Good God, Hayley, another post that begins with “Part I”? You bet! A week after I returned from Hong Kong (described at great length in these posts: Part I and Part II), I squeezed in another trip before the start of spring semester. I went to Quba (pronounced, “goo-BAH”), Xınalıq (I’ll talk about the pronunciation of this next time), and Laza, a few towns in north-eastern Azerbaijan with a fellow Fulbrighter and regular travel buddy, the fabulous Dana.
I call her fabulous for a few reasons: 1) She planned the whole trip while I was gone (itinerary, hotel options, the logistics of getting there, etc.); and 2) We relied on her Russian skills way more than we anticipated, since my Azeri ones are inconveniently basic. Asking for directions, talking with our guides, and handling our somewhat crazy hotel manager usually demanded Russian. When we couldn’t use Russian, we used my Azeri. Therefore, if you venture to this part of Azerbaijan (or any part outside of Baku), it is extremely helpful to know Russian and/or Azeri — even basics.
There are a few options to get around the regions in Azerbaijan, the most common are taxis and buses. We decided to take a bus to Quba and grabbed a taxi on our return home.
The Avtovağzal (Central Station) in Baku is not the easiest to get to. We took the metro to 20 Yanvar, then a bus to Avtoğazal. An endless supply of taxis are on the premise, drivers shouting names of towns, “Quba!” “Şeki!” “Gəncə!” We passed them into the huge bus station. We tried to navigate our way around but ended up having to ask where to purchase tickets. (Hint: they’re not in an obvious place. The counters are on the lower level behind a cafeteria.) We looked at the lists taped by each window for Quba, and finally found one. For our ticket there, it cost some obscure amount like 2.36 manat (~$3 USD at the time). We hustled up a few flights of stairs to catch our 10:30am ride, and, after much confusion, found our bus.
It seemed that we off set a delicate gender balance. We started to sit in one section but the driver waved us toward the very back corner. Okay, Mr. Bossy. After everyone settled, I saw a pattern: the other women were located in the front. Since Dana and were latecomers, we had to go in the back. On similar bus travel in Turkey (i.e. long-distance in which you purchase a ticket), a man and woman cannot sit next to each other unless they are related or married. Turns out Azerbaijan has a similar policy. If you find yourself in a similar situation, when in doubt, just do as you are told!
Second logistical detail: our hotel. Quba has a hotel as we think of one back home (called “Rixos Hotel”), but we can’t afford that. We settled on one that was more of a hostel…turned out it wasn’t in business (or something, the guy was a little strange). After a frantic online search, we found another one called Otel Oskar (Oskar Hotel):
After we figured out Baku’s Avtovağzal and managed to find the right bus, we arrived in Quba after a two-hour bus ride. We were dropped off at a nice bus station. Naturally, we had no clue where we were in relation to the map in the guide book.
Friends, heed my advice: if you are dropped off here, you are a few miles from Quba’s merkezi (city center). Make sure your destination is written down and grab a taxi for a few manat.
But we didn’t know this. We started wandering. Maybe we’ll find a mosque or some sort of landmark that we can find on the map to enlighten us? Nothing. In the end, we concluded that the bus took us to a newer bus station that was built after the book was published. The book indicated that the only central bus station in Quba was located in the middle of many things, but all we saw was open space:
We walked for a good hour before we hit the city center, and then wandered for another hour or so before we found Otel Oskar, which I described above.
We figured out the hotel room, dealt with the hotel manager (more about that at the end of this post), and headed out for more exploring. We timed this trip well, our arrival day was fair and sunny, and the following two days were rainy/snowy in Quba (this was in mid/late January).
It’s Not a Proper Vacation without Some Crazy Characters
I’ve mentioned that we had to “handle” or “deal with” our hotel manager; it’s because he was a handful. I can’t remember his name, but for the sake of the story I’ll call him Fuad. Since I can’t communicate much beyond greetings and asking for directions in Azeri, Dana had to do most of the communication, which actually made Fuad happy because he didn’t have the chance to speak Russian regularly. What also made him happy was insisting we sit in the office to drink tea and chat, probably so that he could show off the two American blondes to whoever visited him. And Fuad was a busy guy, so we met many people. In classic Azerbaijani-style hospitality, he made sure to let us know that we could ask him and the other workers for anything whenever we wanted. To illustrate this, he bellowed a name, “Ali!!”
A boy, maybe twelve years old, scrambled up the stairs into the office. “This boy can get you tea whenever you want it — he is your tea boy.” Our…our tea boy? I almost lost my composure and suppressed my giggles. Then Fuad scolded me because I was drinking my tea too slowly; wasn’t I aware that drinking cold tea is bad for my health?
But tea boy was just the start. Fuad was SO hospitable and kind, he wanted to play matchmaker…or something. “Are you married?” he asked sometime our first day. We have nothing to hide, so we told the truth: Nope, not married. He asked our ages. “Yirmi dört (twenty-four),” I answered, happy that I could contribute two words to the conversation. Should we have had more tact? Perhaps, but it was hard to follow his wandering rabbit trails, and he dropped those inquiries in the middle of a rant. Plus, he coordinated our rides into Xınılıq and Laza, remote mountain villages impossible to get to without an experienced driver. Our whole trip depended on him!
So when two tax inspectors came to the office during our second night there, we went along with the flow, perfectly used to the drama that hovered around Fuad. During our second or third cup of tea we were informed that the tax inspectors wanted to treat us to dinner. What? When did this exchange happen?
Basically, we were set up, and of course I was very unhappy about this. Dana was too. But, to guarantee that we had a ride for our village trip the next day, we figured we had to be kind. So we grimaced through dinner with these two tax guys who spoke no English or Russian (even though one of them affirmed that he spoke English when I asked him). They actually invited a third friend a bit later because “he speaks English well.” He spoke it okay, and he also reprimanded me at one point for dropping the f-bomb as I quietly conversed with Dana.
“That…that is a bad word,” he said, looking very disturbed that such an utterance could come forth from a lady’s mouth.
“Which word? F*cking? Yes, yes it is,” I nodded in agreement before taking a swig of sparkling water. Why can’t this be something stronger? I was over it at that point, and angry at myself for getting into such an awkward situation. Ugh, kill me.
But we made it through, and I guess an awkward dinner was worth the villages that we saw, which I’ll describe in my next post.
Until next time… (: