Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, is a hotpot of contradictions and contrasts where Europe meets Asia. A place where history goes back to ancient empires while new petro dollars are creating a wave of modern transformation.
Salam, welcome to Azerbaijan. Its capital, Baku, is possibly the area with the biggest contrasts. The UNESCO-listed walled Old Town sits next to dazzling 21st century skyscrapers by the Caspian Sea. Just a bit further are mud volcanoes and eternally burning fires. Four hours further, in the northwest of the country, the scenery changes from arid to lush-green as the flat scapes swap to mountain scapes and epic urban swaps for peaceful mountain villages.
Walking through Baku is like taking a walk through different cities in the world. It’s described as the ‘architectural lovechild of Paris and Dubai’; and that definitely rang true. There were also some areas that felt like Istanbul (men drinking tea in pear-shaped glasses on the roadside, playing games), Beirut (sandstone buildings, overhead creepers growing in little lanes), and Madrid (colour of the buildings, pavements). Probing a bit deeper, going beyond the facades into the courtyards behind them reveals many Soviet traces in the dense apartment blocks that remain.
Income disparity is stark. The wealth of the petrodollars seem be concentrated among a few (swanky villas, super swish restaurants and luxe brands in Baku) while the average income is $300-500/month, with families living in old school soviet-style apartment blocks with self-made extensions. It’s not quite as rosy for everyone.
Azeri Plov or Pilaf – of which there are several types. My personal favourite was the Fisinjan Pilaf – chicken with walnut, onion and pomegranate, served with rice drizzled with butter. Sounds unusual, tastes delicious. Two portions of this and a mangal salad (aubergine), and a pot of tea came to 45AZN (£22) at Dolma Restaurant, Baku.
Kutab (filled flatbread, similar to a quesadilla) – with greens, pumpkin or meat. Great food to grab and eat on the go, especially when made fresh.
Sehrli Tandir for bread baked in what resembled a tandoor oven and tea by the glass for AZN1 (£0.50). The breakfast we had there was very simple – freshly baked bread, kaymak (similar to clotted cream) with honey, along with several cups of tea. It was frankly one of our top meals in the country. Interestingly in Azerbaijan, tea is often served with jam on the side that people nibble on (not necessarily on bread or biscuits, but just plain jam!).
Want to find cheap caviar? Look no further.
During WWI British soldiers found caviar to be cheaper than jam! Today officially packed jars of Caviar are sold around Baku. We went to the Baku Caviar Boutique and a 30g tin of top quality Beluga Caviar costed 122 AZN (£60) while a 50g tin costed 189 AZN (£90). While we were there, a promotional offer on the 50g tin made it more like £70-75 – notably lower than in London. However once you purchase it you need to carefully refrigerate and consume it (ideally) immediately. Given we weren’t going to gobble down 50g of caviar, we left it for another time!
Snippets of Baku’s History
Baku was the realm of the Shirvanshahs, a dynasty in the Islamic world, from around 8th century AD. Centuries later it fell into the orbit of the Persian empire only to be taken by Peter the Great of Russia in 1723. For the next hundred or so years, Baku changed hands between the Persians and Russians before finally being ceded to the Russians.
After two Russian revolutions, Baku went through a very complex and bloody period with brutal massacres occurring between formerly neighbourly Azeri and Armenian communities – a situation that still hasn’t been resolved to-date.
Oil has been scooped from surface diggings around Baku since the 10th century. When commercial extraction was deregulated in 1872, Baku boomed. Entrepreneurs and workers descended en masse from all over the Russian Empire. A new water canal brought potable mountain water from the Russian border. By 1905, Baku was producing around 50% of the world’s petroleum and immensely rich oil barons built luxurious mansions outside the walls of the old city. Investment dried up after WWII and only really restarted to significant levels when foreign oil companies started spending $$$$ re-exploring oil resources from 1994. By 2005 they built the world’s second longest oil pipeline, BTC, to get oil into Ceyhan in Turkey, bypassing Russia and Iran. Almost instantly, money flooded in, and Baku boomed once again.
Baku’s Old Town
Most of the historic sites are concentrated here (which go back to the 11th century, some claim 7th!). Exploring the tiny alleyways is best done on foot, as you stumble past several carpet shops with many former stone caravanserai now converted into restaurants.
Maiden’s Tower – a tapering 29m Stone Tower is a historical Baku icon with rooftop views overlooking Baku Bay and the Old City. The name is translated to Maiden’s Tower in English, leading to plenty of fictitious fairy tales. It was an impressive structure for its era with 5m thick walls at the base and an unusual buttress.
