I’ll admit it: the main reason I wanted to go Azerbaijan was to see Baku, the place I never knew existed until I watched Eurovision. Azerbaijan was mostly one of those countries I knew would enter a ballad with a singer using a wind machine, maybe a comical grandma act with some traditional dancing thrown in, but I certainly couldn’t have placed it on a map. When I saw it was part of some of the Silk Road routes, I couldn’t resist. Secretly, every time I read the name on the trip itinerary, a Eurovision presenter was announcing Azerbaijan’s vote in my head.
I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know if it would be like Georgia, or have more Islamic influence like its neighbours Iran and Turkmenistan. I knew that Baku had a stadium with flashing lights, maps told me the country bordered the Caspian Sea, and a few weeks earlier I’d seen carvings of the Azeris paying tribute to ancient Persia in Persepolis. That was it.
We drove out of the Georgian forest and onto the border. After a short interrogation about where and why I’d been in Armenia, we were let into the country,and on our way to our first caravanserai. Sheki was once the seat of a Khan, and has a small but beautifully decorated palace. Iran had taught me that the kinds of art here are typical of 18-20th century, and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities and difference between the neighbouring countries. The lead-light windows on the first floor made absolute gorgeous patterns of light inside the palace.
It was here that we came across the first of many of the Azeri ‘flames,’ the national symbol. The paisley pattern that was so typical of 70s shirts is actually based on these, and is named after one of the main towns to produce these textile designs in Scotland. Who knew? There’s a slight dispute over whether or not the boteh (also buta) was Persian or Azeri first, but that hasn’t stopped the Azeri’s from making it their own. They are in the art everywhere, and have inspired Baku’s flame towers. Interestingly, though the country was once Zoroastrian, it was never really confirmed or denied that the flame might symbolise that religion. Perhaps they prefer to think of it as tradition rather than a link to their pre-Islamic past, or perhaps the significance of fire in their lives was one reason Zoroastrianism was easily adopted at the time. It was surprisingly difficult to find an answer, and I left the country still wondering.
In Sheki we actually stayed overnight in the caravanserai (see above), which has been converted into a hotel. Where once this place housed traders and their camels, it now houses travellers of a different kind. The hotel had a beautiful courtyard, with stone archways leading off into the rooms. It was a very quiet little town, and most shops were closed by the time we got there. Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot of dentists given the town’s size. Perhaps it was explained by the numbers of traditional sweet shops. The Baklava and Azeri deserts were absolutely delicious! Incredibly sweet, often very sticky with honey or sugar syrup, and you could pretend they were healthy because most had fruits or nuts in them.
Our next stop was up in the mountains, to a village famed for its copper work. It’s somewhat of a tourist destination for locals, but still quiet enough to have horses and cars drive down the same cobble-stone street. Hand carved copper goods lined most shop windows, with a few being open workshops.
By far the most memorable experience about Lahic was actually getting there, not so much the village itself. The drive up was rocky, along sheer drops down into the valley. Our truck Archie meandered up, rocking and bouncing past the incredible scenery. The rock formations here ranged from vertical spikes poking through trees to tree-covered slopes. On the return journey, I got my first taste of Archie’s roof seats. Sitting on top of the truck, we could appreciate the 360 view and enjoy the wind on our faces. Locals stopped to wave and check out the unusual sight. It’s experiences like these that make over landing so special – you can’t get that on an average tour bus or taxi!
Not long after getting down the windy gravel mountain path, the road straightened out into desert. Where we’d been a little cold and wet the evening before, we suddenly hit temperature of over 35 degrees, and no shade in sight but our truck. It was on this day that we had the great little stop at the mud volcanoes. These were wonderfully gooey little mounds with bubbling grey sludge spluttering out of the small craters and holes in the earth. The mud oozed slowly down the sides, and started drying quickly in the midday sun. The bubbling happens due to the amount of gas and shallow deposits of shale near the surface. Some dared to put the arms inside a few of the holes, in order to try to get a free beauty treatment – and even if it didn’t work, and it was a wonderfully messy bit of joy for the afternoon.
That was the first glimpse we had of the country’s oil. The site actually has an oil plant nearby, and we drove past pools of oil, black and shiny, right there at ground surface level. This was where the money was. Azerbaijan was producing more than half the world’s oil in 1901, and you can see why. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to find it! Oil has been abundant at the surface since before Marco Polo’s travels. Strangely, Lahic was only a day’s drive away, as if in a different world. Where Lahic and Sheki were the kind of Silk Road towns I’d expected, this part of the country was empty save for a rich city in the desert.
Nothing summed that up more than the mosque just outside of Baku, overlooking the oil rig once used in James Bond. The mosque was beautiful, but it was something I now recognised as modern Islamic architecture, and probably not unique to Azerbaijan. As we were there during Ramadan, the call to prayer played around us, a nice kind of background for our first up close glimpses of the city. The high way traffic drove past, and the oil rig and port carried on. You could literally smell the petrol in the air, something that we later discovered was common throughout Baku in certain weather. A modern city, religion, and oil. That’s Baku in a nutshell.
We came into Baku a few days after the Formula One, and the track, barriers and stands were all still set up. We had great fun driving along the track, especially since our truck Archie stood out against the regular traffic, even if it meant it took us a little longer to get to the old town. I’m not into car racing, but I can say I’ve driven on an official track! Our circuit run took us past all sorts of designer shops, and the wealth of the place really hit home.
Above: Baku’s streets, and the Maiden Tower (end)
The city has done a lot to restore and preserve a lot of its medieval history. The old city wall fences in a lot of it, while just outside it are the designer shops, the corniche popular for night strolls, and plazas with KFC and McDonald’s. One of the oldest sites is the Maiden Tower, built and restored over several centuries, which historians are still unsure of it’s use. Legend says that the king’s daughter was to be married off to a man she didn’t love, so she asked that he first build a tower in her honour. When the tower was completed, she jumped off it’s top to her death. Historians also believe it was earlier used as an observatory, and probably a Zoroastrian temple. Nearby are a few caravanserais, one of the cities oldest mosques, and several restaurants and bars to enjoy. We spent a day walking around the city, with a great audio guide. You can pick these audio guides up at several booths, and most sites have corresponding track numbers on their signs. It was very comprehensive, detailing medieval, Soviet and recent history and culture, and gave us a few ideas of which museums to go check out the next day as well. They even included the house of a famous local jazz musician!
Above: miniature book collection, with some of the world’s smallest books, less than 1cm2 are on display here. They had Shakespeare, Quran’s, Bibles, Tolstoy, fairy tales and everything in between.
The most iconic site in Baku is probably the Flame Towers. These stand out in the city’s landscape, being a lot higher than other buildings. By day, they’re interesting, something a little bit different architecturally. By night, they are lit up with different projections. There were three while we were there: red flames, a man waving the Azeri flag, and something to do golf – we guessed there’d just been a golf tournament, or one coming soon, though we saw no other signs of it. Along the coast, as you walk along the corniche, several of the other buildings are lit up nicely, making a picturesque cityscape and pleasant stroll.
And that was when I saw it. Crystal Hall, the Eurovision stadium. It was far off in the distance, on the other side of the bay, but it did not disappoint. And as the sparkling lights twinkled in and out (a lighting effect I think they used back then as well), the big fat smile on my face told me I’d made a good decision coming here.
I travelled with Dragoman, who specialise in over landing journeys. Destinations like Lahic and the mud volcanoes are not on the typical tourist trail, which is what makes their trips so special! This was part of the Tbilisi-Ashgabat section.