Azerbaijan: The Land of Fire

Thursday, June 29, 2017

I didn’t plan to blog from Azerbaijan because I’d made such plans in the past, and they did not turn out very well. So I gave myself some time off. But when I came back home, I didn’t want to blog right away either. Not so travel-bloggish of me, is it? The thing is, with some of my experiences I was not that impressed and I didn’t want to write with that in my mind, but to let it cool.

So it did. I now look back at my time there fondly—more than I did right after coming back. It was ten days of being completely out of this world, and honestly, I really needed it.

For ten days I didn’t think about the bills I needed to pay or job I didn’t have or anything like that. I think I was living in the present, being present.

I made new friends and even though I occasionally communicated with those from my “real” life, the friends in Azerbaijan were the true deal, there and then. We ate together, walked together, rode on a bus together, slept together. After a couple of days, my roommate told me “I think we’re starting to look alike.” Well, one thing’s sure: after so much time together, the two of us started to dress alike.

We always complain about time passing by so quickly, but in a way I cannot believe it’s been less than a year since my trip to Azerbaijan. That’s precisely because of the new friends I made there who I’ve continued seeing in Belgrade on a regular basis and who I would have probably never met otherwise. So here’s a shout-out to two wonderful souls, Mina and Jelica, that I have only known for less than a year, but feel I’ve known much longer.

But let’s get back to the beginning: how on Earth did I end up in Azerbaijan? Because, honestly, it’s not the first country you think of when you imagine a summer vacation. 😀

Back when I was still a student, I got my eyes onto a essay competition for students titled “What do I know about Azerbaijan”, organized by the Ministry of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The main prize was a free trip to Azerbaijan, all costs covered. Let me ask you: what do YOU know about Azerbaijan? Honestly, I knew close to nothing—I knew where it was, for starters! I took this as a challenge. I certainly know how to use references and write a good essay. So why not give it a go?

I did. And obviously, I won. Me and four other people from Serbia, that is. The trip was organized a year later than it should have, but eventually the five of us did find ourselves on a plane to Istanbul, and then Baku.

Although I had done my research (obviously!), I did not quite know what to expect, and in that sense a lot of what I had come across in Azerbaijan was a surprise. But I guess this was a “show and tell” trip, so the organizers made sure we only see the good, fancy parts. I am sure my experience would have been much different had I gone there by myself, and had I had access to ordinary people. The schedule that we had was quite packed, and we were under the eye of the organizers pretty much all the time.

As you are probably aware, the capital of Azerbaijan is Baku. Since I’ve seen a lot during these ten days, I’d leave Baku for another post and this time focus on the travels within the country. So here’s what you need to know if you ever venture that way.

Should you? Yes, if you’re into visiting places you’ve never been before.

You shouldn’t, though, if you’re used to comfortable traveling (and a bit spoiled in this sense). I mean, I stayed in superb hotels, but the roads are not that good, it can get really hot during the summer, it’s super windy, and you’ll find squat toilets on multiple occasions. But then again, they say getting out of the comfort zone is in these days. 😉

Anyway… ready, set, go.

You are most likely to enter the country by landing to Heydar Aliyev Airport. Oh, Heydar Aliyev is the late president and there is pretty much a cult of Aliyev in the country. Everything is named after him, and there are billboards of him, just looking over the city. And by the way, the current president is—his son. Has been since 2003. And his wife is the vice-president. Democratic!
Anyway, you will most probably need a visa, but worry not—you will obtain it at the airport for mere $10.

Facts & Figures

Azerbaijan, officially The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, is a country in the South Caucasus region, situated at the crossroads of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. It is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east and I won’t bother you with its neighboring countries. Use Google map if interested 😌

The country was a part of the Soviet Union from 1920. to 1991. and because of that the majority of the population is fluent in Russian—even youngsters born after 1991, the influence is still high. The official language, however, is Azerbaijani, spoken by around 92% of the population as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Turkic language family, which means you’ll find no similarities to English (nor French, Italian, Russian…), but it’s super close to Turkish. In fact, they’re mutually intelligible.

The main religion of the country is Islam, with around 98% of the population being Muslims. The Constitution, however, does not declare an official religion and the country is officially secular. But even though I had heard that Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world, approximately half of all the women I saw in Baku were wearing headscarves, and of course the number was higher in the rural areas. Of course, I consider my readers to be well educated and informed, so I won’t emphasize that no pork is the default in the country… obviously not everybody knows that, so I witnessed a 22-year-old girl complaining that she walked all around the capital looking for pizza with pork ham and being annoyed she couldn’t find any. (I felt embarrassed for her, seriously.)

Azerbaijani cuisine is famous for an abundance of herbs, some of which being min, cilantro, dill, chives, thyme, parsley, basil…

However! (And the following was a huge minus in the whole organization of the trip.) We stayed in really good hotels (Qafqaz chain) in Baku and upstate, but were served usual hotel meals that I dare say were “European”. On the safe side. Chicken, beef, potatoes, vegetables, pasta.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the food was great and I might have always ended up with more of it on my plate than I should have, but it was not the original Azerbaijani cuisine. We were once served a traditional dinner and it was great—cheese, dolma, sour milk, salads with herbs, saffron-rice plov or pilaf, grilled beef and lamb…, and once we ate a traditional lunch of dolma and mutton soup, but most of the time we ate approximately what we would have been eating anywhere in Europe.

