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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan photos

Few names of sovereign nations conjure such romantic appeals of exoticism as that of Azerbaijan. But personally, I think the name is a con job. Sure, Azerbaijan is a rather intriguing mixture of Western, Russian and Turkish influences, but the name creates false fantasies of a mythical land of unimaginable curiosities. Aside from its underrated cuisine though, Azerbaijan is actually quite a bland country to visit. The history and culture is not particularly unique or compelling and places of interest are few and far between, with the exception of a bunch of fire related attractions (hence the country’s exaggerated moniker of “the Land of Fire”). The capital city, Baku, is a metropolis of hyper, oil-funded development; the Dubai of the Caspian Sea. Baku (specifically the central areas) is usually the only destination tourists are exposed to in Azerbaijan, which creates inaccurate impressions of the country’s prosperity. While the revenue derived from exporting black gold is invested into vanity projects on Baku’s foreshore, the suburbs and regional communities still very much lack the living standards expected in developed societies. Nevertheless, Baku is a somewhat interesting city to visit with its numerous layers of urban forms, from the slightly over-restored old town of the khanates to the post-modernist edifices representative of Azerbaijan’s destiny. Despite a reputation for coldness, I actually found the Azerbaijanis were generally very welcoming and helpful. Overall, I definitely wouldn’t recommend a trip exclusively to Azerbaijan, but its worth a stop on a broader trip in the South Caucasus or on the Silk Road.

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Azerbaijan is grouped with Georgia and Armenia as the countries forming the South Caucasus. Yet the country has few historical and cultural similarities with its western neighbours, other than the shared legacy of Soviet influence. While the Georgian and Armenian people have inhabited the region for millennia, the Azeri presence is much more recent. In antiquity, the modern-day lands of Azerbaijan were populated by the mysterious Caucasian Albanians (not associated with the Balkan Albanians), who were Zoroastrians under the Persian Empire and later became Christians. The Armenians contend that the Caucasian Albanians were actually just Armenians, but the Azerbaijanis hotly contest this as it threatens their sovereign claims over areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh. Muslim Turkic tribes from Central Asia, believed to be the ancestors of the Azeri people, arrived in the 10th century and came to dominate the grasslands south of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range, pushing the Albanians into the foothills. However, unlike the Georgians and Armenians of antiquity, the Azeris failed to ever form a unified and distinctly “Azeri” ethnic state. The Azeris were instead divided into khanates, which were mostly controlled by the various incarnations of the Persian Empire. The Safavid dynasty was originally Azeri. In the early 19th century however, the expansionist Russian Empire seized the northern khanates, dividing “South Azerbaijan” and “North Azerbaijan”. The long-term outcome has been the permanent separation of the Azeri people: while 10 million live in the modern-day and independent Republic of Azerbaijan (more than Georgia and Armenia combined), 20 million live within the northwestern provinces of Iran.

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The Azerbaijanis briefly achieved an independent and progressive (first democratic country in the Islamic world) republic after the Russian Revolution, but it was quickly swept into the Soviet sphere. When independence was again established in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bitter war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite a much larger population and economy, the Azerbaijanis were defeated humiliatingly and lost additional lands outside the contested region. The war never officially concluded, so the national psyche (at least at a governmental level) is very much geared towards utter hatred of the Armenians (the evil arbiters of any misfortune befalling the nation) – and potential reconquest. The borders are closed and the Azerbaijanis have enlisted their Turkish brothers (the Azerbaijani language is basically just a dialect of Turkish) to enforce further pressure and isolate the Armenians. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is very much ambitiously planning for the future, inspired more so by their intended destiny than traditions of the past. Azerbaijan, a Shia Muslim nation, has not experienced a post-Soviet religious revival like Georgia and Armenia, and ranks among the 10 least religious countries in the world. The government wants to position Azerbaijan as the critical frontier between Europe and Asia, although competing in UEFA and Eurovision isn’t fooling me: Azerbaijan is definitively part of West Asia. The authoritarian regime of the Aliyev dynasty has controlled Azerbaijan for nearly 3 decades, curtailing freedom of the press and instituting corruption – certainly analogous of West Asian republics than European democracies.

