I commonly get asked the question, “How do you decide on xyz country to travel to?” A few times I have a pretty good answer, but often, including this trip, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I look at a map and find parts of the world I don’t know much about and then decide to learn more by traveling there.” This time around, I zoomed in to the region that connects Europe and Asia to see what was going on. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — a region referred to as the Caucasus along the Caucasus Mountain range between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It’s an interesting spot in the world in terms of geographical semantics. Is it part of Europe? Is it part of Asia? Is it part of the Middle East? I’m not sure there’s a clear answer, but the majority of research I’ve done deems it part of Asia.
It’s also a region still defining itself. The three countries historically were part of the Soviet Union and each have their own story of gaining independence and defining a national identity. Despite their proximity, the three countries are quite distinctly different in culture, appearance, cuisine, religion and political alignment. Also under definition are the region’s borders and land. There are a handful of autonomous regions, exclaves and separatist movements that prolong tensions that have lasted more than a century.
Interesting dynamics, right? With this background, Robyn and I were excited to explore a region that is foreign to most Westerners. Our first stop in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan, also known as “The Land of Fire,” sits right west of the Caspian Sea and has an autonomous exclave Nakhchivan to the south of Armenia. Note that there are several disputed areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan that I’ll get into later. Out of the three countries in this region, Azerbaijan is mostly unique based on its Islamic religion, majority being Shia Muslim. Azerbaijan is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with a wide variety of landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges, lush green valleys and dry plains. The country covers nine of the known 11 climate zones! Fun fact: more than half of the world’s “mud volcanoes” exist in this region, formed from hot water and gases beneath the earth’s surface. It is also known as the Land of Fire because of its natural gas preserves and Yanar Dağ, a natural burning hillside by the Caspian Sea. You remember the classical elements from science class, right? Well, Azerbaijan embodies them all. We kicked off the trip with a few days in Azerbaijan with home base in its capital, Baku. Ironically, Baku is also nicknamed “The City of Winds” due to its harsh winds off the sea, a close similarity to our home, Chicago.
October 12, 2018 – Long Legs, Long Flight
Our late evening flight to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines would take us roughly 10 hours. I had heard many great reviews of Turkish Airlines, however, the plane we were blessed with was an old one, you know, the ones that still use headphones instead of earphones and ones without charging options. Regardless, I had pre-downloaded enough Netflix material to cover most of the flight. Sometimes I really enjoy long flights since they allow me to catch up on all the shows I’d meant to watch much sooner.
October 13, 2018 – Baku Welcomes with Bright Lights
Flying east across the world means that you do in fact lose time, and in our case, the next day arrived while we were in the air. We landed in Istanbul in early afternoon in time for our transfer. The Istanbul airport at the time was in its final days of operation before a shiny, state-of-the-art airport hub opened nearby. Unfortunately we would later return to the U.S. a day or two before the grand opening; even more reason to go back!
The short layover of one hour gave us enough time to weave through the waves of crowded passengers to the tiny restrooms. The next flight, also on Turkish Airlines, was shorter (only a few hours) and led us to our first destination on the trip, Baku, Azerbaijan. Upon arriving in the country’s capital, we had a pleasant time going through immigration and had a timely connection with Nijat, our car transfer, also our Airbnb host.
One of my most vivid memories from each trip is the moment I step outside the airport doors: the breeze of fresh air hitting my skin after hours of being cooped inside airplanes, the yells and solicitation of local taxi drivers offering rides and the surrounding landscape of a country I know little to nothing about. After loading up in Nijat’s car, I first noticed the brilliant architecture of Baku’s airport (Heydar Aliyev International Airport), which began a flurry of architectural wonders we would see in Baku.
On the way to the city center we saw more interesting buildings lit up in the night, including Baku Crystal Hall, Heydar Aliyev Center and the iconic Flame Towers that overlook the city. I cannot overestimate the amount of neon, bright colored lights installed in the city of Baku. For a city located in some of the oldest parts of civilization, I was shocked to see the modern overuse of lighting accessories typically found in digital-first cities like Seoul or New York City. While cheesy at times, I saw the lights a bit charming to balance the muted stone features the city managed to maintain over centuries of tension.
