Known as the “Land of Fire”, Azerbaijan is a small ex-Soviet republic that sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the biggest lake in the world. It gets this nickname because the country has a vast reserve of oil and subterranean natural gas. The gas seeps out from fissures in the ground and when ignited, it burns. In fact, there is a temple in which the ground burns perpetually. It is a fascinating society and probably embodies “east meets west” more so than it’s neighbours, Georgia and Armenia. It identifies itself as truly Eurasian. While the other two countries are Christian nations, Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. However, while the majority of the population is Muslim, they say they are tolerant of other religions and people are free to practice whatever faith they choose without persecution. We did a walking tour in Baku and our guide told us that in his own family, his parents and one sibling were Shia Muslims and his sister and him were Sunni Muslims. Go figure! Interestingly, they are ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world. While quite secular in their religious life, Azerbaijanis are socially conservative. Parents have a big influence on their children’s lives including matters of marriage and career.
Azerbaijan was originally settled by the Turkic people but over the centuries, there have been influences from the Persian, Ottoman, Mongolian, and of course Soviet empires. Their foreign policy today seems to be “do not poke the Bear”, aware of the power that Russia still has over their country.
We crossed overland from Georgia into Azerbaijan on foot. Surprisingly, the border crossing went smoothly and efficiently without any hitches. Once we cleared the border, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Sheki, a town in the mountains. She was the first female taxi driver we have encountered in all our travels so far, and she had plenty of sass. Sheki was a quaint rural town which used to be on the trade route of the Silk Road. In its time, there were many caravansarays (medieval hotels) in the area where traders would congregate to trade as well as rest during their journey. There is one such caravansary still in function today with over 200 rooms. With the Greater Caucasus mountains as a backdrop, a slow pace of life, and very friendly locals, we had a wonderful few days in Sheki.
While Baku is a bustling prosperous city, not unlike many European cities on the surface, much of Azerbaijan is still rural. Many mountain towns live today much as they had 100 years ago. Because of the mountainous geography of the Caucasus, many of these villages are remote and remain quite isolated and cut off from interaction with other groups, giving rise to their own unique languages and customs. They still have a primarily agrarian lifestyle.
There is a long history in Azerbaijan of carpet weaving. Sheep herding is very prevalent, and the wool is used to make amazingly intricate and beautiful carpets and fabrics. These textiles range from utilitarian items such as bags and clothing, to grand pieces of art. As their homes were simple, and they lived in mountainous areas, the carpets were used extensively to cover walls and floors for warmth. It is such an integral aspect of their history and culture that there is an entire museum in Baku dedicated to these carpets. The museum is even constructed in the shape of a rolled up carpet. It showcases a huge assortment of beautiful pieces as well as provide great information on how they are made.
The boys seem to have a fascination with fancy cars …I blame their uncles’ influence. Knowing there was money in Baku, they were quite excited to look for exotic cars. Baku did not disappoint as they spotted Ferraris, Aston Martins, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and too many Porsches to count. They even went to the Lamborghini dealership! The wealth of Baku is founded on the discovery of oil. They have had two oil booms, once in the late 19th century and more recently in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This spurred the expansion of the city of Baku which was nothing more than a small hamlet in the desert. Now it very much resembles a European city with streets lined with grand opulent buildings, and designer shops. The city is actually quite attractive with a large number of green spaces and fountains, wide boulevards, and a long pedestrian path along the sea. In keeping with a city that can keep up with the times, there is also no shortage of ultra modern architecture. The Flame Towers, and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre are example of this impressive architecture. There is even a “Death Star” hotel that is in the making.
While the oil money has brought a better standard of living and infrastructure to Baku and some parts of the country, there is a wide gap in income equality. Much of the wealth has stayed in the city and not filtered out to the rural areas. Certainly while there is a lot of greenery and clean streets within Baku, it’s easy to see a much different picture just on the fringes of the city where the natural desert landscape is quite evident. It’s much like Las Vegas in this way. This development has also come with a huge environmental cost with poor air and water quality. In our travels so far, it is the first capital city in which we were generally advised not to drink the tap water.
An interesting day trip we did from Baku was to the Gobustan National Park. This included an interesting petroglyph museum which showcased over 6000 petroglyphs carved into the surrounding rocks in the desert, dating back to thousands of years. The boys' favourite part though was the visit to the mud volcanoes. Reached by a rough bumpy dirt road (in a Lada taxi nonetheless), there was a collection of gurgling mud volcanoes. They were created from the natural gas bubbling up from the earth. The boys loved playing with the wet clay and got down right dirty!
Azerbaijan was the third and final country of our Transcaucasus tour. While we didn’t travel extensively through the country, we certainly enjoyed the parts we did see. We found people to be very warm and welcoming and the culture fascinating.