Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

Category: Travel: Astral Hyper-Looping

June 17, 2015 Kyrgyzstan-Return to Normal

All quiet on the mountaintop. No signs of tourists or locals. I reveled in the solitude that can only be had at the peak. As darkness descended, a donut of light from Osh encircled Suleiman Too with a silver halo. I was but a small atom in a universe whose limits reached beyond anything my imagination could conjure. Time dissolved into nothing more than an illusion of the recent past. After awhile, I had no idea how long I stood there, I began to hear a distant sound, a subtle echo that gently played off my heartbeat. Slowly, I recognized that home was calling; I had to return.

I had chosen to travel to Osh not only because of Suleiman Too, but also because of its position on the ancient Silk Road. Back in the day when all things led to silk, to obtain it one had to go to China. That is, until the seventh century when as legend would have it a Byzantine monk stole the secrets of silk production as well as the worms from the Chinese. By then the ancient land Road having grown as complex as the routes through an ant hill looped from the East China Sea, up to the Gobi Desert to India, paraded across Central Asia into the current Stan’s, onto the Middle East, eventually as far as Rome, back to Shanghai and visa versa. The complexities of the routes with all the comings and goings of tribes, armies, mercenaries and merchants aroused my curiosity. I had to visit the Silk Road. If only I could touch my feet to its surface, I would have direct contact with the collective energy oozing from the historical layers of what had gone before. Holding that thought, I closed my eyes and drew my intention inward. Momentarily, I felt what had become a familiar lurch.

In Osh, the 2000-year-old Silk Road Bazaar stretches along the banks of the Ak Buura River for about a mile. Historically, it is one of the most important markets because of the confluence of routes that crossed through Osh; in 2010, ethnic violence between the Kyrzks and Uzbeks (Osh on the border, has a sizeable population of Uzbeks) destroyed much of the bazaar. Efforts to rebuild have restored much of the market: a farmer’s market, a department and appliance store (with goods from China and Russia) so to speak, a place to buy crafts, clothing, everything from toothpaste to cell phones, and perhaps most important a place to gather with friends, share tales and eat. I wanted to get a bite and buy a kalpak for my partner before I returned to the US.

I landed near the meat department. No, I was not interested in eating jimmy, the famous lambs head delicacy, but I noted several European tourists as they scooped out and ate the eyes and brains from a head, or the olovo (sheep’s lungs). Nor was I interested in beshbarmark with the memory of Mierum’s noodles still lingering on my palate. I walked on through the spices. Nearly knocked over by aromas coming off mountains of bright red paprika, stacks of colored peppercorns, cinnamon sticks and cumin, I hurried on to what looked like a bakery-deli a few stalls over. As a vegetarian, I knew I was in luck when I found oromo being prepared with potatoes and onions. I watch a short elderly woman roll out a small pastry, spread the veggies, roll it up and place it in a kagan for steaming. I ordered two along with a plate of ashlam foo. I figured the spicy noodles in jelly and vinegar topped with eggs would be offset with the oromo. I was not disappointed.

After eating, I picked up a kalpak and tucked it in my purse. Then I withdrew to a quiet place along the river and prepared to return to normal. Return to Normal? A drop of the tongue, tongue in cheek, but the very thought of return to normal posed an interesting question. Am I out of normal or am I within the bounds of normal? I looked about the world for an answer. When Elon Musk is putting the plans together for the first hyper-loop in California, when members of the former Baathist army are trying to redefine borders in the Middle East, when Trump says he is really running for the presidency, when Goldman Sachs says it is setting up a small loan department for ordinary Americans, when a top athlete shows up on the front cover of Vanity Fair in a new guise, when His Holiness the Pope puts out an encyclical on climate change, when His Holiness the Dai Lai Lama speaks at the Honda Center where the Mighty Ducks play, when waves of kayaks try to thwart a major oil schooner, perhaps the fact of my astral hyper-looping is not too far-fetched.

Unfortunately, in my haste to get to the Bazaar, I left my camera back on the Suleiman Too, but not to worry. The internet has reams of pictures of the old and new bazaar in Osh. Simply Google. Is that not where we find the source of all information

June 9, 2015 Kyrgyzstan – Camel Trek to Osh




The personal comments on some of the recent posts have been ranged from fascinating to hilarious. One friend said that she was “shocked to hear that I had been away and that she had many questions to ask about the Stan’s.  Another told me he was confused. So am I. Just kidding.