“Border crossing day” is always a dreaded experience when developing countries are involved. Excluding air arrivals and tour groups, I’ve crossed international borders outside of Europe only 9 times; and each one of those days was highly stressful and unenjoyable. Crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan was certainly no exception. The problem was that I was attempting to travel between two small cities, Telavi and Sheki. Although both are relatively close to the border, the transport systems in the Caucasus are so heavily anchored around the three capitals that such an endeavour was bound to be complicated and irritating. I departed the guesthouse at 7:30am, anticipating that I may struggle to arrive before sunset for what could have been just a three hour drive. I was lucky to board a marshrutka (shared taxi) immediately upon arrival at the bus terminal and surprisingly avoid the to need to change marshrutka to access the Georgian border. Aside from some stressfully long and unexplained breaks, this component of the journey went ahead of schedule. I caught a taxi to the border and walked to Azerbaijan, where I was greeted by some very welcoming border guards – perhaps a little surprised to encounter a solo traveller with no onward transport! Once past customs, I was swarmed by taxi drivers, all attempting to rip the helpless Western man off. I insisted not to be driven directly to Sheki and instead be deposited at the nearest town, where I expected I would need to take a bus to another town for a marshrutka to Sheki. At the bus terminal though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover from the locals, in their broken English, that a Sheki minivan should be leaving in the afternoon. So I waited. And waited. With no actual awareness for when this promised minivan would arrive. The Azerbaijani men at the bus terminal were clearly unused to Westerners and I think they found my agitation to leave befuddling. Since one of them, quite a large man with a maniacal glint in his eye, kept showing me videos of President Putin and of Russians or Azerbaijanis defeating supposedly famous Westerner pro fighters of some sort (as if I was expected to be so intellectually and culturally baseless to follow the “sport” and know who they were), I wouldn’t say I was in a mood to relax. They did provide me with free tea though, so perhaps I was just paranoid. When the Sheki minivan arrived (which I was beginning to think didn’t exist) and finally departed at 2:00pm, I was very much relieved.

Sheki is regarded as Azerbaijan’s prettiest and most historic town, which was a rather sad indication that the country didn’t have a lot to offer. Its not that Sheki isn’t attractive and interesting, perhaps even quaint, is just that I would attach “mildly” to each descriptor. When I arrived in Sheki, I was a little perplexed why residents of a town touted as a “tourist destination” seemed to exhibit surprise at the presence of a Westerner backpacker. Perhaps they were admiring my striking handsomeness (or unkemptness after 3 months of backpacking), because I never ascertained an explanation – other tourists were present, though few and far between. Sheki was once the capital of a northern Azeri khanate and functioned as an important trading centre between Baku, Tbilisi and Dagestan in southern Russia. The historic area of Sheki feels like it is just a sleepy, forgotten suburb of an otherwise bustling town, surround by hills of deciduous trees on two sides. The crumbling walls of the fortress enclose an unusually sparse precinct of wide cobblestone streets, lawns and occasional buildings. The only structure of interest is the Xan Sarayi, the administrative building of the Sheki Khans. The palace is intricately decorated externally and internally, although it only consists of a small collection of rooms. Just outside the fortress is an excellently preserved caravansarai with its courtyard of arcades, where traders would stay overnight with theirs horses or camels. A stream cascades from the historic area to the modern commercial centre, passing brick souvenir and halva shops en route. The characterful and lush central square thrives with locals sipping tea on outdoor stools. One particular teahouse in the square seems to be the sanctuary for Westerners in Sheki, a grandiose building with plenty of outdoor tables in the garden. I spent many hours dining on Azerbaijani specialties, indulging in full tea sets, reading about Azerbaijani history and culture and writing damn Globo Trip entries there; it was where I gradually became endeared to the provincial town atmosphere of Sheki.

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The gleaming capital of Azerbaijan, easily the largest city in the Caucasus, is a totally different beast to Sheki. Clearly, the government is using oil money to convey that Baku is anything but “provincial”. It even feels like they’re trying to re-write history, as Baku’s old town is over-restored and over-hyped, as if it were formerly the capital of a great empire. However, Baku was merely the capital of an Azeri khanate (so, provincial) that was mostly controlled by Central Asian, Persian or Russian empires since its founding. The old town is certainly pleasant to meander through though, albeit briefly, with its crenellated walls, sandstone mansions, domes of the Palace of Shirvanshahs (I decided they were probably overrating the architecture of the complex with a hefty entrance price, so I didn’t bother visiting) and boutique attractions (museum of the world’s largest collection of miniature books!).

