Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hospitality in the Azeri northwest

After too much hanging around and talking with fellow travellers in Baku, I moved west by shared taxi to an uninteresting town named Ismayilli. I was sitting on the backseat of that rusty Lada, sqeezed between two overweighted, chainsmoking Azeris with golden teeth. And when I arrived, the driver brought me to the cheapest hotel in town, as I asked him, which was the Hotel 'Niyal'. That hotel is completely run down, with broken windows, no running water, old Soviet architecture, dirty linnen and the toilet......you don't want to know. The people in the hotel were nice though, as I enjoyed a tastefull Azeri dish and drunk some tea and vodka with the other guests.
The next day I walked for about an hour to the busstation, where I missed my bus to the mountain village Lahic. But soon, after some negociations, I went to Lahic anyway in a shared taxi. The village is really pretty, it is a coppersmith's town situated in a beautiful valley, overlooking the mighty Caucasus. Within 15 minutes since I arrived in Lahic, I was invited into someones home for tea and lunch. That people were quite curious about me and genourously poured tea and refilled my plate. I talked with them for a while and did some more walking in the village after. Late in the afternoon I went back in an old ramshackle bus to Ismayilli where I changed hotel and had delicious shashlyk for diner.
The next morning I stopped a marshrutka and went further west to the town Qebele. From there I walked little bit and started hitchhiking towards Sheki. This time I had a great experience with hitchhiking as basically all passing cars stopped imediately and people weren't expecting money at all. The third car I hitchhiked with, was a truck full of asfalt which was driving towards a small city Oguz. The truckdriver was really friendly, but he had some kind of sadistical driving style, as he enjoyed driving extra fast into groups of cattle. The guy was wearing big sunglasses and always had a big smile while driving his asfalt truck. By the time we got to Oguz, the man dropped the asfalt and drove me to the busstation where he insisted on paying my busticket to Sheki and even payed my lunch while we were waiting for the bus. Really amazing experiences.
By the time I arrived in Sheki, I called an Azeri girl named Sevda. I knew her from the website hospitality-club and she was able to show me around in Sheki and help me with accomodation. We met in a hotel and soon after, she took me to an Azeri family where I could stay. Sevda showed me a small village called Kish that afternoon and we talked about various topics. Sevda and her family are all working in NGO businesses and they are taking much effort for the development of Azerbaijan and its people. It was really interesting to meet people with much knowledge and objective opinions about their country. Later, I met Sevda's brother Ilyas, with whom I drunk some tea, enjoyed a galyan and discussed various other topics. We drunk a beer with his friends and I went back to my homestay around midnight.
When I woke up the next day, I talked with my host family and played little bit with their young children. Around noon, I walked to the city centre, where I directly was invited for tea with some people on the mean square. Soon after, they invited me to their house for lunch and they showed me the house of one of their friends after. Hospitality in Azerbaijan is really amazing, continuously I had been invited into homes of people for food, tea and some talking. Anyway, the men brought me back to the centre in his car and I wandered throught the old town myself after. The city of Sheki had been a resting place on the silk road for ages, which is still visable at the Karavanseray (see picture). Besides this, it had been a khanate and it now is one of the 'tourist centres' of Azerbaijan (this is relative as there aren't much tourists in the country anyway).
When I finished my sightseeing walk, I talked about football with some guys in the park and went back to my homestay. There I played some more with the children and talked with the very friendly family. In the evening Sevda and one of her American friends took we to Karavanseray, in order to drink tea and try some more Galyan. I thanked them for their help and said them goodbye, as I was going to Georgia the day after.
My journey towards Georgia started after a breakfast and some relaxing time with my homestay family. I walked to the busstation and went by bus to Zaqatala. I intented to walk a bit around in that town, but haven't done that after all, as I was getting late. I ate some shashlyk and continued by bus to the border town Balekan. From there I went to the border with an old man and I sad foot in Georgia in the beginning of the evening.
To sum up my experiences in Azerbaijan. The best thing about the country is its people, as I was invited for tea or lunch or just talking with so many people. It is amazing how hospitable and friendly the Azeris are. Further, it is for travellers one of the more adventurous countries, as there is no tourist industry at all and it is not exactly an easy country to travel in. But looking back I certainly enjoyed Azerbaijan a lot and had some great experiences overthere. Sag ol.