Thursday, April 7, 2016

Road Trip to Lahij.

In Lahij.

We finally left the big city today to explore places in and around the Caucasus mountains! We'll be spending the next several days in small towns and villages around the northern region of the country. According to our itinerary, we would be spending some time in the small mountain village of Lahij("La-heej").  On the way, we would make a quick visit to Juma (Friday) mosque in the town of Shamakhi.  It was a long day's journey!

Rafael picked us up from our hotel bright and early at 9a.  Before leaving the old city, I had him take a photo of me. 


We exited Icherisheher through the Double Gates, by now a very familiar sight to us. 


We then joined the rush hour traffic (which is bad by Baku standards but comparatively light by DC standards) and wound our way out of town.  As we motored along, I was filled with anticipation - I was very much looking forward to leaving Baku behind to see the countryside of Azerbaijan.

But, before leaving Baku, we first stopped to get some more money exchanged. Rafael had taken us to a bank a yesterday but according to him, the exchange rate was not so good so he decided to take us to another place instead - a small local bank that was not located in the center of town. Again, Rafael did the exchanging for us. We each gave Rafael $100 USD and in less than 5 minutes, he was in and out of the exchange place. Indeed the bank did offer a slightly a better exchange rate - 155 manat for $100 USD; we got $147 the day before. So far I have exchanged $300 USD which is nearly 1/2 of the cash I bought with me. It's only been 4 days in Azerbaijan! I'm expecting things to be cheaper outside of Baku so hopefully, what manat I have will cover the next few days!

Our next stop was at a supermarket. Rafael picked up some supplies which at a glance looked to be a bottle of beer, a bottle of clear liquid (vodka, I am guessing) and a few more items for his personal use.

All supermarkets pretty much look the same these days!

Wow!  That's a LOT of oil!

I found the inspiration for my next food preservation project.  These canned tomatoes looked delicious!

Pat spotted a large Snickers bar for 90 qepik (about 60 cents, which is cheap) that she could not resist so she got herself a bar.

I spotted jars and tins of Latvian sprats, which I have gotten addicted to ever since my 2013 trip to the Baltics. I had to have one so I picked out the cheapest one which cost 2.42 manat. At the checkout line, I saw dark chocolate KitKat bars for 40 qepik each so I added two to my supermarket haul.  Converted to USD that comes to $2.17!  So cheap!


We continued our journey and in no time, had left Baku behind.  We were now driving through some pretty uninspiring landscape - flat, arid and with only specks of green here and there.  For some reason, I had not expected the landscape of Azerbaijan to be like this.


As one would expect, we passed by many a village.  There is nothing remotely quaint or charming about them.  The most I can say is that the buildings all have very colorful roofs.



This is the kind of country landscape where, if you are even remotely drowsy, you'd be asleep in 2.5 seconds.  There's nothing interesting to look at.  Sigh.


Glimpses of mountains gave promise that we would soon leave flat lands behind.  I kept wondering when we would get to see snow capped peaks.



The land here is so arid, it's barely arable and I don't recall seeing a single domesticated animal grazing anywhere.  Not even enough green stuff for sheep to eat!


Eventually, we did leave the flat part of the Azeri world behind.  Straight roads turned into curvy mountain roads.  The views got a bit more majestic.


Somewhere in the mountains, we stopped to buy meat for our dinner at a roadside butcher.

Lamb carcasses were hanging near the front window.  I walked up to one of them to take a closer look. The meat looked really good and I sniffed it as well. No rancid taste so I knew it was fresh. Meat looked to be halal quality - no sign of any blood on the carcasses.



Cost was 8 manat per kilo which comes up to about $4.80 per pound.  I can't get pork that cheap let alone lamb!  We let Rafael pick out what the wanted.  In the end, he bought 2 kilos worth of meat.



A slab of baby lamb chops.  One look and I know these will be mouthwatering tasty when they're grilled up! 


I want that cleaver!!

Trimming the chops for us.

A smile and 2 kilos of lamb meat.  That's all I need to make me happy!

Our next stop was in the small town of Shamakli where we spend a few minutes visiting Juma Mosque.