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The old town is surrounded by squares and pedestrianised boulevards of beautiful 19th century French-style apartment buildings, mimicking the streets of Paris. When new uses for crude oil were discovered and extraction was deregulated by the Russian Empire in 1872, Baku boomed economically as it came to supply half the world’s oil supply; forever changing the identity of this former Caspian backwater. The city’s population exploded beyond the city walls, and the wave of migrants and oil barons desired the creation of a sophisticated, modern European-style city. The arrival of communism halted all such commercial development, although Baku remained the key supplier of oil for the Soviet Union until after World War II. Aside from Moscow and defeating communism, Baku was of course Hitler’s primary target in the invasion of the Soviet Union to secure a reliable source of oil for the Third Reich. But the Nazis were famously halted at the bloodiest battle in history: the Battle of Stalingrad.

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The reopening of foreign investment after independence and the contemporary boom are essentially conjuring the same demands of decadence as the initial boom. The 19th century buildings are now the abode of every mainstream Western brand imaginable, from high-street to high-end. The drab Soviet-era blocks are gradually being replaced by comfortable apartment buildings. Baku’s promenade on the Caspian Sea brilliantly exhibits the extravagant wealth generated by the boom, with astonishing post-modernist edifices such as the Flame Towers. The structures of a trio of sinuous steel-and-glass literally resemble flames and can be easily viewed from anywhere along the expansive waterfront. At night, the towers are transformed by a dynamic light show, transitioning the facades from yellow and orange flames to trickling water to the Azerbaijani flag. Very impressive – but just don’t look in the opposite direction. The Caspian Sea itself is probably the most disturbing body of water I have ever witnessed, other than lavatories in Chinese train stations. The murky grey water glistens with rainbows, indicative of leaked oil. Indeed, not far from the centre of Baku are fields of 19th century oil drills, a bizarre sight to see. Massive operational oil rigs are not far offshore.

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Despite the rapid modernisation and race to the future, traces of traditional Middle Eastern culture still exist in Baku, particularly the further you are from the centre. Underground and rooftop teahouses with shisha pipes abound throughout the city. A large produce market exists where apparently the presence of a Westerner is usually due to interest in purchasing caviar (apparently a specialty of the Caspian Sea). I was much more content with buying raspberries from a characterfully wrinkly old lady (who duped me into buying 1 kilo!).

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A number of “must-see” tourist attractions are located on the outskirts of Baku’s metropolitan area, so I hopped on a day tour to scoop them up in one go. I was joined notably by several Filipino tourists, surprisingly numerous in Baku (I wouldn’t say Filipino is a nationality I typically encounter on the road). Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos work in the hospitality industry in the Gulf States, high in demand due to their English language skills and generally amiable nature. And I can certainly vouch for how incredibly friendly Filipinos are; Filipino friends Fye and Vince even invited me to the Four Seasons where they were staying to check out the pool, spa and sauna! We departed south from Baku in the early morning, bound south for a rather intriguing natural phenomenon. In a dusty wasteland off the highway, we approached a bizarre mound of gurgling mud volcanoes. The volcanoes ooze greyish mud and “fart” every few minutes. Next to the World Heritage listed petroglyph reserve at Qobustan. Granite boulders on a hilltop overlooking the Caspian Sea feature numerous scratchings of animals and people dating back 12,000 years. After an enormous Azerbaijani buffet for lunch, we travelled to the Suraxani Fire Temple on the Abseron Peninsula, the site of both Zoroastrian and Hindu Shiva devotees (fire is sacred to both). Zoroastrianism is monotheistic and one of oldest surviving religions in the world (Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian), which possibly inspired the creation of the Abrahamic religions. It was the state religion of the Persian empires prior to Islam. Suruxani is located on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian temple, though the modern stone compound was built by Hindu pilgrims in the 18th century. The temple consists of a flaming hearth at the centre. In the early evening, we travelled to Yanar Dag, where a 10m strip of flames on a slope have burned since the 1950s, when a farmer dropped his cigarette butt into a gas leak.

