Autumn 2002 (10.3)
The Road to Lankaran
from an Accidental Breach of Security
by Michael Walsh
Journeys - Azerbaijan International's
new series of travel features - invites readers to venture outside
of Baku to experience the natural beauty of the countryside and
the warmth of Azerbaijani hospitality on off-the-beaten paths.
Our first installment of "Journeys" comes to us from
Mike Walsh, Resident Manager of the law firm Ledingham Chalmers
(Baku) Ltd. Mike has been working in Baku for the past four years,
providing comprehensive commercial and legal advice to the international
When he's not in the office, Mike enjoys taking weekend bicycling
trips in Azerbaijan's more remote regions that are somehow reminiscent
of the lush, untamed countryside of his native Scotland. Mike
finds that foreigners are still a bit of a curiosity for villagers
in Azerbaijan's remote regions. On a recent trip down close to
Azerbaijan's southern border, even though he was a complete stranger
who had forgotten to carry along any sort of identification papers,
he was welcomed with open arms. In this age of heightened security
and widespread mistrust, it's nice to know that travelers can
still find a place where hospitality reigns supreme.
The idea of cycling down through
the southeastern region of Azerbaijan, through the Talysh Mountains,
had been floating around in my head for the better part of a
year. At last, there I was on a Friday afternoon, with food,
water, a sleeping bag and my bike all stuffed into the back of
the car, driving the long road south to Lankaran.
Upon arriving in Lankaran slightly before
sundown, I set about finding a hotel for the night. A friendly
taxi driver soon had me fixed up with a local family in what
seemed to be a hotel. (Fortunately, my language skills were too
poor to ask them how long it had been since the last guest had
stayed there!) They were clearly delighted to have a foreigner
staying with them. After much cajoling, the parents persuaded
the younger of the two daughters, Leyla, to practice her English
with me. She disappeared and returned a couple of minutes later
with a very old, worn Russian-English textbook. The next two
hours were spent giving her an impromptu English lesson. Leyla
had studied English at school but had never heard it spoken by
a native speaker before! I felt privileged, yet strangely humbled,
to fulfill that role for that short time.
The next morning, my friendly taxi driver was waiting to drive
me to Masalli, a nearby town. My plan was to bike from Masalli
back to Lankaran via Yardimli and Lerik. The map showed no direct
roads linking the mountainous villages of Yardimli and Lerik,
but I felt sure that since there were many villages in the vicinity
that I could somehow make my way between them. That was my plan
anyway. I had been to this region once before - last summer -
but my memories then were of constant rain. But on this day,
there were clear blue skies, lots of sunshine and a gorgeous
view of the Talysh hills rising up before me.
Photos: (above and below) Mountain scenery
in the Lankaran-Talysh region near the Iranian border. Mike Walsh
found that not many tourists had visited this mountainous village
As I gradually found my rhythm, pedaling
my bike, I delighted in the road as it undulated onwards and
upwards through beautiful woodland, giving way to better and
better views of the mountains. Halfway to Yardimli, I passed
the Shalala waterfall, which was ideal for a refreshing "head
dunk", as we would say back home.
A couple of hours later, I arrived in Yardimli. My arrival created
quite a stir amongst the villagers, but this was nothing compared
to the excitement that surged through the crowd when I produced
a map of the region. I guess maps are a rarity in these parts!
With my extremely limited Russian, I managed to make the villagers
understand that I wanted to cycle from Yardimli to Lerik. They
all told me this was impossible, that only "machines"
(meaning cars) could make it there. I couldn't quite understand
their logic, but my insistence that it could surely be done was
only met with more shaking of heads and grumbling. This impasse
was broken when somebody piped up and said that if I retraced
my steps to the village of Valikhanli, I could make my way across
to Horavar, from there to Zenanu and then Singadulan and Aliabad
and on to Lerik. (I had seen that road go off from Valikhanli,
but when I asked if I could take that route to Lerik, I was told,
"No, machines only!")
Satisfied with the welcome news of this latest possibility, I
spent the next half hour replenishing myself with countless cups
of tea and fielding offers of dinner and a bed for the night.
It was with some reluctance that the villagers filled up my water
bottles and let me go. Although it would have been fun to stay
the night there, I was longing to have a go at the hills. Hopping
back on my bike, I had a pleasant 20 minutes or so downhill before
I reached Valikhanli, where I turned off the main road and ventured
into the unknown.
Tourists are Rare
I felt such a sense of freedom: there was not a single car or
truck passing me on the road. Other than the rare, startled villager,
I was very much on my own in the midst of the most beautiful
hills in the full bloom of early summer. As I passed small, picturesque
villages, the villagers always waved me down. The Talysh villagers
have a specific gesture - body language for "Just what on
earth are you doing?" They shake their upraised, stretched
open palms from side to side accompanied with a facial expression
of utter confusion.
