I can’t stop staring at the gaunt, elderly gentleman sitting on a chair near his stall in Baku market. The grey stubble, sunken cheeks, and loose, crinkled skin make him look like one of my maternal uncles. He turns to me and smiles, revealing large front teeth, gaps where his canines ought to be, and a glimmer of gold near the top molars. I smile back, embarrassed that he’s caught me staring. “Industan?” he says as if no other words are necessary.
“Yes” I reply, amazed not just at the use of that word, for we so rarely hear India being called Hindustan, but also at his ability to so easily identify my nationality. I’ve been in Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku just one day, but parts of it already seem so familiar.
My first impression of the city however, was just the opposite. Stepping out of the airport terminal the previous night, a massive, lit-up building shaped like a multi-tiered wedding cake caught my eye. Driving towards downtown Baku, in the shadow of a late setting sun, I was gobsmacked at the extent of illuminated buildings lining the highway. I might well have been on the Las Vegas strip minus the casinos. Baku’s architecture is eye-poppingly over the top. On the confluence of Asia and Europe, a colourful modern city aglow with a billion lights isn’t what I was expecting at all.
I’m on an eight-day trip to Azerbaijan with photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri and other National Geographic editors and photographers. And our guide is the well-informed young Yasin Aleskerli.
On day one Yasin leads us through the old, walled city of Baku, the medieval fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Icheri Sheher (Old City). At its entrance is the sixth-century Kyz Galasy or Maiden Tower, a cylindrical limestone structure believed to originally be a Zoroastrian fire temple, and later a defensive watchtower rebuilt in the 12th century. We climb eight storeys to the roof as Yasin provides a nutshell history of pre-Islamic Azerbaijan, where Zoroastrianism was the prevailing religion. At the windswept top we look at the spread of Baku city. Up on a hill to one side are the famous Flame Towers, glinting in the sunlight. The three modern, flame-shaped skyscrapers are an iconic image of the city’s oil-boom architecture. On another side lies the Caspian Sea and Baku Bay.
As the day progresses, I keep hearing familiar words like sheher, sabun, kitab, dil, kafi—they mean the same thing in Azeri as in Hindi. Later, as we walk through Baku’s popular Fountain Square, filled with cafés and restaurants, I unexpectedly see people enjoying beers in the open. I had, after all, come here with some preconceived ideas of what a Muslim-majority nation would be like. Although Azerbaijan’s population is primarily Shia, it’s eye-opening to learn that it is a secular country. Yasin surprises me by stating that the biggest holiday in Azerbaijan is Novruz, directly derived from the Zoroastrian new year, and held like in India and Iran, around the 21st of March. Being half-Zoroastrian myself, I’m very familiar with that holiday. The difference here is that celebrations for Novruz start a month earlier. On four Tuesdays before Novruz a different natural element is commemorated: starting with water, then fire, earth, and finally air, celebrating the arrival of spring.
Shaped like the head and beak of a bird in flight, the Absheron Peninsula sticks out of the Eurasian land mass eastward into the Caspian Sea. We’re spending a few days exploring this promontory, on which Baku and the area around it sits. It’s a region that has been occupied for millennia, with strong links to Iran in the south. Baku became a significant seaport in the 12th and 13th centuries and the peninsula is still dotted with the ruins of fortresses, castles, and towers. With the 19th-century oil boom, the region began to be indiscriminately exploited for its reserves and was, by 1900, producing half the world’s supply of oil, leading the area around Baku to become an environmental disaster. Today however, there has been a massive clean-up and most of the oil drilling has moved offshore.
We drive a few kilometres outside Baku one evening after dark to visit Yanar Dag, the Burning Mountain, where part of a hillside burns continuously as a result of a natural gas leak. Fires like this once burned all over the Baku area, and are believed to have given this country its name: Azerbaijan, the Land of (Sacred) Fires. Scientifically, these natural flames exist because Azerbaijan has huge natural gas reserves that are very close to the surface. As drilling and exploitation of these gas resources increased, the level at which they are found lowered, causing the naturally burning fires to slowly disappear. Yanar Dag however, is protected as a national heritage site and no drilling occurs nearby so its flames can stay as they have for several millennia.
In the darkness, the 10-metre-long wall of fire along the edge of the hill burns fiercely. I’ve seen this phenomenon once before, albeit on a much smaller scale, at the Muktinath temple high up in the Nepal Himalayas. There the flame was no bigger than my thumb. Here, part of the hillside is on fire and standing a few feet from it I can hear the crackling of the flames, feel the heat, and smell crude oil and gas in the air. It’s easy to see why, before the discovery of the commercial use of natural gas and petroleum, fires blowing out of the belly of Earth amazed and fascinated our ancestors. In fact, this area is considered crucial to the birth of Zoroastrianism, a religion that to this day considers fire sacred, to be treated with respect, and as an essential vehicle to send prayers to god.
