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Friday, June 14, 2024

Azerbaijan: Take another look

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When my friends found out I was preparing for a trip to Azerbaijan, all of them asked the same question – “Where is that?” 

I know about the country because it’s one of those I teach my tourism students about, that it used to be one of the countries that were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR, which we now know as Russia.  Aside from that, I had to read some more to find out what interesting attractions there are to enjoy in that destination.

After a 15-hour trip, including our three-hour stopover in Dubai, I was amazed to see what Baku, the capital city, had to offer. The airport terminal alone is very modern, in design and in facilities. But my narrative on this city will have to be put off for the next column as it presented itself with many interesting tourist attractions to talk about. 

Tourists can feed smiling-faced alpacas

We were met upon arrival by our contracted tour guide,  Elvin Alimuradov, who spoke fluent English which, he said, he learned from the university as he has never been outside the country.  He whisked us off to our hotel, after giving us a rundown of important basic information on his homeland.   

Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country, transcontinental, because it is located right at the boundary of West Asia and Eastern Europe. It is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the East, Russia to the North, Armenia and Turkey to the West, and Iran to the South. It is a democratic republic and has diplomatic relations with 182 countries. Around 97 percent of its population are Muslims, although its constitution has not declared an official religion.

Considering that its main product is oil and gas, I asked Elvin if there would ever be a chance for Russia to take the country back, to have complete control of its rich natural resources. He said that Azerbaijan and Russia are now strong allies in many different aspects, including military, with very good bilateral relations existing between both. 

The striations on this rock show the many levels of water as the rock emerged from the ocean through the centuries

After a much-needed rest, Elvin took us to see the oldest, largest, and most lavish mosque in the country, the Juma Mosque in Shamakhi, the former capital of Azerbaijan, about an hour’s drive from Baku. The mosque’s current structure is a reconstruction of the original which was built in 743 AD but destroyed several times by devastating earthquakes and by inter-ethnic clashes.

Beautiful ornamental patterns decorate the façade and the interiors of the structure. Going inside gives you a pleasant feeling of serenity, as you marvel at the many large and lavish crystal chandeliers lending its brilliant illumination on the mosque’s public areas. The main altar has a very attractive collage of colorful tiles flanked by quotations from the Quran. 

The country has so much oil that, during our tour, we could see dozens of oil wells sprouting on both sides of the highway.  In fact, we passed by a residential area which, according to Elvin, is the enclave of the rich, and we could see beautiful and large residential structures fronting the beach.  However, these days, the residents have been warned that the sea water fronting them is now polluted as some amount of oil has seeped through the ocean floor.       

Our tour also brought us to an Alpaca Farm, as these camelids are very common in Azerbaijan.  It was a fun stopover because we were able to touch these animals and feed them. They are such a joy to be with. They are tame and have strikingly friendly and smiling faces, as seen in a photo on this page. Alpacas are bred for their fiber which is used to make knitted or woven items, similar to sheep’s wool.

We also visited Gobustan, popularly known as the home of the famous rock petroglyphs which date back to as early as 14,000 BC. UNESCO has designated the area a World Heritage Site for its outstanding universal value and to protect the many pre-historic inscriptions on the rocks.  It was very interesting to see all those images carved on the rocks by the early inhabitants.  The entire area itself used to be submerged in the Caspian Sea, as shown by the many striations signifying the many water levels the rocks have been subjected to through the centuries.   

Aside from these pre-historic carvings, we also saw, from our vantage point, Azerbaijan’s version of Table Mountain. It looks exactly like the original, in Cape Town, South Africa, which has been officially proclaimed as one of the Seven Wonders of Nature, a list that includes our very own Puerto Princesa Underground River.

Of course, we had to try out Azerbaijan’s cuisine, as we heard nothing but superlatives describing it.  For starters, we were served Qutab, like a quesadilla, made of paper-thin dough stuffed with either vegetables or meat.  For the main course, we had an assortment of Kebabs – chicken, beef, and lamb.  This was followed by their most popular dish, the King’s Pilaf – rice mixed with lamb, plum, apricots, and grapes, all baked inside a thin crust that is sliced open to form a crown, thus the name.

There are many more interesting things to see and do in this beautiful country of Azerbaijan. I have to admit that I went on this trip, doubtful whether I would enjoy my stay. But the beautiful things I saw, the very friendly people, the very interesting historical and cultural attractions, and the very clean areas (even their restrooms are spotless and smell good), put the country at the top of the must-visit list.   

Azerbaijan’s Tourism Slogan is: Take Another Look. I really had to…and was happily charmed. 

YOUR MONDAY CHUCKLE

It’s better to sit in a bar thinking about God than to sit in a church thinking about beer.

For feedback, I’m at bobzozobrado@gmail.com

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