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Exploring Azerbaijan

Oberto Gili Two people stand in front of a Soviet-era World War II memorial in Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews.

Photo: Oberto Gili

Stuffed full of mutton, I head back home to the Hyatt hotel, one of the few business-class lodgings in town. Since the oil boom of the late 1990's, Baku's nightlife has been top-heavy with expensive options aimed squarely at multi­national oil workers and the women who love them. The city accommodates a surprising number of bars with names like Finne gan's and O'Malley's, where a beer can cost far more than the equivalent of a day's pay for the average Azerbaijani. I spend an evening decompressing from the heat at the Hyatt's Britannia Pub, surrounded mostly by employees of the notorious Halliburton company and trashy local hookers of a certain age. I drink a few Khirdalans with a diplomat from the British Embassy in nearby Ankara, Turkey, making bets on which oilman will blow his hard currency on which prostitute . An older American, pink from sun and vodka, comes back after an eight-minute jaunt with a heavily permed older woman , complaining that for all her loving she wouldn't kiss him. Later, I visit 1033 Izmir Street, another part of the huge Hyatt complex, where the prostitutes are younger and more dynamic, dancing away to their favorite Black Eyed Peas song, checking each other's stomachs for flab, and nervously brushing the hair away from their dimpled half-moon faces. Most have a dark, Turkic complexion but try to look blond and Russian—the gold standard of international prostitution. "Do you want a girl?" a towering beauty with neon lips asks me. "I'm married," I lie. "Where is your wife?" "In New York." "Maybe you need another wife here?" "What am I, the shah?" I Say.

Prostitutes aside, Azerbaijan is one of the friendliest places you will visit. Put differently, even if you're lacking friends back home, you will make friends in Azerbaijan . Someone will most likely come up to you, start chatting about the weather or the price of mutton, invite you to his home, and then effortlessly make you a part of his life. When I meet a 26-year-old fellow named Aydin, I like him immediately—he speaks cultured Russian, doesn't dress like a label-hungry post-Soviet mutant, and has enough wild business plans to rival a character out of a Dos ­Passos novel. Just two days later, I'm helping him carry a refrigerator up a flight of stairs to an apartment he has renovated to snare a rich foreign tenant ( rents for renovated flats in Baku are approaching New York levels, courtesy of the oil boom). While we drove through a maze-like, abandoned industrial depot to pick up the refrigerator, my new friend joked about kidnapping me and trying to get a ransom out of Travel + Leisure.

In Azerbaijan you are the car you drive, literally. Most people are Soviet Ladas—overheated, unreliable, struggling to make it up the next hill. Aydin is a Hyundai Sonata, not as slick as the BMW's or Mercedeses that signify the truly connected elites, but with enough cachet for children to chase after his ride shouting "Hyundai! Hyundai!" while other kids line up on the shoulder of the road, saluting smartly. "Does this look like the poorest American province?" Aydin asks, naively, as we tear down the half-paved road at 105 mph, the Godfather sound track blasting on the stereo and five ounces of vodka gurgling in our stomachs. I don't have the heart to tell him that the landscape before us—dehydrated patches of grass, primitive shacks from which locals sell warm bottles of Pepsi, cows sprawled across the median—looks more like Mississippi after a hydrogen bomb blast.

Baku is centered in the dusty, highly polluted Abs heron Peninsula. After 72 hours or so you' lL be ready to head for the mountains. Particularly recommended is the northwestern hamlet of Shaki. After a hellish six-hour bus ride during which the little girl next to you may or may not throw up on your luggage, you arrive at the most distinctive hotel in all of the former Soviet Union. True to its name, the Karvansaray Hotel is set in an 18th-century caravansary, a fine example of the motel of yore that once gave respite to the itinerant merchant and his camel. The brick-vaulted rooms are spartan but spacious, and my room, No. 30, opens up to a beautiful view of what the manager optimistically calls "the city": a haphazard collection of houses jostling each other over a peaceable stream. The hotel rooms are built around an arched inner courtyard, beyond which distant mountain ridges form a fan shape, as if they were opening up before you. In addition to the superlative hotel, Shaki also has the best mutton kebab I've tasted in Azerbaijan. The nearby Shahin Kafesi restaurant has meat so juicy and tender that one can gently nudge it off the bone, instead of engaging in any beastly struggles with gristle and fat. A side dish of tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh tarragon can help you fill up on your vegetable quotient. Beer goes nicely with everything.

Other than taking in the mountain air or checking out an 18th-century khan's understated and beautifully ornamented palace, there is very little to do here—a blessing after the overstimulation of Baku. Walk down the road that flanks the stream, past the men playing nard (a relative of backgammon), drinking tea, and looking generally dissatisfied, past the younger people shouting a Friday night salam aleykum to each other, past the shops advertising Shaki's famous extra-syrupy halvah (handle with care), past the taxi drivers eyeing you glumly as you cross the central square, then turn around and see the tall, silver-capped minaret of the Central Mosque silhouetted against the distant green of the mountains. All around you is stillness, the untrammeled light-black sky, the undulating call to prayer: the last believable TOURIST DESTINATION left on earth.

A few days later , my friend Aydin and I strike out for the northern town of Quba. An impoverished place notable only for a few mosques and an overgrown, delightfully ruined beehive hammam, Quba looks out over a muddy river toward the unique village of Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews. In Krasnaya, we talk to a group of smartly dressed, middle-aged men by the doors of a swank new restaurant; one tells us they are Babylonian Jews, descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and another claims they are the remnants of a 17th-century Jewish immigration from Persia. Whichever the case, the locals speak Tat, a northern Persian dialect with some Hebrew words mixed in. Whether in Tat or not, I know the first questions they will ask me—questions asked of visiting Jews the world over: "Are you married?Is she Jewish?" Despite my unsatisfactory answers, the Mountain Jews graciously treat me and Aydin to some cold Russian beers and an actual non-mutton, vegetarian dish called a qutab, an oily pancake stuffed with onion, spinach, and parsley. When Aydin mentions his preference for expensive American cigarettes, a car is quickly dispatched for his favorite brand, on the house. "We get along well with the Azerbaijanis," the chubby ringleader of the group tells me, pointing to the minarets of Quba across the river, "but this village is all Jewish. Where else do you have that?"

"We've got ourselves a little heaven," another tells me through his golden teeth. "Is it true," asks the ringleader, "that Madonna has changed her name to Esther and studies the kabbalah?"

According to the villagers, Krasnaya Sloboda has recently been scandalized by a Russian television report insinuating that the town's wealth comes from the narcotics trade. "Jews don't use narcotics," the ringleader tells me. "We make money from our brains." Walking through the eerily quiet village, past the recently restored synagogue and the wedding palace with its giant color photograph of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, past the far-fetched nouveau riche mansions bristling with silver spires, overgrown porticoes, and other tasteless flourishes, one does notice the incredible prosperity of the place, especially compared to bankrupt Quba across the river, where the only decorations seem to be billboards of former president Heydar Aliyev and his son ushering the country into a happy future.

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