Azerbaijan is rarely a destination to top traveller’s bucket lists, but this wasn’t the case for Jo Gilbert, here she tells us about what she found.
Awhile back, I travelled to Armenia and Georgia but didn’t take the three-day add-on to Baku. Later, I read Ralph Peters’ ‘Looking for Trouble’, which included a bit about the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict. Azerbaijan promptly went on my bucket list. And now, having spent two weeks there I am so glad I waited, for three days in Baku would have not shown me much, other than an urban oil rich Islamic city overlooking the Caspian Sea. Two weeks gave me a flavour of the regions and nationalities populating this most diverse country.
This was a two person tour, arranged through a British travel agency, Travel the Unknown. We had local guides with a driver in Azerbaijan and with time to wander about on our own, or not. We were based in Baku, passing through as we travelled on the Absheron Peninsula and into Naxcivan plus the Northwestern, Northern, and Southern parts of the country. Since I had a twelve year old Lonely Planet guide, we were able to appreciate recent changes.
Our Azeri guide was a middle aged man, precise in movement and language. He taught himself English and been a guide for ten years. One of the Azeri refugees from Armenia after the difficulty over Nagorno Karabakh, he had spent two years with the Russian army in Siberia. The Naxcivan guide was a younger man, married with several children. Both wanted the present regime to continue: the so-called Aliyev dynasty had brought stability to long conflicted territories.
Baku is a contrast of old and new, religious and secular. Lots of shiny, new architecture: some appropriate and some tasteless in places, a bit Las Vegas. Three glass skyscrapers molded into the shape of three flames over look the Old Town, related to the Zoroastrian tradition Baku, the City of Wind and Flame. We wandered about the waterfront area, a lovely park where families were enjoying a Sunday outing. Nizami Street was a walking street with a collection of upscale stores. Most buildings, old and new, had an Islamic motif.
Most of a day was spent in the Old Town; starting at the glassed flamed buildings and working our way down. We climbed up the Maiden’s Tower, likely a defensive stronghold in early times, wandered about the Palace of Shirvan Shahs and the pathways of old city. This was the last of the sunny days – wet and fog the rest of the visit! On a second try, we got into the Rostropovich Museum, a collection of memorabilia in his childhood home. I didn’t get the feeling they got many visitors. We missed the carpet museum.
Another day and we moved onto the oil rigs and fire temples of the Abseron Peninsula. Plus YanarDag, a natural gas outlet, very unique! So back through Baku and onto the Greater Caucasus, ending up at Sheki, where we spent several nights. There were stops at a small mountain village and various historical sites dating from 12th-18th Century, including a palace built by one of the early rulers which had glorious glass work. Wonderful mountain country, though weather limited some planned explorations.
Then two nights at Ganja, in the Lesser Caucasus, noted for its Mosque, Mausoleum and the Bottle House. And an Archaeological museum, mud volcanoes and petroglyphs – all at Qobustan.
Then back through Baku and on to Quba, the principal northern town with its sad little zoo. Here we were invited for tea at a local weavers home after having spent time in a rug factory. In visiting a local synagogue – there is an small Jewish population nearby – we ran into two young, impolite Israelis, looking for religious services. Quite moving was a Memorial – the unrestored skeletons of Azeri victims from 1918 Armenian activity.
We then flew out for a day in Naxcivan – that bit of Azerbaijan, briefly independent, that is not connected with the mainland but rather, surrounded by Iran, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Pristine and lovingly restored, there wasn’t a trace of trash about. We were taken to mosques and mausoleums but most interesting was the collection of musical instruments, ancient and contemporary; the carpet museum, and the unusual salt caves now used for medicinal purposes.
The final segment was a trip to Lerik in the South – high in the mountains, through rain and fog and over bad roads courtesy of rock bearing trucks. A dark and spooky ride! It’s an area inhabited by a long living Caucasian Talysh ethnic group. We made stops at Shirvan National Park with its affable manager, at Lankaran at a tea plant and then the prison and lighthouse where Stalin had been and then escaped.
Now back to Baku and flights home. It was a good trip. The exchanges with local people were friendly with no feeling of tension with the extant regime. While some women were covered, many weren’t. There were several checkpoints but they seemed quite routine. Not a lot of tourists, but that’s to be expected this time of year.
Azerjbaijan looks like what it is: a secularly run Muslim majority country. With money. With scenery. At the moment, peaceful.
Accommodations: From a quite authentic Kervansaray to standard 3-star to resort hotels. All comfortable and all with WiFi albeit standing outside in the Kervansaray’s courtyard for use.
Food: Various breads, lentil and chicken (with a bony piece of chicken included) soups, eggs, tomatoes and cucumber were standard. Both of us were non red meat eaters so occasional chicken kabobs and fish. A couple of exceptional meals but mostly routine. One horrible greasy breakfast omelet with equally unappetizing male companions at the Kervansaray forced us to pay for breakfast at a hotel across the way.
Comment: You really have to understand this country in relation to the other parts of the Pinochle: Armenia, Georgia and Russia (and Turkey?). All having had a part in the action over the years and thus influence the present.