Azerbaijan regions

Winter Trip in the Regions Part II: Xınalıq and Laza

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:

The elegant Lada Niva.

The elegant Lada Niva.

Xınalıq

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:

Drive 1

Our guide offered to stop occasionally for pictures. He just wanted cigarette breaks, but I wasn’t complaining.

 

Drive 2

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Hard to see, but note the white/light blue specks. Those are frozen waterfalls.

Drive 4
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…

Xiniliq 1

It was also interesting to get a small taste of village life.

Xiniliq 2

Xiniliq 3

Xiiniliq 4

Xiniliq 5

Xiniliq Museum

Xınalıq’s local museum. The sign, interestingly enough, was in Azeri and English.

Xiniliq 6

Xiniliq 7

Xiniliq 8

Xiniliq 9
Me in Xiniliq

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it...

Captivated by this frozen waterfall. Also concerned about how to get around it…

But we got around it okay...until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

But we got around it okay…until some school boys started throwing rocks at us. Boys will be boys everywhere!

Details

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:

Xiniliq Home

Xiniliq Window

Xiniliq Window 2

Xiniliq Bridge

Retaining wall

Retaining wall

Xiniliq Colors

Xiniliq Wall 2

Xiniliq Car Hood

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

This is their fuel: cattle dung shaped into bricks. Talk about completely self-reliant and not wasting a thing!

Xiniliq Paint

Xiniliq Star

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

Managed to satisfy my door obsession here too!

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

And all of a sudden, a pop of green.

Laza

“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:

Laza Market

A market…with the name on it!

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.

Laza 1

It's been a while since I'd seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

It’s been a while since I’d seen this much snow. So I had a tinge of culture shock.

Laza 3

Laza 4

Laza 5

Of course, happy to be there.  (:

Of course, happy to be there. (:

Except when I fell because of the ice...which I did about 6 times.  :P

Except when I fell because of the ice…which I did about 10 times. 😛

Animal Friends

A highlight of visiting Laza was seeing a bit of the mountain pastoral lifestyle. We saw sheep and horses being taken to water…

Sheep!!!!

Sheep!!!!

Cows chilling…

Laza CowsAnd a puppy that freaking loved me…

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

I’m not a dog person, but my-oh-my, this playful puppy melted my heart.

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…

Laza Scenery 1

Laza Scenery 2

Laza Scenery 3

Laza Scenery 4

Laza Scenery 5We 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??

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Winter Trip in the Regions Part I: Quba

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.

Some Logistics

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!

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

Our sweet ride. A little bumpy, but not entirely unpleasant.

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):

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Little markets and shops on the lower level, the hostel/hotel rooms are on the second. We got a double room with our own bathroom for 30 manat a night (15 manat per person). If you have other international travel/hostel experience, you’ll be happy at Oskar.

Wandering Travelers

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.

Looks new...but where are we?!

Looks new…but where are we?!

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:

Quba 1

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

It’s definitely beautiful, but we’re definitely lost.

Wandering....

Wandering….

Quba 4

Luckily Quba is a pleasant town to get lost in.

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.

Quba

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).

Quba 5

Quba 7

Quba 8

Quba 9

Yes, a purple door.

Yes, a purple door.

Quba 11

Quba 12Quba 13Quba 14

Quba 15

Quba 16

Quba 17

Check out the blue accent color!

Check out the blue accent color!

Quba 19

Quba 20

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

All of the rain gutters had embellishments similar to this one.

Quba 21

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

I asked Dana if we could venture inside. She declined.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

The guidebook called this the “Beehive” or something, I think it’s a traditional hamam or public bath house.

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Looking out toward the Old Jewish Town

Quba 25

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

That is one robust woman. Gotta love Soviet-era athletic statues!

Quba 27

Quba 28

Quba 29

The houses in this part were huge.

The houses in this part were huge.

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Balconies became my new obsession in Quba

Quba 32

Quba 33

Quba 34

Quba 35

Quba 36

Think I’ll flip this house someday...

Think I’ll flip this house someday…

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

We walked through the Jewish quarter of Quba, which is home to the largest Jewish community in Azerbaijan.

Quba 39

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Creepiest hamam sign ever.

Quba 41

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

All-in-all it’s a pleasant city. I could see myself as a Peace Corps volunteer here.

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… (: