Azer­bai... where?

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

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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

PHO­TOS: BA­BALWA SHOTA

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

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