With limited flights in and out of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where I live, and a sweeping cold spell in the region, I honed in on Azerbaijan as my next birthday present for myself. Landing in the capital of Baku, I immediately felt the modernity, development, and wealth of the oil industry in the country. The airport shuttle took me down a wide multi-lane boulevard, passing the new and curved Heydar Aliyev cultural center, past towering glass buildings in the shape of a water drop or a flame. I did a double take when the Ministry of Taxes passed by, as the building was designed in a stack of actually rotating cubes.

Down the Promenade of the Caspian Sea

After a brief walk to my hostel and checking in, I made a beeline for the promenade bordering the Caspian Sea. From the shaded narrow street emerging out into a bright burst of sun and powerful gust of wind, all my senses were simultaneously overwhelmed. The 24-kilometer-long seaside promenade is supposedly the longest in the world, and as I looked up and down, tightening my hood against the cutting breeze, my eyes greedily took all the sights in.

Far down the boardwalk to the left, the construction of a new crescent-shaped hotel looked nearly complete. A half dozen small piers, dotted with couples and workers on lunch breaks, jutted out into the cold water in front of me. Just to my back, a small kiosk with cold sodas and ice cream stood amidst the bare trees, patiently waiting for the warmer months to bring customers.

I headed to the right, catching a glimpse of the 2012 Eurovision Hall of Music at a distance but ultimately letting my gaze fall towards the unmistakable outline of the most famous landmark in town- the Flaming Towers. The trio of skyscrapers reach almost 600 feet, are said to be visible from all around the city, and are home to a hotel, residential apartments and offices. Later on that night, I was lucky to catch the rotating images of the flag on the towers’ LED screens, then silhouetted figures holding up the flag, and then flames licking the towers.

I met up with a friend, Vugar, en-route to an enormous metal flower. “That’s not a flower, it’s our mall!” Indeed, the new mall was spectacularly crafted to resemble an open flower with the petals reaching out to welcome visitors. At one end, though, was my favorite part – an enclosed slide, sadly only for children, which started from the fourth and fifth floor all the way to the cushioned bottom. I made him wait with me for at least 30 minutes, hoping to see a brave child take the plunge, but no such luck.

On the back side of the mall was “Little Venice”, the nickname given to an Italian restaurant which was situated in the middle of an artificial dam and series of white bridges, a popular backdrop for family and couples photoshoots. The goal for me, though, was the national carpet museum built in the shape of – surprise, surprise – an enormous carpet. The six-year construction period seemed to have paid off – not only did Vugar puff up with pride at the unique design of the museum, but the entire ground floor was dedicated to the diligence and status of the museum as the largest display of Azerbaijani carpets in the world.

Above the shop, I went through two more floors of carpets hanging on the walls, older historical variations and styles of carpeting, and different patterns with meanings for each peacock or snake. A sign at the entrance also showed off the reason for the braille and square samples of carpeting tacked down by the captions; the museum made impressive intentional efforts to be inclusive of disabilities.

From a Beautiful Viewpoint

By sunset, I wanted to catch the view of the city from a higher vantage point. Vugar pointed me towards the steps to the most well-known viewpoint, but at the bottom of the wide staircase, I spotted a glass box with a man waving me over. “Come, come! Funicular go now!” Vugar nudged me forward, and for 1 manat (approximately $0.60 USD), we coasted smoothly up the cable railway to Martyrs’ Lane.

Besides having windy platforms for panoramic shots, Martyrs’ Lane is also a beautiful and solemn memorial park for the victims of the Soviet Army during the January Massacre of the fight for Azerbaijani independence. As my friend pointed out, the buried victims also included those from the ethnic Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict called the Nagorno-Karabakh War. I noted during my slow stroll the number of fresh flowers on clean tombstones, a testament to the ongoing respect for the freedom fighters and innocents lost in previous conflicts.

Down a windy road, I found one of the back entrances to the Baku Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where I met up with another friend Afsana. Although a few thousand people still reportedly live there, I saw only floods of tourists up and down the cobbled streets in between souvenir shops. The Maiden Tower, a massive hamam and a marionette theater were all on the way to what my friend most wanted to show me – the miniature book museum. It was exactly what the name implies, a massive room filled with glass shelves of the world’s tiniest books from different countries. One shelf had tiny Bibles, another carried dozens of French literature, and a third was a sea of red Communist Manifestos. I was personally drawn to a tiny pair of book earrings, in the same shelf as books so small they needed magnifying glasses to read anything.

Two Different Musical Performances

Out the side entrance to Old Town, I followed Afsana to the Azerbaijan State Academic Philharmonic where her friends met us with their complimentary tickets from their companies. Evidently, it wasn’t uncommon to receive concert tickets from the HR department as a reward or employee present throughout the year. The front row seating was unbeatable – I could see every bead of sweat on the conductor’s brow, feel the vibration of the strings, and tension from the percussion instruments throughout my body. The encore after the 8-song set was the rousing finale from “The Nutcracker”, cheerfully on point for the holiday season.

After bidding the group farewell, I strolled through the pedestrian area down Nizami Street to another musical performance, a friend’s gig at a local restaurant. En-route, I found myself in the center of the final week of the Christmas market, with wooden huts steaming from their ovens making Hungarian Kürtöskalács, a sweet bread, and bubble tea drinks. I couldn’t resist chuckling out loud at the mascots walking around as large sunflower seed packets, a classic snack for the region.

Just behind a Friends Central Perk cafe and around the French bakery chain Paul’s, I found my friend Namig’s restaurant where he went through Azerbaijani songs, Russian ballads, and American soft rock classics during his first set. During his break, he came over to join my table and a waiter brought over a “tea table”. I looked over the huge tray of sweets, from apricot jam to dried berries, unsure how two people would ever be able to finish them all with one pot of tea. “We don’t use sugar, just these sweets!”

