yourself in Azerbaijan for any reason (study/research, work, tourism, etc.) and have the opportunity to see these cities, I suggest you go.

Until next time….  : )


My Travel in the Regions

 

Spring Break in Georgia

If I had to sum up my Novruz/Spring Break trip to Georgia in a handful of words, it would be something like this…

  • Mighty vistas
  • Spiritual beauty
  • Death by cows

Hopefully you’ll see why throughout the post. First, here are some logistics of the trip:

  • Who: Myself and two other Fulbright ETAs, all ladies.
  • The trip took place over Novruz week. Novruz is a major spring holiday in Azerbaijan and is also celebrated in Iran. We were gone the entire week, from March 21 through March 28/29.
  • We took an overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, 12 manat ($12 USD at the time) per ticket. It left at 9:30pm (there are a few departure time options), and we arrived in Tbilisi at about 6:30am. We spent roughly an hour at the border, which we arrived at around 4:00am.
  • To get back, we took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku. Price was about 60 lari, or about $30 USD. The border took longer than the bus, I want to say close to three hours.
  • Our itinerary: (20) Overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, (21) Tbilisi, (22) Tbilisi/Day trip to Kazbegi, (23) Kutaisi, (24) Kutaisi/Excursion to Gelati Monastery, (25 and 26) Batumi/Excursion to Batumi Nature Reserve, (27) Batumi/Travel to Tbilisi, (28) Tbilisi/Train to Baku, (29) Arrive in Baku afternoon. Basically, we were very, very busy!
  • Our main mode of transportation within Georgia was marshrutka, basically a little bus. It is useful to know Russian to travel this way (or at least have Russian-speaking friends to depend on, which I had).
  • Our hostels, which you can find on Booking.com: Old Town Hostel (Tbilisi), Bavaria Inn (Kutaisi), Friends’ Hostel (Tbilisi). In Batumi, we rented a little apartment. The cost was comparable to a hostel, and we really enjoyed having our own space to crash in.

Tbilisi – Round 2

Highlights from Tbilisi:

  • Taking in the city at a faster pace. I visited Tbilisi in January but didn’t get to see much. Besides the rain, it was great seeing Tbilisi again.
  • Georgian wine and chacha. Chacha is Georgia’s hard liquor of choice. According to the Peace Corps volunteers I chatted with, all of their homestay families make their own homemade/moonshine chacha. They also take one or two shots of the concoction in the morning “for health reasons.”
  • Getting a marriage proposal after enjoying said Georgian wine and chacha. I declined.
  • Randomly bumping into some fellow Georgian Fulbright ETAs who we hadn’t seen since the Pre-Departure Orientation in July. Loved talking with them and comparing experiences.

Tbilisi Pictures:

(If you want to see them in a larger size with descriptions, click on the first one for a slideshow)

Kazbegi – Death by Cows

I don’t know about you, but I have an ongoing list in my head entitled Things to Never Tell My Mother. “Death by cows in the Caucasus Mountains during Georgia spring break trip” was on it, partly because I felt so stupid for being as scared as I was. But now I can laugh at myself so I’m going to tell the entire internet my ridiculous story.

Gergeti church, perched atop of a little mountain peak, was the goal during our day trip to Kazbegi (for more information on Kazbegi, click here). Dana said the views were to die for, and the trek up and down the substantial hill would take just the right amount of time for an entertaining, semi-strenuous day hike. Perfect.

Spolier alert: We did not make it to the church. First, paths were not clearly marked. Second, the path we ended up taking was still covered with snow. And third, we almost died by cows.

Picture the three of us at the bottom of a big hill, right outside a little village. Our eyes scanned the surrounding landscape.”I think this is the hill we take…” someone said. “Yeah, this must be it — people keep turning around and coming back after a few minutes on the other hill,” another one concurred. We started heading up, and, to our dismay, it was much harder than it looked from afar.

“How is it this steep? It didn’t look this bad from the bottom of the hill,” one person commented. I paused, already breathless, “I know I’m out of shape — but I’m blaming the elevation.” “Yesterday’s chacha isn’t helping us either…” the third added. “Awww, look, a cow!” All eyes looked straight ahead and spotted a handful of cows beginning their decline from a grazing area. We watched them slip and slide while we caught our breath, panic suddenly settling in as more cows appeared and dotted the hillside.

There we stood, balanced precariously on mud and slabs of gray sheet rock, desperately trying to avoid the onslaught of cows lumbering down the steep hill. Their slim ankles and bony knees hardly looked fit enough to handle their girth, and I imagined their joints buckling and heaving them down the hill on top of us.

But become deadly killers whilst slipping down muddy, steep hills.

Petrifying…

It is SO hard to move quickly with precarious footing at a steep incline as panic surges through your body. We shuffled over to the left, half the cows headed in that direction. We moved over more to get to grass, hoping for better footing. Apparently the cows were looking for that too.

I know, deep down, that cows are harmless creatures. The animal must be pretty passive and relaxed to allow a human to collect milk from it everyday, and it was one of the first domesticated animals in human history. But we definitely fed the fire of fear as we each flipped out. “Is that….is that a male cow?!” “What if they run and attack us??!!” “There’s MORE coming — it will never end…!!” “I DON’T WANT TO DIE IN THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS!!!”

We scurried down the hill, absolutely scared to death (picture the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Run away! Run away!”). We reconvened and tried to find our sanity, all the while nervously glaring at the cows as they meandered past us toward the village. We waited until we were sure no more cows would come, and we gave the hill a second try. We made it much further, but, as I mentioned earlier, still failed.

*Sigh* Sooooo ridiculous. But if you can’t laugh at yourself…

Other highlights from our Kazbegi day:

  • Being called “evil and beautiful” by a (very, very) drunk man at the restaurant. I took it as a compliment; I don’t mind being a little evil and being called out on it.
  • Witnessing the aftermath of a minor car crash in the mountains. The treacherous 1-lane roads are just begging for accidents. And really, it did not surprise me — when you drive like a lunatic in the mountains, you’re in a world of hurt. What was so amusing was the Caucasus-style problem solving process between the two parties. About 25 men flocked around the scene, smoking and debating, taking sides as to who was not at fault for the accident. I was half-expecting someone to bring out tea. Luckily a police officer came along after about 20 minutes and we were able to move again.

Kazbegi Pictures:

Charming Kutaisi

From Tbilisi we ventured to the middle of Georgia and stayed in Kutaisi for a night.

