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Shaki: Azerbaijan’s ancient agora of multiculturalism

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Sarkhanbay Khuduyev, a native of Shaki region and a dynamic public servant, invited us (a group of U. S. and European scholars) on behalf of the Baku International Multiculturalism Centre, to conduct a research visit in the regions of Shaki and Qabala during the weekend of October 28-29, 2017.

The region of Shaki is the birthplace of Mirza Fatali Akhundov, a famous Azerbaijani writer and philosopher who established a new period in Azerbaijani literature.

The region of Shaki is located over 320 kilometers west of Baku, it is one of the ancient regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan, located in the northwestern territories of the land of fire, its people epitomize the very essence of Azerbaijani multiculturalism that is unique at international levels. The region of Shaki borders in the north with the Republic of Dagestan, Russia; it is globally unique, due to its multiculturalism values, intercultural coexistence and of its ancient religious monuments that have endured merciless historical manipulations and archeological site destructions during Russia’s Tsarist regime and Qajar Dynasty (1789–1797).  Unfortunately, historical manipulations in Shaki have continued in the years of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

We left Baku on early Saturday morning, our careful driver swiftly crossed the impressive suburbs of Baku and all of a sudden we found ourselves in front of a majestic landscape on both sides of a well maintained paved road, in the outskirts of Gobustan District, where light brown Fold mountains are intertwined with Dome Mountains, making Gobustan countryside an unforgettable scenery where modern public works are intertwined with rare natural beauty.
The national paved road was winding at the very intersections of these geological works of art, that were making our trip very unique and enjoyable due to its precipitous angles and occasionally steep curves that enabled us to be introduced with Azerbaijan’s myriad of mountain ranges, observed thousands of kilometers away, thanks to spectacular clear skies. In the outskirts of Gobustan, 120 kilometers from Baku, we were greeted by two young Azerbaijani teenagers who were holding two live rabbits by their ears; their joy added a special laugh to our trip. 

We stopped for breakfast in Ismailli District, at a local restaurant, where the meal was: a traditional qayanaq (scrambled eggs with tomato), local honey cloves, three types of locally made white cheeses and freshly baked loaves of tandir bread.  

After the imposing serpentine national highway, on the western side of Ismailli District begins a belt of dense forests were imposing old trees create a natural green and orange carpet with their wide crowns and in many occasions tourists will appreciate remarkable nature’s colorful caves – that continue for miles and miles – created by these majestic trees that follow through the Qabala District (the capital of ancient Caucasian Albania), serving as a natural shield from the Sun’s beams for the tourists’ eyes.  Accompanied by such a concert of colorful trees, we continued to travel through Oghuz District; home of famous Neolithic period’s archeological sites, VII century Govur castle in Khachmaz and of many other historical Azerbaijani ancient monuments.

Oghuz District is the world’s ancient home of mountain Jews, today it has two well preserved synagogues and a thriving Jewish Community that conserves and upholds its religious rites and historic traditions.

After traveling for over five hours we arrived in Shaki, at Marxal Resort and Spa, an advanced tourism complex of high standards that certainly overshadows, surpasses many Hilton resorts worldwide.

In the late afternoon hours of Saturday, we visited the ancient Caucasian Albanian Church in the village of Kish (Kiş), where the Government of Azerbaijan is currently building a paved road that connects the city with such a unique religious and cultural site of rare international reputation.  Shaki (Sheki) is also home of a Santiago Calatrava style bridge connecting the city with the village of Kish (both sides of the river); that was recently inaugurated.

For dinner we were graciously invited at the home of Sarkhanbay’s grandmother were our team could not escape from a local famous meal of şüyüdlü sǝbzi plov, a traditionally cooked yellow rice with white raisins, honey glazed apricots, topped with a delicious crusty rice pancake.  Traditional Azerbaijani earl grey tea, homemade yogurt, hazelnuts, walnuts, locally grown pomegranates and apples were also a delight of this memorable visit.   

During the early morning of the following day (Sunday) we visited the Khan’s Palace, located inside the walls of Shaki’s Castle, where imposing paintings in walls and ceilings (unique battle scenes, lions standing on top of large grey fishes and bright red pomegranate trees) epitomize the philosophical principles of Sun Tzu, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and illustrate the tenets of Alfred Thayer Mahan (a U. S. Historian and a highly important strategist of the 1800s).  The round temple of Caucasian Albania, located within the walls of the Shaki Castle, is a rare monument that brings together ancient history and revives Azerbaijan’s multiculturalism environment that is deeply rooted and provides a rather different positive perspective when compared to other countries in the region and beyond.

According to the Leader of Shaki City Executive Authority Mr. Elkhan Usubov: “Azerbaijan pays a great importance to the preservation of cultural heritage as well as promotion of the country`s rich cultural heritage across the world.”

In 2016, the region of Shaki hosted the 34th meeting of the TURKSOY Permanent Council. The conference was chaired by TURKSOY Secretary General Dusen Kaseinov. According to Mr. Abulfas Garayev, the Azerbaijani Minister of Culture and Tourism: “throughout 2016 a number of events were held in Shaki with the support of TURKSOY; Shaki was the ‘Cultural Capital of the Turkic world.’” Shaki is a rare treasure that brings together religious tolerance, intercultural dialogue and unparalleled multiculturalism values.  As Academician Prof. Dr. Kamal Abdullayev once said: “Today, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is worthily continuing the political course of his great predecessor [HEYDAR ALIYEV], and is telling to the world; “Multiculturalism is a state policy in Azerbaijan and has no alternative!”” The year 2016 was declared by the President of Azerbaijan H. E. Mr. Ilham Aliyev, as the “Year of Multiculturalism,” it is indeed the perfect political decision aimed to preserve the rich literary works of Nizami Ganjavi, Huseyn Javid (son of Nakhchivan), Mirza Fatali Akhundzade (son of Shaki), Mirza Jalil, Abdulla Shaiq, Kamal Abdullayev and many other legendary writers of Azerbaijan.   The region of Shaki may unquestionably be considered as Europe’s cultural capital, standing at the foot of Greater Caucasus Mountains, where Sunni Muslims have the highest level of education per capita in the world.   

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4 ways to celebrate the Apollo 11 mission’s golden anniversary

MD Staff

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For those of us who were glued to the television during the launch of the legendary Apollo 11 mission that first landed man on the moon, it may be hard to believe that it’s been 50 years since mankind’s greatest leap.

And although fifty years have come and gone, the nostalgia, energy and pride surrounding the record-breaking spaceflight are still in full swing on Florida’s Space Coast. Here, back where it all began half a century ago, the Space Coast is planning an epic, once-in-a-lifetime tribute to the Apollo 11 mission, which will commemorate the historic 1969 journey of the mission and its crew.

Most of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission takes place from July 12 through July 16, honoring the incredible accomplishments of the U.S. space program and its astronauts through a series of one-of-a-kind events and other public activities. With a jam-packed schedule filled with memory-making space fun, vacationing families and space enthusiasts alike will find something to get excited about on Florida’s Space Coast this July.

Hit the virtual links.

Join current and former American astronauts on the virtual links in honor of the first man to play golf on the moon, Alan Shepard, at the Astronaut Golf Tournament July 12 at Drive Shack, in Orlando. Enter the longest-drive and closest-to-the-pin competitions and get a chance to take a shot with a replica of the club Shepard used on the lunar surface.

Party like it’s 1969!

At the Astronaut Walking Pub Crawl July 12, adults can have a Friday-night blast partying with astronauts while sampling libations at popular local watering holes throughout Cocoa Village. You could win a prize for “Best Space Dressed” if you wear your favorite space outfit.

The next day, cheer America’s space heroes at the Astronaut Parade, featuring U.S. space explorers riding through the city of Cocoa Beach in Corvette convertibles, plus members of various Apollo families passing by in Teslas. The procession wraps up with a public street party. Also on July 13, musician Alan Parsons headlines the Celebrating Apollo Outdoor Concert that evening at Cocoa Riverfront Park. The band Edison’s Children, which includes Rick Armstrong (son of Neil Armstrong), is the opening act.

Talk space talk.

