Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ichari Shahar, the Old City of Baku

Maiden's Tower
Old City Fortress Walls

Today I went into the Old City of Baku, which is surrounded by ancient fortress walls. I did take photos, but given my predicament, I've borrowed some from other websites until I can post my own. The fortress was built in the 12th Century, initally right on the waterfront, to protect Baku from invaders.
I had a map from the hotel - and had even printed off some items of note from the internet to find here in the Old City - but of course, I pretty much got lost right off the bat. The funny thing about the Old City, I read, is that some streets just lead to, literally, nowhere. They wander off in all sorts of directions, getting narrower and narrower until you get to a dead end. I had read that thes streets were planned like this so that invading chariots would be forced to go single file - as they are much easier to pick off that way.

I did think about this as I wandered down a few narrow backstreets and was forced to double back.

I eventually found the Maiden Tower, the most famous landmark in Baku. It also supposedly dates back to the 12th century. As one website claimed, "The name of the Tower-Maiden's-is explained by numerous legends concerning a determined young lady pursued by a despotic local king (sometimes identified as her father), who reportedly imprisoned her in this Tower. According to the legend, rather than becoming his lover, she committed suicide by throwing herself from the Tower into the Caspian Sea".

Um, gross.

Anyway, it was cool to see. You can even see where mortar fire has pockmarked the tower. I was thankful to get inside, out of the hot sun and climb the five or so levels to the top for a spectacular view of the city and out into the Caspian. Unfortunately, I was followed in by a pack of 13 year olds, screaming and pushing and generally being obnoxious. Plus, the stairs were so narrow, you had to wait to descend until everyone had climbed up. But over all, I got my two (1$1.60) worth.
After that I poked around some carpet markets, but as I wasn't in for haggling today, I kept my distance from the shopkeepers who kept braying at me to "looknoneedtobuyprettyladyjustlookonemomentcomeinside."
By that time, I was getting really HOT. In an effort to look less conspicuous, I've taken a drab color vow - that is, to only wear black/grey shirts, dark jeans and my huge (thank god they cover most of my face) Mary Kate Olsen sunglasses while out on the town. (On a side note, I also found some lipstick, so I feel less of a ghost than I did a few days ago.) That being said, I really didn't expect it to be so HOT and very sunny today, so I was pretty sweaty after dragging myself through the dusty old city.
Luckily, it was nothing that a big old Magnum ice cream bar couldn't fix!
After that, I set off to find another museum. Yesterday, I managed to find and get into the Folk Arts and Rug museum. Today, I was determined to find another one. I say determined because the map I have from the hotel isn't the best on the cultural front - however, it does have tiny little red flags for each place you can find a United Colors of Bennetton at. Sigh.
I didn't find the first museum I was aiming for, but I eventually stumbled across the National Museum of Fine Arts. It was in a crumbling old building, I found out later that "...was the former palatial residence of Claude de Burr and designed by Nicholas A. von der Nonne in 1888 and constructed around 1891." Too bad now most of the paint was coming off in large chips and half the windows were cracked.
I wandered around in the Western art wing, wondering why one earth I had paid money to look at third rated Dutch artists from the late 19th century paint windmills and chipped pottery, until I met Ismira.
Ismira works at the museum and directed me towards the Azeri portion of the gallery. She was young enough (20) to have learned English in school - I've found the cutoff age for English speakers to be around 30 here. Anyway, she was directing me towards more crappy Dutch art when I frustratingly said in English, to really, no one in particular: "Isn't there any Azeri art in the Azeri Art Museum?"
She understood atleast the Azeri Art part and took me into four rooms with rugs and traditional mettalurgy. Alas, that's where either her knowledge of Azeri art or English failed her, because she couldn't tell me much about the pieces. However, I had my captive. I wasn't letting her go that easily.
I had her tell me her name, and told her mine. I pulled out my map and asked her if there were any more art museums close by. She called over a few friends and they excitedly started searching the map for the Sanil (?? I think) metro stop. Then Rima, an older woman, joined us and I was HER captive. Through Ismira she peppered me with questions, "How old are you? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have babies (she said this one, making the International Gesture for Baby - two arms swinging in a cradle in front of her bust). ? Where is your husband?
I laughed and told her I left my husband back home. Ismira translated and we all laughed. Clearly, I was anomoly. Also, terribly ridiculous because they couldn't stop laughing -and not in that nervous "I am so embarassed by my English" sort of way, but in the "This woman is insane and we can say anything about her in front of her and she is going to smile like an idiot" way.
Oh well, it was really my first encounter with meeting (non skeezy) Azeris actually IN Azerbaijan. And it was nice, you know, to connect with someone, even if in an awkward way.
This thought has been bouncing around my brain this weekend: Not only is traveling to a different place culturally isolating, but there are times when it's necessary to be inconspicuous -and times when I really crave a human connection. Because of this, I try not to speak (accent gives me away, as does the obvious English) and as such there are often whole hours that go by as I'm walking the city where I don't say a single thing. I eat supper alone. I eat lunch alone. I work out, alone. I try not to make eye contact with men, who invariably stare at my non-dark hair. I pretend that I am invisible, to make myself less vulnerable.
And while I'm not really sad about this (it's only temporary, really), it is a weird feeling. It's hard to choose when you want to be seen and when you don't. For me, it's a bit like being suspended in time. Or moving about an empty city. I don't want to be seen by someone who will bother me, I do want to meet people and learn about their lives. So it was doubly nice - even if they were laughing at me - to have made an impression, to have been seen by someone (who didn't make kissy noises at me) and to have been a part of someone's day, not just a random woman who walked through your photograph.
Let's hear it for the small things -

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