The name Azerbaijan invokes a sense of mystery. Of a land faraway, of mountains and mud volcanoes, an important stop on the ancient Silk Route, the former Soviet country that we know today came into being in 1991.
At first glance, modern Baku can be overwhelming—bright, shiny and impressive. Yet slowly, the more you discover the cultural influences, the more it all makes sense. Outside the modernity of this capital lies a completely different country. Highrises are replaced by highways, where the scenery changes every couple of kilometres. Mountain roads lead to spectacular finds such as Lahic Village, a place that until recently could only be accessed for six months in a year. You also see architectural gems in Surakhani (the Fire Temple built by Parsi traders from Gujarat), Shamakhi (the Juma Mosque, the oldest and largest in the country) and Sheki (with caravanserai inns and the Church of Kish). Then there are the vineyards in certain regions, slowly rebuilding their wine production after decades of Communist rule.
The universal language of Bollywood immediately breaks the ice. “India?” You nod. “Raj Kapoor,” they smile. The then-popularity of the Kapoors in former Soviet countries, spills over to Shah Rukh Khan today.
Azerbaijan is still forming its national identity. A young country with a varied cultural impact, its traditional countryside is far removed from the cosmopolitan city, but the warmth is real. “Selfie?” asks a young spice seller at Zernava, whipping out a slightly-outdated mobile. You oblige and before you know it, he’s handed you a parcel of saffron as a friendly gesture. “Good luck,” he says.
If there’s only one reason you choose to visit Azerbaijan, we say, let that be for its people.