January 2015: As part of a longer 10-day trip to Ukraine, Bulgaria and Turkey, my friend Frank and I spent 3 days traveling in Azerbaijan. We visited the oil plush flashy capital, Baku and the arid otherworldly landscapes of the arid interior and its mud volcanos and we also spent a night in the small mountain village of Lahic in a family homestay. To enter Azerbaijan, I had to apply for a visa, and the application was very thorough and one worrying question on the application which i had to lie about because it would have resulted in instant denial, was, “did you go to Nagorno Karabakh”- a region the country is fighting over? Nagorno Karabakh is a touchy subject and claimed by Azerbaijan but the only way to enter is via Armenia. I knew I needed to cover my tracks well because other travelers in Azerbaijan that were discovered to have had been to Nagorno Karabakh were arrested for what Azerbaijan considers to be illegal entry to their stolen territory.

 

 

My route in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is a central Asian country that sits on the Caspian Sea and It is one of the leading oil producing regions in the region. Like so many other countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union, it is autocratic, and the Aliyev family has run the country since its independance-1st father and now son after father’s death-and murals of them are found all over the country.

 

 

Ex-President of Azerbaijan and father of current one on yet another billboard, Heydar Aliyev’s cult of personality 

Ex-President of Azerbaijan and father of current one on yet another billboard, Heydar Aliyev’s cult of personality 

Evidence of the country’s oil wealth is rampant in the capitol Baku. Flashy buildings, world’s tallest flag poles that cost millions to make, marble laded pedestrian tunnels, towering Ferris wheels on the Caspian Sea and luxury cars everywhere.

 

Old meets new in Baku

Word’s biggest flag pole soon to be overcome by some other dictatorship country

Locals relaxing on Caspian Sea

Ferris wheel on Caspian Sea that my friend Frank and I had to ourselves

Ferris wheel on Caspian Sea that my friend Frank and I had to ourselves

Ferris wheel on Caspian Sea that my friend Frank and I had to ourselves

Marble pedestrian tunnels

Eating Azeri food at a local restaraunt 

I hired a taxi driver through our hotel in Baku and negotiated a price to travel across the country for a few days to the mud volcanoes, Gobustan Petroglyphs and the mountain village of lahic. Gobustan was located high on a plateau overlooking the arid lowlands and the Caspian Sea below. There we saw ancient petroglyphs and graffiti left by a Roman soldier who had once passed this way showing just how expansive the Roman empire was.

 

Gobustan Petroglyphs

Gobustan Roman Grafitti

Gobustan Petroglyphs

Finding the mud volcanoes was not easy, and we found them by trial and error via some very muddy roads that our drivers little Lada would get stuck in. We eventually found them and used plastic bags over our shoes to keep them from getting muddy and stuck. The mud volcanoes evidently are some of the largest in the world and were very active during our visit bubbling and burping up boiling mud.

 

Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano

Baku felt relatively modern but once outside the city, the countryside was decades behind the capitol, and it seemed the oil wealth left the rest of the country behind. I felt like I was traveling during Soviet times where people did whatever they had to do to survive. It was common to see people on the side of the main highway selling live rabbits for food, or fruit or a handful of Caspian Sea fish. Old Lada cars were common, and we passed depressing drab Soviet era towns where everyone would stare at us because foreigners were uncommon. The countryside was fascinating and there was no shortage of interesting sights. We also spotted a few caravans of soldiers heading off to replenish the front lines of the war in Nagorno Karabakh.

 

Highway vendors selling rabbits on the side of the road

Market in a village where fruit is sold from trunks of old lada vehicles

Man in his lada barbecuing meat kebabs for sale on the side of the highway at sunset

Streetside vender 

The picturesque village of Lahic with its stone houses and cobble stone streets was a place I wanted to visit because it is a small mountain village of a 1000 people that dates back thousands of years. The people are well known for their blacksmith skills and Lahic is one of those villages, that once mass tourism picks up in Azerbaijan, will be ruined, so I wanted to have a glimpse of it while I was in country but it was January and the roads going to it might be frozen and we weren’t sure how to organize a place to stay so we decided to just drive there and hope for the best. We arrived in the dark and it was freezing. The small handful of guesthouses in town were all closed so our driver asked around for a homestay and finally one man mentioned he had a few rooms for us to stay in at his house. This worked out perfectly. The man spoke a little bit of English and was a very pleasant host. Frank and I enjoyed exploring the Icey streets of lahic at night. The only nightlife was a small recreation hall in an old stone building where men all gathered in front of wood burning stoves in old fashioned clothing drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and playing traditional board games.

 

Decrepid bridge over the river in lahic village 

Lahic River

Lahic man in the village

Lahic

Blacksmith shop

Lahic

Lahic

Butcher lahic

Lahic man in the village

Mosque

Lahic

Lahic

Lahic Nightlife

Lahic Nightlife

Lahic boy

Soviet era bus stop somethng I am fascinated with because they style of these vary all across the ex-Soviet States and reflect some element of the local culture but are very Soviet in flavor too. They are commonly found crumbling and abandoned all over the Soviet Union States. 

From Lahic the next day, we drove back to Baku and spent one more night there before flying to Ukraine to visit Chernobyl. 

 

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