I’ve never really been a city dweller. I was raised in the suburbs, attended university in the suburbs, and spent my twenties moving between coastal and college towns. There was a time when I could hear the ocean from my house and never a time which I lived more than three storeys above the ground. Cities are new territory for me.
Baku has taken me in with open arms, something for which I am grateful. Coming here in August to teach primary year students at an international school, these past three months have been a wonderful beginning to my residency. As a musician it warms my heart and my ears to see and hear the city’s various musical acts. There are some talented and passionate people here playing paid gigs in downtown pubs and restaurants while park benches and the sea wall along the Boulevard are often impromptu stages for a group of friends with a guitar; sometimes up to ten friends filling the air with seemingly doleful yet pretty songs I’ll probably never know.
I love the architecture, both old and new. While I can’t pretend to be a connoisseur of cement and steel structures, not by any stretch of the imagination, I know what I like when I see it. A giant carpet shaped building with a carpet museum inside? Yes please. The government building in Azadliq Square, equal parts imposing, impressive and regal? It never fails to turn my head several times when I’m walking by.
However, this isn’t an article about the different appreciations I have for Baku. Actually it’s almost the opposite of that. It’s about getting out of Baku. It’s about the fairly common human need to occasionally extricate oneself from life’s routines. Sometimes the hum of city life needs to be substituted for wind rustled leaves and the tireless chatter of forest streams. I know when my time to flee the city has come, usually hitting me every three to four weeks. I start looking at a map, picking a town that looks “out there,” and searching for a few photos on the internet to get a feel for the sights.
but as I am frequently reminded during my trips around Azerbaijan it’s those unplanned moments that can turn a weekend getaway into a lifetime memory
Fruity fun in Goychay
My most recent regional excursion was partly directed by a popular event in the town of Goychay, home of the Pomegranate Festival, this year being the tenth one. My friend Selene, a Fulbright scholar assisting in English language instruction at a local university, informed me that several of our other friends would be attending the fruity fun time in Goychay. While we had already planned to go to Oghuz, a small mountain town 255 kilometres northwest of Baku, a quick glance at the map showed it wasn’t too far from Goychay, maybe two hours tops. Doing both didn’t seem like a wildly difficult undertaking. Of course, while our friends had the luxury of a work - provided SUV, Selene, Marlee (yet another Fulbright Scholar), and I taxied our way to the Baku International Bus Terminal. There on what was a cold and rainy Saturday morning we navigated and negotiated our way into yet another taxi to Goychay.
The road to Goychay takes about three hours from the city. On this day it remained foggy and wet the entire time; the old Mercedes’ wipers working hard to keep the windshield clear. Selene speaks Russian and Marlee Turkish. Me? I speak the language of love, music, and excuses.While they bantered with the driver and the additional local passenger I sat quietly, smiling and laughing when it seemed appropriate, overall just being a typical monolingual American. But, we made it to Goychay. Through the rain and fog, the laughter and jokes at my expense, we arrived at the great Pomegranate Festival.
Nar in Azerbaijani and Granat in Russian – call it by any name and the pomegranate is still an amazingly delicious, sweet and tart, wonderfully healthy treat; the world knows it. Goychay knows it too and throws a big party to celebrate its ancient history and continued relevance in the world fruit economy. By the time we stepped out of the taxi and said farewell to our driver the rain had decided to take a break. Since our driver was kind enough to drive past road blocks and onto the crowded festival streets in order to drop us directly in the centre of things, we needed a minute to find our bearings amidst the thousands of people walking about, eating street food, talking, laughing, selling handicrafts, and of course staring at us, the obvious tourists.
When I travel there is no subtlety of my foreignness. A blue North Face jacket, a large backpack, a camera around my neck, a camera bag over one shoulder and a banjo over the other just don’t lend themselves to an inconspicuous existence in places such as this. So be it, it was time for a lamb kebab and a pomegranate.
We found our other friends who had already been there for a couple of hours. There was Vlad from Ukraine, an oil man of sorts. Vlad’s French coworker Alberique and his lady friend Odile from back home. Tamara, the new girl on the block from Georgia, also in the oil industry. Finally, there was Dani, an Austrian born gal who teaches English to college students. With this internationally varied yet professionally predictable group, we took in the sights, ate good food (pomegranates of course), and caught a glimpse of a woman in red I can only describe as the “Pomegranate Princess.”
A blue North Fa ce jacket, a large backpack, a camera around my neck, a camera bag over one shoulder and a banjo over the other just don’t lend themselves to an inconspicuous existence in places such as this
Enchanted woods of Oghuz
Selene and I were able to convince the others to accompany us on our journey to Oghuz. We creatively fit our entire group into the SUV and proceeded to our next destination in the fading afternoon light. We arrived in darkness and headed up the mountain towards the back end of town in search of our hotel. I like getting to a new place after the sun goes down, passing the mysterious silhouetted figures and knowing I’ll have to wait until morning for their form to be revealed by the new day. After a late dinner, beer, and some good old fashioned friendship we spent the night in our quaint yet modernly furnished hotel.
The sun was up well before any of us, a few hours to be sure. After we dragged ourselves from the room and ate breakfast we asked our host if there was a mountain for hiking. There are two mountains. One over there and one across the road. Pointing to the former mountain he casually stated, That one has wolves and bears.
We decided to go to the mountain across the road. Walking outside of the hotel courtyard we encountered a friendly neighbourhood dog. He followed us across the road, undoubtedly encouraged by our endless petting and peanut butter on bread combination. Like any good American I feel the need to share the glory that is peanut butter, to both human and K-9 alike.
A fairly dense morning fog made the visibility less than ideal; no mountain tops to speak of. Slightly disappointed by our lack of mountain vistas we continued into the forest, finding a road that seemed to be going uphill and presumably led to the picturesque look-out point we desired. To say we simply entered “the forest” would be a gross understatement however. At the very least “enchanted forest” will suffice and although approaching the absurd, “autumn colour palette of the gods” would also be more fitting than just, “forest.” I thought we had already missed the fall colours; a pleasant surprise kept secret during our nocturnal arrival.
For the next few hours we trapesed through the mud, fallen leaves and puddles, to be continually spellbound by the beauty all around us. Our K-9 companion disappeared for a while, having an adventure of his own no doubt. He rejoined our pack somewhere along what turned out to be a logging road, patiently sitting with us while we enjoyed breathing the fresh air, watching the breeze playfully carry leaves over the gulch and the plain beautiful quiet of Oghuz.
To say we simply entered “the forest” would be a gross understatement however. At the very least “enchanted forest” will suffice
On these weekend getaways, in this life, there is no telling what you will encounter. You can choose a place to go, create an itinerary on paper and expectations in your head, but as I am frequently reminded during my trips around Azerbaijan it’s those unplanned moments that can turn a weekend getaway into a lifetime memory. Sometimes it’s tea with shepherds up above the village of Laza and other times its being in Lahij, listening to a crying old man ask for a photo with his deceased father’s head stone. This time it was the arboreal serenity of Oghuz, sitting on a felled tree and just melting into the forest’s colourful heart. Yes, sometimes it’s quite good to get out of the city.
About the author: Brian Dinizio is an international school teacher, writer and photographer from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.