So, the following is the continuation of the musings of an astral hyper-looper as she roams through Kyrgyzstan. Best to read the former post if you have not already done so.


Rustam stood near the door holding the reigns to two camels. Not the shorthaired, one-hump dromedaries I had seen in Egypt, but the two humped, two-haired Bactrian’s indigenous to Central Asia.




With a kalpak on his head, the traditional white wool hat worn by Kyrgyz men, he had the look of a royal.




In his hands he held a pair of long stocking-like socks that he said were to protect my legs against the camel’s hair.

He must have noticed the look on my face, I imagine somewhere between surprise and trepidation, because he told me that riding the camel would be easy, that he had taken several tourists on rides with no issues or injuries. I can’t say that I felt comforted, but I did feel some excitement knowing that I would soon be in the company of Marco Polo, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, and Peter O’Toole. I had read how, during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia with his bottom bleeding from riding, the latter went to Beirut and purchased rubber sponge to serve as a saddle. When his Bedouin companions noted the comfort level, they too began to use the rubber.

Rustam told me not to be afraid, as the camel would sense my fear. Easier said than done, I called on Kali to give me some of her power, and then stroked the camel to show that I was not afraid. I made sure not to stand in front of its mouth to avoid the shower for which camels are famous.




Rustam brought it down on its knees to the traditional posture for mounting so that I could get on, and told me to swing my leg over the back hump and mount in one movement. As I am not tall enough to make it over the hump he placed a stool to stand on. Taking a swing with my right leg I managed the mount. As the camel raised its hind legs to stand up, I would have flipped off were it not for the front hump. I threw my arms around it and held on for dear life. Everything especially my bottom fell comfortably in place when he raised his front legs.

Rustam mounted the other camel, waved to Mierum and we set off down a wide path toward the mountains. My camel followed. It did not take me long to realize that I was atop a push button camel, mild and quiet, not the kind I had seen in Tracks, the book adapted movie about a young woman who crossed Australia on a camel. Rustam told me that a few years back a Russian Orthodox monk had come down from southern Siberia to rest and restore his health in the healing warm waters of Issul-Kyl Lake. While he was there, he spent quite a bit of time with the camel. It had a high-spirited nature, hard to hold down, and not in the least people-friendly, but over the course of the monk’s stay it became docile and gentle. I thought of the poverello. The monk sounded like a reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi. Beginning to feel a little more reassured I relaxed and got into the swing of the camel’s rhythm.

As we headed toward the mountains and I wondered how we would manage the steep stone slopes just ahead, when Rustam made a sudden turn through some tall bushes onto a side path. We rounded a short bend and climbed for several minutes through a thick forest to where the path opened onto a beautiful gorge. We climbed down and continued along a river.




It had been years since I had been on a horse and I was beginning to feel an aching in my thighs from the unusual posture. I was relieved when Rustam said we should take a break. He disembarked then helped me to get down. We sat on a large boulder overlooking a lovely valley. Mierum had sent a snack, which Rustam opened. He offered some dark, dried strings of something I did not recognize. When I hesitated, Rustam said it was dried camel meat. I licked it gingerly. After finishing his, Rustam took off on a stroll downstream saying he would be back in a few minutes. I assumed he had gone to take care of private needs. When he was out of sight I tossed the jerky into the stream. Just too much for my inner vegetarian to digest.

A whistle like familiar sound called out from behind where I sat. I turned in its direction to see a myna sitting in a bush about thirty feet away. With a yellow patch around its eye and yellow legs I recognized the same bird I had observed in India. When I looked it in the eye, the myna began to screech. Having observed the scene with the camel jerky and while not exactly begging, I assumed it wanted some food. Rustam suddenly appeared and the bird flew off.




He said it would take us about an hour to get to the yurt camp. From there his friend would drive me to Osh. Not since my last trip to the Andes had I felt such grounding as well as the uplifting that emanates from soaring mountain cathedrals. As of late I had been somewhat Piscean in my relation to the world, spacing out, forgetting appointments. I knew of no better tonic for my lack of focus than soaring mountains. I recalled a Native American spiritual teacher who several years earlier had described mountain meditation as a means to balance the four elements in the body. “Sit as though you are a mountain,” he advised. I tried to follow his counsel as a rode through the gorge.

