A Travellerspoint blog

Quba to the Georgian border

At last I get to stay in a Caravanserai

sunny 27 °C

Although the next village we wanted to go to was only a days walk over the mountains we opted for the easy life and caught buses. This was only easier in the "not walking for several hours over high mountains with heavy bags" sense, as it involved going all the way back to Baku and then catching another bus to Ismayilli and a taxi on a bumpy road to Lahic, incorporating the usual bargaining and waiting. We arrived in the evening and decided to stay at a pension on the edge of the village that had a private 320 year old hamam. The house was in an orchard and the setting was very beautiful. The hamam was great - it smelled a bit musty, but it was amazing to have it all to ourselves whenever we wanted. After our brief day in the warm lowlands it felt very cold there and so it was very welcome.

The village of Lahic is famous for its coppersmiths and its cobbled street contain a lot of workshops. Unfortunately a lot of these were closed when we were there as the summer season was pretty much over. I had been really looking forward to coming here, but after our stay in Xinalig just a couple of days before, I felt a bit disappointed in it. I found it all a bit too manicured and it reminded me a bit of Poundbury near Dorchester (Prince Charles's upmarket housing estate). Its got a large influx of tourists from Baku, (which has had a similar treatment). Thats not to say it wasn't a very pretty village and the people there were also quietly friendly. Apparently their ancestors had come from Persia hundreds of years ago and they speak a language close to Farsi (Iranian/ Persian).

I think if I had spent more time in this village I would have come to appreciate it more. I do prefer to travel slowly, to go to less places and to see more of them, but our Azeri visa were running out. Its not that I want places to stay picturesquely in the past, so I can come along and visit them (I hope) but it felt to me that this village had been sand-blasted into a tourist version of its previous self. Also, we both quite disliked the rather arrogant man who was running the guest house, who was quite dismissive once he realised we weren't going to shell out for any expensive day trips needing guides. Travelling for longer periods of time does mean that you really have to ration these although you might want to support the local economy. But I can understand why the people you stay with might think you are being stingy compared to people who come for a brief holiday. A few times we've stayed somewhere we don't particularly like but are too lazy to move to a different place, which is a shame as the other places in the village were very friendly.

We spent a couple of days here, looking around and then caught a mashrutka (see earlier blog) early the next morning back to the town. When we got on it looked already pretty full, but the people made room for us and our bags. A few others got on, but at the next village, nearly half a school of teenagers was waiting for it. I'm still amazed that so many managed people managed to fit in such a small space in such a good natured manner!

A few journeys later, one of which was on the prettiest oldest, slowest bus I've been on, we arrived in the town of Sheki. It was lovely and warm and the people there were immediately incredibly friendly. We caught a town Mashrutka to the hotel of my dreams - a converted Caravanserai. It surpassed my hopes. The entrance was through a narrow door set in a massive old wooden door and led into a stone domed building with a fountain in . Off this was a large rectangular courtyard surrounded by a two storied multi-arched builing. Behind each arch was a set of rooms. These consist of a small sitting room, a bedroom behind it and a very old fashioned, but functioning bathroom in between. The walls were rough stone, with a small arched window, and it was easy to imagine how it would have been when it had been a functioning caravanserai.

Caravanserais are common all along the Silk Roads and neighbouring areas and is where merchants would be able to stop with camels caravans and do a spot of business. Behind you could see the rolling green hills that surrounded the town. Not only that, but it was half the price of a bed in a crowded dorm room in Baku! I've always fancied staying in one so at this point all my high-minded desires for ethnic travelling suddenly disappeared and I wanted to stay here for ever in the luxury I have always wanted to become accustomed to! (Though in reality it isn't really luxurious, it just seemed that way to me, but that's good enough!) We had originally intended to stay here for one or two nights and then either go to a homestay or go on to the next town, nearer to the border, but chances like this don't come along very often and so we stayed for longer and went straight to the border from there. It also helped that the town was very pleasant and the people the friendliest I've come across in Azerbaijan.