A blustery wind is blowing outside the window of our van. The driver is off-roading along a route he seems to know well, twisting and turning though I cannot see any path on the arid, barren landscape. There’s barely a shrub in sight and though it is desolate the view is clear; it feels like a studio without a backdrop. Suddenly Yasin points to several black-and-white swallows soaring alongside our vehicle, keeping pace. The birds are flying strangely low, just below the level of the windows. They accompany us for several kilometres before disappearing into the same nothingness from which they came.
After a few additional minutes of jerks and bumps, the van stops. When we step outside, the wind feels even more powerful, whipping across the grey-brown lunar landscape of Dashgil’s mud volcanoes. Across the sweep of this plateau, 90 kilometres from Baku, are pockets of fluid mud forming small pools and little hilly mounds atop which churn puddles of watery clay.
In spite of the bellowing breeze I hear an occasional gurgle from the earth. At one point it’s a glug, and the surface breaks a bubble and sprays mud on me. It dries instantly on my clothes and shoes. I reach down and touch the liquid earth. It is cold, the texture of wet clay, not hot as I’d imagined. We walk around the plateau, climbing a few of the “volcanoes” (no more than a few metres high), with a circular crater of bubbling molten earth at the centre. They look like pots of chocolate fondue, except for the colour, which is an elephant-grey. From my vantage point on top of a small mound I can see the Caspian Sea not too far away.
Yasin leads a few of us further into the plateau to a small lake, where saline water has seeped into the mud creating a strange viscous slurry. He explains that these mud volcanoes are caused when natural gas lies near the surface of the land. As it pushes its way upwards through cracks and vents, it causes the mud to become liquid, eventually bubbling its way to the surface. Watching this breathing, belching, churning matter is soothing in its unexpectedness. This liquid earth, this feisty wind, this outlying plateau untouched by the drone of mass tourism, it silences all conversation and gives me something to take back home.
Back in downtown Baku, purple taxis whiz by as frequently as Mercedes-Benz cars and limousines. A strong breeze blows non-stop from the darkness of the Caspian Sea on to Baku Boulevard, the capital city’s waterfront walkway. We’re having a post-dinner stroll, partly to work off some of the large multi-course meal we’ve just had.
I too come from a waterfront city, one where public spaces are sadly short. Baku’s public spaces are, in a word, astounding. Huge parks, squares, greenery, walkways—the number of accessible, clean, safe public areas in this city is phenomenal, and even more wonderful is watching the citizenry make the best use of it, late into the summer night.
Atop the hill, overlooking the bay, the Flame Towers flash their colourful lights. For me however, Baku’s lingering symbol came to be not its Flame Towers, but the almost eternal Caspian Sea breeze. It even has a name, Gilavar, which makes it sound like an old aunt. Gilavar makes three hours of walking after a long day of sightseeing seem like nothing. We walk and chat, four women from vastly different countries and cultures who’ve only just met, but the conversation flows with ease, sharing thoughts, ideas, lives, as the wind blows our hair almost perpendicular to our bodies.
At 11 p.m. there are still hundreds of people out on Baku Boulevard: young, old, families, children, even the very elderly.
I stop to watch young children running on the boulevard, women laughing and chatting as they communally babysit their children by the sea. Red and blue lights flash on the heels of the rollerblades of a young boy as he zooms down the boulevard ahead of his friends, his arms spread out in happiness as he cuts through the lively night air.
Late one afternoon Yasin takes us to visit the Mardekan Fortress ruins near Baku. At the Sahil beach in this seaside village, we are greeted by Gilavar again. Friend and foe, this steady wind appears everywhere. We are not here to swim, but for a glimpse of local life and people-watching. A man races his horse on the beach causing heads to turn. I step up to touch the water. I could be at Mumbai’s Juhu beach: Though the sand is darker, the water is warm and the very same grey as our end of the Arabian Sea. It’s from these Caspian Sea waters that most of the world’s sturgeon is fished. That morning in Baku’s Taaza Bazaar I had tasted caviar, the eggs of the sturgeon fish. A single 100-gram jar of Beluga caviar costs about $180/₹12,000.
Though a sign says swimming isn’t permitted, scores of people are in the water. A mother holds her young child as waves wash over them. A young boy in black trunks rolls on the sand at the water’s edge, delighting in both the coolness and warmth it offers. He’s joined by his friends; they laugh, frolic, play. I cannot understand their words, but they all look so familiar; they could well be lads from Mumbai’s Dadar Parsi Colony.
When we drive 30 kilometres from Baku to the town of Surakhani we head straight to the Atashgah, the Fire House or fire temple. Historically this area, like Yanar Dag, had many spots where natural gas found its way to the surface and was ignited. Zoroastrians worshiped at these eternal flames and later built fire temples here. One of these was built in Surakhani, but destroyed in the mid-7th century. In the 18th century, Indian traders funded the rebuilding of this temple on the old ruin, but it fell into disuse in 1883 once gas reserves lowered and the fires died out. The site we’re at was restored and made a protected monument in 1975. The seven fires burning in the complex are assisted by piped gas.
