My heart raced as the Azeri soldiers emerged from the bushes. A raised hand signalled for me to halt. It was an unnecessary gesture. I was already frozen to the spot.
The three approaching soldiers cradled AK-47s in their arms. Grenades hung from their belts, next to long black knives. Behind them, the trail twisted under the trees, up into the mountains that now seemed so very far away.
The soldiers stopped. At this close distance, they looked terribly young. A wispy beard clung to one’s face; a uniform was draped loosely over another’s wiry frame. Only one exuded any authority — clearly an officer.
“Speak Russian?” the officer asked. His assault rifle dominated my vision as I shook my head. “Thank you” and “where’s the bus station?” wouldn’t cut it here.
The officer tapped his chest and uttered, “no English.” An awkward silence followed. “Passport,” he asked, staring at me coolly.
I waited nervously as he inspected my documents, hoping that questions wouldn’t be asked about the Armenian visa. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d met someone who’d lost family in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But his stern expression gave nothing away.
The other soldiers watched me with unsettling curiosity. My pulse quickened as I realised I was alone in the mountains with these men; a camera on my shoulder, all my possessions in a backpack. I smiled meekly, noticing the Azerbaijan flag on their uniforms, with their surnames below. The officer’s was Hasanov.
Hasanov pulled a battered phone from his pocket and typed into a translation app. “We go,” the screen said, followed by “danger”. Hasanov gestured at the mountains which were now shrouded in cloud, his eyes betraying some anxiety.
Without a choice, I followed the soldiers along a side trail. I walked in front of Hasanov, my dread growing, acutely aware that my passport hadn’t been returned. What was this danger? Did I break a law? Had I been arrested? The forest that seemed so welcoming was now full of menace, the shadows growing with each crunch of the soldiers’ boots.
The trail ascended a steep slope, ending at a sandbag wall surrounded by a thick coil of barbed wire. Hasanov took us through a gap. Behind was a small outpost. From this vantage point the valley dropped precipitously, before rising again in wave of rock that ended with the summits of the Caucasus Mountains — and Azerbaijan’s border with Russia.
A guard nodded at Hasanov, before turning back to the valley, gripping his rifle firmly. Scrawled on a post beside him were calculations; numbers for measuring bullet trajectory when shooting into the valley. Empty shell casings littered the ground.
I pretended not to have seen this and followed Hasanov under a camouflage net and into a trench. This led through a gate at the camp’s rear, which Hasanov closed behind us. The two other soldiers had disappeared.
There was no path, but Hasanov knew the way, cutting expertly through the trees. I tried to quell the sinister thoughts crowding my mind, ignoring the pistol on Hasanov’s hip.
Just as my confusion was peaking, we came upon a shack in a clearing with a wooden table and chairs. Hasanov motioned for me to sit, while he went inside. From within, a vigorous conversation ensued. Was he discussing my fate?
Hasanov then re-emerged, a bottle of kompot in one hand, a pot of tea in the other. A white-haired man followed carrying a plate of lavash, a soft flatbread.
Seeing the stunned look on my face, Hasanov reached for his phone and typed into the translation app, “Azerbaijan hospitality.” Relieved, I pitched over with laughter, my anxiety washing away. The white-haired man returned with a plate of sizzling lamb chops that were sprinkled with sumac.
Eyeing the meat, I typed a message into my phone. “I’m vegetarian,” the screen said. I then paused. Thinking better of it, I deleted the message and simply said, “thank you.”
Hasanov beamed a massive smile as I reached for the food. Stuck in the mountains with an armed soldier, embracing the local customs with a lamb chop in hand seemed to be the best idea.
This story was originally written, with the help of my friend Himmy, for a competition. With that in mind, I had to be a bit liberal with the truth. So while the events in this story all happened, they might not have happened in the exact manner described. Most notably, I wasn’t alone — my friend Arnheiður was with me.
Unfortunately, I had to leave her out to make the narrative simpler and keep it under the word count. So if you’re reading this Arnheiður, hello! I didn’t forget you 🙂 Also, if anyone is wondering why there’s no photos of the events, the soldiers made me put my camera away. The officer was extremely paranoid about this. The moral of the story: the Azerbaijan-Russian border is a very sensitive place to trek.