Saturday, November 16, 2013

AZERBAIJAN - Land of Fire and Design

Neither Europe nor Asia, Azerbaijan is an incredible tangle of contradictions and contrasts.

  Refusing someone offering you tea is a strong indicator you don’t like that person. When receiving a gift, you’re supposed to refuse a few times before actually taking it. If you’re offering a present, insist by all means. Remove your shoes upon entering and don’t display the soles of your feet. Don’t even think about crossing your legs! Avoid chewing gum, pointing fingers and randomly touching people. They don’t appreciate it. Also, never, ever, mention Armenians. You can’t possibly imagine the reactions you’ll get.
It’s a fascinating nexus of ancient historical empires. Yet it’s also a new nation finding its feet as it emerges from a war-torn post-Soviet chrysalis on a petroleum-funded gust of optimism. Surrounded by semi-desert on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the nation’s cosmopolitan capital Baku is a dynamic boomtown, where flashy limousines and mushrooming skyscrapers sweep around a picturesque Unesco-listed ancient core. Yet barely three hours’ drive away lies an entirely different world: 

Timeless villages clad in lush orchards from which shepherd tracks lead into the soaring high Caucasus mountains. Where Baku is multilingual and go-ahead, the provinces shuffle to the gently paced click of nard (backgammon) on tree-shaded teahouse terraces: women stay home, herds of cattle wander aimlessly across highways, and potbellied bureaucrats scratch their heads in confusion on finding that an outsider has wandered into their territory.

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