“‘Baku? Where is that?” was the normal reaction I got when I told people we were going on a holiday to Baku, in Azerbaijan. The few who had heard of Baku could relate it only to its oil fields. Frankly speaking so did I, except that I also knew it was on the Caspian Sea. Somehow, during my geography lessons at school, I’d grown to imagine the Caspian to be a beautiful place. So, an opportunity to actually visit this place was for me a dream come true. Yet doubts lurked: was I getting carried away by my childhood fantasies and preparing to subject my kids to a dreary ‘oily’ vacation? But then, I reassured myself, it wasn’t only about seeing Baku; we were going there primarily to visit my sister. Not that she was a great help! The least she could have done was to paint a glorious picture of the place. But all she said with a laugh was, “come and see!”
The cheapest way to Baku was via Istanbul, Turkey. Bonus! We got to visit Turkey as well. Having a place to stay with cousins made it a double bonus. After three days’ of bliss wandering around the beautiful city of Istanbul, I was sure the kids would forgive me if Baku turned out to be a ‘no fun’ destination.
It’s just a few hours’ flight from Istanbul to Baku. We landed at Heydar Ailiyev International Airport, Baku, late in the evening. Our driver Issah, a tall well-built gentleman, at once became our cheerful guide and history tutor. Of course, he spoke only Russian, but luckily we had an interpreter in my brother-in-law. Listening to Issah, we were ashamed to realize how little we knew of his country. Azerbaijan is a mix of contradictions and contrasts, a perfect blend of the East and West. It has a history of ancient historical empires and at the same time it is a country trying to emerge from a war-torn Soviet era, trying to change everything that was Soviet. The drive to the city from the airport was quite a contrast to Turkey. The landscape was dry and dusty not at all what one would imagine a place on the Caspian Sea to be like. There went my childhood fantasies! As we neared the city we also noticed that a lot of buildings were being torn down, apparently to give way for newer and more modern buildings. It felt quite sad, like a bit of history was being erased.
The capital, Baku is very modern, with a lovely Plaza, beautiful stores and fancy restaurants. But all around the capital lie vast stretches of dry land with very little vegetation and a lot of destruction and construction. Seeing this, the initial impression I got was that Baku was certainly no tourist destination; but I would be proved wrong.
For the kids the first highlight of the trip was the palatial house in which my sister lived. They called it ‘The Palace’. The Azeris love living in style, their houses might be new but have the look of the ancient palaces owned by royalty, complete with saunas and pools. After dinner we took a drive. The city has broad avenues lined with tall, graceful trees, branching off into narrow cobbled lanes with an old world charm. But a few minutes’ drive away from the Palace we also came across the old Soviet apartment blocks. They were like matchboxes put together for people to live in. Another study in contrasts – we saw huge, ancient, Soviet-era automobiles sharing the roads with the latest sleek SUVs and limos from the US and Europe.
We awoke early the next morning, to the smell of aromatic coffee brewing in the kitchen and Fatima beaming over a spread of mouth-watering breakfast she had prepared for us. Breakfast or in fact any meal for the Azeris has to include a wide variety of fruits and greens along with braided breads called simit; a lovely local stringy cheese; and loads of home-made marmalades and cherry and strawberry preserves. Fatima had also made up a huge hamper for us, as we were headed on a tour of sights outside the city. We piled into the Land Rover, with trusted Issah at the wheel, and headed to a place my sister said would be a delight, especially for the kids. “It’ll be a surprise,” she said with a grin, “especially for all you chocolate lovers!”
Of course we all proceeded to try and guess what this surprise could be. Our guesses ranged from a cocoa plantation to a chocolate factory to a patisserie. Sis of course just wouldn’t let on; with her typical devilish grin she enjoyed the torture she was putting all of us chocolate lovers through.
Whatever we thought the surprise might be we found the landscape quite unexciting. All we saw were rocky hills, a few shrubs here and there and of course countless wagons and rows of pipelines that were used to transport oil. Presently Issah steered us off the main road and we found ourselves driving across the dusty landscape climbing an even dustier low hill. As we neared the crest of the hill Issah and my sister exchanged a knowing look and shared a joke in Russian. At once we knew that we were getting close to the ‘Surprise’. We almost broke our necks trying to spy what lay on the other side of the hill. And then, suddenly, we topped the crest…and lo and behold…what a sight we saw before our eyes! The first thing that came to my mind were Shakespeare’s words: “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”.
For ahead of us lay what looked like hundreds of cauldrons, bubbling over with chocolate sauce. Well…not chocolate really, but oodles of creamy, smooth mud bubbling out of little craters dotted all over the hillside. These were the famous (now that we knew about them) mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan. Apparently Azerbaijan is home to more than 400 mud volcanoes – that’s over half the number of mud volcanoes throughout the world. The craters look like cones; they come in different sizes and spew out cold mud, water and gases continuously.
All of us became like excited little kids, ready to roll around in the wet gooey mud. It was indeed almost like rolling in chocolate. But hey, where was that ‘surprise’ chocolate? The kids bombarded my sister with cold, wet mud-chocolate missiles asking for the promised treat. But they did agree that the sight of the mud volcanoes was better than any amount of chocolate that they could have got!
And so, the trip that threatened to be a disaster turned out to one of the most exciting experiences we had ever had. Later, we discovered that just a few hours’ drive away from Baku, on the way to the Caucasus Mountains, lie lovely villages amid lush green countryside. And I haven’t yet told you about the ‘Candy Cane Mountains’ of Azerbaijan. Well…that’s for another day. But this much I know…the kids and I surely will make another trip to this wonderfully strange but exciting country!