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Stories from the Land of Fire: Part 2

kelsey : July 31, 2013 2:28 am : Blog

Less than a week ago I landed back at “home” in the United States from my whirlwind two week trip to The Land of Fire– Azerbaijan. I was selected along with nine other American students as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expenses paid trip to Azerbaijan. I would like to share my wonderful good fortune and help those who have not yet visited the incredible country to understand life there little bit better, but as there are already a few posts on the subject, I will refer you to “Impressions of an American High School student in Baku” by Matthew Miller and “An Azerbaijani American in Baku” by Farzin Farzad for an overview on the subject. Instead, in this short series I will share with you a few stories from my trip that I think offer some insight into the untamed mystery and boundless intrigue that I experienced over the past two weeks in Azerbaijan.

Sheki’s Spell

Sheki is the seventh largest city in Azerbaijan and houses a tiny population of just over 50,000, located at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains it is a leisurely and visually stunning retreat. My first impression of the town was at around 10:30 at night, in the pitch dark and pouring rain, being tossed off a bus in front of an unfamiliar and un-navigable assortment of cabins, children’s amusements (a deflated blow up castle, a child-size statue of Shrek the ogre), strings of Christmas lights, and mud that was our accommodation for the night. Without instruction or warning, I was ushered into a huddle of about ten people under a large golf umbrella shivering in our shorts and t-shirts. Room keys were hastily doled out, vague directions pointed across the grounds, and we were left to fend for ourselves. About an hour later the rain had stopped and we were all gathered, of course, around food.

Shakh plov

The (unfortunately) outdoor restaurant had been lavishly prepared for the nearly 100 foreign guests that descended on this idyllic resort, and I think all of our mouths watered at the heaping piles of bread and fruit already on the table in traditional Azerbaijani fashion and the smell of spices and simmering fat coming from the kitchen. The cold mountain air combined with our still damp clothing to gnaw into our bones with an unexpected viciousness, but nothing could deter us when the waiters gleefully brought out the main course. Steaming masterpieces of beautiful Sheki-style shakh (crown) plov (see right).  We ate heaping plates of plov, bread, fresh watermelon and cucumbers, and deliciously greasy chicken for about an hour, and as we began to warm up none of us wanted to sleep! So we ordered bottles of local beer and other libations and laughed and talked until a hotel manager came out and suggested that we visit the hotel club. Now, we were speaking through a translator whose English was not exactly top notch, and to be fair perhaps something was lost in translation, but as surprised as we were to hear that this little mountain bungalow resort had a club, we followed the manager without hesitation. He led us down twisting, unlit pathways (a quick pit stop at an unexpected drink stand) towards the “club”. Nondescript fountains bubbled quietly at the entrance to the dark windows and natural wooden walls.

About forty of us stepped into the mysterious building to find plush carpeted floors, banquet tables pushed up against the walls, a small, empty bar, sufficiently large and central photographs of Heydar  and Ilham Aliyev, and a ten year old boom box being pulled out from under the bar and propped on a central wicker chair by several young men dressed in the black and white of the hotel staff. Despite this unusual “club”, we ended up having an incredible time! The Brazilians sambaed, the Egyptians clapped and shimmied, and even the hotel staff danced right along with us. Over the course of my stay in Azerbaijan I saw a whole lot of dancing, and something that really struck me was that even the youngest, most apparently hip and modern men and women still dance in the traditional style. It’s not just that they are able, but they are ready and willing to break out the duel-like dance moves as soon as strains of the right music begin. A fifteen year old boy began flicking the light switch on and off like a strobe light and the unconventional party didn’t stop until almost 3:00 in the morning!watermelon and cucumbers, and deliciously greasy chicken for about an hour, and as we began to warm up none of us wanted to sleep! So we ordered bottles of local beer and other libations and laughed and talked until a hotel manager came out and suggested that we visit the hotel club. Now, we were speaking

Needless to say, the next day we were all drained, and for most of the morning I barely shuffled around Sheki’s beautiful historical sites- the Caravansarai, Sheki Khan’s Palace, and a Soviet-era museum to name a few. By lunch time we were all feeling a little better, faced with another mouth-watering spread of food and a gorgeous view of the town to boot! The mountains here were closer and more reminiscent of tropical Central America than anywhere else I visited and the history just oozes from the cobblestoned streets, Sheki is a definite recommended destination!

