A report from the traveler with suggestion of what to see if you happen to be in Azerbaijan
In terms of sights and things so see and do, the obvious starting point is Baku. Upon your initial contact with the city you will be completely charmed by this mixture of oriental and western influences, particularly noticeable in the beautiful architecture, but also in the cuisine and the general attitude of the people living here, both curious about the outside world and rightfully proud of having maintained their own culture, despite many Iranian, Turkish and Russian invasions over the centuries.
The Old Town of Baku (Icheri Sheher) is beautiful, and has retained its original, medieval walls. Just walking through the narrow streets here is a pleasure in itself. The buildings have a slightly Ottoman appearance, but now and then, you come across a really old structure that transports you back a few centuries ago, when Baku was but a small town, with no easily available drinking water, and subject to howling winds and the capricious tides of the Caspian Sea. The better-known points of reference in the Old City are the Shirvanshah Palace, which is one of the only remaining palaces in the country (along with the one in Shekhi). The architecture is very beautiful, but the inside of the buildings is totally whitewashed, and does not retain any original finishings. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting sight to spend 30 minutes to an hour discovering. Plus, you have some beautiful views of the city from here - check out in particular the interesting position of the modern TV tower up on the cliff towering above the city, with the centuries-old minarets of the Palace. Quite intriguing.
Then, the other unavoidable sight it the so-called Maiden Tower, a round tower, apparently unique in its construction, the function of which historians cannot properly determine. Was it a defensive structure, a Zoroastrian sacrificial altar? No one apparently knows for sure. You can climb up to the top, for some great views over the Old City, and off into the Caspian Sea. Definitely one of the must-sees of Baku. Oh, and there's a great art gallery just on the little side street next to the Tower, right next to a bookstore that's also fun to wander into. And for anyone interested in carpets, most of the shops are around here too.
Otherwise, the main pleasure of the city is walking around the Old City itself, then circling its walls from the outside to admire the incredible palaces and houses that the oil barons of the early XX-th century had built for themselves. Some buildings stand out in particular, for example, the Opera House is simply breathtaking. The Philharmonic building is also quite beautiful, and in general you'll have an enjoyable full day just walking around gazing at these wonderful buildings.
A few Soviet constructions are also worth your time. For example, starting from the Maiden Tower, you can follow the Promenade along the seafront, until you reach Government House (still called "Dom Soviet" by many), an incredible product of "Gothic Stalinist" architecture, that looks like something out of an E.C. Escher sketchbook. Simply amazing. How to describe it? Try and recall the mental image you had in your mind after reading Franz Kafka's "The Castle". That'll get you started! Really, Soviet gigantism at its best!
Now, every city has its main focal point - and here, it's Fountain Square. This is where you'll find what few tourists there are in Baku, as well as the cinemas, the theatres, some great shops and bookstores, many restaurants, cafes, bars, and a couple of great jazz places (for ex., the Karavan Club). You also have the Nizami Literature Museum nearby, with its facade one of the most recognizable images of the city: all pastel colours, with recessed alcoves and statues of famous Azeri historical figures standing there. At night, when it's lit up, it makes for a beautiful sight.
What else? Some very good restaurants in the Old City: Mugham Club, Silk and Spice, Karavanseray Restaurant. All located in the general vicinity of the Maiden Tower, serving excellent food in wonderfully evocative settings. Otherwise, the restaurants in the Fountain Square area are also okay, albeit a little less exotic!
You could see most of Baku in one day, but two days will also allow you to drive out to see the oil fields which are a little to the South of the downtown area, and you might also make it up to Martyrs' Lane, with a great monument which overlooks the city and the Sea.
Outside of town, you will quite enjoy the Absheron peninsula, which is usually described as an industrial wasteland (which it is...). Use the Mark Elliott to point you around, but here a few enjoyable sights.
First of all, make your way to the Surakhani fire-temple (Ateshgah), an extremely evocative site, mentionned by travellers in the area for centuries, including Alexandre Dumas in his Caucasus tales. It's an old Zoroastrian (or proto-zoroastrian, to be exact) temple, built by a fire-worshipping sect from India, some members of which established themselves in the area a couple of centuries ago. Today, it's still intact, but is set in a dusty, ugly city - something which somehow adds to the anachronistic character of this place, like a long-lost remain of a bygone people. Well worth your time.
Nearby, Amirjan village is great. It holds a beautiful mosque, surrounded by old houses piled one on top of the other, as well as a few old, pre-Soviet buildings that used to belong to the oil barons, but were then turned into government buildings. I got inside one of them, and there are still a few old remains left - again, an intriguing juxtaposition of epochs and cultures. Regarding the mosque itself, when we arrived there were a few guys hanging around. They were rather curious to meet up with tourists, and amazed there was a map of their village in the Mark Elliott book! So pretty soon they got the keys to the minarets, and we were climbing up all the way to the top of these minarets which overlook the village. Fantastic views and a great experience.
From here, we made our way to Ramana to view the remains of an old castle / watchtower, which now overlooks unending oil fields, with pools of oil everywhere, rickety oil derricks, oil pumps seemingly going on forever. You can't get much more environnmentaly-damaged than this! It's like a post-apocalyptic landscape.
The town of Nardaran then holds a brand-new mosque, built with some financial help from Saudi Arabia, and this is apparently the most conservative area of the country - and actually, the only place where I saw any woman covered up with a veil. Because in Baku itself, the norm in terms of clothing is rather revealing!
