Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2002 (10.3)
Pages 72-73

The Road to Lankaran
Lessons from an Accidental Breach of Security
by Michael Walsh

Journeys - Azerbaijan International's new series of travel features - invites readers to venture outside of Baku to experience the natural beauty of the countryside and the warmth of Azerbaijani hospitality on off-the-beaten paths. Our first installment of "Journeys" comes to us from Mike Walsh, Resident Manager of the law firm Ledingham Chalmers (Baku) Ltd. Mike has been working in Baku for the past four years, providing comprehensive commercial and legal advice to the international business community.

When he's not in the office, Mike enjoys taking weekend bicycling trips in Azerbaijan's more remote regions that are somehow reminiscent of the lush, untamed countryside of his native Scotland. Mike finds that foreigners are still a bit of a curiosity for villagers in Azerbaijan's remote regions. On a recent trip down close to Azerbaijan's southern border, even though he was a complete stranger who had forgotten to carry along any sort of identification papers, he was welcomed with open arms. In this age of heightened security and widespread mistrust, it's nice to know that travelers can still find a place where hospitality reigns supreme.

The idea of cycling down through the southeastern region of Azerbaijan, through the Talysh Mountains, had been floating around in my head for the better part of a year. At last, there I was on a Friday afternoon, with food, water, a sleeping bag and my bike all stuffed into the back of the car, driving the long road south to Lankaran.

Upon arriving in Lankaran slightly before sundown, I set about finding a hotel for the night. A friendly taxi driver soon had me fixed up with a local family in what seemed to be a hotel. (Fortunately, my language skills were too poor to ask them how long it had been since the last guest had stayed there!) They were clearly delighted to have a foreigner staying with them. After much cajoling, the parents persuaded the younger of the two daughters, Leyla, to practice her English with me. She disappeared and returned a couple of minutes later with a very old, worn Russian-English textbook. The next two hours were spent giving her an impromptu English lesson. Leyla had studied English at school but had never heard it spoken by a native speaker before! I felt privileged, yet strangely humbled, to fulfill that role for that short time.

The next morning, my friendly taxi driver was waiting to drive me to Masalli, a nearby town. My plan was to bike from Masalli back to Lankaran via Yardimli and Lerik. The map showed no direct roads linking the mountainous villages of Yardimli and Lerik, but I felt sure that since there were many villages in the vicinity that I could somehow make my way between them. That was my plan anyway. I had been to this region once before - last summer - but my memories then were of constant rain. But on this day, there were clear blue skies, lots of sunshine and a gorgeous view of the Talysh hills rising up before me.

Photos: (above and below) Mountain scenery in the Lankaran-Talysh region near the Iranian border. Mike Walsh found that not many tourists had visited this mountainous village region.

As I gradually found my rhythm, pedaling my bike, I delighted in the road as it undulated onwards and upwards through beautiful woodland, giving way to better and better views of the mountains. Halfway to Yardimli, I passed the Shalala waterfall, which was ideal for a refreshing "head dunk", as we would say back home.

A couple of hours later, I arrived in Yardimli. My arrival created quite a stir amongst the villagers, but this was nothing compared to the excitement that surged through the crowd when I produced a map of the region. I guess maps are a rarity in these parts!

With my extremely limited Russian, I managed to make the villagers understand that I wanted to cycle from Yardimli to Lerik. They all told me this was impossible, that only "machines" (meaning cars) could make it there. I couldn't quite understand their logic, but my insistence that it could surely be done was only met with more shaking of heads and grumbling. This impasse was broken when somebody piped up and said that if I retraced my steps to the village of Valikhanli, I could make my way across to Horavar, from there to Zenanu and then Singadulan and Aliabad and on to Lerik. (I had seen that road go off from Valikhanli, but when I asked if I could take that route to Lerik, I was told, "No, machines only!")

Satisfied with the welcome news of this latest possibility, I spent the next half hour replenishing myself with countless cups of tea and fielding offers of dinner and a bed for the night. It was with some reluctance that the villagers filled up my water bottles and let me go. Although it would have been fun to stay the night there, I was longing to have a go at the hills. Hopping back on my bike, I had a pleasant 20 minutes or so downhill before I reached Valikhanli, where I turned off the main road and ventured into the unknown.

Tourists are Rare Sight
I felt such a sense of freedom: there was not a single car or truck passing me on the road. Other than the rare, startled villager, I was very much on my own in the midst of the most beautiful hills in the full bloom of early summer. As I passed small, picturesque villages, the villagers always waved me down. The Talysh villagers have a specific gesture - body language for "Just what on earth are you doing?" They shake their upraised, stretched open palms from side to side accompanied with a facial expression of utter confusion.

Although I made numerous attempts to explain myself, mentioning the beautiful mountains, blue skies, wonderful people, and that Scotland, unlike Azerbaijan, was mostly cold and rainy, still the villagers simply could not comprehend what I was doing. I suddenly hit on the magic answer - tourist! "Aha, tourist," they all said knowingly, nodding their heads. "Tooooourist"!

Their confusion over my presence did not in any way detract from the famed Talysh hospitality. Chai (tea), bread and goat cheese were repeatedly offered (and readily accepted!)

The cycling itself was better than I could have ever dreamed of. The hills were fresh, and the trails went up and down, up and down. I felt as if I were in heaven at one point when the track led through a cornfield and suddenly trailed off into nothing. I could see the next village (Zenanu) across the valley, so I knew wasn't in any danger of getting lost. Rather, I was left with the complete joy of a steep downhill through glorious (and newly harvested) golden fields with not another person or trail in sight as far as the eye could see.

Sadly, as every biker knows, what goes down must come back up. That 10-minute-long downhill was immediately followed by an hour-long uphill hike through a field of thorns. I had to carry my bike for the most of the way (and still got a puncture).

Upon reaching the village, I was rewarded not only with chai, bread and goat cheese, but also the most scrumptious homemade strawberry jam imaginable. I couldn't help but reflect on how the hustle and bustle of Baku seemed a million miles away.

I could have gone on for hours and hours cycling in such paradise, but the sun was beginning to set and I had to start thinking about kipping down for the night. I had my sleeping bag tied to the front of my handlebars, and I felt fairly certain I would be able to find a place to sleep. Sure enough, in the next village I passed through, I quickly made more new friends. (It's amazing what a creased-up and somewhat sweaty photocopy of an old map can do!) After establishing that there was no hotel in the village, I asked if I could sleep in an old barn in the center of town. My request was declined - instead, the villagers insisted on offering me the local telephone exchange, where I could sleep while the operator did his nightshift!

A few more villagers stopped by to say hello. More bread and cheese appeared, and before long, the predictable bottle of vodka as well. Cursing myself for having forgotten to bring anything to offer in return (shame on me), I could offer little else but to down every glass, maintaining my smile (in order to hide my grimace) and toasting both Azerbaijan and President Aliyev.

Where's Your ID?
Matters took an unexpected twist a few minutes later, however, with the arrival of the local "security personnel". Had I been able to produce any identification papers, I'm sure that what followed would have been little more than a minor footnote to my weekend's adventures. However, I had no ID on me. To be honest, I had been so excited at the thought of making this last-minute trip that I hadn't stopped to realize that I would be perceived as a complete stranger cycling right down on the Iranian border. It was stupid of me (unbelievably stupid, actually), but I always feel so safe in Baku and rarely have to show any identity. I guess that's why I completely forgot.

To make a long story short, I was eventually taken from the telephone exchange to the house of another local security officer, where I was required to sleep under lock and key. I must add that, in typical Talysh hospitality, my jailer provided me with supper and showed me to a room where a very comfortable bed had been made up for me. It was much better than the hard wooden floors of the exchange, where the telephone was ringing every few minutes. Give me house arrest over liberty any day, I thought, as I snuggled down for a good night's sleep.

Next morning, after a delightful breakfast, we headed back to the telephone exchange, where I was met by two senior officers. After more questions, my bike and I were secured in the back of an army jeep as we headed to the town of Lerik.

I confess it was frustrating seeing all that gorgeous scenery going by from the back of a jeep. But what could I do? The security officers had little choice, since I was carrying no identification whatsoever. My meeting with the police commander was surprisingly pleasant. After he made a few phone calls to check out my story, I was let go. Back on my bike, with a greater sense of freedom than I could ever have imagined, I was left on my own with a long, winding downhill to Lankaran. More chai, another quick English lesson, and then I hopped back in the car and headed back to Baku.

As I reflected on the weekend's events, the thing that struck me the most was how almost everybody I met was willing to accommodate me. Aside from the countless offers of hospitality, there were many, many more that I turned down. I guess that the difference between them and us (whoever "them" and "us" are) is that they always seem to have time for others - friends and strangers alike. It's an idea that really impressed me; I know I'll be musing a lot of time about it as I plan my next trip.

Azerbaijan International Magazine is seeking submissions for future articles in its "Journeys" series. Those who would like to share their experiences of traveling through Azerbaijan's lesser-known regions and remote landscape are invited to write to the Editor in Los Angeles at

To read more about excursions outside of Baku, see the issue "Off the Beaten Path," AI 9.2 (Summer 2001).


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