Tucked along the borders of autocratic Russia, Turkey and Iran, and rounded off by tiny Georgia and Armenia, is a small nation of beautiful contradictions that begs to be explored by the intrepid traveller. It’s called Azerbaijan, writes Babalwa Shota
It’s not every day one is invited to visit a former Soviet Union country with a name straight out of a Borat movie. That’s why I wait for the bubbling chuckle of disbelief to settle down before I hit Google to search if a place called Azerbaijan really exists.
Bordering Iran and Turkey to the south, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest and Armenia to the west, Azerbaijan is unlikely to be on the bucket lists of most travellers because it’s so tucked away. It is largely because of this fact that visiting this country of about 10 million people is an adventure all its own.
Azerbaijan is a nation of contradictions – its people are genial, with an aloof streak that’s a hangover from Soviet Union rule. You can hike up mountains populated by a lone withered herdsman and his flock of sheep, or drive a few kilometres away to take a dip in the Caspian Sea, by some definitions the largest lake on Earth.
You can meditate by an eternal flame inside an ancient temple, then step out to be blinded by modern architectural wonders. Mud volcanoes bubble and spit black goo on one side of a city, while pristine mosques invite quiet reverence on the other. There’s a bustling metropolis bordered by eye-catching medieval walls, and a couple of hours away is the archetypal one-horse town with cobbled stone paths populated by generational copper masters and traders.
Going from the capital city, Baku, with all its Western trappings and conversationstarter street art, into the Yanar Dag cultural heritage site with its historic relics requires a shifting mind-set and flexible wardrobe. Think swapping your mirrored designer shades and shorts for a headscarf and leg-covering attire on the back seat of a car in record time.
So what does one get up to in a secular Muslim country still coming to grips with its 25-year-old democracy?
TOURIST ATTRACTION looked malnourished and ill most of the time,” explains Tagiyev, counting the founders of motor giants Mazda and Tata, as well as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, among the more famous Zoroastrians.
The popularity of the religion has waned considerably, with only about 1 million
followers left worldwide. and scissors design.
Museum guide Sadiga Abdulleyeva says carpet-weaving comes so naturally to the women that they hardly need to sit with the patterns in front of them.
“They just look at whether it’s vertical or horizontal looms, because they know most of the patterns off by heart. The Chinese dragon is very popular.”
This ancient city with a population of 2 000 is reminiscent of a rural village set straight out of Hollywood. Cobblestone walkways, steep stone steps and narrow, winding alleys make up the town. Most residents are over middle age, with very few young faces around.
“They all go to the city because they get bored here,” says our guide, Rashad Sadikhov.
You can’t blame them. This is literally a one-horse town that sustains itself through handmade crafts, mostly in copper. Beautifully carved antiquated doors on homes and shopfronts line the single-lane path that serves as the main road, where spice merchants, general stores and a fourth-generation copper master live in harmony.
The place and residents are as far removed from the 21st century and the general population as one can get. It’s the perfect place in which to get lost when you are serious about escaping the hustle and bustle of everyday city living.
Shota’s trip was sponsored by the Azerbaijan Embassy in South Africa. To find out more about the country and how to
travel there, visit azembassy.org.za
The final resting place of Azerbaijan’s founding father of democracy, Heydar Aliyev, is an opulent marble-and-granite wonder that is the first pit stop for visiting dignitaries
PAST MASTER Fourth-generation copper master Reza Aliyev is one of the 2 000 people who populate the far-flung Lahich, popularly known as the Ancient City