Mountain hospitality in Azerbaijan

The last stronghold of Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews
The last stronghold of Azerbaijan’s Mountain Jews
Zagid, my host in Azerbaijan
Zagid, my host in Azerbaijan

I paid $118 for my Azerbaijan visa, so I must get my money’s worth and see the country. Keeping the Caucasus theme forefront, I head north to the mountains and the border with Dagestan.

I take a shared taxi through arid scrubland to the town of Quba. This is a bustling place with a market noteworthy for mountains of water melons and fish swimming in bath tubs. Just across the river is a celebrated town that I am curious to see. In Soviet times it was called Krasnaya Sloboda, but today it goes by the name of Qirmizi Qesebe.

This is the last stronghold of Mountain Jews, in the midst of a country where the majority religion is Shi’ite Islam. The Mountain Jews have an oral tradition that they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel. They are thought to have travelled to Persia as early as the eighth century BC and to have settled in the Caucasus by the fifth century AD.

I visit on a cloudy day with sporadic drizzle and wander through nearly empty streets to the melancholy sound of water dripping onto guttering. An old man with a walking stick crosses my path. I turn left and a little way down the street come to two elderly women with headscarves sitting in front of their homes chatting. In the centre of town, this is as lively as it gets.

I feel linguistically challenged in Qirmizi Qesebe where the main language is Juhuri, a form of Persian. There is no traffic and barely any commerce, but I finally see one shop and go in. The shopkeeper has no Russian so I just open my arms wide and say plaintively “Where is everyone? Israel?”

“Moscow, Israel,” comes the reply. It is clear that considerable sums of money have been invested in this town. There are many ostentatious mansions, but unlike its neighbour on the other side of the river this place is very, very quiet. Eventually I meet two young boys from Moscow who are here on holiday. In winter, they tell me, Qirmizi Qesebe is even quieter.

The gravitational pull of Israel and the withering of Jewish communities in the Muslim world is by now a stale story. Still, it’s an emotional experience to walk the streets of a town where life is draining away. The population today has fallen to fewer than 4,000, compared with 18,000 in Soviet times.

After a night in Quba I press on northward by bus to a town called Qusare. I am now deep into a region where the main language is Lezgin or Lezgian. In the Caucasus, there is such a mosaic of languages it is hard to keep up. Lezgin is an important Caucasus language, with about 800,000 speakers, mainly in the Russian republic of Dagestan and northeast Azerbaijan.

Author Clive James has proposed that poisonous Australian snakes be divided into three categories, starting with lethal and going up to absolutely ridiculous. If a similar system were used for the difficulty of languages, then Lezgin would surely be deemed absolutely ridiculous. It has 18 grammatical cases for its nouns. If it were not for Russian, travellers in the Caucasus would have few options but sign language or silence.

In Qusare I take a taxi for the final leg of my journey, to the border village of Sudur. Very soon Dagestan comes into view, a string of villages on the other side of the Samur river. So near yet so far! I have no Russian visa, there is no border bordering here and my government says Dagestan is dangerous. It has a low-level Islamic insurgency.

We leave a metalled road behind and travel along a muddy track through some of Azerbaijan’s best Caucasus scenery. But soon cloud envelopes us and rain starts to fall. After about two-and-a-half hours, out in the Azeri countryside in the mud, the mist and the rain, my Russian-speaking driver says he will go no further. His ageing Zhiguli car can take no more.

Soon a knight in shining armour comes out of the mist, riding a beaten-up jeep. The name of my rescuer is Zagid. He takes me the remaining six km to Sudur and invites me to stay with his family.

Zagid Askerov is a kind, thoughtful man in his mid-40s. He speaks three languages, Lezgin, Azeri and Russian, and owns three cows. He and his wife Ilgame are small subsistence farmers and they have a teenage daughter and two sons, one of whom is at university. Their home is simple but cosy, with all the accommodation on an upper floor.

For dinner on my first evening we sit down to fresh plums and grapes followed by a hearty beef and potato stew, washed down with tea. This family feels like my one real connection in Azerbaijan and I talk to Zagid about many things. All three of his brothers, he says, live and work in Dagestan and he has no time for the official Western view that travel there is risky.