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Azerbaijani cuisine is stymied as the worst in the South Caucasus, but actually I thought it was the best! Azerbaijan is essentially a melting pot of Persian, Turkish, Central Asian, Georgian and Russian culinary traditions, so there are ample dishes to sample. After my exhausting border crossing day, I dined on a three-course meal at the aforementioned teahouse in Sheki. I started with piti, the local specialty. Piti consists of a bowl of lamb broth and a chunk of fat, which is mashed together with torn pieces of bread (similar to Turkish bread) and sprinkled with sumac, the tangy seasoning of choice in Azerbaijan. For main I had lulya kebab, which is skewers of spiced lamb mince (basically the same as lule kebab for aficionados of Armenian cuisine) and coban salad (tomatoes, cucumber, sheep’s cheese, common in the Balkans). For dessert, I tried Sheki halva, unique to this mountainous area. Sheki halva is basically compressed and crushed nuts soaking in honey and topped with crispy vermicelli noodles. Returning to the teahouse the following day, I overloaded my body with sugar with another helping of Sheki halva and a full tea set. In Azerbaijan, a tea set usually includes black tea, a basket of bread and a huge bowl of jam. Azerbaijani jams are magnificent, with whole pieces of fruit (i.e. cherry, plum) submerged in a sweet jelly. In Baku, many of the traditional restaurants are located underground, which was where I typically dined as I worked my way through a list of Azerbaijani dishes to sample. My favourite dish was certainly susha gulasi, a sweet and tangy stew of lamb, pomegranate, plums and chestnuts (Persian flavours). Azerbaijan has a plethora of superb soups, including dograma (cold yoghurt and cucumber soup, super refreshing and just like Bulgarian tarator. Not to be confused with dovga, which would be almost the same if not for the ruinous addition of coriander), kufta bozbash (lamb broth with a mega meatball, potatoes, chickpeas and a dried plum – Central Asian), arishta (small meatballs and noodles in a clear broth) and dushbara (petite dumplings swimming in a clear broth – Russian). Qutab is a dirt cheap street-food, with savoury pancakes cooked on a hotplate and stuffed with spinach or meat (like Turkish gozlëmë). The Azerbaijani variant of dolma, popular throughout the Middle East, is the most common main dish in the country, with a trio of vegetables (capsicum, eggplant and tomato typically) stuffed with a rice and meat mixture (somewhat overrated). Saj is another very popular main and is usually shared (which I did not). A high standing hot plate is ornamentally placed at the centre of a table with slices of potatoes, chunks of lamb, tomatoes and vegetables bubbling in oil. Pilaf (South Asian and Persian influence) is venerated as the national dish for celebrations and comes in many guises, though it generally consists of saffron spiced rice with vegetables, dried fruits and meat on the bone. I order king’s pilaf, which is pilaf wrapped and baked in a thin bread. In my exploration of Baku away from the tourist centre, I visited a bustling all-male Uzbek restaurant for very cheap plov (Uzbek pilaf of spiced and oily long-grain rice, carrot and onion) and aryan (yoghurt drink popular in Turkic countries). Gurul khingal is a guiltily delicious, heart-attack on a plate type of meal, with square shaped noodles smothered in yoghurt and spiced fried mince meat.

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My one month trip through the South Caucasus concluded in Baku, as I flew to Hong Kong for a couple of days of feasting on Cantonese delights before returning to Melbourne. In many ways, the South Caucasus reminded me of the Balkans: a region of small countries liberated after the fall of European communism in the early 1990’s, with severe ethno-religious rivalries and deep scars in the national consciousnesses formed by recent warfare. For a traveller interested in history, politics and cultural complexities, the South Caucasus region is definitely worth visiting. Georgia is certainly the highlight country to travel to with the extraordinary landscapes of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range and its dynamic capital of Tbilisi. I would next recommend Armenia, which oozes history (ancient, medieval and recent) and boasts monasteries scattered throughout the pretty countryside. Unfortunately Azerbaijan is considerably less interesting, although Baku should be included on a South Caucasian itinerary to observe the ambition of this oil rich state.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Azerbaijan photos

Posted by Liamps 19:18 Archived in Azerbaijan

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