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Azerbaijan: Villagers Find Fountain Of Youth In Their Own Backyard

If you're searching for the secrets to a long life, you could do worse than visit the small town of Lerik in southern Azerbaijan. People here regularly live into their 80s and 90s, and local records claim the region has more centenarians than anywhere else in the world.

Lerik, Azerbaijan; 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Come rain or come shine, Qyzyl Qulieva gets up at six every morning to feed the chickens. There's nothing particularly unusual about that, except that according to her pension book, Qyzyl is 131 years old.

She doesn't hear as well as she used to, and she's recently started walking with a stick. But she says she's still as sharp as she was 80 years ago, when she was already a grandmother: "I had three sons and three daughters. As for grandchildren -- forgive me, but I can't remember how many I've got. The secret to a very long life? Well, I eat well and I work hard. There's nothing more to it than that."

The lush hills of Lerik rise in the south of Azerbaijan near the border with Iran. To the east lies the Caspian Sea, to the west the Talysh mountain range. The heavy winter rains mean crops are plentiful, and every other house has an orchard garden.

According to local records, Lerik has 21 centenarians out of a total population of 65,000. That's nearly four times the average number in Western countries. The veracity of the claims is questionable, however, since many of the town's older residents lack proper documentation.

The "Guinness Book of World Records" doesn't recognize the claims of any Lerik resident. It lists the oldest person as Jeanne-Louise Calment of France, who lived to be 122 before dying in 1997.

Nevertheless, there's no disputing the fact that Lerik is home to many very old people.

Chingiz Gussanov at Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences has been studying the region's centenarians since the 1970s. He says he still can't pin down what it is that enables people in the region to live so long: "They live in a clean environment. They do a lot of physical work. They're socially significant. All of this against a backdrop of strong genes means there is nothing negative about their existence. The most important thing is that these old people are active. They don't lie in bed all day, they don't need to visit the doctor. They work hard, on the land."

Further down the road, Kishi Bendiev has just finished his morning horseback ride. He claims to have celebrated his 125th birthday last month. He says the recipe for a long life is simple: horseback riding and a daily bowl of "bozbash" -- a lamb stew made with local yoghurt and herbs.

He sits surrounded by some of his elderly grandchildren. If you gathered all of Bendiev's relatives together, they joke, they would fill a small football stadium.

Bendiev prides himself on his memory, reeling off a list of the leaders he remembers: "The first one I recall was Tsar Nicholas II. He ruled for a bit and then Lenin came along. After Lenin, Stalin came along. After Stalin, Brezhnev came along. After Brezhnev, Gorbachev came along, and, well, he ruined everything, as you know."

Bendiev says he gave up smoking when he was 70. But many of the centenarians Gussanov has met still smoke an occasional cigarette or have an alcoholic drink: "Not all of them smoke. But the ones that do smoke the tobacco they plant in their gardens. It's strong stuff. But it's not synthetic, it hasn't been treated with chemicals. And they drink sometimes, too. They drink vodka made from berries they've gathered in the forest."

Modern life is starting to encroach here, and some say Lerik's reputation for longevity may not last much longer. Many young people have left to look for work in the capital Baku.

Qyzyl Qulieva says she is happy to have lived to be 131. But she says her grandchildren and great-grandchildren face many more problems in today's Azerbaijan than she ever did.