Azerbaijan is a small former Soviet republic in the Caucus region sandwiched between the three great powers of Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Azerbaijan has a Muslim Turkic-speaking majority with strong historical and cultural ties with Iran, Turkey and the five Turkic Central Asian republics.
Tourism to Azerbaijan has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to government efforts to boost the country’s foreign exchange reserves by attracting international visitors. This has often entailed filling high-brow advertising spots, hosting televised world events (such as the 2012 Eurovision), and hiring starchitects to design extravagant new landmarks for the national capital.
For all of its strides to enter the world stage, Azerbaijan’s reputation doesn’t always align with the ruling regime’s painstaking efforts to shape it. Excessive government window-dressing has caused many a traveler to write it off as a Potemkin village and knockoff Dubai. Armenians, journalists, and gays are unwelcome in the Land of Fire, and human rights are considerably restricted.
Although Azerbaijan and Armenia border each other, the two are sworn enemies, so I had to return to Georgia in transit to Azerbaijan. Azeri Border security gave me a hard time for having an Armenian stamp in my passport and initially told me to go back to Georgia, but eventually they relented after some begging
Once across the border, I tried hitchhiking for a couple minutes before realizing that I would melt if I didn’t get out of the desert sun, so I hailed a bus headed toward Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, instead.
Much to my confusion, the man sitting next to me on the bus ride to Ganja told the driver where to drop me off and even paid my fare. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was actually Hikmet’s friend.
My host in Ganja was 23-year-old Hikmet, a university student studying in Ukraine who was home for the summer and looking for a native English speaker to practice with. “Oh my god, your accent is so weird! I’ve never heard an American accent before,” was his first reaction when we met. He brought me into his English class as show-and-tell. His teacher asked me to take over for her.
Hikmet came to intercept me at the bus stop and on the way back to his house, I saw this beautiful wood and brick gate enclosing an abandoned home. I insisted we enter.
Hikmet told me this was once the house of Nizami Ganjavi, a renowned twelfth century Persian poet.
Hikmet’s family was lovely. His mother cooked incredible Azerbaijani meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, despite working full-time as a nurse at the nearby hospital.
My memory and opinion of Azerbaijan were shaped by my experiences couchsurfing. I don’t know what I would have gotten out of my visit without my hosts’ generous guidance.
Hikmet’s dad borrowed a friend’s truck to take us on a trip to Gögöyle National Park. Gögöyle is lush green valley centered around a lake – a world apart from the harsh barren desertscapes that cover much of the country.
Baku, the Capital
The national capital, Baku, is a city of contrasts. Extravagant European architecture stands out against the city’s vast and expanding slums. Ancient Persian ruins are framed by modern glass skyscrapers. Baku is a city that wants to do it all, and with Azerbaijan’s considerable energy wealth, it can.
The first-time visitor to Baku will be forgiven for questioning the priorities of Azerbaijan’s government; futuristic vanity projects à-la-Dubai abound while most Bakuans endure living conditions to match any shantytown in India.
My host in Baku, Alex, was an eccentric artsy type a-la-Williamsburg who fills his two homes with couchsurfers to make himself feel as if he is traveling.
His dream is to “escape” Azerbaijan for good. He feels persecuted for dressing differently, for smoking weed, for being openly gay. He identifies more with Turkey and Iran, where he has some tenuous family connections, over his home country Azerbaijan, which he portrays as his personal hell.
Alex received five couchsurfers at his place on my first night there. By the second night, he had vanished – apparently to receive a group Iranian travelers at his other place. The other surfers and I didn’t see or hear from him for a week but continued staying at his place and going on adventures together.
The Flame Towers are an iconic landmark of Baku and Azerbaijan as a whole. Azerbaijan is nicknamed the “Land of Fire” because is was the birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster, founder of the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism flourished across the Persian empire and beyond for over a millennia before it was suppressed by Muslim conquerers.
Baku’s heavily restored old city dates back to the 12th century, though its authenticity is often called into question thanks to some dubious state-led beautification campaigns
Baku’s 12th century “Maidan Tower” is believed to have once served as a zoroastrian fire temple. According to legend, the city survived a devastating siege by enemy forces thanks to a maiden with fire hair who was sent down by the supreme zoroastrian deity to single-handedly defeat the enemy army.
Remember that medieval Persian poet whose dilapidated house we trespassed into in Ganja? This Museum of Azerbaijani Literature in Baku is named after him. If only some of its maintenance budget could be spared for preserving his actual house…
The palatial buildings along Baku Boulevard were erected during Azerbaijan’s first big oil boom of the early 1900s. Perhaps Azerbaijan could have leveraged its oil and gas reserves to develop a mature upper income economy had the Soviet Union not siphoned off its resources for seventy-one years…
Heard of the London Eye? Here’s the Baku Eye. No originality points here.
And of course no world city is complete without commissioning something expensive and unnecessary by Zaha Hadid (peace be upon her). The whimsical Heyder Aliyev Center makes for a cute venue for public ceremonies and events with a not-so-cute price tag of $250 million.
Azerbaijan has the most mud volcanos of any country in the world. Tourists like to bathe in them for their medicinal qualities. Yes, they do occasionally erupt.
I spent most of my time in Azerbaijan preoccupied with catching a boat out. That is because, as an American, I am blocked from exiting through Russia or Iran, so I knew I would need to secure a spot on a cargo ship crossing the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan.
Getting on the boat was like solving a riddle because Vika, the witch gatekeeper who controls access to the ships, is notoriously unhelpful and indifferent to us desperate overlanders seeking a way through the visa bottleneck created by Azerbaijan’s neighbors.
She constantly lied, manipulated us, and made false promises, so I learned to distrust her and rely on the guards for information instead. Each day I made a pilgrimage to Baku port to inquire about the next departure.
But most of the ships depart from a new port 80 kilometers South of Baku called Alat. In order for a ship to embark, the winds have to be just perfect. I waited four days until someone could finally confirm one of these ships would be leaving.
I hopped on a bus to Alat, but I felt it was going too slow and worried I would lose my chance to leave Azerbaijan, so I jumped off the bus to hitchhike to the port.
I made great progress hitchhiking until I got picked up by one man who erroneously claimed the port was closed. I knew he was wrong, but he kept trying to persuade me he wasn’t. The back-and-forth costed me almost forty minutes.
When I finally arrived at the port, I was minute too late. The authorities decided the woman in front of me would be the last person admitted to the port. I was devastated. The British couple who biked in right after me began crying hysterically when they realized they would have to go back.
A port official tried to console them by offering them a ride back to Baku. Regrettably, there would be no room for me in his pickup truck. I began plotting ways to sneak into the boat before ultimately dismissing the idea as needlessly risky.
Disappointed and despondent, I wandered off into the desert and kicked some rocks. A half hour late, as the sun began to set, I flagged down a ride from back to Baku from a port guard on his way home.
I waited another week in Baku before the next ship was cleared for departure. I scrambled to the port as fast as I could and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when I was permitted to enter the port.
If you want to know what happened next, well, that is the subject of a whole other article.