‘Azerbaijan border – Good luck,” read the sign at the Georgian frontier town. I gulped, hoisted my backpack and reached for my passport.
Ominous cautions from its neighbours notwithstanding, Azerbaijan is trying to court people like me. It’s not, on the face of it, an easy sell. Human Rights Watch recently noted “Azerbaijan’s government has escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in an already poor rights record.” But with the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, the European Games this summer and a flurry of eye-catching infrastructure projects, the country – and its capital Baku in particular – is bidding hard to get some purchase on the Western tourist’s imagination.
Yet for all this Azerbaijan, like Timbuktu, remains a byword for remoteness. Visitor numbers are fairly low for the region. Obtaining a tourist visa is a fussy affair. English is barely spoken outside Baku. The country’s very shape precludes easy navigation: it’s bisected into two parts by Armenia, the larger of which is further bifurcated by the tail-end of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. This ex-Soviet state remains an enigma, a patch of obscurity squeezed between Russia and Iran, and it is its very foreignness that appealed to me. It was decided: I would travel the length of the great highway that joins the Georgian border to Baku.
Emerging blinking from customs into the desiccated heat, I boarded the bus to my first destination: Sheki. For these first hundred kilometres, the highway ploughs a straight course through alternating patches of farmland and pine forest. In the background to the right, the hills of the Georgian border stretch tawny brown; to the left, the Caucasus peaks stand misty blue. The vista is punctuated by minarets and billboard portraits of the late former president Heydar Aliyev, the object of a fervid cult of personality.
The quaint town of Sheki is pleasant for many reasons, and famous for two. I wended my way up its leafy central boulevard in search of its first claim to fame: the Palace of the Sheki Khans. On the way I passed lopsided houses with hazelnut balconies, sweet shops with irresistible window displays of baklava and halva (Sheki’s second speciality), and innumerable terraced cafés in which men with rolled-back shirtsleeves dealt cards and slurped tea. Some beckoned me to join them. I must have appeared lost, for locals spontaneously approached me, and though a word in common wasn’t spoken they would gesticulate until they had set me on the right path.
The sole remaining building of the local rulers’ erstwhile summer residence, the 18th-century palace is modestly sized but lavishly decorated. The squat two-storey edifice catches the eye with a façade of russet-brown wooden window frames and blue and ochre tiles. The interior – only one room deep – is resplendent in murals depicting flower motifs and the khans’ military victories, which are cast into a kaleidoscope of primary colours by the stained-glass windows. The effect was at once psychedelic and nursery-like.
By now the scenic peaks that enclose Sheki were exerting their pull on me, and I decide to get some altitude. The mountain village of Lahic, three hours further down the highway, nestles amid taut, rippling ridges like a grain of sand inside a walnut. Having dropped off my bag at the house of a friendly villager (the hotels were full, so he had agreed to take me in) I spent a blissful day ambling through the wooded hills, crossing nowt but the odd mule or picturesque stone ruins of god knows what. I returned at dusk to find a cold beer by my bed – my host had read my mind.
I arose early the next day, and was seen off with a breakfast of halva and the local hard cheese. Baku beckoned. I dozed off in my bus seat; when I awoke two hours later, the pine forests had ceded to an open vista of desert scrubland presided over by oil derricks and more portraits of Heydar Aliyev, ghostly in his sun-faded blue hues. The horizon appeared oddly close. As my eyes adjusted to the brilliant light, I began to discern a dark blue band in the distance: the Caspian Sea.
Baku is an oil-rich port town with a Mediterranean swagger and an Emirati glitz. The society is ostensibly Islamic, but nouveau riche materialism is the dominant creed, and the minarets are dwarfed by the glass skyscrapers and Soviet monuments that define the skyline. Much of the city centre is modelled on Parisian boulevards. The photogenic Old Town contains some millennia-old structures, but even they look somehow polished, as if somebody had been let loose on them with a giant scrap of sandpaper. Baku is a hodgepodge of centuries and continents, hectic yet curiously harmonious.
The capital doesn’t want for tourist activities: a visit to a hammam, a cruise on the Caspian, a trip to a remarkable Zoroastrian shrine appropriated by Hindu pilgrims. But its appeal lies above all in its protean character, fuelled by a dizzying construction boom that has given rise to all manner of funky buildings – not least the geometric structures of my two hotels, the swish Boulevard and classy Intourist, which stand like sentinels at either end of the seaside promenade. Baku needs to be experienced at street level; it is a city for walking.
On my last evening I was invited to a kebab restaurant by an Azeri couple I had met serendipitously on the street the previous day. As I thanked them for picking up the bill, they laughed and said, “That’s Azeri hospitality.” And it was this, not the luck invoked by the Georgian border authorities, that had carried me down the highway to Baku. Every time an Azeri had approached me to give directions or shake my hand, I had felt that bit more comfortable in Azerbaijan – no matter that I couldn’t speak the language or read the bus timetables. In places saturated by visitors (such as neighbouring Turkey), the spark of hospitality is diminished, and a friendly gesture from a local all too often comes from an impulse to profiteer. As long as tourist numbers remain low – as long as it’s supposed that you need luck to navigate the country – the same will not be true of Azerbaijan.