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 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!