Sunday, August 20, 2006


During this trip I've been relatively lucky in that I've had no real run-ins with police, bureaucrats and officialdom in general. That changed last night when I had to stay in an army outpost in the village of Laza in the mountains of Azerbaijan. To explain how I ended up there I had better start my account a few days earlier.

Tawnya and I quickly left Baku, heading towards the northern town of Quba, the gateway to the mountains of Azerbaijan. From there we got a ride to the picturesque village of Xinaliq, perched on a rocky outcrop in a valley and ringed by towering mountains, oddly enough devoid of trees and just covered in close-cropped grass. Due to its remote location Xinaliq, despite only having a population of around 2000, has its own, unique language and culture. We spent a couple of days there, experiencing the local hospitality (being fed, shown around and having lovely chats) and hiking up a local peak. We then set off south towards the village of Laza, some two days hike away through mountain valleys only seasonally populated by sheep, goats and their herders. The trek ended up taking three days instead due to several mishaps on the first day. Immediately outside of Xinaliq one has to ford a particularly muddy stream and Tawnya managed to get stuck in quicksand up to her thigh, and then minutes after managing to free herself produced some quicksand of her own. We then missed a vital fork in the path (only visible whilst looking backwards though) and got stuck for a couple of hours at a fork in the river. After backtracking along an unpleasantly dangerous ridge we found the right path, but Tawnya's intestines were not feeling happy and so we decided to call it a day, set up camp and rest.

The next day was far more productive and we met a Czech couple (Misha and Ice) who were going the same way as us and so we set off together. Luckily, at a spot where a stream had to be forded we met a local shepherd on his horse who carried us across one at a time (although I still almost managed to fall in, continuing my sour relationship with those beasts) and accompanying us along our path, providing fording assistance whenever necessary. Upon reaching his makeshift hut we had a rest and a quick bite (we were rationing our food because of the extra day) and were about to set off again when our shepherd friend told us to stay for chay. Stay for chay we did, as well as for a big pot of boiled mutton! Rested, and feeling rather full, we shouldered our bags and headed up and over the main pass and towards the other side to find a suitable place to set up our tents. Just as we found such a place a young herder came bounding over, saying it wasn't such a good place, and inviting us to his camp a little way off to have some chay (everything in Azerbaijan seems to revolve around chay). After being inundated with tea for an hour or two we were getting itchy to set up our tents; and the area around the camp wasn't particularly handy for that purpose: covered in poo and rather steep. But our shepherd hosts pointed to their tent and then to one further down the hill, indicating that we could sleep in theirs whilst they would move down the hill for the night. We decided to take them up on their offer as they had already slaughtered a goat for us and it might be rude to leave. After our tasty (and undeniably fresh) kebabs it was time to sleep, and we were mortified to discover that our hosts had vacated their tent only to sleep outside, in the open air on the bare hilltop! These people just continue to amaze me with their generosity.

On day 3 one of our hosts, Parvez, guided us down to our destination, Laza. He even carried Misha's 20kg backpack down the whole, steep descent because she was feeling very unwell. As we descended it got progressively hotter and the grassy slopes gave way to oak forests and then the rocky river valley. Once we had crossed the final ford we were met by soldiers and escorted up to the village. I was too tired to think anything of it until we stopped at the army post and were asked to hand over our passports. But when faced with people with guns you just nod and agree. They then started to ask us random questions. We felt it very strange as, although Azerbaijan isn't overrun by tourists, this trek is popular and well known. Then the officer in charge turned up and asked us some more questions and then it finally dawned on us: he was trying to poach us away from Parvez. Obviously not much happens in this remote place and the officer wanted the prestige of hosting foreigners. Obviously Parvez had no chance and we had to part company (we had really wanted to buy him a little present, like a bottle of vodka, but were unable to do anything with our passports in custody). Being a host seems to be a great honour here and I'm happy to play the role of guest (although sometimes I feel very embarrassed that I can't offer anything in return, though that wasn't the case here). We were fed and given a room to ourselves and in the evening the chief came by to have a chat where he recounted happy days as a student in Soviet Almaty and hiking in the mountains. In the morning we were given breakfast, our passports and allowed to carry on.

The trek was truly amazing: not just because of the amazing hospitality, but also the stark, empty mountain scenery. And I also discovered that I am able to do such a hike with such a heavy backpack, something I wasn't sure of before, but that has turned out to be one of the main purposes of this trip: finding out my limits and seeing what I am and am not able to do (although next time I might try and leave more stuff behind to be picked up afterwards).

No comments: