The first slack-jaw inducing moment – and they would be several - occurred minutes after I landed in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Still relishing the pampering I enjoyed flying in from Dubai on board flydubai’s well-appointed business class – and earlier at the comfy Business lounge in Dubai - I walked into the Heydar Aliyev International Airport only to be transported to an amazing, seemingly futuristic world.
Turkish style czars Seyhan Ozdemir and Sefer Caglar of the Istanbul design company Autoban clearly stuck to the brief the Azeri airport authorities gave them: to make every passenger feel like they are VIPS and to avoid ‘public areas’.
Massive wooden pods not unlike cocoons are available for passengers to rest, lounge, work on their devices or even enjoy a spa treatment in some parts of the airport. Trees at various points add a green element while glass ceilings allow natural light to flood the halls.
Not for nothing is the 65,000sqm airport that is split into four levels and clad in glass and metal listed as one of 12 most beautiful airports in the world. In case you are interested, airports in Mumbai, Denver and Osaka are some of the others that figure on the list.
‘Do you know that Baku is associated with a lot of very interesting things?’ said a trivia-loving journo I’ll call Mr S who was with us on the trip.
Like? I asked.
‘Like, former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov was born here,’ he said.
Although I don’t play the game, I was impressed.
‘Ok, one more,’ he said. ‘Did you know the Pierce Brosnan movie The World is Not Enough was partly shot in Baku?’
I did not, but decided I must watch it again to see if I could recognise the locale.
Emerging from the cave mouth-like exit of the airport, I turned around to admire the smooth, curved, gently undulating roof. It would be a theme I’d notice on several structures across Azerbaijan that is fast becoming a tourist magnet.
But then tourism and travellers are nothing new to the largest country in the south Caucasus.
I remembered my history professor in college lecturing about Azerbaijan being a favourite of traders since time immemorial thanks to its strategic location on the Silk Route. It served as a gateway to exotic China and wealthy Europe, he droned. I forgot what the country was famous for because I guess I’d dozed off at that point.
Keen to pick up what I’d missed in college, I was all ears as Shamkhal Abushov, our tour guide on the bus gave us a brief lesson in history. It seemed more interesting than my history prof’s lesson not just because he mentioned something about maidens in towers (more about it later).
En route to JW Marriott Absheron Baku, our destination for the night, Shamkal pointed to a white, wave-shaped structure that stood proud on a perfectly manicured mound.
That has to be Zaha Hadid’s work, I said, noting the smooth ripple-like exterior of the structure – her architecture signature of sorts.
Shamkal nodded a yes. ‘That’s the Hyder Aliyev Center, a symbol of modern Baku,’ he said. An award-winning piece of architecture, it houses an auditorium, a museum, exhibition halls and government offices. Resembling a series of smooth folds, the Centre is a visual delight sure to hold the curiosity of any lover of design and architecture and I made a mental note to visit the place later that day.
Zipping past a row of modern buildings interspersed with Soviet-era ones, we abruptly entered a section of the city where concrete dividers bearing advertisements for beverages and Emirates airlines lined the roads. Skirting the bends of the road were soft dividers and metal barricades. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Shamkal was quick with info. ‘The Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was held here recently (July 3),’ he said. ‘Most of the dividers are bolted in permanently but large sections of the metal barricades will be dismantled soon.’
Shifting gear, Mr S was quick to add: ‘Did you know that with a lap circuit of a tad more than 6km, Baku City Circuit is the second-longest circuit on the current F1 calendar?’
Wow, I said.
Encouraged by my response, he continued: ‘Valtteri Bottas set the fastest time ever recorded in an official F1 session in Baku notching 378kmh during the qualifier.’
Mr S was about to dish out another piece of trivia when we turned a corner and drew up in front of the JW Marriott. The 23-storey hotel is an epitome of luxury and my room on the sixth floor had fabulous views of the F1 circuit on one side and the spectacular Caspian Sea on the other.
I, of course, wanted to do more than just stare out of the hotel window, so quickly headed down for a short walk in the city.
Stepping outside, the sun’s glare blinded me for a moment. The sky was a kid’s watercolour painting blue and the temperature a pleasant 28C. A gentle breeze rustled the trees while across the road, some workers were loading F1 barriers into a large truck parked near the kerb.
