To celebrate Victory Day (or maybe just to make good use of a day off), we went 'hiking.' The trip was one organized by the CLO, so I had no idea about what the hike entailed. At eight-thirty Wednesday morning, we met at the embassy with everyone else going on the trip. Eight thirty may not sound that early, but for those of you who have or have had small children, you know how close the departure time came to being a deal-breaker. However, since we came to Baku because of the opportunities to go and enjoy the mountains, we made the sacrifice and woke up at six on a day off. Or rather, Brandon and I set our alarm for six. We woke up at 5:15 when Joseph thought it was a good day to get up extra-early.
So after wrestling Circus Sherwood through breakfast and the usual morning oblations, into the car, and down the embassy, we set off out of town. The girls were very excited to leave the city - Kathleen told me that she had been dreaming of seeing what it was like outside Baku. I had been wondering too, and was interested to discover that after leaving the suburbs of Baku behind, Azerbaijan looks fairly similar to Utah. Dry, rolling hills and mountains on the left, large body of water on the right. Except, of course, for the passing Soviet truck graveyards, cows and sheep grazing everywhere, and cars using a two-lane highway as a three-lane highway.
After about an hour and half of driving and a toilet break that featured Sophia's first trip to a squatty-potty (which didn't produce anything but reluctance), we turned off the highway.
Well, actually, we passed the closed exit (evidently it's a new overpass that is unpredictably open), flipped a U-turn in one of the breaks in the guard rails designated as U-turn areas, and then pulled another U-turn onto the small road paralleling the highway. After driving about half a mile, we proceeded past a pen of three or four sheep through a small hole in a rickety fence. And then we drove up the mountain.
It was as this point I was glad that our 4WD Pilot won the SUV vs. minivan debate. I really miss having power sliding doors, but they're not very useful for driving up mountains. I was feeling very smug about having such a nice powerful car with great high clearance. Then we passed a Lada.
And then I didn't feel quite so smug.
As we drove up the mountain, up winding dirt roads, I wondered how we were going to know when we got the the hiking spot. We topped another lonely rise that looked down into a valley below a conspicuous clump of rocks standing on top of a hill. And in the valley below the rocks was everybody else who decided to make use of the holiday to go 'hiking.' I say 'hiking,' because the hike was more like a springtime version White Fang where everyone climbs over that big pass, but much shorter and with the option of stairs if you wanted.
While Sophia and I were laboring our way straight up the hillside we passed grandmas, ladies in panty hose and high heels, other little children, fathers carrying toddlers, and even a grandma carrying a baby in a moses basket. The climb didn't take very long - about twenty minutes. At the top we looked around, scared Brandon by taking pictures very close to the edge, and tried to keep Edwin from looking inside empty cigarette boxes for candy.
After the children started complaining of boredom, we hiked back down - using the stairs this time. At the bottom of the stairs in the valley there was a picnic set-up, Azerbaijan-style. Several open-air picnic areas had been built with several other buildings (of dubious purpose; one looked like it might be a bathroom, but nobody was brave enough to look in) scattered around, along with a well. But my favorite installation was the butchering area, complete with local sheep flock to feed everyone.
At least three or four men were working continuously butchering sheep, with several carcasses hanging up in various states of butchered-ness. Scattered around the picnic areas were men with axes and hard surfaces, chopping up the meat for everyone's charcoal braziers. It was kind of like hot dogs and hamburgers. Just a lot more fresh.
Several locals had also brought their horses up for rides. The girls, before we had even gotten out of the car, had commented on the presence of horses and said very nicely how much fun it would be to ride one. You know, just in case somebody was asking. And being indulgent mother that I am, I used my pointing and head-bobbing skills to explain to one of the men that the girls would like to have a ride. He hoisted them up and walked them around to their utter delight. "Mom, I've been dreaming of riding a horse in the mountains!" Kathleen exclaimed.
When the ride was done, I pulled out some money and gave it to the man, hoping it was enough that he wouldn't get incensed and ask for more. Because that's what they always did in Cairo. You had to walk a fine line - enough that people wouldn't ask for more, but not so much that you'd be paying it off for the next five years. So I gave the man five manat, after seeing another father pay one for his little girl's ride. The man took the five, pulled some money out of his pocket, and handed me three manat change. I couldn't believe he actually gave me change. That he charged me the same as anyone else taking a horse ride. The longer I live here, the more I like Azerbaijan.
So after the high point of the day - horse rides and change - everyone got into their cars and drove on top of another hill to have a picnic American-style - tailgating on the highest hill around. We didn't have any freshly-killed lamb or charcoal braziers, but we did have juice-boxes and Pringles. The children had a wonderful time running up and down the hill with friends, and the adults enjoyed the beautiful sunshine, the spectacular view, and a wonderful day.