“There are a few bandits,” he says. “But don’t you have any bandits in Britain?” He gets his news off Russian television and is informed. At one point we get onto the subject of last year’s Scottish independence poll and I say independence was rejected but I can’t remember the voting figures.

“It was 55 percent to 45 percent,” says Zagid, sharply bringing me up-to-date on the level of political awareness in the backlands of northern Azerbaijan.

The village of Sudur, perched above a canyon
The village of Sudur, perched above a canyon

The next morning the mist rises and I discover that Sudur is perched on the northern side of a dramatic canyon which drops down to a river of the same name. It is a glorious spot. For the first time in my life I see a whole group of eagles, perhaps five or six, wheeling in the skies above the canyon. Over to the southwest, the great hunk of mountain that is Shahdagh is now in view, with snow on the 4243-metre peak.

After we have admired the views Zagid shows me the whitewashed village school, which has about 65 pupils. His daughter, 15-year-old Amina, is one of them and she wants to be a physics teacher.

What to do now with this man who has arrived out of the blue? Zagid asks if I would like to watch a video of a wedding that took place in Sudur in June. A traveller has to be open to experience, so I say “That would be lovely.”

The bride, an 18-year-old with long dark hair piled high, first wore blue, then orange and finally white. This is a seriously long wedding video and it focuses mainly on the guests dancing to live music.

There are lots of outstretched arms and much nifty footwork. Men dance with men, women with women and men with women. There are also virtuoso solo acts. The connecting thread is a total lack of self-consciousness. This is what keeps me watching. Young and old, fat and thin, handsome and ugly, all dance without any sense of awkwardness. What a beautiful celebration!

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Baku – a modern but muted capital

The Flame Towers in Baku
The Flame Towers in Baku
Baku Bay
Baku Bay

Baku, Azerbaijan’s elegant capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea, boasts glittering new buildings that pierce the sky. Looking at the futuristic Flame Towers, all sinuous curves and bright lights, you expect a city with buzz.

But somehow the buzz just isn’t there. Where are the buskers, the beggars, the clamorous moments of big city life? Baku, or Baki as the locals call it, is agreeable and modern, fresh from its successful hosting of the European Games in June. But something isn’t quite right – something is missing.

I think it is a little concept called freedom of speech. I pick up quickly that self-censorship is in the air. You just breathe it in, along with the aroma of your morning coffee.

This is a most friendly and courteous city, with a splendid tree-lined promenade by the Caspian to enchant the visitor. But it’s not a city where you stand on a soap box and denounce the government. Or if you do, you bear in mind that it could be seriously bad for your health.

Sorting out my reactions to Baku, which felt to me as if it were under sedation, I started to read recent news stories about Azerbaijan. They were both illuminating and depressing.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists rated Azerbaijan as the fifth most censored country in the world, after Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. In other words, the committee sees Azerbaijan’s media as the most repressed anywhere in the former Soviet Union. That is quite an achievement; it beats some stiff competition.

Here is a chronology of some recent events concerning Azeri journalists and human rights activists.

June 2015 – Opposition journalist Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, flees the country after taking refuge for months in the Swiss embassy. He flies out on the plane of the Swiss foreign minister.

9 August 2015 – Huseynov’s successor as head of the institute, journalist Rasim Aliyev, dies of injuries in a Baku hospital after being severely beaten by a group of people the previous day. Officials link the death to criticism of a football player but human rights watchdogs say it could have been prompted by photos he posted online of police brutality and social deprivation.

13 August 2015 – Leading human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus are jailed on charges which include fraud and tax evasion. Leyla, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, is jailed for eight-and-a-half years, her husband Arif, a well-known historian, for seven years. Both have severe health problems.

1 Sept 2015 – Prominent journalist Khadija Ismayilova is jailed for seven-and-a-half years on charges which include tax evasion and illegal business activities. Ismayilova, who worked for the U.S.-government financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is known for her work exposing corruption in the Azeri elite and reporting on the business dealings of President Ilham Aliev. During her trial, Ismayilova describes the government of President Aliev as a “repression machine”.

