Heading north from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, the moonscape continues past oil derricks, towers marooned in the semi-desert, and dystopian factories crumbling beneath the unrelenting sun. After 50 miles, the land gradually becomes greener, hawkers with buckets of fume-choked fruit or sun-baked goat carcasses hanging like laundry from ad hoc lines fringing the highway. Turning inland from the shimmering Caspian Sea, the road climbs to the sleepy city of Quba, just 25 miles from the border with Russia.
Founded in the eleventh century and likely named after the first mosque in the world—located in Medina—Quba blossomed in the mid-1800s as a walled city under the stewardship of Hussain Ali Khan and his son Fatali, when their dominion stretched as far as Derbent in Russia to the north, and south to Talysh in Iran. Long famed for its carpet-weaving, the other key industries are tourism and construction.
We arrived at our hotel to find the finishing touches still being put to the place. Wires straggled across the outdoor table where four generations of the family were seated, the internet yet to be connected. Wooden interiors seemingly mandatory for all new buildings in Azerbaijan, the floors were to be zealously protected with house slippers, but to save on electricity plug sockets were scarce. With the premises located close to the police station, a bevy of officers in cadet blue summer uniforms hung around outside the front drinking tea.
"At least your hire car will be protected," the hotel proprietor, a jovial, broad-shouldered man by the name of Mustafa laughed, indicating them.
Delivering more tea and figs to his cop buddies, Mustafa returned to tell us how he'd come to construct the place.
"I tried to move to Germany, but it would've taken too many bribes. I have a cousin in Hamburg, though, who got his hands on these luxury Mercedes cars off eBay. They're the car everybody wants here, a real status symbol. So, my cousin shipped them to Batumi in Georgia, and I collected them and drove them back. Of course, it was risky. If one got impounded and the asking price to get it released was too high or the officials decided to keep it for themselves, well, that was all our money gone. It worked, though, and I sold them for 200,000 euros; hence, the guesthouse," he said, beaming proudly at his pride and joy.
"In Azerbaijan, 80 percent of people are poor and 20 percent have all the money," he continued. "I think we'll do well here, though. The forest at the edge of town on the foothills of the mountains is a massive tourist attraction as we don't have so many trees in this country. There are bears and wolves there. In the winter of 2018, three mountaineers were killed in an avalanche and their bodies weren't found until six months later when the snow melted."
The wilderness takes over on the edge of Quba, the road rising to the village of Xinaliq at 2,300 meters, where it stops in the middle of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Swathed in clouds most of the time, like many settlements in the region, it has the air of a land that time forgot. With temperatures dropping to -20C in winter, from shortly after the celebration of goat meat season in autumn until spring, it is cut adrift by thick snow. The isolation of the region is perhaps best expressed by a story which tells how, in 1988, a young hunter was confronted by a Yeti. He is said to have been in shock ever since.
On the streets of Quba, willow and chestnut trees added colour to the semi-desert palette on offer throughout the bulk of the country. From repurposed red brick Armenian churches to tumbledown structures and recent additions, translucent shawls were tied to the iron doors of many houses.
"It's a wedding," an old woman perched on a tree stump explained upon seeing us eyeing one; "it's the season."
Directly opposite Quba, across a bridge guarded by golden lions, gaudy mansions line the streets of adjoining Krasnaya Sloboda—'Red Village.' Considerably wealthier than its ethnically Azerbaijani neighbour, with a population of 3,600, it's said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel. Considered by some to be a lost tribe, others theorize that the population are descendants of Khazars who fled from Iran in the seventeenth century and converted to Judaism to safeguard their neutrality in conflicts between Muslims and Christians. Granted permission in 1742 to establish a settlement free from persecution by the Khan, they have been there ever since, Home to roughly 18,000 during Soviet times, following the collapse of the USSR many left for Israel, from which the diaspora continue to receive considerable support.
With men playing narde—the Caucasian version of backgammon—in shady cafes, there seemed to be little to set Krasnaya Sloboda apart from other hamlets except the rash of multi-storey eyesores which lined the main road. Security cameras hung above the street, which was littered with construction materials. The pink and orange edifices reminding me of the gypsy mansions of Soroca in Moldova, I found their ostentation striking, but my travel companion was less impressed.