From Nardaran, we made our way to the northern coast of the Absheron peninsula, where the beach is rocky. As is often the case in the former Soviet Union, industrial debris, trash, burned-out shells of cars and machinery litter the seashore - and yet, you've got some people wading into the water to swim!
Finally, we drove to the flaming hillside of Yanar Dag, where some natural gas pockets were accidentally set on fire decades ago, and now burn on forever (or until the gas runs out!). Again, quite an evocative sight.
By and large, the Absheron Peninsula is well worth a day of your time. The landscape is scarred by industry beyond belief, the towns are dusty and dirty, there's trash everywhere - and yet, people live here, work here, and it just gives you a better understanding of what life can be like in these former industrial areas of the Soviet Union.
With having more time drive up to the North of the country, towards the Caucasus mountains and reach the village of Xinaliq.
Before arriving, though, you pass through the suburbs of Sumgayit, or "Earth after Bomb". This is really what the planet will look like after all the natural resources have been depleted, the people are dead from toxic poisining, and the factories have rotted and rusted away. Driving along the highway, you are surrounded by gigantic factories, now abandonned, rail cars rusting away under the sky, enormous pipes running both under and above the road, encircling you like in a science-fiction movie. This is really what the expression "post-apocalyptic" stands for. If you're driving through around sunset, then the orange glow will give everything a ghostly feel - this is no doubt what it'll feel like when the planet finally gives up on us.
Further on, we stopped at Besh Barmaq, a mountain shrine, set in a rocky outcrop rising out of the hills overlooking the Caspian coastline. This is a great place, very evocative - which although nominally Muslim, is really a testament to the animist beliefs still underpinning much of Azeri Islam. You've got "prayer flags" like in Tibet, tied around tree branches, and then in the various little caves and cracks up in the the rocks, there are pieces of cloth or other offerings left by travellers. To get there, you just leave the main highway, and drive up for about 10 minutes. Then, walk up another 15 minutes, up rickety stairs, ladders, paths, until you start reaching the main rock formations. Great views of the Caspian await you - all in all, a wonderful spot to visit.
We finally arrived in the town of Quba, which is okay, but nothing special. There are a couple of old hammams in town, some nice mosques and wooden, Russian houses. Across the river is the Jewish village of Krasnaya Sloboda. You'll find a few synanogues there, and marvel at the fact that the streets are not cracked, the sidewalks are brand new, there a light posts at every corner, the houses are freshly painted and huge, and Mercedes cars are lining the streets. Quite a difference from across the river!
However, the real reason to drive all the way up is the expedition to Xinaliq village, up in the Caucasus mountains. This is an unforgettable experience, that I would recommend to anyone tempted by a visit to Azerbaijan. You will truly never see such beautiful mountain scenery - the Caucasus that I dreamt of seeing, right there before my eyes! Amazing clouds suspended in a bright blue sky, green mountains, snowy peaks, a few horses, an eagle soaring up above, having lunch with some shepherds at their summer campsite, discovering a natural gas-fuelled flame, set in a natural amphitheater facing these mountains. Really, a fantastic place.
I used the services of Xheyraddin Gabbarov, a Xinaliq native who's set up a pretty efficient operation there, and was very satisfied. You can find his website here: www.xinaliq.com. Check out also: www.kiffer.us
Certainly one of the most unforgettable places I've ever been in my life.
To reach Xinaliq, you need a sturdy 4WD. Indeed, the road is spectacularly beautiful - but do realize: there is no "road" per se. At first, you follow a dirt track - ok, that's fine. But after a while, there's no track left, and your driver is just driving the jeep over rocks, crossing rivers with the water almost up to the top of the side doors. It truly feels like you're driving to the ends of the Earth. And then, when you finally reach Xinaliq after driving through this valley boxed in by mountains on each side, it is as if you'd reached one of those magical "lost" villages where time has stood still forever. The stone houses, piled one on top of each other, and the surrounding mountains, will no doubt totally captivate you.
My friend and I spent the night in the house of a local family who were so very welcoming. My Russian is quite limited, but my friend speaks fluently, so that was a really great experience. Then, the next morning, we set out on foot (our guide was on a horse) to hike up the mountain pass, over to the village of Laza on the other side.
I've really never seen such breathtaking scenery anywhere. Absolutely amazing! There's a little eternal flame, set ablaze from a natural gas vent in the ground. In most guidebooks, they will call this an ateshgah (although it has nothing to do with Zoroastrianism). Again, the setting is fantastic. We had lunch at a shepherds' summer camp, close to the summit, and then walked down on the other side to Laza.
Beware, the walk down is completely exhausting, whereas the walk up was fairly straightforward. You're talking serious mountain hiking here, and way up near the pass over, the oxygen is starting to become a little more rare, so your breathing is more difficult.
This takes up a full day, unless you decide to rent a horse for yourself - then of course, everything is easier and faster. If you're walking, be warned that it's a pretty strenuous expedition.
Regarding Laza village, it's quite small, but the mountains around it are so spectacular it will no doubt leave a lasting impression in your mind. You can either stay in the village with local people, or at the beautiful Suvar Resort, a couple of kilometers into the mountains. When we were there, the Suvar was undergoing renovation, but its setting is fantastic, overlooking deep gorges, close to some waterfalls and facing the greenest mountainsides you'll ever see.
Driving back down South from Laza, try and stop in the charming village of Aniq, which has some great old wooden buildings, a beautiful old mosque, and a very nice cemetery with impressive mausoleums, set out in this wide grassy plateau. Truly, northern Azerbaijan is worth the trip.
Anyway, from there, we drove back down all the way to Baku.