The jeep navigates the terra incognita bumping furiously across potholed rocky terrain. We have just turned off the recently laid main road and onto a dusty track weaving through the fauna bright against the backdrop of bare lunar mountains. It's all a bit Wuthering Heights, no sign of Heathcliff though.
Our destination is my grandparents' remote "dacha" (countryhouse) high up in a far flung mountainous village in Azerbaijan.
Astrahanovka is a small quaint town of about 200 families of mixed ethnicity. It was founded in the 1800s by the Molokans; Russian peasants who were sectarian Christians fleeing oppression in Tsarist Russia for their refusal to accept the traditional Orthodox Church.
Today many of the original families still live here, much in the way of their ancestors. No running water, patchy electricity and an agrarian subsistence economy. The winters are fierce and long, the snow so deep that they still travel by sleigh. They sow in the Spring and plough the harvest in the Summer. Fetch water from the well and eat fruit from the tree, everything makes the 2 minute journey from garden to table. There's no light pollution and the night-sky glistens with millions of stars and burning constellations.
About 30 years ago my grandparents fell in love with the town's wild bucolic beauty and growing up I spent every summer here. Ours was the only non-local family in the village but with such a small population we ended up knowing everyone and everything.
The locals are a colourful lot and so welcoming. Everyone keeps their gates open. When I visit I hop from house to house visiting the families and catching up on the gossip; they may be friendly but boy those tongues are sharp.
The woman who lives three doors down has a son called Kenan, who I've known since he was a 6 year old squirt racing his horse bareback through the village. A bit of a trouble-maker, a bonafide bad boy, a hit with the ladies; every parent's worst nightmare, especially our gardener's... In a cruel twist of fate the gardener's beautiful daughter was 'bride-napped' by Kenan and they now live in unholy matrimony down the road. Bridenapping is an old custom of villages in the Causcaus mountains. It usually happens when the a girl's family are opposed to the union and the desperate groom (with a little help from friends & family) will steal her out from under their noses. It sounds bad- I know. But the reality is a more "wink-wink nudge-nudge" affair between the newlyweds. Anyway, our gardner was literally foaming at the mouth over lunch as he explained the black eye and the police caution that resulted from all these shenanigans- never a dull moment.
|Up you go..|
|Fruits of our labour|
|An apple a day...|
|The gardener and his roaving eye|
|Pitt-stop for tea and ciggies|