Kutaisi Highlights:

  • Meeting up with Kutaisi’s ETA, Alex, and visiting his class. Working with students mid-trip was refreshing for us all.
  • Touring Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO site (separate photo album below).
  • Immediately feeling relaxed and at-home in this charming city.
  • Our hostel, Hostel Bavaria, was the most charming thing ever. For an extra 2 lari, they will make you breakfast and it is delicious.
  • Randomly meeting a former Peace Corps volunteer during a walk. He fell in love with Georgia during his service, and splits his time equally between the States and Kutaisi.
  • Buying fruit leather from a cute lady in a bazaar and impressing her when I knew the Azeri word for persimmon, “xurma.” Apparently they’re also called “xurma” in Georgia.

Kutaisi Pictures:

Gelati Monastery Pictures

A 20-minute taxi ride away from Kutaisi is Gelati Monastery. This is one of my personal favorites out of the whole trip. Since this post is forever long anyway, here is a link that describes more history of the Bagrati and Gelati structures: UNESCO website – Bagrati and Gelati.

Off Season in Batumi

Next phase of the trip: Batumi, a city right on the Black Sea coast. I wasn’t able to visit the Black Sea during my semester abroad in Turkey, so I was happy to see it in Georgia.

In the summer, Batumi is THE place to be — full of tourists, lots of fun. In March, spring had just arrived so although it was occasionally chilly, it was still enjoyable. It actually reminded me of the off-season back home in West Michigan, an area overflowing with tourists in the summer, and still as still can be in the winter.

Highlights from Batumi:

  • Spending time with Batumi’s lovely Fulbright ETA, Jessie.
  • Trying out the most charming local coffee shop I’ve ever seen. Owned by a Ukrainian couple, Choco Latte is affordable and delicious (pics in the slideshow).
  •  I convinced myself that the elevator of our apartment was psychotic and wanted to kill us. The fact that its doors slammed into one of us whenever we used it convinced me of this.
  • Spending an afternoon at the Batumi Botanical Garden. Fantastic views of the Black Sea, diverse plant life, and nicely maintained paths make this a must-see attraction. (Photos in album below.)
  • The marshrutka ride from Kutaisi to Batumi — actually, all of the marshrutka rides were surprisingly pleasant.

And there you have it, an entire week of travel in ONE post. Crazy. If you learned anything, I hope it’s this: Out of the three countries that make up the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is the most accessible since it is developing a pretty substantial backpacker/tourist industry. Tbilisi is awesome, but that’s just a taste of Georgia. Much of Georgia’s beauty lies in the smaller towns and cities nestled between ragged cliffs and hills.  Venture out and experience the greater Caucasus…take in the mighty vistas, appreciate the spirituality of the region…

And try not to get killed by cows.

Until next time…  😉

Winter Trip in the Regions Part II: Xınalıq and Laza

Aside from getting lost and acting as pawns in Fuad’s matchmaking games (as described in Part I), Dana and I were intent on visiting two remote villages, so remote that no one I talked to in Baku had been there, or really even thought about them as destinations worth noting. “You are seeing more of Azerbaijan than me, and I’ve lived here all my life!” was the common statement. How ridiculous, I thought, explore your own country! However, I must reprimand myself — how many places in MY country — even home state — have I failed to see thus far? Countless.

I alluded in Part I that the only way to get to these villages is by hiring an experienced driver. Some taxis, I think, can take you but they probably prefer doing that in warmer months. We did this in January. So we were much relieved when Fuad used his connections to get us a driver, a kind gentleman who lived in Xınalıq. We had him for both day trips, which cost about 40 manat per day (20 manat per person). We trucked around in this Soviet-era beauty:

The elegant Lada Niva.

The elegant Lada Niva.

Xınalıq

I feel the only way for you to know how Xınalıq is pronounced is to hear it. So next time you see me, remind me about “that one remote Azerbaijani village.” Basically, the “X” is a sound like you’re clearing the back of your throat. The “ı” is NOT an “i.” The ‘dotless i’ has a sound like you’re being punched in the stomach, a forceful “uh.” Finally, the “q” has a hard “g” sound, as in “got.” Now, have fun piecing that all together!  (;

The drive up was fascinating (although I’m fascinated by almost anything) as we inched upward through the Caucasus Mountains:

Drive 1

Our guide offered to stop occasionally for pictures. He just wanted cigarette breaks, but I wasn’t complaining.

 

Drive 2

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Drive 4
I’ll admit that we weren’t in Xınalıq at its prettiest…middle of winter, no fresh vegetation, a bit stark. But it was business as usual for the people living there. Kids were leaving school, the men and women were hard at work maintaining the household. We did get a few perplexed glances, Why are you here now? Come back in April or something. Oh well!

I’ll also mention that our driver took us to his home (undoubtedly built from the ground up with his own hands) where his family hosted us for tea. Himself, his wife, and his mother beamed at us with rosy cheeks while I clumsily thanked them in Azeri. I swear, it was the best tea I’ve had here (and I rarely have bad tea experiences in this country); maybe it was the water?? Also loved it when they talked to each other in their own language. I appreciate when people recognize that America has great diversity amongst its languages and cultures, but we forget that diversity exists everywhere — including the small Caucasus countries.

Village and Mountain Scenery

Since Xınalıq is located at one of the highest elevations in Azerbaijan, the views were stunning, despite the bleak weather that day…

Xiniliq 1

It was also interesting to get a small taste of village life.

Xiniliq 2

Xiniliq 3

Xiiniliq 4

Xiniliq 5

Xiniliq Museum

Xınalıq’s local museum. The sign, interestingly enough, was in Azeri and English.

Xiniliq 6

Xiniliq 7

Xiniliq 8

Xiniliq 9
Me in Xiniliq

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it...

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it…

But we got around it okay...until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

But we got around it okay…until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

Details

Every house was carefully pieced together with materials found in the area, so no wood. The occasional glass window, a checkered wall panel, or bright splash of color certainly caught my attention:

Xiniliq Home

Xiniliq Window

Xiniliq Window 2

Xiniliq Bridge

Retaining wall

Retaining wall

Xiniliq Colors

Xiniliq Wall 2

Xiniliq Car Hood

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

Xiniliq Paint

Xiniliq Star

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

Laza

“I have never heard of this ‘Laza’ village, Hayley. Are you sure that is a real place?” I insist that it is and show the unbeliever this picture:

Laza Market

A market…with the name on it!

But for people in Baku, that’s not good enough proof. Surely I must have been somewhere else, surely I must be confused. Well I’m going to stick to my guns and insist that I visited Laza.