When we pulled up to the yurt camp, Rustam hailed the driver. As soon as I got down off the camel, Maxence, a friendly fellow, offered me a bottle of water and opened the door to a jeep. Although his English was not as good as Rustam’s, I understood him. I could not thank Rustam enough for all he had done. As the jeep pulled away I leaned out the window and waved profusely. Rustam left my life as quickly as he had come in.

I was so engrossed in enjoying breathtaking views of the Pamils that I lost tract of how long it took us to get to Osh the southern capital of Kyrgyzstan. As we rode along the name Osh…sh…sh, began to speak to me as had the sound vibrations of Baku on the trip to Azerbaijan, in a rising and falling pattern. Osh: ah ascending, sh descending. I repeated Osh like a mantra over and over.




I had looked forward to visiting the Silk Bazaar on the famous Silk Road in Osh, but the moment Suleiman Too, the tall mountain that rises up from the center of the 3,000 year old city, Osh, came into view the thought of the Bazaar disappeared. Rustam had told me some of the stories about the mountain as we camel trekked through the Fergana Valley. When he described it as a sacred mountain; I felt the hair rising on my arms.

As we got closer I noticed patches of red poppies carpeting spaces between the rocks. As in California, they bloom in spring. The mountain-peaks, five altogether, etched a jagged line across the sky that reminded me of Mt. Tamalpais. I reasoned that a slumbering goddess must live here as well.




Maxence broke my reverie. “The mountain,” he shouted with pride. “The mountain that stopped an army. When Solomon reached the mountain, he ordered his soldiers to stop. Enough! Such a powerful mountain.” Maxence thoroughly enjoyed extolling the miracle of Osh.

At my request he dropped me off at the foot just below the museum that had completed in time to honor the 3000th anniversary of Osh. Before he drove off, he suggested that I stock up on water if I decided to climb to the top and he warned that as there were no lights along the paths that I come down before dark unless it were a full moon night. I thanked him and gave him ten dollars that he assured me he could exchange for tyiyn at his local bank.

I climbed up to the museum, a cave cut into the mountainside and enclosed with a large glass wall.






As I entered, a receptionist greeted me, but she did not speak English. She pointed to a wall mount that offered a few meager facts. I took a quick glance around – lots of old objects, many of which I had no knowledge – then went out to an outdoor viewing site where I sat looking out over the city of Osh.

Like all sacred mountains and as I had gathered from my pre-flight research, Suleiman Too was couched in history and legend. Reminiscent of Sinai, a holy place where a prophet met with the deity, the same is said to be true of Suleiman. On this mountain Solomon spoke with God. Following the human-divine encounter, the mountain became a site for Muslim pilgrimage and continued as such for at least 2500 years. In the sixteenth century, Babur, founder of the Moghul Dynasty, built a small cell with a mikhrab. Today, a white mosque and a replica of Babur’s house have replaced them.

All of this had been preceded by cult worship now witnessed by many caves and petroglyphs. Suleiman Too is said to have been the ancient site of a fire temple stemming from the work of the Zoroastrians. Stories of cures for all sorts of ailments have been recounted.




I spent time reflecting on the history, but mainly I inhaled the energy of Suleiman Too feeling calmer, quieter and more energized with each breath. I felt uplifted, as though I were levitating, but my feet never left the ground. I knew I had to climb to the top. Maxene said it would only take about twenty-five minutes. Once there I would honor the deities of the ancient cults and traditions who resided in this strange and wonderful place and the mountain, deity in and of itself. Regretfully, I had no white sage from the southwest to burn, but no worry, they would understand.

In The Ascent to Truth Thomas Merton writes of how distractions divert our attention from what matters. As I ascended, distraction gave way to endless view, unbounded space. When I reached the top, I had arrived in more ways than one.







May 22, 2015 Kyrgyzstan




After a return from the trip to Azerbaijan (See Land of Fire) last month it took but moments for the body to readjust and land on solid ground, the mind a bit longer. As images of fez headed Azeris and natural fires gradually receded, the smell of oil haunted my olfactory sense, while resident flecks of dust twirled in by winds from the desert continue to tickle my throat. Memories of the trip lingered like a long finish on a good orange wine, but even a good finish dissipates, and as impressions fell into oblivion the inner traveler began to grow restless. A trip to Poland had been under consideration, but surprisingly, “she” wanted to return to Central Asia.


