Azerbaijan – a visitor’s experience

 

After visiting the fascinating country of Azerbaijan, as well as its slightly obscure enclave Nakhchivan, traveller Barnaby Evans wrote this excellent account of his trip there. With a great introduction to Azeri history, those of you considering a trip to the Caucasus will find this well worth a read. Grab yourselves a coffee......

 

Background

My reason for visiting Azerbaijan was primarily to fill a hole in a map.  I’ve been to Armenia, Georgia, Iran & Turkey and so felt it was about time I finally went.  I had put off going to Azerbaijan as I didn’t think there was much more to the country than Baku and given that getting a visa used not to be straightforward it always got pushed further down the list.

But then I came across the Native Eye website and, having read their itinerary, realised there was more to see than just the capital city, and the opportunity to visit Nakhchivan as well, swung it for me.

Getting an e-visa is pretty straightforward these days – and as Native Eye organised mine it was even easier! I did discover that staying more than 10-days appears to be an issue.  You have to register with some authority – not sure what or who as it was never explained but a couple of hotels were anxious about whether or not I had overstayed the magic 10-days and the Hotel Grand in Nakhchivan even commandeered my e-visa to check with whoever that I was ok to stay without registering.  All very odd given that the e-visa is valid for 30-days.  Most people would regard 30-days as being a longer period than 10-days.  A hangover from the past, perhaps….

I flew with Azerbaijan Airways, booking something called “Comfort Club” at a cost of £980 return.  I assumed this was a type of “premium economy” and that their “VIP Club” was their equivalent of business class.   It did turn out to be business class, however – not quite as grand as some airlines but way better than BA’s feeble efforts in short & medium haul.  VIP Club is their first class but without the velvet ropes, strobe lights, bouncers and hostesses in short dresses.....

I was looking forward to travelling with Azerbaijan Airlines as it meant flying on a Boeing 787 – something I hadn’t done.  Boeing has dubbed the 787 as the “Dreamliner” – ushering in a new era of flying with bigger windows; a quieter cabin and better climate control.  It is a bit quieter but that’s about it.  In “Comfort Club” there is plenty of space – and while the seats don’t fold-flat there is masses of leg room.  The food was good – although service on the flight out was a bit random – it was better on the way back.  Both flights landed early – not always a bonus at Heathrow as you can be left sitting on the apron waiting for a gate to free-up – but were in luck this time.  I was impressed with Azerbaijan Airlines – the international flights were good & the internal flights to Nakhchivan & back were also fine on clean A320’s.

Azerbaijan doesn’t generally get good press in the UK – damned for human rights abuses and nepotism.  So I did wonder if I would find a place full of miserable, oppressed people living in squalor.

But of course I didn’t.

History

Azerbaijan has an interesting, if complicated, history and has suffered the usual Russian abuses and meddling in common with all countries of the former Soviet Union.  Where Azerbaijan differs is that the Russians used the Armenians to assist in inflicting massacres and annexations.  Imperial Russia also used Azerbaijan territories as a buffer zone between themselves and Persia and Turkey.  These actions were catalysts for later – and current – problems.

From the 6th century BC Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism developing as the predominant religion. The area emerged around the 4th century BC as the state of Caucasian Albania (no link to the present-day Balkan republic). Around AD 325 Albanians adopted Christianity, building many churches, the ruins of some still remain. The history of the Caucasian Albanians is of great political importance to modern-day Azeris as it proves that they weren’t Armenian. This, local historians consider, is important in asserting Azerbaijan’s moral rights to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Islam became the major religion following the Arab advance into Caucasian Albania in the 7th century followed by later waves of Oğuz and Seljuk Turks. Pockets of original Caucasian Christians lived on in the hills.  In the 13th century Azerbaijan was invaded and destroyed by the Mongols and Timur (Tamerlane).  Earthquakes in the 17th and 19th centuries caused severe damage and the country is still subject to frequent seismic activity.

Azerbaijan’s location on the Silk Routes enabled a growing caravan trade and a period of prosperity. In 1501 Persia invaded and converted the people to Shia Islam.  Azerbaijan thereafter suffered in battles between Persia and the Ottoman Empires. As Persian power declined in the early 18th century, a collection of autonomous Muslim khanates emerged across Azerbaijan. However, Persia rebounded and several of these khanates united, hoping to preserve their independence. They asked Russia for assistance but got more than they bargained for. The Russian Empire swiftly annexed the northern khanates. Persia’s bungled attempts to grab them back ended with the humiliating Gulistan Treaty (1813) in which it lost Şirvan, Karabakh and all navigational rights to the Caspian. A second war was even worse for the Persians, who were forced to additionally sign away the former khanates of Naxçıvan, Talysh and Yerevan in the 1828 treaty of Turkmenchay.

