There are many countries on our planet, which are quite unknown to most of us, especially in the western world. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting one of them: Azerbaijan. Located between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran, this oil rich nation sits on the shores of the beautiful Caspian Sea.
This country, comprised of a 99% Muslim population has been in the news, as its capital city of Baku, hosted the Formula One motor race, the Grand Prix. The only other time I had ever heard of it was in the James Bond film, The World is Not Enough.
90% of the people are known as Azeris and are very similar in culture to those of Turkey. Although most people are Shia Muslim, they tend to be westernized in their customs. If you see ladies wearing burkas, they are tourists, as the local dress is very western. The Azeris are also a very friendly people, to most everyone except the Armenians (largely due to an age old conflict over territory).
Proof of the approachability is seen in the Red City, a totally Jewish community which survives harmoniously alongside the Muslim population. A large Hebrew education centre flourishes in this, the world's only all-Jewish town outside of Israel.
The capital and largest city (one fifth of the country’s nine million people) is Baku. Nestled on the shores of the picturesque Caspian Sea, it is a very modern city, and quite a contrast to what I was expecting.
From my hotel located downtown, I had a fantastic view of many new, tall skyscrapers, made mostly of glass and steel. At night a variety of neon and digital lighting systems illuminate almost every building, making this city resemble a mini Dubai.
A town square, accessible only on foot, is home to many restaurants, upscale international shops and tourists. The wide streets along the water have pedestrian undergrounds or overpasses to allow individuals to access the boardwalk, which is one of Baku’s greatest highlights.
Spanning four km, this people friendly promenade was established in 1909 and has been a favourite visit for residents and tourists alike. It spans about 30 metres wide and runs along the water. There are dozens of eateries, merry-go-rounds, floral gardens and giant trees, turning this boardwalk into a beautiful, people–friendly park.
The old city, which is the first area in Baku to be designated a World Heritage Site, is home to 3,000 inhabitants. Surrounded completely by a wall and dating back to the 12th century, makes a visit to this historical centre a full day affair.
The 30+ temperatures made sunscreen and a hat a necessity, but the area is dry so it was not uncomfortable.
I was fortunate to have 5 days in this beautiful country and visited some of the interesting sites, outside of the capital. One such visit was to the mud volcanoes, an area three hours away. The remote, barren landscape was ominous and eerie looking, but the small volcanoes, constantly gurgling as they erupted their boiling mud, were quite intriguing. There were hundreds of mounds and not one other person in sight.
Another interesting visit was to the Fire Temple of Baku, an ancient worship site, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks that lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned in the late 19th century and the natural "eternal flame" went out in 1969, after nearly a century of exploitation of petroleum and gas in the area. It is now a tourist site and is fed by a natural gas pipeline.
Travelling around the country gave me a great opportunity to visit some century old villages as well as many historic mosques and small outposts. I stopped at the Qobustan Petroglyphs, which date back 12,000 years before Christ. This area of rock paintings is in excellent shape, and truly make you understand the historic significance of this region.
Tourism in Azerbaijan is low; especially since North America has not yet discovered this Persian gem. Most people I saw were Iranian and some Europeans. The upside is that travel is relatively inexpensive. I stayed at the five star Park Inn hotel in downtown Baku at a cost of just $135 a night (CDN$). Meals were plentiful and affordable, and I found everyone to be quite friendly, welcoming and eager to please.
Nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a destination worth visiting.