Prior to a few weekends ago (April 24 – 26), I imagined that southern Azerbaijan was nothing but a vast desert. Being my blonde self, I didn’t perform a simple Google search before the trip to see if I was correct. So when our bus lumbered its way over the bumpy two-way streets on our way to Lankaran, I was mesmerized by the richness of the landscape’s color. The Talysh Mountain range, which runs between Azerbaijan and Iran, slowly integrated itself into the landscape, becoming more prominent with each passing mile.
Speaking of Iran…
Iranian Border and Astara
We totally saw the Iranian border. F*ck yes.
Would you judge me if I admit that seeing the border was the main motivation for venturing to southern Azerbaijan (at least on my part), and that it’s one of the many reasons why I applied to be an ETA in this country? It’s inaccessible territory for most Americans, and to be *this* close to it was exhilerating.
The taxi driver that we hired for the day didn’t really get it either. Ehmed was a funny guy, and was equally baffled by and impressed with us. He spoke in Russian to Madeline and Dana, and when they translated into English for me, I added a couple words in Azeri. If something was confusing, I would try to clarify in Azeri while they clarified in Russian.
This is not to say that I speak Azeri well. Definitely not. But I got the gist of situations, such as whenever Ehmed rolled down his window to ask for directions as he weaved through the calm streets of Astara, the town that leads to Iran. It went something like this: “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans in my taxi, and they want to see the Iranian border. Where is that?”
Ugh, Ehmed, don’t advertise us!
But we made it just fine. And Ehmed’s excitement seemed to match ours because he accelerated toward the gate. “Ay Allah — dur, dur, DUR!!” I almost screamed. [“Oh my God — stop, stop, STOP!!”] We spent just a few minutes at the border before asking Ehmed to take us to a park next to the Caspian that was also close to the border.
To add excitement to Ehmed’s day, the group needed to use the restroom. Off he went, about 15 steps ahead of us, asking random people where the nearest facility was located. It was hilarious and excrutiating at the same time, “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans and they need to use the bathroom. Where is that?”
Ugh, Ehmed — stop advertising us!
Yanar Bulaq and Istisu
Crisis averted, we drove back north to see a few more points of interest. Yanar Bulaq (literally “combustible spring” in English) is right off the side of the road, and free to enter (at least we weren’t told to pay anything).
As implied in Yanar Bulaq’s name, you can set the water on fire. It’s crazy. Ehmed saved the day again when he hopped into the taxi and rushed to find matches when none of us had a lighter. He hustled back through the rusty gate and whipped out a match:
We were told that drinking the water was “good for health reasons.” My mind jumped to gruesome images of my body bursting into flames after having a sip. Hahaha, is it, now? You couldn’t pay me to ingest any of that.
But I was willing to submerge parts of my body at our next stop: Istisu (literally “Hot water/springs”). Set off a ways in the Talysh hills, Istisu is a collection of natural hot springs that serve as a natural healing spa for tourists (Ehmed informed us that many Iranians come here every year). We only dipped our feet, but it felt oh-so-good and was oh-so-hot.
But most of all, I enjoyed the views…
Now for the actual town. The events described above occurred on the second day of our trip. Our first day we spent in Lankaran after we arrived in the afternoon from Baku — a bus ride that took over 5 hours.
We stayed at Qızıl Tac Otel (Golden Crown Hotel), which we found thanks to our taxi driver who drove us from Lankaran’s Avtovağzal (central bus station) to the town’s mərkəzi (city center). We asked for the cheapest hotel in town, and he walked us to Qızıl Tac, leaving only after he negotiated a price for us: 10 manat per person per night. Sweet. It’s actually pretty nice; clean, safe, and located next to Lankaran’s largest park:
Then we just meandered around.
Lankaran is a tiny town, so we saw the main areas within a few hours. “How about we go to the beach? I want to see the water,” I insisted. Off we went, heading in the general direction of the Caspian…
It was challenging to find a road that led to the beach. We finally made it, but were discouraged at its condition:
There is hope for Lankaran’s beach; we saw how nice Astara’s seaside walkway was the next day (in the pictures above). Azerbaijan is slowly developing its tourism industry outside of Baku, it will just take time.
