By Brianna 22/February/17 Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is a really interesting place full of quirky characters and untouched landscapes. Camping here gives you a chance to experience a little of the remoteness and traditional lifestyle lived by locals, as well as offer a contrasting view to the one portrayed by the capital...
The quaint, traditional villages of Azerbaijan mainly reside in the North West of the country. Therefore, If you are coming into Azerbaijan by train from Tbilisi, it is more logical to visit these towns en route to Baku. If you are starting your Azbaj adventure in the capital, however, bear in mind there is no direct transportation between villages. Although Laza and Lahic, the two villages we camped in, are less than 80km apart, it was easier for us to return Baku between trips. Despite the effects of "day-trip" tourism and popularity of skiing in the regions creeping in, the areas retain a very pure link to traditional Azeri culture and the livelihoods of those who remained unaffected by the oil-boom.
Around the town of Quba, there are a few beautiful villages worthy of visiting if you have time and certain degree of patience and tolerance. Two of note are Xinaliq and Laza. You used to be able to do a stunning multi-day hike between them, which was our original plan, however the area has been closed off to the public for "environmental reasons". This area can be heavily patrolled and so it's best not to chance it. From Baku, there is a bus that goes to both Quba (the base for Xinaliq) and Qusar (the base for Laza).
Buses in Azerbaijan leave when they are full, so pinning down exact bus times isn't easy. However, if you get to Baku Bus terminal (which is now easily accessible on the metro) in the morning and ask around, you will most likely be on your way within the hour. Beware of people trying to sell you private taxis. Make sure you go up to the second floor where the marshruktas are and always check going rates in the guidebooks.
Once you get to Quba or Qusar, you can only access the mountain villages by 4x4. Usually there are shared 4x4s that leave once a day from outside the main hotel in Quba. While we were there, we discovered that heavy flooding had made the road to Xinaliq impassable and only private companies were willing to make the trip. We were interested in finding a campsite nearby the village and hike the rest of the way ourselves, however the lack of information about this area, even from the tourist information centre in Quba, left us with a dilemma. If we paid a private 4x4 to take us as far as it could towards Xinaliq, or to the closest campsite, we would run the risk of a very costly taxi trip that would leave us stranded without anywhere to stay. On top of this, accommodation options in Quba are pretty slim and relatively expensive compared to the rest of the area.
We decided instead to visit Laza first, coming back to Xinaliq if we had time. We had a night in Qusar hotel (30 manat for a double room), where we met a local tour guide. He was very keen to get our business even following us to the corner shop so he could keep talking us through his offers. The problem, we discovered, was that most tourists that visit Azerbaijan are interested in being chauffeured from traditional mountain village to mountain village, briefly stopping for selfies in between. When we tried to explain that we wanted to camp in Laza, the tour guide got very defensive and stopped listening to us. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to take us to Laza and leave us there.
All of this transportation faff was worth it, however, to experience the incredible beauty of Laza in the way we had imagined we would. We camped in the garden/farmland of the Azizov family, the three brothers listed in Lonely planet, who were very welcoming and generous (avoid the house across the road who were nowhere near as friendly and wanted a lot more money from us). Although there is now a very up-market ski resort less than a mile away from Laza, the area still feels very cut-off from the modern world, with it's own traditional dialect, houses, and farming methods. We witnessed the ferocity of the mountain sheepdogs, men herding cattle on horseback and waterfalls that act as the focal point for the common "day-trip" tours. As a place to camp, Laza was one of our favourite spots of the trip. Alex particularly liked the clear, starry skies and feeling of being completely disconnected from the modern world.
Lahıc is the most visited, most photographed, quintessential mountain village of Azerbaijan. To get there from Baku, you have to board a bus to Ismayilli and change. Although these buses are frequent and the journey is only a few hours, the buses that take you the last 20km or so from Ismayilli to Lahıc are far less regular. Make sure you give yourself a couple of hours give to make this connection. Ismayilli is a very small town with next to no acommodation or food options. The road to Lahıc is so scenic that Lonely Planet recommend taking a taxi one way so you can take photos. The marshrukta, however, was full of very friendly locals and a great experience in itself.
When we arrived in Lahıc, we were immediately confronted with a man (Haciyev) claiming to have a guesthouse that comes recommended by Lonely Planet. This turned out to be true, but we were uncomfortable with the amount of pressure he put on us to stay with him. We had planned to stay in the campsite, Cənnət Bagi Guest House, which is also listed in the 2012 Lonely Planet and located at the town entrance. However, the price they quoted us to stay was so extortionate (more than we paid for a lush AirBnB apartment in the centre of Paris) that we sheepishly returned to Hacieyev, asking whether we could camp in his garden. He was slightly confused as to why we wanted to camp rather than stay in his guestroom, and closely watched us with fascination as we set up our tent.
We spent the afternoon exploring the cobbled streets and unique buildings that make Lahıc look more like a movie set than a functioning town. Although it has embraced tourism (mostly day-trippers) in a big way, there is a resounding authenticity within the local community, who have their own distinct language, as well as a tendency towards soviet Russian lifestyle rather than the western culture embraced in the capital. Our exploration had the added benefit of escaping the prying eyes and very personal interrogation of our host for a few hours.
The next day we had planned to spend hiking around the local trails. There are options for horseriding, waterfall walks, sights of 'ruins' (almost beyond recognition) etc. However, the weather had other plans. It rained so hard and for so long our tent almost floated away. The storm lashed down consistently for 24hrs. At one point, to avoid more questioning on our thoughts on 'erotica', we attempted to leave the confines of our host's outside shelter. This had disatrous consequences. We had good wifi access, however the storm knocked out electricity for the majority of our stay. So we can't comment much on the surrounding Lahıc area, however we can definitely advise you to find alternative accommodation to Haciyev and Cənnət Bagi Guest House.
Our time in Lahıc was very strange, but it did complement the setting well. Our odd but semi-well-intentioned host sorted out a cheap shared taxi ride back to Baku for us in the morning, where we got to enjoy the stunning views of the sheer valley once more, getting out of the car every so often to remove massive rocks that had fallen onto the road during the storm.
We came back to the capital for our third and final time, eager to return to the delightful Butik Hostel Baku to air the tent and give some clothes a much needed wash. The lack of backpacker-orientated tourism hadn't been a surprise, however it felt strange to have a certain expectation on our travelling to be chaperoned. The wonderfully weird mountain villages of Azerbaijan offer the perfect contrast to the lifestyle promoted in its capital city, making them definitely worth a visit. However, with restrictions on hiking yet to be lifted around Quba, and our personal experience of Lahıc, for us it would only be a place worth visiting once.