Karavansary, Sheki, Azerbaijan

Karavansary, Sheki, Azerbaijan

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Up the road from here was the Palace of the Khan, a tiny palace with the most amazingly painted walls and stained glass windows set in wooden frames. Outside was an old man with a cloth covered object. Once you agreed on a price he lifted up the cloth to reveal the only wolf I will probably get to see in the Caucasus. Not only was it moth eaten and stuffed, with a sewn up mouth, but the piece de resistance was when he dramatically waived his hand and its eyes lit up! Brilliant!

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We also went to a village a few miles away where there was an ancient church (remember this is a Moslem country) from the times of the Christian Causaian Alabanian nation. This is not to be confused with the other Albania. In the church were a lot of information boards, one of which described the theory that the Norwegian royal family originally descended from the Caucasian Azeris!

Caucasian Albanian Church,, Kish, nr Sheki,  Azerbaijan

Caucasian Albanian Church,, Kish, nr Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sadly, we left Sheki to go to the border, pausing only to eat in the border town and argue with a bus driver who insisted we hadn't paid - we had, but I think it actually might have got a bit mixed up with other peoples fares - they just get handed over when you get off. A bit of a sad ending to a brilliant month in Azerbaijan. At the border the officials carefully searched our visas for inconsistencies and finding we had left on the last day possible, Azerbaijan spat us out back to Georgia.

Posted by sue deegan 07:37 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged mountains churches village border georgia azerbaijan caravanserai sheki lahic coppersmiths Comments (0)

Xinaliq

An ancient village in the Caucasus

all seasons in one day 15 °C

We finally managed to leave Baku and headed north on a bus to the town of Quba (pronounced Guba). This took us through the usual scrubby and rather dismal desert that surrounds Baku and into a higher, lusher area which is famous for its apples and carpets. Our destination was a small village that was high up in the Caucasus, called Xinaliq (pronounced Khinalic).
We spent the night in Quba, a pleasant small Azeri town, which has a small carpet factory, a market and a bus station and reputedly, the best shwarma in Azerbaijan. They were pretty good.
Although I liked the town, I spent a large amount of the time nursing my tooth abscess, which had chosen that day to become too painful to think straight. I wondered at the wisdom of going to a remote village at 2350-metre height in that amount of pain - maybe the altitude would make it worse and there certainly wouldn't be any dentists there. However, I decided that I may as well suffer surrounded by beautiful mountains rather than in a hot, dusty town and we managed to find some cheap transport up there early the next morning. The road was quite a steep climb, through beautiful, remote, grassy mountains with little sign of habitation. Eventually we reached a small wind-swept village.

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All I knew about Xinaliq was that it was an ancient village built on a hilltop in the mountains, consisting of traditional mud and stone buildings. Now that the road had been improved and satellite dishes had arrived, it was, inevitably becoming more and more modern and the traditional ways were changing. This was probably a last chance to see it before it became radically changed. I worried that we might have been too late as there seemed to be rather a lot of blue plastic tarpaulins and corrugated iron roofs in sight.

We were dropped off at the bottom of the village, which seemed to be made up of steep muddy paths leading to houses. The wind was bitter and my clothes totally inadequate. I had imagined my arrival (always an unwise thing to do) totally differently. At last, I'd thought, a chance to properly stay in a family house in a village. All we needed to do would be to hang around a central area waiting for people to come up and offer us places to stay. Instead we climbed up the steep, rocky paths to look for an alternative. There was a small village shop that sold a few things that the locals didn't produce themselves - sweets, tea, biscuits, beer vodka and the inevitable cheap Chinese products you see in many shops around the world.
There were a couple of people in the shop, hiding from the biting wind and they looked at us with mild interest as we walked in. There was no rush to offer us accommodation and it seemed that there was a Guest House down the road by the river so we headed back down again.

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Eventually we were organised in a large empty house with two big bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen and sitting room downstairs, which we were to have ourselves, with food brought to us, not quite what we had expected, but lots of space. Soon the day cleared and we went back to the village to look around. We walked past the next house where a family were making mud bricks, which they left to dry in the sun. They told us that they had 3 houses, two near the river and one up in the village. This was easy, they told us, when the bricks came from the ground, the stones came from the river bed and there seemed endless space around to build in.

