Azerbaijan

The West

We rolled into Sheki in a half-full marshrutka. The town was quite lovely from the get-go, and felt very “Georgian”, with the rolling green foothills of the lower Caucasus in the background. A dozen or so taxi drivers stood milling around the bus station waiting for incoming fares, with no advanced booking we were on the lookout for a guest house. One taxi driver managed to convince us to check out his friend’s guest house.

When we got there we were greeted by a large and jovial woman in a bathrobe and a grill full of gold teeth (we haven’t seen a single Azeri with no gold teeth… Seriously, when we crossed the border the ratio went way up). She led us upstairs to a locked door, on which she and our driver started pounding with accompanied shouting. Apparently her son was asleep somewhere in there. After a few minutes later he came to the door, dreery with sleep still in his eyes. They showed us to a decent room and we agreed on a price, including breakfast the following morning. We also agreed with our driver for a bit of an excursion the next day, where we would drive around to the various sights around the town.

A little reluctant to show off the grill.

We spent the first day wandering around. The town was lovely, with verdant alleyways and Islamic architecture.

A mosque in Shaki.

After a bit of time on the town we headed back to the guest house for some relaxation. We got back to find the house dark and locked. After banging on the door for awhile (we weren’t given a key) we concluded that nobody was home and climbed the fence to get in. The house was silent and had a very creepy vibe, so we tried to ignore the occasional creaks and bumps and went to bed.

Our breakfast in the morning finally showed up with the hurried son, evidently on his way to work. It consisted of some bread, old cheese, butter, and coffee, but was better than nothing. Our driver came by at 10am to take us on our trip.

The start of the trip was nice, as we checked out some old buildings in town and the Albanian temple (Caucasian Albania, unrelated to the modern day Albania in Europe) in the mountains. It then descended into a strange tour of luxury hotels, which felt very much like our driver was trying to waste time to make the tour seem more complete. This consisted of walking around the grounds of several luxury hotels in the foothills, which was an awkward experience all around, as the hotel staff looked as us expectantly, tending to their completely-empty-in-the-offseason domains. No matter, suggested our driver, we can talk with the hotel reception who surely speaks English. Talk to them about what? We had no questions, and no interest in seeing Shaki’s luxury hotels, now devoid of their assuredly present -and wealthy- guests. After a few visits like these we insisted that we were done and had our driver take us back to the bus station.

The Albanian monastery outside of Shaki.

Our driver showed us to the van to Ganja (unaffiliated with marijuana, it seems) and we were on our way. The van was fairly empty when we took off (a nice change from Mongolia and Georgia) and we were the only passengers left by the time we got to Ganja. We got out and made our way towards a hostel we glimpsed online before leaving Sheki. The hostel (Old Ganja Hostel), was very relaxed, the owner wasn’t around but showed up a few hours later. A fellow guest (the only one, with the exception of another local in town on business), however, was most annoying. A devout and fundamentalist Muslim from Saudi Arabia, he launched into a diatribe about how we need to open our minds to god. It was the same old uninformed drivel preaching blind adherence to doctrine, and we wriggled out of the conversation post haste.

The old German Lutheran church in Ganja.
Conflicting ideals in Ganja.

Fortunately our resident preacher left the following day, and we spent most of the day playing backgammon in an outdoor tea house (an extremely common pastime for men, but not so for women, so there was a lot of staring in shock when we first showed up). We visited the other sights in town and generally had a relaxing time. A group of five Chinese folks showed up that evening and all of a sudden the hostel was a much more lively place.

Backgammon, or nard, a common pastime in Azerbaijan.

The following day we headed up to Göygöl and Maralgöl lakes in a taxi we shared with two of the other guests. A taxi out and back (while the driver waits a few hours out there) costs only 30 manat, which adds up to about $4 per person across four people, which is quite affordable by western standards for 1.5 hours out, a few hours there, and 1.5 hours back. The park is beautiful, and the lakes looked stunning with the autumn leaves turning all around. There were baby frogs hopping everywhere we stepped as well, so we suppose they had just hatched recently. The second, and more remote of the two lakes, Maralgöl was the definite winner, but it was an extra 2 manat for a round trip shared van from Göygöl up there.

