The first longer journey outside Baku takes us through the rusty steppes. Rather than the vegetation, they are full of oil rigs.
Machines stand scattered along the road. Their metal necks bend over and over again in a continuous fortune mining ritual. The platforms are a sight so common on the oil-rich land of Azerbaijan that no one even bothers to hide them behind tall fences or walls. They are the non-natural natural part of the landscape.
However, when the terrain changes and rocky boulders start to pop up, the platforms disappear. The southeastern part of the Greater Caucasus ridge is not a suitable location for them. But it is a perfect spot for the Qobustan National Park – the home to over 6,000 petroglyphs and rock paintings. The oldest of them date back over 8,000 years. Scenes from the lives of our ancestors depict ritual dances, long boats which testify to a strong dependence on the sea and scenes of hunting for big animals in lush forests cut through by countless rivers. It’s hard to imagine that the naked area of Qobustan could ever look like that. Now, its only clothing is red-black lumps of rocks. It’s also hard to imagine what the place will look like in the next few thousand years.
Focusing on the nearest future, we get into homebulance and drive to the second largest city of Azerbaijan – Ganja. According to legends, the town was founded in the 9th century on the spot where the Arab governor of the region found a treasure. During one of his journeys, tired, he decided to rest under one of the nearby trees. Soon the governor fell asleep. He dreamed of countless riches hidden between the roots of the same tree he slept under. Waking up, the governor immediately ordered his people to dig. And indeed, they found countless jewels and riches in the ground. To commemorate this miraculous event, the governor built here a wonderful city, which he named Ganza – “treasure”.
In heavily post-Soviet Ganja, we see neither jewels nor gold. But we do come across a treasure in the form of the mausoleum of the poet Nizami Ganji. Born in Ganja in the 12th century, Nizami became famous in the world of Persian poetry for introducing the modern romantic realism to his art. Even Goethe and Shakespeare were inspired by his works, as well as the contemporary bard Eric Clapton. He used Nizami’s motifs to describe his unhappy love for George Harrison’s wife in the song “Layla”. An eternal picnic atmosphere surrounds the mausoleum. It is encircled by a beautiful, extensive park with sculptures of characters taken straight out of the poet’s epics. Among them casually stroll fluffy cats. They have already learnt that with tourists come delicious snacks.
Before the sun sets over the horizon, we leave the metropolis and head towards the tiny town of Göygöl. When we get there, a thick fog covers the narrow streets of the city. Once, it was home to settlers who came from the Duchy of Swabia. In 1817, after the Rus-Persian war, during which the region of modern Azerbaijan fell to Russia, Tsar Alexander I issued an order to settle the area. Only two years later, German settlers arrived. The hardships of the journey cost many of them their health and even life. But finally, they made the place their home and named it Elenendorf in honour of the grand duchess Elena, the sister of Alexander I. Soon the area flourished. The greatest pride of the town were vineyards. The wine produced here made the region famous throughout Russia and Europe. In the 1920s, many Elenendorf families were exiled by Stalin to Siberia on the charges of the nationalist movement. Until 1942, almost no German settlers remained. The city’s name was changed to Xanlar and then to Göygöl in 2008. Only the school building and the church erected in 1854 (now it houses a tiny museum) are witnesses of the German past of the city.
Şəki is another place we reach. The town greets us with a labyrinth of cobbled alleys, tea houses with steaming amber liquid and the 18th-century palaces of khans with colourful stained-glass windows – shabaka. Rainbows cast by shabaka further decorate richly painted walls and ceilings of palaces. Shabaka is made without the use of glue or nails. Their mosaic-like pieces of glass are connected with tiny wood frames. Currently, only a handful of local craftsmen know the art of making shabaka. In the palace dungeons – made into a small tea house – babushka treats us with fragrant rose tea, pieces of sweet baklava and ancient stories about the place.