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Everything started to look a lot better in the warm sun and I was noticing the traditional mud houses, rather than the blue plastic sheeting and the shiny tin roofs. We'd been told that there was a wedding on in the village, which was an event attended by everyone there at some point - they run over 3 days and only happen in the summer. As we walked around the lanes, we realised that the people were much friendlier than they had first appeared and had a few very limited conversations. We met the school teacher, who spoke English and was able to tell us lots about the village.

When we heard some loud music, we followed it to a blue plastic lean-to construction in which people were dancing. A couple of men told me to go and take photos as that’s what tourists do, and so I willingly obliged. The first people I photographed were a couple of women who were very shy at first, but soon one of them dragged me off to her house nearby and fed me tea. She told me off for not having come to stay with her, showed me photos of other foreigners that had stayed with them and then tried to sell me a pair of knitted slippers. I was itching to get back and see the wedding party but the music abruptly stopped and everyone went home. When we passed by again, the blue plastic was being dismantled. I imagined I’d had the bad luck to arrive on the last day of the wedding.

We wandered around the paths some more then and walked a bit away from the village. It’s hard to describe it without using the words "nestled" and "perched", but it was a village perched on top of a hill, nestled in the mountains! As I said, the houses were made of local stone from the river bed with mud roofs, with newer bits built in a haphazard manner. Each house had a large stack of dried cow manure, ready for the winter.

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The next morning we decided to take a short walk up in the mountains for the morning and come back down to the village in the afternoon. The weather had become much warmer and sunnier and we walked up behind the village towards some small mountains. Those of you that have been following my blog know that I love walking up mountains and find it hard not to go just a little bit further than I intend. Unfortunately, this is coupled with a deep fear of going down anything slippery or very steep. I try and forget this fact when I’m going up and optimistically hope that it will have changed by the time I go back down.
Inevitably, the one we decided to walk to the top of was a lot steeper and further away than it looked. The last bit was mainly composed of slidey, slippery shale which was even hard to climb up. However, the view was certainly more than worth the effort and not only did I, unusually have no accidents, even minor ones, but the altitude seemed to have made my tooth better!

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Just as we got to the top and were sitting relaxing and taking in the scenery, I could hear the music start up again. As it had only lasted a short while the day before, I was pretty sure that it would finish just as we got back there. I so wanted to be able to take photos at the wedding, but it looked a long and slippery way back down the mountain and given my track record of injuries, I realised I should really not rush! I don't know when my fear of going down steep things started - though I do remember freezing going down the stairs at Blarney Castle years ago. I'm absolutely fine looking over the edge of the steepest drop but when things start to slide, it’s my idea of hell. Going down the steep shale I wondered why I liked mountains so much and the why I was spending so much time in them - but what is life if we don't challenge our fears? I eventually got into just sliding down - it was certainly quicker that way! As we walked back the music wailed out across the mountains, sounding so very wild and exotic. I imagined a band of strange Azeri instruments. Every time it paused I was sure it had stopped completely and they were packing up the blue plastic.

Luckily I was wrong and the blue plastic had just been moved to a different place. This time it was full of young people dancing. The wild and exotic music was being made by one man on an electric organ and another on a drum. Weddings in Xinaliq are in 2 parts- one at the bride’s house and one at the grooms. We were at the bride's, who looked very young sitting there with her friends. She was 17, quite old by past standards. This marriage had been a "love match", but they are often still arranged by the families.
People were dancing to the music. Often the girls would dance gracefully with each other, while the boys pranced around in good natured competition with each other, resembling crowing cockerels. Occasionally a man threw money onto the dance-floor and the little boys ran around picking it up, making a pretence of trying to keep it before handing it over. Everyone was very welcoming and once I started taking photos, they wouldn't let me stop and various combinations of people were thrust in front of me. We had become celebrities in the village and were greeted warmly for the rest of our short stay there.

