1 June 2004
Hussein Ali is not a happy man. The little wooden house where he has lived all his life has started to give way and if he doesn't watch out it will slip off the hillside and tumble hundreds of meters into the ravine below.
The residents of Lahic, a ramshackle village high in the Caucasus Mountains, are starting to wonder how long they can continue to live here. Every year, when the snows start to melt and the streams that trickle down the mountains become gushing rivers, they lose a little bit more of their land.
"That used to be our potato field," Intigam Ismailov, another resident of the village, told me. He pointed to a thin strip of earth clinging to the scree. Far below us, there was no sign of the rest of the potato patch; only a dust-coloured river, snaking its way south to the Caspian Sea.
During the long summer months, most Azeris escape the scorching heat of the capital and head north to cooler climes. In the old days, they went west to Karabakh, where the land is so fertile they say you can push a twig into the ground and it will grow into a pomegranate tree.
But since the war with neighboring Armenia, Karabakh has been off limits to Azeris, and now they go elsewhere during the hottest part of the year.
Lahic is a four-hour drive from the capital -- the last hour a 20-kilometer stretch that is not for the fainthearted. The narrow track wends its way up a dramatic gorge with soaring red cliffs and glimpses of snow-covered peaks even higher in the sky. The path regularly gets washed away, and halfway up there are three rusty machines that are called into service every time a section of the road gives way.
At the end of the pass, you come to Lahic, a close-knit community where families have lived in the same house and farmed the same land for hundreds of years. They even speak their own language, a dialect of Farsi, first spoken by their ancestors, who came from Iran over 1,000 years ago.
The local skill is copper-work, and as you wander the village's single cobbled street, you hear the constant tapping of hammers on metal as craftsmen forge another delicate candlestick or samovar. They rely on tourists and rich weekenders to buy their trinkets to help make ends meet.
But with half the village poised to slide off the mountainside, no one knows how much longer Lahic will exist.
"None of us wants to leave," Intigam told me sadly. "But when your house is edging its way toward the brink of a precipice, it may be time to move on."