As I pored over a map of Central Asia, for the first time I wondered why “stan” suffixed the name of seven countries. With Google’s help I found its meaning. “…The suffix “stan” is an ancient Persian and/or Farsi word meaning country, nation, land, or place of…”

Turkmen means “I am a Turk,” but interestingly, in the land of Turks many are from other countries. Uzbek: a “genuine man.” Uzbekistan, the nation of genuine men is a mix of nomadic tribes, Russians and ancient Iranians. Tajik: a person wearing a crown on his head also a mix of ethnic groups. In old Turkic Kyrg means forty. Later the language referred to “Land of Mountaineers. I found a fascinating history of its etymology on Wiki.

I would have continued into the histories, piecing the meanings together, but when I checked out Kyrgyzstan, a plan began to take hold. The thought of a country dominated by mountains and lakes had a faire appel. After the natural gas burning outlets in Azerbaijan I could welcome the energy of the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges of Kyrgyzstan. The thought of Tian Shan with Victory Peak towering over 24,000 feet, referred to as celestial, heavenly, god’s mountains made my heart soar.

After four plus decades of world travel I may read a novelist, but rarely do more than a Google or two on my intended destinations. I have learned that I will get what I’m supposed to know, meet with whom I am supposed to meet when I arrive. In the case of Kyrgyzstan however, my knowledge bank so meager, I decided to visit a bookstore. The store was stocked with a plethora of guides, but aside from a thick Lonely Planet devoted to cities around the world each with a couple photos, “stans” included, no guidebooks available. Amazon not much better, it was becoming obvious that Central Asia is relatively unexplored. Back to Google.

The history of the Kyrgyz people held many surprises: Old Tang dynasty texts described them as having “red hair and green eyes, (from Siberia) while those with dark eyes were said to be descendants of a Chinese general.” Other sources claimed that the “Kyrgyz tribes were described as fair-skinned, green- or blue-eyed and red-haired people with a mixture of European and Mongol features. At the beginning of a foray into a complex history, I wondered what the contemporary Kyrgyz would look like.

One evening after a session of deep academic study I turned off the computer, laid my head on the pillow of my Relax the Back Chair and closed my eyes. Long past midnight a hushed quiet had settled over the trees and field outside my study window. Astral hyper-looping unlike other modes of travel does not depend on ticketing or plane schedules, but rather on the intention of the traveler. As I unwound from my day the travel engines began to churn. I turned inward toward the vacuous space in front of my mind’s eye, which yogis refer to it as the door to the infinite. Mystical sounds like that of evening song birds began to emanate from the void. I felt a slight lurch.

Opening my eyes I was standing on the edge of a vast endorheic lake. A light balmy breeze teased my hair, soothed my body. My feet were comfortable in spite of the pebble-filled grainy sand under my soles. I edged forward a few feet and gingerly touched the water with my big toe. I knew that hot springs fed into this lake, but with endless layers of the snow covered high peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains framing the distant skyline I expected icy. I cupped my hand, gathered a bit of water and lifted it to my lips. Warm and slightly salty like the Caspian Sea, I thanked the guardians of the lake for their offering. I knew that pollution is a concern, but the lake is well known for its minerals and healing ability.




I marveled as I stood on the shores of the second largest alpine lake in the world (Lake Titicaca, the largest), Lake Issy-Kul.. Were it not for the snow-capped mountains, a border of tiered ridges, the blue sky and sky blue lake would have merged. Soft waves barely more than ripples, caressed my feet. I felt a oneness, a union of soul tied by a magical umbilical cord to essence.

I do not know how long I stood there soaking up the healing waters, but eventually I came to a sense of presence with the present. Curious, I turned my back to the water. A hundred or so feet away red tulips carpeted the borders of a narrow pot-holed road.




The road led through guesthouses and yurts the felt colored dwellings used for centuries by nomads, along the  shore. I had read that the village of Kyzyl-Tuu just south of where I stood, is primarily made up of yurt makers.







A sound of a motor plowed the waters of the lake. I turned around to see a lone fisherman pulling in. He docked nearby and disembarked carrying a large black rubber bag filled with his catch. He smiled and surprised me with a hello in English. I expected Russian as I had read it might be the main language spoken around some parts of the lake. After introducing himself, Rustam told me that as a young man he had lived in England. He shared that his son Hamid owned the nearby yurt resort; he pointed to a camp of yurts, and invited me to come by for some lunch. I had read that the people were friendly, but this was far more than I anticipated.

