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November 19, 2002

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Azerbaijan stands as an outcropping of Islam in the Caucasus, over 90% of the population is Shia Muslim, yet the country follows Turkey's example and separates church and state. It's a secular society, women wear skirts and high heels, not veils, and we haven't heard the call to prayer in Baku. Experts question the freedom of Azerbaijan's democracy but as laypeople we don't see any evidence of government oppression. We want to cross the Caucasus to the Black Sea so we go to Baku's bus station and jump on a mini-bus for destinations westward. Outside Baku we rode a mini-bus through desert landscape until it led further north where the land became more fertile. Persimmon trees splashed orange across the brown backdrop of the Caucasus' foothills and the barren fields of the last season's harvest. The persimmons still hang on the trees even if the leaves have fallen; many houses hung sheaves of dried persimmon fruit on their porches. By evening we reached the central town of Sheki, a place that overflowed with old Turkish atmosphere. Centuries old caravanserai dominated the town with their medieval stone walls. In these fortified inns, Silk Road merchants recuperated and so like old merchants we entered a caravanserai, sat down at a table wedged against stone, and ate Azerbaijan's national dish, Pity, which is mutton lard soup. Azerbaijan cooks throw heavy spices - saffron, coriander, fennel - over fatty pieces of mutton or beef. Everything is washed down with black tea in little teardrop glasses.
Azerbaijan's National Basketball Team.
Bears once roamed these hills. This one sits in a cage by the main highway that runs East-West across Azerbaijan.
Caravanserai, the fortified inns where Silk Road caravans rested
Sheki's houses show unique facades.
Sold $2 by the kilogram; an Azeri desert called Halva: a layer of chopped nuts between two layers of thin wafer pastry, covered with a sugar syrup.