To consolidate their rule over their new Persian conquests the Russians encouraged immigration of Christians from Russia, Germany and Armenia. This indirectly sowed the seeds of ethnic conflicts that broke out in 1905, 1918, 1989 and 1992.

In the 1870s, new uses for petroleum suddenly turned little Baku into a boomtown and, amazingly, by 1905 it was supplying half the world’s oil. Immense wealth was created and a cultural renaissance bloomed. But appalling conditions for oil workers created a new, revolutionary underclass, exploited by a young Stalin. The result was a decade of revolutionary chaos that resulted in several horrific inter-ethnic clashes.

The Russian revolution of 1917 saw the end of Imperial Russia and with WWI still undecided, Azerbaijan collapsed into internal conflict. Gəncə democrats declared Azerbaijan the Muslim world’s first ‘democracy’ in 1918, but Baku remained under the control of socialist revolutionaries until they were driven out with the help of the Turkish army. The Turks withdrew, leaving the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic independent. It was a forward-thinking secular entity of which Azeris remain intensely proud. However, the republic lasted barely two years. The Bolshevik Red Army invaded in 1920, creating the short lived Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 (along with Georgia and Armenia) as a prelude to the USSR. A series of border changes during this era progressively diminished Azerbaijan’s borders in favour of Armenia, and eventually left Naxçivan entirely cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan.

The passionate insistence of Azerbaijan’s ‘father of communism’, Nəriman Nərimanov, kept Nagorno-Karabakh within the nation, but for his pains Nərimanov was poisoned (on Stalin’s orders) in 1925. His replacement, Mir Jafar Bağirov, unquestioningly oversaw Stalin’s brutal purges, in which over 100,000 Azeris were shot or sent to concentration camps, never to return. Following the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ Bağirov was himself arrested and shot.

Perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s was also a time of increasing tension with Armenia. Tit-for-tat ethnic squabbles between Armenians and Azeris over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh bubbled over into virtual ethnic cleansing, as minorities in both republics fled escalating violence. On 20 January 1990, the Red Army made a crassly heavy-handed intervention in Baku, killing dozens of civilians and turning public opinion squarely against Russia. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The massacre of Azeri civilians by Armenian forces at Xocalı on 26 February 1992 outraged Azerbaijan. Public opinion turned against the dithering post-independence president, Ayaz Mütəllibov, who was ousted and replaced in June 1992 by Әbülfəz Elçibəy. He in turn fled a year later in the face of an internal military rebellion. This was come-back time for Parliamentary Chairman Heydar Әliyev, who had been Azerbaijan’s communist party chairman in the 1970s and a Politburo member in the 1980s. Shoehorned into the presidency, Әliyev stabilised the fractious country and signed a cease-fire agreement with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in May 1994. Border clashes continue – war threatening to flare up again as recently as April 2016.

Around 13% of Azerbaijan’s territory remains under Armenian occupation, with some 800,000 Azeris left homeless or displaced.  The population of Azerbaijan is now just under 10-million – with around 15-million Azeris living in Iran.

Although Heydar Әliyev died in 2003, there are images of him everywhere in the country and everywhere there are buildings and monuments named after him – the international airport, for instance.

Baku

We landed at Baku’s swish new international terminal at Heydar Əliyev Airport after a five and a half-hour overnight flight from London.  There was no idiotic landing card to fill out – hurrah - gold star for Azerbaijan!  Clearing immigration was reasonably quick & painless despite the immigration officer preferring to chat to his colleague rather than deal with me.  There was a wait for bags to arrive – it seemed like ages but was probably only about thirty minutes.  Once I got my bag, I cleared customs & went out to meet my guide.

Kamilla was waiting for me with Ayaz, the driver.  We walked out into warm sunshine and across the car park to a Mercedes Vito.  I was the only Native Eye on the flight.  Our group turned out to be just four people.  An American lady had already arrived in Baku – with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.  An English couple were due to arrive later on a Ukraine Airlines flight via Kiev.  The reason for these seemingly random routings was that these three were going on to Georgia and then Armenia.  This meant flying in to Baku and out from Yerevan.  Well, there’s a puzzle.  How was Julie, the American, going to fly back?  Not surprisingly, given the enmity between the two countries, Turkish Airlines do not fly to Yerevan.  It’s a tricky routing – there appear to be three options to and from the UK with a single airline: Aeroflot, Qatar and Ukraine – bearing in mind that you cannot get from Armenia to Azerbaijan – not even if you cross the Styx......

The airport is about 20km from Baku city centre and there is a four-lane highway for speedy access.  Now – I’ve not seen this before: lanes 1 and 2 are separated from lanes 3 and 4 by double white lines between lanes 2 and 3.  There are variable speed limits, too.  In lanes 3 and 4 the speed limit was 120kmh; in lane 2 it was 80kmh and in lane 1 it was 60kmh.  The speed limits vary with traffic conditions.  Every so often the solid white line is broken-up with dotted lines enabling drivers to move from lane 2 to lane 3 and then dotted white lines enabling drivers to move across from lane 3 to lane 2.  It clearly works here – a miracle given that lane discipline is a seemingly alien concept in Azerbaijan.  Can you imagine the UK having a system like that?

Thought not.....

It is always interesting driving into a city for the first time.  We went past various stadia, a sort of Olympic village and several fancy new tower blocks.  It took about 35 minutes to get to the Winter Park Hotel – so called as it faces the Winter Park – apparently the biggest park in Baku.  Calling it a park is stretching the definition somewhat – although if you are used to Soviet planning and their interpretation of what a park is.....

I had booked an early check-in – just as well as it was about 08.00 and I’d hardly slept on the plane.  Kamilla helpfully came into the hotel with me and ensured I got checked-in.  I was given a room on the 6th floor overlooking the city and could glimpse the Caspian Sea.  The hotel restaurant is on the 15th floor and from it you get a much better view of the city and the sea.  You can even see the Flame Towers.  The breakfast buffet is pretty good – there’s also a cook on hand to make omelettes or fry eggs for you.  The buffet offered fresh herbs – very Iranian: and candied fruits – very Azerbaijani.  Seriously: candied slices of oranges, lemons, kiwi fruit and melons.  One of your five-a-day? I don’t think so – but Azerbaijanis love their sugar.  Diabetes is a big problem in Azerbaijan – which is alarming but not surprising given their diet.  It’s a bit odd, though, as they also eat a lot of salads – maybe not enough.....

I decided to go walkabout and got a map of the city from the receptionist, who sweetly marked the location of the hotel on the map for me.  The location of the Winter Park Hotel was actually printed on the map but she circled it in biro just to make sure I couldn’t miss it.  This was the lady that, having checked me in, had seen my passport and came to the not unreasonable conclusion that I needed all the help I could get…..

Baku is a nice, easy city to wander around – you can’t get lost.  A lot of the centre is pedestrianised making it even easier to wander and gawp.  This is proper-pedestrianised, by the way, not the Italian equivalent.  The city was teeming with the good folk of Baku out shopping and promenading.  I wandered down to the sea front and along the promenade – just taking in the sights and getting my bearings.

Signs on the promenade advertised the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games being held in the city from May 12th to 22nd May with 34 countries taking part including, bizarrely, Guyana and Suriname.  Bizarre as neither of them is a Muslim country – although they do have Muslims, of course.  Anyway, the host nation was second with 162 medals behind Turkey with 195 medals.  Baku will be hosting the Formula One Grand Prix from 23rd to the 25th June.  The race is held on city streets.  The city council is busy erecting concrete barriers delineating the route and putting up banks of seats for the spectators.  It is already causing chaos but spare a thought for the poor citizens of Baku.  Come the week of the race the streets incorporated into, and around, the circuit are closed.

Now that’s chaos.

I suspect that, much like hosting the heavily trade-marked Olympic Games™, Baku will lose money from hosting the race but it puts Baku on the map and brings the city to the world’s attention - by raising its profile as a modern, progressive city.  In some ways Baku seems to be emulating Dubai by hosting all sorts of events (including the World Liquorice All-Sorts eating contest) thereby making it a destination and by building fancy glass sky scrapers and equally fancy civic structures like the stunning Cultural Centre designed by the equally amazing architect Zaha Hadid – famous everywhere except her adopted country (the UK).

Baku has a mix of wide boulevards and narrow side streets and an equally fine mix of buildings giving it a Parisian feel – although the architects were Polish rather than French.  Alongside these are Imperial Russian-influenced designs and Soviet-era mausoleums.  The old city, hiding behind the 12th century city walls, is of more traditional Islamic architecture with mosques, caravanserai, madrasah, hamams and the 15th century palace of the Shirvanshas. The Maiden’s Tower is also in the old city.  The current structure dates from the 12th century but is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier structure – possibly dating from the 8th century BC or even the 4th century AD – no one seems to know for sure as there are no historical records.  See: http://www.visions.az/en/news/83/9a564bc4/

One thing is certain; the Maiden’s Tower was on the shore of the Caspian Sea until the 19th century – as the sea level receded it is now about 200m from it.  The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water on Earth.  It is fed by 130 rivers – of which the Volga is the biggest.  The Caspian started to shrink in the 1950’s – largely due to damming of the Volga but water levels have since started to rise - see: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/112161/fate-of-the-caspian-sea

I didn’t visit any of the museums or go in the Maiden’s Tower as I assumed we’d do that in the guided city tour.

I did a lot of walking and felt comfortable and safe exploring the city.  I sat outside in the shade at one of the many restaurants in the city and ordered plov and a beer.  The beer was Xirdalan, a 4.8%abv pilsner brewed in Khirdalan about 10km from Baku.  The brewery is now owned by Carlsberg and is, as you’d expect from Carlsberg, pretty good.  The plov, on the other hand, was pretty ordinary, unfortunately.

Kamilla had suggested a 10am start – which was fine by me.  She arrived a bit early, did the introductions and we set off to explore the city.  We started with the old city, wandering around visiting the mosque, a couple of caravanserai, the Shirvanshas Palace and so on.

After lunch we went out to the Absheron Peninsula to visit the temple of fire worshippers at Ateshgah.  It started off as a Zoroastrian temple but was taken over by a slightly deranged sect who seemed to believe that self-harming and self-mutilation would purify them and bring them closer to God.  Well, that’s one way of doing it.  Painful though and when I say slightly deranged…

After that we went to Mehemmedi to see Yanar Dag - the “flaming mountain”……

Well, it isn’t a mountain – it’s a hill - but it is fascinating.  Natural gas seeps through the layers of sandstone and the flames are estimated to have been burning for 7,000 years.  This is the last one as the others have disappeared following development of oil fields and commercial natural gas extraction.

Land of Fire – so now you know.

After that we went back to Baku and the hotel.

On arriving back at the hotel, Julie (the American) was in need of a drink – so we went to the London Pub on Həzi Aslanov Street.  We agreed that we’d meet Anthony & Juliette (the English couple) back at the hotel and go for dinner at Şirvanşah Musey - a restaurant recommended by Kamilla.  Tucked away in a back street a ten minute walk from our hotel, it used to be a 19th century bath house but is now a sort of ethnographic museum with the rooms having different themes of handicrafts, artworks and décor – an amazing place.  The food was ok – one of those places you go to see and experience.

Next morning we drove out to Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site to see the petroglyphs - a mix of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic – a beautiful setting with fascinating rock formations.  We also visited the museum there – which would have been terrific had it not been full of school children and had the architects not designed it as an echo chamber…..

After that we went to see the weird and wonderful mud volcanoes – of which there are about 400 in this one place.  It was fascinating to see the mud bubbling away.  Gas seeps through the mix of oil, water and soil – expecting it to be hot I was surprised to discover it was quite cold….

After a late lunch we drove back to Baku to visit the carpet museum.  It was full of carpets and as dull as it sounds.  After that we went to the Maiden’s Tower – which was open – and climbed up for a grand view of Baku.

Then we went to the Cultural Centre to admire and photograph Zaha Hadid’s wonderful, sweeping building.  A wedding was in progress there – which was quite sweet: lots of glamorous guests and fancy white cars including a pair of matching Panameras.

So then we went off to see the memorial to the victims of the clumsy and unnecessary Russian intervention in Baku during January, 1990.  From the memorial you can get a panoramic view of Baku.  The entrance to the memorial is opposite the Flame Towers, three tower blocks shaped to look like flames.  One of the towers is the Fairmont Hotel; another is an office block and the third is apartments….

Quba

Next day, May 9th, we left Baku to head off to Quba (or Guba as q & g seem to be interchangeable).  Actually, the spelling of things, places and names seems to be pretty flexible in Azerbaijan.  This may be a result of them having the Cyrillic alphabet imposed on them in the 1930’s until the switch to the Latin alphabet on August 1st, 2001.  Azerbaijani is a Turkic language and similar to Turkish.

Quba is about 100 miles from Baku and it takes roughly two hours to get there.  After about an hour we stopped at a motorway service station for a toilet break and also to look at Bešbarmaq Dag – an amazing rock formation that rises up from an escarpment to a height of 520m.  There is a mosque on the ridge – just about visible from the road – as the place is a site of pilgrimage.  A legend tells of a general in Alexander the Great’s army making it to the summit and discovering a pool of water.  It was believed that anyone drinking this water would attain everlasting life – however the general was killed descending Bešbarmaq Dag….

Then onto Quba itself.

May 9th is a public holiday in Azerbaijan commemorating the end of World War 2 – oddly for a public holiday it doesn’t mean that anyone gets the day off.  I believe that schools are closed for the day, though, which explains why we saw a big gathering of people outside the city hall.  Groups of children in different costumes were waiting to perform their dances or routines, watched by proud parents and townsfolk watching the spectacle.  This event was heavily policed – which seemed a bit extreme.  According to Kamilla, the day has become a sort of flower festival – and everyone we saw at the event was holding a red carnation (real or plastic).  Again, according to Kamilla the carnation is the national flower of Azerbaijan – but I can find no reference to that on Google….

Anyway, we stopped to have a look – albeit that what I assumed would be a quick stop to have a look, take a few pictures and depart turned into an hour-long stop.  I was back in the minibus reading after ten minutes….

We eventually left whatever it was and went to Qirmizi Qəsəbə - which is a Jewish village just across the Qudialçay (the Qudial river – çay means both “river” and “tea”) from the main city.  The people here speak a language called Juhuro – and have only recently started learning Hebrew.  We visited the synagogue.  After that we drove back into Quba and visited a carpet weaving factory, which was actually quite interesting.  For example, there were six women sitting next to each other working on one very big carpet.  Fortunately it was lunch-time for them – so we couldn’t stay long.

After that we went to the Quba 1918 Genocide Memorial – an odd triangular building and pretty grim inside.  It is a memorial to the massacres of April to June 1918, in which 167 villages in the Quba region were destroyed by Armenian and Bolshevik forces, indiscriminately killing almost 17,000 men, women & children.  We had tried visiting it earlier but the dozen or so officials there said it was closed until 3pm for the holiday – which seemed odd.  Anyway, on returning there was only one official there but it was open and we could go in.

So: it requires a dozen officials when it’s closed but only one when it’s open….

The museum itself is indeed grim but well laid-out and graphically informative. On leaving the museum we went to a corner of the site where a mass grave had been found in 2007.  The grave is now covered by a sort of tent and on entering we were greeted by the sight of exposed bones and skulls.  Not for the squeamish.  Astonishingly the other three tourists took lots of photos…..

After the museum we followed the valley of the Qudialçay up to Xinaliq – a town 2500m up in the hills near the Russian border.  The scenery was stunning as we drove up through the valley and through canyons – finally reaching the isolated village.  The people here are Khinalugs and speak their own language.  They are Sunni Muslims – Azerbaijan is Shia – but retain some of their pagan traditions about fire and rain…..

Up here in the mountains there are bears and wolves – not that we saw or heard any – but we did see raptors, which Kamilla said were eagles – they could have been Short Toed Eagles – whatever they were it confirmed that Azerbaijan is a great country for bird watchers with its diverse landscapes, terrains and weather patterns…

 

Shamakha (Şamaxi) and Qabala

To get from Quba to Şamaxi meant firstly driving back to Baku and then out again – a journey of around seven hours - so a long day on the road lay ahead.  Our first stop was at the motorway service station on the opposite carriageway from the one we stopped at on the way to Quba.

Şamaxi is an historic city – a regional capital and major centre of trade and key city of the ruling Shirvanshahs from the 7th to the 16th centuries. The city was annexed by the Russians in the 19th century. Nearing the city we stopped off in the village of Maraza to see the tomb of Diri Baba, built in 1402.  In Şamaxi we stopped to visit the huge Juma Mosque – rebuilt in 2013 but there has been a mosque on this site since around 740AD.  The current mosque can accommodate 1,500 worshippers but apparently only about 50 actually regularly attend.

We then drove out of town and up to the old cemetery that features seven 18th century domed-mausoleums that once contained the tombs of Khan Mustafa and other important families.

After that we drove through the valley of Girdimançay (Girdiman river) up to the village of Lahic.  The valley and canyons are stunning – very beautiful scenery and amazing rock formations – a dream for geologists.  The village of Lahic itself is quite sweet and relies heavily on tourists – so there are lots of trinket shops.

One of the joys of driving around Azerbaijan is to see the surprising number of old Russian cars, vans, trucks and tractors.  Some are just hulks rusting quietly by the road side – while others are still working.  I saw a Zaporozhets that was driving around Sheki.  Ayaz saw it too, so I wasn’t imagining it.  Unless he was just humouring me…..

We left Lahic and drove 76km to Qabala (Gabala) for an overnight stop at the plush Qafkaz Karvansaray.  Unfortunately the weather had turned and we were anointed with holy rain by the bucketful.  As we’d been driving for most of the day I wanted to wander around the town, get some fresh air and have a look around.  I got drenched but it was nice to wander around and I took pictures of Lada, Volga and even a Moskvitch Aleko – always a treat as they are quite rare these days.  The Aleko, launched in 1988, looks virtually identical to the Simca 1307 / Chrysler Alpine but apparently they are not connected and it was just plagiarism on the part of the Russians.

Anyway, the Qafkaz Karvansaray was very comfortable with big rooms, free wifi and a good restaurant.  Breakfast was very good, too.

 

Sheki (Shaki or Şəki)

On the road to Sheki we stopped at the roadside to buy some tandyr – a traditional bread baked in an open tandyr oven – and to try some local cheese.  The women baking the bread are refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.  There is a large community of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh living in a kind of limbo in Azerbaijan.

In Sheki we visited the beautiful 18th century Summer Palace – lovingly restored but you can’t take photos of the interior, unfortunately.  In the courtyard are two magnificent Plane Trees - planted in 1530 according to the signs but suspect that’s just wishful thinking.  The oldest recorded Plane tree in England was planted in Ely in 1680 – so it seems more likely that these trees were planted in the 18th century when the palace was built.

Near the Summer Palace is an old church that now houses a museum – a higgledy-piggledy collection of artefacts from life in Sheki.  Nearby is the old prison, built in the 19th century by the Russians – today it houses a collection of trinket shops.  We did try some halva there, though – which was very sweet, obviously.  There is a proverb in Azerbaijan: “however much you say halva, it won’t make your mouth sweet.”  - the same would be true no matter how much you eat…..

We then visited a shebeke (stained-glass) workshop – which was quite interesting – after which we wandered down to the old caravanserai, which is now a hotel and restaurant.  Kamilla told us that the hotel wasn’t very good – but the restaurant was and I had piti – which is a lamb stew with chickpeas and is popular across Azerbaijan - especially in Sheki.  It was very nice but there’s an arcane tradition around serving it.  Traditionally, piti is cooked in individual earthenware pots and tipped out of the pot to be eaten. First the juice from the stew is poured over pieces of old bread and they are eaten together with some raw onion and sumac. The meat and chickpeas are then tipped onto the plate, mashed together with sumac (a red spice) and raw onion.

Then we went to the nearby village of Kish (Kiş) where there is the 1st century church, founded by St Elishe – while it has been sympathetically restored it is still a remarkable building as the stone blocks of the main body of the church are original.  And big.  How on earth did whoever built this church get the blocks here and then how did they get them into place.  The church has been restored and is maintained by a joint project between the Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise and the architecture university in Baku.

After that we went to the old mosque and then back to the hotel to check-in and have the rest of the day free.

We went to a local restaurant in town that Kamilla had recommended for dinner.  Eating out in Azerbaijan is pretty cheap with most meals costing between 7 and 15 manat (a manat being worth around 45p at the time of writing) and a 500ml local beer costs between 3 and 4.50 manat depending on where you are.  In the ten days I was in Azerbaijan I spent around $280 on food, beers & museum entrance fees (see later).

 

To The Border And Back

We left Şeki to drive to Balakan and the border crossing into Georgia – where I said goodbye to the three going on into Georgia.  Ayaz left me sitting by the road on the Azerbaijan side of the border as he and Kamilla took the others across.  After about half an hour they were back and we set off on the 7-hour drive to Baku.

At Şeki we picked-up Kamilla’s mother and sister as they had been staying there – so we had quite a jolly time on the drive back.  We stopped off for lunch near where we’d previously bought the tandyr – drinking thyme-infused çay and eating goyarti gutabi – a pancake like mix that can be filled with meat – or in this case herbs – plus tandyr and cheese.

