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June 10th 2017
Published: June 12th 2017
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Azerbaijan is one of those countries that still remain something of a mystery to most. Some people might associate it with Eurovision, others with its frequent hosting of sport events. Yet others think of it as former-USSR, oil-rich, with a poor human rights record. I'll tell you what I knew about it: it's one of the three countries of the Caucasus, so people are actual Caucasians, yes, literally Caucasians, imagine that. Its language is similar to Turkish, the people are predominantly Muslim, and for some reason they hate Armenia. They want Nagorno-Karabakh back from the latter. The closest I've come to Azerbaijan was two years ago, while driving along the Araz River in neighbouring Iran to visit some Armenian monasteries. The soldiers on the Azerbaijani side didn't look friendly, maybe due to the fact that a midget could casually jump across the river and invade their country with his superior martial arts-skills. Time to fill those knowledge gaps and see what Azerbaijan is really like.

After an uncomfortable red-eye flight with a bunch of Irish people (they're here for the football or the rugby or whatever), I arrive in central Baku, where I eat an enormous breakfast of Tandir bread, pomodor-yamurta (tomatoes with egg, similar to the Turkish Menemen), honey, yoghurt and cheese. A lovely babushka bakes the bread in a traditional Tandir oven, which is the same concept as the Indian Tandoori roti. Even after taking it out of the oven's deep bowels, it retains a lot of heat. As a proud bread eater, I eat the whole thing, while the couples on the other tables barely finish half together. Weaklings. Gotta respect that bread. I roll to a nearby park, where I take a nap on a bench.

Baku is a very strange city. Most of it is pretty run-down, but the main roads and the centre are modern and clean, at least superficially. The walled Old Town is a World Heritage Site, together with the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden's Tower. It doesn't look actually old, though, as it seems like every little last stone has been scrubbed, sterilised and reset into the walls. There are three modern high-rise buildings, slightly curved and in three sizes, adding a dildo-like look to their phallic symbolism. In the same vein, Baku sports the world's second-tallest flagmast. Second-tallest, you ask? Well, when it was erected in 2010, it was actually the world's tallest, but fellow Tajik autocrat what's-his-name thought "I'll show ya!", and raised a bigger one in Dushanbe just a few months later to a collective pout among Azerbaijan's strongarm cock comparers.

A quick shout-out to Globalisation: Cheers! The Azerbaijani youth have smart phones where I suppose their hands used to be (like I said, it's my first time here). But they haven't got the memo yet that tattoos are mainstream, thank fuck. Feels a bit like travelling back in time a few years, with people openly staring, pointing, telling their friends, then staring together, stopping strangers and showing them, then pointing and glaring all together. It's refreshing for the first five minutes, then as annoying as it used to be before the hype.

A very welcome sight are the women. Against all rhyme and reason, they are allowed to dress like actual people here. And lo and behold, there is a lot of beauty on display. No hijabs/burkas. Beautiful black hair. Skirts that end above the knee, spaghetti tops, a little bit of cleavage, everything seems to be fair go. Well, it's not quite like Brazil, but you get it. Only a small minority cover up in the now-all-too-familiar moonface/penguin-fashion. And it does make you wonder, why do Muslim women in this Muslim country have the freedom to dress like this? Why is it normal here? Why can't it be normal in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Qatar...? And Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, UK? I credit the Russians. Whatever it is that they did, they were doing a good job. But then, what went wrong in Chechnya and Dagestan?

My usual luck has it that my guide for the tour to Gobustan is a chubby little girl instead of a slick, raven-haired, multilingual Caucasian beauty. Her name's Leyla, and as all the other participants decided not to show up, she puts me on a bus to save on the private vehicle plus driver. When she hears where I'm from, she starts educating me: "In Germany, everybody has everything planned so well all the time. Every hour of the day is perfectly planned, and everything always works, and everybody's always punctual." When I ask her if she's been there, she says: "Oh no, I could never go there. Azerbaijani people need to be able to go to the supermarket all day and sometimes during the night. In Germany, the markets close too early. It's impossible."

I tell her my stray observation about the way women dress. "Yes, it's no problem. We're Muslim, I'm Muslim, but I can wear what I want. Religion should be between you and Allah." YES, FUCK YES, LITTLE GIRL, THANK YOU!!!11!!1! NOW GO PREACH IT! I point out a woman wearing an Iranian-style full-body black chador: "So you don't wanna dress like this?" -"Oh my God, no. This woman is a Wahhabi. They are bad people. They always say "You're not a Muslim", but actually they're not real Muslims." Oh, how I wish the self-righteous German radical Islam apologetics could listen to this conversation.

