Summer 2001 (9.2)
Off the Beaten Path
by Betty Blair
I'll never forget my first trip up into the Caucasus mountains back in 1995. January 1995 - I might add. As a child, I had grown up surrounded by mountains in eastern Tennessee. But make no mistake, the Smokey Mountains should never be confused with the Caucasus which peaks at three times the height and whose roads are incomparably rugged and inaccessible. You're on your own when you venture out in the Caucasus. No road service will come to your rescue in case of emergency.
But back in 1995, nobody warned me of the hazards of traveling those majestic mountains in winter. I had trusted the local Azerbaijanis to know the road conditions when I expressed interest in visiting Lahij - a remote mountain village known for its copper craftsmen and a history that dates back to camel caravans. Little did I know at that time that hospitality would take precedence over safety - at least my idea of safety.
It was sunny when we started our ascent that morning from the valley town of Ismayilli, oblivious to the fact that climactic conditions at higher altitudes could be radically different. We soon reached places where snow had blanketed the road - not really so deep - a mere 6 to 8 inches or so, but treacherous enough for a dirt road that had no guardrails. There were two jeeps in our convoy - none of the tires had chains. Nor were the vehicles equipped with passenger seat belts - not that it would have mattered much had we slid off the road and plunged down the ravine into the river 300 feet below. Fortunately, the driver who was from Lahij himself seemed to know every curve in the perilous road. He boasted that he could have driven it blindfolded. I'm glad he didn't try. I still detect a few white hairs from that trip.
We finally arrived safely that afternoon, and the trip turned out to be one of the most memorable in my life despite my extensive travels in China, Greece, Iran and the Amazon.
Now six years later, not much has changed when it comes to exploring Caucausus or visiting Lahij. Our best advice: Travel at your own risk, but do travel.
With this issue, we hope to challenge our readers - Azerbaijani and foreigner alike - to venture "off the beaten path". We've tried, as usual, to identify experts whom we think know the subject best. In this case, we've found foreigners to be among the most knowledgeable. Admittedly, they have access to the sturdy vehicles needed to deal with the rigors of the perilous mountain roads. Perhaps it won't come as a surprise that many Azerbaijanis have yet to discover the rugged beauty of their own country. During Soviet times, travel and transportation were limited. Few people owned private cars, and checkpoints were frequent. Now Azerbaijanis are free to go wherever they wish, but travel high in the Caucasus is still very difficult unless you have a strong vehicle.
We should mention that some of the foreigners - nature enthusiasts - on earlier assignments in Azerbaijan have already left their footprints and influence on others, such as Roger Thomas, UK's former Ambassador to Azerbaijan. Elf's Jean-Francois Daganaud was notorious for taking his four-wheel drive where most others feared to tread. Mark Elliott deserves immense credit for his tireless pioneering efforts in documenting some of the most fascinating sites in his guide, "Azerbaijan and Georgia" (Trailblazer, 1999).
In this issue, you'll find suggestions by John Connor, Chevron's General Manager, for a dozen places where you can get away from the bustle of the city on single day. He has identified some of his favorite places for hiking and photographing the serenity of nature.
David Puls, a geologist with Exxon, describes the laborious ascent to the top of Azerbaijan's highest peak at 4,243m (14,002 feet), Shahdagh (King Mountain), on an expedition led by mountain climbing expert Elchin Mammad. We think the trip got him hooked.
Napier Shelton spent the last two years pursuing a lifetime hobby of bird watching. Here with the help of Ornithologist Elchin Sultanov, he identifies 15 locations for observing the migratory routes of a wide species of birds. His research is another first in English.
Baltimore Sun journalist Kathy Lally on assignment in Moscow, recently came to Azerbaijan and visited the villages in the Lerik region near the southern border shared with Iran to try to unlock the secrets of longevity of mountain centenarians.
Land mines do present a danger in certain regions. If, and when, a resolution is ever achieved between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, the landmines will inevitably leave a dreadful legacy to future generations, especially curious children. Unfortunately, no maps mark where these maimers and killers have been buried, thus making identification and deactivation all the more deadly, time-consuming and expensive.
We hope these pages will encourage you to explore Azerbaijan's open expansive countryside and marvel at nature's transitions through all its seasons. We think you'll come away refreshed with a new perspective of man's place in the grander scheme of things.
Oh yes, and do try to make it up to Lahij. May we suggest Summer, not January, as the ideal time to get started.
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