Are You Kidding Me?
There were a few moments during the trip that left us all in bewilderment. Blame it on cultural differences, language barriers, maybe the local quirks of people clashed with our quirks…whatever the reason, we experienced the following awkward interactions:
“You Are Too Noisy”
Okay friends, I hate talking badly about places and people, but I’ll make an exception for this restaurant, which is called “Titanic”:
We tried this place out because it was raved about in the guidebook; supposedly they prepared the best levengi, a whole chicken stuffed with a walnutty herb paste. Especially tasty when paired with plov, or rice.
Long story short, we were ripped off. That’s what you get sometimes as young, single lady travellers. The chicken was small, and the rice was old. [Note: The next day we went to a different restaurant and ordered the same thing. It was MUCH better in terms of quality and for the price. That restaurant is called “Dalğa.”] The service at “Titanic” was also a little strange, like when we chatted as we waited downstairs for a taxi.
Waiter (walking over to our group): You are too noisy. Too noisy for the other guests.
Me: Sorry, but I am also a guest.
Waiter (after mumbling with another waiter): “Where are you from?”
Me (making a disgusted sound): No, I don’t think so — you can’t yell at me for being noisy one minute and then expect me to let you know where I’m from. [I’m usually sensitive and careful about my word choice when I talk in English to non-native speakers. But he was rude first so I did not care.]
Waiter (slowly blinking confused eyes): …I don’t understand.
Me: That’s fine, you don’t need to understand.
Just then music blasted from the kitchen downstairs. Like, it was WAY louder than our talking level, and much ruder to the other guests he referred to. Now it was our turn to be confused, “You said that WE were loud? This is VERY loud!” He smirked, “It is for you,” meaning that the music was to drown us out. Why I oughta….I wanted to lurch forward and strangle him.
But I didn’t. They did call us a taxi, which thankfully came a minute later, but which ended up being another strange interaction….
We established the fare with our driver and settled in the car (Note: Don’t pay more than a couple manat to get around Lankaran). It didn’t take long before he asked what languages we knew, where we were from, and why we’re in Azerbaijan. Like many, he was impressed with my friends’ knowledge of Russian and that they learned it in the States.
He made small talk in Russian, at one point commenting, “This car is a Mercedes; it’s from America.”
I pondered aloud, “I think Mercedes is a German brand…right? From Germany?”
His literal response was to yell half in English, half in Russian, “Germany NEYYYYYYYYYYT!!!!!!” [НЕЕЕЕЕТ/NOOOOOO]. It totally caught us off-guard, and all we could do was laugh at his outburst as he pouted. Sir, do you want me to pay you? THEN DON’T YELL AT ME. Truly bizarre, like when our hotel manager didn’t want to give us our passports…
The next morning we were on our way to Astara and the other places I talked about above. Since we were leaving the city, and going close to Iran, we wanted our passports. It’s not unusual for hotels to hold them for a night while they make copies of the front page for their records. But this manager treated it too casually and took his sweet time to make scans. When we asked him about our passports that second morning, he blew us off and made some crappy jokes in Russian.
There we stood in the office, anger simmering in each of us — at least in me. If you know me, you can imagine how annoyed I got by this dude. He beckoned us to sit, we all refused, but we weren’t getting anywhere with Russian or English. I stared down at him and summoned my brave side, “Pasaport, indi.” [Passport now.]
He looked up and sighed, grabbed our passports, and rushed out the hotel. He came back a few minutes later with the originals and scanned copies. I was happy to be reunited with my official form of identity, but was irked by his offer to drive us around that day for free. Ugh, seriously? You held my passport hostage and you tell bad jokes, there is no way in hell I’m going to spend a full day with you.
Despite all this, I had a good time in Lankaran. And I felt comfortable in the sense that I knew I could handle whatever life decided to throw my way, a feeling that I didn’t have during earlier travels in Azerbaijan. Of course, I have Dana and Madeline to thank since I survived off of their awesome Russian skills, and I hope that future ETAs will be able to bond over seeing the Iranian border and surviving weird social moments.
Until next time… : )