Despite the fact that my visit to Azerbaijan coincided with Eurovision 2012 in Baku, my first stop in the country was not the capital city on the Caspian Sea. Rather, I spent my first few days in Azerbaijan staying with families in the village of Lekit and the town of Sheki.
What better way to jump headfirst into a country about which I knew very little?
I organized both of these stays through Community Based Tourism Azerbaijan (CBT), a fledgling organization founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer that aims to show visitors the “real” Azerbaijan by connecting them with local families while also providing a financial benefit to the local communities. Their website says it best:
“We are an organization dedicated to providing culturally authentic and unique experiences throughout the regions of Azerbaijan. Our community based tourism model allows for genuine interaction with local citizens, exposure to unique traditions and customs, and access to Azerbaijan’s most breath-taking ecological areas. We provide comfortable accommodation, home-cooked food, hiking, exploration of historical buildings and monuments, beekeeping, orchard tending and many other activities under the guidance of local host families.”
My first stop was the village of Lekit, near the town of Qax (pronounced Gakh), a few hours from the Georgian border. The local CBT manager, Sevinj, met me at the bus station in Qax and accompanied me by taxi to my host family in Lekit. There, we all sat down to tea together and discussed the details of my stay – whether I wanted to add on lunch and/or dinner (breakfast was included), whether I wanted to use any guiding services, and the logistics for my departure two days later.
My host family was incredibly friendly, although the language barrier made it tough to really bond. My host “parents” spoke only Azeri and some Russian and their son, Turan, spoke just a little English. The living conditions were about what I expected – I had a comfortable bed in my own room in the house and the toilet was a squat toilet outhouse (which at least had real toilet paper and it flushed!). The shower was inside the house but the water had to be heated by wood stove before using it, which took nearly an hour.
The next day, Sevinj and her husband showed me around Qax in the morning, visiting the local museum, as well the village of Gum and the village of Ilisu. In the afternoon, Turan took me hiking around Lekit to see some ruined Albanian churches (Caucasian Albanians, not European Albanians) and a waterfall. Later, we hiked another 2 kilometers or so across vast fields to his uncle’s house. By the time I went to bed that night, I was completely exhausted!
After just two nights in Lekit, I moved on to the city of Sheki. There, I stayed with Ilgar, the local CBT manager who has been hosting guests since before CBT existed (and is recommended in Lonely Planet). Ilgar sent a taxi to collect me from the bus station and then warmly welcomed me into his home not far from the Khan’s Palace – one of the main attractions in Sheki. While Sheki is a relatively large town, Ilgar’s home had a very rural feel to it, with a large garden and a setting up in the hills. Again, I had my own room with a nice comfy bed. The toilet again was a squat toilet, but included a sink with running water and was connected to the house. The shower, again, had to be heated first.
Ilgar went above and beyond the call of duty when I first arrived as we walked into the center of town in search of an ATM or currency exchange. I think he took me to about 8 different ATMs (none of which were Cirrus, which is what my stupid Capital One card requires) before finally hitting the currency exchange. The next day, Ilgar not only took me hiking around the nearby village of Kish, but he walked me to the bus station to help me buy my ticket to Baku for the next morning.
The great thing about Community Based Tourism Azerbaijan is that they have a growing network of homestays around the country. Working with them saved me the trouble of trying to individually try to arrange for places to stay and assistance from the local managers in figuring out how to get around once I arrived was a huge plus as well. And of course there is the fact that the money you spend goes directly to the family – there is no middle man taking a big cut.
Hostels really don’t exist in Azerbaijan outside of Baku (and even in Baku, there are few), so staying with local families provided me with a huge savings over staying in a hotel while also giving me close interaction with the locals and the knowledge that I was helping the families and the community.
My only regret is that I didn’t have time to check out more.