The Juma Mosque was originally constructed around 743 AD and has been rebuilt reconstructed several times over the centuries, most recently between 2010 and 2013.  This explained why the place looked so new.

The courtyard.  I'm guessing that the rooms that ring it are part of a madrasah

The garden.  Pretty little spot.
Rafael stayed outside while Pat and I headed on inside to check out the place.  We put our headscarves on and took our shoes off before entering.   There was literally no one else inside the place except for Pat and I.

The front entrance.

Both of us have been to countless mosques around the world and we've seen some pretty stunning interiors - especially the mosques in Turkey and Uzbekistan.  On the other hand, there are plenty of mosque interiors are not all that impressive.  Sorry to say but this mosque fell into the latter category.  It's by no means an ugly mosque but it most certainly doesn't make me go "Wow!"



The mihrab with the minbar just to the right.  I am standing facing towards mecca.




Looking up at the painted dome ceiling.

Looking back towards the entrance.   Pat's retrieving her shoes.

We were only in Shamakhi to visit the mosque and we were only here for about 10 minutes.  Shortest visit ever!  But, before leaving town, Rafael stopped at a roadside stand to buy veggies for tonight's dinner - tomatoes, onions, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers.





With our veggies safely stowed away in the trunk of the car, we continued our journey, leaving Shamakhi behind.  After a while, all these little towns begin to look the same.


Along the way, we stopped for a quick roadside photo of landscape. Turned out to be a not so nice place for a photo.  That's what you get when the person taking you around is not a photo taker.



On the flip side, Rafael pulled over to park and it just happened to be near a man selling fresh and preserved veggies.

Shelves of pickled veggies, sauces, drinks, and honey.  Rounds of fruit leather, used for making sauces, hang above.

More inspiration for preserving veggies.

I spotted a small plastic container filled with what I thought were wild asparagus.  The stems were quite long but very thin - about the thickness of a pencil.


It is that time of year for asparagus! Nearby, were clusters of wild garlic.


I was drooling after the wild asparagus. I've only had them once, I can't remember exactly where, and they were delicious. Pat had never had them before. Rafael asked the man how to cook them. I thought we could grill them along with the meat but according to the man, you add them to scrambled eggs so we bought a few eggs as well as a bunch of the asparagus. In hindsight, I should've bought some of the wild garlic as well. Rafael did ask the man about the asparagus - was it farmed or picked in the wild.

Buying some wild asparagus.

As I had suspected, he had foraged for them. Nothing beats the wild stuff for taste - the mass produced stuff we buy in the stores in the US has lost much of its intense asparagus flavor. Too bad I'm not here longer to enjoy more of it.

Rafael put the asparagus and eggs in the trunk, which was quickly filling up with food and we continued our roadtrip.   The landscape began to change.



As we got deeper into the heart of the Caucasus region, the world that whizzed by outside my window got much greener - lots of rolling hills and fields.


Rolling hills and fields of green quickly gave way to a forest filled with moss covered trees.  We had started our journey in land as arid as desert and now we were in a virtual tropical forest....so damp that moss covers the trunks of the trees.

Pulled over and parked outside a house in the village of Qaraqaya.

The main house.  We stayed in the smaller guesthouse.

Apparently, this would be where we would be spending the night. Rafael knows the owner. He's the man that Rafael had been repeatedly referring to as the man that does the barbecue. Pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place. Rafael showed us our room.....in a small two room, two bath structure separate from the guesthouse.  In the sleeping room were two single beds pushed together and a cot. That was it. It had a nice wooden floor and a simple light/fan combo on the wooden plank ceiling.



There was a small pedestal sink and mirror and in a separate room , a shower and squat toilet. I know Pat is not fond of squat toilets - difficult for her to use with her replacement knees. I don't know how I will hold up squatting on my left ankle. Oh well, it's only for one night. We'll manage.


Back outside, I could hear the sound of a river running.  The property is situated on a bluff overlooking a small river.  It's early spring and the water is flowing high and hard.  Unfortunately, for the photographer, there was a chain link fence blocking my view.  Of course, I'm sure the fence is there for the safety of the people living and staying here.  Would be horrible for someone to be wandering about in the dark and take a tumble down the hill towards the river!

Our host had set up a small table and three chairs.


