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Published: June 21st 2017
Over the years, the way I travel and the way I look at travelling have changed several times. My motivation, however, has stayed the same: curiosity in its purest form. I wanna see, I wanna know, I wanna experience and live it, growing in the process. Alexander von Humboldt, one of the purest travellers imaginable, said that "The most dangerous worldviews are the worldviews of those who have never viewed the world", and never has this quote rung truer than these days. The more you travel, the more you understand, provided you learn how to listen and to see. If your motivation is to take the same picture as everybody else for those precious FB likes, well, just stay at home. You don't deserve to travel, and the locals in those countries on your bucket list don't deserve to put up with you.
Some examples? There you go: 1. Stupid perspective photos on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. You saw this incredibly original photo of some girl holding her tiny boyfriend in her hand, or that tour guide frying his customers in a pan, and now you wanna go and take your own, because you also have such an
original idea, and your FB friends are gonna think of you as such a worldly, smart person, who frequently goes on adventures to exotic places? Don't. 2. Only the best, biggest, baddest, highest is good enough for you, so you book your plane ticket to Nepal to climb Mt. Everest, even though your mountaineering experience is limited to drunkenly climbing up that hill down the road on the left to flash your naked arse at passing cars. On the way to Base Camp and further up, you pay tens of thousands of Euros, harass the locals, endanger the sherpas, enrage the real alpinists, and spread your filth and garbage anywhere you go. There's an annual Everest Eco Expedition that has cleaned up over 13 tons of trash since 2008, amongst others discarded oxygen tanks, torn tents, frozen excrement and the occasional frozen corpse. You could easily turn into one of those. (There are hundreds of other examples, but those two shall suffice for now.)
But enough with the dimwit-bashing, this blog entry is supposed to be an introspective one.
My trip to Azerbaijan is my first real travel experience in a long
time. On the road I'm keeping myself busy reflecting on previous trips, contemplating future ones, trying to find out how to refine and optimise my travel methods. Seriously, these are the things I like to think about. I'm not in a hurry, I like to travel slowly, it's not a race, I'm not competing with anyone. One of my biggest priorities is downsizing luggage, I'm sick of carting around stuff, some of which might not be as necessary as I thought while packing. Another and one of the most important aspects to me is communication with locals. I don't wanna be a stranger, a tourist, a conquistador, a snob. Being able to communicate with the people that live in the countries I visit is imortant to me, because I wanna know about them. It's impossible to speak the language of every country I want to visit, but that doesn't keep me from trying, does it? For the Caucasus, the lowest common denominator is Russian, naturally. Beforehand, I tried to brush up my meagre skills as much as possible, now that I'm here, I wanna maximise them as much as I can. About 100 words can go an incredibly long way,
if you learn how to combine and express yourself efficiently. You have to be a little creative, and not be afraid to make a fool of yourself.
In my case, the first days are rough. I'm speaking a Russo-Hungarian gibberish that sometimes even works, much to my surprise. When it comes to listening and understanding, it's a little more difficult. Some locals just start chatting away as though I were a native speaker. Every now and then, I know what's going on, other times I'm completely lost. Asking for the way isn't a problem. In Sheki, I politely ask an elderly woman in my theatrical Russian if I'm on the right path to so-and-so. She flashes me an all-golden-toothed smile, and tells me I'm right, I should just keep going and then turn left, and we wish each other a good day. More on the linguistic issues later.
From Sheki I hop on a marshrutka to Kish village, where I find an ancient Albanian church. Wait a minute, Albanian? Some research tells me Caucasian Albania has absolutely nothing to do with modern-day Albania. It existed from roughly the 4th century BC till the 8th century AD. Its inhabitants
switched from Paganism to Zoroastrianism (much like in neighbouring Persia) to Christianity, hence the odd "Albanian" church in what is now Azerbaijan. The one in Kish is beautifully situated in front of the surrounding green mountains, with a lush garden in the inner courtyard.
Another oddity is a statue of Thor Heyerdahl in front of said church. Most famous for his 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition on a raft from South America to Polynesia, Heyerdahl appears to have been a rather eccentric fellow who liked to employ his own brand of science, as indicated by a quote on a stone slab next to the statue: "Scandinavian mythology describes a God called Odin that came to Northern Europe from a place called Azer. I have studied these writings and concluded that it is not mythology, it is real history and geography." I should remember the last sentence by heart, it's the best, most self-confident way to shut up any critics and doubters. Basically Heyerdahl thought the Gobustan Petroglyphs resembled some found in Northern Europe, thus concluding Norwegians and Azerbaijanis must be the same people. They love him in Azerbaijan, so well done, Thor!
I ask my way further towards Gelersen-Görersen (which
means Come and See), a medieval mountain fortress, dating back to the 8th or 9th century, and pretty much the only notable thing I'm allowed to visit in the surrounding area without a special permit. Most famously, even a powerful Persian Shah was not able to capture the Sheki Khanate stronghold by force in the 18th century.
I encounter a group of men having a rest on a small patch of grass by the roadside. They invite me for tea, and ask me every question under the sun, which really helps me practice my Russian. They're especially curious about my family and my work, and how much I earn as a teacher. When I tell them, one of them, a middle-aged, bronzed man with stern eyes, tells me that in Azerbaijan, a teacher earns $120 per month. I tell them, fair enough, but I pay half of my salary for my flat. Hm, he says. They chatter away excitedly for a while in Azeri, then they seem to have an idea. "How much does a bread cost in your country?", he asks, pointing to the pile of flatbread on the table. "Maybe 1-2€, depends", I respond. They shake their
heads, uttering grunts of disapproval. "For 1€ you get five breads here in Azerbaijan." -"See, it's all relative.", I conclude, ready to get up and leave. "No, stay and eat with us", the man says. "You still have to walk a lot, haha." They produce a pot of beans and eggs from somewhere, plating me up first as their honoured guest.
We sit and eat the simple dish with bread. One of the other men speaks up: "You know, I spent two years in Germany, in Magdeburg. I met a beautiful lady there, we have two kids, but I haven't seen them in a long time." It takes me a while to understand that he did his Soviet military service in the GDR. A younger man to his side, who's been rather quiet, is his son, he lets me know. He speaks only Azeri. - "So he's not from Magdeburg?", I ask him jokingly. "No, no, this one's from here.", he replies, smiling somberly.
A few kilometres further down the river, I come across a tacky resort with an entrance gate sporting the letters "Gelersen-Görersen" in garish colours. A friendly man sees me standing there, all confused, and
tells me to keep climbing up the hill, which is where I'll find the fortress. A steep path leads me directly to some ruined walls, which are not visible from downhill. I keep climbing up to the highest point and rest for a while, taking in the incredible surrounding scenery, with green, rolling mountains, the meandering Kish River and the blue sky. I tend to focus a lot on the past and worry too much about the future, but in this very moment, this particular mountain near Sheki in Azerbaijan is the best place on earth. I couldn't have wished for a better birthday.
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