For this day trip we had the same driver plus his brother. He must have tagged along for moral support, it was quite snowy and disorienting. We drove past Shahdağ resort, a ski resort high in the mountains. Actually, we stopped there with the intention of going no further. Dana and I looked at each other, This is not the village… They parked the car and our driver’s brother opened my door but I didn’t budge. I imagined what I would say in a similar situation back home in English, “Excuse you, do you think I’m some idiot? I see that this is a tourist trap. I am not paying you to take me to a ski resort, sir, I want to go see the village. Take me there at once!” Unfortunately I couldn’t do that. I searched for words…

“Laza deyil (This is not Laza),” I calmly said. He made some comment that I couldn’t make out.

I pulled up Google maps on my phone and pointed to Laza, “Laza kend isteyirem (I want Laza village).”

A few minutes later we were back on the treacherous path, barreling over mounds of snow. I can’t believe that worked! Although we did come close to death a few times…Snow + Mountain Roads – Guard Rails = Possible Demise.

But, my God, we made it! We hopped out of the vehicle on slightly wobbly legs and became more dazed by the intensity and volume of the white snow.

Laza 1

It's been a while since I'd seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

It’s been a while since I’d seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

Laza 3

Laza 4

Laza 5

Of course, happy to be there.  (:

Of course, happy to be there. (:

Except when I fell because of the ice...which I did about 6 times.  :P

Except when I fell because of the ice…which I did about 10 times. 😛

Animal Friends

A highlight of visiting Laza was seeing a bit of the mountain pastoral lifestyle. We saw sheep and horses being taken to water…

Sheep!!!!

Sheep!!!!

Cows chilling…

Laza CowsAnd a puppy that freaking loved me…

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

Bleak but Beautiful Landscape

We all know how bleak and tiresome life seems as we struggle through endless winter. But seeing winter in a different place, away from Baku, really enlivened it for me. Laza is beautiful even in January…

Laza Scenery 1

Laza Scenery 2

Laza Scenery 3

Laza Scenery 4

Laza Scenery 5We experienced another round of unconditional hospitality that afternoon. After getting lost (no surprise there) and managing to ask where the market was located, we stumbled through the snow to meet our drivers about 15 minutes past our agreed-upon time. A group of men were around the car, probably asking why they made the treacherous journey into the village. I imagine the reply was something along the lines of, “You see, we have these two crazy American girls who insisted we come to the village — the ski complex wasn’t good enough!” They quieted down when they saw Dana and I approaching.

I was winded from the elevation, wet from falling, and I can only imagine how red my cheeks were…but I attempted a hearty “Salam!” A few of them chuckled. “Siz necesiniz? (How is everyone?)” They were thrilled I could ask and the group hummed with approval. One gentleman invited us to his home for lunch and tea. Oh yes…that sounds AWESOME. It turns out he owns and operates a homestay/B&B-type facility and has hosted tourists from all over the world. Better yet, he’s mentioned in Dana’s guidebook.

After warming up with homemade soup, plov (a local rice dish), and especially-tasty tea (it must be the water…), we were back on the road. Our host refused any payment for lunch, insisting that it was his family’s pleasure to have us. It was so touching that we really want to go back this spring, not only to see Laza again but to support his business.

In conclusion, despite all the general craziness, language barriers, and excruciatingly awkward blind date, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for anything. I love Baku and appreciate all it has to offer, but if you ever make it to Azerbaijan, I really encourage you to get to the regions. It takes some gumption to figure out the logistics, but the regions are the heart of country.

Until next time…  (:

PS: Can you believe I’m here for only two-and-a-half more months??

Winter Trip in the Regions Part I: Quba

Good God, Hayley, another post that begins with “Part I”? You bet! A week after I returned from Hong Kong (described at great length in these posts: Part I and Part II), I squeezed in another trip before the start of spring semester. I went to Quba (pronounced, “goo-BAH”), Xınalıq (I’ll talk about the pronunciation of this next time), and Laza, a few towns in north-eastern Azerbaijan with a fellow Fulbrighter and regular travel buddy, the fabulous Dana.

I call her fabulous for a few reasons: 1) She planned the whole trip while I was gone (itinerary, hotel options, the logistics of getting there, etc.); and 2) We relied on her Russian skills way more than we anticipated, since my Azeri ones are inconveniently basic. Asking for directions, talking with our guides, and handling our somewhat crazy hotel manager usually demanded Russian. When we couldn’t use Russian, we used my Azeri. Therefore, if you venture to this part of Azerbaijan (or any part outside of Baku), it is extremely helpful to know Russian and/or Azeri — even basics.

Some Logistics

There are a few options to get around the regions in Azerbaijan, the most common are taxis and buses. We decided to take a bus to Quba and grabbed a taxi on our return home.

The Avtovağzal (Central Station) in Baku is not the easiest to get to. We took the metro to 20 Yanvar, then a bus to Avtoğazal. An endless supply of taxis are on the premise, drivers shouting names of towns, “Quba!” “Şeki!” “Gəncə!” We passed them into the huge bus station. We tried to navigate our way around but ended up having to ask where to purchase tickets. (Hint: they’re not in an obvious place. The counters are on the lower level behind a cafeteria.) We looked at the lists taped by each window for Quba, and finally found one. For our ticket there, it cost some obscure amount like 2.36 manat (~$3 USD at the time). We hustled up a few flights of stairs to catch our 10:30am ride, and, after much confusion, found our bus.

It seemed that we off set a delicate gender balance. We started to sit in one section but the driver waved us toward the very back corner. Okay, Mr. Bossy. After everyone settled, I saw a pattern: the other women were located in the front. Since Dana and were latecomers, we had to go in the back. On similar bus travel in Turkey (i.e. long-distance in which you purchase a ticket), a man and woman cannot sit next to each other unless they are related or married. Turns out Azerbaijan has a similar policy. If you find yourself in a similar situation, when in doubt, just do as you are told!

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

Second logistical detail: our hotel. Quba has a hotel as we think of one back home (called “Rixos Hotel”), but we can’t afford that. We settled on one that was more of a hostel…turned out it wasn’t in business (or something, the guy was a little strange). After a frantic online search, we found another one called Otel Oskar (Oskar Hotel):

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Wandering Travelers

After we figured out Baku’s Avtovağzal and managed to find the right bus, we arrived in Quba after a two-hour bus ride. We were dropped off at a nice bus station. Naturally, we had no clue where we were in relation to the map in the guide book.

Looks new...but where are we?!

Looks new…but where are we?!

Friends, heed my advice: if you are dropped off here, you are a few miles from Quba’s merkezi (city center). Make sure your destination is written down and grab a taxi for a few manat.