Here we enjoyed some tea - served in very nice china pottery. The tea was very good leaf tea - brewed perfectly.


To go with the tea, we had some cookies that Rafael's mom and sister in-law had made for Nowruz, the Azeri New Year (aka Nowruz, the Iranian New Year). That was very considerate of him to bring them for us to try. The dumpling shaped one is shekerbura, the iconic cookie of Azerbaijan.


The filling inside was crushed walnuts and sugar. I quite enjoyed that one. Since we hadn't had any lunch, the cookies were a nice way to tie us over to dinner. The roll shaped one was the same dough as the shekerbura except there was not as much of the crushed walnut and sugar filling inside that I would have liked - needed a touch more sweetness to the cookie. The last one was a simple sugar style cookie with some chocolate glaze and walnuts. I couldn't decipher all the ingredients. In any case, I had one of each kind of cookie.

We hadn't had any lunch so the cookies were a nice way to get a bit of sugar in us to keep us going until dinner time.

Next it was to the small village of Lahij.   Mountains surrounded us and occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of a snow capped peak.

We're finally in the mountains!


On the way, Rafael stopped to buy bread.  Originally, Rafael was just going to place an order for the bread but when the woman told him that after she sold her last loaf, she would close up shop, he immediately bought the loaf - for 1 manat which is about 47 US cents!

It's the only loaf left!

Our bread for dinner.  I was a bit hungry....very tempted to break off a piece.  I should have.

Paved road soon turned to unpaved road.  It was a bumpy ride especially as our car was not four wheel drive.  Luckily, Pat and I have been on so many offroad trips that this was nothing out of the ordinary for us.  We rode like pros! Rafael drove with a great deal of caution.   I would hate to be on this road in the winter time!

To our left was a river that the road followed the path of.  On our right side were some interesting rock formations.   It was pretty much a solid rock face.  It looked like that at some point, there some major upheaval of the earth (perhaps due to an earthquake?) took place here because the layers of the rock were aligned vertically rather than horizontally.






The unpaved road was really bad so Rafael slowed down to drive very carefully but we soon arrived into Lahij. It's most certainly not easy getting to this remote village!


Rafael parked the car and we all got out to walk or in my case, hobble.  The small village with a very ancient history looks a bit rundown but it's an oddly charming little place.  The buildings were all constructed of stone and wood.

We walked down the main street which was lined with large river rocks.  It was much easier for me to walk on this surface, rather than cobblestone, as I could find large flat spots to place my left foot on. It's not quite tourist season yet so most of the shops are closed. Kind of nice as the place was peaceful though it would have been interesting to do some window shopping.



The buildings here are all constructed of stone and wood giving the place a bit of rustic charm.



We stopped at a couple of places selling herbal teas and remedies, and herbs and spices.  I didn't buy anything from the first place but I did from the second.


A very colorful looking concoction for presumably an herbal tea.

I was in search of dried mint.  You see, ever since tasting the dried mint that Ayşe put in the Turkish mantı that she and Pelin made in my house back in December of last year, I've been wanting to get some of the dried mint.  Given that Azeri cuisine shares its roots with Turkish cuisine, I figured they would have dried mint here and I was right!

Ayşe and Pelin making mantı in my kitchen.

I spotted the dried mint at the second shop we stepped inside.



The man was selling two kinds - regular mint which I immediately recognized from the purple color of the stems and something called mountain mint. After mulling it over, I decided to get a cup full of the mountain mint as I can get the regular mint at home, grown in my own garden, that I can harvest and dry myself. The young salesgirl packed in the mint into the glass cup - about a 10 oz cup I estimated, packed down the mint and then added another handful on top. It was a very generous amount for just 1 manat.  Oh, that small bag of mint smelled so good....it perfumed the compartment of my backpack!


It was a beautiful day for a stroll and so we made it a slow walk down the main street of this small village.


Quiet Lahij.  The tourists have not yet arrived.

Sheepskin caps keeping the eggs warm??

On our walk, we came across a young boy who had obviously been roped by his mother into dressing up in traditional Azeri costumes and posing for her.  We had to stop and take a look.