I guess the organizers just didn’t want to risk their guests not liking the food, but for me, food is an important part of a cultural experience and I hope they will serve more traditional meals to the future winners of the contest. (Which takes place every year, by the way, with different countries being involved; if you're a student, check if you're eligible on the Embassy of Azerbaijan in your country website.)

Azerbaijan has a very strong tea culture, and as someone who hasn’t visited Turkey yet, I was quite surprised to see people reaching for tea on hot summer days. Coffee is just not a big deal there, which means I drank mostly hotel coffee, and as I know very well by now, hotel coffee is more often than not quite crappy. 😄 But the tea is good! It’s usually served in a pear-shaped glass called armudu, along with a tiny piece of pakhlava (baklava), or a special type of baklava from Shaki, called Shaki baklava or Shaki halva (pictured below).

Traveling around Azerbaijan

If you’re into history, this is a good place to look around. Lovers of ancient history can visit Gobustan National Park, officially Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, not far from Baku. Gobustan is a place of ancient carving, relics, mud volcanoes and gas-stones, and its rock art images present evidence for hunting, fauna, flora and lifestyle in pre-historic times. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Another interesting thing that can only be found here in Gobustan is a musical gemstone, known as Gaval Dash. Gaval Dash makes a tambourine-like sound when hit on different points. It is believed to have been formed due to the combination of the climate, oil and gas in this region.

Yanar Dag
Speaking of the gas, one cannot forget Yanar Dag, or a “burning mountain” in the Azerbaijani language. Yanar Dag is a natural gas fire that cannot be put out, and it blazes continuously near Baku, no matter the weather. The flame comes from a porous sandstone layer and involves a seep of gas from the subsurface.

Lahij village (Azerbaijani: Lahıc) is probably the most remote place I have been to so far. I remember lively getting there: I just wrote “scary” in my Notes app to serve as a guideline for writing. 😄 We had to transfer to mini-buses because regular coaches cannot cope with the terrain. Getting to Lahij is scary, steep, the roads are narrow and unpaved, and there are cliffs everywhere. Did I mention that the road is mostly unprotected by guardrails?! In fact, I just read the road to Lahij is one of the most dangerous drives in the world. Well, I feel grateful no one told me that in advance, because I doubt I would say yes to the experience. This being such a dangerous road is probably why we kept seeing locals on horses and donkeys exclusively—no vehicles around.

Lahij is a notable place in the country because of its authentic handicrafts traditions, particularly related to copper, and because it is one of the most ancient human settlements in Azerbaijan. The population of the village is around 860 people, and according to the Internet, they speak the Tat language, but alas, tourism made sure they can communicate to outsiders and sell them knick-knacks. 😀 The craftsmen in Lahij include jewelers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, sock weavers, painters, carpenters, carpet makers… In fact, carpets and rugs from the village are well known in Azerbaijan and the whole of South Caucasus. Another interesting thing about Lahij is its old sewage system—built 1000 or even 1500 years ago.

Anyway, you can spend a couple of nice hours in Lahij, walking down the cobblestone road or visiting the Museum. There is also an abundance of spices and teas to buy and the prices are reasonable. Thumbs up for little clay stones made of clay from the nearby rivers and streams; they are very cheap face cleansers and while it did feel weird to wash my face with a bare stone touched by who knows who, they worked very well and I felt cleaner than after some drugstore products. Well, clay is one of the main ingredients in scrubs and such, so…

Shaki (or Sheki, Azerbaijani: Şəki) was my favorite place in the country! It is a city in northwestern Azerbaijan, 324 km from Baku. It’s so colorful and pretty! Its architecture really is something, and that’s because it has been shaped by the history of city, dating to a time when Shaki was a market centre on the Silk Road. That’s why there were five big caravanserais in the city, now with only two left. Caravanserai is a building for merchants who pass by the city; they would store their goods in cellars, trade on the first floor and sleep on the second. The buildings were in a rectangular shape with an inner garden, so that the merchants would have the view of all convenience from whatever they were situated.

Another notable sight in Shaki is the Palace of Shaki Khans—a summer residence of Shaki Khans. The building’s interior is covered by art scenes: the walls, the floor, even the ceiling. This building was constructed in 1762, with, wait for it, not one single nail. Not one single nail! It also has a distinct architecture feature I hadn’t heard of before: there is a hollow space between the ceiling of the first floor and the second floor. Its function was to prevent women, who resided on one floor, from hearing men’s business that was going on on the other one. Eh!

I said earlier that Shaki is colorful—and in fact, many public places and even private houses in the town are decorated with shebeke—it’s a wooden lattice of pieces of colored glass, held together without glue or a single nail. (These peeps like being extravagant without nails, obviously! 😀) The technique of making shebeke is complex and said to be known only to a few artisans who pass the craft from generation to generation.

All in all, Azerbaijan is—interesting. This is the word I have been using every time someone asks what it is like. I am in love with the Old Continent and the West, but obviously, the best way to acknowledge it is to see as much as possible of the world beyond. After all, indulging in just one flavor of ice cream for the rest of my life would be just as uninspiring as sticking to familiar places.

Love, Tihana

Related: What to see in Baku

(the looking-alike roommates)

1 comment:

  1. I like the travel every year in summer. So I've been searching online for regular in suitable travel spaces.. I love this place. Hopefully soon the place will go out to see the eye. Thanks for sharing..


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