5 Things That Delighted Me in Azerbaijan

5 Things That Delighted Me in Azerbaijan

I visited my 14th country, Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus.

I went with an open mind since there was not much to go on about the countries around the Caspian Sea – Iran and the old breakaway states from the USSR – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.

No one I knew from the travel community had been there. All the info I could get was on TripAdvisor, and it was not current.

Giving in to my sense of adventure, I booked my tickets. I was going let my experiences define my stay there.

There were so many things that delighted me and some that took me by surprise!


Azerbaijan, especially Baku the capital, is located on the Silk Route, so I was expecting cultural similarities. Caravans on this ancient Route carried many things besides people, goods and slaves. They traded in stories, traditions, religion, customs, and familiarity.

From a hand-powered cotton ginning instrument to coal-heated clothing irons, I was not disappointed.

The Ateshgah of Baku (Fire temple) is a castle-like religious temple in a suburb of Baku. Based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, the temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship.

The region was a melange of cultures from far and wide.

Baku, the capital, appears to be a wealthy cousin of Moscow but with more open spaces, lush gardens, and huge promenades.

I found a lot of young families on the seaside promenade. There were plenty of coffee kiosks and open-air seating for everyone.

It was my first glimpse of the Caspian Sea. Oil from this area has made Azerbaijan richer than before. And it shows in the glamour of the The Heydar Aliyev Center is an exhibition complex in designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and the Flame Towers.

As you enter the interiors, to the smaller towns like Sheki, famous for its Havla (again, a Hindi/Persian word), you see rougher streets and cruder but beautiful homes.

Sheki has a lot of greenery – willows, pines and tall trees. You can get a glimpse of snow-clad mountains from a higher ground. It reminded me so much of Kashmir in India.

Sheki also has a vast caravan serai – a resting place for travellers and traders alike. It is now a heritage hotel.

I can only imagine the stories weary travellers and merchants exchanged when the place was thriving. Men, women, animals and goods made their way from East Asia, across Tibet to Central Asia and beyond.

Finding Indians in Azerbaijan

Given the unfamiliarity with the region here, I doubted I would see any Indians in Baku.

Incidentally, I was in Baku on 15th August, India’s Independence Day and decided to visit the Indian embassy to see if I could participate in the celebrations. And indeed, they were hosting at least a hundred Indians there. Some were engineers working for SOCAR, the Azeri oil company. Others were traders and businessmen.

I even met someone from my native city, Pune. Getting to speak your language in a distant country is priceless comfort.

Azerbaijan is also a preferred destination for medical education. Those who cannot make the college admission cut here or cannot afford the high fees find great alternatives in Baku. In fact, neighbouring Armenia is also known to host Indian medical students. Incidentally, Azerbaijan visa for Indians is completely online.

I met a few in both countries, and they were glad to meet someone from India.

I would not have imagined it, but some of the families I met on Independence Day had chosen to be in Azerbaijan due to the ease of trade between the Middle East and Caucasus.

Perhaps the Silk Route continues to thrive in different ways today.


The similarities carry over into Azeri food, which shares its culinary heritage with Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Ayran, a known digestive, is a watery mixture of curd, salt, cucumber, and mint consumed in Azerbaijan. We have the same drink here in India, minus the cucumber called Chhass or Tak. As does Iran.

Black tea is another popular Azeri drink, served everywhere to guests and friends.

I did not see many tourists try anything beyond the beers. It was hot in Baku, so I can imagine wanting to cool down.

I preferred to ask for and enjoy the richly favoured teas made in samovars and served with a smile, all because I requested it over anything else.

The Azeris excel in growing Pomegranate in the country’s arid parts, making tasty sherbets and wine from it. I did not expect Azerbaijan to have a wine culture at all. But since neighbouring Armenia, has the world’s oldest known winery, some influence must’ve spilled over.

Azeris consume meat, mainly chicken, beef and seafood. They love their kebabs. I did not have to taste one morsel of bland food when there. Everything was gently spiced but bursting in flavours with seeds and nuts along with pomegranate juice molasses.

At the Caravan Serai in Sheki, my server introduced me to Piti. The lamb stew cooked with vegetables comes in a traditional clay pot with bread. You dip the bread and let it soak in the stew before eating. Piti filled my stomach for hours.

Although MacDonalds and Pizza Huts of the world have made inroads, the food chains are confined to the main cities like Baku. In the interiors, home kitchens and small cafes rule.

Another place I love to visit abroad is the grocers to see what’s on offer, how people shop and the prices. Azerbaijan did not disappoint.

Myriad types and flavours of dry fruits, nuts, caramelised fruits, and the staples. They even had strangely coloured vegetables I did not dare to try.

The People

Azeris are a fantastic mix of the old world and the new. They are progressive and not outwardly religious. Everything in Baku is easy to find, staff in supermarkets and hotels speak English, and public transport is plentiful.

Outside Baku, the lights and glamour fade, and it gets a little rustic and drab. The people start getting suspicious of non-European-looking strangers (Me!), but as soon as you are vouched for, they welcome you home.

I met a few Iranians, Aussies, a girl from England and another from the USA as a part of my tour, and we hung out for the rest of our stay.

In Baku, I befriended a girl called Konul Alaskarova, who was kind enough to take me around. I met her at a cultural program the embassy had organised, and I was invited to. She speaks good Hindi from watching all our gift to the world – Bollywood Films (go Shah Rukh Khan!) and loves Indian traditional clothing.

India is her land of dreams, and soon enough, I had a chance to return the favour when she visited Delhi the following year.

On another note, I couldn’t stop laughing at Hema Malini’s character speaking in (dubbed) Azerbaijani in the film ‘Mera Naam Joker’. It was hilarious, but Hindi films are wildly popular, especially from the 70s. They constantly show them on TV.

Unusual Natural and Man-Made Sights

Az is home to some unusual natural and ancient man-made sights.

The bursting mud bubble of Gobustan and the eternal fire at Yanar Dagh are worth one visit.

The mini mud volcanoes are hilarious if you think of it, like joke punch lines waiting to break. Some will be damp squibs, and others will erupt enough to splash you in mud. The Earth seems particularly gaseous in that area.

At nearby Yanar Dagh, you can spot flames of fire licking the surface of small mounds of earth. Natural gas fuels this fire with flames jetting into the air 3 metres (9.8 ft) from a thin, porous sandstone layer. The reason it is eternal, they say, is because of hydrocarbon gases emanating from below the earth’s surface.

Near Gobustan, we visited the ancient cave with wall pictures scribbled by ancient men. It looked very much like something I would draw if I had lots of time to pass, and a flat wall was handy.

The carvings on the rocks illustrate primitive men, ritual dances, men with lances, animals, bullfights, camel caravans, and pictures of the sun and stars. These carvings date back to 5,000 – 20,000 years.

The wall art is not as well protected as one would expect. Some folks in our tour group were tempted to contribute to this art, but better sense prevailed as we got on the bus back to Baku.


I love looking at maps. I can spend hours with an atlas, reading not words but maps. Caucasus was a region I had always been curious about. The shared history, shared culture, and references of ancient Indian, Norse Scandinavian, and Greek stories in the Caucasian folklore had me captive.

I booked a flight to visit Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

I enjoyed my time in both the countries I was allowed to visit. Georgia refused me a visa due to some internal tensions there.

The Caucasus is as much a melting pot of culture as I expected it to be. Christian and Islamic regimes reside side by side, not often peacefully.

A complete package of experiences – natural beauty, urban class, friendly people and cultural similarities make it a fantastic getaway from India. It’s just about 8 hours by flight, including stops.

I hope you enjoyed reading about this Caucasus experience!

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