With only a couple of days in Azerbaijan, the final leg on my world travels, I decided to head out of the capital Baku and into the remote western Caucus mountains.
After touching down in Baku from Astana at midnight, we had an early departure for the five hour drive north. Once outside of the vibrant port city, the surrounding countryside was surprisingly dry and arid with little in the way of crops or industry.
Our first stop was at the Diri Baba , a mausoleum built into the mountain side as a shrine to a sacred local person called Diri Baba whose body was said to have never perished. A number of miracles have been attributed to Diri Baba, making the mausoleum a place of pilgrimage since the 17th century.
As we continued north from the Qobustan region the landscape changed from flat dusty hills to tall green peaks. As we drove through valleys and across rivers we encountered shepherds bringing thousands of sheep down from the mountains for winter. While I’d become accustomed to animal related traffic jams, the driver clearly wasn’t going to hang round and drove at pace through the herd, swerving left and right, narrowly avoiding the terrified animals.
With sheep avoided the topic of conversation turned to the economy and politics. Like much of the region, the economy of Azerbaijan was largely reliant on oil, oil exploration and energy security, with the EU pumping billions into the country as a gateway to secure pipelines from the Middle East.
More traditionally however, the country had been a producer of fruit and vegetable yards, especially tomatoes and potatoes which it has increasingly exported to the Russian market. When relations between Turkey and Russia deteriorated in 2015, Azerbaijan stepped in to fill a production gap – although Azerbaijan still retains close ties with Turkey.
Politically like most of the region, Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state with one family having ruled since independence almost thirty years ago. Of particular concern was the hatred Azerbaijanis have of their neighbouring Armenians whom they blame for violence along the border and trying to seize land. The states anti-Armenian propaganda goes as far as totally denying the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians after the First World War which left as many as 1.5 million people dead. The Azerbaijani history states this is a total fiction made up by Armenia to win support from the EU for its illegal land claims on the border and to enable it to claim unjust reparations from Turkey.
It’s unfathomable to comprehend denying the holocaust, yet in Azerbaijan the whole nation is taught that the Armenian genocide is a conspiracy theory.
As we continued into the mountains the roads deteriorated, becoming more winding and the cliffs edge steeper – in places a sheer drop down the river beneath.
We stopped for some photos in the valley, admiring the rock formations and thick forested hills – before continuing to the picturesque town of Lahic. The Lahic settlement dates back over a 1,000 years to early Persian Iranian settlers and is renowned for its copper work and blacksmiths and recently featured on Levison Wood’s travel series on the BBC.
As we neared the town of Gabala we noticed two massive man made buildings looming on the hillside above the city. These we discovered were the command centre and radar of the Soviet era Gabala Radar Station which had once monitored the Soviet Unions southern border and from where Iraqs use of SCUD missiles during the Iran/Iraq conflict had been detected.
From Gabala we continued to the hillside town of Sheki, which had for a short time been the capital of an autonomous state that had declared independence between 1736 and 1806 when the Russians invaded. In Sheki with explored the palace with its stunning stained glasses windows, before I sent LARS over for photos of sunset over the mountains.
We were up early the next morning for a drive further up the valley to the small hamlet of Kis. With the roads becoming even more narrow and winding we transferred from our taxi into a Lada – which despite being older than I am sped up the steep hills and around sharp bends en route to the picturesque Kis Church.
The whole region was largely Christian between the 1st-5th centuries, with pilgrims travelling from Albania to settle the fertile lands. But by the 7th century Arab invaders had arrived and by force and swords converted the locals to Islam with the local Christian empire collapsing in 651AD.
From Kis we headed south back to Baku, stopping at Gabala to try and take some photos with LARS – alas our driver seemed unwilling to co-operate and we ended up several miles from the site – out of range for good pictures.
With time running out – Mike and I decided to head out and explore Baku by night.