Baku: A mix of different bits of many cities around the world in one place
Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center: a building with no straight lines
Vast. Jaw-dropping. Two words that come to mind. This Zaha Hadid building is a majestic statement of fluid 21st century architecture forming abstract waves and peaks that seem to melt together. Apparently not a single straight line was used in the design, trying to portray the eternal cycle. I tried running up from the ground level onto the roof, but given my grip wasn’t as good as Spider Man, I could only manage to get up about a metre above the ground 😉
Gobustan Mud Volcanoes
One of the weirdest things we’ve seen on the trip, and possibly slightly anti-climatic. The only real way to reach this remote location is to drive. In the vastness of arid plains are this family of strange mud volcanoes. They’re little cone-shaped mounds that gently gurgle, ooze and every minute or so might erupt with thick, grey liquid mud. Just to manage your expectations, it bears no resemblance to Mount Vesuvius erupting. It’s just mud bubbles coming to the surface and exploding with some splatter.
“Mud volcanoes form when fluids / gases that have built up under pressure inside the Earth find an escape path to the surface via a network of cracks. The fluids move up these cracks, carrying mud with them, creating a mud volcano as they escape.”
Yanar Dag – The Eternal Flame
Azerbaijan was once called the Land of Fire. Travellers wandering in this region from the 12th century onwards had tales of magical fires. Ones that burnt continuously without any wood, instead fuelled with gas from underground gas fields. In the 13th century, Marco Polo mentioned numerous natural gas flames spurting spontaneously from the Abseron peninsula.
Azerbaijan’s natural flames can be linked to its enormous gas reserves. When exploitation of these reserves began, most of the natural fires burned out due to a reduction in underground pressure. Yanar Dağ is the only one burning today – a 10 metre-long sliver of heat-blackened hillside.
Some say that the flames have gone unquenched for millennia, others say that the naturally escaping gas was accidentally ignited by a shepherd’s discarded cigarette back in the 1950s.
Sanctuary of Mir Movsum Agha (Mir Movsom Ziyaratgah)
Apparently Agha Seyid Ali Mir Abutalib oglu Mirmovsumzadeh possessed a miraculous ability to bestow calm, belief and spiritual power upon people. Thousands of people recovered from incurable diseases owing to his blessings. To this day, people trust in the power of his spirit and make a pilgrimage to him, bringing alms as a token of their eternal gratitude. The family is linked with the descendents of prophet Muhammad. An incredible Islamic shrine, the intricate dome is Central Asian in style and the interior is a mosaic of polished mirror facets.
The vast majority of the Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim, but people aren’t very religious. It’s a secular country and is often considered the ‘most secularised Muslim-majority nation’. Most of the people we met considered Islam to be a way of life without being strict observers of all of the different aspects. Out of 10 people we met for example, only 1 of them fasted during Ramadan, the rest just embraced the family get-togethers that would happen at the end of Ramadan. People here (or at least the people we met) were very open about inter-marriage between cultures and countries; “As long as the person is a decent human being, that’s all that matters.”
The mountain village of Sheki
After leaving Baku’s arid surroundings, Sheki was a welcome change of scenery. Nestled amid green pillows of forested mountains, it’s supposed to be Azerbaijan’s loveliest town – with old tiled roof houses and a glittering Khan’s Palace. Finding coffee here is rare. When you leave Baku, you enter tea-drinking land. Historic Sheki was originally higher up in the valley around the site now occupied by Kis. That town was ruined by floods in 1716 but rebuilt by rebellious Khan Haci Celebi who set up a defiantly independent khanate there in the 1740s. He built a second fortress at Nukha (today’s Sheki).
(5AZN entry fee, unfortunately no photos allowed inside). Possibly Sheki’s most iconic sight, this ornate 1762 palace building was originally built for Sheki’s ruling family. It contained vivid murals and dazzling light streamed through stained glass windows (a special local variety called shebeke – a particular way of slotting glass and wood together without using any glue). It’s quite modest in size for a royal residence but the intricate decor inside more than made up for it.
Some of the messages contained within the murals inside the Palace:
- Fish are slippery (meaning nothing lasts forever)
- Women and men are equal in battle
- The worst or toughest enemy you will face is the one within
- If a Khan’s wife is beautiful and clever, he will retain his kingdom. If she is just beautiful, he will lose it.
One of the many traditional art forms practised here is shebeke – a special kind of stained glass that you can see throughout both Khan’s palaces. Shebeke is made through the process of tracery. Puzzle pieces made from wood and coloured glass are expertly slotted together into a frame. Amazingly, there is no glue or nails or fasteners of any kind. Some panes of shebeke can use up to 1800 individual pieces. At the right time of day, when the light hits the shebeke at the right angle, it casts a gorgeous mosaic of light onto the wooden floor.