Clutching a guide book, I ambled along Neftchilar Avenue, the city’s arterial road, a large section of which runs along the spectacular Baku Boulevard that skirts the Caspian Sea.
Sprinkled with a curious mix of old and new buildings, a walk along the road offers a slice of modern Baku while also giving an insight into the rich history of the city. Grey, blocky concrete Soviet-era buildings hold their own next to modern highrises housing offices and shopping arenas advertising almost all major fashion labels.
Baku city, my guide book tells me, is more than 2000 years old and home to over two million people. Clearly, the population is spread out pretty evenly because the city does not appear to be crowded or busy. A relaxed, leisurely ambience envelopes the city aided, without doubt, by a balmy breeze blowing in from the largest enclosed inland body of water on Earth - the Caspian Sea.
A beep from my phone reminded me that lunch was in 15 minutes.
By the time I arrived at the splendid Firework restaurant at the JW Marriott, the tables were groaning under the weight of the dishes. The Azeri staples were all there - Dolma (minced meat wrapped in grape leaves), lamb sadj (small chunks of lamb cooked in sheep fat with a potatoes, peppers and aubergines thrown in); a selection of flat breads and a plethora of kebabs, largely lamb, but also with enough of chicken chunks to keep white meat lovers satisfied.
Stuffed, I decided to rest for a while before joining the team for a tour of Baku in the evening.
The first stop was Old City. The most ancient part of Baku, it is said to have been founded on a site inhabited since the Paleolithic era. While parts of the defensive walls built in the 12th century still stand enclosing the Icherisheher (inner city), in a paradoxical melding of ancient and modern the F1 track skirts one of the most ancient monuments in the city and a symbol of Baku - the Maiden Tower.
While some date it to the 12th century, others suggest it was built in the 5th or 6th. A Unesco World Heritage listed site, the nearly 100-ft Maiden Tower is shrouded in mystery, and the history of the structure would depend on who you are talking to.
The guide told me a tale of a maiden – now you know how it got its name - who fought ferociously from the tower to protect the city’s inhabitants from a marauding enemy.
A more interesting one, though, is about a suicidal princess, a tale I heard from an Azeri carpetseller.
‘Would you like to go up the tower?’ asked our guide. I politely declined, which on hindsight was a good thing because I spent the rest of the sultry afternoon meandering through the maze-like Old City.
A warren of labyrinthine, narrow alleyways that snake past homes, homestays, and small eateries, it was easy to get lost in the area. The reasonably well-preserved buildings lining the alleys, with balconies just a leap apart, must have been a boon to a lot of Romeos and Juliets, I imagined.
The musing is actually not too far-fetched. Ganja, a city in western Azerbaijan, is home to Nizami Ganjavi, a poet who way back in the 12th century wrote Majnun and Layla, a tale many argue was the precursor to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The ground floors of almost all the buildings house touristy shops selling rugs, carpets, babushkas and Russian dolls. Also on sale were cute memorabilia including miniature samovars and metal objets d’art with just the right amount of rust to ‘prove’ they were ancient and had been ‘dug up’ recently.
After more than a couple of hours of walking around in what seemed like meaningless circles and past scores of similar looking houses, I was sweating like a horse when we marched up a flight of steps to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs – apparently a tourist must-see.
The 15th century palace, described as a ‘Pearl of Azerbaijan architecture’, includes a mausoleum, a mosque, a reservoir and living quarters of the then rulers. Twisting tunnels, dark manholes and strange hiding crevices in the walls add mystery and intrigue to the palace’s legends. But there’s only so long you can stare at an ancient king’s wardrobe or ruminate on the number of knots per square inch (a mindboggling 400, said a guide) in some of the palace carpets.
So, after the mandatory photo ops and having had more than my dose of history for the day, I headed outdoors to our bus which would take us to Martyr’s Lane. A memorial dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during the Black January of 1990, it leads to the Eternal Flame memorial where, like the name suggests, a flame has been burning ceaselessly since 1998.
Perched on a hillock of sorts, the memorial area also offers a fantastic view of the Baku skyline.
‘Let’s have a cup of Azeri tea,’ suggested Shamkal. Served in a glass called armudu (literally pear-shaped and about the same size), it is taken black and unsweetened with small teaspoonsful of cloyingly sweet fruit jams eaten after each sip.
Later, back in the hotel, I could barely keep my eyes open. Since we would be leaving the next morning for Gabala, also written as Qabala and Gebele, I hit the pillow early.
Next morning, a sumptuous breakfast later, we were in the lobby when Mr S sauntered over with a pop quiz question.
‘Which is the lowest lying national capital city in the world?’ he asked.
The place we are at right now, I said. Baku is 28m below sea level. I didn’t tell him I’d just read that up the previous night.
The around 300km road trip from Baku to Gabala takes around 4 hours. But thanks to ongoing road widening works, the trip took a derriere-numbing six.
Once you exit the city, the road slices through largely dusty, uninhabited plains before abruptly entering green forests on the outskirts of Gabala. Bears and foxes have been sighted in the woods, says Shamkal, our guide.
The long trip offers me an op to ask Shamkal if he remembers life during the Soviet rule.
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t very pleasant, but since independence Azerbaijan has made tremendous progress.’
The development is clearly visible not just in the capital Baku but even here in Gabala.
With a history that goes back to the 4th century, this city that was also on the Silk Road, was referred to in Pliny the Younger’s and Ptolemy’s works, boasts Shamkal.
I, though, was more impressed by the pristine natural beauty of the area. Fringed by mountains, Gabala is swathed in greenery that acts as a soothing balm to the eyes particularly after the long drive through dusty roads.
But then the greenery is no surprise; one of the lesser-known secrets is that Azerbaijan is criss-crossed by more than 8,000 rivers.
I was secretly pleased Mr S did not know that.
Checking into the modest River Side Hotel at Gabala, I quickly got ready to head out again for the cable car trip at the spectacular Tufandag ski resort.
With four sections of cable car lifts, Gabala offers some spectacular skiing and snow sport options thanks to a total trail length of 17km. Equipped with four lifts to transport guests to the top of the mountains, Tufandag resort also boasts a five-star property where first-time as well as seasoned skiiers will feel totally at home.
Although there was no snow when we visited – best time for skiing is from November to March – the place was nevertheless breathtakingly beautiful made picture perfect by shepherds bringing home their herds with the late evening sun offering a spectacular backdrop.
The final day in Gabala included a trip to the Yeddi Gozel waterfall – also known as the seven sisters waterfall. The road to the base of the waterfall may be rubbish and trashy, quite literally, but it does take you past quaint villages where time seems to have stood still since the early 19th century. Little boys chase not footballs but chickens, while young girls stand outside homes selling pretty floral hair wreaths to tourists.
The road ends at a flight of some 200-plus steps hew into the mountainside that snake to the top of the hill from where you can have an awe-inspiring view of the waterfall - of course, while enjoying Azeri tea and cherry jam, thanks to a tea shop at the summit.
Later that evening, waiting at the Gebala airport for our flydubai flight to Dubai, I was pleasantly surprised when a cheerful Azeri gentleman walked up and enquired where I was from.
The moment I said India, he grabbed my hand and shook it with gusto. ‘Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, I love them all,’ he said, totally elated, leaving me once again slackjawed to find an Azeri talking Bollywood movies. ‘I’ve watched Mere Naam Joker and Sholay several times,’ he added. ‘So happy to meet you. Let’s have a cup of Azeri tea.’
I agreed. What sweeter note to end the tour than with Azeri tea. And of course, syrupy cherry jam.
Flydubai flies thrice a day to Baku. Return fares from Dubai to Baku start from Dh1,010.
Flydubai has two flights a week to Qabala until September 17, 2017. Return fares start from Dh1,070.
Where to stay:
JW Marriott Absheron Baku (674 Azadliq Square, Baku, Azerbaijan. Phone: +994 12 499 88 88) is centrally located and offers lovely views of the Caspian Sea and the waterfront.
Qabala: The River Side Hotel (Gebele, Azerbaijan. Phone: +994 24 205 43 30) is barely a 20-minute drive away from the ski slopes and the Tufandag resort.