Aside from getting lost and acting as pawns in Fuad’s matchmaking games (as described in Part I), Dana and I were intent on visiting two remote villages, so remote that no one I talked to in Baku had been there, or really even thought about them as destinations worth noting. “You are seeing more of Azerbaijan than me, and I’ve lived here all my life!” was the common statement. How ridiculous, I thought, explore your own country! However, I must reprimand myself — how many places in MY country — even home state — have I failed to see thus far? Countless.
I alluded in Part I that the only way to get to these villages is by hiring an experienced driver. Some taxis, I think, can take you but they probably prefer doing that in warmer months. We did this in January. So we were much relieved when Fuad used his connections to get us a driver, a kind gentleman who lived in Xınalıq. We had him for both day trips, which cost about 40 manat per day (20 manat per person). We trucked around in this Soviet-era beauty:
I feel the only way for you to know how Xınalıq is pronounced is to hear it. So next time you see me, remind me about “that one remote Azerbaijani village.” Basically, the “X” is a sound like you’re clearing the back of your throat. The “ı” is NOT an “i.” The ‘dotless i’ has a sound like you’re being punched in the stomach, a forceful “uh.” Finally, the “q” has a hard “g” sound, as in “got.” Now, have fun piecing that all together! (;
The drive up was fascinating (although I’m fascinated by almost anything) as we inched upward through the Caucasus Mountains:
I’ll admit that we weren’t in Xınalıq at its prettiest…middle of winter, no fresh vegetation, a bit stark. But it was business as usual for the people living there. Kids were leaving school, the men and women were hard at work maintaining the household. We did get a few perplexed glances, Why are you here now? Come back in April or something. Oh well!
I’ll also mention that our driver took us to his home (undoubtedly built from the ground up with his own hands) where his family hosted us for tea. Himself, his wife, and his mother beamed at us with rosy cheeks while I clumsily thanked them in Azeri. I swear, it was the best tea I’ve had here (and I rarely have bad tea experiences in this country); maybe it was the water?? Also loved it when they talked to each other in their own language. I appreciate when people recognize that America has great diversity amongst its languages and cultures, but we forget that diversity exists everywhere — including the small Caucasus countries.
Village and Mountain Scenery
Since Xınalıq is located at one of the highest elevations in Azerbaijan, the views were stunning, despite the bleak weather that day…
Every house was carefully pieced together with materials found in the area, so no wood. The occasional glass window, a checkered wall panel, or bright splash of color certainly caught my attention:
“I have never heard of this ‘Laza’ village, Hayley. Are you sure that is a real place?” I insist that it is and show the unbeliever this picture:
But for people in Baku, that’s not good enough proof. Surely I must have been somewhere else, surely I must be confused. Well I’m going to stick to my guns and insist that I visited Laza.
For this day trip we had the same driver plus his brother. He must have tagged along for moral support, it was quite snowy and disorienting. We drove past Shahdağ resort, a ski resort high in the mountains. Actually, we stopped there with the intention of going no further. Dana and I looked at each other, This is not the village… They parked the car and our driver’s brother opened my door but I didn’t budge. I imagined what I would say in a similar situation back home in English, “Excuse you, do you think I’m some idiot? I see that this is a tourist trap. I am not paying you to take me to a ski resort, sir, I want to go see the village. Take me there at once!” Unfortunately I couldn’t do that. I searched for words…
“Laza deyil (This is not Laza),” I calmly said. He made some comment that I couldn’t make out.
I pulled up Google maps on my phone and pointed to Laza, “Laza kend isteyirem (I want Laza village).”
A few minutes later we were back on the treacherous path, barreling over mounds of snow. I can’t believe that worked! Although we did come close to death a few times…Snow + Mountain Roads – Guard Rails = Possible Demise.
But, my God, we made it! We hopped out of the vehicle on slightly wobbly legs and became more dazed by the intensity and volume of the white snow.
A highlight of visiting Laza was seeing a bit of the mountain pastoral lifestyle. We saw sheep and horses being taken to water…
Bleak but Beautiful Landscape
We all know how bleak and tiresome life seems as we struggle through endless winter. But seeing winter in a different place, away from Baku, really enlivened it for me. Laza is beautiful even in January…
We experienced another round of unconditional hospitality that afternoon. After getting lost (no surprise there) and managing to ask where the market was located, we stumbled through the snow to meet our drivers about 15 minutes past our agreed-upon time. A group of men were around the car, probably asking why they made the treacherous journey into the village. I imagine the reply was something along the lines of, “You see, we have these two crazy American girls who insisted we come to the village — the ski complex wasn’t good enough!” They quieted down when they saw Dana and I approaching.
I was winded from the elevation, wet from falling, and I can only imagine how red my cheeks were…but I attempted a hearty “Salam!” A few of them chuckled. “Siz necesiniz? (How is everyone?)” They were thrilled I could ask and the group hummed with approval. One gentleman invited us to his home for lunch and tea. Oh yes…that sounds AWESOME. It turns out he owns and operates a homestay/B&B-type facility and has hosted tourists from all over the world. Better yet, he’s mentioned in Dana’s guidebook.
After warming up with homemade soup, plov (a local rice dish), and especially-tasty tea (it must be the water…), we were back on the road. Our host refused any payment for lunch, insisting that it was his family’s pleasure to have us. It was so touching that we really want to go back this spring, not only to see Laza again but to support his business.
In conclusion, despite all the general craziness, language barriers, and excruciatingly awkward blind date, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for anything. I love Baku and appreciate all it has to offer, but if you ever make it to Azerbaijan, I really encourage you to get to the regions. It takes some gumption to figure out the logistics, but the regions are the heart of country.
Until next time… (:
PS: Can you believe I’m here for only two-and-a-half more months??