This was the most the most expensive and hard-earned lunch I’ve ever had. I didn’t pay for it, but I’m in pain and it took over 4,000 kilometres on planes, buses, taxis and on foot to get to it. And here I am in the remote mountain village of Sarybash on the far edge of Azerbaijan, the culmination of a journey six months in the making that all started with stumbling across this place on Google Earth.
Remote inhabited places fascinate me—the farther and harder the reach the better. I need to know who lives there and why. Is it due to lack of better options, or because it is the best option? To get away from everything, or to find something? I can relate to all of these questions, for they all ask the same thing: why do I go anywhere?
No more questions, I knew right away I must go to Sarybash.
It’s not an easy road. The closest town reachable by public transport is Ilisu, 10km away. Then your only options are by horse, 4-wheel drive or on foot. The dirt path twists up and down the sides of a deep canyon and crosses the river twice. Just as you think you’ve made headway climbing, the path plunges cruelly down to the riverbed, erasing your progress.
Of course it couldn’t be too easy.
But I made it. As I approach the final bend to the village, the gatekeeper greets me. Well, a gate fixer to be precise. He’s fifty or so, a tough looking and unshaven working man dressed for warmth and with three sheep in tow. Before I could catch his name, he starts his interview whilst fixing the gate. “Where are you from? How did you get here? How do you know Russian?” Against my father’s advice (who is convinced everyone wants to kill Russians) I recite my usual answer: my grandparents were Russian and I learned it when I was little. His face brightens and he laughs, telling me it’s funny that an American who lives in England who knows Russian has found his way up there. Yes, I think—it is quite funny. He finishes his task and heads down the hill, his sheep dutifully following him. I wish him a good day, feeling quite surprised by just how un-surprised he was to run into me. This would set a precedent.
I make the final push. The air is chilly, but I am sweaty. Everything hurts and I just want to rest. It’s strange how after you push yourself through so much, you are so wiped out that you forget why you did it.
At the summit I stumble upon an unexpected expanse of bright green stretching from the cliffs behind me to the Dagestan (Russia) border to the north. It’s called the Tala, which used to be a field for both football and helicopters back in the USSR days.
I limp towards a statue overlooking the canyon. Its shadow makes for a perfect resting spot to enjoy the view.
But a young, casually dressed man pops up, seemingly levitating from under the cliff edge. The sight snaps the tired out of me. And I’m more surprised to see him than he is of me. He is curious and friendly. My Russian is as useless to him as his Azerbaijani is to me. But impromptu sign language and image searches on his phone work well. His name is Mehemmed, which I find out from becoming his Facebook friend within minutes.
He follows me as I make my way to the cliff edge. We stare at the road I climbed in silence for a while. When I stand up, he stands up too. I know he will go anywhere I go for the rest of the day. And that’s OK.
Mehemmed senses I’m here with a camera and a purpose.
This bleak, sawdust-stinking place full of faded portraits of mustached military men just had to a relic of the Soviet government. But I was wrong.
My search yields broken desks and dirty rooms littered with yellowed posters displaying the joys of maths, geography and art.
A very large school for a very small town. But no signs of children.
The smell of burning wood grows stronger. Is this place on fire? We find a comfortably shabby room that looks like a museum crossed with a squat. A bed, stove and recently dated newspapers. I’m astonished—somebody lives here. Perhaps an eccentric with a passion for textbooks and solitude?
The occupant swooshes past me from behind, sits at the desk, opens her book and starts scribbling. She’s smiling and smirking, amused by my presence. You can read intelligence by how people themselves read—fast, intense, absorbing knowledge. And it clicks. She’s a teacher. But no, not a teacher—she’s the teacher. The only one.
It’s clear Mehemmed is explaining who I am. I know that she wants to speak with me. But there’s no common language between the three of us. However, I do learn her name is Mahire. She’s interested that I’m interested and shows me without words how the old seismometer on her desk works. She was born to teach.
“Kids?” I ask in Russian. Mahire shrugs.
I remembered it was Novruz, and of course they wouldn’t be there. But from what I was about to learn from Zahir, in some years time what she said will most likely mean something more dire.
Lunch at last
Gullu, a lady of about 80, greets us as we pass her window whilst keeping an eye on her husband, Zahir. She shouts at him to stop chasing cows and come say hello. He is a proud, humorous and warm man, and just from how he shook my hand I’d pick him to be mayor of this village. 76 years old and a fluent Russian speaker, it was welcome to meet someone I can communicate with easily and who could translate as well.
Within minutes Mehemmed and I are sitting at their dinner table. Their home is a good size, comfortable and warm. The news plays through static on an old 13-inch . I’m surprised they get reception up here. Small talk, chitchat and eating make up the afternoon. Heaps of fragrant rice, fresh baked bread and home made yoghurt, stewed chicken and colourfully pickled, well, .
It’s all delicious and made with care, reminiscent of dinners I used to have with my grandparents thirty years ago. This was home for an hour.
They are so relaxed, as if they’ve invited strangers into their home hundreds of times. They probably have. He teases Gullu and laughs a lot. He teases me too, asking me if I can dance or sing for them. “Oh Nikolai, Nikolai…” he would say after recounting an anecdote, reflecting on life’s absurdities. He was my grandfather for the hour as well.
Zahir tells me that the people who stay are growing older and the young are leaving sooner, as the country’s capitol, Baku, has too many opportunities. Once over 1,000 people lived here. Now only 100 or so. The only road in or out is eroding and there’s no sign the government will improve it. Work revolves around herding cows and sheep, but it’s not clear how one makes a living from that. Government pensions are about 100 manat (£75) per month. But it seemed like a relaxing and satisfying life—one I could get used to. But I have the privilege to leave whenever I want.
After politely refusing vodka (a dozen times), I leave with a full stomach and with them a promise to them to send their photos.
I am grateful for Mehemmed’s patience for having a friend along for the day was welcome. At my insistence we pull ourselves up a steep hill behind the town, taking care to not slip on the rocks and using slender tree trunks as hand grips. It was worth it:
And then we descend to explore the village, covering every corner within an hour. The cold March wind blowing through the empty streets is the only sound we hear.
Thick chimney smoke signals and are the only clues that people live here. I’ve seen a lot of decay in Azerbaijan, from abandoned hospitals to hammans and homes. But there is always new construction nearby. But in Sarybash, and falling apart, a sign this village has been given up on. There isn’t the will or the resource to demolish anything, and if it were fixed, how many would use it, and for how long?
I don’t feel like an explorer here, just someone who had the fortune of experiencing the last of something. Mutual curiosity is a powerful thing; it breaks down barriers whether cultural, linguistic or geographic. The people I met all shared with me the idea of Sarybash before it’s gone.
It may seem ridiculous to read that I came all the way to Azerbaijan to spend an afternoon in this place. But Sarybash wasn’t the sole purpose, but the glue holding the trip together. It’s a challenge that gives the journey structure and focus by building anticipation before, and accomplishment for reflection after.
So of course I didn’t travel all that way, go through all of that hassle, spend all of that time and money, and suffer aches, scrapes and bruises simply to have climbed to this tiny village high up in the mountains to chat with strangers I’d never know I’d meet. That would be crazy, I would never do that on purpose for a free lunch.
Or perhaps I did.
Would you like to take the road to Sarybash? Follow my journey and see photos along the way in this interactive map.