Baku is a unique blend of tradition and modernism, making every visit unforgettable
f you visited last year, you would have probably seen more than twice the number of Pakistani flags around as you see right now. This is because the Azeri people are grateful to their brother country, Pakistan, for their support and help during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. As a result, we won the war and regained 20 percent of the land, all thanks to Turkey and Pakistan.”
After landing in Baku, Azerbaijan, this was our first conversation with Mr Namik, our new friend-driver-tour guide for the next week. Initially, we had planned to visit Turkey or Sri Lanka, but with the former becoming more expensive and the latter in political and economic turmoil, we decided to explore this part of the world and have no regrets there.
Before we get into details of our trip, a brief introduction to the country would be appropriate here. Azerbaijan, a Central Asian country, is located at the boundary of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The country proclaimed its independence in August 1991, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the same year. Over 3.5 million of the total 10 million population is based in the capital city of Baku. Officially a secular country, over 95 percent of the population follows the religion of Islam. It is a unitary semi-presidential republic that Ilham Aliyev has headed since 2003. He is the son of the much-celebrated and revered former Azerbaijani leader and president, Heydar Aliyev.
The easiest but the most challenging way to reach Baku is through a direct flight operated by our national airline. The good thing, especially if you have a two-year-old with you, is that there are no stopovers. The flight to Baku was largely uneventful, taking roughly four and a half hours. The immigration process was smooth. Once out of the airport, it looked like a familiar scene with countless cab drivers almost fighting over potential customers. Once we were out of that relatively messy and congested parking/ arrival area, we finally got the first proper view of the country. As always, the first thing you notice when you travel outside is the level of cleanliness; this was no exception. The airport was on the city’s outskirts, so when you enter the city through the main road, you see many ongoing development projects. In fact, during our stay in the country, I observed construction going on almost everywhere we went. The country is slowly transiting from the Soviet era to modern architecture. The newly constructed or under construction buildings remind one of the architecture of Dubai. No wonder the city is also known as Caspian Dubai, highly popular among Arab and African tourists who might find Dubai a bit expensive.
Our plan included four nights in Baku, two nights in the northern district of Shaki and a day visit to the neighbouring Qabala district. Baku is the country’s largest and most densely populated city, so you have representation from all ethnicities and religions. The first activity was the city tour the next day with our tour guide, a lovely elderly lady. It was immediately noticeable that the patriotism was on a high level even though relatively lower than two years ago when the war ended. You will find the Azeri flag on every balcony of many buildings. No surprise that our first stop was Martyrs’ Lane, a monument honouring soldiers who laid their lives in the two Nagorno-Karabakh Wars dating back to 1991. Walking through Upland Park, we got an excellent view of the Flame Towers and Baku Eye before moving to reach D nizk nar Milli Park and visiting the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. The park once hosted the largest flag in the world, which became a nightmare to manage due to the strong winds. The next stop was the old Walled City of Baku, where we visited one of the country’s most famous landmarks, i.e. Maiden Tower. A 12th-Century monument, it is one of Azerbaijan’s most distinctive national emblems and is thus featured on Azerbaijani currency notes and official letterheads. The Maiden Tower houses a museum that presents the story of the historical evolution of Baku city. It is a nice trip through the old city. You will find details about the ancient trade route between Baku and Multan and the right place to buy souvenirs.
Azerbaijan is not one of the fanciest and most modern countries you’ll ever visit, but it is definitely on the way to being one. By the decade’s end, the old infrastructure will make way for a modern Dubai-style city.
The last trip of day one was to the globally acclaimed Heydar Aliyev Centre, which renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid designed. It is noted for its distinctive architecture and flowing, curved style that escapes sharp angles. It is named after Heydar Aliyev, the second president of the Azerbaijan Republic (from October 1993 to October 2003), who is considered the father of the nation. His name comes up in almost every conversation you have with any local be it about the cultural, political, economic or social lens. However, his reign was criticised for iron-fist rule with human and democratic rights violations that continued in his son’s reign. At times this makes one wonder if the narrative and image-building is genuine.
The Centre is a piece of art. It hosts entire floors dedicated to President Heydar’s life, from his used cars to gifts from his toshkhana. In addition, the upper floors of the building present carpets, musical instruments, clothes and puppets from all over the world. For car enthusiasts, the basement hosts an antique car museum showcasing over a hundred cars.
The next day was a relatively shorter affair with visits to Atashgah Zoroastrianism Fire Temple and Yanar Dag (also known as the burning mountain). The former was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship and is preserved on the same lines as the Shahi Hamam in Lahore with a curated glass pathway. The latter is a unique natural fire that blazes nonstop. We spent the rest of the day walking around the city and shopping.
We spent the next two days in Shaki, located approximately 300 kilometres from Baku, which takes almost four and a half hours to reach by road. The journey is similar to when you drive from Islamabad to northern hill stations, with trees and clouds forming a beautiful view. Shaki is one of the country’s oldest cities, hosting the Palace of Shaki Khans (inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List) along with great sightseeing and, more importantly, hiking places. It is also famous for its sweets (trust me, they are really sweet). It was a great break from urban life, relaxing and enjoying the quietness. This part of the trip also led to one of the most interesting interactions with a local. I went to buy some souvenirs from a local shop. I noticed the usual three flags placed pinned next to one another. When I was about to leave, I said to that elderly shopkeeper that I was from Pakistan. He immediately got excited and held my arm, directing me to another corner of the shop. Among the items was a picture collage of Ilham Aliyev, Recep Tayyip Erdo an and our very own Imran Khan. He excitedly pointed towards it, saying, “Imran Khan, Imran Khan”. I acknowledged his excitement by nodding. The common perception among the Azeris is that Pakistan actively participated and supported Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia; for that, they are very grateful. On our way back to Baku, we made scheduled stops at Gabala Cable Car Tufandag Resort, Yeddi Gozel Waterfall and Nohur Lake, which are nice tourist spots, but only the Cable Car tour is worth mentioning.
We spent the last two days visiting Gobustan State Historical and Cultural Reserve, 40 miles southwest of Baku. It has rock carvings depicting people, animals, battle pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans and pictures of the sun and stars. A museum nearby uses the latest audio-visual technology to depict the evolution of the human race. I wish we had museums like that in this part of the world.
Azerbaijan is not one of the fanciest and most modern countries you’ll ever visit, but it is definitely on the way to being one. By the decade’s end, the old infrastructure will make way for a modern Dubai-style city. The government is working hard towards promoting tourism as they realise that natural oil and gas reserves will eventually run out. One of the biggest challenges in visiting Baku is the lack of English literacy, making it very hard for tourists to communicate with locals or figure out things like buses and subways. The people are courteous but still developing as a typical tourist-friendly society. However, they are very friendly towards children, perhaps due to the strong family culture there. If you want to go there for fancy shopping or expect that all major international brands will be there, then you are in for a disappointment. In all honesty, they do lack the rich history of the subcontinent. Still, they are marketing and presenting whatever they have in such a compelling manner that everyone wants to visit once. Baku and its downtown look like a modern, global city, but just as you move to the outskirts, you’ll find markets, houses and scenes much like Pakistan. I spent a week there, but I believe the whole trip could be completed in 3-5 days maximum, skipping Shaki, which is just a hilly station.
I have fond memories of the trip and recommend it to anyone who wants to explore this side of the world, experiencing a unique blend of tradition and modernism.
The writer is a digital communication expert and consultant currently working in the public sector. He is the mastermind behind the digital platforms, Sukhan, Mani’s Cricket Myths and Over The Line.