We spend one night in a caravanserai made into a hotel. Its massive gate with soaring vault and thick stone walls still remember the ancient Silk Road times and caravans staying here overnight – merchants, horses, camels and carts filled with goods from the exotic East. While the servants dealt with animals, the merchants sought rest between the defensive walls of the caravanserai – the palace of travellers. Just like us now.
At the end of our visit to Şəki, we indulge in heavenly flavours. In the local restaurant – named ‘Gagarin’ – we try the local delicacy – piti. Piti is a two-course feast from one clay cup. The mug is filled with mutton, tomatoes, chickpeas and pickled plum. A hefty portion of bacon and a clay lid covers all ingredients while they stay for several hours in the oven filled with fragrant wood smoke. The outcome is a paradise for the palate, and as such, it requires a proper serving. First, you pour the meat broth into the bowl, add pieces of bread and eat only when it completely soaks in the soup. The second part of the feast begins with kneading everything that is left in the clay cup with a wooden pestle. You eat the main course – silky in consistency and rich with meat and vegetable flavour – straight from the cup. While doing so, chewing on a considerable amount of fresh onion and herbs is a must. ‘Gagarin’ became our best friend, and we visited it more often than the Khans’ palaces.
Kiş – our last stop before returning to Baku, is only 5 kilometres away from Şəki. In the village, there is a church which for centuries served as a temple for Caucasian Albania, Georgians and Armenians. Its beginning is associated with the first century and the journey of St. Elisha to Persia where his mission was to spread Christianity. The first structure of the church did not endure the test of time. The temple that stands in its place today dates from the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. We instantly fall in love with the picturesque location of the church, its stone walls, and the red roof against the harsh mountains of the Caucasus. On the way to Baku, we hunt for another similar sight.
“The road sign said we should turn left.”
“I did turn left, but there is Nothing here. We have already driven through the entire village.”
For a good quarter of an hour, we circle through a tiny Azerbaijan village, looking for the ruins of an Armenian church. According to a road sign, it should be just around the corner. Around the corner, however, there is neither a church nor further road signs.
We go back and forth. Muddy roads paint a dark pattern on our homebulance. We pass the same charming stone houses over and over again. From the non-existent pavements follow us residents’ eyes, round with astonishment. In tight groups, they intensely discuss the reason behind the appearance of two strangers in an even stranger car.
“OK, I give up. We have to ask the locals, or we will get nowhere”, complains Andrzej.
“Excuse me, sir, do you know how to get to the ruins of the Armenian church? It should be somewhere nearby.”
Addressed in my broken Russian shepherd, turns around slowly on the back of his dappled mount: the horse neighs, the shepherd muses. Finally, gesticulating, he tries to explain the way.
We turn back and go to the indicated place. We find nothing.
“Oh well, at least we tried”, says Andrzej on our way out from the village.
Suddenly, a green, worn-out Lada stops next to us.
“You’re looking for the church ruins, correct? Follow me. I will show you the way”, a stranger shouts out from an open car window.
“But… how? Who is…? What?” I look at Andrzej dumbfounded.
“I have no idea, but let’s follow him anyway”, says not lest surprised Andrzej, already wading through the mud of the road chosen by our accidental guide.
The rain turned an end of the road into a boggy lake. There is no way the homebulance will pass through. Resigned, we stop on the side of the road. In the blink of an eye, our guide appears next to us.
“Get into my car. Leave the van here. People from this cottage will keep an eye on it. It’s safe here.”
Lada climbs the hills covered with carpets of grass. In the distance, through a veil of descending mist, we can see the checkerboard of fields and the mountains stretching behind. Patches of snow lie in the meadows like fluffy rugs forgotten by someone. Between them, in a grove of trees stripped of leaves by November, hides a stone building. Nature almost wholly took it over. The dome of a once-soaring roof ends with the blue of the sky. Through the remains of window openings, enter thorny branches of juniper. The stone floor disappears under the soft moss. The ruins of an Armenian church.
On the way back, the Lada rattlingly complaints against road dips. A constantly ringing cell phone cuts through its squeaky groans. From the stream of Azerbaijani words thrown into the receiver, we can only distinguish one: “the ambulance”.
