The minibus carries me and a handful of villagers through winding, bumpy mountain roads to Lahic. The minibus apparently doubles as the village school bus, as we stop to pick up a dozen or so uniformed school children on the way.
We arrive in Lahic. It is a charming mountain village with cobblestone streets and well-built rustic houses. It is a truly lovely town, as opposed to Xinaliq, which is an unremarkable mountain village popular solely for its stunning location. I instantly see Lahic’s appeal as a tourist attraction.
An old man approaches me soon after I get off the bus. He has the red veiny nose of a modest alcoholic. He speaks decent English and offers me a homestay for 10 manat, a good rate. I accept and we walk a short distance to his house. The room is fine, and of course there is no shower. Day 5! In Southeast Asia I had been used to showering twice a day and still feeling constantly sweaty and disgusting. In the chilly weather of Azerbaijan though, I don’t miss showering like I thought I would. I feel immortal. I can go forever without showering.
I take a walk back through the town of Lahic. It is fairly deserted; my host informs me that I am most likely the only tourist in town. He also informs me that I missed a group of four cute French girls by three days. I reflect on how I have met almost no other tourists during my entire time in Azerbaijan, much less cute French girls.
There are two souvenir stores selling rustic village crafts. The owners stand in front of their stores and try to entice me in with their five words of English. I feel slightly sorry for them, knowing that I am their only chance for business today and that I will not be purchasing any souvenirs. Better luck tomorrow.
I walk from one end of town to the other, and back again. The town is nice, but as usual there is nothing to do other than admire the view. And of course there is no restaurant, so lunch consists of sweet rolls and tea at the men’s tea house. A table of old men next to me loudly slap dominoes and curse their luck in a language more closely related to Farsi than Azerbaijani Turkish.
My host says that he can set me up with a short horse trek after I express an interest. As I don’t feel confident enough to take a horse around by myself, he says the lowest price he can get is 30 manat for two hours. I find this ridiculously overpriced, but I am determined to ride a horse in the Caucasus mountains. Romantic dreams of Lermontov writings swirl in my head, and fond memories from a multi-day horse trek in Kyrgyzstan a year earlier. I grudgingly accept the price.
A shabby man with a drooping mustache arrives on a white horse with a canvas saddle and a piece of rope for reins. I had assumed, as in Kyrgyzstan, that both myself and the guide would be on horses, and that I would follow him on a trek. This turns out to be mistaken. I ride the horse, while the “guide” walks in front holding the reins. I am a child at a pony fair. I am Mary being led on a donkey by Joseph. It is absurd.
We “trek” across the small river and up into the green hills surrounding the town. The scenery is lovely, but all I can think about is how I could have just as easily hiked up to this point and snapped some photos. For free.
We reach a high point after about 30 minutes, and it becomes clear that the guide is unsure of how to fill the remainder of the time. After standing around for a bit we begin making our way back down the hill. The guide begins yelling at some cows and throwing rocks near them, getting them to move down the mountainside with us. I imagine the guy thinking to himself, “Hey, this dumbass is paying me 30 manat to watch me herd my cattle! Score!”
We cross back over the river, but we still have about 20 minutes on the clock, so the guide begins to take me up another hill. At this point I no longer care and am ready to be done with the ridiculous endeavor. As we start up the new hill, a chilly wind cuts through us. The guide says that snow clouds are approaching. I suggest we just go back. He looks relieved and turns us around. Onward, Joseph! The Bethlehem manger awaits!
We return to my homestay. As I hand over the money, I visualize lighting the banknotes on fire and watching them burn to ashes in front of me. I decide that this would be of comparable entertainment value to the previous two hours.
I agree to give the host an additional ten manat for a home-cooked dinner and a bottle of wine, as dining options in Lahic are non-existent. He strongly presses for getting the bottle of wine, unsurprisingly.
He actually does a terrific job with dinner. Roast chicken with egg and potato, and Russian salad on the side. We eat while watching “Gossip Girl” with Turkish subtitles. I tell him repeatedly that we can change the channel, but he insists on keeping it on an English program for my sake. It is my first, and very hopefully last, experience with “Gossip Girl”.
He insists that there is plenty more food, but I’m stuffed. We handily polish off the bottle of wine, and I head to bed. As in Xinaliq, my room is freezing cold, but once under the thick covers it doesn’t matter.
The next morning my host complains of sleeping poorly, possibly due to the wine. I have little sympathy for him. He magnanimously buys me a whole 1-manat breakfast at the tea house, their breakfast special, which doubles as their all-day-every-day special: tea and packaged sweet rolls.
Luckily there is one direct minibus to Baku from Lahic that leaves every morning at 8, so I am able to avoid going back through Ismaili. On the way, the old woman on the bus repeatedly insists on giving me pieces of her food. Some bread with delicious sheep cheese, some wrapped candy, some pastry. It is small random acts of simple generosity like this that keep my faith in humanity.