But we didn’t know this. We started wandering. Maybe we’ll find a mosque or some sort of landmark that we can find on the map to enlighten us? Nothing. In the end, we concluded that the bus took us to a newer bus station that was built after the book was published. The book indicated that the only central bus station in Quba was located in the middle of many things, but all we saw was open space:

Quba 1

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

Wandering....

Wandering….

Quba 4

Luckily Quba is a pleasant town to get lost in.

We walked for a good hour before we hit the city center, and then wandered for another hour or so before we found Otel Oskar, which I described above.

Quba

We figured out the hotel room, dealt with the hotel manager (more about that at the end of this post), and headed out for more exploring. We timed this trip well, our arrival day was fair and sunny, and the following two days were rainy/snowy in Quba (this was in mid/late January).

Quba 5

Quba 7

Quba 8

Quba 9

Yes, a purple door.

Yes, a purple door.

Quba 11

Quba 12Quba 13Quba 14

Quba 15

Quba 16

Quba 17

Check out the blue accent color!

Check out the blue accent color!

Quba 19

Quba 20

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

Quba 21

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Quba 25

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

Quba 27

Quba 28

Quba 29

The houses in this part were huge.

The houses in this part were huge.

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Quba 32

Quba 33

Quba 34

Quba 35

Quba 36

Think I’ll flip this house someday...

Think I’ll flip this house someday…

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

Quba 39

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Quba 41

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

It’s Not a Proper Vacation without Some Crazy Characters

I’ve mentioned that we had to “handle” or “deal with” our hotel manager; it’s because he was a handful. I can’t remember his name, but for the sake of the story I’ll call him Fuad. Since I can’t communicate much beyond greetings and asking for directions in Azeri, Dana had to do most of the communication, which actually made Fuad happy because he didn’t have the chance to speak Russian regularly. What also made him happy was insisting we sit in the office to drink tea and chat, probably so that he could show off the two American blondes to whoever visited him. And Fuad was a busy guy, so we met many people. In classic Azerbaijani-style hospitality, he made sure to let us know that we could ask him and the other workers for anything whenever we wanted. To illustrate this, he bellowed a name, “Ali!!”

A boy, maybe twelve years old, scrambled up the stairs into the office. “This boy can get you tea whenever you want it — he is your tea boy.” Our…our tea boy? I almost lost my composure and suppressed my giggles. Then Fuad scolded me because I was drinking my tea too slowly; wasn’t I aware that drinking cold tea is bad for my health?

But tea boy was just the start. Fuad was SO hospitable and kind, he wanted to play matchmaker…or something. “Are you married?” he asked sometime our first day. We have nothing to hide, so we told the truth: Nope, not married. He asked our ages. “Yirmi dört (twenty-four),” I answered, happy that I could contribute two words to the conversation. Should we have had more tact? Perhaps, but it was hard to follow his wandering rabbit trails, and he dropped those inquiries in the middle of a rant. Plus, he coordinated our rides into Xınılıq and Laza, remote mountain villages impossible to get to without an experienced driver. Our whole trip depended on him!

So when two tax inspectors came to the office during our second night there, we went along with the flow, perfectly used to the drama that hovered around Fuad. During our second or third cup of tea we were informed that the tax inspectors wanted to treat us to dinner. What? When did this exchange happen?

Basically, we were set up, and of course I was very unhappy about this. Dana was too. But, to guarantee that we had a ride for our village trip the next day, we figured we had to be kind. So we grimaced through dinner with these two tax guys who spoke no English or Russian (even though one of them affirmed that he spoke English when I asked him). They actually invited a third friend a bit later because “he speaks English well.” He spoke it okay, and he also reprimanded me at one point for dropping the f-bomb as I quietly conversed with Dana.

“That…that is a bad word,” he said, looking very disturbed that such an utterance could come forth from a lady’s mouth.

“Which word? F*cking? Yes, yes it is,” I nodded in agreement before taking a swig of sparkling water. Why can’t this be something stronger? I was over it at that point, and angry at myself for getting into such an awkward situation. Ugh, kill me.

But we made it through, and I guess an awkward dinner was worth the villages that we saw, which I’ll describe in my next post.

Until next time… (:

Hong Kong Holiday Part II

First, couple things I forgot to mention in my last post (Hong Kong Holiday Part I):

-Including travel days, I was gone from January 12 – January 18 (6 days)

-The guidebook I used that proved to be extremely helpful was Fodor’s Hong Kong, with a Side Trip to Macau (2013). They also have an online travel guide, which you can check out by clicking here. Didn’t use their hotel or restaurant recommendations (we stayed in a hostel and ate whatever street food we chanced upon), but the maps, site seeing information, and Macau section were great.

Okay, back to the show!


“I mean, what’s the point of traveling if you’re not going to kill yourself from exhaustion. What kind of a vacation is that?!”

Kyla shot me a look, really?

I shared that musing in the middle of our Hong Kong adventure, I think during one of the (many, many) times we were lost, already exhausted and sore from walking around the main areas of Hong Kong city. The next half of our trip took us away from city center, and I think if we knew what was to come, we would have been wary to continue. So maybe it’s good that we can’t see into the future, but instead have to be satisfied with living in the present while having knowledge from the past. In this case, the gained knowledge we applied was our footwear. We threw our cute sandals back in the suitcases and swapped them for more practical, tourist-appropriate shoes.

Although, I hate calling myself a tourist. Kyla does too, she prefers to call herself a traveler.

A couple times we discussed what differences in meaning there are between tourist and traveler. We agreed that a tourist is a person who goes somewhere just to relax, to experience some new things but have someone else (like a tour guide or company) take care of the logistics. A traveler is someone who deals with every nitty-gritty detail; figures out public transportation, walks anywhere he/she possibly can, eats cheap local food, and goes to bed feeling like death because so much was squeezed into one day. But that’s a trivial distinction, isn’t it?

Count Gobineau had this to say about travel as he traversed the Middle East in the 1870s: “It is not everyone who knows how to travel…It is not everyone who can see beneath the surface of things, and read the significance of the changing background and novel scenes that meet his gaze, any more than it is given to everyone to interpret the inner meaning of a Beethoven sonata…”

A tourist takes his/her surroundings at surface-level, without questioning them, not even caring to see “beneath the surface of things.” But for a traveler, tuning into and honing that insight makes any time abroad (or away from home) worth the time, effort, and stress. Insisting that there is “more than meets the eye” and testing that hypothesis makes the adventure worthwhile.

Agree, disagree? I’m curious to know.

Okay, Hayley, enough with your silly philosophical musings. I want pictures.

True enough, folks, let’s jump into the third day of my Hong Kong trip!

