Noah was pretty much the first and last traveller to go to Azerbaijan, and even then, he just floated over it. In the ensuing 5000 years, it might have been extremely popular with invaders and petroleum companies, but people travelling for the sake of it have always been something of a rarity. Azerbaijan might come up occasionally in a pub quiz (What two countries begin but don’t end with the letter ‘A’?*) but it’s hardly top of anyone’s must-see travel list.
Asya, my fervently nationalist guide, thought this summary of her beloved country was ridiculous. Had I really never been to Azerbaijan before? Didn’t I know about all the things Azerbaijan was famous for – the caviar, the pomegranates, the longevity, the beautiful women, the carpets, the cures for baldness to name but a few? We were halfway through the 1300 carpets displayed in Baku’s apparently world-renowned Carpet Museum and she already had me indoctrinated with the belief that Azerbaijani – as opposed to Persian – carpets were the greatest in the world. But she wasn’t happy when I asked her why on earth anyone would come to Azerbaijan.
By lunchtime, I was already beginning to understand her annoyance. The sheep’s cheese tasted of farmyards but the pomegranate sauce I was using to drown my sturgeon was magnificent. A waiter brought over some dovga which turned out to be yoghurt and vegetables and as I feasted in the surroundings of a medieval caravanserai, I concluded that if the country was as odd as the food then I was in for a fun week.
Walking through Baku for the first time was certainly an odd experience. I started in the Old Town at the beautifully minimalist palace where, as with most Central Asian palaces, prisoners were once subjected to gruesome methods of execution (in this case being washed out into the Caspian Sea from a subterranean cave). Down the hill, I popped into an old hammam full of steam, towels and local gossip. What with the loud-speakered call to prayer, cats picking through rubbish and a woman beating the dust from her Azeri (not Persian) carpet, the atmosphere was distinctly Middle Eastern.
Through an archway, I was in modern Baku and found elegant oil-boom architecture alongside far less ornate Soviet constructions. Old men in shiny suits were standing around shaking each others’ hands as they do in town squares across the Caucasus. But young Azeri women were strolling up and down the boulevards as if taking part in a Florentine passeggiata. Traditional Azeri music floated out of one shop, Phil Collins medleys out of the next.
At my Back in the USSR monstrosity of a hotel, both European and Central Asian influences vanished altogether as I was frisked and asked to produce my passport – a standard way of treating guests in Soviet-style hotels. The receptionist was Russian and looked at me like I’d just killed her dog when I told her there wasn’t any toilet paper in my room. The room itself was the kind of place you’d see on Holidays from Hell, unchanged and uncleaned since the days of Russian control.
After dinner in a Turkish restaurant that played Sending out an SOS three times in two hours, I was back to the view that Western cultural influences were strong but when I walked past the only McDonald’s in town it was almost empty. Jazz bars, caravanserais, Soviet hotel rooms and kebab stands put Baku on a knife edge between East and West, a capital always under pressure from outside influences but determined to hang on to its own identity.
I decided to head out of the capital to Sheki, a town in the foothills of the Caucasus that would almost certainly be more traditional than Baku. The night train leaves daily at 9pm and Emil, my friend at the travel agency, was nervous as we arrived at the station. After all, I was a tourist in Azerbaijan, a rare and endangered species. He gave me three warnings: on no account should I take photos of the train (the army is on high-alert for Armenian spies); if a train official asked for my passport, I should not let them take it away (easier said than done); and if I ran out of cash in Sheki I was in trouble – credit cards are not accepted anywhere.
I assured Emil that I would be OK and settled in to my darkened cabin (lights only work when the train moves, à la bicycle dynamos). I felt excited rather than apprehensive about the journey. I was on my own in a very strange country surrounded by that chaotic pre-departure hubbub. Outside my window, a lady with a big fur hat sat at a table drinking tea while a man sold kebabs and beer from his kiosk. An entire battalion of soldiers was at ease and smoking cigarettes further up the platform while porters rushed back and forth with luggage, chickens and bags of rice.
Just as in the good old days of InterRailing, I was praying no one would come into my cabin. For once they didn’t and on time the train pulled out of the station. The lights illuminated my relatively luxurious abode, the carpet-lined seat, a small desk, a lamp and a chair and I settled in for the nine-hour journey.
The first knock came at 10.20pm. A ruthlessly efficient woman shooed me out of my seat and within seconds had turned it into a clean-sheeted bed. A guard followed her in and asked a question in Azeri which I obviously wasn’t going to be able to answer. I said ‘thank you’ a few times and showed him my passport. He called the woman over and the two of them laughed uncontrollably at my photo, so I laughed less warmly with them.
The second knock came ten minutes later and I began to think this would be a long night. It was the police so on Emil’s advice I made ready to prevent the abduction of my passport. “Salaam”, “Salaam”, was followed by four questions to which I replied “Inglis”, “Inglis”, “Inglis” and “Sheki”. My non-existent vocabulary clearly amused them and I was left in peace for the night.
The toilet at the end of the carriage represented a distinct downside to the journey. It had clearly been cleaned as often as the train had been refurbished (twice in the last 100 years) and even the breathing-through-the-mouth trick didn’t work. My bed, on the other hand, was the most comfortable I’ve known on a train. I woke occasionally when the low-speed lurching of the carriage became less hypnotic and more trampoline-like. Other than that, I slept my way across the lowlands of Azerbaijan, waking just before seven when a swift knock announced our arrival in Sheki.
I disembarked with three others at a deserted station. There was one cab which looked as if it had been waiting there for a long, long time. I woke the driver and we set off into the looming mountains, reaching the old town centre as dawn began to break. I stepped out into the crisp morning air and knocked on the huge wooden door of my caravanserai hotel.
