Of the three Caucasus countries, it’s Georgia which seems to be credited with a great tradition of hospitality and it is by no means unfriendly. It isn’t even in the same league however, as Azerbaijan. Many people are genuinely interested in greeting foreigners and don’t let the language chasm between us impede their generosity. Not once in Georgia did a local initiate a conversation upon making eye contact in the street, even with my habit of saying hello to all and sundry. Passing a chaikhana (tea house) in Azerbaijan often leads to being beckoned over to join a group of men, so I have hardly had to pay for a cup of tea outside of Baku.
Unlike sensible tourists I have a habit of picking on towns deemed unworthy of a mention in the guidebooks, being devoid of suitable sites. You will never have a hope of understanding a nation if you limit yourself to a route wholly sanctioned by the Lonely Planet, despite its great usefulness at times.
Three town’s encounters below give a flavour of the people’s spirit.
Ganja Despite its name it is safe to say that the town has almost certainly never even seen a rasta in the entirety of its existence and smoking weed will ensure your rapid removal to an unlit basement cell where unspeakable things will be acted upon you way past the time you have begged for mercy and a call to the embassy.
Picking the nearest restaurant to where the bus dropped me I soon got talking to a group of students, anxious to practice their English. They helped me get a ticket for that nights sleeper train to Baku, saving the 3km bus journey to the train station I would have made; showed me around the town and kept me entertained for the rest of the day. On departing that night they put me on the right bus and made sure the bus driver dropped me off at the right place.
After a long bus journey a hike into the town centre seemed preferable to haggling with a taxi driver. 200m later I was eagerly called over by a group of cheerful men drinking tea on a building site. We chatted for a good while, as the boss, Ruslan spoke a little bit of English and when it was time to finally leave and he was happy to give me a lift, having understood my requirements in Azeri for, “hotel, not expensive”.
When I say he was the proud owner of a top of the range Mercedez 4×4 I would expect cries of, “wanker” back in England and demands for him to be dragged out of his vehicle and executed in front of his children, given the less than magnanimous approach to other road users and lesser species such as us they are renowned for. Those of you inclined to such an opinion should consider that he then gave me a 50km round tour of the area, paid for slap up meal at an expensive restaurant and left me at the hotel having paid the bill. All without the slightest hint of wanting anything in return and no doubt would have been offended at the suggestion.
The following morning while waiting at the roadside for a marshrutka, two guys pulled over to give me a lift to my next destination, despite not attempting to hitch hike.
Given the success of the hiking in to town option above it seemed the best plan here as I had no information on accommodation. So, 200m on I was waved over to a cafe by a group of men around one of the many tables. Actually several seemed to be beckoning me but I went for the most vigorous wavers.
Unsurprisingly none spoke English but this made no dent whatsoever in their efforts to force booze down my throat. I bravely insisted on only having a small beer, but this was topped up as soon as it got anywhere near the bottom. My extremely limited Azeri did permit me to say, “piva yaksheu” (good beer) which led to much cheering and more beer.
Anxious to avoid the deleterious effects of drinking on an empty stomach I managed to explain that I needed to find a hotel and have some food, within 30 seconds a kebab appeared in front of me, closely followed by a shot of vodka which I was obliged to down in one. Resolve wavering another soon followed which meant I really had to leave or risk exiting on all fours. A fellow was called upon to lead me to a hotel – one I never would have found by searching and by far the cheapest I had encountered so far.
Yet again the hospitality inherent in Islam had proved itself. Mohammed himself, as a travelling merchant had relied upon the hospitality of others and to avoid it was often a death sentence in the blistering Arabian desert. He would be happy to know that such traditions were still upheld today, although somewhat less than overjoyed that its adherents were all pissed as farts on Russian vodka.