Day 3 – Macau

First, I wanted to go to Macau just to add another stamp in my passport. Ugh, what a shallow reason, Hayley – and to admit that after your ridiculous ‘tourist vs. traveler’ rant!

But would you believe that neither Hong Kong nor Macau stamped our passports? No. Instead, it was “hold onto these little squares of paper that 1) identify you as a visitor, and 2) allow you leave when it’s time to move on.” Thanks, Hong Kong and Macau.

Second, I wanted to go to Macau because Portuguese and Cantonese are the official languages on the island. If such differing languages form an integral part of Macau, what other cross-cultural aspects could I witness? It turns out, a lot.

Fast Fact Macau History Lesson: 1) The island was initially settled by a couple different ethnic groups that migrated from modern-day mainland China. 2) The Portuguese, hellbent on gaining trading ports and routes, were the first documented Europeans to start relations with Macau. 3) By the early 1500s, Jesuit missionaries established cathedrals and schools on the island. 4) Macau is similar to Hong Kong in that it is semi-autonomous from China, so U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a stay under 30 days. 5) Macau is mainly known today as an “Asian Las Vegas.” Gambling, casinos, living the high life, etc. If that is why you want to go to Macau, you are not alone. But if it’s not, rest assured there are plenty of other things to keep you entertained!

We took a ferry there and back, about $25 dollars one-way. It's also a very pleasant 1-hour trip with great views.

We took a ferry there and back, about $25 dollars one-way. It’s also a very pleasant 1-hour trip with great views.

General Impressions

Between a hotel shuttle and a taxi, we got ourselves to Largo do Senado, one of the main tourist hubs and starting point for our adventuring. Basically, we just walked around, enjoying the unique characteristics of Macau and bumping into the main points of interest.

First, the street tile was awesome; don’t think I saw the same motif twice.

Macau Street Tile 1

Macau Street Tile 2

Macau Street Tile 3

And the Portuguese-influenced architecture and themes — some moments I felt as though I were in Europe.

Macau Motif 1

Macau Motif 2

Macau Detail

Macau 5

Macau 6

IMG_4328

*Nerd Alert* Hear that? That’s my heart fluttering over the Portuguese architecture with Cantonese shop signs.

Macau 7

Macau 8

What? There's no way I'm in Asia...surely I'm in some Mediterranean town.

What? There’s no way I’m in Asia…surely I’m in some Mediterranean town.

But with a simple turn of the head, I was transported back to China; like getting bitch-slapped by culture.

Macau 1

Macau 2

Macau 3

I kind-of like getting bitch-slapped by culture.

I kind-of like getting bitch-slapped by culture.

Cathedrals and Temples

Similar to Hong Kong, religious structures of all faiths seamlessly blended into the city, and we chanced upon several cathedrals and temples mere blocks apart. All exquisite.

First was St. Dominic’s Cathedral:

Macau St Dominic 1

A separate wing of the cathedral is a dedicated museum, displaying artefacts from past services and priests (mainly from the 1800s). It’s free and definitely worth the 15 minute walk-through.

Macau St Dominics 2

St. Dominic's is located in the busiest public square on Macau. Muffled voices reached the sanctuary and provided hynotizing  background noise as we walked through.

St. Dominic’s is located in the busiest public square on Macau. Muffled voices reached the sanctuary and provided hynotizing background noise as we walked through.

Macau St Dominic 4

The exterior's colors were awesome.

The exterior’s colors were awesome.

Not far was Sam Kai Vui Kun, or Kuan Tai Temple.

Kuan Tai Temple 1

Kuan Tai Temple 2

Kuan Tai Temple 2

Kuan Tai Temple 3

I wish you could smell this incense, and I wish I could smell it now.

Unsure what this is...names, prayers? If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

Unsure what this is…names, prayers? If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

Back on the road. Kyla and I stopped mid-stride at the same time and looked up. “Wait — is this a temple?” Yep. So not knowing the name of this one, we ventured around it for a bit.

Macau Temple 1

Macau Temple 2

Macau Temple 3

Love the red and the gold.

Love the red and the gold.

After hitting a main street and wading through a million other tourists/travelers, we came upon the Ruins of St. Paul. It is a formidable-looking facade, and reminded me of Celsus Library in Ephesus.

Ruins of St Paul 1

It looks great, why is it called the “Ruins” of St. Paul?

Ruins of St Paul 2

What you see is basically what remains of the original 16th century cathedral — the front. Information was spread throughout the court and crypt behind the facade, but basically what befell the cathedral was this: after being built as a cathedral with an adjoining school in the late 1500s, the Jesuits were expelled from Macau in the mid-1700s and St. Paul was shut down. It remained until 1835, when a fire (a cause was not stated) largely destroyed it, leaving what you see today. See how interesting history is!

After shopping nearby, we picked a direction and walked, eventually finding St. Anthony’s Cathedral.

Green doors, like on St. Dominic's.

Green doors, like on St. Dominic’s.

St Anthony Macau 2

I liked the ceiling here.

I liked the ceiling here.

In that moment it struck me that the candle and incense usage between temples and cathedrals really don't differ that much.

In that moment it struck me that the candle and incense usage between temples and cathedrals really don’t differ that much.

St Anthony Macau 5Our final religious spot was a Protestant church and accompanying cemetery, I guess everyone wanted a spot on Macau throughout the centuries…

Morrison Chapel Macau 1

East India Company was THE major trading company of Great Britain (and the world) up until WWI.

Morrison Chapel Macau 2

What I enjoyed most about this site was the cemetery.

Protestant Cemetery Macau 1

Note the English. It was also interesting to see that most of these were young sailors and several came from the United States.

Beautifully maintained.

Beautifully maintained.

Protestant Cemetery Macau 3

The only thing I saw here in Cantonese.

The only thing I saw here in Cantonese.

City and Nature

Like Hong Kong, I was struck with the balance between city and nature, between lush green trees and concrete infrastructure.

Macau City 20

Great views from the top of Macau Museum.

Macau City 21

Macau City 22

We behaved ourselves a little better that day...just a little.

We behaved ourselves a little better that day…just a little.

Cameos Garden, a park in the middle of the island.

Cameos Garden, a park in the middle of the island.

Peeking through some trees.

Peeking through some trees.

This was a busy place...especially with the groups of old men who walked and played board games together.

This was a busy place…especially with the groups of old men who walked and played board games together.

Graffiti

A pleasant surprise was the graffiti. I am of the opinion that, when done well and in appropriate areas, graffiti is a form of public art. If you think the opposite, at least give Macau’s art a chance:

Macau Graffiti 1

The peacock was my favorite.

The peacock was my favorite. Note how the tree trunk is painted too, almost can’t see it.