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The Xinali are a Caucasian race (as is to be expected in the Caucasus!) and look somewhat different from other Azeris, who are a dark Turkic race. They are lighter skinned and haired and have a definite mountain appearance to them. The man who’d driven us up to the village, and was from it himself, had reminded me of someone I know back home. When we got there I realised that several other people did too! They all had similar features and sometimes I got different people mixed up with each other. This is to be expected in such a remote place where everyone is related to each other, I suppose. In recent years life has changed a lot with constant electricity; running water; different building materials; TV with numerous channels from all over the world; a school and of course, mobile phones. However they are also very proud of and aware of their culture and traditional lifestyle: the school teaches in Xinali (a language unrelated to any other); marriages are celebrated by the whole community and a large proportion of the men take their sheep many days trek away to graze in the lowlands for the whole winter.

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I'm always surprised how different places can be from first impressions and that its best not to have any expectations, though hard not to. Xinaliq is definitely such a place. I'd like to go back again, not just for the beauty around it, but also to see how their traditional community is adapting to rapidly changing lifestyles and technology.

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Posted by sue deegan 01:10 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (4)

Southern Azerbaijan 2

Shoot-out at the OK Corrall

sunny 27 °C

The Lonely Planet guide book states that travelling in Southern Azerbaijan needs either a knowledge of a local language - Azeri or Russian, or ingenuity. I knew I didn't have the first one so banked on the second, even though I felt about as ingenious as a slug. We caught a share taxi back to the big town - Lankaran, which seemed hot and full of life after sleepy Lehric. People were surprised to see us at the market/bus station area, but were very friendly. The idea was to catch a bus to the next big town up and then find a way to get to a small town which was described in the said book as being pleasant but not worth staying in. In our wisdon we decided that we knew better and wouldn't blindly follow guide books and would stay the night there and then go back to Baku the next day.

When we arrived at Masali, the next town, we were met with a barrage of "helpful"people and taxi drivers. This is a quite usual event when you arrive anywhere, so you have to try and pretend that you know where you are going and that you know the prices of everything. As I was still not feeling that well it was a bit harder than ususal. The actual travelling is quite restful when you're ill, siting on a bus and gazing at the scenery, but arriving is the difficult bit! The taxi drivers explained, nicely, that as the town was 100 kilometres away the price was $100. It was $50 km and we eventually got the price down to 10 Manats, about 7 pounds or $12. You know you're in trouble when people give prices in dollars or Euros, they become a bit more sensible when you switch to the local currency.

Once the bargaining buisiness is done here, no matter how intense it has become, everything is all friendly again. (Thats until you get to the end of the journey when, if you haven't been careful and made the price absolutely certain, there might be a disagreement on what was agreed.) Once we were off our driver was great and stopped off to show us Azerbaijan's biggest waterfall and bought us tea in the cafe there. It was great to be back in a place that realises the sense of having cafes under trees at every available opportunity, even if they are only used by men. The trip was nearly identical to the one to Lehric - beautiful woody areas, getting higher and higher until we were in sparser, scorched grassy small mountains. I realised again that the optimum time to go the Talysh Mountains would be in the spring time, when there would be wild flowers and green grass. We stopped at a small Mosque, where the driver brought us in. Unusually, there was a women chanting from the Koran and the Mosque was full of women annd children. We walked slowly around the tomb of the holy person it was dedicated to 3 times and then carried on.

Our destination was called Yardimilli ( pronounced Yardumli) and looked quite pleasant. We got dropped off at the only hotel there, which seemed quite posh and big after our previous cold water/squat toilet place. We decided to have a look around and to find somewhere to eat. At the previous town, the people there were midly surprised to see us, here they were downright amazed, though not unfriendly. While we we in the cafe, we noticed police outside talking to people. Police in a lot of countries aren't as seperate as in England, they are usually related to or went to school with just about everyone and are often seen chatting, often with their arms around people or even holding hands with them (men ofcourse). However, when it comes to it, they expect to be obeyed and respected in Azerbaijan. When we walked out we realised they had come to see us and asked for our passports. As we had left them in the hotel, there was a lot of discussion, waiting, phoning bosses, the hotel and probably just about everyone they could think of. We hoped that they would give us a lift up the steep hill to the hotel to look at them, but they must have decided that we were pretty stupid as we couldn't understand them and so harmless and couldn't be bothered to check and waived us officiously on, driving past us as we went in. I assumed that security was a bit more serious as we were right on the border with Iran.

