One of the joys of travelling in Azerbaijan is the extensive bus service. O.K., the quality of the busses could sometimes be better but there is nothing to complain about regarding their frequency and the extent of the network. This thought passed my mind as I mounted the steps of the Lankaran bus in Baku at the start of my journey to Azerbaijan’s deep South.
My Peace Corps friend Mason Wiley had invited my partner Sandra and I to stay with him in Lankaran over Novruz after which we would continue travelling towards Astara, dropping in on the Hirkan National Park along the way. The original idea was to use Lankaran as a base to explore the Talysh mountains but the weather was against us, so we decided to keep to the lowland, coastal areas.
As the bus worked its way along the coast road, the dry, grey hills around Baku gave way to the dry, grey coastal strip, enlivened by the occasional oil facility burning off gas and derelict soviet era factories. An hour and a half in to the journey, the hills drifted away and we sped through a flat, scrubby plain that seemed at first glance dull and uninteresting but contains a rich collection of fauna and flora, including the rare Azeri gazelles that live within the boundaries of the Shirvan National Park.
Finally after a few hours, the soil began to improve, fields of vines spread off to the horizon and the first grass of the New Year began to appear in tufty clumps by the roadside. By the time we were on the outskirts of Lankaran, fruit trees were much in evidence and the impressive and wooded Talysh mountains were visible in the distance.
Lankaran is a funny town. The “capital” of the Talysh region, its smart central park adorned by an impressive Heydar Aliyev museum and one of the most distinctive pieces of public art in Azerbaijan. Created to memorialise those who died in the Second World war , an Azeri soldier seemingly bursts out of a bronze wall, brandishing his weapons. Behind the showy frontage is a warm, friendly town of simple teashops, a roadside fruit juice “cocktail” bar and an odd antique shop where you can pick up old Soviet medals, traditional engraved copper bowls and photo albums of heroes from the Great Patriotic War.
For me, the highlight is the partially covered bazaar behind the local bus station in the centre of town. Here in addition to fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, you can buy herbs for curative teas and [if he is prepared to make one] you can buy a mullah papag or “good Muslim hat” from the elderly but taciturn hat maker. Last time I visited Lankaran he refused to make one for me on the basis that the one he had on display fitted me and if he did make one “it would be just the same as that”…
The day after celebrating Novruz on the 21st March, we took a minibus several kilometres out of town to the small village of Isti Su, litererally meaning “hot water”. Here, we walked for half an hour through tall, wooded hills to the Ibadi hot spring. Along the way we passed violets, cyclamens and primroses flowering beneath tall oak and ironwood trees that spread their branches over the unmade and bumpy road as small birds sang above us. For all the world, I could have been in a lowland English forest in Springtime, two-hundred years ago.
The path wound over a wooded ridge and down into a steep sided valley where a dozen small, turquoise painted, concrete sheds with corrugated roofs stood about in a haphazard way. Hot water gushed out of pipes behind each building and down the hillside in small concrete channels. To be honest, it didn’t look much but it was clean and seemingly well organised. The manager informed us that it for 2 Manat we could wallow for an hour in the hot, slightly sulphurous water. That my friend, was the purpose of our visit and well worth the money.
The temperature of the water in each cabin varied from about 35 to 42c, so we decided to experience the coolest cabin. After changing into our swimsuits, we clambered down into the rough, concrete tub that was well able to fit the ten of us in our group where we sat, and chatted and sweated.
After ten minutes or so, immersed to our necks, we withdrew for a few minutes, dangling feet in the water then back in waist deep, bobbing down again with the water over our heads. It was so relaxing but man, an hour was all you needed. Thoroughly warmed inside and out, we finally took our reddened bodies to cool at trestle tables table under the trees, over cups of the excellent, local Lankaran tea… I have read that other hot springs in the area are beginning to be developed as modern resorts but if you want the genuine feel of traditional Azerbaijani istisu, make your way to Ibadi.
The next day we bid our friends farewell and travelled to the vast Hirkan National Park between Lankaran and Astara. Our first port of call was Lake Xanbalan, a large reservoir surrounded by tall trees. Our taxi driver took us up the wooded valley to the entrance of the large, private, Presidential compound, where you can look out over the still water far below. Strangely the view, reminded of the Lake District in England although the hills surrounding the lake were entirely tree covered.
According to our guidebook, the Talysh hills are in the semi-tropical part of the country and true, in summer time it is warm and wet enough for tea to grow successfully but in Spring it feels much more like North West Europe. According to an article in Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hirkan_National_Park] the Caspian Hirkan forests account for 150 endemic species of trees and bushes out of a total of 435. Interestingly, many of these species are also found in England and include the European Ash, European Hornbeam, Black Alder, White Butcher’s Broom, Wych Elm, Wild Cherry, Wild Service Tree and Sweet Chestnut.
We decided to stay in a wooden cabin at the miss-named Villa Lux further down the hillside. Unfortunately, we pitched up before the visitor season had even begun but ended up paying the same price as you would for a four-star hotel. We had to make do with a closed restaurant, no hot water and power that cut out twice during the evening. For all that, it was worth it to walk on our own, through the stunning forest that came right up to the door of the cabin.
In the quiet of the forest, looking at a distant view of lake Xanbulan, we listened to the sound of woodpeckers drumming on the trees and thought this was a good place to be at the start of a New Year in Azerbaijan…