Pinballing my way through Azerbaijan

Note: There are more upside-down e’s in this post than you have probably ever seen in one place. Proceed with caution.

So, I kept my promise. On this, my second trip to Azerbaijan, I have been seeing the places I want to see, accomplishing the things I set out to do, and coming to a deeper understanding of the country I’m in.

A cottage in Ivanovka, a charming Russian-speaking village near İsmayıllı. Ivanovka was founded as a kolkhoz, or collective farm, under the Soviet Union, one so successful that it was said to be the richest town in all of Azerbaijan. The collective farm is still operating today, though they weren’t too thrilled about the whole fall-of-the-USSR thing back in 1991.

Part of the reason I had done such a poor job of seeing the country last time is that Azerbaijan is not an easy place to travel. Mark Elliott, the author of perhaps the best and most complete travel guide I’ve ever used, concurs. A few excerpts:

“On my first visit to Qazax I was questioned for over four hours for snapping an uncontroversial photo of the hamam…. Simply walking in the streets generally proves provocative enough for the KGB to be called. Police advise tourists to stay in a car or taxi (or just not leave the bus station) rather than wandering into town.”

“Supposedly the ruins of the [Sım] palace really exist. What it looks like I can’t say: I have consistently failed to reach Sım, once almost losing a rented Niva in a gigantic mud-filled pothole en route.”

“The main reason to pass by Sədərək is to reach Dilucu, the Turkish frontier post. Officials here are notoriously corrupt, and on my first visit, one particularly blatant guard simply took my passport, then demanded $100 for its return.”

“The Naxçivan rail line hugs the Iranian border. Foreigners are liable to be under intense scrutiny from both railroad staff and police, who can conceive of only one reason that you’d take the ultra-slow train instead of a vastly faster taxi or minibus: you’re a spy. Try if you dare! The experience should add handsomely to your cocktail-party repertoire of KGB encounters. Don’t take photos without a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The main street of Lahıc, a charming (and very cold!) village in northern Azerbaijan home to dozens of traditional coppersmiths. Also, cat.

This is sometimes not a country for the faint of heart. But it’s mine, and I am making the most of it and having a lot of fun. Once I got back home, I immediately took a Sunday to visit the petroglyphs and fabled mud volcanoes of Qobustan (they are so bubbly!) The next weekend, I ventured into the mountains north of İsmayıllı to visit the copper-smithing village of Lahıc and its neighbor, the charming collective farm of Ivanovka. And just last night, I got back from a weekend trip to Şəki, a marvelously situated historic capital in mountainous northwestern  Azerbaijan with an architectural style all its own. No KGB stories to tell – the thought of a heavy police presence is enough to kill my desire for Naxçivan, no matter how appealing it may otherwise be – but I have had my share of cheating taxi drivers, uncomfortably cramped marshrutka rides, and, most of all, amazing homestay owners whose hospitality has made the whole thing worthwhile.


And I haven’t mentioned my borrower verifications yet! This is what’s tipped my Azerbaijan travels from merely “strenuous” into the realm of absurdity. You see, I am trying to complete three perennially delayed borrower verifications at once before I leave for Ukraine, and I found myself last week with 22 remaining borrowers to visit across Azerbaijan and only 11 business days to do it in. Crap. So I’ve spent every day since then pinballing crazily across the country, Sabirabad, Horadiz, Ağcabədi, Bala-Bəhmənli, talking to farmers and bakers and tilers and mechanics, and finding out how microfinance has changed their lives. This is my favorite part of any Kiva placement, but by now it’s getting downright exhausting; my life is moving so fast that everything feels out of control. I am writing to you right now using a 3G modem in the back seat of a Toyota Prado 150 kilometers from Beyləqan, because if I do not I will have no other time to do it.

Some of these trips, though, have been deeply meaningful. Last Tuesday, I visited the most explosively friendly borrower I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, a farmer in Əhmədbəyli who had been separated from his Füzuli home by the Armenian occupation, but who had built a better life for his family with the help of his many loans. And on Wednesday – so soon! so nervous! – I am finally putting my plans into action and traveling to Biləsuvar to make my film on the plight of internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan. If all goes to plan, you’ll be reading posts about both these trips very soon.

And then, I wrap up my Azerbaijan placement and say goodbye to all the wonderful people I’ve met. And then, off to Ukraine on the 21st. It’s going to be grueling. But when I look back on my time in Azerbaijan, I have a feeling I’ll find very little to regret.

A thousand snow-capped rooftops in Şəki.

Before I go, two things. First, I want to link you to a brilliant post on Kiva Stories from the Field by my rocktastic KF17 classmate Micaela Browning:
Solutions to Common Office Problems: New York City vs. Rural Mozambique
A rundown of what it’s actually like to try to do office work in Africa. I laughed so uproariously at this that my face fell asleep. (This happens sometimes; I am strange.) Click the link!

And second: Thanks to a new partnership and some incredibly generous donations, Kiva has launched a promotion in which they are giving away 35,000 free trials to new users. If you sign up now, your new Kiva account will come with a free $25 that you can loan to anyone you like. If you haven’t yet joined Kiva but have been meaning to, you’ll never have a better opportunity! Use this link to sign up.


About Arbutus

learner, traveler, music-maker, explorer, rabbit extraordinaire
This entry was posted in Azerbaijan, Kiva Fellowship, Personal Travels. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Pinballing my way through Azerbaijan

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Chris!

  2. Love it, cousin!! So proud of you; you have so much to say and say it so well. Your little cousin Johnny loves to tell his world that he knows someone who lives in Azerbaijan! We love and miss you everyday!

    Love, Kristi, JB, Johnny, Karli, Katie and Joshua

    • Arbutus says:

      Thanks so much, Kristi and everyone! Glad to hear that you’re following along, and that Johnny is so darn excited about Azerbaijan. :) Let him know I’m moving to Ukraine next week, so I’ll have plenty more stories from there!

  3. L.H. says:

    I happened on your blog a couple of weeks ago and am really enjoying reading about your travels & adventures. Kiva sounds like a wonderful organization, and I wanted to let you know that I’ve joined through your link. Thanks for writing about your experiences–this blog is a great read. Best of luck on the road.

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