As we walked I told him that my time was limited, that I wanted to go to Osh the oldest city in the country. I wanted to see the silk bazaar leftover from the days of the Silk Road trade. He told me that after lunch he would be taking a few horses to a nearby village to a tour guide. He would give me a ride and from the village I could hop a minibus to Osh.

When we got to the yurt camp I followed Rustam who ushered me into his home where he introduced me to his wife. She greeted me in a language I had never heard. It turned out that Rustam is the only family member to speak English. He told me that he had been a dentish in Osh. When he retired he and his wife Mierim moved out to the yurt resort to help their son. Mierim cooked local food for the guests, but on that day they had gone on a daylong horse trek so the three of us shared the meal.

Mierim as warm and friendly as Rustam offered me a bowl-like cup of what I thought was milk. Mildly flavored it tasted somewhat sour with a bit of tang, I assumed from alcohol. Rustam noticed my quizzical look. He explained that kumis a fermented form of mare’s milk is the national drink like beer or wine in other countries. “It is very important,” he added. “Bishkek the capital of our country is named for the paddle that is used to churn the mare’s milk much like in making butter.” The drink went down all too quickly and I knew I could handle it if it were offered again.

Our lunch was sumptuous. Mierim placed a cast iron pot of plov (chicken, carrots and rice) on the table, a plate of horse sausages, flat noodles and a naan-like bread with which we scooped up our food. I had heard that vegetarians can have a hard go of it in Central Asia, but under the circumstances the meal was a gift and I figured it best not to offend my hosts. The horse sausage reminded me of a gourmet tempeh, but more meaty.

After the meal, as Rustam prepared the animals, his wife refilled my cup. We tried to talk a bit, I was picking up on a few of her words and she knew a little English, but as I have found with many women around the world, when we don’t know one another’s language, we fall into heart talk. Before I left she went into her bedroom and returned with a small Russian orthodox cross and put it in my hand. We hugged. I had tears in my eyes as we parted.

I walked away waving to Merium. Rustam stood near the door holding the reins to two camels, I had expected horses.

To be continued…

April 27, 2015 Land of Black Sand

After I returned from Azerbaijan, I could not get Baku out of my mind. As scenes from a long significant dream can fill the morning after with story from the depths of the unconscious, so too, scenes from the trip filled the early days of my return. Streaming colors, sounds, aromas, especially those from the ubiquitous presence of oil, and images of nature-born fires haunted my thoughts. Over the return week I sat in my garden assimilating the experience while gradually getting my land legs back.

Again as in the recent retreat I turned to literature.

To prepare myself for travel to a new place, I have made a habit of reading its well-known authors. Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende helped to prepare me for a trip to Chili in 2007. Set in the sixteenth century, the story takes place at the beginnings of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Allende spent four years researching and documenting the history of the founders of Santiago. Against that backdrop the personal trials and tribulations of Ines are recounted along with her challenges with the indigenous Chileans. Bloodshed and violence not withheld. Although Ines’ story took place four centuries before my first trip to Santiago, her history remains embedded in the ancient stones of the city and by the time I arrived in the capitol I had the same imprinted in my bones.

Orphan Pamuk in Memories of the City and My Name is Red prepared me for my first trip to Turkey, Haruki Murakami in several novels for Tokyo, Rabindranath Tagore for India, Jorge Luis Borges for Argentina, Paulo Coelho for Brazil, Octavio Paz for Mexico, Homer and Herodotus for Greece and most of my high school and university literature classes for Ireland and England.

The trip to Baku was so sudden and unexpected that I had no time for such luxury. In hindsight, I turned to Amazon and ordered a copy of what is considered a literary masterpiece.

Ali and Nino recognized as the national novel of Azerbaijan is set in Baku. The author writing in 1918 describes an endearing romance between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and a Christian Georgian girl. Now there’s a tale to recount. My first thought on hearing the theme of the tale was whether Ali and Nino had to run for their lives to escape a negative response to their relationship. Instead the author portrayed Baku’s tolerant culture. Ali’s father, a noble Muslim, accepts his son’s choice. As it turns out, the major issue with Ali and Nino’s long relationship come when Ali’s friend kidnaps Nino. Eventually, long story short, the two are reunited. When the Bolsheviks recapture Baku, the couple flee to Tehran only to return later. Finally, when the Red Army pulls into Azerbaijan, Ali joins the defense forces and Nino flees to Georgia with their child. Sadly, Ali dies in battle.