Göygöl.
Hanging out by the lake.
Maralgöl.
The shores of Maralgöl.

Back in town, we planned on having a quiet night and being well-rested for our departure the next day. Instead, the hostel owner suggested we have a bit of a party instead, being that the hostel was nearly full with the addition of a few more guests. We ended up drinking and singing and playing instruments and taking photos and playing cards into the night.

A house made from bottles in Ganja.
Ganja streetscape.

Our plan was to head to Lahic the next day, but we awoke, hungover and tired, at around 9 and the one bus had already left for the day. After a bit of brainstorming, we decided to catch one of the many buses to Baku, and get off partway there to take a taxi to Lahic (since Azeri taxis are so cheap, this is a possible solution for long distance travel). We had the driver of a bus call the hostel so they could explain the situation and we were on our way.

We were dropped off in Kurdamir, near a sea of roiling taxi drivers yelling for our attention. We settled on 20 manat to Ismaiyilli, from which we’d take another taxi to Lahic. It’s a good thing that we didn’t insist on getting all the way to Lahic with him, as his car came sputtering to a halt (fuel pump related, judging by the symptoms) not far before Ismaiyilli. Fortunately it was downhill for most of the way, so we were able to hobble into town, just far enough to another throng of taxi drivers, waiting like vultures.

Our driver to Lahic insisted on 15 manat after a startling opening bid of 30, although we insisted on 10. He repeated, in Russian, that 15 is the normal price and hurried us into his car and we were off like a shot. He picked up a hitchhiker on the way, who we presume was his friend, and we had half a mind to argue for 10 again with the new passenger, but thought better of it.

The road into Lahic is beautiful and mountainous, with a river running through a deep gorge next to it. The trip took some 30 minutes, and we were dropped off in the middle of town.

The road to Lahic.

The East

Lahic is a picturesque little town, which feels like it is probably very touristy during peak season, but fortunately was practically abandoned -save for the locals- when we got there. It was getting late by the time we got in, and we were still hung over and sleep deprived, so we had some dinner and called it an early night.

The main street in Lahic.

There’s not much to do in Lahic, so the following day was mostly spent relaxing and soaking up the small town atmosphere before heading to Baku. I went on a hike in search of the nearby castle, but I’m not sure I found it. Reports online suggest that it’s little more than a heap of old stones, so if that’s the case I may have gotten to it but failed to notice. Either way it was a rewarding experience with beautiful views across the valley and further into the mountains.

From the hills outside Lahic.
Locals bringing wood down from the mountainside.

Things are dead here in October, and not many places are open. The food at our place was nothing special, so we wandered around town looking for a place to get dinner. We asked a random guy in his 20s and he spoke a bit of English and pointed us to a great spot on the east end of town (just over the bridge after the Lahic Riverside guest house). The restaurant owner, Mikayil, offered us a ride with him back to Baku as he was leaving the next morning.

When we got back to our place, one of the guys from town we’d been seeing (guest house owner, general tourist advisor extraordinnaire, and severe alcoholic, it seems) was hanging with the local boys at the cafe at our guest house getting sloshed. He yelled out “Salam! Hello! Drink vodka!” We joined them for some shots and stilted conversation in a variety of languages. They seemed mostly interested in the prices of everyday items in Finland, perhaps scoping out a better life for themselves or their kids. They were wasted at this point however, and abruptly left awhile later. All the better, as another late night punctuated by vodka shots would certainly make our morning miserable.

We awoke at 6:30 the next morning and headed back to the restaurant, where we would catch our ride. We made it to Baku in short order by way of Mikayil’s maniacal driving. The mixtape he played along the way (including such tunes as Enrique Iglesias’s Hero, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, Blue’s One Love, among others) was a source of much amusement for us as well, and Mikayil’s dramatic hand-percussion accompaniments were reminiscent of an overzealous teenager eager for your approval, certainly not befitting of the suit-clad middle aged businessman that he was.

It was around this time that it began to dawn on us that Oona’s Chinese visa procurement in Central Asia may not be easy as we thought. We were hearing reports of tension between China and its neighboring Islamic countries, no doubt based on China’s separatist ethnic minorities in the west. As such, getting a visa as a tourist in any Central Asian country has become nigh impossible, so our hopes of entering China via Kyrgyzstan and traveling east to Beijing were dashed. We’re not sure of our plans at this point, but we’ll likely need to fly to Hong Kong after Central Asia for Oona to get a new visa before traveling overland to Beijing. Kind of a bummer, but events such as these are the spice of life sometimes.

Cosmopolitan and traditional in Baku.

The remaining few days in Azerbaijan were spent in the capital, Baku. Baku is an interesting and very cosmopolitan city, and the importance of oil money is easily felt here with fancy cars speeding down the streets and greatly inflated prices compared to the rest of Azerbaijan.

Baku cityscape.
Shah’s palace surrounded by modern buildings.

In Baku we treated ourselves to a nice dinner at a traditional restaurant in the old town, in which, as usual, the wait staff was overly focused on clearing ones table. Any time a dish was finished, seconds later a lingering server would sneak up and swipe it away. One such occasion however, there was nothing to clear, so the server simply grabbed a used napkin to justify his trip. It seems their default table cleaning method was using a vacuum cleaner as well, using it on more than one occasion on still-occupied tables. We suppose they’re serious about keeping things clean…

The European side of Baku.
More European architecture.

While in Baku we also splurged on several other niceties such as a much-needed beard trim for me, some equally much-needed new clothes for Oona, and matching tattoos commemorating our trip and our relationship. Certainly a spending habit we can’t sustain, but nice for a day or two.

Pay no mind to the beat up feet.

We also took a visit to the carpet museum in Baku (the shape of the building itself also looks like a rolled up carpet, a detail surely not lost on the architects). Oona’s previous experience with carpets made it an obvious choice for us, and it was interesting to see the regional varieties and exotic designs. Our plan was to ship a carpet from Kashgar back home for when we are done traveling, but it sounds like we’ll have to skip Kashgar, so we’ve settled on Uzbekistan for a likely carpet-buying locale. After a relaxing spell in Baku we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Finally, you meet some pretty strange people while traveling sometimes. Among the strangest we’ve met was staying at our hostel in Baku. He’s been traveling since 2003 by motorbike, and wears a patch-adorned pair of coveralls 24 hours a day (seriously, he even sleeps in them). We’ve also never seen him leave the hostel, instead he stands in strange corners playing mahjong on his phone. He goes to bed at about 2am and then gets up by 7am, only to play more mahjong. He violently snores the whole night, and his phone beeps every ten seconds for seemingly random reasons while he’s asleep to the point where somebody needs to wake him up to fix it. He also doesn’t seem to eat, as we’ve never seen him doing it.

All told we really enjoyed Azerbaijan. The people are lovely for the most part, and the nature and towns are largely unspoilt by widespread tourism (although this could change with the recent easing of visa restrictions).


Language

Azerbaijan’s official languages are Azeri and Russian. Azeri is a Turkic language closely related to Turkish. However, Azerbaijan is home to many minority languages as well, and there are many villages today who’s daily life is carried out in another, totally unrelated language. These languages include Northeast Caucasian ones like Udi and Avar, Indo-European ones like Persian and Tat, among many others.

Our first hand experience with this was from the town of Lahic, whose primary language is Tat. The residents there speak Tat, with a heavy dose of Azeri influence, as their daily language, reserving Azeri for communication outside their town.


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