We found this series of graffiti in a residential park--bumped into it accidentally.

We found this series of graffiti in a residential park–bumped into it accidentally.

Macau Graffiti 4

True that.

True that.

Macau Graffiti 6

“To my dear sweety: Thank you for this lovely year. Remind you something. No matter what, I’m always here with you.”

Macau Graffiti 7

Macau Graffiti 8

This door...and that hand...too good.

This door…and that weird hand…too good.

Another favorite. My imagination is not even this creative--so mad respect for people who can harness their creativity into a skill!

Another favorite. My imagination is not even this creative–so mad respect for people who can harness their creativity into a skill!

Macau Graffiti 11

Macau Graffiti 12

Did we get lost at any point during our Macau day? Of course. We had gotten lost each previous day, no way to escape it on Macau. Actually, there was a chunk of time (about two hours) where we just could not figure out where we were. Maps are great but it’s impossible for them to reveal everything. We wanted to make our way to the ferry dock before it got too dark, and it took much longer than we anticipated. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other. Came close a few times, though:

“Well Kyla, you wanted to walk down open streets with good lighting. And where did those f*cking open streets take us? Nowhere!!” I shrieked, adding crazed gestures.

“Oh don’t even, Hayley — you can’t navigate the area by our hostel worth sh*t…” (Which was totally true.)

If we had a camera crew follow us throughout our Hong Kong trip wanderings, the editing team would have to bleep out about a third of our dialogue. Don’t pretend the same wouldn’t happen to you…

Don’t worry, we made it back, albeit ready to die from exhaustion. Yet we also learned a lot that day — not just travel skills but things about each other. And as I grimaced over the pain from the blisters on my feet and hobbled around the hostel like an old woman, I realized that about half of my joy throughout the trip was brought about by Kyla’s presence. Luckily I had her for one more day…

Day 4 – Lantau Island

Basically the whole area called “Hong Kong” is made up of countless islands, so Hong Kong city is on Hong Kong island, but other Hong Kong sites are spread across those islands. Our final day together was dedicated to Lantau Island, also the base of Hong Kong’s International Airport.

Our Lantau Island adventure was all about the big Tian Tan Buddha, the largest seated Buddha in the world (I believe). We took the metro to one of its furthest points and hitched a ride on the Ngong Ping Skyrail, the only way to get to the Buddha. The skyrail was about $25 round-trip; well worth it.

So excited...so excited!

So excited…so excited!

The sky rail trip takes about 30 minutes.

The skyrail trip takes about 30 minutes.

Okay, here is a tip that will save you time and money: When you leave the skyrail area, the first thing you walk through is Ngong Ping village. There are a bunch of tempting restaurants, but they are pricy, like more than similar places in the city. We were stupid and didn’t bring snacks, so we ended up buying over-priced Subway sandwiches.

Remember, don't get distracted -- keep it moving and eat your snacks.

Remember, don’t get distracted — keep it moving and eat your snacks.

After emerging from the tourist trap, we started to see the good stuff.

The Tian Tan Buddha from afar.

The Tian Tan Buddha from afar.

Tian Tan Buddha 2

The placement of the sun was annoying, hard to get good pictures of the Buddha.

The placement of the sun was annoying, hard to get good pictures of the Buddha.

Tian Tan Buddha 4

After climbing about a million stairs, we ended up right under the huge statue.

Hello, Buddha!

Hello, Buddha!

Tian Tan Buddha 6

Me and Tian Tan Buddha

Walking around the Buddha.

Walking around the Buddha.

The views were worth all those stupid stairs.

The views were worth all those stupid stairs.

Since there were also a million people swarming the Tian Tan Buddha, we quickly moved on to seek some quiet. After following a path that took us away from the noise, we found a sign for Wisdom Path:

"Maybe the path will make us wise as to what we're supposed to do with our lives," I glibly suggested.

“Maybe the path will make us wise as to what we’re supposed to do with our lives,” I glibly suggested.

On our way to this Wisdom Path, we passed a ghost town, what I assume used to be a tourist area but was replaced by Ngong Ping Village.

Lantau Ghost Town 1

Lantau Ghost Town 2

I can see photography majors enjoying this area.

I can see photography majors enjoying this area.

Lantau Ghost Town 4Walked some more, and eventually hit the Wisdom Path. It turned out to be more striking than I imagined; verses of the Heart Sutra are etched in tall wooden pillars:

Really tall.

Really tall.

Wisdom Path 2

Wisdom Path 3

Wisdom Path 4

Wisdom Path 6

Looking at Wisdom Path from the opposite direction.

Looking at Wisdom Path from the opposite direction.

We meandered down more trails, making several remarks that we’ll come back someday with proper hiking gear to better explore Lantau Island (yeah, seriously, I was talking about hiking). Our quiet solace slowly broke down as we got closer to the crowded area by the Buddha, and we decided to look through the Po Lin Monastery, which was extremely colorful:

Po Lin Monastery 1

Po Lin Monastery 2

Po Lin Monastery 3

Po Lin Monastery 4

Po Lin Monastery 5

Po Lin Monastery 6

Po Lin Monastery 7

Po Lin Monastery 8

Me, looking at the incense sticks, "I didn't know they could get so big." Kyla, snickering, "That's what she said." I couldn't get angry at her, I totally walked into that one.  :P

Me, looking at the incense sticks: “I didn’t know they could get so big.” Kyla, snickering: “That’s what she said.” I couldn’t get angry at her, I totally walked into that one. 😛

I described a mosque as being “blingy” in this post, and I would describe Po Lin Monastery in the same way, and the interior was more flashy and striking (wasn’t allowed to take photos inside). And although it was beautiful and worth seeing, it definitely caters to orientalist expectations of what temples are “supposed” to look like.

To illustrate my point, check out this other temple, the Lotus Pond Temple. It’s on Lantau Island, about 10 minutes from the monastery, and marked with just one sign. We took a chance and ventured off the beaten path as we walked back to the skyrail.

Much simpler, but lovely because of it.

Much simpler, but lovely because of it.

Lotus Pond Temple 2

We were the only visitors there at the time...

We were the only visitors there at the time…

Lotus Pond Temple 4

Lotus Pond Temple 5And with that, we ended our day on Lantau Island. Kyla took off for her 7am flight in the middle of the night, and I had to fend for myself the next day.

Day 5 – Solo Museum Outing

Really, it wasn’t bad fending for myself for a day. First, I enjoyed the views of Victoria Harbor:

Victoria Harbor 1

Victoria Harbor 2

Victoria Harbor 3

Victoria Harbor 4

I loved taking in all the sites, and aside from the crazy wind, it was a perfect day.

