Mention the country of Azerbaijan and you’re likely to get a confused look. Much of the western world hasn’t heard of this nation and is even less likely to be able to locate it on a map. Information about it is sketchy at best. My first thought was that the name sounded like a Middle Eastern newly developed country full of goat herders and antiquated Russian buildings. I’m here right now and all stereotypes I had are completely wrong. The truth is Azerbaijan is a very interesting place full of surprises and although it might not have landmarks that you’ve heard about, it makes a great stop if you’re in this part of the world.
Baku, the capital city is situated on the Caspian Sea, which technically speaking is the world’s largest salt water lake. There’s a beautiful promenade that borders the waterfront with a mixture of older buildings interspersed with gleaming modern structures that rival the architecture of Dubai. The most famous of these are the Flame Towers which consist of three gleaming buildings shaped like flames. They light up at night with high tech LED imbedded in the mirrored glass windows that play colored patterns and videos of flames lapping up the buildings. Another landmark is the, a giant nautilus shaped building called the Heydar Aliyev which looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A sprawling park surrounds it with giant pink snails and gargantuan rabbits dotting the area. The Trump building is reminiscent of the Burj Arab in Dubai with its sail shape. There’s plenty of other futuristic edifices that make you feel that you’ve stepped forward in time; mixed in with classic older buildings. Maybe that’s what the snails and rabbits represent. Progressive development balanced with the slower traditional ways.
The old town is a UNESCO site surrounded by ancient walls and historic wooden buildings full of traditional restaurants and cobblestone alleyways. The most famous caviar in the world comes from the Caspian and there’s no place you’ll find it fresher or cheaper than here. The country is 97% Muslim but don’t think you’re going to have to teetotal here. The Russians left the country with a taste for vodka and no one seems to have an issue with joining you for some shots. The Russians left their legacy in many ways. Where else can you find last names like Abdullayev?
You could easily find lots of fun things to keep you busy in Baku, but this small country boasts other unique treasures, most of them accessible within a few hours drive at most.
Yanar Dag is touted as a “fire phenomenon” and is one of the reasons Azerbaijan has it’s moniker as “the land of fire”. A stream of flammable gas seeps out of the earth on a hill just north of Baku and is perpetually burning like a giant pizza oven. There’s very little to see other than 5 foot flames dancing out of the hill’s fissures, but when you realize that this natural fire has been continuously burning for over 75 years, it’s a bizarre sight indeed. Bring some meat, marshmallows and a stick. No one will judge you for being environmentally conscious and taking advantage of natural energy.
Gobustan is Azerbaijan’s most famous geological site and consists of a mountainous area of broken slabs of rock and cliffs covered with over 7,000 petroglyphs that date back to the Stone Age. The area includes a museum with English translations and a circuit path to some of the most accessible engravings. It’s. beautiful walk if you can avoid the bus loads of school children that are shipped in for field days. An hour south are some of the more visited mud volcanoes. Azerbaijan has over half of the world’s mud volcanoes and they are an interesting sight. These cone shaped mud mountains often contain a pool of grayish bubbling mud that sporadically erupts and covers the area with its contents. The mud isn’t hot like one might especially and has the consistency and smell of newly poured cement. The surrounding area is surreal with its rolling gray mud hills cracked and dried from the sun.
It’s a long haul, but the town of Sheki is probably the most beautiful place in the country. It’s mountains are reminiscent of Austria and its forests and fresh air seem to belong to a different country. You can stop midway on the 4 hour drive and enjoy some tea in a little hut that looks like a Colorado rest area. On the way, the town of Gabala has some interesting ruins from the former capital of Caucasian Albania as well as is historic significance on the Silk Road. In Sheki itself, the 18the century Shah palace is a gem with its elaborately painted walls and ceilings. The stained glass is mostly original and the only thing you won’t love is that photos are verboten. The little town is built on a hill with old stone buildings and its famous for its baklava. The entire population of Azerbaijan salivates in unison when you mention Sheki baklava. It’s most dish is piti. Piti is this country’s version of Irish stew and it’s surprisingly good. It’s creation involves using earthen pots that are made from the clay of Sheki and a long elaborate process of cooking potatoes, lamb, chickpeas and other ingredients together and a ritualistic way of serving and eating the culinary concoction.
Other popular destinations in the country include the historical town of Ganja (which ironically has never heard of Jamaican “ganja”) and various spots along the Caspian Sea. The oddest attraction in the country is the city of Naftalan, where you can “relax” in a pool of warm black crude oil. Does it treat psoriasis or is it a carcinogenic? That’s the real question.
Whatever you find in Azerbaijan will be a surprise. In the last year, the Azeri manat has declined in value almost 60%. What does that mean? It’s happy hour everywhere all day long! Uber rides are $1-2, food and drinks are cheap and most attractions are only a few dollars. It’s the best time to go. US citizens require visas, but everything can be done online for $20.