The next day we looked around the town, which we realised hadn't actually been worth staying in.. The highlight was going to the fire station and meeting the firemen, who asked the same questions about age, money and children, but had lots of great gold teeth and were funny. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take any photos. After eating and using the 2nd worst toilet of the whole trip, the description of which I'll save for a later time, we decided to go on our way after another look around the town.

This time we passed a different policeman who did a cartoon double take when he saw us. We'd learnt from experience and had our passports with us and, even though he phoned the same people and we told him we were going that day, he was obviously very distressed. "Go today, as soon as possible" was the message,so we did. As we drove out of town we passed him and he looked about as relieved as anyone could be and he waived us on our way officiously.

We got back to Lankaran to wait for the night train to Baku and went back to an outside cafe next to the station. It was also next the police station and the army barracks. After a while we realised that there was a small crowd gathering. One man had robes and a turban and looked like an Imam (religious leader). The crowd got noisier and some police came along. The noise and police increased and it all got quite confusing. From our ringside seat we saw some riot police arrive and then they chased some people right infont of the cafe across the railway track. There were several bangs and the smell of smoke. A couple of the bangs were really loud and sharp and I realised I was hearing gun fire for the first time, though they were probably just blanks. Infront of the station was a large square and this was being driven around by police vehicles and the traffic was stopped. The rest of the people in the cafe didn't seem to know what was going on, and no-one could speak English anyway, so we didn't have a clue what was happening, but it was all very exciting. A few times we all had to get up and start to move off as the bangs and the police chasing people came so close . Eventually it all calmed down on life carried on as before. I was sorry that I hadn't taken any photos, but a tourist with a massive camera would have stuck out like a sore thumb and I didn't fancy a night in the police station. It was a fitting end to our visit to the south, which had had a bit of a feel to the Wild West to it.

When I got to Baku I asked people if it had been on TV, but no-one knew about it. Eventually I found something on the internet, saying that police had stated that "there had been no incident in Lankaran, but several people had invited themselves to the police station for discussion and to pay fines. And that the people of the town were happy about this." The ones I saw were quite happy as it had been great entertainment for us all.

We spent a few days in Baku doing the trips I mentioned in a previous blog and for me to recover. Unfortunately, although the previous illness cleared up, I then developed a tooth abcess and the previously healed knee also broke out in massive blisters. Ignoring my own advice that a doctor wouldn't be able to do anything, I went to an American GP. He couldn't do anything. But I did find some cheap Propolis tincture at a chemist and stocked up on bandages, antibiotic and painkillers.

Feeling like a total hypocondriac, with pharmaceutical goods bulging out of my bag, we set off on a bus for the north of Azerbaijan.

Posted by sue deegan 01:27 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (1)

Southern Azerbaijan

part 1

sunny 27 °C

We left Baku on another overnight train to the very south of Azerbaijan, on the border with Iran. Arriving at the station early the next morning I had my first taste of Azeri cafe life - a choice of black tea, black tea with sugar, black tea with lemon, black tea with lemon and sugar. And sweets. Every bowl had an assortment of hand-cut sugar lumps and wrapped sweets. The idea is to put one or the other in your mouth and sip the tea through it to sweeten it. The sugar, as I said is hand cut and harder than most sugar cubes and has magical qualities - when you put it in your tea it doesn't dissolve, but a few seconds after being in your mouth it totally disintegrates. They don't give you a spoon either, so the choice is to re-learn the Azeri for spoon and ask for one, or use a pen - no prizes for guessing my solution. Now you may ask what I'm doing having sugar in my tea anyway, but black tea that strong needs it! The other main point about these cafes is that they are entirely populated by men. Just occasionally there is a woman cleaning there or a seed-seller is allowed to sit down for a few minutes- though not drink tea. A foreign woman has honorary male status in most Muslim places, but you still have to put up with a certain amount of initial shocked looks and stares - the amount depends on how remote the place is. My first men's cafe was a medium on the stare scale. After a walk through the early morning town, we decided to go to a smaller town a few miles away up in the Talysh Mountains. The Talysh people are a quieter, gentler people than the Azeris and speak their own language, which is similar to Farsi or Persian. They look quite Persian ( Iranian) as well. Another similarity is that they are Shi'a Muslims, not Sunni. There are many differences, but the ones I know are that the Shi'a only pray 3 times a day instead of 5, but are more serious about it all and quite like the tombs of holy people - especially if they were martyrs. It was a much more conservative area than Baku, where the girls wear designer clothes and no headscarves and life is a lot more cosmopolitan.

