The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Isn’t that just too true?! When I first moved to Baku in September 2013, I was excited at the prospect of getting to know this country but somehow, I never really got around to looking further beyond my nose than Baku, the petroglyphs and mud volcanoes in nearby Gobustan and the fire mountain in Yanadag. Now, just as we are thinking of packing our bags and leaving Azerbaijan, my desire to see more has suddenly become urgent. I want to take with me any memories I can and I want to know more about this place that has been home to me for almost two years. So, over a recent long weekend, we rented a comfortable 4×4 Hyundai i35 from Rent Ekspress (www.renteks.net) and set of on the long drive to Lankaran, deep in the south of the country, on the right wingtip of the eagle that is Azerbaijan, and very close to the Iranian border. For some time, we drove through the eerie desert landscape beyond Baku, the turquoise sea with its monster cranes and oil riggs on our left, craggy sand coloured hills and salt flats to our right. Eventually, as the road veered inland past Elet and with every mile we left behind, the environment became greener, more lush and very rural. Villages were entirely surrounded by stone walls with intermittent openings through which could be seen dirt tracks, children playing, chickens scratching around, donkeys braying. The road was lined with mature trees, meadows with wild flowers and fields on either side. While some houses along the way were old, surpringly, most were built in the last twenty years or so, almost all identical rectangular brick boxes with corrugated iron rooves. Here and there, their beige uniformity was interrupted by the odd bright green or acid purple exterior or incongruous Arabesque windows, all with gardens and shaded by trees.
We passed through Bilesuvar, the exotic sounding but quite industrial looking Celilabad, little Masalli, brightly dressed, headscarf bedecked peasant women picknicking by the road side or selling buckets of juicy red strawberries, and live stock wandering around, grazing, unpenned in. A picture book rural idyll. After a long five hour journey, with the help of our somewhat erratic GPS, we arrived at our hotel, the Xan Lankeran (www.xanlankaran.com) , at mid afternoon. And right here was our first very pleasant surprise!
Three kilometers from the town centre, it’s a partially ancient low slung complex, surrounded by gardens and greenery, with pale pink roses climbing up the inner courtyard walls, interesting period features, decorated with plenty of sumptious carpets and cushions, artefacts and furniture, harem style lounging areas, a nice cosy bar, an old well, an original tandir clay oven, a childrens’ play area, datcha style rustic dining ‘huts’ with hand embroidered window panels, cobbled courtyards and, rather sadly, also a couple of caged budgerigars tweeting away in the foyer. It describes itself as a being a state of the art interior designed boutique style hotel with professional staff, local and International cuisine, where you might reside like a real Khan. Personally, I think that this gives entirely the wrong impression. I’d say it was more like a well appointed, rustic inn. The rooms are reasonably priced and very nicely presented in authentic style, comfortable with ensuite bathrooms. Ours had one of the typical shower and bath pods but unfortunately no plug could be found in the entire hotel to actually use the bath, and in the evenings, the water wasn’t hot enough to do so in any case. The shower pressure was great, though. The food in the restaurant was entirely local but very delicious indeed. We had Levengi chicken, a local speciality of roast chicken with a baked walnut and alcha stuffing which was fantastic, served with cheese and salad ingredients on the side. Starters were excellent too, flavoursome little aubergine rolls, a spinach and garlic salad which, in fact, was more of a paste but despite looking like cow pat, tasted divine and, of course, wonderful fresh bread straight from the tandir oven. There are no desserts, however. The breakfast of bread, cheese and honey was simple but plentiful, with a kind of tomato and scrambled egg dish optional. Orange juice had to be paid for separately; was not freshly squeezed and faintly creamy but ok. Our request for coffee rather than chai was met with great confusion and puzzlement but fulfilled, although, being served straight in a cup rather than from a pot, it slopped into the saucer on its way to our little dining ‘hut’ and, in an effort to present it tidily, the waiter repeatedly lifted the cup by its rim, which I found very unhygienic. Staff are very helpful and pleasant but few of them speak anything other than Azerbaijani. Still, the charm of the place is in its authenticity, so no complaints there.
Lankaran itself is a charming little town, spread out quite widely along the seaside. Strangely to us western tourists, the beach front is completely ignored, with the town facing inwards and train tracks running along the embankment where elsewhere they might be a promenade, cafes and restaurants and expensive real estate. The beach too was quite neglected and completely unused. Our guide book informed us that when the water levels rose, buildings became submerged and sank beneath the water. Cement blocks and other detritus are still visible and apparently, make swimming dangerous in this area. As a child I always fantasised about living in a lighthouse, so I was keen to visit the one here, now quite a way inland from the shore, but it was closed to visitors. Nearby is the chillingly named Genocide Place, a deeply touching memorial site to those who were captured, tortured and killed in the Armenian conflict in 1992 commemorated in harrowing, very drastic images, the victims’ names embossed in gold on large upright granite stones.
Dosa Park is a modern, well laid out, flower filled recreational area, adjoined by various museums and government buildings. We visited the small but informative Khan’s Palace built by French architects in 1912 and originally home to Playboy Murakhmad Khan which showcases an interesting selection of paintings, weapons and various regional artefacts.
