The Land of Fire: The Do’s and Don'ts in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, the land of fire and authoritarianism. Azerbaijan literally translates to ‘protector of fire’, while the textbook definition of authoritarian is its strongman ‘president’, Ilham Aliyev. I spent three weeks in Azerbaijan, which was probably two weeks too many. Here is my list of places to visit...and avoid.

Things to Do:

Bathe in Crude Oil - In 1847, Azerbaijan became home to the world’s first ever oil well. By the turn of the 20th century, Azerbaijan’s oil fields supplied over 50% of the world’s oil. 

In Naftalan, a town at the foot of Caucasus Mountains, the oil is too thick to be refined for commercial use. Instead it’s used for bathing. For hundreds of years, people have come to Naftalan to treat more than 70 skin, joint and bone diseases. Keep in mind that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organisation has "concluded that naphthalene is possibly carcinogenic to humans”. 

Hike in Caucasus Mountains - Deep in the Caucasus mountains is Khinalug, the most remote village in Europe. Established more than 5,000 years ago, this village was cut off from the rest of civilisation for centuries. As a result, it’s developed its own language, culture and traditions, not seen anywhere else on earth.  

Hire a Lada Niva (a rugged 4x4 that comes complete with a Soviet soul) and drive through deep mountain passes to Khinalug, before hiking high above the village, a world away from anywhere.

Visit the Sabunchu Flea MarketAs far as flea markets go, this one has everything...except posters. Whether you’re after live geese or gearboxes, carpets or candles, fine china or chandeliers - this is not a market you can afford to miss. You should also take another look at the photo the boot of the car.

Visit the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum & Little Venice - The purpose-built Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is hard to miss. That’s because it’s shaped like a rolled-up carpet. While the building design probably looked great on paper, the sloping walls of the museum makes displaying the carpets a little awkward. It houses a rich collection of Azerbaijani carpets and artefacts.

Little Venice is beside the carpet museum. If you can’t visit the real Venice in Italy, Baku’s Little Venice is still a poor substitute. For all its kitsch, it’s still well worth taking a ride in a gondola against a backdrop of the Caspian Sea.

Admire the Strange & Surreal Architecture - Against a Soviet backdrop of Khrushchev apartment buildings, a bizarre trope of modern buildings are redefining Baku’s skyline. From Zaha Hadid’s iconic Heydar Aliyev Center (a propaganda masterpiece for the Azerbaijani government), to the Flame Towers, a trio of curved skyscrapers which resemble three flickering flames - Baku is determined to bravely reintroduce itself to the world as a modern metropolis. 

Things to Avoid:

Right: A poster of an Azeri solider who lost his life in the war. These posters were everywhere, and usually hung outside the home of the family. These boys were so young. Rest in Peace
Right: A poster of an Azeri solider who lost his life in the war. These posters were everywhere, and usually hung outside the home of the family. These boys were so young. Rest in Peace

Don’t visit Military Trophy Park  - Just a few months after the end of the 44 day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Military Trophy Park in Baku was opened by the ‘president’ of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. Thousands of young men died on both sides, but Azerbaijan came out on top when they captured a large swath of land from its neighbour/enemy, Armenia. 

To celebrate, they put captured tanks on trailers, brought them to the capital, and built a park to celebrate their victory. The park is home to the trophies of war, which include destroyed tanks, trucks and the bullet hole-ridden helmets of Armenian soldiers. A crass and shameful display of small-mindedness in an attempt to glorify war and increase patriotism.  

Don’t visit the Mud Volcanoes - It should be noted that mud volcanoes are not the size of real volcanoes, so don’t set your expectations anywhere near as high as I did. Azerbaijan is home to nearly a third of the world’s mud volcanoes, but I didn’t get to see them because the police and a taxi driver stopped me. They wouldn’t let me see them unless I paid off the taxi driver, even though I had my own truck and could drive there myself. 

This isn't a photo of Ganja, but of a truck on the way to Ganja.
This isn't a photo of Ganja, but of a truck on the way to Ganja.

Don’t Visit Ganja - Famous for sharing its name with marijuana, this city was anything but the high of my trip. Don’t go here. Just don’t. I gave this city a chance. I really did. I spent two full days walking around the city, more than 12km each day. Over two days, I took just four photographs.

Don’t Insult the President - Azerbaijan is the most heavily policed country I’ve ever visited. It’s not a far stretch to assume that the police and military are one of the largest employers of young men in the country. On almost almost every street corner are policemen with guns. 

From where I’m standing, it looks like the strongman authoritarian 'president' needs a large military presence and police force to protect him from his own people. After all, in 2017, he made his wife his vice-president in transparently nepotist abuse of power. His family “have enriched themselves through their ties to state-run businesses. They own significant parts of several major Azerbaijani banks, construction firms and telecommunications firms, as well as partially owning the country's oil and gas industries. Much of their wealth is hidden through an elaborate network of offshore companies.” 

LOL. Photo credit: Reuters
LOL. Photo credit: Reuters

I’m only writing this blog after I’ve left the country. Despite my misgivings about Azerbaijan, I would like to extend my warm thanks to the everyday people of this country, who were kind, generous and welcoming.

Footnote: We’re respectful of being guests in other countries with different cultures, but won’t stand silent when human rights are violated. In some of the countries I visit, the authorities regularly crack down on the media, harass peaceful protesters, engage in smear campaigns against political rivals, and ban independent foreign organisations.

Our commitment to freedom and equality is unwavering. We donate 3% of the price of each artwork to Human Rights Watch, an independent, non-profit NGO that exists to give voice to the oppressed and hold those responsible accountable. Read more about our commitment to freedom and equality for all here.

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