Well friends, these last few weeks in Azerbaijan have been quite a whirlwind—I’ve been out of town traveling on the weekends and trying to cram in the last few shreds of knowledge vocab and grammar as well as running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing cultural activities and seeing Baku. I will give you the highlights as I see them and let you decide for yourself.
Qax is a beautiful town nestled in the Greater Caucasus mountain range of Azerbaijan near the border with Dagestan Russia and with a significant Georgian minority. Two weekends I went with friends Rhianna and Ryan to check it out for myself. We took the night train again which is always in and of itself an adventure. This one included everyone trying to find food etc for the trip and almost missing the train (hey we had 3 minutes or so to spare when we boarded) and then spending the evening eating, drinking talking and taking in Azerbaijan and its countryside through the dirty window held open by half empty water bottles in either corner. We discussed what Azerbaijan had been for us so far and what we were going to do post-AZ summer. We saw the outskirts (slums) of Baku on the way out, with homes and neighborhoods that were single story concrete with corrugated metal for roofs while huge blocks of high-rises were being built nearby. Unless those high-rises are seriously subsidized no one in those neighborhoods will ever live in one. Fires burnt in the lanes and courtyards and you could catch glimpses of faces from the people who inhabit this section of Baku. While I may joke about where I live I have seen a very very privileged part of Azerbaijan while I have been here. My host mother is University educated and her daughter will be too. The entire family speaks Russian and Azeri and Nigar my host sister speaks English. Their home has running water all the time, electricity, gas air conditioning and internet. They own a computer. I live less than an hour by public transportation from the Bulvar and Tardova, the center of this city. I live exceptionally well as compared to many in this country. I have seen a very specific slice of Azerbaijan while living in Baku. And I have gotten lucky.
Homes faded from view to be replaced by oil rigs and gas flares and eventually my eyes decided that they were done. I climbed into the top bunk and was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the train that I was on. I got cold during the night as we climbed higher into the mountains and due to the open window. It felt really good to be cold. It hit a hundred in Baku today so anytime when I shiver has become the most pleasant feeling in the entire world. Wearing a jacket is like Christmas. The problem with the heat is that it leaves you with a profound disinterest in doing anything. Like say, going to class, learning Azerbaijani, doing homework or visiting museums. It has become a problem. I have started napping in the afternoons to try and get rid of the hottest part of the day but this requires a half hour commute home and no matter what I do half of this is an uphill walk. Let us reiterate. Hundred plus degrees. Carrying heavy school bag. Uphill. Let us say that I glisten when I get home. A lot. I no longer wonder what the smell is because me is usually a good bet. As a group we have named it the CLS stench. My idea of what clothing is clean and or wearable again based upon the smell test has changed dramatically over the summer. For those of you who will have to deal with me after my arrival I apologize. I will probably wear clothing that should have been washed 3 times already. And I will think it is fine.
We got to Qax after an 11 hour train journey and discovered that the train station in Qax is a half hour taxi ride from the town of Qax. Hooray! We ended up having an exceptionally unpleasant taxi ride with a driver who almost took off before I was in the cab, only my loud and exceptionally annoyed “Oy!” stopped him from taking my leg off via a taxi-ectomy. He also insisted that there was no need for seat belts since he was such a great driver. It is still fairly common for drivers to take it as a personal affront to their abilities for riders to wear a seat belt. In my personal opinion he was a bad driver, going far too fast careering around blind corners, passing everything on the road, barely missing several herds of village cows, flying around mountains in a country where there is apparently no word for guard rail (we asked later on, nope, if the concept doesn’t exist why should the word). He also refused to take us to the hotel that we wanted to go to, saying that it was bad. We insisted that he stop and take us back (all of this is in Azerbaijani with me leading the charge as the best speaker and the driver looking to Ryan because he is the male in the car). He turned around and took us to a different hotel, apparently assuming that since we were foreign we were total idiots and wouldn’t notice the difference. Oh we did and he then had two very angry and liberated American women jumping down his throat telling him to take us to the correct hotel which he then pretended to not know the location of. We were forced to give him directions and then he insisted that we pay him more since he had given us a tour of Qax. We got out of the car barely managing to not kill him though I think we were all ready to. On the plus side I now know how to yell and have a pretty extensive argument in Azerbaijan. I even got real world experience and have a standard dialogue to work from.
