Azerbaijan

Monday August 5th – Thursday August 8th

I had no idea what to expect in terms of the climate or landscape of Azerbaijan, but my view out the airplane window gave me the impression of a parched and dusty desert… How wrong first impressions can be! However, Baku did live up to its reputation as the city of wind (smile!)…

Monday August 5th

It is a real joy to stay with family, as I hop from place to place on this journey. Upon arrival at Rena’s home, her family gave me a very warm welcome — first showing me to my room, and then providing a homecooked meal: dougha (a yogurt-based soup with vegetables, eggs, rice), dolma (grape leaves wrapped around a mixture of beef, rice, and mint), and tandir chorek (bread typically prepared in a stone oven).

After dinner, Rena and I took a bus to the subway, as we headed into Baku to explore the downtown. Incidentally, the subway stations and trains of Baku are remarkable in their cleanliness, efficiency, and modern design — so far ahead of New York, Boston, and Washington DC trains that I’ve experienced. And at each stop, a different selection of music would play to let you know which station you were coming into. For safety reasons, I was not permitted to photograph inside, but here are photographs outside of the two stations that we passed through — (1) Friendship of Nations station and (2) Icheri Shahar, the Inner City (also called Old City) station:

Downtown Baku has been modernized in a glamorous way fairly recently, and is an elegant place for an evening stroll. We passed several prominent office buildings, universities, and government buildings as we headed toward the old town. And yes, the wind was everpresent — but being a seasonal event, it came to a stop a few days later. It didn’t seem to bother the hundreds or thousands of people who were also out enjoying the evening.

We stopped to admire a set of statues representing prominent figures of Baku and in particular the arts, I learned that there was a family connection with one, Cafar Cabbarli, who was a friend of Rena’s grandmother’s father. Born into a poverty and difficult circumstances, Cabbarli managed to get an education and later became a prominent writer, poet, journalist, and filmmaker. Rena’s niece, Dilla, was named after one of Cabbarli’s stories, Dilbar.

No evening stroll through Baku would be complete without stopping at the Mado café, where we enjoyed tea and dessert: jasmine tea, biscuits with walnuts and hazelnuts, cherries in sugar, and a layered gelato with blackberry, banana, raspberry, and lemon flavors. Very happy.

…and heading back to the station, we caught a glimpse of the famous set of Flaming Towers. They project various scenes throughout the night, including of course the flames and also a waterfall scene (and more):

Tuesday August 6th

When I hear the phrase “we’re going to drive to the mountains today”, I have learned to tuck away memories of the mountains of New England and open my mind to completely new landscapes and experiences. You never know what scene will unfold. I learned this after witnessing the rolling green hills outside Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia; the elegant yurts at Supara resort in Kyrgyzstan; and the aqua blue water of Big Almaty Lake in Kazakhstan. What would I see in the hills and mountains of Azerbaijan, I wonder??

Rena’s very kind neighbors Baxtiyar and Fizza took us on a driving tour on this day. With the Caspian Sea to the east of Baku, we headed northwest in the direction of Lahich. Initially the scenery was much as I had expected, just like the view from my airplane window when I first arrived — dry and fairly barren. Imagine my surprise when we came across a cyclist at this point; wherever did he come from, and where was he headed?? He stopped to chat with us, and seemed quite pleased with his progress thus far.

I watched sand and dust slowly transform as more and more greenery began to appear. Not long after leaving Baku, we were surrounded by farms and vineyards, eventually stopping for lunch at a vineyard whose restaurant was called Abqora. There, I enjoyed a cherry salad, kebab and a wonderful selection of meats, and of course a lovely, dry red wine.

As we continued, the landscape changed again from lush vineyards to more mountainous regions with exposed rock and sharp-edged ascents. We passed remote restaurants, vendors selling honey and special breads baked on stone ovens at the side of the road.

Lahich is a historical town of less than a thousand people; it is rich with tradition and craftworks, and there is a language spoken in Lahich called Tati, which is unique to the area. The architecture is different as well; I couldn’t help but notice the layers of wood between stone built into the walls of homes and other structures, a technique that I later learned is meant to protect the structures from frequent tremors in the earth.

When you are in Lahich, take time to notice the shops (the people of Lahich are known for their work with copper, for example), the museum (with artifacts dating back 2,000 years), and restaurants or simply places to have tea.

We drove back home to Baku along a different road, initially going further into the mountains where we noticed Choban herders living in tents for the summer and managing their herds of horses and cows… We then stopped to visit the DeMirci museum, home to many ancient artifacts and materials from archeological digs. After a quick dinner nearby, we headed back to the city as the passing scenes changed from green and lush to more arid fields surrounding Baku.

Wednesday August 7th

We returned for more sightseeing in Baku today, this time in daylight for a full walking tour. Suddenly, the windy season ended and we were able to enjoy the walk without the blustery effects of the previous days.

I was most impressed with the area alongside the Caspian Sea; the subtle, modern designs of things as ordinary as park benches and rubbish bins were the finishing touches to an already beautiful city. We strolled through a miniature Venice as we made our way to the National Carpet Museum (in the shape of a rolled-up carpet). Much more time was needed to explore the city, but in the brief time that I had there, it was a wonderful experience.

We enjoyed lunch earlier in the day at a place called Mangal in the old city: green salad, dushbara (soup with thumbnail-sized dumplings), qutab (a thin bread filled with either greens or meat), and tandir chorek (a thicker bread) for starters. The main meal, Shah Pilaf, consisted of rice, lavash, chestnuts, pickles and meat all cooked inside a pastry that was ‘carved’ open in front of us… all delicious!

In the afternoon, we met with next year’s Humphreys Fellow who will be coming to Boston University from Azerbaijan, Rustam, and his family. We enjoyed traditional servings of tea, sweets and fruit at the 145 Club overlooking the old city. Rustam – I wish you well in the year ahead, and that you and your family may have many happy memories during your time in the US!

Thank you, Rena, for such wonderful memories from Azerbaijan!! I especially enjoyed the last evening with Mom & Dad on the balcony overlooking Baku… Then it was off to sleep for my early morning flight to Paris on the 8th…

Bonus pictures can be found in the Journals menu — see the blog post on Azerbaijan

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