Outside of Baku we change to a taxi after long negotiations and plentiful gesticulation between Leyla and the driver, with me standing on the side like a rare palm tree. Our first stop are the mud volcanoes, which we reach after half an hour on a bumpy road that doesn't deserve that moniker, and which the old, beat-up Opel isn't really made for. The sight of the volcanoes is somewhere between a dreary and a surreal one. I find myself in the middle of a moon-like, hostile landscape with about twenty small domes spitting mud, with sun-burnt, jagged mountains on one side, and the intense azure of the Caspian Sea on the other side. What I usually do in such situations: I climb up shit, in that case up those little volcanoes. They are happily bubbling away like a Mexican selling trinkets on the metro in DF. When I cautiously sink my hand into the mud, I find it's cold, much to my surprise. Locals say it's good for your skin and your health, yet I don't see anybody jumping in or any mud spas being built. The little fellas are not to be underestimated, though. Every twenty or so years on average, one of them explodes, shooting flames hundreds of metres into the sky, and covering the surrounding area in tonnes of mud.

On the way to the Gobustan Petroglyphs, the driver stops every oncoming taxi to ask their drivers how much his tourists paid for the taxi. He seems to get angrier and angrier as we go along. Leyla says "We got a very good price, 21 manat. It's because I'm Azerbaijani, and the driver knows my father, and I told him you're a traveller, not a tourist. I think he's sad because the other drivers get much more money." One driver in particular is grinning from ear to ear, with the four paleskins in his car looking at us in an unassuming fashion. The two drivers exchange a quick conversation, and as we continue, Leyla tells me: "They pay 160 manat for the car. The man was very happy." 160 manat is about 80 Euros, an absolutely insane price to pay in Azerbaijan. Oh well, stupid tourists, they seemed to be fine with it, so who am I to judge?

We reach the bottom of the hill, where the famous Gobustan Petroglyphs are located. A modern museum has been built, in an apparent effort to promote tourism and boost visitor numbers. Inside, we see a picture of its opening ceremony with a bunch of suits. "This is our president. I hate him." Open opposition! This country is getting more and more interesting. The petroglyphs themselves are a little underwhelming, to be honest. They all seem a little too neat, the rockfaces too polished. It almost looks fake. Its admirable that the nation tries to preserve important sights, but they haven't quite got the hang of how to do it without giving everything the appearance of a theme park or a mall.

As we go back by bus, we pass a series of futuristic stadiums and venues. Leyla explains: "This is where the Eurovision took place. They built it just for the song contest. Now it's always empty. (...) The Islamic Games were held there. Nothing is in there now." Back in the city centre, I ask why there are fences on both sides of the roads. I'd been very annoyed at this particular thing, as you can't even cross the street, and it's everywhere around the Old Town. "Oh, that's because of the Formula 1. I don't like Formula 1. Nobody in Azerbaijan likes it."

I begin to understand. Baku isn't really my place, that much was obvious from the start. People who are impressed by Baku are the same type of people who are impressed by Dubai or Qatar, plastic folks waving selfie-sticks around, looking for the next Dolce and Gucci shop, dining at expensive fauxthentic restaurants with their plastic partners and their fat-arse spawn. Again, stupid tourists. It's the difference between appearance and substance.

Time to get out of Baku, time to go travelling.

Edith: I've just learned about and am saddened by the passing of fellow blogger taracloud. Talk about a real, passionate traveller. Even though we never met in person, I always enjoyed her blogs, and we've exchanged quite a few comments over the years. Cheers to Dave and Merry Jo for their excellent blog Tara Cloud: A Celebration of Life. Godspeed, Tara!

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Dovğа and moreDovğа and more
Dovğа and more

Traditional yoghurt-based soup with herbs

14th June 2017
Gobustan Petroglyphs

Fascinating blog Jens. Azerbaijan sounds enlightened in so many ways...at least in one way...dress not impeded for Islamic women. And mud volcanoes and petroglyphs like this one...brilliant.
20th June 2017
Gobustan Petroglyphs

Unexpected impressions
Thanks Dave! After talking to people, most of them said it's due to Soviet times, so even though those times were rough in many aspects, education-wise they did a hell of a good job!
15th November 2019

Word man!
Stumbled in here through Taiwan and saw that you were in Azerbaijan (went there myself in May 2017 but still haven't written it up). Figured I'd see what you thought about it and all I can say is word man. You really hit the nail on how I felt about it as well. =)

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