To, and in and from Gabala – Azerbaijan

Transportation from one place to another continues to offer grist for the story mill.

On 24 October, Pat and I said good bye to Helen as she set off for the airport in the still dark hours of the morning. She’s headed to Tbilisi for a few days before continuing on to Paris. 

A few hours later we left the apartment key in the lock as our landlady had not appeared – as she’d promised she would – to check us out. We walked to the metro and took it – in rush hour – to the bus depot. We’d bought our bus tickets a couple of days previously so just confirmed that our bus to Gabala would load from platform B17. Departure time 1100hrs. 

We sat and waited. We watched for the light to flash up for our bus as it was for other busses a their respective platforms. We took turns scouting around and asking various people. “Yes, yes. Gabala,” with a hand waved at platform B17. 1050. 1055. 1059. Still no bus. We asked again. We were told it would come. 1104. An irate bus driver appears from around a corner, yelling, “Gabala!” at us. He indicates we should follow him. We did…. and around the corner, out of sight of B17 was a decrepit red mini van. He took our tickets and we climbed aboard into the two last seats. But not before we gave him a blast of our own for not being in the right place. The other passengers thought this was all pretty funny and we settled down for a pleasant three hour drive out of the brown dry flatlands, through brown dry hills, into higher treed hills. 

The trees are changing colour with the autumn and when we alight, the temperature has dropped several degrees. 

It’s a short walk to our guesthouse and we are met with a wonderful surprise. We have the entire little house to ourselves. It sits within a grassy walled garden with blooming roses and fruit trees. The pares – which we are given – are delicious. Hens peck around in the lush grass and there are geraniums at the front door. The place is spotless, well equipped, comfortable. The landlord and lady greet us with fresh roses on the table and warm smiles. Later their adult son comes and gives us some info about where we can hike and the nearby ski hill. At the local market we supply ourselves with groceries with which to cook dinner, and a bottle of not bad wine. Pat even finds an English news station – Aljazeera – on the TV. We settle in for a blissful relaxing couple of days in the quiet countryside.

The next day we hike about 8 kms up to the ski hill. There are numerous fancy resort hotels but all are closed. It turns out this place is predominantly frequented by Saudi’s and Russians. We suspect that is where a lot of the funding for the upscale facilities has originated. The resort’s gondola is in four independent sections. The lower two aren’t open but we continue hiking up and discover the top two are operational. We buy tickets and are soon riding to the top of a steep mountain. Snow-making machines sit at about 30 metre intervals. A man tells us that the place gets virtually no natural snow. At the top we enjoy delicious french fries at a very fancy restaurant. It’s brand new, carpeted with upholstered chairs and couches. How it’s going to look when ski boots tramp on the floor and wet ski pants sit on the seats is anyone’s guess but I expect it will age quickly. 

We sent pictures of the lifts and snow making machines to Pat’s sister Dot and my son Fly who both work in the ski industry. We wonder how big the moguls get – the slopes are too steep to groom without winch-cables and there are no anchor points to be seen. No groomers either come to think of it.

We found a really nice restaurant quite close to town and ended up going there twice. Meals haven’t always been marvellous on this trip. In fact some have been frightful. Azerbaijan is offering much improved fare! It is a relief to order dishes without wondering what the grease/oil content will be. Olives grow in Azerbaijan, and olive oil is evident in meal preparation. I’m not sure what was used in Central Asia, but expect much of it would have done better as engine oil than for cooking food.

Today – 27 October we are moving on again.

We were assured buses run from Gabala to Sheki every hour starting at 9am. We decided to catch the 10am bus. We’ve walked the three and a half kms to the bus station and immediately found the Sheki mini bus – its tires seem to be in good condition. The rest, especially the interior, leaves much to be desired. We’ve staked out our seats – such as they are. We’ve gone across the parking lot for tea. When we asked if there was any cake to go with the tea, the smiling man carefully cut up two Mars Bars and arranged the pieces on plates for us. A young boy has arrived at the bus. He has a box and a bag. In the box are three live geese and in the bag there are two. They smell a little and honk a lot. It is now after 11am. The boy, the geese and we continue to wait for the bus to depart.

The bus did finally depart at 1145. There were only four passengers including us – excluding the geese. “How does this bus afford to run?” we wondered. We soon had that question answered. It stoped numerous time along the route and soon filled well past capacity. More people were crammed in the isle than were in the seats. For a time, a two metre roll of rug was added to the isle congestion. By the time we arrived in Sheki most of the other passengers had left. The geese, their boy and we remain. The geese were mostly quiet during the journey but they were beginning to smell a bit.

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