Phew: Applying for a visa to Azerbaijan is an adventure in itself. One month before departure I applied online, a process that involved scanning an assortment of documents, all to be saved, for some unexplained reason, in jpeg format and then uploaded onto a website which was full of strange letters, lots of Ü’s and Ç’s and Ə’s.
On the final screen, after I entered my credit card details an error message appeared with the following instructions: ‘If you are using an overseas credit card please send a photograph of yourself, holding your official means of identification and the credit card you wish to pay with, to the email below.’ I didn’t send that picture, however in the days following I received an email from Suzanne from the Azerbaijani tourism board and after many emails and even some phone calls from Azerbaijan I finally collected my visa hours before my flight to Baku, phew.
New & Blue: Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is undeniably the highlight of the country, after the tremendous hospitality of Azerbaijani people. The small, walled old town, is, by old town standards, ok. It’s hard to go wrong with cobbled streets, fountains and twisting laneways in which to get lost, but it’s no Stone Town. There are some nice mosques, an array of carpet sellers and the maiden’s tower. Outside the walls is where Baku comes alive and roars into the 21st century.
Since the oil dollars started flowing, Baku’s infrastructure has exploded, with fantastic imagination and mighty ambition. New Baku is home to the audacious flame towers, a set of three buildings built to resemble flames, which at night light up blue, or in the tri colours of the Azerbaijani flag or with images of flickering flames. Pedestrian malls snake throughout the city and connect with a wide, bay side boulevard, host to a large Ferris wheel, carpet museum and Crystal Hall, where Azerbaijan hosted the 2012 Eurovision final. Stadiums are also being prepared for the 1st European Games in June 2015.
True! A popular day trip from Baku is to Qobustan, where a small collection of mud volcanoes gurgle, bubble and pop. Nearby is the training site for the Azerbaijani Women’s Olympic Mud Wrestling team, though for cultural reasons no photos were allowed.
A-choo! In the north of Azerbaijan, close to the Russian border is the town of Quba, founded in the early 1960’s by the lesser known of the three brothers, Dennis Castro. Quba today is home to a post apocalyptic children’s playground and the only known gold statue of its founding father, performing a high five.
The region, in particular the nearby town of Qusar, is significant for being the largest producer of Azerbaijani dust, with excavation continuing year round and armies of children dispersed weekly, emptying small bags of dust all across the country for housewives to sweep of their front doorsteps.
Stew: Seki (pron. Sheki) is Azerbaijan’s prettiest city, a comfortable five hour bus trip from Baku. Resting in the Greater Caucasus mountain range, Seki and the nearby village of Kis (pron. Kish) can be explored in a day, though the relaxed pace, friendly locals, numerous sweet shops and beautiful scenery, including snow capped mountains, may seduce you into staying longer.
Seki, like the rest of Azerbaijan is obsessed with tea and bread. In the evenings, dozens of men gather in the local parks and shops, sharing a pot, their golden smiles flashing from beneath bristly grey moustaches. The gastronomic ‘delight’ of Seki is Piti, essentially a mug of lamb fat, served with chick peas and eaten with bread.
Following a bowl of Piti the only thing that will wash away the taste is of course, a cold glass of Hell.