Our Airbnb was located within the stone walls of the Old City in Baku, a nice location for us to visit most of the city’s attractions. Weaving through the cobblestone streets, we arrived toward the west end of the Old City and took our bags in a walkway between two stone buildings, to the left in the dark, and up some old wooden creaky stairs to a metal door. Robyn and I peeked inside and slowly surveyed the place before getting too comfortable. Well, let’s just focus on the positives! – location, basic necessities, electricity, and actually, a decent view of the Flame Towers through barred windows. Even though the place had springy beds, a bathroom that anyone over 6′ could really not fit into and a floor so slanted a ball would roll, we were glad to be safe (and sound?) on vacation.
October 14, 2018 – The Old City and the Caspian Shore
Robyn and I took some time to sleep in and get adjusted to the local time, which is 10 hours earlier than Central Time in the U.S. After managing a shower in the small quarters, we got ready and found a place to grab lunch in the Old City. The Baku Old City restaurant had some options that worked for our appetite, including an omelet, coffee and kebabs.
Along the Old City’s stone streets were small shops, restaurants, handicrafts, pomegranate juicers, ice cream vendors and tandoor bread. The Old City was recently added as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it reminded me of the stoned city we explored in Kotor, Montenegro, back in 2015. We ventured outside of the Old City walls into proper Baku. Not far you could see the blue Caspian Sea. It was Sunday, so many locals were out enjoying the beautiful weather and spending time with friends and family. We walked over to Dənizkənarı Milli Park, a park that covers the shoreline of the Sea. No beaches here; instead, many couples sat on the concrete steps spending a moment together before the work week began the next day. Robyn and I were impressed by the locals and their attire; most everyone we ran into in Baku looked put-together, presentable and at times, trendy.
To the southern end of the park is the Azerbaijani Carpet Museum, a building that looks like a rolled-up carpet as well as the Caspian Waterfront Mall in a shape of a blossoming flower. (Again, the architecture was really one-of-a-kind!). Walking with a coffee in the park, we noticed men typically walked in pairs – and we don’t know why! The locals mostly had strong, dark features and were relatively tall.
We returned to the Old City to check out one of the city’s main attractions, the Maiden Tower. It’s an odd attraction for sure, with little known about its actual purpose, dating back to at least the 12th Century. From above, it’s in the shape of a paisley buta, and inside, today, is a museum showing its history. To get to the top, you maneuver through interior small stone steps on each level. It didn’t take too terribly long to get to the top, and once we got there, we enjoyed the overlooking views of the city of Baku, the Caspian Sea and the Flame Towers.
Next to the Maiden Tower is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a collection of existing and ruined buildings in the center of the Old City. Today, the site includes a main palace, the shah’s mosque with a minaret, burial vaults and a mausoleum. Nearby is a caravansary, a name we got to understand well in the region. A caravansary was an inn where travelers could rest and recover from a day’s journey. These were especially popular in this region, as the Silk Road passed through the Caucasus.
Hunger started to set in, and we had dinner at a restaurant called “Dolma,” appropriately named for the popular dish consumed by locals. If you’re not familiar, dolma are stuffed dishes, typically meat or vegetable-stuffed grape leaves in Azerbaijan. I ordered lamb dolma, fresh olives and wine from the Qabala region of the country (northern Azerbaijan). The meal was delicious (cheap!) and a nice way to top off our first full day in the region.