One of the joys of travelling with people from the former Soviet Union – and I found it in Iran, too – is that you stop frequently to buy food – snacks, sweets, fruit, nuts – whatever.  We even stopped so that Ayaz could buy everyone an ice-cream.

You never go hungry….

Back in Baku and back at the Winter Park Hotel – no, I’ve not been here more than ten days – and sadly having to say goodbye to the lovely Kamilla and Ayaz – a great driver and a really nice guy who spoke a lot more English than he let on.

 

Nakhchivan

After I had checked-in and dumped my bags I went round the corner (it’s a bit further than that) to the London Pub.  The waitress bizarrely decided I needed teaching how to say “thank-you” in Russian and Azerbaijani.  It was very sweet of her – if baffling.  She was very pretty – so I paid strict attention.  After a couple of beers and some food I left speaking to her in fluent Russian and giving her a reasonable tip (the bill was 20 manat and I gave her 10 manat) – she seemed quite happy, clearly deciding that giving foreign customers impromptu language lessons was a good idea…

I was due to be picked-up at 04.30 for my flight to Nakhchivan – but on getting back to my hotel room (12th floor this time) I found a note advising me that the pick-up time was changed to 05.30….

The drive out to the airport only took about 25-minutes, unsurprisingly, and so I was a bit too early to check-in.  Once I had checked-in I then had to wait for security to open.  So I went & got a coffee, came back and cleared security, which had opened.

We were flying on an A320 yet my seat was 42C – good grief, even British Airways can’t cram that many rows into an A320….

It turned out the first row was numbered 14.  Of course it was….

The flight was full and included a group of around 20 ladies who couldn’t seat themselves to save their lives.  They stood around – occasionally one would sit down and then get up again deciding she was in the wrong seat – comical in a way and they were clearly having a great time, laughing and joking.  By some miracle we took off on time….

The flight was only 70 minutes- so once underway it was painless but disembarking, given that I was in the last row, was painful….

I got my bag and went out to find my guide.  The guide was waiting for me and took me to the hotel where I had to surrender my passport and e-visa.  They were convinced I had been in Azerbaijan for more than ten days and so they had to register me.

Then we set off to explore the city of Nakhchivan – which reminded me of Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr.  The city was quiet – few people, wide streets, little traffic.  It was a Sunday morning but even so.  It never did get very busy.

We visited the beautiful Momina Khatun Mausoleum, then went to the Khan’s Palace – which was built in 1787, about the same time as the Summer Palace in Şeki – but whereas the Summer Palace has been sympathetically restored this palace looks like a new building.  After that we went to the Nakhchivan Fortress, which dates from the 7th century but has again been restored to the point where it looks new.  Adjacent to the Fortress is Noah’s Tomb – built as long ago as 2013 – although there had been a tomb there before, apparently.  Nakhchivan translates as “the land of Noah” and from the walls of the Fortress you can see Ĭlan Dag – the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest…

We had çay at the çay evi in the Fortress and then went to see the Yusif Ibn Kuseyir Tomb that dates from 1162 and which seems to have at least been restored sensibly.  I didn’t have to endure the carpet museum that was on my itinerary – instead we went for lunch, which was a much better idea.

After lunch we drove out to the salt mine at Duzdagh – which was quite interesting – amusingly the ladies from the Baku flight were there.  Apparently they’d come to Nakhchivan on a pilgrimage to the Ashabul Kahfi caves - a holy site – where the seven sleepers of Ephesus hid for 300 years to escape persecution…..

After the salt mine we went to the Garabaghlar Mausoleum (Jahan Kudi Khatun) built during the reign of Abu Said Bahadur Khan (1319 - 1335) - now undergoing restoration and rebuilding.  It would be nice to come back and see it once the restoration has been completed.

Then back to the city and the State History Museum, which was interesting but deserted.  We were the only visitors.  After that we went to the 18th century Ismail Khan hamam – which has been restored and is now a çay evi.  So we had some tea before going back to the hotel.  My guide kindly offered to take me out to dinner but I preferred to be by myself and spend some time walking about the city.

Next day we headed out to the Gulistan Monument adjacent to the Iranian border.  The drive out is wonderful – the mountains on the Iranian side and the rock formations on the Nakhchivan side are lovely.  After the monument we drove to see a sweet little 18th century bridge over the Əlincaçay – the route being part of the old Silk Road from Tehran to Istanbul.

