Azerbaijan - the Land of Fire - is one of three Caucasus countries that emerged as independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's sitting on cross roads of Asia and Europe for almost two millennia, welcoming merchants and travellers from both continents as they travelled the ancient Silk Road.
Founded approximately in 6th AD, Ganja is a culturally rich city that was part of the Silk Road. The historical part of the city also called "Old Ganja" is known for its ruins of fortifications, towers, and caravanserai (place where merchant caravans could stay to have a rest), mausoleums and mosques.
Ganja takes pride in the fact that the great Azerbaijani poet Nizami Gyanjevi was born there. His mausoleum is a major tourist attraction and there are huge statues of his books erected just outside the city. Not so poetic are the taxi drivers. I took a taxi there, the driver tried to charge me three times the price we initially agreed; then he wanted me to call my hotel to cancel my stay so I can instead stay in a hotel that he recommended.
Quba is a city located 170 km to the north of Baku right on the picturesque hillsides. It has an interesting mix of Azeri and Soviet culture with the omnipresent Soviet Lada cars that are still chugging. People are extremely welcoming, I even got to attend a wedding.
Hidden on the northern slope of the Caucasus mountains, perched at 2100m above sea level, Xinaluq is one of Azerbaijan oldest settlement. For centuries, this village has been cut off from civilisation by hard-to-reach mountains and dangerous rocky cliffs. Due to the isolation, its residents managed to preserve their culture and traditions. The population is divided into 4 families. Each family has its own graveyard, its own patterns for carpets and clothing. They weave carpets to cover the walls as insulation against the cold winters. Since 2006 thanks to a new paved road, the village has been connected to the rest of the country, ending its isolation and bringing modern civilisation to it.
The capital, Baku expanded dramatically after the creation of the first oil wells in the 18th century, and has been an oil-rich boom town ever since. Thanks to that new found wealth, the city is now an eclectic mix of grand mansions, brutal Soviet-era architecture and gleaming skyscrapers. Azerbaijan also makes active efforts to maintain its cultural heritage with the 12th century Old Town renovated and preserved.
Officially part of Azerbaijan, but cut-off (de facto) from it is the region Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian populated enclave that Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war over in the early 1990s until a cease-fire was negotiated in 1994. While the cease-fire still holds, the conflict remains unresolved, and Armenian forces still occupy not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also what they see as a "buffer zone" of Azerbaijan's territory around the enclave. Going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan is impossible due to the conflict – you'd have to go from Armenia (see the Armenia trip report).