Adventure is most often found during the journey, not the destination. Yesterday, The Ho-M and I headed up the "town" of Samur, which is at the border crossing with Dagestan. I had read somewhere there's a carpet market there.
If you don't already know the way to Derbent, this road sign, with the scratched out Cyrillic, is unlikely to be much help.
We can say with authority there is nothing in Samur except a selection of cafes offering international cuisine. There is, without a doubt, no carpet market. We couldn't even find so much as a bathmat. In fact, for the border between two major trading partners, it seemed rather sleepy and not at all sleazy. A taxi driver offered to drive us 30 kms to his house, certainly to show us his factory-made slag heap and look at our boobs, but we declined.
For foreigners, the road ends at Samur. The border is closed to us, so the best we can say is say "we saw Dagestan."
The other purpose of the journey was to visit the Mountain Jews. The village of Krasnaya Sloboda ("Big Red Village" in Russian), which lies across the river from the mildly interesting town of Guba, is home to a community of Jews who have lived there for centuries (how long, exactly, depends on who you ask). I've blogged about this place before, but we were there in the spring and it was as empty of Mountain Jews as Samur is of carpets. It didn't even come close to "mild" on the interesting scale.
But a friend who had just visited told us that most Mountain Jews live in Moscow, Tel Aviv and New York and come home to the village in July and August. That's when it's really hopping. We had to see for ourselves.
Visiting Krasnaya Sloboda is like leaving Azerbaijan for about 10 blocks. The streets are swept clean of garbage; there are streetlights; people drive in lanes; concrete-lined gutters channel wastewater and sidewalks are smooth and unbuckled. Pastel-painted mansions line the main drag, tin roofs sparkling in the sunshine. The overall impression is "clean and orderly." It hurt my eyes and made me feel disheveled.
There is no doubt you have just entered a different culture. We watched workers busily set up for a lavish wedding in a riverside pavillion, which isn't terribly unusual. The wall-sized photo of the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, however, looked a little out of place in Muslim Azerbaijan.
Luxury cars like Hummers and Lexus SUVs are not unusual in Azerbaijan either. But they are usually driven by oil-powered Kleptocrats in Baku, not yarmulke-wearing, American-accented teenagers in a rural village near the Russian border.
A shy teenager poked her head out from a doorway. She was wearing a brown Harvard t-shirt (and it wasn't spelled "Harverd" so it was probably real).
Residents are also a lot friendlier than most Azerbaijani villagers. "Hello Tourists!" a driver called out to us. "Where are you from?" In response, he informed us that he's a student in Brooklyn. A grandmother sitting outside her door asked us hopefully if we were from Israel. As we threaded our way through late-model Mercedeses parked outside the chaykhana, men in expensive suits interrupted their nard games to wave hello. We are almost positive they greeted us with "Shalom Alekium."
So if you read Carpetblog for helpful tourism suggestions, go to Krasnaya Sloboda in August if you're planning a trip to Azerbaijan. The produce is better too.