Neither Europe nor Asia, Azerbaijan is an incredible tangle of contradictions and contrasts. It’s a fascinating nexus of ancient historical empires. Yet it’s also a new nation finding its feet as it emerges from a war-torn post-Soviet chrysalis on a petroleum-funded gust of optimism. Surrounded by semi-desert on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the nation’s cosmopolitan capital Baku is a dynamic boomtown, where flashy limousines and mushrooming skyscrapers sweep around a picturesque Unesco-listed ancient core. Yet barely three hours’ drive away lies an entirely different world: timeless villages clad in lush orchards from which shepherd tracks lead into the soaring high Caucasus mountains. Where Baku is multilingual and go-ahead, the provinces shuffle to the gently paced click of nard (backgammon) on tree-shaded teahouse terraces: women stay home, herds of cattle wander aimlessly across highways, and potbellied bureaucrats scratch their heads in confusion on finding that an outsider has wandered into their territory.
Visiting the country takes creativity and imagination, as the tourist industry is at best ‘nascent’. Although there are plenty of rural ‘rest-zones’ for holidaying city folk, they cater mainly for locals who want to unwind with hefty feasts and family chats, so rarely provide any activities. Very few people outside Baku speak English, but the challenge is a great part of the appeal. So where to, then? Southern Azerbaijan is one of the country’s more pleasant regions, both along the coast and inland: Lәnkәran is a quaint seaside town famed for its flowers, while Masalli & around makes a good entry point for exploring the Talysh mountains. Northern Azerbaijan is where you’ll find the Caucasus Mountains and the incredible village of Xinaliq, with its jaw-dropping views and traditional mountain culture. And for something completely different (in a country full of completely different travel experiences!), there’s always the remote and intriguing enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.