My last day in Azerbaijan started with a snowy morning. I awoke well rested in a surprisingly comfortable room. It helped that my blanket was about 17 feet thick. Outside, snow had piled up ankle-deep and was continuing to drift steadily downward into the courtyard below. None of our rooms had telephones or alarm clocks and we had no pre-arranged wake-up plan or timeline. The walls separating the rooms were so thick they could’ve withstood a yearlong siege, so noise wasn’t a factor. Nevertheless, the three of us were out on the balcony within minutes of one another, staring out at the snow and imagining what sorts of challenges this day’s driving would bring.
Samir was doing his telltale hand-rubbing, which meant that food was somewhere in our imminent future. Some people have poker-faces; Samir did not, and there was no mistaking how he felt about food. We went back to his very best friend’s (not the glass-layer’s… the other one’s) restaurant, where Samir called forth the breakfast he had ordered for us the night before. You don’t get a choice of omelette, sunny-side up or egg-whites-only at this sort of place anyhow, so I was grateful for our driver’s proactive stance here. In a blend of part-Russian, part-Azerbaijani (or Azeri or Torki), part-Turkish and a healthy smattering of English, he explained that our breakfast had been “in the works” all throughout the night. What is this marathon-production?
Xaş (pronounced somewhere between “hush” and “hash”) is buffalo leg soup. A fatty segment of meat still on the bone is placed into a clay crock, sealed in with vegetables and is stewed for hours on end. The stew and the gelatinous end-product clinging to the bone is essentially your breakfast. Jon said it best – and I concur – that the flavor was “a little bit ‘barnyard’”. Take that how you want to, but let’s just say it was not my favorite, or, as my daughter Emily and I like to say of the occasional meal, “we won’t put that one near the top of the list.” I ate most of the soup, poked the whitish goo that at some point was chewable meat around with my fork a bit, but then really shifted my focus more heavily to the fresh bread, pickled vegetables and the tea that surrounded my rather neglected bowl. I think Samir was a bit disappointed that we were not a little more enthusiastic, as we had been with the piti the night before, and did an admirable job trying to talk it up. “It keeps you going right through to dinner, you won’t even want lunch!” Look, I’ll say this one piece about ethnic foods; when I first resolved to do all this traveling, I promised myself that as long as there aren’t any glaring medical reason against it, I would try every bit of food put in front of me. There was also some more talk about medicinal vodka, but I wasn’t going to try to ride along snowy, mountainous roads with that stuff coursing through me.
We toured Tofik’s workplace (albeit without him), but did meet him at the Khan’s Palace. He kindly bought our museum entry tickets. Photography is prohibited under any conditions, unlike in most post-Soviet museums where only flash photography is not allowed. So, those images will just have to reside in my memories.
Snow continued to fall, drivers in their Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas were performing what I could only think of as the “AWOD” (or, Azerbaijani Winter Olympics Derby) in front of our hotel, and we knew it was time to go. We had to leave quickly, before our own car got wrapped up in all the sideways-sliding and crashing into stone walls that everyone else was doing. Only, we could not. Wouldn’t it figure, that we were in the country, on top of an icy hilltop in a snowstorm during “Black January”? On January 20th every year, Azerbaijan conducts an extremely long-duration “moment of silence”. Traffic is not allowed to move out of respect for the memories of people (somewhere around 350) who died during Azerbaijan’s Independence movement on January 20th, called the “Day of Nationwide Sorrow”.
When around noon the police finally began allowing traffic through once more, we took our time on the roundabout way back down the mountain, got down to the highway, and the road from there out was clear, alongside snowy fields and peaceful, white-blanketed villages.
We got to the border shortly before 2 PM and for some reason sat around waiting for an hour or so. There was no real explanation given for it. Cars just weren’t moving. This went on, right up until they suddenly were. Samir, Jon and I smiled for the camera, and within minutes Azerbaijan was in our rearview mirror.