We spent the last weekend in the foothills of the Caucasus, 190k from Baku. It was only the second tome we had been out-of-town and the first time to that part of the country.
We like the city, but the only trees [apart from a few scrubby ones in the hills] are those planted in the parks and along some streets. Once you start to get out-of-town and up 1000 metres or so, the steppe gives way to woods of oak and whitebeam [at least that’s what it looks like to me!] and streams of pure mountain water that crash down rocky valleys.
The village of Lahij is more or less in the centre of Azerbaijan, 20k away from the nearest paved road, at an elevation of about 1,500m. The road is not graded and in winter, the snows are so severe that it is cut off for weeks at a time. Behind the village, the mountains rise majestically to more than 4000m and beyond the village, there are no roads making it easier to travel by horse or on foot. As we trudged up the road, old Ladas packed with local people would slow down to look at us. One or two actually stopped and asked us if we wanted a lift and were dumbfounded when we politely refused.
On our way, we passed a rather rickety suspension bridge, which we crossed although there was no real need. It looked more dangerous than it actually was, although it was anchored at one end to an old Lada axle and at the other to a car chassis. We felt rather Indiana Jones like, as it wobbled beneath our feet!
The village is a little gem. Stone walls, with wooden balks inserted every few courses, to reduce the vibrations caused by earth-quakes. It seems to work, as most of the houses seemed very old. The village is paved with river washed stones, giving the place a sense timelessness. There are only about five copper workshops in Lahij these days as trade is thin. The most distinctive items are the old water containers called guyum. Piped water was introduced as late as 2009, so until last year the women of the village collected it from the stream below Lahij using these vessels. I was very tempted to buy one but there can be problems taking such old items out of the country.
We wandered around for a couple of hours, dropping into the copper smiths dark workshops and then walking up to the tiny Tourist Information office where the charming Dada Shaliyev told us that we could stay with a local family in a traditional house, eating local food with them for about 20 Manat [15 Pounds] per night. That may not seem cheap to you but our chalet was twice that and lacked the local “touch”. We looked at the local produce being sold by ladies who balanced their dried herbs and preserved fruit in glass jars on low stone walls and on chairs outside their homes. Finally went to a cafe where we had some rather wonderful raspberry compot.
This was no tourist honey pot. There were quite a few visitors that day but local people were just going about their business. Saddling up their horses to round-up the sheep, completing the haystack in the yard or going to the mosque. I must say that it reminded me of my father’s village when I first visited it many years ago. But life for people is clearly hard and the population is declining.
Maybe 1,000 people live where 12,000 did a generation ago and the pressures of unemployment continues to draw people to Baku where there are undoubtedly more opportunities. Let us hope that in another thirty years, a village revival will start to bring people back home again…