…has proven itself to be almost impossible.
Most of the people come to visit Azerbaijan by crossing the border from Georgia. Georgia spoils you. In Georgia, like the old Soviet movies show us (‘Kidnapping – Georgian style’ etc.), people only want two things from you: drink more and eat more. They catch you even before you raise your thumb on the road, when you are walking in the middle of a town, when you are looking all lost in the fields or forests. They drag you to their house, call out all the present relatives and serve you homemade bread, cheeses, honey, wine and vodka. You say endless toasts and get questioned about all your family and, in return, told about the whole history of your host’s clan. You are the guest. If you are not pleased, the family’s reputation suffers. In that case, they only have to pour you more vodka and drink for friendship again.
We got spoiled too – me and my travel companions – and so, after crossing the border to Azerbaijan, we were quite relaxed and expected to hitch our ride to Baku and that it was all going to be peachy. It turns out, it’s not the season for peaches yet.
Azerbaijan is a rather prosperous country – of all ex-Soviet republics it proudly holds the 3rd place in economical development. It is also a very corrupt country – no official ratings for this unfortunately. Baku, the capital, differs drastically from most of the trashy small towns – those look like a post-nuclear desert sometimes.
We tried to hitchhike from the Georgian border to the nearest town. Speaking Russian is a big advantage in this case, but in Azerbaijan it won’t prevent ‘misunderstandings’ between you and the drivers. The first driver that stopped honestly admitted that he was a taxi and would charge us 4 manat for a 3km drive. The second one nodded with a gloomy face and told us to put our bags in the boot. No words said about the payment, he drove us all the way to the town and dropped us off on a random street, because he had no idea where the railway station was. As we put on our bags and waved goodbye to him, he suddenly yelled at us: “And who is going to pay?” After a slight culture shock we decided that arguing about 3 manat would harm our mental health – and gave him the money.
3 cups of tea later, we recovered a bit from that frustrating moment and in our minds hoped that the entire stay in the country would not be as the beginning of it.
This hitchhiking trap almost happened to us several other times, and not only in the hunting premises of local taxi drivers. You will be surprised to see that the amount of taxis exceeds the amount of people in some of the small villages, and they surround you like vultures as soon as you open your mouth to ask for directions. But still, the most frustrating experience always occured because what we understood as a sign for ‘I need a free ride’ they interpreted as ‘Wanna be my taxi?’
Same thing happened not only with hitchhiking, but also with homestays. The thing is, when I arrive to a small village in the mountains and an old shepherd invites me to stay with his family and live a few days of village life (you know, cows, sheep, chickens, no showers…) in a breathtaking landscape of High Caucasus, I assume that in exchange for his hospitality I would help them out around the house, buy lots of sweets for the children and purchase their homemade cheese before I leave.
We survived some awkward moments while trying to offer the man some money for his hospitality. When we finally said that we wanted to thank him in this form, the first question was: “How much?” Right. Of course. He listed all the favours he’d done for us and called us ‘bad people’ as we were walking through the door.
Ahoy, noble mountain folk.
The most unpleasant moment here was not that we left at that house the same amount as we paid a few days before in a wonderful medieval Caravansaray guesthouse, but the fact that the commercial side of things is never discussed nor mentioned in advance. Maybe we were too spoiled by Georgian hospitality. Maybe we are just too broke for this country. Maybe we are too stupid to be caught with the same trick several times. From now on, we always ask the drivers who pick us up how much do they want for the ride. In Georgia, it is considered quite an offensive offer, coming from a guest.
It is not all black and white: even Soviet Russia has passed over the age of black-and-white television. We did meet some nice drivers who treated us like children and showed us around. We did stay with amazing CouchSurfers and drank excessive amounts of tea every day.
Just a warning for those of you who is thinking about going to Azerbaijan: it ain’t Turkey despite their linguistic relation!