SUNDAY TIMES - Azerbaijan: A rare stop on the old Silk Road
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Sunday Times Travel By Marianne Schwankhart, 2015-12-06 00:02:00.0

Azerbaijan: A rare stop on the old Silk Road

The tallest buildings in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, known as Flame Towers, rise above a timeworn street.
Image: Marianne Schwankhart

Marianne Schwankhart explores the mysterious attractions and unexplored treasures of Azerbaijan

The wet earth gurgled and bubbled around me - thick, slushy mud volcanoes oozing from the ground, later to dry out and form a lunar landscape. Just off the Caspian Sea, they are caused by the release of gases and liquids - and Azerbaijan has more than any other country in the world.

Further north, just outside Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is where the first oil was drilled in 1848. And on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula, a natural gas fire known as Yanar Dag ("burning mountain") crackles constantly, shooting flames as high as 3m into the air.

Azerbaijan, in fact, is known as the land of fire.

A mud volcano of Qobustan, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea. Image: Marianne Schwankhart

It is 25 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, and it has already established a wealthy economy from its rich oil and gas deposits. Its currency, the manat, is just ahead of the US dollar.

Geographically, Azerbaijan is part of Europe - sharing borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran - but the country identifies strongly with Middle Eastern traditions and history. You don't really see many tourists but Westerners are starting to investigate the land that previously was off limits. Some Swedish travellers I met said they had wanted to experience the country before it became too much like Western Europe.

In the streets of Baku, you see expensive cars, high-end boutiques and restaurants. On the long promenade, people walk and socialise at the end of the day, rent bicycles, use the public gym. The odd ice-cream stand also sells the local Xirdalan beer. It is predominantly a secular Muslim country, and with such strong ties to Russia, vodka is very much a part of the daily life, although you may still get a fine for kissing in public.

Baku as a city reveals strong tensions between old and new: modern, impressive architecture rises on the remains of a land that has been worshipped, fought over and milked for its resources.

A young local on the promenade in Baku, Azerbaijan. Image: Marianne Schwankhart

The Fire temple in Baku was a place of Zoroastrian or Hindu worship (the architecture suggests both), founded over a natural gas vent during the 17th and 18th centuries. A holy fire burnt continuously here until heavy exploitation dried up the natural flow in 1969. The flames seen today are fed by Baku's main gas supply.

It is now a museum where one can see evidence of the gutters that transported the gas from the temple to devotees' quarters and self-torture chambers, where they slept on beds of lime and sacrificed pomegranates to the gods.

Mausoleums, tombs and mosques dating back to the seventh century all over the country tell some of their story, from Persian rule, when Zoroastrianism was adopted, to Christianity and eventually Islam.

On the road that leads north to the Russian border, you pass many of these historic remains as they were left - having escaped being modernised and turned into museums.

The Diri Baba Mausoleum in Mareza is tucked on the side of the mountain. Hundreds of years ago, people would bring their sick to be touched and healed by Sheikh Diri Baba. Today, some still visit his mausoleum in the hope that his powers live on.

Lahic is a small village at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, said to be the oldest human settlement (3,000 years) in Azerbaijan, where master copper craftsmen originate.

Here, a young man lent me his horse to explore the quiet cobblestone streets, ideal for film sets. Not much English is spoken but with a bit of Russian or Turkish, you can get around. I managed to get around with some universal tourist sign language but limited my shopping to a packet of sumac from a spice vendor.

Nearby Gabala is where most tourists will flock with its ski resort, which opened two years ago, and Savalan wine estate (since 2010).

Both these attractions are sleek, modern and hi-tech - and where else can you go from a vineyard to a ski slope in 5km?

On a rainy day, a tour through the Beltmann piano factory is engaging and recommended.

Back in Baku, it's also worth paying a visit to the Alley of Honour, a public cemetery and memorial, where several of the nation's most important figures lie. One of these is Heydar Aliyev, father of the Azeri nation and the former president, who played a significant role in the independence of the country (His son, Ilham Aliyev, succeeded him after his death in 2003). In addition to the impressive historic graves, the alley is more like a manicured park, full of grand and immaculate statues of the most cherished Azerbaijanis.

- Marianne Schwankhart was a guest of the ministry of Azerbaijan, South Africa

IF YOU GO...

GETTING THERE: The best way to get there is a nine-hour flight to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and another three-hour flight to Baku.

GETTING AROUND: Very few people speak English once you leave Baku and a guide is recommended. Rashad Sadikhov is young with a great sense of humour, is also conscientious and will go the extra mile. E-mail rashadsadikhov@yahoo.com or phone +994-55-884-5715.

EATING: The food is Middle Eastern with the most delicious tomatoes and baby cucumbers, served as a starter to every meal. Pomegranates are a staple. Lamb chops, lamb kofta and lamb "pancakes" are great for the first few days - until you don't want to see lamb anymore. Sturgeon fish from the Caspian Sea is unusual and rich in flavour. Dill and sumac accompanies almost every meal. A local chai tea is served at the end of a meal and vodka continuously throughout a meal.