After dinner, we walked the streets back to the Old City walls. The nightlife in Baku was bustling on a Sunday night, especially in restaurants, cafes and those enjoying the weather. There are two arched entry points for cars and pedestrians to enter the city walls. Anyone can enter by foot, but the entrances are gated off, allowing for only vehicles with permission. I noticed the automatic gate (similar to toll booth gates) open, and so I started walking inside the city walls and all of a sudden got whacked in the side of the head! At first, I had no idea what happened. I thought someone had hit me or something was thrown at me. Come to find out, the gate was coming down right as I walked in, and boy, did that hurt! Luckily I did not fall down and walked it off, but I could feel a small bump developing on the side of my head. Robyn and I kept walking and stopped at a cafe for some Turkish coffee and hookah (me hoping the hookah would ease a little bit of the head trauma!) Even though we really wanted coffee at the time, we learned from our waiter that Azerbaijanis mostly prefer tea, and they accompany their tea with jam. Before drinking the tea, one takes a scoop of fruit jam and places it in their mouth before drinking the hot tea. I love learning about all the interesting takes on coffee and teas in the countries we visit. Eventually we were off to bed, back on the springy beds and slanted floor.
October 15, 2018 – The Highest Place in Azerbaijan
Robyn and I decided we wanted to experience Azerbaijan outside of Baku for a change, so we booked an excursion to Khinaliq, an ancient Caucasian village located high up in the mountains of the Quba region, which is in the northeastern part of Azerbaijan, close to the southern border of Russia. Before we left for the day, we grabbed a “smoothie” to carry us over until lunch. We laughed as we asked what was in the smoothie, and the barista said, “We use ice cream.” Nothing like being truly American and having ice cream for breakfast.
We met our tour guide Alex and our fellow tour attendees, and let me tell you, we learned it would be quite the crew. In the van was a local Azerbaijani driver, Alex, the tour guide who was part Azerbaijani and part Irish, one Israeli, one Colombian, one Pakistani, Robyn and myself. The Israeli started out asking political questions about Trump and making charged statements to the guide about Turkey, Israel, relationships, everything. The 4-4.5 hour each way was going to be a long day!
As I mentioned before, the country has a lot of different climates and terrains, and it was really great to see this along our drive. Azerbaijan is an oil- and gas-rich country, and it was evident those assets were being put to use for infrastructure. The highways were so smooth and updated, and many large trucks lined the road for cross-country transport.
Partway, we stopped at Besh Barmag Mountain, also known as the Five Finger Mountain. It is a popular pilgrimage spot for Azerbaijanis, known for its mythical legends and sacred nature. At the foot of the mountain is a mosque where many come and ask for blessings for their families. We then stopped for snacks at Bolmart, where I couldn’t stop laughing about the similarity in rhyming to Walmart. The inside of the supermarket was the cleanest I’ve ever seen, with seemingly nothing out of place and no item not fully stocked.
The terrain changed quite a bit the further we got north and closer we got to the Caucasus Mountains. Most of the trip was a dry, grey landscape, which later turned into beautiful fall colors and tree canopies, usually consisting of birch trees. Each larger city that we passed had an entry marker built in a light stone with the city’s name engraved in large letters. In many instances, a large color picture of what I assumed was the Azerbaijani president accompanied the entrance. Each town’s entrance was so similar and seemed characterless.
We arrived in Quba (pronounced like Cuba), the closest larger city to our destination Khinaliq. For the interest of our favorite Israeli tourist, we stopped at the Grand Synagogue, which lies in a Jewish neighborhood that hosts the largest community of Mountain Jews. There are bird markers on the corners of homes in the area to signify Jewish presence in the home, which was interesting to see. Overall, Quba had beautiful homes, bridges and colors in autumn.
On to Khinaliq we continued on a paved (but bumpy) road through the Caucasus Mountains. From time to time we would maneuver a hill of switchbacks, but for the most part, it was just a long road that gained elevation over time. We stopped partway to take some pictures of the red granite rock protruding from the mountains. Robyn and I dressed appropriately with sweaters and coats, however, our fellow tourists were shocked by the brisk weather at altitude. Or maybe our skin was prepared given Chicago winters?