President Aliev inherited his post from his father, Heidar Aliev, who dominated the politics of his country for decades and once headed the KGB in Azerbaijan. The president has set out his views on the core values of good journalism in a book entitled “I challenge the journalists to patriotism”.

The president himself is very patriotic. You can tell because up and down the land are big portraits of him posing next to the national flag. Sometimes these portraits have a fetching stone surround. This makes them look rather like shrines, which perhaps in a way they are.

It is the good fortune of the president and the misfortune of Azerbaijan’s bloodied human rights movement that the country is rich in oil and gas.. This was one of the places where the modern oil industry was born, in the 19th century, and it still has large reserves. Azerbaijan does business with Western oil companies and has been polishing a Western image, but it has jailed so many of its pro-Western intellectuals that this posturing looks hollow.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine a year ago, Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal said that Azerbaijan had embarked on the biggest human rights crackdown in wider Europe. He said an estimated 98 political prisoners were in jail.

Fuelled by its oil wealth, Azerbaijan has also gone on an arms-buying spree. In a war with Armenia in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan lost 20,000 dead and nearly 14 percent of its internationally recognised territory. This was the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and some other adjacent areas. Baku’s proclaimed aim is to win this territory back and it has been buying attack aircraft, artillery systems, surface-to-air missiles and drones from Israel, Pakistan and Russia.

I did not bring up the subject of politics with Azeris I met in Baku and they inquired about matters which interested them. What did I think of Azeri women? What are British women like? What do they drink? How big is my pension?

All the Azeris I met unfailingly showed me kindness. But the buttoned-up quality of the place would have tested me had I stayed for long. It is striking how quickly the outsider conforms to the habit of self-censorship. When foreign travellers in Baku discuss Armenia, their voices drop to a whisper. It’s that kind of subject; it’s that kind of place.

The night train to Baku

Waiting at the Azerbaijan border
Waiting at the Azerbaijan border

If your idea of a train journey is to travel in style, with a dining car and no border formalities, never take the night train from Tbilisi to Baku.

Who knows whether the EU’s Schengen borderless zone will survive, but right now travellers in Europe are spoilt. Going by train in April from Poland to Slovakia I didn’t know when I had left one and entered the other. Travelling from Tbilisi to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a different story.

Let me give a short account. I bought my ticket at Tbilisi Central a day ahead and chose second class for 60 lari ($26). Three classes of travel were on offer and with my ticket I would get a place in a four-berth sleeper.

Train journeys always say something about a country’s priorities. Tbilisi Central is not in great shape. The platforms look as if they were hit years ago by slight earth tremors and never repaired.

The train, with carriages painted green and cream, left smack on time at 4.30 p.m. The timetable listed 50 stops (yes, 50) between Tbilisi and Baku. Not an express then. Travelling time was due to be 14 hours 40 minutes, to cover 551 km. My companions were three affable Azeri young men who told me Baku was much nicer than Tbilisi.

There was no dining or buffet car, but when we arrived at the Georgian border we were able to buy drinks and snacks at little shops in the station, where we had a one-hour scheduled stop. Then we moved slowly to the Azerbaijan border, where we had another scheduled 60-minute stop. One border guard took my photo and another rummaged through my luggage, paying particular attention to reading matter in the best traditions of a police state.

At the Azerbaijan border it was pretty warm on the train and I went into the corridor at one point to get some air. A train stewardess whom I nicknamed the Gulag guard brusquely ordered me to “sit down” in my compartment. Not wishing to create an international incident I complied, but soon the corridor filled with sweat-soaked passengers yearning to be cool.

Eventually we got through the border and had some sleep under spotless bedclothes, but hours before arriving in Baku the Gulag guard knocked on our doors and insisted that we rise, so that she could gather the bedclothes.

The view outside was of scrub and low brown hills. The final approach to Baku was the best bit of the journey. The Caspian Sea came into view on the right of the train and on the left for a while was a lake with petrels, I think, swooping low over the water. Scattered over the landscape on both sides of us were dozens of “nodding donkeys” pumping oil. Very atmospheric!

We arrived in Baku one hour and five minutes late, making it a journey of 15 hours 45 minutes. I am glad I did the train ride, but once was enough. Taxis take half the time and if costs are shared work out as not very much more expensive.