Hong Kong Clocktower

I visited the Art Museum and History Museum, which I think would’ve driven Kyla nuts if I forced her to come with me. The one sad thing about the Art Museum was that the Chinese Antiquities section was closed for renovation (or something). I honestly pouted like a child in front of the area blocked off from crazy visitors like me. But I had to get over it, and both museums (if that is your thing) are totally worth the visit and $1.30 USD admission fee.

Standing under a portion of the Art Museum.

Standing under a portion of the Art Museum.

I got myself to the airport with plenty of time before my 9:45pm flight, mentally preparing myself for my long journey home by eating Toblerone chocolate. A gentleman from the Hong Kong Tourism Board spotted me and asked if I could spare some time for a survey. “But of course.” He asked about my time and general impressions of Hong Kong (of which I gave glowing reviews), and it got funny when he asked where I was from.

“I’m from the United States.”

“Ah, very good, so which airport did you fly from?”

“I flew from Baku.”

“Wh-where?”

“Baku, Azerbaijan.” I tried to suppress giggles.

“Wh-where?”

So then I had to explain a little of why I’m in Baku, and he, like Lancer in my first post, eventually warmed up to the idea.

That seems appropriate, for reminders of Azerbaijan, the country that is my home for the greater part of a year, to act as bookends to my trip in Hong Kong. It was like Azerbaijan didn’t want me to forget about it, but how could I ever?

And how can I ever thank Kyla for not only spending money and time to see me, but for making it such a memorable experience?

Hong Kong Words to Live By

Soulmate, thank you for being a permanent character in my movie, and for making Hong Kong be one hell of a scene!

Until next time…  (:

Hong Kong Holiday Part I

Did I read the title of this post correctly?

Yes, yes you did.

Why on earth did you go there – what does Hong Kong have to do with Azerbaijan?

I met one of my best friends, who is teaching English in South Korea, there. And HK has absolutely nothing to do with Azerbaijan, which is one of the reasons why I pursued the trip.

Let me tell you something about my close friends and I: throughout high school we talked about travel – about getting out of our small Michigan town and experiencing the unknown. Travel was always on the tips of our tongues; lunch hour and weekly Barnes and Noble get-togethers were saturated with conversations about exploration. We mapped out routes, joked about who would cause a ruckus by dancing on tables, and vowed to make it happen for ourselves.

What we didn’t plan was that we would end up in non-European countries. For although we were ambitious, we were also Eurocentric. Europe is the place for culture. Anywhere else is insignificant.

Thank God for college. Seriously. College shook up our mindsets, and now a couple of us are spread across the Caucasus and Asia, unsure when we’ll be in Europe next. So when Kyla and I wanted to “meet up somewhere in the middle,” it looked like an East Asian adventure for me – and that is exactly what happened. Price was another factor, when flights dropped to $450 round-trip from Baku to Hong Kong, I took it as a sign.

Now, I am someone who knows next to nothing about east Asian culture and history. Shameful, I know. And with only a few weeks to get ready, I acted against my tendencies to agonize and research every possible detail about a country’s history and culture. But, this turned out to be a good thing — no paradigms or presumptions about Hong Kong interfered with how I felt in the moment; every second was full of eye-opening discovery.

It’s hard to know where to start…so I’ll jump right into the language (nerd alert) and see where that takes us…

Linguistic Harmony

Now, I don’t want to offend anyone back home, but when I hear complaints about how “I had to dial 1 for English when I called the cable company,” I want to smack you. Do you know how the rest of the world lives? An average Azerbaijani person in Baku — at a minimum — possesses fluent Azeri and Russian skills. Now add English to the mix. Signs, advertisements, and packaging are in at least two languages. When I see groceries people buy, it is equally made up of Azeri/Turkish and Russian products, because they can read both languages fluently. There is a linguistic harmony between multiple languages in Baku, and Hong Kong displayed that even more so. Almost every local we spoke to had (at least) advanced beginner English skills and everything was systematically labeled in Cantonese and English.

Streets tell you which way to look when crossing – how much safer can you get?

HK Sign 2

I like the note to “not walk on the grass;” Azerbaijan and South Korea have similar rules. I’m wondering how common that is cross-culturally?

Watch your head while walking through an inner-city park (which was extremely well-maintained, by the way)

Don't you DARE hang your laundry in Hong Kong Park.

Don’t you DARE hang your laundry in Hong Kong Park.

Control your livestock, people.

Control your livestock, people.

HK Sign 6

We don’t merely wipe our feet on this carpet, we sterilize them.

How many times do you have to be reminded -- leave your livestock at home.

How many times do you have to be reminded — leave your livestock at home.

Livestock again...always causing trouble.

Livestock again…always causing trouble.

I was amazed at how many restaurants had English menus (and we ate at street food places!). I forgave and enjoyed all spelling mistakes.  (;

I was amazed at how many restaurants had English menus (and we ate at street food places!). I forgave and enjoyed all spelling mistakes. (;

If you think it’s amazing that two languages can live harmoniously in the same place, imagine three. Check out these signs from Macau:

Cantonese, Portuguese, and English. Say what?!

Cantonese, Portuguese, and English. Say what?!

Or just Portuguese and Cantonese.

Or just Portuguese and Cantonese.

Protestant church bulletin in Cantonese, Portuguese, and English.

Protestant church bulletin in Portuguese, Cantonese, and English.

Food

I won’t be fancy and call this section “Cuisine” because, let’s be real, the majority of our meals were street food. But my-oh-my, was it all delicious!

Did not partake in these dried seafood delicacies...a little too far from my comfort zone.

Did not partake in these dried seafood delicacies…a little too far from my comfort zone.

Soup....so good....

Soup….so good….

I thought it said "human BBQ" when I first read this sign. Just about flipped out on the street, haha

I thought it said “human BBQ” when I first read this sign. Just about flipped out on the street, haha

HK Food 4

Seafood rice from a community food court place — we were the only non-locals there but the staff was so wonderful to us.

Find the typos....heehee

Find the typos….heehee

Craving this dish from a noodle place in Macau. I think this cost under $3.

Craving this dish from a noodle place in Macau. I think this cost under $3.

This. Honey. Sponge. Cake. Was. To. Die. For.

This. Honey. Sponge. Cake. Was. To. Die. For.

Hong Kong City

Alright, that’s enough boring detail stuff for now…let’s look at the city:

HK City 1

It was busy, to say the least.

Saw bamboo everywhere for construction projects.

Saw bamboo everywhere for construction projects.

HK City 3

HK City 4

HK City 5

HK City 6

HK City 7

This was a fancy entrance to a bank.