"Typical Eastern excesses," he shrugged.
At the western edge of the city, a stark white tetrahedron set in a bucolic garden, the Quba 1918 Genocide Memorial Complex was erected in 2009 after renovation work on a football stadium unearthed a mass grave. It's a moving epitaph and a striking piece of revisionist history rolled into one. Azerbaijani historians claim 4,000 Azerbaijanis, Lezghis, Jews and Griz were slaughtered in Quba on the direct orders of Bolshevik revolutionary, Armenian Baku Commissar, Stepan Shahumyan. The Armenian side dismiss these claims out of hand, of course; 1918 saw atrocities committed on both sides by people who had largely lived together in peace for millennia.
In the darkened structure, which sloped underground like a crypt, melancholic orchestral music played. Next to portraits, quotes from the great and the good lined the walls. Whilst taking in the somber exhibition, we were accosted by a guard who explained we'd entered through the exit and would have to procure an obligatory guide who could further editorialize.
"Prior to 1918, there was a mix of Azerbaijanis, Mountain Jews, and Armenians, though the latter were found in lesser numbers," the fresh-faced steward told us as we peered at the faded photographs. "It was an economically expanding region—as evidenced by the two-story houses—a famous carpet-weaving town and was on a trade route awash with oil money. But then the Armenians attacked."
An excerpt from the childhood memoir, Days in the Caucasus by Banine serves to paint a picture of that chaotic time. A French female author of Azerbaijani descent whose father served as a minister in the brief-lived Democratic Republic, her peasant family struck it rich when her great-grandfather chanced upon oil on the land he grazed sheep on in Baku.
"With the electricity cut off, the house and the entire city were plunged into darkness, pierced by whistling bullets that whizzed out of nowhere," she wrote. "Machine guns could be heard in the distance. We expected at any minute to see Dashnaks (that was the name of the members of the Armenian nationalist party) storm the house and demolish everything, including the inhabitants."
In the aftermath of the so-called March Days, a piece in the newspaper Nash Bolos described the scene: "There are dead bodies everywhere, burnt to ashes, dismembered and mutilated." Highlighting the politically charged atmosphere and the tangled web of propaganda to which citizens of both countries have been subjected for so long, another display showed Azerbaijan's territorial claims to Armenian land stretching as far west as Lake Sevan. In February 2018, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev went further still, claiming that "Yerevan is our historical land, and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historical lands."
Back outside, our guide stopped by the black stone markers in the shade of the apple trees beneath the billowing flag of the Republic to stare out across the gorge.
"You know what the biggest problem facing Azerbaijan today is?" he asked.
I fully expected him to say Armenia.
"Climate change," he opined, indicating the bone dry riverbed. "The Qudialchai River is almost gone. Climate change is the biggest problem facing the world."
As dusk fell over Quba, a call to prayer issued from the octagonal, metal-domed Juma Mosque, drifting over the flag-draped Central Square. Kids blaring music from mobiles strapped to their bikes sped around, as old men in flat caps surveyed the scene. One little girl was so shocked to see our pasty white faces that she stopped running abruptly and was mown down by her big brother's neon green BMX.
At night, riverside Nizami Park with its grand staircase bedecked with Greco-Soviet white statues of musclemen, beauties, and famous athletes came alive. Unlike in some cities, where to pass through a park after dark would be asking to be mugged, parks were a place to gather. Fairground rides whirled, families with sticks of cotton candy perambulated, and men sipped on pints of frosty Xirdalan beer.
Passing the Juma Mosque after ten p.m., I spotted one of the faithful exiting its hallowed walls to scurry across the road and buy a litre bottle of Khan Vodka from the Mohammed Market. Praying was a thirsty business.
Back at the hotel, Mustafa sidled up to me.
"Rizla, Rizla!" he entreated, having seen me rolling a cigarette earlier with that brand of rolling papers. "Marijuan," he whispered conspiratorially upon receiving his paper bounty.
"Everyone in Azerbaijan smokes weed," he told me the next morning as the police milled about out front. "The fields around the Azerbaijani second city of Ganja are full of the stuff," he added, oblivious to the Jamaican word which is widely used in the West. "The penalties for smoking weed are harsh if you get caught, but you can always pay a bribe and make it go away."
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com
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