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Azerbaijan – at the edge of Europe
We've just finished our last group trip of 2017 to Azerbaijan, a hidden gem of a country that is often overshadowed by its neighbours Georgia and Armenia. Native Eye traveller Abs Ahmed had this to say about his experience in perhaps Europe's most unusual corner.....
Azerbaijan is a country rising from the flames of its past - it is a proud, progressive nation and many cultures, traditions & religions call it home. It is a country of beauty, from the capital city of Baku, where modern architecture fits perfectly against Soviet Russia grandeur to the cobbled streets of the rural areas of Quba & Sheki.
My trip began in Baku, also historically known as the 'city of winds', a mystic ancient city intertwined with new modern ideology. Baku is described as the 'Dubai of the Caucasus' however I believe it has its own unique identity showcasing its own flair and ambition to be its own major world city rather than emulating Dubai. Having arrived early in the morning I had time to discover the area for myself, a real contrast of old and new; you can be on the coast of the Caspian Sea then walking through a rickety street of old Baku, here you will find designer boutiques alongside traditional stores in some parts you feel as if you are walking through a street in any other European city. Along the promenade there are open parks and areas to socialise whilst enjoying the view of the Caspian Sea. At night, there are open air shows and funfair rides and the stores stay open till late.
I was happy to learn that the choice of cuisine in Baku was mainly local Azeri recipes but there are a number of well known fast food restaurants too, bars, clubs and pubs, that cater for the small number of international expats that have settled in Baku mainly due to the growing oil and gas industry as well as locals.
The group consisted of 5 other people, as well as the guide (Kamilla) and diver (Ayaz) who were great in getting us to all the places safely and in good time. Kamilla showed us around the various museums, including the carpet museum and a kind of national history museum, they were brief stops but that was understandable as there was a lot to fit in. I saw the old mosques of Baku which were beautifully constructed and the new ones were equally as grand. We visited the mystifying maidens tower; there is no precise date as to when it was built and what it was used for, the local story is similar to that of a child’s fairytale where a princess was locked in a tower, only to be released by a prince, another theory is that it was a fire worship temple as it is in the shape of a ‘buta’ or flame, symbolising ‘the land of fire’ The symbol of flame is also interpreted in the emblem of Azerbaijan as the Arabic word "Allah" or God (acknowledging the Islamic influence). I was fascinated to learn that there are parts which remain undiscovered, only time will tell what other treasures will be unearthed.
Also whilst in Baku we visited mud volcanoes as well as Gobustan (prehistoric rock settlements) and the ancient fire worship temples of Ateshgah all of which are in quite close proximity to the main city Baku. I must admit I was beginning to become a little confused at this stage, trying to retain all the information and making sense of the history behind Baku, not to mention the confusing geopolitical history of the country. I decided to take pictures of the information boards to read up on at the hotel.
After a couple of days in Baku, we set off to the other parts of the country, surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, parts of which look like an old English country road, and other parts look like the mountains of Muree, Pakistan (if you have visited). Pomegranate trees are everywhere, and Azerbaijan has 24 different types! During the long journeys we were kept entertained with traditional ‘Mugham’ music, a melodic type of music where the lyrics are often stories of Azerbaijan’s past triumphs and tribulations. The small towns and villages that we visited had good infrastructure and seemed well connected - something I wasn’t expecting in the more rural parts of the country. We visited some more royal palaces in Sheki, some parts untouched from the time they were built, learnt about the old traditional glass making and saw a live workshop. Each region of Azerbaijan is known for something whether it is growing walnuts or hazelnuts, copper works, gas and oil, or a type of carpet.
There was something about Azerbaijan that attracted me, not sure what it was but I had always been curious to visit and it most certainly did not disappoint. Throughout my trip it was wonderful to see a society living in harmony alongside one another accepting and tolerant of all races, religious beliefs creed and identity. This is probably a rarity nowadays; every aspect of Azeri life has deeply embedded traditional values and every person is passionate about where their country is heading.
I consider myself very lucky to have visited Azerbaijan as it is now before it becomes the next Turkey or Emirate state. I hope that as tourism grows that it does not lose the traditions that make it so unique.
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