After this excellent intro to Qax we went with Peace Corps Volunteer James on a stunning hike up a shepherd’s trail to the pasture on the top of the tallest mountain in the vicinity. This was a 3 or 4 hour hike in total, intensive and tiring. We followed the trail (kind of) by the red markings that ended where James had stopped the day before and then looked for traces of the shepherds’ cows as evidence of the trail. The air got thinner, the forest more primeval, our stomachs hungrier and water bottles emptier. We were all sweaty, tired and ready for an actual view (since trees obscured it most of the way up) and then all of a sudden we were at the top of the mountain. The trees opened up in an almost fairy tale like manner so that we were looking out at open skies and land once more. We were in a meadow covered in a thousand wild flowers of varying shades looking out over the valley below us with a river winding through and more mountains beyond it. A single tree stood on a ledge ahead of us and we sat and got a spectacular view of the same valley further up, looking at a small village stretching itself out comfortably along the banks of a gently winding river. The bugs were thinner, the air cleaner than anything I have ever experienced in Azerbaijan and I wanted to dance with pleasure at being on a mountaintop in the Caucasus with friends and far far away from the mundane and everyday world that I normally inhabit. We continued following the thin and winding trail along the steep meadow and as we stepped around the next corner a shepherd in army boots and a t-shirt approached us carrying a beverage bottle that has been in use since the invention of plastic filled with sweet spring water. He handed it to us and we drank deeply. He then motioned to take the pack from Ryan’s back that contained our food and other supplies. He politely declined and the shepherd took off again, giving us the chance to slowly approach the shepherd’s hut which consisted of three walls of a fascinating combination of twigs and blue tarpaulin.
They were Georgian shepherds and they had other Georgian friends visiting from Tblisi with the result that a pack of Georgians who spoke as good of Azerbaijani as we did were waiting for us to arrive. They chatted with us, a young woman in the group spoke amazing English and asked about who we were and how we had gotten there. Then we were invited in for chay, another bottle was decapitated so that it might become two glasses for the Georgian wine they had with them. The wine is traditionally drunk in one swig, with the arms of the drinkers intertwined. Ryan lost his chugging contest and had to kiss a scruffy shepherd on the cheek much to our amusement. Then the pork kebab came out. It was fascinating to hang out with Georgians rather than Azerbaijanis and get a feel for their interpersonal relations. They were loud and brash (and I think drunk) but the women had no fear and no submission towards the men. They drank openly and the men seemed at ease with us American women. They climbed the mountain which told me that they were not afraid of hard labor and intense exercise. And one shepherd had the nicest teeth I have seen in a long time. Not a gold one in sight. To celebrate our arrival the shepherd fired their shotgun, something that I suspect would belong in a museum in the states, a double barreled percussion cap affair to complement the machetes that they each wore in their belt. After the lengthy affair that refusing any type of hospitality or food is in this country a shepherd took us the last couple hundred meters to the peak of the mountain, through his herds of cows and charging up the steep hills like it was the easiest thing in the world. As he was smoking a cigarette. I want to see the lungs of the shepherds in this country. It would make for the most fascinating combination of destruction due to personal behavior and incredible strength due to lifestyle. He looked down quizzically as we huffed and puffed and finally arrived breathless only to have our breath stolen yet again by the view. We had 360 degrees of beauty before us.
On every side the land dropped down beneath our feet to reveal untouched mountains (purported to be the Russian border) a few snowcapped peaks, the town of Qax and the vast low valley that covers the center of Azerbaijan. We stopped to take photos and think and try to catch our breath. The shepherd made a call on his cell phone which still worked despite our removal from civilization. And yet that is not true because we were at the height of civilization, where we were greeted like long lost kin and showered with generosity and kindness despite the fact that our conversations were stilted and punctuated by exaggerated hand gestures meant to convey human emotion. It was with great sadness that I took my leave of that mountaintop for I could have sat and watched the world go by for the rest of my life from that place. But I suppose that it is better this way for it will never become ordinary to me. That place with always be preserved in my mind as extraordinary, indescribable and just a little bit magical. If Azerbaijan is a world apart from America then that mountain was a world apart from Azerbaijan. I felt both incredibly at home with those shepherds and incredibly foreign in my shorts and t-shirt with my odd accent and penchant for hiking and my inability to keep pace with the young men who inhabit those hills. I can see what it is about this place that had drawn explorers and adventurers since the beginning of time and how places could become so isolated that the languages here are unrelated to those anywhere else on the planet. I can see how each small village could preserve its own dialect and specific way of life and how despite its size Azerbaijan has the dazzling array of accents in its native tongue. After the heat and stench and noise of Baku Qax and that mountain, which is so normal and every day to the people there that it seems to lack a name, made me fall back in love with Azerbaijan. I admit that my energy has been flagging; I have been tiring of class and routine and being unable to communicate. I have tired of the misogyny and the constant staring and questioning and feeling as though I must represent not just America but women as well. Qax tired me physically to the point that I could hardly stand upright but it refilled my spirit and brought me back to a place where I needed to be. I needed to be in love with this country and the people here. I needed to feel at peace and at ease with my Creator and His creation. And I needed to leave this country happy with it, not angry resentful spiteful and ready to see its back. I want to leave with the magic of this place in my heart. It is there now.