I’ve hardly given a nutshell of the complex story, but at least the quick summary will serve to jog my memory in the future. I’ve discovered that astral hyper-looping causes me to become a bit spacy and until I retrieve my land-legs, it can impede my memories ability to recall historical facts.

I also returned to Paul Theroux’ journey as recounted in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. From Baku, he flew across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, site of the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world, and landed in Ashgabat the capitol.




Turkmenistan has been at the crossroads of civilization for hundreds of years yet Theroux’ account of the dictator Sarparmyrat Niyazov and how he ruled the country would turn most westerners off to the possibility of following Mr. Theroux into that part of the world. After his sudden death in 2006, the Turkmens elected Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (the only one running in the election) as president. He overturned many of Niyazov’s policies and, not that life has become democratic, but many moves were made to correct repressive rules and regulations.

GB’s photo with the Obamas. From the color of the president’s hair, the photo was obviously taken several years back.




I was surprised to learn that Turkmenistan is the least explored country in Central Asia, but in recent years one site, a natural gas field, appropriately named Door to Hell has whetted the curiosity of tourists.




Another visited site in this land of mainly black sand desert is Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque the largest in Central Asia.




My week ended at a birthday party in Sacramento with a group of wonderful people from Poland. Over bowls of creamy Borscht, we enjoyed conversation and personal story. A few of the group read my blog so Baku intruded briefly into our conversation, but when the hostess spread the table with risotto, potatoes, leek and apple salad and grilled lamb all prepared in traditional Polish style the conversation turned to Poland. My friends  waxed eloquent on the forests, mountains and rivers in the north of the country. They advised me that I should make a trip to the north then head for Krakow in the south.

Never been to Poland. I am hearing the call. Hm……



April 17, 2015 The Land of Fire


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The first page in three months.

Thank you to those who have inquired about my whereabouts and state. As for whereabouts, I have spent much of the past few months in my home-cave on retreat, and as for state, save for a few broken fibers in back of the left knee – the kind of minor injury that impairs mobility (I am reminded of David and Goliath), I am fine.

My retreat from the dialectic of smart phone, email, twitter, instagram, Facebook, along with the cacophony of twenty-four hour news gave way to the silence of unbounded space. In the interlude I took up some of the books that had been gathering dust on my bookshelf while waiting to be read. Settling into an oversized Relax the Back Chair I renewed my friendship with Paul Theroux through Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Bowles through a collection of travel writings and Robert Thurman (father of Uma) through a book on Tibetan Buddhism

In my silent, capacious space, a trip to a faraway unknown place was the last thing on my mind. Calm abiding, sky gazing, intermittent bouts of meditation were more to the point, but in reading Theroux’ account of his train ride through Eurasia my inner traveler awakened and in the twinkling of a magical moment I was catapulted to Baku.

As my lips gently beeped Ba followed by the soft, forward whistling owl-like ku, I grew mesmerized by the lullaby like quality of the word. I began to repeat the syllables over and over like a mantra. Initially, I had no intentions but to savor the beautiful sound. Still, a word has the power to call forth what it names and as a result of thought and action, Baku manifested.

In truth Baku is no magical being and surely not a mantra, far from it. Rather the wealthy, oil rich capitol of Azerbaijian, it sits in a cove on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The sound of Caspian captivated me almost as much as the sound Baku. It stirred mythical images of handsome swashbucklers joy riding over the sea in luxurious freighters. In the silence of unbounded space my imagination lost all restraint. The Caspian Sea, the largest saltwater body on earth along with Baku had garnered my attention.




Apart from readings of Russian history and literature (who has not read Dostoyevsky?) in my youth and a recent trip to Turkey, I have paid little attention to this part of the world. I have been aware of those times when one or another, Georgia and Kazakhstan included hit the news over political squabbles or issues concerning oil production, but mainly Eurasia remained wrapped in a cloak of mystery. Now, mystery and cloak began to dissolve.

In its present form Baku is a bit of Disneyland, the Middle Ages, the Middle East, and Soviet Modernism over-laid with exotic examples of twenty first century architecture.









