At precisely 10:30 pm on a soft evening in May when the wind, for once, wasn’t blowing in Baku, the train to Lankoran, Azerbaijan, pulled out. Weeks of preparation for this trip south finally reached culmination, giving us a great sense of accomplishment even before the train had left the station. The old ex-soviet carriage slowly eased out of the city, almost silently save for the occasional creak or thump. The Azerbaijani trains are not noted for speed and our train was no exception. Lankoran, a mere 270 kilometers away, would be an all night project. Only a momentary place of rest for us, Lankoran would be the link to nearby Astara, the jumping off point into Iran.
Arriving at Lankoran
Our worn but mostly clean compartment with four berths, shared with two Aerbaijanis, quickly became a communal hall of sorts. Azerbaijanis are an extremely hospitable lot, sharing many things with friends and strangers, especially food. We’d picked up on this very positive attribute, soon digging into our travel bag for pistachios and figs. Our companions added naan, cheese, and ordered tea from the carriage orderly. Each carriage is equipped with a hot water samovar near the conductor’s quarters; great shiny things that stand ready to serve the tea drinker around the clock.
Conversing in Azerbaijani and Russian, we sailed, slowly, into the night, across the flat desert along the Caspian Sea. Not being able to sleep much, I left my berth at four in the morning, wandering out into the corridor semi-lit by dull yellow lights. I lowered a window and watched the dark desert silhouette drift by. Cool desert air blew across my face as I watched the first faint edging of morning appear in the East. The train rocked, the wheels on the old tracks clicked, and Iran became closer. I fingered the passports safely zippered in the inside pocket of my jacket, passports that held the two visas we had worked so hard to get. “Islamic Republic of Iran,” the title on each stated in Farsi. “Duration of stay 10 days.”
Buckets Of Strawberries
Shortly after 7 am, right on schedule, the all nighter slid to a halt at Lankoran. Several sets of tracks formed a reasonably sized train yard here. Unfortunately for us, the train ended up on an outer track. No matter. We lowered ourselves off the carriage with the other passengers, suitcases bumping down the steps behind us, onto a weedy, uneven asphalt platform and began the trek over the tracks to the station. Having no idea where to stay, we asked a taxi driver who happily drove us around the little town for a few dollars, pointing out various small hotels. When we noticed he had all the markings of someone who’d been up all night playing with a vodka bottle we chose the next hotel we came across.
Azerbaijan has many important holidays. The Festival of Flowers, celebrated every May 10th, is specifically dedicated to the birth of Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB chairman who ended up on top as president following the breakup of the USSR. Even at this early hour, Lankoran was clearly gearing up for a seriously different day. The town had a sense of busy-ness about it. People seemed to be everywhere at this early hour, a rare thing for a country known for staying up late and socializing. Traffic seemed heavy for such a small place, with busses unloading passengers in the bazaar area like a morning rush to an industrial plant. Crowds of people moved in a single direction – the plaza – many women with flowers in hand. Wasting no time we checked in and joined them, soon immersed in a festival of live bands, speeches, medal-decked war heroes from the Soviet-Afghan War – and that wonderful Russian style ice cream.
Tribute To The Strongman