Seven days in Azerbaijan: An elemental encounter for the ages
The moment we stepped out of Baku airport, we got a whiff of what to expect in the following seven days of our stay in Azerbaijan. Strong gusts of wind, accompanied with dust and sand, greeted us with maniacal ferocity, almost sweeping us off the ground, quite literally! Not the kind of climate we expected, considering the sun was out and was blazing across the skies. This was the first in a long line of surprises that awaited us in the following week, one where we got a first-hand experience of a former Soviet Union country that has — quite remarkably, to say the least — managed to seamlessly blend history and heritage with contemporary design and technology, that too with finesse and impressive attention to detail. Almost everything, right from the clean air (barring the days of the mini-sandstorms) to the food (dominated by greens, bread, meat and overwhelming heaps of cheese!) promise to fulfil you in more ways than one.
With neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkey and Iraq for company, Azerbaijan is perhaps one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, a region not many in India may be familiar with, but beautiful nevertheless, and worth every penny you spend to get there. If you need more convincing, just mention the name of actor Raj Kapoor to any of the locals, and chances are that their eyes would light up with unbridled joy, almost as if they have won a lottery. If you didn’t know, the relationship between Baku and the Indian film industry, especially Bollywood, goes a long way, back to the 1950s, when Kapoor’s movies drew crowds by the droves in this city. Fast forward to the present, and we find even Tamil movie industry stars, Jayam Ravi and Vishal, shooting scenes for their upcoming movies here, Jana Gana Mana (title yet to be confirmed) and Action, respectively.
Earth & fire
Possibly the biggest example of two cultures coalescing harmoniously in this country is Old City Baku, which was once protected during the Russian Empire-era wars by fortress walls and towers, most notably, the Maiden Tower that overlooks the Caspian Sea. Along with the Old City, this is the first region in Azerbaijan to be listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO - a title well-deserved, no doubt. Dating back to around 12th century, the walls are a far cry from their former glory, perhaps burdened with the sheer weight of its history, but intimidating all the same. With its cobblestone streets lined on both sides by local shops that sell everything from jewellery and apparel to carpets and other quirky knick-knacks, the Old City immediately transports you to a bygone era of simple living wrought by battles of yore.
Another cobblestone destination that fascinated us was Ateshgah of Baku (pic below), alternatively called the Fire Temple of Baku. Built around the 17th and 18th centuries, this place was a pilgrimage centre for Zoroastrians, who worshipped the primary elements of nature, including fire. The highlight of this place was the natural eternal fire that continued to burn at its central altar till the 1970s, due to the fact that it was built atop a natural gas field. Today, gas pipes are used to start the flames, while the surrounding structures still retain stone houses once occupied by merchants who traded in Baku. However, if watching eternal flames is your kind of thing, you can still head to Yanar Dag, or the Burning Mountain, where flames sparked by natural gases continue to burn through porous sandstone structures even today. Remember to visit the place at night, and make sure you don’t get too close! The same warning applies to the mud volcanoes of Gobustan, where volcanic clay and mud can spew as high as 15 metres! But that doesn’t seem to stop tourists from happily taking a dip in the craters, as the mud is said to have medicinal properties, helping in battling diseases related to the nervous system, skin and rheumatism.
A fluid affair
If you are not the dipping-in-mud kind, then you can zip through the streets of Baku to witness the city’s splendid architecture. Featuring a blend of Eastern and Western elements, most of Baku’s iconic buildings and structures are heavily influenced by Persian designs. However, the crown prince of the city’s skyline is the famed trio of the Flame Towers, which are over 30 storeys tall and are covered with LED screens that light up the night sky like no other building in the entire city. We realised that one can spot the towers from any point in the city. Also taking architectural design a notch higher is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, which is famed for not featuring a single straight line in its structure. Featuring tributes to the third president of the country, Heydar Aliyev, including an audio-enabled journey through the life and times of the influential leader. The award-winning masterpiece also sports vintage automobiles, minimal sculptures, installations and art pieces, as well as paintings that date back centuries.
Repast on repeat
Azerbaijan’s cuisine is also not far behind when it comes to blending multiple tastes and ingredients, some being brought down from the times of the merchants who travelled through the Silk Road. The most influential example of this is the culture of caravanserais, medieval-era hotels where the merchants used to stay over during their journeys. Today, the caravanserais, like the one we visited called Shaki Caravanserai, serve elaborate banquets to visitors and double up as tourist hotspots. Elsewhere, a typical meal in Azerbaijan starts with a generous serving of fresh herbs like dill, mint, parsley, thyme and more, along with vegetables like aubergines, tomatoes and cucumbers. From the mains, plov is the most popular dish — rice served with meat, fish or fruit. Other common items are dolma (minced lamb or beef mixed with rice and flavoured with mint, fennel, and cinnamon, wrapped in grapevine leaves), piti soup (cooked mutton served with vegetables in a broth and served in crock pots) and dovga (a yoghurt-based soup served with herbs). And to wash it all down, you can try an array of traditional drinks, like the yoghurt-based ayran, black tea served with peach jam, and the clear winner — kompot, a sugar-based drink in which fruits like apricots and peaches are soaked and served in.
Memories to count
If I were to sum up my experience in this country in a few sentences, it would be a task, no doubt. The people have a simple demeanour, the air is pleasant throughout the day (barring when the cold winds hit), and as for the cleanliness, well, that aspect seems to be taken care of very seriously here. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the way of living followed by their ancestors, who lived simple yet smart. You can see evidence of that in the ancient corners of the country, especially in villages like Lahich and Shaki, where you will realise that a different kind of serenity exists in those places. That same serenity, you will find, is not lost within the contemporary kaleidoscope of modern cities like Baku. After all, it’s all about harmony, and you will find that in abundance in Azerbaijan, making it a spectacle that will stay with you for a very long time.
The writer was at Azerbaijan by invitation from Azerbaijan Tourism Board.
[You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @karan_pillai]
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