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Into the heart of rural Azerbaijan


It took just three hours and 5 Manat (£4) to travel almost half the width of the country. Azerbaijan is only about the size of Scotland and even though it is the largest of the three Caucasus countries the whole region from Black to Caspian would fit comfortably inside the UK. I baled out at a roundabout on the entrance to Ismayilli where a posse of Ladas taxis lay in wait.

The drivers guessed correctly that the mountain village of Lahic was my intended destination and opened a bidding war for the privilege of taking me there. That I couldn’t understand Russian was a mystery they weren’t able to fathom and my ongoing failure to comprehend despite a) constant repetition and b) a substantial increase in volume I’m sure led many to assume that I was being deliberately obstructive. They had probably never come across a non-Russian speaker but the more creative won the day by displaying numbers with his fingers and confirming them on the keypad of his mobile phone. We settled on 12 (two fully opened hands plus two fingers), not big money considering the punishment the stony track had in store for his ancient little motor.

The twenty kilometres deep into the valley took a full hour. Second gear was the best we could hope to achieve and the flocks of sheep and goats always claimed right of way over the solitary Lada. The village was eventually announced where a river cut across the road and a large incongruous sign pointed to the nearby Garden of Paradise guest house. I had read that such a place existed, a deciding factor in my plumping for such an outlandish location.

From the custody of my driver, whom I felt morally obliged to slip a few extra Manats (surely some of his car would need replacing after two legs of that journey), I was handed over to a young man who’d emerged from the adjacent orchard. He introduced himself, in surprisingly good English, as the owner of the guest house and directed me through the trees to where two other men sat under a canopy cooking chicken kebabs over hot coals. Have some lunch and a glass of red suggested Jesse – and then we’ll get you a room sorted out.

The food was extremely tasty – served as per custom with a bowl of fresh salad and Frisbee-sized discs of warm bread – and thankfully I managed to sidestep the wine and the vodka. (Thankful to miss out on a sesh? How very grown up). We were sitting behind a small café at the foot of the garden and to my chagrin our makeshift shelter blocked out the lovely sunshine that was illuminating the autumn colours on the far side of the mountain. The air was noticeably much cooler up here and I guessed that this would be the only part of the day to deliver any natural warmth. Jesse explained that the “tourist” season had ended on the last day of September, which is when they’d closed the café and started to prepare for the long hard winter ahead. Strangely he made no mention of the fact that today was the first of October and the time to which he referred was just the day before.

When lunch was over and the bottles drained we walked through the orchard and climbed the wooden steps leading up to the veranda of a tiredlooking property. The five guest rooms behind each of its doors were all unoccupied (and likely to remain so for the next six months) and I still have no idea why Jesse ushered me into the one that he did. It looked like a cell designated for exceptionally dangerous prisoners; there was no window, no heating and the temperature was already in freefall. There was no furniture of any sort, no anything, just two sagging single beds against each side wall.

I was formally invited to utilise both sets of bedding and indeed any supplementary materials from adjacent rooms, none of which was locked. Thus the prospect of my being cold and miserable was instantly downgraded to just plain miserable and Jesse had clinched himself a deal.
Caucasas, Azerbaijan

I quickly returned to the veranda to look out over the orchard and the glorious shape of the tree-covered mountains beyond, fresh snow already visible on the peaks. This was more important than a warm, cosy room I had to start believing though in truth I’d already decided that what might have been a two or even three day stopover was getting shorter by the minute. It was late afternoon, the sun was getting weaker, I needed to get on the move and keep warm. And so, with the promise of hot water upon my return, I headed off to downtown Lahic.

The entrance to the village proper was announced by a small square where four elderly gents, clad in the universal square-goers uniform of jackets and caps, huddled together on a short bench. This thriving hub gave way to a narrow cobbled street lined with tiny shops and a tea room, the latter identified by an urn sitting on the ledge of an open window. There was no sign of any customers, or for that matter, anybody else at all. I assumed this to be the main thoroughfare but on spotting a flight of steps climbing up to my right I decided to see what a change of level might bring.

I hadn’t expected to find an old mosque converted into a museum, even less an English-speaking man sitting quietly within. He wasn’t speaking English when I found him, you understand, in fact I sensed that he hadn’t been speaking anything for quite some time. He was a lovely chap and eager to tell me the story of his village but sadly for all concerned his collection of ancient pottery and farm implements was somewhat underwhelming.

I had already read that Lahic was famed for artists and artisans, coppersmiths in particular, but hadn’t grasped the extent to which this valley had lost its people. The gentleman informed me that not so many years earlier 36,000 hardy folk had lived along the banks of the river and in those times, even as recently as the 1960s, there had been no road to link them to the outside world. For almost two thousand years this community was isolated – the only way in and out of the village was to cross the mountains on the back of a horse – and the language they have grown up with is entirely different from that spoken in the rest of the country.

By the time I rejoined the main street the sun was sinking fast, the coppersmiths had downed tools for the day and the only sign of life was from the ladies in dark woollen clothes who scuttled back and forth to fill their containers with water. There was a rich supply with spouts poking through the walls every few hundred metres directing the flow from the side of the mountain into ornate receptacles below. Or in some cases it simply gushed onto the street, formed a pool and went off in search of the lowest point. With no mains water anywhere in the village the women fetch and carry all day long to cook food, wash pans and ensure their husbands and children can wash before sleeping.

I dropped down another level and walked back home through the river bed, a fat snake of rocks and boulders that must have been a quarter of a mile across yet – strangely – carried only a skinny worm of water through its middle. Something of a pity as the landscape all around was stunning and it deserved a spectacular torrent rather than a sorry, muddy trickle just a couple of metres wide.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from www.troubador.co.uk or www.alphabet-traveller.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock – and not of the right bit of Azerbaijan either. 

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