I came to Azerbaijan two weeks before my date to start working in order to have a change to travel outside of Baku a bit and see how the "other half" of Azeris live. It was great having a couple friends from my Peace Corps service days with me - Peace Corps volunteers really do make the best travel companions. Fun, easy-going, good at communicating in a foreign language, and rarely discouraged by a lack of creature comforts. We made two separate jaunts. First, to the south, to Lankaran, Lerik, and Masali. Second, to the north, to Sheki and Quba.
Azerbaijan is a country of great wealth inequality. Once you leave Baku, the standard of living changes dramatically. Gone are the suited business men and boutique shops, and in their place you see shepherds on horseback herding scraggly sheep and rag-tag food shops with most of their inventory piled high on the ground outside the store. We rode down to Lankaran on a bumpy marshrutka, which is often translated as "minibus," but which is really a gutted cargo van with mismatched seats welded to the inside of it so that as many passengers can be crammed inside as possible. The scenery for much of the ride was uninspiring: flat, littered, and dotted with livestock and their bored owners. But after we got to Lankaran, the scenery beyond there is spectacular. Nestled in the Talysh Mountains, the roads curve through the slopes, giving breathtaking views of little villages perched in a mountain crevice, sheep deftly clambering up the incline. We enjoyed the little town of Lerik most of all. After several hours of casual hiking (and getting very muddy in the process), we stopped in a little restaurant for fresh roast mutton kebabs (so fresh, the sheepskin was lying on the floor in a pile), local veggies, and beer. The restaurant's owner and friends were delighted that we could speak Russian with them, and eventually they just sat down and joined us. Some of the fellows there were Talysh, a small ethnic group that lives in the mountains, speaks their own language, and is famed for living very long lives (the oldest person in the world was supposedly Talysh, having hit over 150 years!). I hadn't realized before I came here that Azerbaijan has a number of its own ethnic minorities, with unique cultures that are quickly disappearing.
The highlight of our second excursion was Sheki, a lovely town near the start of the Caucasus Mountains, whose claim to fame is the Sheki Khan's Palace, a lovely, small structure of intricate paintings, murals, and stained glass, made without a single nail or other metal piece. We stayed in a 400 year old Caravanserai, a former rest stop and trading post for travelers on the Spice Road. The people of Sheki seemed wonderfully friendly and happy to talk to us. We meet a number of craft-makers, who somewhat bemusedly showed us how they ply their trade. A box-maker, instrument-maker, hat-maker, candy-maker, window-maker; it was great to see that traditional goods were still being made, even if the stores are slowly becoming more and more inundated with cheap, imported factory products. We also shopped a bit in the bazaars of Lankaran and Sheki; open marketplaces are a great way to get a sense of what a town eats and buys, prices are cheap, and people are usually quite friendly and happy to chat. Several people in Sheki wanted to give us free foodstuffs, although we did our best to insist they accept payment. Hopefully I'll be able to head back out to the countryside again this summer; it's relaxing and beneficial for me to take a break from the big city, and certainly helps me understand more fully what Azeri life is like.
Note: In Azerbaijan it's a crime to take a photograph of someone without their permission. But everyone I asked permission to take a photograph of was greatly flattered, and several people have given me their address so that I could mail them a copy of the photo!