Sheki as central america Sheki view

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Stories from the Land of Fire Part 1

kelsey : July 10, 2013 7:37 pm : Blog

Less than a week ago I landed back at “home” in the United States from my whirlwind two week trip to The Land of Fire– Azerbaijan. I was selected along with nine other American students as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expenses paid trip to Azerbaijan. I would like to share my wonderful good fortune and help those who have not yet visited the incredible country to understand life there little bit better, but as there are already a few posts on the subject, I will refer you to “Impressions of an American High School student in Baku” by Matthew Miller and “An Azerbaijani American in Baku” by Farzin Farzad for an overview on the subject. Instead, in this short series I will share with you a few stories from my trip that I think offer some insight into the untamed mystery and boundless intrigue that I experienced over the past two weeks in Azerbaijan.

The Road to Lahij

Lahic signThe trip was essentially set in Baku with a four day excursion into the interior with stops in the towns of Lahij and Gebele and overnight stays in the cities of Sheki and Ganja. This traveling required logging quite a bit of time in a mobile sauna charter bus trekking across hundreds of miles of varied landscape. While, yes, it was sweltering, sweaty, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and at times frustrating beyond belief, I think the opportunity was actually very valuable in allowing us government-sponsored foreign tourists a glimpse at the real Azerbaijan. For example- the road to Lahij.

On the way from Baku to Sheki, we stopped in the Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan to visit mud river Lahicthe village of Lahij, one of the most ancient settlements in the country. We had to disembark from our buses and reload nearly 100 students and volunteers onto a fleet of marshrutki (see image 1). The road was crazy, narrow, winding, mountainous, unpaved and breathtaking. To the right was a low grade slope 5 or 6 meters upwards, and to the left, often inches from our tires, was a shallow canyon in whose bed flows a muddy, lumpy river the same grey color as the rocks. In photographs, when you can’t see the movement, it really just looks like drying mud. Our driver, clearly an old hand at this road, was unconcerned with the shrieking Brazilians behind him. Casually chatting on his cell phone, the forty-something man rested one set on fingertips lightly on the wheel and painted himself as the perfect picture of his demographic. As I stumbled out of the marshrutka in Lahij, breathless and grateful, I noticed two big Hannah Montana stickers on the back windows of the car.

LahicLahij smelled like a mixture of body odor, cigarette smoke, wet dirt, and mountain air- which was surprisingly pleasant! The village was an interesting surprise. Situated so remotely up in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains, I did not expect the plethora of tourist shops and peddlers who finagled manat after manat out of us for spices, photos in traditional Caucasian costumes, and copperwares for which Lahij is famous(-ish). The real shining glory of the town is in fact the sewage system which is purported to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old! In Lahij I met an old man named Bobi who spoke no English, but we managed to communicate in a mix of my broken Russian and the ever-popular passionate gesticulations of world travelers. He told me that more tourists came to his village every year than there were residents, that most people’s incomes were somehow related to the tourism industry, that he had lived in Lahij all his life, he pointed out a plaque commemorating the Japanese assistance in rebuilding the sewage system after an earthquake, and then he tried to sell me a copper bracelet. Bobi is a great example of the curious, proud nature of many older Azerbaijanis that I met. He was quick and interested in me and my compatriots, and eager to share his life and village with us. I highly recommend a trip to Lahij- if only for that incredible drive! Buy a cup of saffron for one manat, take a picture dressed as a Caucasian warrior, and find Bobi.

Post written by Karabakh Foundation Cultural Ambassador Samantha Guthrie. 

Lahij papakh

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