The small town we arrived in was mildly surprised to see us. At first we put up in the hotel - don't think there were any others. This was next to the main cafe, which was very restful and relaxing under the shade of some trees - another common cafe feature. After putting our stuff in the room, we went for a walk around, to be met by a man who demanded where we were staying and why hadn't we come to his. He kept going on about a book until we realised that he meant the Lonely Planet guide book, which he was mentioned in and was amazed that foreigners would stay anywhere else. We did go and stay with him though as his place was cheaper than the hotel.

The town was surrounded by some small mountains, with some higher ones in the distance, Iran was only a few miles away. The mountains looked nice, but a bit scorched as it was the late summer. I imagine that the best time of year to go ther is late spring, when its not too hot and the grass is still green. However, it was still beautiful, and when we went up some hills, we met some boys with their horse and they told us they spent a lot of their time riding around the hills and looked very happy with their lot.

As we were walking around the town, we were called from a window of a house. "Chai, Chai" he beckoned us in. The house was owned by a man called Famil, who lived there with his wife, son, brother and sister-in-law and their little baby. The women fussed over us as we came in and sat us down and force-fed us endless cups of tea, although they were fasting for Ramadan. (It had not really been noticeable in Baku that it was Ramadan, but here some people fasted and some didn't, however they wanted.) We then spent a couple of hilarious hours trying to communicate with a mixture of very bad Russian, Azeri, English and a sort of sign language/charades mixture, with the help of a pretty useless phrase book, until a neighbour was called to come with his computer that had an English translator on it. - computer are pretty scarce in that region. As I said before, Azeri is very similar to Turkish, I had a few words, unfortunately these were mainly the same words that I knew in Russian, so there wasn't a lot of conversation ability going on. Its so much easier than Georgian though, which seems to be the hardest language in the world. Azeri for "bad" is " Pis", which is helpful. The main topic of conversation there, and all over Azerbaijan is generally "How much do you earn, how old are you?" People were amazed by the idea of an older woman and younger man - quite often A men have much younger (and prettier) wives. They weren't much impressed by the wages in England either as those in Baku seemed if anything, slightly better!

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The women took me to look around the house, which consisted of 2 sections, divided by a curtain, for each brother's family. Each section had a large bedroom and massive but pretty empty sitting room - just a settee and table and lots of space. One section had a kitchen just off it. I was also shown an impressive Cesarean scar and had women's talk with few words. The baby was 3 months old and swaddled and strapped, in a very ethnic way, to a small rocking cradle. At feeding time it had a bottle put in its mouth in the cradle, which it made very short work of. Afterwards he was allowed some time kicking around, but then was put back in the cradle, which was rocked furiously whenever he cried. He was obviously adored and was a pretty happy baby. Once, when the women were out of the room and the baby cried, I rocked the cradle but was told to stop as I was a guest and guests were not allowed to any work around the place, but must be sat down and waited on constantly! It was a fascinating insight into Talysh life and I went back the next day to take some photos, though they were very shy and I didn't want to take advantage of their hospitality.

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My injuries were now healing up nicely and the cold I'd caught the day before leaving Georgia was gone and I was able to get back into walking again. We went for a longish hot walk in the hills where I only obtained minor injuries. I was so happy to be finally feeling healthy for the first time on the trip.

The next day I got ill again! I was seriously pissed off, but all I wanted to do was lie in bed or sit under the trees at the cafe for a couple of days. However, time was eating into our 30 day visa and we left to go back to Baku via another small place in the Talysh mountains.

Posted by sue deegan 09:33 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (0)

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