Namig was also surprised to hear I’d never tried feijoa compote, so I excitedly tried the boiled juice drink with this new fruit. Bizarrely falling somewhere between a guava and pear, I enjoyed the cooling drink while my friend discussed the medical tourism of Azerbaijanis in Iran, as they’re the largest ethnic population there (16%). He also clarified why there were so many Turkish flags flying side by side, and equal in size, to the Azerbaijani flag. Through several conflicts with Armenia, some more recent than others, the Turkish came to the assistance of Azerbaijan who appreciated the support and have embraced them as “brothers”. It was a beautiful sentiment, and very visibly represented all throughout the country, which I had rarely seen anywhere else.

Ancient Carvings and Rejuvenating Mud

The next day, I joined a day trip tour to visit a few key sites in the region. The guide, Samir, enthusiastically welcomed everyone, showing off his knowledge of each respective nationality and country present. As the van drove out towards the first stop, Samir pointed out the significance behind the Azerbaijani flag: green for Islamic culture, red for revolution and freedom, blue for the Turkic people, the moon for Islam, and the 8-pointed star for the 8 ethnic groups in the country.

When the van pulled up to the entrance of Gobustan, Samir cut short his rant regarding the authenticity of the February 7 presidential elections to introduce the UNESCO World Heritage site. Since the 1960s, the limestone rocks have been protected due to their unique carvings dating back 40,000 years and unique formations, which Samir attributed to the regular earthquakes in the country, natural erosion and water melting.

With a nostalgic far-away look in his eyes, Samir reminisced about how when he visited as a child in the 1980s, he and his classmates walked through cave structures to view the rock carvings but now, following a grand excavation in 2012, visitors were lucky to have an easy walk with descriptions, drawings and well-marked open-air routes. I trailed after the group, taking my time absorbing the lines and crude circles depicting buffalo, snakes, and dogs. The most remarkable images (out of approximately 6,000!) even included plants, boats, and hunters all around the wild pomegranate trees.

When our van zoomed on, passing the prison just outside of Gobustan, Samir quickly commented that the inmates were primarily members of the Islamic Party carrying out life sentences since death sentences were banned in 1993. “It’s not like there are murderers or something, Azerbaijan is a safe country!” he crowed proudly.

I knew the second stop was supposed to be the mud volcanoes, pushed up by the natural gas from the center of the Earth, but I saw only construction when the van stopped. My curious expression seemed mirrored on the others, until Samir started walking and informed us that in front of the volcanoes were the sites of future spas and hotels taking advantage of the natural mud’s healing and rejuvenating properties. A convenient boardwalk led the group in a loop around craters large enough to fit 8-10 people to small “teenage” ones still bubbling innocently. When Samir warned me not to get too close while taking a photo, he referenced a Canadian tourist that fell in the mud volcano taking a selfie the previous year, and I immediately pulled back from the edge.

The underground resources of gas and oil, I learned, has shaped much of the country’s past, present and future economy, business, geopolitics, and even landscape. On the way to the third stop, I could make out the oil fields in the distance and pipes of various colors sticking out – yellow represented national gas lines, blue pipes were for water, and white pipes for the oil lines. As the father of the oil industry, Azerbaijan was one of the first oil fields in the world, had billions in investments from companies like Total and BP, and it was fascinating to see how much of this impacted every facet of their lives.

Fire Worshippers and Zoroastrianism

Yanar Dagh, a hill on eternal fire because of the gas seeping out of the sandstone, was the next stop. The brief visit to the small museum and large mountainside flame drove home for me how much of the pride of the nation revolved around not just a financially profitable resource but also the sacred and religious symbolism it held for the people. It set up the culminating attraction perfectly, the Ateshgah of Baku, or the Fire Temple.

I intentionally avoided looking up too much information or pictures beforehand, wanting to be surprised by what I saw in person. When the van pulled into the parking lot, and I ducked through the entrance of some stone walls, following the group and Samir, I was pleasantly surprised to find the wind blocked by the sturdy walls in a small open space. It had apparently gone through quite a long and tumultuous history, but still stood strong, now no longer a place of worship but a museum. Small individual chambers, which were formerly monks’ rooms, contained exhibits on different aspects of the Hindus, Sikhs, and 2600-year-long Zoroastrian history.

One room had a glass case with a thin white top that devout believers wore underneath their clothing as a constant reminder to have “good thoughts, good words, (and) good deeds”. Another had lifesize models of Zoroastrian priests crushing up powders and spices for their enchanting scents, and wealthy Iranian traders exchanging pomegranates for prayers at the fire altar with Zoroastrian priests. This community was well-connected and involved in jewelry, banking, and every other sort of trade, though the guide acknowledged that most people today – including myself, admittedly – think first, or sometimes only, of Freddy Mercury, a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara, arguably the most famous Zoroastrian in modern times.

At the central fire altar in the middle of the courtyard, Samir beckoned me over to demonstrate which stone to stand behind in order to pay tribute to the holy fire. Far enough to avoid being burned but close enough to feel its warmth, I copied his finger and hand pose, then obediently placed a pomegranate on the edge of the fire pit, as instructed. “This can only be eaten after your prayer, not before!” I closed my eyes and focused on well wishes for safe travels and good health for all those around me, doing my best to honor the centuries of dedicated worshippers, traders, and pilgrims that came before.

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Elle picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles, although she’s been working and living abroad continuously since 2011. Currently living in Tajikistan, she’s traveled to over 110 countries and enjoys playing volleyball when she can.

Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01

 

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