Azerbaijan’s Baku International Bus Terminal, a massive multi-complex packed with stores, is more labyrinth than transit hub. The ticket counters, which we only locate with the help of a kindly stranger, are on the third floor. But determining which of the endless ticket booths and offices is the right one proves challenging.
“Where you go?” asks a friendly man. “Ismayilli,” I reply, hoping my pronunciation is understood.
Fom Ismayilli we’ll head farther afield to the village of Lahic. The tiny settlement was once an important stop on the ancient silk road, but today it’s known for being home to the last speakers of Tat, a language classified as severely endangered by UNECSO.
Tourists flock to the village of 800 each summer, when Baku is broiling under the summer sun, but we hope by visiting in November we have the cobblestone streets all to ourselves.
However, we have to navigate winding roads and Azerbaijan’s ad hoc transportation system if we’re ever going to get there. Our destination is relayed to several people and one leads us to the correct ticket counter. Contrary to the window sign, there’s no bus to Ismayilli and we're directed to a long line of minibuses called marshutka waiting outside the station.
We scour windshield signs and question drivers until we’re waved aboard a tattered vehicle with 18 seats where there should be twelve, many of which are stuck in a semi-reclined position. An empty television case hangs haphazardly near the driver’s seat and a broken sliding door requires passenger intervention to remain closed. Slowly, the marshrutka fills with passengers and after nearly two hours of waiting huddled in the cold our driver lights a cigarette, opens his window and pulls out onto the road.
Frigid air floods the vehicle and I wrap a scarf around my legs in a futile effort to retain heat. The glitz of Baku is soon replaced by parched soil and subsistence farming. Grain harvested from small plots of arable land dries on the roadside, while herds of sheep and their shepherds search for food in the arid desert of the Caucasus.
Two decades of independence has not been enough to cure poverty or purge corruption and Azerbaijan’s progress has been stymied by both. Unequal distribution of oil revenue further contributes to rural poverty.
Screeching brakes cut my contemplation short and as we slide sideways down the highway I lock eyes with a cow our minibus has narrowly missed. But before I can process what’s happened a car slams into us and we come to an abrupt stop. The drivers inspect the damage, exchange angry words, but not information, and we’re on our way again.
When we arrive in Ismayilli three hours later it’s pouring rain. Our driver gesticulates in the direction of Lahic and we grab the first cab we see for the last, 20-kilometre leg of our journey. We hand the driver the equivalent of $20 CDN, a guess at the value of the ride on our part, and head out on one of the most dangerous, but also spectacular, roads in the world.
Rockfalls and erosion leave only small sections of the one-lane road paved and our taxi driver winds his way between potholes and boulders. On one side there’s a jagged rock wall, on the other there’s precipitous drop to a rocky gorge below. We see few other cars as we head into the Southern Caucasus Mountains, but many herds of sheep heading to winter pasture. Black craggy cliffs soar skyward, decorated with vivid splotches of fall colour — orange, red, and yellow — and it’s from this storybook drama that Lahic emerges.
But arriving at the 12th century village is only half the battle; we still need to find our homestay in a strange town sans signage. Several stops and phone calls later we turn down a narrow street and are greeted by our hosts — slippers for us in hand — and their three adorable children who give up their room for guests.
In addition to Tat and Russian, our hosts and their eldest daughter speak a little English. Although Russian is still Azerbaijan’s lingua franca, interest in learning English is increasing, especially among young people.
Tea, sweets, and fruit are served before we’re shown to our room, complete with Spiderman carpet.
We’re welcomed as part of the family, a cultural immersion of the best kind and a reminder that our similarities as humans far exceed our differences. Our family dinner that first night is delightful. As guests, our plates our plates are piled high with delicious Azerbaijani dishes, like sautéed potatoes, minced beef with onions and pomegranates, pickled tomatoes and of course, bread.
Sunny skies and cool temperatures greet us the next morning as we explore the village. It’s one of the oldest human settlements in Azerbaijan and was recently added to UNESCO'S Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Lahic is still divided into its three original parts, each with its own mosque, small square, cemetery and hammam (public bath).
Despite frequent seismic activity, the ancient stone houses remain intact; their wood frames constructed of anti-seismic wood. Stones structures have also proved resilient. Incredibly, the community’s one-thousand-year-old sewer system still functions perfectly. We learn about Lahic's history as a famous copper smithing centre at the Lahic Museum of Local History, housed in a former mosque. Until about ten years ago when running water became available, copper containers called Guyam were used by women to collect water from the fresh springs.
Wandering the narrow winding streets of this living breathing outdoor museum, the silence broken only by the gentle hammering of one of the few remaining coppersmiths, it's easy to conjure up images of camel caravans plodding along, heavily laden with goods.