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27.06.2018

On our third evening in Baku, I met Giles, an employee at one of Azerbaijan’s countless oil and gas companies, who showed me crude oil commodity prices on a NASDAQ app. We were at a bar called Eagles that called itself a pub. “You see?” he said, pointing to what I assume was a heartening rise in oil prices.

Earlier that day, we’d performed the Google Maps equivalent of going somewhere by closing your eyes and pointing to a spot. It took us about three-quarters of an hour and an embarrassing bus ride (Baku buses don’t take cash, only prepaid transport cards; a stranger paid for us) to find ourselves at Eagles. Here, we encountered a stuffed eagle that looked disbelieving of its afterlife, and Giles, assuring us of petroleum’s secure place in our future.

Prior to my journey, my excitement about Azerbaijan was either met with “Where is that?” or “Why?” To be honest, the reason my childhood friend and I chose it was, well, childish: we have a pact to holiday only in places with salty lakes. (We will run out soon.)

One of the first things I learned about Azerbaijan was the enormity of its oil booty; it is known, unsurprisingly, as the Land of Fire. The silhouette of Baku, its capital, is dominated by a set of crass modern skyscrapers called the Flame Towers. Not much farther is the Fire Mountain (Yanar Dag), which is literally just that – a mountain on fire because of underlying flammable flab.

Also, one-third of the world’s mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan – Qobustan, to be precise. Skidding over a lunar landscape in our 25-year-old Lada sedan, driven by Wahid of the all-gold teeth, we could have been in a 1980s treasure hunt movie. Alas, all we found when we reached these otherworldly mud spouts slowly belching underground hydrocarbon gases, was a selfie stick, and a Frenchman dunked in a mud bath.

**

The history and fate of this country are tied to its petroleum, and petroleum extraction is not a pretty sight. Any road out of Baku will lead you through apocalyptic scenes of oil and gas extraction industry. However, the journey is necessary, for some of the most scenic and historical areas in this part of the world lie beyond this diorama of the detritus of modern human existence. Out of the oil multiplex, the Caucasian mountains to the north and northwest of Azerbaijan transform the landscape into a lush paradise built for picnics in the summer and skiing in the winter.

The other, most strikingly beautiful thing: over centuries, Islam, Judaism and various sects of Christianity have milled through this very small country. An astonishingly well-restored Albanian church that houses ancient burial sites, in Kis (pronounced Qish) is one such: its foundations can be traced back to the tenth century AD. A Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Ateshgah near Baku was built around the same time by Parsis, and later restored by Indian Hindu traders who passed through the area. There’s also Qirmizi Qasabah, or “town of red roofs,” the world’s only all-Jewish town outside of Israel; it’s nestled against a gentle river and at the foot of the mountains. Walking the town looking for synagogues, we were invited into a willow-shaded chaikhana (a café, always full only of men), treated to tea and candy and a game of what looked like dominoes.

All of this religious diversity is embedded in the mortar of Azheri hospitality and kindness, the sort I have only experienced before in another Central Asian country – Kyrgyzstan. From Mubariz, our driver in the mountains, whose life’s motto was “no problem,” to the friendliness of our home-stay hosts, our long journeys were always softened by their warm touch.

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What to do

After a few days in Baku, we first headed into the Quba valley and our cozy little home stays in the remote villages of Laza and Griz (top choice). We returned to Baku to sojourn into the second valley of Sheki and Lahic: the perfect historical top off to the trip.

I recommend three days in the capital followed by road journeys into the north and northwest, and forays onward into any direction – to Russia, to Georgia, to Armenia, down to Iran.

What to eat

Azheri meals are as much a show of local bounty as of hospitality. At local home-stays, lunch and dinner tables are a reflection of their gardens. One family presented us with jams and compotes made from peaches and apples straight from the garden, as well as rose desserts. Yagut, one of our hostesses, bid me farewell with a bottle of fresh rose syrup she made herself: back in Delhi, I made tea (another gift) with this fragrant, delicate concoction. Our breakfast was often eggs from cackling chickens running amok outside, even butter and milk from their own livestock. This earth doesn’t just produce oil.

In Baku, local meals are meat-heavy – try dinner at Firuze and a lunch with a view at the Terrace Garden in old Baku. Thousands of cheap döner shops are kind on wallets as well as tastebuds.

Where to go

Within Baku: The Icheri Sheher, or the Old City, is the heart of tourist enterprise – outdoor cafes, restaurants, art galleries, guided walks, fake antique shops, abundant male staring and some catcalling. It’s also the location of most of Baku’s historical sites.

Essential monuments: The meticulously restored Maiden Tower, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the delightful museum of miniature books (world’s only!) all within a dizzying complex of lanes, warrens and cobbled streets.

(Just remember that all your photos of Icheri Sheher will be ruined by the Flame Towers, whose unwanted chrome and glass-clad silhouettes dominate every frame.)

Museums: Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature, National History Museum, Baku Museum of Modern Art. The Carpet Museum (designed like a rolled up carpet) is a must see. Museums and interpretations centres in Baku are of sublime quality – designed for the curious and spatially challenged.

Near Baku: The Qobustan petroglyph reserve for extremely well-preserved rock art and carvings and a panoramic view of the Caspian shore. Day-trips include the mud volcanoes and the Ateshagh Fire Temple.

Outside Baku: Definitely head to Quba and Sheki. These valleys are separated by a high ridge which can only be hiked. If driving or taking buses, circle back to Baku, then head out again towards the neighbouring valley. Hikers, there are wonderful meadow and waterfall walks around the villages of Laza and Griz. History lovers, don’t miss Kis, Sheki and Lahic.

Oh, and say I sent you if you go to Eagles. Ask Giles for a, hem, crude joke.

Contact Sabina Qasomiva at Bag Baku (Instagram: Bag.Baku) for itineraries and planning.

Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance writer of no fixed address. Read her last story for bpb, about jhal-muri in CR Park, Delhi, here.

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