In approaching the city from the air the Flame Towers claim one’s attention. Positioned on a hill overlooking the amphitheater shape of the city, three flame-like licks, reminiscent of playful fire goddesses oversee the city. The design of the towers originating in ancient rituals of fire worship, their pragmatic purpose is residential, hotel and office space. The trinity defines the skyline as it speaks to the historic identity of the city.


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As my astral vehicle hyper-looped toward Baku my excitement mounted. It was spring equinox the first day of an annual tridium of celebration known as Novruz Bayram (Farsi for new day). Mr. Theroux and I arrived on the same day although several years apart. It is to him that I credit my newfound fascination with Baku.

Hotels were booked. Indeed, it is necessary plan ahead in order to find lodging for this holiday, but in my case I had no worry. Why with my unique mode of travel I was hardly in need of a room.

In the book mentioned above Theroux explains that “militant Islam” is said to have ended in one-way or another the ancient rituals in countries in which they took hold. But, he says, “Novruz Bayram was proof that some of the old rituals persisted in spite of being heresies.” An ancient Zoroastrian celebration, it is one of the oldest holidays on earth. I would discover that the way the Azeri’s prepare Novruz Bayram is similar to the way Christians prepare for Easter: spring cleaning, new outfits, seeding the garden with flowers, decorated eggs, and raising their smiling faces to the new sun as it enlightens the diminishing dark clouds of winter.

As I approached old town I could hear the sounds of music and laughter. The celebration in full swing, flocks of tasseled musicians played for the crowds, men and women danced in the streets while children chased one another in circles. Here and there a mime or two. I wondered if they had wondered in from the west?

Hungry after my journey half way around the world I headed for a street vendor busy making shishlik over open coals. My inner vegetarian was happy that he barbecued tomatoes, aubergines and peppers in addition to the lamb and sturgeon although I have heard that the sturgeon out of the Caspian is the best! I pointed to a veggie shish and he in turn sprinkled it with sumac and put it on a plate. Spooning a bit of saffron infused pilaf on to the plate he turned both over to me big smile included. Then, on what appeared to be a second thought, he laid a thin crescent shaped kuba on my plate as well. I thanked him in English. He seemed to understand.

With my plate in hand I continued on up the cobblestone path through old town. I passed several restaurants sporting special holiday menus with most listing traditional Azeri food: classic mutton pie, noodles and potato cakes. Aroma from stacks of freshly baked teneri on a table outside a bakery filled the air.

I found a small deserted park with benches. I sat down and began to enjoy my meal. A few pigeon-like birds landed at my feet. Cocking their necks to and fro cautiously observing me I knew they were inauspiciously begging. I hesitated to feed them.

Down a side alley to my left I could see a lamb penned up in the entry to a small apartment. It’s bleating had a kind of forlorn quality, a sort of forced wailing that led me to assume that the poor lamb knew that its destiny to provide food for the family was about to be met.


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I was reminded of a friend back home who raises a cow every year for the same purpose. By raising it on her own back forty she is assured of having grass-fed, humanely raised and slaughtered beef. I concluded that raising one’s own meat in the heart of this million plus city must be acceptable.

I sat for a long time or so it seemed, taking in the bright sun, slowly savoring my food, listening to the music, and observing the people. I was a long from home, in a foreign place, I knew nary a word of Azeri, but I felt comfortable and content. After awhile an elderly woman came out of the bakery next to the park. After observing me she went back inside the bakery then reappeared with a piece of teneri. She came over and offered me the bread. It was still warm from the oven. She did not speak English, but we laughed, bowed, nodded toward one another, I rubbed my tummy, and did a thumb’s up. She followed with a goodbye wave then returned to the bakery.

Slowing chewing on my bread I returned to my reverie. I felt I could sit there all day observing the playful Azeri’s and soaking in the spring sun. They seemed such a warm people. A dozen or so stray cats paraded by, wavy tails high in the air. The lamb quieted down a bit, stopped bleating when his master brought him some food. I knew I had to get on. With my trip so unexpected, I had made almost no preparations. I would turn myself over to my inner guide.