Then we drove up into the hills to the Dari Dag springs – an interesting combination of arsenic and many other minerals including sulphur.  I didn’t drink the water despite the “healthful properties” – actually, drinking isn’t recommended – but bathing in the water is…..

Then we went to Ordubad and visited the hamam, which is now a museum and across the road from the old mosque – which is unusual in having symbols of two lions painted on it.

We were supposed to visit the Alinja Fortress – which is either 12th century or 8th century depending on which article you read.  Anyway, this impressive fortress was restored in 2014 – my guide said we’d have to climb over 2,000 steps to get to it – which seems unlikely as there is a road leading up to it.  I’ll never know, though.

Because it was raining heavily by this time we didn’t climb the six hundred steps up to the Ashabul Kahfi caves – the holy site of the seven sleepers of Ephesus that the ladies had come to visit – not sure half of them could have made it up the six hundred steps, though…..

So we drove back through the rain to the city and visited the Jame Mosque and then off to the airport to catch my flight to Baku.

Although a flying visit to Nakhchivan, I found it very interesting.  The scenery is stunning – a great place for geologists and bird watchers alike.  There’s a lot of history to see and learn about, too – even if a lot of the monuments have been over-zealously restored.   According to my guide the beer in Nakchivan is brewed in the city but I can find no reference to it.  The hotel did serve me beer - but goodness knows where they kept it.  There weren’t any fonts on the bar nor were there any bottles – the guy had to leave the hotel to go and get it.

 

Baku

The flight back to Baku was much calmer than the flight out – but just as full.  The only way to get from Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan is to fly.  Flights are subsidised by the government for Azeris.

As we drew back from the stand I could see a rainbow – appropriate as we were in the land of Noah…

The driver was there to meet me in Baku and we were back at the Winter Park Hotel just after 10pm.  Check-in was easy other than assuring the guy on reception that I hadn’t been in Azerbaijan for more than ten days…

Beer & food and I was on my way to the land of nod….

Next morning I was up ready to see a bit more of Baku.  I was due to be picked-up at 14.30 – so I had several hours in which to see the History Museum – very good – and visit the Museum Centre and go specifically to the Museum of Independence.  The Museum Centre is a grand Soviet-era building with fine faux-columns.  It sits in a little island near the waterfront surrounded by streets.  The preparations for the Grand Prix – barriers and seats – further isolated it so that there was only one access point.  It is a curious building – it houses, among other things, three separate museums that you have to pay for – er, separately…

Anyway, I enjoyed my last morning in Baku – it really is a very nice city…

The drive to the airport was straightforward, as was check-in and then security and passport control.  I went to the business class lounge and relaxed until my flight was called.

A comfortable flight back in another 787, named Ordubad, better service than on the way out – good food, nice wine….

A slightly early arrival at Heathrow, taxi arriving as my bag arrived on the carousel and back in Maidenhead just after 21.30.

And so another adventure ends…………..

 

Summary

Azerbaijan is a much more interesting and diverse country than I was expecting.  The people are friendly and welcoming.  Baku is a terrific city to wander around – for a long weekend Baku beats Dubai hands-down every time.  Note that Baku can get a bit breezy with fresh winds zipping in off the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan Airlines might not be as good as Emirates but they are much better than British Airways.

I was worried that I wouldn’t see “everything” in Baku – but as it turned out I saw pretty much everything I wanted to except the Cultural Centre  – an extra guided day in the city wouldn’t have gone amiss but it wasn’t a big issue – and leaving a country wanting to come back and see more isn’t such a bad thing….

Azerbaijan is good value – food and drink being relatively inexpensive – and you can eat well with lots of fruit and salads and drink bottled-water and thyme-infused çay…

The weather in May is good – warm and sunny – not too hot.  Anyone thinking of going should avoid July & August where the temperatures exceed 40 degrees…

It’s a great place for birders, geologists and casual tourists alike – go and you’ll come back happy.

I enjoyed the itinerary, the timings worked out pretty well – minor gripes aside the hotels were fine and the food good.  The Winter Park Hotel in Baku is excellent – smart, new – great rooms with big windows of which one will open so you can get fresh air.  It is in an excellent location.  The hotel staff are friendly, too.

I was lucky with Kamilla and Ayaz – a good team.

Nakhchivan is a must if you’re heading out that way.

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