I'm not sure that the kid was enjoying being put in one outfit after another....just for the amusement of the adults around him.   But he was a good sport and watching him put a smile on everyone's faces.  I have to admit, he was pretty adorable.





Most of the commercial establishments were closed so whenever we spotted either an open door or an open window, we knew that was an opportunity to check something out.


At one window, that something turned out to be a metalsmith's workshop. Lahij is recognized for its unique copper craftsmanship and was just recently inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015.

Peering inside the workshop, what caught my eye was the sight of a man operating a very large bellow.  I entered the shop to take a closer look at what the man was doing and to check out his place.



He turned out to be a very friendly man who was not all camera shy. In fact, he liked to pose for the camera - striking up stances that I am sure he has done for countless visitors who has come to his shop before me.



With Rafael interpreting, he told us his name is Kableyi (cha-blee) and that he is the 7th generation in a family of metal smiths. From the look on his face, you could tell that he was very proud of this fact. 


I loved Kableyi's workshop. It had an old, dusty charm about it. It was crammed of all sorts of metal containers that I presume were created in this workshop - things were on shelves, hanging off shelves, hanging off walls, hanging off the ceiling, standing on the floor and even on small ledges outside the front door. You name where you can put something and it was there!

The handiwork of a coppersmith in Lahij.

From Kableyi's place, we continued our walk.  As we strolled down the main street, a car would occasionally drive by us but more often than not, it was someone on horseback that we had to watch out for.  With the conditions of the roads the way they are, horse or even foot would be the best means of transportation.


Next place we stepped inside was a carpet shop.  Both Pat and I love carpets and Pat had indicated that if she saw something she liked, she would buy it.  This was our first look at local Azeri carpets. We sat down for a few minutes while the owner gave us a brief rundown of what she had for sale. It was a good opportunity for me to rest my foot. Nothing caught either my eye or Pat's.  In fact, I really didn't like the woman's carpets at all.  But, she was a lovely lady.  I had been joking with Rafael that we had to find him a wife. Turns out he has some very old fashioned about what he wants in a woman.  He's very much a mama's boy so his wife will not work outside the house, she will have to be willing to live in the same house as his parents and she will have to learn, from his mother, how to cook all his favorite foods.  Yikes!!  I figured no woman living in Baku will be meet his requirements so why not try for a village girl.  So, continuing to tease Rafael, I asked the woman if she has a daughter and she replied that she has five sons!  So much for that.  Rafael did not look amused.  I have to loosen him up a bit.  He seems a bit too uptight :-)


After Rafael finished chatting with the woman, we thanked her for her time and then left.

We decided to walk all the way to the end of the main street where there was a bridge. The main street is lined with large, flat river rocks which made it easier for me to hobble my way along, albeit still very slowly.

I hobbled my through Lahij :-)

Islamic traditions are a strong influence on the culture of Lahij.

Spring water flows freely from taps.

Another reminder of Lahij's Islamic traditions.

Aside from this man walking with his two horses and their load of wood, there was nothing to see at the bridge so we turned around and retraced our steps back to the car.


The outskirts of Lahij.  Not an attractive place.
More photos on the walk back to the car.

A very cute sight.  Swallows (?) nesting in crevices in the facades of buildings.

I'm always bringing up the rear and my injured foot is slowing me down even more.   Pat
frequently turns around to make sure I'm still behind her!

He knows he can't come home unless he brings the bread :-)

A man and his horse.  Notice what he uses for a saddle.


After Lahij, we headed back to our guesthouse in Qaraqaya.  On the way back, we once again passed through that fascinating rock formation.



This time, we were on the side of the road where I could get a glimpse of the river.  I had to shoot some video to remember the experience.


Just before we our house in Qaraqaya, Rafael pulled over to the side of the road.....near a narrow suspension bridge.

I opted to stay back, by the car, while Pat ventured down the hill to check out the bridge.  I have no idea why this bridge is so worthy of a stop - perhaps you get a good view of the river and the mountains??  The river wasn't really flowing all that much so I can't imagine it was much of a view.  In any event, I presumed it was an obligatory stop for tourists.




From here, it was just a short distance before we reached our house in Qaraqaya.  It was the end of a long day. Time to kick back and have dinner!!