Ah, the joys of the open road. Having bought a car with the express intention of using it to explore the country this summer I am pleased to report that two thousand kilometres into the season, things are looking good. The Niva and I are getting very well acquainted and between us we make a far happier picture of Anglo-Russian relations than that offered by the countries’ respective premiers at present, even if not necessarily a prettier one.
It probably helps that we tested each other’s limits early on. Contrary to the many tales I was told prior to purchase, there definitely are places a Niva can not go; I know because I managed to find one during my first major trip out of the city.
Nabran is a peaceful coastal retreat far in the north of the country, not too many miles from the Russian border. Its beaches while clean and usable are essentially rather grey and disappointing considering the reputation attached to the place. Far better to stay in a cabin in the nearby stream-laced woodland and enjoy dinner at a secluded restaurant table under the branches accompanied by a muted frog-choir serenade.
Getting there involves a lengthy but enjoyable drive through scenery ranging from the demonic to the divine, in that order. The next major settlement signposted north of Baku is Sumgayit. It was an industrial town during Soviet times, built primarily around huge chemical plants. Many of those plants have closed since independence (and the infant mortality has simultaneously plummeted) but they have not been dismantled. Even just bypassing the town – I have yet to actually enter it – brings you into contact with the rusting, dilapidating remains of an other world. Mile upon mile of crumbling pipe-racks run alongside, over and around you, punctuated sporadically by equally aged and decomposing vessels. I may be too young to have seen Parry’s “dark satanic mills” in all their glory but it is not difficult to imagine how this brown, unpleasant land could be a contemporary comparison.
Fortunately the sights improve significantly with the continuation northward. The horizon shortens as barren plains are replaced by gentle hills clothed in ever more amounts of greenery. Open country and agricultural land blend neatly as fields, woodland and orchards pass by. Traffic starts to be carts pulled by horse, donkey or rotavator as much as it is other cars. For many miles north of Guba the road is lined on either side by ranks of trees (reminiscent of old France) and in their shade are numerous little stands with people selling strawberries, cherries and other seasonal fruits. In ‘the book’ Mark Elliott captions a photograph of such an area as “bucolic” – need I say more?
As the mountains draw closer the road crosses rivers with increasing frequency. At this time of year many of them are wide beds of rock and gravel with water running along in a much narrower channel. Filled with melt-water from a good winter’s snow they must be wide and tempestuous but in summer they look innocuous.
Three quarters of the way into the journey we came to a road-block. The bridge ahead had been closed. There were no signs for a diversion or any information at all except an arrow sign inviting people to descend to the river bank. Our simple map showed no sign of any alternative roads within the area so we followed the dirt track down to the river and looked for a fording point. I found a place with numerous tyre tracks on both banks, walked out half way across the water to check the route (it was only three inches deep most of the way) and decided to give it a go. All was going swimmingly until we were inches from the opposite bank, at which point one front wheel dropped into a hidden pot-hole, the car grounded and we were stuck motionless with a spinning wheel spraying water everywhere.
Several attempts to regain traction – forwards, backwards, high range, low range, with and without diff. lock – made zero progress; help was required. We had passed a police checkpoint just before the bridge and walked there to seek assistance. A rough, tough vehicle and tow-rope combo was not forthcoming but a passing man with a calm, have-a-go attitude was. He walked back to the Niva with us, got behind the wheel, engaged reverse and promptly dropped the clutch at maximum revs. I cringed at the painful flailing noises coming from the engine but had to rejoice moments later when the spinning wheel miraculously found purchase and the Niva jumped back onto high ground.
Once we had regained the track atop the bank (a small exercise in itself) the man drove us half a mile further down the river to a more reliable fording point he knew of, crossed successfully and swapped back into the passenger seat for the trip back up the river to rejoin the road. At the bridge he accepted our thanks, asked for nothing and disappeared on his way before I could even offer anything. The kindness of strangers…
After that impromptu swimming lesson it took several days for the water to fully stop trickling out of the drainage holes in the chassis; at which point the driver’s side electric window decided to stop working (understandable: that side did spend most of an hour under a foot of water). That was fixed in half an hour with an air hose and some grease, as was the increasingly irritable nature of the alarm that turned out to be due to door switch connections (also submerged); all for a fee of eight Manats at the garage – less than a fiver.
In the days following the trip to Nabran, I have promised to avoid deep water navigation and the Niva has gained electrical calm. Trips to the far-flung mountains or even just across town are completed with a sense of friendly cooperation; long may it stay that way.