Even if you don’t stay here, it’s well worth a peep inside this historic caravanserai. Twin level arches enclose a sizeable central courtyard. Anyone can wander in through the doors, past the fountain into the central courtyard where you can see three walls of stone arches in all their glory. This is an ancient roadside inn from the Silk Road era where travellers and merchants going along the Silk Road would stop to rest and recover. The top floor was for the big bosses, the ground floor for the workers, and the lower ground floor for the animals.
After originally planning to hike to Xan Yaylağı, we quickly changed plans after our hosts gravely shook their heads at the idea. Apparently getting lost after dark, or worse – encountering a bear, couldn’t be ruled out. So we (or rather I ;)) reluctantly agreed to change plans and instead hike to the Galarsan-Gorarsan Fortress – a less challenging route.
We were surprised to see scenes reminiscent of an Alpine village as we walked through. Strangely enough, we wandered into one of the ‘mountain resorts’ enroute with a splendid Japanese-style garden. We got slightly worried and were on the verge of losing hope after a 2 hour-long stretch where we didn’t encounter a single other human. We reached a deserted and padlocked hotel that looked like time had frozen for a decade. Were we totally lost?
Just minutes later, we saw a gang of people having tea and biscuits outdoors and they beckoned us to join. There were….wait for it: the Meteorological Society of Azerbaijan! They insisted we have a cup of refreshing Azeri tea, and we were only too happy to oblige. Such was their kindness, they even accompanied us to the base of the fortress, warning us we had a very steep climb ahead.
Truer words had not been spoken. We made it to the top, scrambling on our hands and knees, only just. And then the moment of horror hit us: How on earth do we get back down?
The solution? Crawl back on our bottoms like awkward crabs. Wasn’t pretty (and was quite dusty), but it worked.
Sheki Tea House
After a tiring hike, we headed back to Sheki. While walking home we spied a few swirls of steam emerging from a pipe jutting out from a building wall and an open door leading to a basement. We peeped in, saw a few people, said hello to one of the guys we made eye contact with and walked on.
A few moments later, the man came out, and asked us to come back. We exchanged a glance. Should we go down into the basement?
Why not? I thought. We headed down into a local, rustic, underground teashop. I couldn’t wait for my 9th cup of tea for the day.
There were a few chaps having a bit of a chatter in the corner, and a group of 8 young guys, smoking, drinking tea and playing a game (dominoes?). It wasn’t before long that we became friends with the whole group. We were overwhelmed by their generosity. They gave us chocolates, biscuits, homemade compote and the owner of the tea shop refused to let us pay for the tea. A 10 minute pitstop became 1.5 hours. We even learnt about bespoke water filters that one of the guys was selling door to door. The best experiences are often unplanned and unexpected 🙂
The village of Kiş
A small quaint village, known for its scenic church, about a 15 minute marshrutka (minivan) ride from Sheki town. We enjoyed exploring for a few hours and getting lost in the little side streets.
Pretty straightforward with a fee of US$26 for UK citizens. I applied online and received confirmation within a week.
How to get from the Airport to Baku
Bus H1 takes 45 mins from the airport to the city train station (28May Metro), and runs approx. every 30 mins or so, aside from the wee hours of the night. A single journey was 1.50AZN, and to use the bus, we had to buy the BakuKart (the city’s public transport card) from a ticket machine in the airport, which costed about 2AZN. This can be used on the airport bus, other buses and the Baku Metro which has two lines and where a single ticket is 0.30AZN. IMPORTANT – the machine at the airport does NOT provide change for any cash bills you insert. So DON’T put in a 100AZN note (£50) like we did by accident because it will be a whole world of pain, time, effort and bureaucracy to try and get a refund!
How we visited the Mosque / Mud Volcanoes / Yanar Dag around Baku
In theory, there are buses you can take to Yanar Dag and the Mosque, but it would have meant going to and from Baku (as all connections begin here) and taken a lot of time. The Mud Volcanoes, as far as we read, were inaccessible via public transport. Given we only had half a day to do all of these, we found a driver online. It costed $100 for 2 people, and involved picking us up from Baku, visiting all three sites, and dropping us off at the Baku Bus Station.
How to get from Baku to Sheki
Buses to/from Baku’s Main Bus Terminal run several times daily and take about 7 hours. The overnight train wasn’t running when we visited in April 2023. There’s also the minibus (marshrutka) which leaves from the same place in Baku. They take about an hour less compared to the bus, and are a bit more crowded. Tickets cost 11AZN (£5.50) per person and can be purchased at the cash desk inside the bus terminal (located on level 3). The road from Baku to Sheki is quite steep, windy and bumpy in parts, so bring some motion sickness medication if you need it. Bear in mind that Baku Bus Terminal is a maze. Leave enough time to locate the ticket counter and the buses. Toilets here, which you need to pay 0.20AZN for, are sketchy (and that’s putting it mildly). Be aware.