Thursday, October 05, 2006

Caucasus: Into the Mountains

The people of the southern Greater Caucasus have rocketed to the top of my friendliness chart, trumping even the Arabs. A few days ago, I went north from Baku by bus about three hours to the northern city of Quba. The trip wsn't tha exciting, as much of the Azerbaijani countryside is fairly bleak or non-descript, with the area not ruined by the Soviet energy industry largely taken up with farming. The main crops of the area are maize and various legumes, especially chick-peas. During Soviet times, they were all collective farms, but with independence and privatization came mechanization, and the old field hands are either unemployed or dispersed to other sectors of the economy.

Quba itself was perhaps 30 Fahrenheit degrees colder than Baku, foggy, and drizzly. In fact, it was so chilly I wound up buying a new winter coat there for about $15. As noted above, the people were ridiculously friendly. Cafe culture - that's ahwas, for you Egypt types - was easier to break into than in the Arab world even though I didn't speak any of the local languages. The people were mainly Lezgins, one of Azerbaijan's many ethnic minorities. There was a bit more traditional dress than in Baku, though nothing radical, with the men mainly sporting black felt coats and felt hats similar to a golf hat, while the women had on dresses and colorful hair nets. Some of the young girls had white bonnets or ribbons in their hair as they quickly ran around dancing and playing.

People in the Caucasus use restaurants mainly for large group celebratons, so th restaurants are usually divided into a number of small private dining rooms. After dinner, I wandered the streets of the town for a bit, making a zig-zag pattern down a steep slope until I arrived at a pedestrian bridge lined with red lampposts that led across a wide, gravelly and muddyvalley containing a narrow but fast river to the neighboring town to the brightly colored neighboring town of Krasnaya Sloboda. This was the home of a Tat community, the main concentration of Azerbaijan's remaining Mountain Jews. I had arrived on Yom Kippur, and thought that was the reason I saw so few people on the streets and so many closed shops while a few men wearing kippahs drifted into the newer of the two functioning synagogues.

I was apparently wrong, however, for while I was sitting near the bridge after wandering around, a couple of local young people wandered over to me, and in the course of the ensuing conversation they insisted it was Rosh Hoshanah, not Yom Kippur. I wound up wishing them a l'shana tova, which they accepted. A crowd gathered around us, because I guess there wasn't much to do on Yom Kippur, err, Rosh Hoshanah, except talk to the tourist. The numbers didn't really improve communication, though. I'd hoped that since Tat was an offshoot of Persian my Farsi would be of use, but they hardly understood a thing, and the only thing people said to me in their own language that I understood was "shalom," as a greeting, or when walking by quickly, "shalom, shalom."

Naturally, we got into some of the issues about which I was intellectually curious. The Jewish population of the region had shrunk a great deal in recent years, due mainly to emigration to Israel nd the Unitd States. Remittances from these countries are now an important part of the local economy. Although I knew they were of Tat origin, they denied the label, and would claim only Jewishness as their identity within Azerbaijan's mosaic of cultures. They also said relations with people in neighboring Quba were good - the young man who spoke some English and was my main channel of communication said the two towns were "like family." (Most of Azerbaijan is Shi'ite Muslim.) In fact, convinced my hotel was terrible, one guy started getting on his cell phone before I persuaded him I was fine with the intention of setting me up with a homestay in Quba.

Their political attitudes also paralleled the rest of what I picked up in Azerbaijan. Most people I ran into had issues with Iran, ranging from distaste for its politics to prejudice against its people. (Baku even had anti-Iranian protests in the spring.) Shockingly, many were also interested in or sympathetic to Israel. When crossing borders, my Israeli visa doesn't get me grimaces, but rather indications that they think it's pretty cool. The same extends to members of the general public who learn that I am based in Israel for the year. In fact, while I was in Quba, Israel was some people's first guess for where I was from, and one guy near the internet cafe there was so sure of it he replied "shalom" when I greeted him "salaam," the traditional Islamic greeting which extends to Azeri. Naturally, however, everyone still hates George Bush.

The next day I went up to Qusar, taking a mashrutka, the minibus which is Azerbaijan's main short-range form of public transportation. The trip brought me higher up into the mountains, though I was intent on going further still. This part of Azerbaijan is home to numerous resorts aimed at Baku's wealthy, who retreat from the hot summers on the Caspian into the brilliant scenery of the mountains. My goal was to hire a taxi to go to Laza, the drive to which is supposedly the best scenery in the region. I had to bargain for this with one of the mob of taxi drivers who greeted me on arrival, and the spectacle of bargaining was one which apparently attracts a large crowd to witness the proceedings. This was especially dramatic because due to language barriers the numbers were exchanged by taking out bills, which lent a certain suspense of wondering what would happen next. Finally, after an episode in which I went in a cafe to have tea while he stayed out in the rain looking for customers, we settled on using his initial offering for a two-way trip, since he would be unlikely to get another passenger in Laza anyway.

I actually wound up travelling with another driver whose turn in apparently was, and with whom I could communicate in Persian, though he was used to a more colloquial speech than I offered and my vowels are still apparently somewhat unclear. The ascent into the mountains, however, was spectacular, with lush green slopes and rocky outcrops hosting paths along which Caucasians herded sheep, goats, and other livestock on horses while carrying large poles and wearing winter coats and stocking caps. We also got out of the rain rather quickly, and the weather was perfect. This is what travelling th world ws meant to be like. There was a road, but its quality declined steadily, and in places mountains streams were forded rather than bridged. Other traffic was sparse, and aside from a few delivery trucks the most frequently seen vehicles were those of the Russian army, doing whatever it is they do in northern Azerbaijan these days.

Once back in Qusar I ordered some tea before beginning the trip back to Baku, and had as company about eight or nine other people with nothing to do as the bus station's business slowed down on a rainy late afternoon. We, err, communicated for awhile , and the general social environment ws as comforable as I've ever seen. There was even a local cop hanging out who asked to see my passport, and I didn't mind showing him despite the corruption which wracks the police force in Baku. (Suffice it to say that recently added to the list of things I've done that I never expected to was getting into a physical scuffle with a police officer and breaking out of a police station.)

After that, it was back into a bus and back to Baku, from whence I would begin my journey west and out of the country.



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