Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)
We had maps. We had names of towns along the route. We had the word “where”. And we were completely lost.
According to our screenshot map, there were two roads out of Sheki toward Yevelax, a town at a junction from which a road would head south into uncharted (for us) territory. One of our friendly pedestrian human GPSes pointed straight, convinced us left was right, and we sped off down a narrowing road into the kind of scenic countryside correct directions always seem to miss. We had intended to retrace our steps from the night before, but with this our first experience in daylight, we assumed the mountains around us were the shadows we had seen the night before, that the wide open fields had been the deep black emptiness. But nope, we were just going the wrong way.
We slowed down in the early morning cow traffic to film a rush hour chat with the cowherd. He was delighted to speak to the camera, and I understood the question “what channel?” “Ameriki” — easier to agree than to attempt the truth.
“Azerbaijan kharasho!” I said, Azerbaijan good! He didn’t agree. Not good. President not good. Clearly, the man controlling highway traffic to get his cows out to pasture couldn’t care less about political censorship — or political fallout from his high-profile media appearances.
Just when things started to look wrong we found another junction, one not on any map, where men at a service station pointed back the way we came — “Yevelax.” Or, it seemed, we could take the road Google didn’t know about (still paved) and hope for the best.
This, as the sisters of Fate had woven well, was the heart of Azerbaijan. Pavement faded into dirt, threading through small villages with townsmen piling into buses that dodged the potholes. Hills sprung up peppered with sheep and soil, like a whole new era, a whole new livelihood not an hour away from Sheki’s looming masonry. We followed our iPhone compass, disheartening at first as we headed west and not south, but reassuring as we took a final turn between two hills, the screen showed SOUTH, and an archway for the Yevelax municipality welcomed us around the bend.
Streetside fishmongers posed for a photo. The one cafe in town made the two of us eight eggs and tea. We pressed on, now looking for Aghdam, supposedly one of the largest cities in the country.
The road narrowed again. Traffic through small towns, and huge rumbling trucks filled with sheep and other things. Here I practiced the ancient Azerbaijani art of “third-laning,” where a driver can pass even when there are cars in both lanes going opposite directions. This act of creating a third, middle lane is practiced by all drivers hoping to ever get anywhere. Cars bounce between and past the slow trucks, flashing high beams at each other when things get too close, and slowing by the police check points and their radar.
At one definitive-looking checkpoint, a young soldier in military fatigues lifted the bar without asking a question, without us even slowing down. But immediately, the road dissolved again. Real dirt, big bumps and ditches. Half a dozen soldiers bearing Kalashnikov rifles trudged towards somewhere out of file. I asked for directions.
You definitely cannot go this way, they all said with their body language, and fetched the one soldier who spoke any English. We played dumb for a while, but to no avail.
“Road… blocked. No city.”
“Aghdam city? Where is Aghdam?”
We were on the outskirts of the secessionist region Nagorno-Karabakh, which declares its allegiance with Armenia and seems to really, really not like being in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, too, seems unhappy with it, but fervently devoted to keeping it around. In between weekly laid barbed wire and on a road traveled only by army vehicles, it was clear we were meant to be somewhere else. We spun around but took a detour before heading back through the checkpoint around the army camp, over deeply dug but unmanned trenches, by sandbags on a hillside and rocket launchers aimed at the vast no-man’s-land that straddled a forgotten war zone. It was time to turn around. But strangely enough, we would never have been stopped had we not asked for directions to a place from people hired to stop folk from getting there. Driving with enough authority, it didn’t seem like anyone would bother to get in the way.