This is neither Europe nor Asia. Azerbaijan is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts, a centre of ancient empires and at the same time a “new” nation rapidly emerging on a petroleum-funded new economy.
Let me start from the beginning though. Our feedback about the border crossing of Azerbaijan was negative and there were always talks about long delays. So weapproached the border with skepticism but positive thinking and in a good mood. As we entered, we were told that Rochelle as a passenger had to cross separately from the car and me. Everything went smoothly with all the paperwork done in a surprising fast pace and I was almost ready to jump in Voukefalas and head towards the other side of the gate, where Rochelle was already waiting for half an hour in a cold, no man’s land. Then I heard the voice of the customs officer. “Sir, what’s this?” He was pointing at the Phantom, our drone for aerial photography. “Oh, this is nothing”, I answered, “just a toy helicopter”. With these two sentences my adventure had just begun. It took me 4,5 hours to persuade the officials to let my Phantom go through and not to be confiscated. They were afraid that I would use it for spying purposes due to the fact I had visited Armenia before. These two countries hate each other. Finally I had to declare it and put it in a box. The irony was that I read “Welcome to Azerbaijan” on the top of the exit gate before I picked up Rochelle in a frozen form. It took her almost an hour to defrost and start talking. We headed to our first overnight stop, Seki. Our hotel for the night was a truckers’ stop lodge, not exactly the perfect place for our first introduction to the country.
The next morning we got up in a good mood and ready for exploration, but the weather fogged us out and with a very low visibility the exploration was canceled. We left Seki and headed on. Until that point everything seemed to go from bad to worse. From then onwards our luck changed and the fun started. We headed to Lahic, a wonderful small village in complete isolation from the rest of the country and with a step-back-in-time atmosphere. A moment to remember was when the two crazy tourists -that’s us- decided to go through the main tiny streets in Voukefalas. Just the look on the locals’ faces was worth every minute. Great laughs really. We had to choose between staying at one of the local so called guesthouses (God help us) or pushing towards the capital. We took the second option and headed for the cosmopolitan Baku city.
Baku or Baki is surrounded by semi-desert on one side and the oil-rich Caspian Sea on the other. Although barely a three-hour drive away, we faced rural villages, almost destroyed roads and an absolute absence of any infrastructure. Baku was definitely not what we expected to see. Few cities in the world are changing as quickly as Baku and nowhere else in Eurasia do East and West blend as chaotically. Battered Ladas race SUVs and shiny Mercedes past shiny glass towers and old Soviet apartment blocks. In its elegant centre, pedestrianized tree-lined streets are increasingly filled with exclusive boutiques and name brands that can only be found in Paris or New York. Romantic couples defy Islamic stereotypes by handholding their way around wooded parks and on the Caspian-front promenade.
Rose, one of my colleges, had recently moved here to work as a chef and we were invited to stay in her gorgeous apartment. Rose, if you read this, thank you for your extraordinary hospitality. You made our stay really memorable.
Five days went by and we had to say goodbye to Rose and Azerbaijan. Our passage through here was fast and intense but at the same time educational and unforgettably funny. Baku is definitely a place that you’ll hear about in the future maybe as the new Dubai or even more than that. As for us, we’re still heading east…
P.S. For the record, on the way out the customs did not even ask what it was that I had declared and I got the Phantom out with no problem at all. I guess on the way in, it was just the wrong time and the wrong place. In other words, “s**t happens”.