An old man in a dressing gown peered out of a smaller door within the door. He looked sleepy, said hello and then vanished. A few minutes later he returned in a suit. I was let in and followed him through a stunning domed entrance hall, up a winding stone staircase and around the second tier of an enchanting courtyard to my room. The almost embarrassingly hospitable man proudly presented every bit of the room, even to the point of demonstrating the shower, which promptly drenched him in icy mountain water. He finally left saying “welcome” and I went to sleep in my new mountain home.
Later that morning, I discovered that, unlike Baku, Sheki is a beautifully simple town. Built around one long, steep, winding road, it’s a great example of what life must have been like in England before supermarkets and mass-produced clothing. A tinker, a tailor and an umbrella-maker jostled for business next to a vegetable store and some obscure bric-a-brac outlets.
The post office consisted of two men sitting behind a wooden counter in a room that was otherwise empty. When I expressed my desire to send three postcards to England, a phone call was necessary to discuss the logistics of the request. A plan contrived, the postcards were placed in a small metal box behind the counter and I left, less convinced than ever that my letters would make it.
Just off the main square behind a tiny café, a crowd from the local girls’ school had gathered in the cool sunshine to watch Azerbaijan’s champion wrestler demonstrate his might at throwing large iron balls. There was a clearly discernible excitement amongst onlookers – presumably more to do with missing double maths than seeing Azerbaijan’s answer to Big Daddy.
Before long, the foreign imposter was noticed and I was beckoned forward. It looked for a moment as though the unpredictable celeb was going to throw me but he opted instead for a verbal assault. The crowd fell silent as he embarked on a long question. Wishing I’d taken Azeri at school instead of French, I shrugged and gave my standard ignorant-tourist response: “English.” He bellowed a great theatrical laugh, threw an iron ball to rapturous applause and some of the more forward girls giggled hello. I took a photo and said goodbye, the wrestler and the crowd said goodbye back, and I decided that Azerbaijanis were the friendliest people on earth.
At the thriving local market further down the hill, English sensibilities made a walk down the meat aisle difficult. Cow legs complete with hooves were arranged in macabre patterns on one stall while a recently severed head sat bleeding profusely over a chair. The halva aisle was equally stressful. Thousands of bees swarmed around huge platters of the sticky sweet and, while the halva sellers weren’t even remotely bothered, I lost my cool and legged it within seconds. The fruit section was less immediately life-threatening. Pomegranates were on offer by the thousand while car boots overflowed with grapes, apples, pears and plums.
Back at my caravanserai, I ordered a late lunch of lamb stew. The television was on the blink so, despite my protestations, the waiter set up a table in the garden. Mountains towered above the old stone walls and the air was life-affirmingly fresh. Breads, salads, fruits, juices and beers were rushed to my alfresco table and it was clear that having a guest at the caravanserai was rare.
The following morning, I walked up the hill to the Khan’s Palace, a surprisingly small building at the top of town. Two women, one old, one ancient, leapt from nowhere to sell me a photo permit as I attempted to take a picture. I opted for an entrance ticket as well and wandered inside. Light shone through coloured glass onto ornate carpets and reflected from the courtyard pond across intricate ceilings. The ancient woman made her way up the stairs on all fours to show me an even more astoundingly florid corridor. There had been no suggestion of such splendour from the outside but from within it was more beautiful than any European palace I’ve seen.
Two days later, it was time to leave my mountain retreat. I arrived at the station two hours early to make sure I had a ticket. Predictably, there was no one there except for a tea-seller and a couple of customers. They were sitting huddled in a corner and immediately invited me over. I was furnished with a drink and a delicious biscuit. We shared no language but communicated with the help of a phrasebook – arduous but more entertaining than I-spy. An hour later, Esau, the station master, joined us for tea before opening his office. I asked for a cabin, showed my passport and was promptly accused of being a football hooligan. I mimed that I preferred rugby and managed to procure a ticket home.
Asya was waiting at Baku station the next morning, thrilled to hear that I had loved Sheki and full of the joys of Guba, our destination for the day. Two hours into our drive north along the shores of the Caspian, the nodding donkeys of the huge Baku oilfields began to give way to Azerbaijan’s agricultural heartland. The road to Guba was lined with fruit stalls, pick-ups full of huge red apples and boys selling buckets of walnuts.
In the town itself, a charming place of wooden houses, simple mosques and quiet streets, we walked around while Asya waxed lyrical about the local quality of life. A diet of fresh fruit and fresh air had helped a former inhabitant become the ‘oldest man in the world.’ He smoked a pipe every day until his death at 125. I said we weren’t quite so good at longevity in London so Asya kindly promised me a beautiful wife and good health if I moved to Azerbaijan.
We got back to Baku just in time to visit the main market and seek out Azerbaijan’s black gold, caviar. Now that the government has set astronomical prices for caviar in an attempt to protect the ailing Caspian sturgeon and, of course, their profits, a black market has been thriving. I was introduced to Rufat, a man who, with a nod, a wink and a flash of dollars, could sort me out with a jam jar of the prized fish eggs for a good price. His pot-belly and nonchalant manner gave him an air of mafiosi cool until he blew it by asking to have his photo taken.
As I prepared to face the grumpy receptionist at my Soviet hotel for the last time, I asked Asya what was the best thing about Azerbaijan. “I love it all,” she said vaguely. “I will show you more when you come back.” Which doesn’t leave much option, does it? I went to Azerbaijan expecting nothing more than to gain an improved ability on the blue questions in Trivial Pursuit. I found a strange, wonderful country full of strange, wonderful people and a guide who assumes I’ll be back next year.
* The other one is Afghanistan.
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