A Travellerspoint blog

October 2010

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!


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.


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)

Travelling by Mashrutka in Azerbaijan

seating etiquette

Thought I'd add this extra bit on while I'm waiting for photos to copy at the "Internet Klub".

As I mentioned before, one of the main ways to travel around the Caucasus, and also Central Asia, is by Mashrutka. These are usually Transit vans with seats - as many as can be fitted in. They either travel around towns and cities or go from one town or village to another, have a fixed route but in most cases only leave when full. And I mean full. This is not just with people, but also luggage, shopping that gets sent from a shop to someone in a village, furniture, bags of flour, vegetables, rice,you name it, if it fits in it gets crammed in.

Mashrutkas can run remarkably regularly and I know of several places in England that would benefit from public transport like that!

In these countries women, quite rightly I think, get given seats by men. There is also an age thing going on so a young woman will give her seat up to an old man. The best person to be on a Mashrutka is an old woman and the worst is a young man or boy.

As Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, this adds an extra dimension as men and women don't generally sit next to each other - I was in one when a the whole long seat at the front was taken up by an old lady. The young boy who was taking the fares and helping put the bags in had to wait for her to give him permission to sit down at the other end of the seat.

The way it work here is that the Mashrutka seating gets sorted out correctly at the beginning of the journey, however this soon needs to be rearranged as more people get on. You can see the intricate calculations of age and gender being worked out at every stop as it gets fuller and fuller. Often people have to stand in bent positions, clinging on to whatever they can. I did this for a short while in a city one and was held onto, very kindly, by a young girl who thought it very worrying that a tourist should have to do this.

On a long trip, the Mashrutka invariably stops just outside the first town, where there is a large group of old ladies with a large amount of bags, the passengers let out a collective groan, but then good naturedly arrange themselves to let them sit down.

Once I was on a full one which stopped at a village and about 12 schoolchildren got on to go to school - there was much pushing and shoving and it went on its way to the town.

Its a brilliant way to travel - especially if you are an older woman and costs next to nothing.

Posted by sue deegan 04:57 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (2)

Baku beyond

A 2 humped camel city

sunny 30 °C


Azerbaijan got off on a bad start with me - first of all I'd been woken up on the sleeper train by a man kneeling on the floor between my bunk and his wife's and talking in a very loud whisper - strangely all the English he knew before disappeared, or at least he didn't know what "Shut up I'm trying to sleep!" meant. Also the very sovietly (new word) officious train woman locked the toilet doors before we got to Baku and just stood and watched while I tried to open it. Lastly, the similarly officious toilet attendant at Baku station refused to let me in as I didn't have any Azeri money. You'll be relieved to hear that some nice ladies came along and gave her some money for me. Looking back I'm not sure why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and go in anyway, but early in the morning and a new country is a bad combination for me. Its so easy, when traveling, to fall into the trap of assuming that individual people represent a whole country, which, of course, is silly. I do think that different nationalities have a general "personality", but its impossible to form a proper impression of this after a few hours! However, I carried on with the feeling that the Azeris can be quite a forceful people and that you have to keep on your toes with them. They can also be very warm, hospitable and friendly people too.

We arrived in Baku, the capital, which is on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, across which is Turkmenistan, to the south is Iran and the north is Russia and Dagestan. Baku is a city rich in oil, the proceeds of which are obvious around the city, infact it has the poshest Debenham's I've ever seen. We went to the Old City and were immediately accosted by the local guide, Ali, who actually showed us comparatively cheap hotel ( his brother's of course, in the old city. As in Tbilisi, this was for the same price as a bed in an overcrowded dorm. The Caucasus seem to specialise in expensive hostels, knowing that foreign backpackers like to keep together. It is nice to meet other travellers, but its still possible to do so while having a bit more value for money.

The Old City in Baku is surrounded by its mostly original walls with a several gates, at one of which is the large Maiden Tower. Unfortunately, the buildings have been either rebuilt or sandblasted, giving it a rather sanitised look, in fact it reminded me of an oriental Poundbury! Still it was possible to imagine the Caravans arriving across the desert. When I was travelling along the Silk Road before I became very interested/obsessed with how many humps camels had in each country. To explain: when the Silk Caravans set out from China they used 2 humped, hairy mountain camels, but when they arrived in the Middle East, the camels were single-humped desert camels. Where, I wondered, did the camels loose a hump? The answer, as far as I could tell, was Uzbekistan, where there had been both types. Baku was also on one of the numerous Silk Roads but although it is surrounded by desert, the hairy mountain 2 humped variety was the one in most of the old pictures.



The Azeri people are of Turkic origin and their language is pretty close to Turkish. Here is a quick, but highly academic history of the Turkic people:
Quite a long time ago, a tribe called the Turks left the homelands somewhere around Mongolia, though they weren't Mongolian. They spread down through Xinjiang, which is now in western China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and into Turkey. There might be a few Stans left out of that. This is mainly Central Asia and Turkey. Its a massive area and explains why in China there are people whose language and culture are strongly related to Turkey, thousands of miles away. Now you know.

We were in Baku twice, but I'll tell you about the stuff we did there in one go.

Although the centre of Baku is very modern and wealthy, the areas surrounding it were full of filthy old oil wells and ecological destruction. This is being slowly cleared up but it makes for an interesting comparison. Out of the 3 Caucusus countries, Azerbaijan has the largest division between rich and poor. One of the places we went to was an old Zorastrian fire temple. This had an eternal flame, which was originally fueled by natural gasses, but now by the compliments of the gas company! The trip on the bus from Baku took us through areas that became more and more run down until we arrived in a dilapidated town full of old nodding donkeys and a train line full of oil tankers.


We also did a couple of trips with the speedy but informative Ali to some mud volcanoes, the "James Bond Oil field" used in a Bond film, strangely enough, a mountain that has been on fire for a few hundred years - not fueled by the gas company, and a sea-side resort with oil fields in the distance.


After a couple of expensive days in Baku we decided to go south to the Talysh Mountains, which border on Iran.

Posted by sue deegan 04:35 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged people night trains backpacking baku azerbaijan caucusus Comments (2)

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