“Someone asks about us?” Andrzej tries to find out.
“Yes. The whole village is calling. They thought that a government official had come to do an inspection. I am explaining that you are only tourists”, laughs our guide. “Here in the village, they have inspections all the time. I work in the forestry department myself, and I have to make sure that someone does not cut down the trees illegally, watch out for the fires and such. But people know me already. They are used to me. But you two! In an ambulance! They have not seen anything like it.”
“And how did you know that we were looking for these ruins?”
“That shepherd on a horse you asked for the way – he called me. He was afraid you would get lost.”
Tiny Azeri villages should be given as an example to a worldwide network of intelligence services.
A day or so later, we return to Baku. Here, we spend Christmas Eve in the company of an Iranian girl met in the hostel. Together, we prepare a substitute for the Christmas at home – a vegetable salad, which also turns out to be a traditional Iranian delicacy. Our unusual Christmas Eve is marked by a Polish-Iranian salad, red wine, conversations until dawn and fruit-fragrance of shisha.
In the morning it turns out that the passports sent to Poland for a Pakistani visa will not arrive for several days. Off we go to the Immigration Office. We humbly ask for an extension of the Azeri visa, which expires in a week. The lady at the counter assures us that it is not a problem and asks for our passports.
“But they’re still at the Pakistani embassy, waiting for the visa”.
“I understand”, she nods emphatically, “then please come back when you receive the passports”.
“But then our Azerbaijani visa will no longer be valid”.
“That’s right. However, up to three days after your visa expiration, you are covered by a ‘grace’ period during which you can still apply for an extension”.
“Fantastic! Can we speed up the process somehow, even though we don’t have passports now?”
“Please give me the address you registered within the immigration system”.
We oblige—the lady checks. After a while, she checks again. And again.
“You are not in the system, which means that you are already illegally in Azerbaijan after 14 days of your arrival”.
Come again? Illegal? How is that?!? The guys in the hostel definitely registered us – they took photos of the passports, filled out forms. We call the hostel to confirm only to find out that indeed they overlooked the process. Now, we have to pay a fine of 600 USD, or we will not be allowed to enter Azerbaijan anymore at least until we pay what we owe. Well, such money is our monthly budget, and we have travelled the length and breadth of the country already so… The lady nods again, again emphatically and says that in that case, she issues a document permitting us to leave the country.
In the evening we make a horrible scene in the hostel and Andrzej goes for the last drone flight around the area. Around 10 pm, I receive a message: “Nothing to worry about. I am on the way to the police station”.
Let this day be over!!!!
At the police station, it turns out that drones are not allowed in Azerbaijan. After long debates with ever-changing officials and hectolitres of tea, Andrzej signs a statement that he did not know, he regrets and that he will never again. Meanwhile, Customs Officer “arrests” the drone and takes it to the border with Iran, where it will be waiting for us.
Two days later, we are at the border. We have permission to leave the country. We have our drone. Everything goes smoothly until it turns out that now our car has exceeded the allowed duration of stay in Azerbaijan.
“You got only a 7-day entry permit. It’s written here”.
“But it’s all in Azerbaijani! Our ‘human’ visa was for 30 days. How were we to know?!?”
“Well, yeah, but you have to pay the fine for overstaying anyway. It is 300 USD for the service van.”
“It’s not a service van! It is a camper!”
“Camper? We don’t have one in the system.”
When after many calls, we finally determine that indeed clerk at the entry border put our homebulance as a camper, the fine shrinks tenfold. We pay and are more than ready to leave Azerbaijan. But… The border with Iran is already closed. On the Iranian side, we sleep in the centre of the lorry parking lot, under a massive billboard with a glowing-white beard of Khomeini. The Customs Officer wakes us up in the morning, checks the documents and asks to open the car for inspection. Seeing that it is a camper – a house on wheels – he takes off his shoes before entering. I already know that we will love Iran.