Although I made numerous attempts to explain myself, mentioning
the beautiful mountains, blue skies, wonderful people, and that
Scotland, unlike Azerbaijan, was mostly cold and rainy, still
the villagers simply could not comprehend what I was doing. I
suddenly hit on the magic answer - tourist! "Aha, tourist,"
they all said knowingly, nodding their heads. "Tooooourist"!
Their confusion over my presence did not in any way detract from
the famed Talysh hospitality. Chai (tea), bread and goat cheese
were repeatedly offered (and readily accepted!)
The cycling itself was better than I could have ever dreamed
of. The hills were fresh, and the trails went up and down, up
and down. I felt as if I were in heaven at one point when the
track led through a cornfield and suddenly trailed off into nothing.
I could see the next village (Zenanu) across the valley, so I
knew wasn't in any danger of getting lost. Rather, I was left
with the complete joy of a steep downhill through glorious (and
newly harvested) golden fields with not another person or trail
in sight as far as the eye could see.
Sadly, as every biker knows, what goes down must come back up.
That 10-minute-long downhill was immediately followed by an hour-long
uphill hike through a field of thorns. I had to carry my bike
for the most of the way (and still got a puncture).
Upon reaching the village, I was rewarded not only with chai,
bread and goat cheese, but also the most scrumptious homemade
strawberry jam imaginable. I couldn't help but reflect on how
the hustle and bustle of Baku seemed a million miles away.
I could have gone on for hours and hours cycling in such paradise,
but the sun was beginning to set and I had to start thinking
about kipping down for the night. I had my sleeping bag tied
to the front of my handlebars, and I felt fairly certain I would
be able to find a place to sleep. Sure enough, in the next village
I passed through, I quickly made more new friends. (It's amazing
what a creased-up and somewhat sweaty photocopy of an old map
can do!) After establishing that there was no hotel in the village,
I asked if I could sleep in an old barn in the center of town.
My request was declined - instead, the villagers insisted on
offering me the local telephone exchange, where I could sleep
while the operator did his nightshift!
A few more villagers stopped by to say hello. More bread and
cheese appeared, and before long, the predictable bottle of vodka
as well. Cursing myself for having forgotten to bring anything
to offer in return (shame on me), I could offer little else but
to down every glass, maintaining my smile (in order to hide my
grimace) and toasting both Azerbaijan and President Aliyev.
Where's Your ID?
Matters took an unexpected twist a few minutes later, however,
with the arrival of the local "security personnel".
Had I been able to produce any identification papers, I'm sure
that what followed would have been little more than a minor footnote
to my weekend's adventures. However, I had no ID on me. To be
honest, I had been so excited at the thought of making this last-minute
trip that I hadn't stopped to realize that I would be perceived
as a complete stranger cycling right down on the Iranian border.
It was stupid of me (unbelievably stupid, actually), but I always
feel so safe in Baku and rarely have to show any identity. I
guess that's why I completely forgot.
To make a long story short, I was eventually taken from the telephone
exchange to the house of another local security officer, where
I was required to sleep under lock and key. I must add that,
in typical Talysh hospitality, my jailer provided me with supper
and showed me to a room where a very comfortable bed had been
made up for me. It was much better than the hard wooden floors
of the exchange, where the telephone was ringing every few minutes.
Give me house arrest over liberty any day, I thought, as I snuggled
down for a good night's sleep.
Next morning, after a delightful breakfast, we headed back to
the telephone exchange, where I was met by two senior officers.
After more questions, my bike and I were secured in the back
of an army jeep as we headed to the town of Lerik.
I confess it was frustrating seeing all that gorgeous scenery
going by from the back of a jeep. But what could I do? The security
officers had little choice, since I was carrying no identification
whatsoever. My meeting with the police commander was surprisingly
pleasant. After he made a few phone calls to check out my story,
I was let go. Back on my bike, with a greater sense of freedom
than I could ever have imagined, I was left on my own with a
long, winding downhill to Lankaran. More chai, another quick
English lesson, and then I hopped back in the car and headed
back to Baku.
As I reflected on the weekend's events, the thing that struck
me the most was how almost everybody I met was willing to accommodate
me. Aside from the countless offers of hospitality, there were
many, many more that I turned down. I guess that the difference
between them and us (whoever "them" and "us"
are) is that they always seem to have time for others - friends
and strangers alike. It's an idea that really impressed me; I
know I'll be musing a lot of time about it as I plan my next
Azerbaijan International Magazine
is seeking submissions for future articles in its "Journeys"
series. Those who would like to share their experiences of traveling
through Azerbaijan's lesser-known regions and remote landscape
are invited to write to the Editor in Los Angeles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read more about excursions outside of Baku, see the issue
the Beaten Path," AI
9.2 (Summer 2001).
Back to Index
AI 10.3 (Autumn 2002)
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