Ah, and then the fascinating, busy bazaar, a lively intensely rural market with all manner of things on offer, peopled predominantly by short stocky ruddy cheeked country women with twinkling eyes, many in headscarves. and some even from head to toe in fluttering black. From chicks, chickens and ducks squeezed by the dozens into tiny cages to almost biblical looking fish, colourful fresh vegetables straight from being harvested, thick grey and beige support stockings, big pants, spices, tea, large jars of pickled produce, modest long synthetic kaftans emblazoned in diamante script with ‘Princess’, enticing smelling cook stalls, you name it, it was there ready to be purchased for just a few manat. We were the only foreigners milling around in the crowd and yet we encountered such warmth and big smiles, the general approach being so very different to that which we have got used to in Baku. Our English friend Karen had joined us on our trip to Lankaran and, being less shy than we are, she was soon involved in several conversations, the language barrier no issue at all. There she was, heartily laughing with the local women who were clambering to have their photo taken by her and ideally with her, her tall and blonde, they short and well covered, both by scarves and kilos. That warm glow of genuine interest and hospitality engulfing us, is not something I will ever forget in a hurry. It has brought me emotionally considerably closer to Azerbaijan.
The next day took us up and up and up through the heavily wooded and wildly romantic Talysh Mountains, past gurgling mountain streams and fertile meadows, to Lerik, a small town perched above the clouds and famous for the longevity of its inhabitants, the oldest recorded resident, one Shirali Baba, having reached the extremely ripe old age of, apparently, 168. The drive from Lankaran to Lerik -52 kms, taking just over an hour- was beyond magical through an enchanting fairytale forrest. Just below the winding road, in a flower strewn glade by a stream, we saw a white mare and her newborn chestnut foal, so new to the world that it was still struggling to stand awkwardly on it’s stalky legs.
We came across several flocks of sheep, comfortably hogging the road, giving us indignant stares as we approached. Gaggles of white geese were bathing in reed-framed ponds, small cows with their calves, single, in pairs, or complete herds, happily grazed on the lush grass by the roadside. They did not appear to be branded, nor was there a herder in sight, and we wondered how they would all find their way home. Later in the day, during what seemed like livestock rush hour, we saw them all purposefully trotting off together towards their respective mountain farms as if directed by an invisible GPS signal. Towards early afternoon we started feeling hungry and by sheer blessed coincidence, we happened upon the most peaceful, beautiful inn, Tebessum, a Hansel and Gretel hideaway, tucked among the trees in a ravine by a waterfall. A few small wooden dining gazebos are scattered along the sun dappled mountainside and here you sit, awaiting more or less whatever is brought to you, though we specified chicken in preference to liver. And then it came, the most glorious picnic of Levengi crispy roast chicken, this time with a walnut and pomegranate stuffing and again with cheese and salad components, a sauce of fresh tomatoes, some sour cream and fresh firm homemade mountain yoghurt, a veritable feast! Amply portioned for three people and including mineral water, one beer and three coffees, the whole bill came to AZN19.
Lerik, when we finally arrived, was a little disappointing with nothing much of interest to do or see, especially as it was a public holiday and all the shops were closed and not many people in sight. Maybe the longevity is due to complete lack of stimulation and a lot of sleep? Then again, it might be the good mountain air and the fresh tasty yoghurt that keep people going to an almost methusalahic number of years.
On the way back, this time downhill to Lankaran, we came across our final treasure of the day, the natural sulphur hot springs at Haftoni settlement. The Istisu (hot water) signs took us up and along ever narrowing rocky dirt tracks for much longer than we expected, so that we were beginning to wonder whether we were hopelessly lost in the woods about to enter Iran, perhaps, when the ‘baths’ suddenly appeared, a collection of small and simple individual bath houses. We had not brought a towel with us but one was soon produced from a washing line. Our friend Karen took off into the woods to take photographs while the lovely husband and I entered our own little bathhouse. There was absolutely nothing fancy about it, I can assure you, and it smelled, well yes, slightly of rotten eggs, but it had a fairly large plunge pool with very hot water, hotter in temperature than a normal bath, say. Here we wallowed for three minutes at a time, then rested on a bench for a further three, three times successively. Sulphur baths are beneficial for all sorts of things, from skin complaints to damaged ligaments and arthritis, and I must admit, I felt a million dollars when I emerged from my bathing session. My asthmatic breathing was much improved and the lovely husband’s painful sprained ankle felt almost healed. This wonderfully therapeutic experience cost AZN3 per head, including the loan of the towel. As an added bonus, we both slept like logs that night. Back on our way to Baku, encountering as many shiny late model Mercedes’ as clapped out rust bucket Ladas, our final treat awaited us about half way between Lankaran and the capital. Just as we were ready for a little break and stretching of legs, we saw the ‘Sarvan Restaurant’, a small building right by the road with outdoor seating and a peacock aviary. There was no menu, you just go into the kitchen and point at what you want. A live fish, snapping for air, was also produced for our delectation but we could not bring ourselves to be its executioners, so we settled once again for some now familiar but nonetheless much appreciated Levengi chicken, which was already dead, plucked, quartered and thankfully faceless. This came with the usual accoutrements, including the creamy homemade yoghurt in a glass, and, as before, went down like manna from heaven.
Looking back on my weekend in the South there are two things that clearly stand out about it, the incredible beauty of the landscape and the warm friendliness of the people, all of it balsam for the soul. After life in Baku, it can almost be described as a healing process, all the irritations, harrumphing and tut-tutting in the big city just falling away like the scales from my eyes.