It’s been quite some time since I’ve shared travel thoughts on my blog, not because I haven’t been travelling in 2018, but because I wasn’t inspired enough to write about it (even though I realized my oldest dream to visit my favorite city in the world: San Francisco).
Today I want to talk about an unexpected trip I took for a long weekend last month: Azerbaijan. I know, it sounds like I choose my travel destinations by taking a world map, closing my eyes and pointing to a country. I don’t do that, but when I don’t have time (or patience) to apply for visas, I just choose the destination within countries I’m allowed to go to with my Moroccan Passport or my UAE residence and Azerbaijan was one of them.
I’ve been hearing a lot about Azerbaijan from my fellow travelers here in the UAE, as it’s less than 3 hours away from Dubai. It’s a country that was part of the Soviet Union and is in an interesting location: bounded by the Caspian Sea to the East, Russia to the North, Georgia to the Northwest, Armenia to the West and most interestingly Iran to the South. All this resulted into a unique mix of cultures, religions, architecture and even language.
Where to begin? Oh I know with my favorite subject: Architecture! Baku the capital is quite an interesting place. Since it was under Ottoman, Iranian, Russian then Soviet reign, walking around Baku felt like walking through the timeline of a schizophrenic city. All these influences resulted in a blend of East and West with an Arabic touch. Some buildings in the main street (Nizami street) made me feel like I was walking in Paris, then you walk a few meters to old city and you’re suddenly back to the Ottoman era (with the typical ottoman buildings similar to what you can see in Cairo’s Khan Al Khalili). Then, on the other side of the city (because you’re not confused enough) you find the buildings from the soviet era; the not so pretty, grey, similar looking buildings that reminded me of cold war movies. Finally, in the more modern city center, you can find some modern architectural gems, the most famous ones being:
- The “Flame Towers” symbolizing the history of fire worshipers (Zoroastrians) in the country
- Haydar Aliyev Culture Center, which locals proudly present as the building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid
For a 3-day visit, I had planned what I wanted to do in Azerbaijan. First day I was going to get lost in Baku; discover the streets, stare for minutes at the buildings, visit few museums and monuments and talk to locals. In the old city, I found everything I love about old cities: cobblestone streets, narrow winding alleys, boutique houses, and tons of local shops, cafes & restaurants.
For day 2, I wanted to leave the city and explore the surroundings, and few kilometers away there is Gobustan (or Qobustan). The world’s oldest petroglyph collection-over 4000 petroglyphs dating back to the stone ages can be seen there. While driving, you realize how big oil is in Azerbaijan, with the oils rings in the Caspian Sea and the refineries on the road. In Gobustan there are 4 main sites to visit: Gobustan National Park (with the stone age petroglyphs and the museum), the very impressive Mud Volcanos, the Burning mountain (or what’s left of it ) and the Ateshgah temple (A temple where 2 religions lived side by side hundreds of years ago: Hinduism and Zoroastrianism).
If you’ve read my previous posts you know that each one of my trips has a highlight, for Azerbaijan it was day 3. While researching, I knew that Azerbaijan has the highest village in Europe. So, I decided that I wanted to go and see that village: it’s called Xinalig in Quba region. I was the only one in the car with a driver and a guide (because apparently, winter is the low season in Azerbaijan), which was even better. The road up to the village is quite difficult and dangerous (a lot of agencies refuse to go there in the winter). Half way through, I asked the driver if we can stop for me to take some pictures and enjoy the view, the moment I left the car and started staring at the view it started snowing and I started crying. I cried not because I missed seeing snow since I moved to Dubai, I cried because at that moment I was exactly where I wanted to be doing what I love the most in life.
When we got to the village, it felt like it was a ghost village, there was no one outside (as it was snowing heavily at that stage). As we were looking for somewhere to rest, an old man (more of an angel) came to us and started talking to my guide in Azeri, I was moved when she translated what the old man said; He wanted us to go with him to his home where he was living with his wife and if we would accept to share a meal with them. I was happy (and honored) to accept, his wife cooked for us, he made tea for us and we spent 2 hours talking (and he didn’t even speak a word in English) without asking for anything in return, and that was the best moment of this trip. It reminded me of what my foreign friends tell me when they go to some “forgotten” places in Morocco, I knew how welcoming Moroccans were but that was the first time I experienced something very similar from a totally different culture, which made me realize how similar we are even in our differences.
Although it was a very short trip, after Azerbaijan I realized something I haven’t thought about since I got the travel bug (Thanks dad!). Countries like Azerbaijan or Nepal were only names on a map for me that I didn’t imagine I could visit before. I realized how much I changed since I started travelling, I realized that I wouldn’t have met the people I’ve met or seen the things I’ve seen. It made me feel even more grateful and made me decide that as long as I’m alive, I will take every single opportunity to travel and explore new horizons.
Cheers to the places we are yet to explore!