September 7: Baku, Azerbaijan
8:25. Jess and I walk to the old walled city’s Double Gate and flag a taxi within seconds. The cabbie jumps out and opens the doors with an almost-too cheery “GOOD MORNING.” Something doesn’t feel right but we get in anyway.
8:50. My gut feeling was right. The cab driver speaks and understands exactly two words in the English language: ‘good’ and ‘morning’. We repeatedly tell him the name of the hotel we are going to, the street address, and that it’s close to the train station. After driving in circles for 40 minutes and asking six or eight pedestrians for help, we find an English speaking office worker on a smoke break and ask her to call the hotel and have them provide instructions that the hapless hack can understand. Even the Azeri-speaking hotel manager has to speak very slowly. The hotel is on the other side of town.
9.02. We arrive at the hotel 30 minutes late. The cabbie apologises profusely and charges us 5 Manat or about $6 for a 45 minute city tour.
9:20. Today we will drive 180 km to the old copper mining town of Lahic on the southern slopes of Greater Caucasus Mountains. We think the road will be good enough for Xara (our truck) but we know that it can be closed on a minute’s notice due to rock slides and it’s generally not accessible during the winter months. The city is so remote that it’s one of the last places where most of the 750 residents speak an old Persian dialect called Tati.
13:30. The road turns out to be dusty and very rough but definitely passable. We are greeted at the edge of town by a recently retired gentleman by the name of Rustam (not to be confused with our former guide in Turkmenistan). We pile into several old Ladas for the 1 km drive to Rustam’s guest house. On the way Rustam explains that he retired five years ago after a 30 year career as a civil engineer in Baku. As a child he had spent many happy summers at his grandparents’ small stone house in Lahic. After retiring he gave up city life, bought some property (and a large amount of rock) in Lahic and set out to build the world’s greatest guesthouse. He just may have succeeded. It’s huge and reminds me of the Milcroft Inn in Ontario. Tuning a guesthouse is clearly a labour of love for Rustam as even when full it would be tough to make any money at these rates.
14:00. Rodney, James, Jess and myself hire four horses and a guide for the afternoon. It turns out that Lahic is much more than a ‘one horse’ town. It’s a ‘four horse’ town. There are four local boys who each have one horse and there are now four tourists who want to ride. The boys say, “no problem, we’ll walk.” Actually I have no idea what they said as they don’t speak English. Rustam is fluent in six languages so he interperates. The boys may well have said, “Just don’t put the fat one on my old horse.”
16:40. At the end of the ride I give each of the boys a cash tip. They act like they’ve never experienced this – and they may not have. I wasn’t feeling quite so generous an hour ago when they took great delight in cracking whips and making loud noises to spur our horses into a very fast canter over a sloping meadow and then much too fast for my liking as we crossed a narrow mountain ridge and descended a steep and treacherous trail back into the valley. I suppose we had it coming though. We asked the horses for some “giddy-up-go” on the way up the mountain and the boys basically jogged uphill for 5 km to keep up. When we got to the top they literally collapsed in the grassy meadow.
16:50. I survived the trail ride with only minor aches and pains. For me the saviour was proper attire. There’s a reason they’re called Jockey shorts and they’re highly recommended for long, rough rides on very hard saddles. I was glad I had them. I asked one of the other guys how he came out of it. “Right now I could toss one over each shoulder,” was his reply.
17:00. Jess and I walk into town in search of a post-ride beer. At least I was in search of a beer; Jess may have been hunting for pain medication. Horseback riding is hard work if you’ve not used certain muscles for a while.
17:10. I have lost Jess.
17:15. Lahic doesn’t look too “touristy” but many residents clearly do make a living from the tourist industry. I thought the accordion player in the street was a bit hokey until I noticed that the man was actually holding a freshly repaired rad for his Lada.
17:30. I stop in at the local blacksmith’s shop and watch as the smithy repairs another small rad and what appears to be a reservoir off a cook stove. I tell the guy that my father once owned a radiator repair business in Canada. He doesn’t speak English so I doubt that he understands. Perhaps he thought I said, “Turn out the lights, lock the door, and follow me over to the social club where I’ll buy you a cold beer” because that’s exactly what happened next.
There are about a dozen men in the small club and all but two of them are playing some type of game that looks like a cross between Mahjong and backgammon. It’s so complex you need an abacus to keep score. You also need to slap your ceramic tiles onto the old Formica topped table each time you make a move in such a way that passers by would think it was a pool hall.
20:00. Conversation with the blacksmith is pretty tough. He’s not the chatty type and with the language barrier we don’t even get past each other’s name. I leave the club and start the long uphill walk to the guesthouse. I end up following an elderly man up the hill. After three hours on a hard saddle, the old man’s pace suits me just fine.