July 14 is packed with amazing panel discussions about space, including some revealing personal accounts about the early days of the U.S. program. Join relatives of Apollo astronauts for a “Families of Apollo” kickoff brunch and hear stories about what that era was like for family members. Next, a “Women in Space” panel will examine the contributions by women to space exploration. It will be followed by a fascinating “Future of Space” presentation by astronauts and industry leaders.

The evening of July 14 features a one-of-a-kind, exclusive opportunity: a private, VIP preview of the newly transformed Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Expect some serious mingling with astronauts, and if you can’t make it to the private viewing, the public grand opening is set for the next day.

July 16 will be dominated by the evening’s Apollo 50th Gala, which will pay tribute to the first moon landing, while looking ahead toward the next giant leap in space exploration. Proceeds from the gala, which will be held at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, will benefit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Aldrin Family Foundation.

Catch a rocket launch.

What could be more thrilling than seeing an actual rocket launch in person? There are nearly a dozen launches scheduled for the remainder of this year, including three in July alone. You can plan your trip around one of the launches listed online, but keep in mind that weather and other factors might occasionally lead to launch delays or postponements. Many of the beaches and local parks along the Space Coast’s 72 miles of pristine coastline are ideal for viewing a launch, while also enjoying some fun in the sun with your family.

The countdown is on! More details about all the Apollo 11 anniversary events, including ticket information, are available at https://www.spacecoastlaunches.com/apollo50/. To learn more about the wide variety of attractions and the calendar of activities on Florida’s Space Coast, go to visitspacecoast.com.

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5 reasons a river cruise is the ideal way to see Europe

MD Staff

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 An international trip is the experience of a lifetime. If you’re looking for a travel option that offers up-close interactions with a cross section of countries — but without the hassle of planning and executing that level of detail yourself — a river cruise may be the option you’re seeking.

Unlike an ocean cruise, which typically docks farther away, the size of a river ship allows guests the opportunity to port in small, lesser-known towns and sail into the heart of iconic cities, such as Budapest and Amsterdam. Each destination offers extensive time to absorb and experience landmarks, cuisine and cultural offerings.

Whether exploring castles along Europe’s Danube River appeals to your wanderlust or making your way through the rich and complex history of France’s Bordeaux wine region is more your speed, river cruising offers the perfect opportunity for those with a hunger to expand their minds and deepen their cultural enrichment.

Before you plan, here are some of the most important features and benefits of an international river cruise.

Less hassle, less stress: A river cruise offers a greatly simplified mode of travel. Once you step aboard your river cruise ship, you unpack once and spend the rest of your trip focused only on enjoying the journey. Some cruise lines feature inclusive pricing, so things like your meals, Wi-Fi and lodging are already settled.

Craft your own journey: Many river cruise packages offer flexible options to help you design the journey you’ve always imagined. You can select from a variety of port excursions, putting you in charge of your perfect day out. While land excursions are an additional cost in most cases, Viking’s river cruise itineraries offer one free shore excursion in each port along with additional optional excursions to book based on your specific interests with knowledgeable local guides. Also, pre- and post-excursion stays at the start and end points of your voyage let you explore the area for a few extra days.

Ample time to engage and explore: River cruising lets you spend a lot of time in many towns and cities along the river. Typically, each day of the journey begins in a different port. Just step off the ship, join your chosen excursion and start learning and experiencing.

A rich, cultural sampler: If you’re eyeing grand destinations like Central Europe and France for your travels, you’re probably the kind of person who is hungry to learn about the art, cuisine, history, daily living and other fascinating aspects of culture. Viking has not only developed engaging and culturally immersive excursions, but also created programs onboard the ship to deepen your knowledge and appreciation of the places you visit, from home visits to Privileged Access excursions exclusive to the cruise line. Before you embark, be sure to avail yourself of the many online resources available through Viking. From online videos, to reading and film lists, you’ll find plenty of enriching content to help you feel prepared and excited for your journey.

Enjoy the riches of the river life: Of course, a host of pleasures await that only a cruise down the river can bring. On your journey, expect scenic views of cities, landscapes and architectural features not easily seen while taking a traditional land tour, as well as alfresco dining and relaxing on the deck.

Once you experience a river cruise in a new country, you’ll discover what an enriching experience a vacation can be. To learn more about the destinations and offerings from Viking, visit vikingcruises.com.