It took us a while to get to the top of the region. We passed by a few villages and wondered, “Is this it? Is that it?” Eventually we reached the road’s end, with the village of Khinaliq overlooking the path below. It’s majestic, breathtaking. The mountains looked like an oil painting in the background, and you pinch yourself thinking, “Where the hell am I?”
Khinaliq is the highest (~8,000 feet), most remote village in Azerbaijan that sits in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountains that divide Russia and the Southern Caucasus. Despite just a spattering of small tin and stone buildings in the village, an estimated 2,000 people live there. The village only inter-marries, elongating traditions and culture for years to come. The villagers speak a slightly different language than Azerbaijani that has been around for centuries. The village practices Sunni Islam and has a mosque at the top of the village.
Before we could explore too much, our guide met up with our village host, and we entered a small, low ceiling home. Outside of the home was an outhouse, with a hole in the ground to go the restroom. There was a grill of sorts outside as well, where some of the lamb was being prepared. We were guided to a room in the back of the shanty where a dining table awaited us. Also in the room was a kid’s bed and a window overlooking the mountains. The man of the house chatted with all of us in Azerbaijani with our guide acting as translator. He turned out to be quite the jokester, poking fun at all of us and things associated to our home countries. The housewife served us a delicious meal of potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, rice pilaf and lamb. At the end of the meal, traditional black tea with jam was served, a tasty way to end a meal.
We were then turned loose to explore the village. Most of the buildings are made of packed stone or manure blocks. In recent years, the government provided the village with tin and building supplies, which was met by some with welcoming arms and others with resistance. Chickens, dogs, cats and kids roamed the dirt and rock paths up the mountain, looking at us with wonder and awe.
The mountains surrounding the village were a grey/green mixture of color with hints of yellow from the autumn season. I took some time to take in the views, snap a few pics and breathe heavily in and out, a hint of meditation in a peaceful, nearly untouched place in the world.
We took back to the road, and everyone eventually fell asleep in the van. I was awake the majority of the time and made good conversation with the Pakistani. He was on vacation by himself and had an interest in the region’s unexpected fascination with crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.
Back in Baku, we were dropped off at the Old City, and to make things interesting on the walk home, we noticed our section of the Old City was dark. We thought maybe just a few businesses were closed but walked to our Airbnb and realized we did not have power. We decided to drop our things off and head back out because other places had electricity. We had dinner at Qazbaq, where live saxophone played in the corner. I had chicken, rice pilaf and olives, a similar meal to what we had earlier in the day in Khinaliq. After dinner, we grabbed some fresh pomegranate juice as we walked through the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Pomegranates are popular in the region and are found in many handicrafts, wines and flavors. After a long trek to the north end of Azerbaijan and back to Baku, we were dead tired.
October 16, 2018 – Caucasus Step 1, Complete
Our stint in Azerbaijan had come to an end as we then headed to Georgia and Armenia. We had quite the experience leaving via the airport. After figuring out we were in a different terminal, we waited in a long line among many confused travelers and attendants. I had never seen so many airport staff with confused looks on their faces as they checked people’s bags and printed tickets. Robyn and I eventually had our checked bags done and then headed to the regular security line. A first for me, after checking IDs, we had to place each foot in a foot scanner. I assume it checks for anything in the shoes so that you don’t have to take them off – interesting. Robyn and I proceeded to the scanner, and got held up by staff for not having a “bag tag” on our backpacks. We had never heard of this, so we had to go all the way back to the first counter to get “bag tags” – literally just a paper tag given from the desk staff. We eventually made it through the strange airport experience and boarded a flight to Tbilisi, Georgia.
I’m glad Robyn and I took the time to check out Azerbaijan on this trip. Out of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, it was the most unique of the three and opened our eyes to the dynamics of the region. The people were welcoming and excited we paid a visit to a country sometimes overlooked for shinier vacation spots in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. While I loved the black tea I purchased from the country, the small bump on my head from the traffic gate incident would not let me forget The Land of Fire.
Check out my next posts as Robyn and I travel to Azerbaijan’s neighbors, Georgia and Armenia.