Ahmed, the urbane manager at the Hotel Qala was not on duty when we arrived and apologised that he could not act as guide and interpreter on our planned excursion to Lerik, high in the mountains behind Lankaran. He would though, help us to find a suitable driver and vehicle, as there are no paved roads above the town and the country gets wild as you approach the border with Iran.
Bagrat was a big man, heavy-set with several days growth of beard on his lined face, his eyes deep-set below a prominent brow ridge. He spoke no English and Ahmed had not met him before yet was convinced this was the man for us, because he drove a battered old UAZ, a soviet era jeep-like vehicle that we later discovered lacked synro-mesh, backfired badly and clearly needed servicing.
I pointed out the smart-looking Pajero standing next to Bagrat’s vehicle but he said “no, this vehicle is much stronger”. We bowed to his experience in these matters and after negotiating an expensive day-rate, climbed aboard and headed out-of-town. The road was paved for the first forty-kilometers, passing through steep-sided, wooded valleys that gave way to splendid views of craggy mountains, far in the distance.
We made a brief stop at the shrine of Babagil, an Iranian mystic who lived here in the 18th century, declaring the pure stream that runs by the glade holy. An old man recited from the Koran as an anxious family walked towards the stream, looking for their baby to be blessed. We did not linger long.
A few kilometers before Lerik, the road climbs above the valley and you have a splendid view of the white-painted town high above the treeline, on the top of a hill amidst emerald-green pasture. As I looked, the view was completed by a shepherd wearing the traditional Azeri wide-brimmed, black cap, watching over his flock of chocolate coloured sheep. If I didn’t know better, I would have said they were soay; the independent minded sheep you find on Shetland. Indeed, when I later looked them up on Wikipedia I discovered that it is believed that soay sheep are a survivor of the earliest domesticated sheep kept in northern Europe. They are physically similar to the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia.
Although it is beautifully situated, Lerik holds no-world charm as it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1998. We skirted round it and headed further upwards and on to the rough tracks we were promised.
Bagrat grunted as we juddered over ruts and potholes, climbed through green pasture undivided by field boundaries, passed more flocks of sheep then finally, crossed the watershed and on to dry and arid steppe, topped by crumbling limestone peaks.
Lerik is close to the Iranian border and for the past hour, we had been getting ever closer to the unmarked division between Azerbaijan and Iran. Sandra and I still had fresh in our minds the news story of the young couple and their friend who wandered over the border a few months ago and were arrested as spies. The girl has been recently released but the two young men are still in custody.
Finally, I put my hand on Bagrat’s arm and gestured that we should turn around and go back. He looked quizzically at he me, pointed forward and said “Iran!”
“I know”, I replied. “I’d really like to see the country but not through the bars of a prison cell”. He got the message and shrugging his ox-like shoulders, turned the vehicle around and we headed back down the mountain.
We stopped at the rather grandly named Elchin Restaurant, a local eatery where the only thing on the menu was lamb. The food was not Sandra’s taste, but well suited to my own. It consists of a collection of small, private dining rooms on a rise at the edge of the town. I was taken to the cave-like kitchen to see what I would like. Lamb stew, lamb kebab or lamb. I ordered kebab for myself and Bagrat and plenty of the salad [tomato, cucumber, locally made cheese and unleaven bread] that Sandra was very happy to eat.
Lerik had five-minutes of fame in 1973 when its oldest resident Shiralev Muslimov died at the reputed age of 168.
Shiralev credited his longevity to an active life and hard work. When he died at the age of 168 on September 4, 1973, his obituary read that “he had tended the sheep of the rich people for the first hundred years of his life.” Afterwards, he was involved in collective farming on the “kolhoz.” There are photos of him riding his horse and even chopping wood when he was supposedly over 160 years-old. The family lived in poverty, eating only what they could produce, which meant, primarily, a diet of yogurt, fruits and vegetables but there was an abundant supply of fresh spring water. Not a bad diet and I can certainly place my stamp of approval on the water, that we sampled earlier issuing from a spring, high in the mountains.
Our guide book said that people don’t seem to live quite so long these days. Local people blame their forshortened lives on radio waves, broadcast from a relay station at the top of a nearby mountain. That may be the case, or it might be due to better record keeping these days. I also remember hearing that in the days of the soviets, you were liable for military service up to the age of 100, so proclaiming an advanced age did have real benefits…
We had planned to spend the night in Lerik and travel all the way to Baku by bus the next day but to be honest, we chickened out and decided to go back to the ghostly Hotel Quala where we were still the only guests on our return.