I was vaguely aware that Baku had its share of World Heritage sites. Some of my friends back home would not understand if I bypassed the sites. I forced myself up from the bench and made my way out of the little park. I would hyper-loop to those sites, but first my sweet tooth calling I decided to search out the Bisque Café. I remembered an article I had read sometime back by Aida Mamudova the founder of the Yarat Contemporary Art Foundation. My interest was in the art, but she had written her article for a travel guide in which she claimed that the Bisque had the best ice cream in Baku. Good for people watching as well.

I managed to find the café. Without Google maps my old sense of intuitive direction seem to come back. A young Azeri woman greeted me with a smile, I found myself beginning to expect smiles, offered several tastes of ice cream. So-so in my estimation, but with her generosity I felt compelled to order a full cone. I had no other Azeri ice cream with which to compare, but if this were the best, I would wait until I got back to California for more.

Tall three scoop cone in hand, I resumed my walk toward the historic sites. I have to admit there are times when I am bored by the smells of antiquity I frequently encounter as I waddle through old museums and ancient sites. However, when I arrived at Shirvanshah’s Palace ensorcelled with its magnificent complex of structures including a mosque mausoleum, burial-vault and divan-khans, memories of a glorious past life rekindled. I paid little attention to the historical footnotes placed here and there. Instead, I soaked up the energy. Ancient, I let it play a bit with my mind and body.


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Not too long though as I had so little time and I needed to make some hard choices between visiting an abundance of history and art museums or the sacred sites. I had hoped to see Zaha Hadid’s new architectural structure as well. Having grown accustomed to long draughts of quiet in my home-cave, I began to feel weary of the crowds and noise. Fatigue played into my decision.

The mythologies and rituals we create in our search for meaning and understanding as they took form in the ancient spiritual traditions, whether those that developed into major world religions, or the more occult hidden, esoteric gems, have always called to me. I could see that with its abundance of mosques, churches and synagogues Baku had much to offer in this regard. With its apparent acceptance of religious plurality I felt it must be a tolerant place. I decided to look more into this when I returned home and had my Internet library at my fingertips. Finally, with a need for quiet I decided to head for Atesgah the place where Zoroastrians had worshiped for centuries.

Atesgah was approximately thirty kilometers away, but I managed to motivate my way to it. When I arrived signs signaled (I had to intuit here) that I was in the “land of sacred fires” for which Azerbaijan has been known for thousands of years. With gas and oil deposits continually erupting the early travelers called it the land of everlasting fire. The founder of Zoroastrianism used fire as a metaphor. He too must have witnessed the spontaneous flames rising from the natural gas outlets around the countryside.


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I found the history a bit complex and shrouded, but as much as I could decipher, Atesgah had a long history of fire worshippers even before Zoroastrians used it for worship. The present day temple goes back to the 19th century. While the natural gas ceased long ceased burning, artificial fires have been installed.

Zoroastrianism was barely covered in a course on traditions of the world when I prepared for my degree in Consciousness Studies. Perhaps I am ignorant with my superficial smattering of its rules and regulations, but I am impressed that good thoughts, words and deeds, and understanding the purifying nature of fire, both key to the tradition are so important. Simple. Do need look any further in our mundane application of spirituality?

I was a bit disappointed that the temple fires are artificial. Still, I made my offerings of sage and incense to the gods and goddesses of fire before I left. It seemed appropriate to include offerings to Kali as historically Zoroastrianism has made its way back and for to India. Before leaving I found another bench and sat a bit, taking it all in. I was a stranger in a strange land, but again I felt comfortable and at home.

Over my few hours of moving about Baku it became clear to me that as is true of so many global cities, signs of gentrification are ubiquitous. Renovation on the rise, the old is coming down. As I had moved about dust from the pillaging work of large hydraulic equipment hung heavy in the air. Cats ran freely through forsaken home sites waiting to be destroyed. I saw the elderly hobbling along insecurely through the same while the blue-jeaned, young confidently foraged forward laughing and joking with their comrades. Baku had changed, was changing right before my eyes but signs of history, magnificent structures, and culture remained. I sat there taking it all in. I realized that I had been stretched, my universe expanded. Grateful, I thanked unbounded space for what it opened to me.

My thoughts turned to return. The thing about a hyper-looped, astral trip is that coming back is as easy as going. A closing of the eyes, an intention, and ploof, one arrives at the intended destination. Outside of time and space I returned as quickly as I had gone.

A bit of important data: if you decide to visit Baku, the weather in July through Oct is warm. January through June dry, November wet. December-January, cold.