This was a fancy entrance to a bank.

Loved Hong Kong at night.

Loved Hong Kong at night.

"Never under value the space you've got."

“Never under value the space you’ve got.”

In the Kowloon district.

In Kowloon district.

Getting There and Day 1 – Hong Kong City Center

I’m going to be honest with you and admit that I did not realize how far away Hong Kong is from Baku until I was actually traveling there. Distance, combined with several-hour layovers in Dubai, made my journey to HK almost as long as my journey from Memphis, TN to Baku (about 24 hours). It didn’t help that Dubai’s airport only provided you with 30 minutes of excruciatingly slow complimentary wifi to keep you entertained. But maybe they do that on purpose, to make you shop for duty-free products. However, since I’m a lady on a tight budget, I entertained myself by people-watching and ogling at Arabic.

Note the "Prayer Rooms."

Note the “Prayer Rooms.”

Fascinated by the Arabic even on the bathroom stall door.

Fascinated by the Arabic even on the bathroom stall door.

By the time I landed in HK, it was 5:30am local time and I was running on about two hours of poor airplane sleep. I waited for Kyla to land about an hour after me, and after celebrating a joyous reunion we dragged our sorry selves through the airport to get a public transportation card. I can only imagine how ragged we looked as we waited for the bus that took us to Causeway Bay (one of the main parts of HK), and as we stumbled through crowded streets with our things to find the hostel — all in the rain too. By the grace of God we did it, and by 11:30am we crashed for a two hour power nap, during which time we hoped the rain would clear up.

We somehow motivated ourselves to get moving, and enjoyed Hong Kong after a refreshing rain.

Overcast but refreshing.

Overcast but fresh.

I’d planned a rough itinerary but one never knows how far apart sites are in an unfamiliar place. Fortunately once you hit something major in Hong Kong, you’re in reach of many other fun things…

St. John’s Cathedral

One of the things I love most about Hong Kong was the number of religious buildings. Not just that, but they seemed comfortably integrated into the greater community. St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1849, is just one example.

St John's 1

St John's 2

Me and doors....when even away from Azerbaijan!

Me and doors….even when away from Azerbaijan!

Interior

Interior

Bookstore as part of the cathedral grounds

Bookstore as part of the cathedral grounds

Hong Kong Park

This park…this park was awesome. I don’t know how Hong Kong creates such peace in the middle of the most densely-populated place on the planet but they did. A hint for anyone traveling there: although the park stays open until late evening, the fun stuff (bird atrium, exhibits, etc.) close at 5pm.

HK Park 1

Trees so tall…

HK Park 2

There are also a ton of stairs.

The city wonderfully complimented the greenery.

The city wonderfully complimented the greenery.

HK Park 4

HK Park 5

HK Park 7

Mid-Level Escalators

After the park we grabbed some tea from the cafe right by St. John’s and headed to the Mid-Level Escalators.

St Johns Cafe

The guy working recommended us great tea and gave us helpful directions to the Escalators. (:

The Mid-Level Escalators are, you guessed it, a series of escalators and stairs that transports you up the surrounding hill side. Lots of shops, restaurants, bars…so lots of expats too. It’s a cool way to get around and see things, but keep in mind that to retrace your path, you have to walk down as the escalators only run down during the morning rush to work.

Very orderly, see how people are standing to the right so that walkers can go on the left? Baku, please learn from this!!

Very orderly, see how people are standing to the right so that walkers can go on the left? Baku, please learn from this!!

My soul thrilled when er passed awesome street art.

My soul thrilled when we passed awesome street art.

Jamia Mosque

Right off the escalators is Jamia Mosque. Would have missed it if I didn’t look over my shoulder at the right second. Built in 1890, it is the oldest mosque in Hong Kong.

First a cathedral, now a mosque!

First a cathedral, now a mosque!

Unfortunately it was getting dark so the lighting wasn’t the best for pictures…but it was a lovely structure.

Jamia Mosque 2

And had a greenish tint.

 

Jamia Mosque 3

I tried to figure out if we could go in (i.e. locating a separate women’s entrance) but gave up after a bit. As we rounded the mosque heading toward the Escalators, we heard a cheery voice call after us, “It looks like you are tourists!”

Friends and family, meet Lancer:

Lancer S.A. Khan, to be exact.

Lancer S.A. Khan, to be exact. “Lancer” is his nom de plume as he aptly informed us.

I thought he worked at the mosque but rather he must live in the area and had noticed our dazed gazes and hesitant steps from afar. I’m not sure how long we chatted with this gentleman, 20 minutes maybe? But in that time he tested our literary knowledge by quoting famous lines for us to guess the author, informed us of his back story, and discussed English teaching after we told him our current jobs/projects. Kyla’s South Korea was fine, but my Azerbaijan produced a bemused reaction from Lancer:

“Well that’s…that’s kind of remote, isn’t it?”

Azerbaijan as a final destination is equally strange for Hong Kong residents as it is for Americans. Love it. I guess have a knack for surprising people.

“Is it safe there with the extremism?”

I assured him, like I had done with countless loved ones back home, that Azerbaijan, unlike its unfortunate neighbors, does not have a problem with religious extremism. He seemed okay with Azerbaijan after that, and it wasn’t until I looked at his business card back at the hostel that I noticed his last name, “Khan,” is a monarchical title (“leader,” “king”) used in Azerbaijan’s history. I wish I had caught that in the moment so that I could’ve told him; he would have loved it.

Day 2 – Kowloon

Tired yet from reading so much? It’s a good thing I’m dividing my trip into two parts, so suffer through Kowloon and then you can rest.

Anyway, day two was the first sunny day, and with a high of 70 degrees (about 20 degrees Celsius), it was perfect weather for lots of walking and exploration. We took the MTR (mass transport system), which is probably the most beautiful metro on earth:

For as expansive as it is, it was easy to figure out, and people were always helpful.

For as expansive as it is, it was easy to figure out, and people were always helpful.

Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple

First stop, one of the largest temples in the area, which is better known by a shortened name: Wong Tai Sin Temple. This was my first temple so naturally, I was excited. Not even the millions of other visitors bothered me much, because I soon saw that most of them were there to worship or pray.

Wong Tai Temple 1

According to my guidebook, believers of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism practice their faith here.

Wong Tai Temple 2

Wong Tai Temple 3

Wong Tai Temple 4

I really enjoyed the garden at the back of the property.

I really enjoyed the garden at the back of the property.

Always time for selfies.

Always time for selfies.

Of course, happy to be there.

Of course, happy to be there, and ready to cause some trouble.

Wong Tai Temple 7