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
The 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 the 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.
Lahij 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.