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The Green Trip List: 5 Eco-friendly Destinations for the Green-minded Traveler

MD Staff

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Traveling is one of life’s greatest pleasures and definitely a luxury we should not take for granted. This June, as we commemorate World Environment Day and World Oceans Day, it is the perfect opportunity to take a step back and consider the impact we have on Mother Earth. As we embark on our adventures around the world, we should be conscious of making responsible decisions that are sustainable – so we can minimize our carbon footprint and preserve the natural and cultural landscapes for many more years to come.

While it may be hard to cut down on our travels altogether, we can take the first step and practice being a more green, conscious traveler. For a start, here are some eco-friendly destinations and activities you can consider for your next trip! Not only do these locations offer initiatives for guests to actively take part in, but they also play a big behind-the-scenes role in contributing to a healthier, greener earth.

Take an eco-friendly bath at Hilton Lake Taupo, New Zealand

At Hilton Lake Taupo, you can experience nature at its best. Nestled amidst picturesque rolling mountains, the hotel not only boasts breathtaking views of New Zealand’s largest lake, but also keeps its carbon footprint low by leveraging natural resources around it. The neighboring Onekenek Thermal Valley is an excellent source of natural gases and is exactly what the property harnesses to heat up its pool, showers and spa in its Heritage Wing. Be sure to take a dip, and pamper yourself in this man-made hot spring!

Cut down on your food waste at Hilton Sydney, Australia


Located in the heart of the bustling metropolis, Hilton Sydney offers the best in comfort and convenience. While enjoying the luxurious amenities, you’ll be heartened to know that the hotel really goes the extra mile to remain sustainable, even when no one’s looking! Aside from initiatives like introducing biodegradable cutlery and installing LED lights in the lobby and ballroom, it is also a champion of food waste minimization. The hotel has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to track its food waste and adopt new methods to reduce it further. In addition, it regularly donates food surplus to charity organizations, so these high-nutrient, quality foods don’t go to waste.

Keep the beaches clean with Conrad Bali Resort & Spa and Hilton Bali Resort, Indonesia

Honestly, who doesn’t love Bali? With its endless coasts, sunny weather and relaxed atmosphere, there’s no doubt it’s the perfect beach destination. However, even this paradise can get sullied, with tourists leaving behind plastic waste that washes up on the beachfront. To combat this and prevent further pollution, Conrad Bali Resort and Spa, alongside Hilton Bali Resort, took part in an island-wide clean up initiative which cleared more than 30 tons of plastic waste! The beaches have never been so pristine. If you are lucky, you may be able to take part in one of these clean ups on your next trip and play your part in helping the environment as well.  Of course, be sure not to leave your own trash behind!

Support sustainable dining at Hilton Singapore, Singapore

Foodies unite! We all know that food is a big part of the travel experience, but it can be difficult to find quality dishes that are sourced and produced sustainably. In the food haven of Singapore, head right on down to Verde Kitchen at Hilton Singapore for an authentic farm-to-table experience. All ingredients have been certified sustainable and some are even grown at the property’s very own vertical garden! In conjunction with World Oceans Day, the Verde Kitchen is running a special “Pick the Right Catch” promotion from now until 30 September. It promotes sustainable seafood dining that is full of natural flavors – featuring refreshing options like sesame-crusted MSC-certified U.S. scallops, almond-crusted ASC-certified salmon and MSC-certified Nonya-style New Zealand rockling fish, among others. You definitely won’t be disappointed.

Go #plasticfree at Hilton Manila, Philippines

The #nostraws movement is going strong, but Hilton Manila has taken it one step further with its mission to cut down on all plastic! Aside from eliminating all plastic straws, complimentary drinking water in guest rooms is packaged in reusable glass bottles, and there are no plastic wrappings on slippers and laundry. These are just a few examples of ways Hilton Manila is going #plasticfree. It’s certainly a good step forward and a sobering reminder that we really don’t need to use that much plastic in our daily lives.

The next time you plan a trip, be sure to do your research and pick destinations that align with your values. You can definitely have the holiday of your dreams while still being responsible and sustainable at the same time. Have a great, green trip! 

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