Last weekend, I went for a walk in the spectacular mountains around Laza. No, not Lhasa, Laza. Both are places of habitation high in the mountains but while Lhasa is the capital of Tibet in the Himalayas, Laza is a small, attractive village in the Caucasian mountains about an hour’s drive up good roads then over rough mountain tracks above Gusar, the ethnic Leski “capital” of Azerbaijan some 180 kilometers North of Baku. Right on the border with Russia, the locals share a common heritage with their Dagastani neighbours.
Living high up in the mountains, the Leski people are an independent minded ethnic minority, with their own distinctive language (that has 54 consonants and 18 noun cases) and a way of speaking Azerbaijani that outsiders have described as “gruff” or hard. That however is the very opposite of their character which is usually warm and open towards outsiders. “Honour” however, is the word on the lips of every red-blooded male and if (in a moment of madness) you were to look at an attractive Leski woman in just the wrong way, you will be confronted with an angry Leski male. Not something you want!
They are famous for the Lezginka their vigorous local dance that is sometime performed with the aid of swords, and colourful woolen socks knitted by and for women, often coloured using natural dyestuff like pomegranate juice and onion skins. That however was not why Sandra and I plus our Peace Corps friends Mason, Jessi and Connie were there. We had met up at the marginally chaotic bus station in Baku to travel together so that we could go walking in the high Caucasus, specifically around Laza.
Elkhan, the Gusar region home-stay manager for Community Based Tourism (CBT)-Azerbaijan is a small, fashionably dressed and outwardly sophisticated Leski with sunglasses permanently perched on the top of his head. His enthusiasm is infectious and he was delighted that we were going to be trekking around his home village. He had organised a minibus to take us up the mountain from Gusar (2,000 metres) to Laza (3,000 metres) where our walk would begin.
The road is excellent at first, thanks to the construction of Azerbaijan’s first and utterly massive Shahdag (Royal Mountain) ski resort that will open next year (perhaps) at a cost of an estimated four billion dollars. In addition to the ski-runs, snow machines, chairlifts and hotels, several villages are being “relocated” to ensure uninterrupted views across the craggy mountain range for the benefit of Bakuvian and foreign visitors. Above the resort, the road becomes a track, barely passable by four-wheel drive vehicles.
Unlike the majority of Azerbaijanis, Leski people are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims who have incorporated earlier animist beliefs into their religious observance. On our way to Laza we stopped for a while at the Gates of Laza or the Prophet Stone, two massive stone outcrops through which travelers must pass. They are just one example of the many “holy” rocks and mountains found in these parts. From there you can look down into the green, boulder-strewn pasture of the Laza valley far below, into which tumble several high waterfalls.
Before we set out on our walk, Afghan took us to his family home. Constructed in the traditional style with family accommodation above, reached by an attractive enclosed stairway, the family’s livestock used to live underneath, where the warmth from their bodies would provide a pungent form of central heating. Afghan now lives in Gusar but his parents, two brothers and their families still live in this tiny community of some 200 people.
Next door to the house is a small tin-covered mosque built by his great-grandfather back in 1899 and behind their home, is a shrine to another Muslim “saint” or holy-man who’s body was miraculously transported halfway up a cliff-face by birds or “angels”. Immediately below, is a shrine where local women come to pray and by the look of things, socialise and drink tea away from their menfolk!
We had brought food with us but of course, hospitality demanded that Afghan’s mother also cook, so we were ushered into the upstairs eating room and presented with tea, sweets, salad and fried potatoes with egg. Further evidence of local traditions and superstitions was evident in a horseshoe nailed into the step at the entrance to the house and teapots hung at the corners to “catch” evil spirits before they could enter the home. After lunch we set out towards the waterfalls and the high craggy cliffs where in winter the national ice-climbing championships are held.
Walking through the tiny village we walked under the lea of the mountain across rough pasture, strewn with loose rocks towards the waterfall that cascaded down the cliff face. Although it was a misty day, with cloud blocking our view of the highest peaks, there were several families who had driven up the same rutted track we had to picnic under an overhang. Each family had brought wood for a fire and were busily roasting lamb on make-shift barbecues. Working our way over loose scree and slimy grass, we made it to the foot of the falls where I quickly whipped out my camera and took a hasty shot into the spray.
Interested glances followed our progress until we ventured onto higher ground and another stony track that led to an ugly stone-built collection of buildings that passed for a resort. The other side of an ornamental fishpond, stood two armed and very bored soldiers. We wondered if we were on the border and the soldiers were preventing us crossing. No Afghan said, the border was still 20 kilometers and away they were guarding the entrance to a national park where a large army base was located.
As we stood watching the clouds roll in, the temperature dropped and we became enclosed in a virtual whiteout. Not wishing to get cols, we hurried downwards to the waiting vehicle and dinner at a restaurant in Guzar.
All in all, a fine time was had by all…