At the centre of the courtyard is a four-arched pavilion with an altar with a flame. Around the complex are inscriptions in Sanskrit, Devanagari, Gurmukhi, and even a swastika, indicating that this was once used by people of various religions. All around the pavilion are little guest rooms where travellers and pilgrims stayed. Some say this is not actually a fire temple.
Even though I’m Zoroastrian on my mother’s side I’ve never entered a fire temple before. This one isn’t a functioning one, it’s a museum. As the sun begins to go down and the fires dance with their shadows, a calming energy fills the space. When dusk settles, I’m drawn to the central pavilion where a yellow flame burns. But it’s not just the fire that pulls me there it’s the atmosphere of the place. In its emptiness it feels like the locus to be, a spot where I will find answers to everything and nothing.
I’ve never thought much about my Zoroastrian heritage, but at this moment the fire makes me think of departed souls I’ve pushed to the recesses of my brain for a variety of reasons. I wonder if it’s because while growing up, an oil lamp was lit in our home every day to remember family who had passed on.
I think of the grandfather I knew only until I was five, the grandmother who told me stories of her youth, and their daughter, my mother, who proudly held her unique religion close to her heart and prayed and lit a lamp at least twice every day, including in the final few hours before she died. I’m not religious, I’m not a New-Ager, nor do I consider myself spiritual or a seeker, but there are places of transcendent beauty that I’ve been to, where I feel enveloped in warmth and serenity. This is one of them.
I step away from everyone to be alone. In the few minutes of quiet I feel mentally stilled. I register that there are no timelines on loss or memories. I recall a long-forgotten lesson from my childhood, the foremost Zoroastrian edict: good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
I look at my travelling companions, a mix of a Hindu, Muslims, Jews, Christians. Some unwittingly whisper, not wanting to disturb the quietude, others stand and stare unhurriedly. It is abundantly clear that everyone is feeling the power of this place.
Baku isn’t the city I had imagined, nor does its citizenry fit my preconceived notions. I hadn’t expected to see so many women in public places. Nor its streets full of mixed architecture: from Victorian buildings and Soviet-style structures, to the very modern Heydar Aliyev Centre. Here I spot women in short dresses and stylish haircuts, there I watch men enter a mosque. At Baku’s Highland Park, Azerbaijani and Russian wrestlers train for international championships, and in a small corner of an old Baku building fashion designer Zenfira Gurbanova makes outlandish clothing befitting international ramps. At Fountain Square couples walk hand-in-hand and what were once storage basements are now bustling restaurants serving, not pizza and pasta, but Azerbaijani fare.
Meals in Azerbaijan always start with a basket of tandir flatbread (like our naan), fresh fruit, and platefuls of fresh green herbs—sprigs of dill, tarragon, and maroon basil leaves—and the coveted Absheron tomato. This is often followed by soup: dovga, a yogurt soup with herbs for the vegetarians and perhaps kofta bozbash, lamb kofta broth for the meat eaters. And then the main course which could be one of a variety of dishes: We enjoy platters of kebabs and parcels of dolma, vine leaves stuffed with rice and mince. It’s all very delicious. One particular dish, chighirtma, catches my attention: It’s made of meat or vegetables and cooked with eggs until set, like a frittata or shakshuka. It’s just like the signature egg dish the Parsis of India made at home frequently, one which has no commonality with any other dish in our country.
At the Mardekan Fortress we meet Vidadi Amirullaoglu, historian and caretaker of the ruin. He doesn’t speak English, but that doesn’t stop him from rattling off non-stop in Azeri, while Yasin, one of the best guides I’ve ever travelled with, tries his best to keep up the translation. At one point Vidadi turns to me and says something. The only word I catch is, “Industan,” and Yasin laughs. Wherever I’ve gone in Azerbaijan people start off by asking where I’m from, and before I can answer, they ask rhetorically: “Industan?” It’s a pleasant surprise that though none of them has ever been to India, or knows any Indians personally, they can identify Chirodeep and me as Indians with ease. I gather later that this familiarity stems from years of watching Hindi cinema. Not the latest Bollywood blockbusters, but Raj Kapoor films that, believe it or not, are still immensely popular.
On the flip side, few Indians know where Azerbaijan is, let alone having visited it, or being able to recognise an Azeri in a crowd. Yet for me there are many connections to this ancient land. Not only are the people friendly and happy to have a conversation even without a common language, often they look like they could be my relatives. And as we travel through the Absheron Peninsula I find unexpectedly, that each time I encounter various elements—wind, earth, fire, and water—I find myself contemplating aspects of my roots I’ve never really considered.
Vidadi keeps talking, adding intrigue to the story of the ruins as we roam the Mardekan grounds, and crumbling interiors. When it’s time to leave, he turns to me, does a namaste with his hands and says: “Salamlar, take my greetings back to your country.”
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “The Elements”.
Azerbaijan is one of those rare countries that is considered a transcontinental nation, i.e. it is both in Asia and Europe. Quite simply, Azerbaijan is considered to be geographically in Asia, but politically a part of Europe. The country lies on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, and has mountain ranges on three sides. The Greater Caucasus and Russia lie in the north, Georgia is to the northwest, the lesser Caucasus and Armenia are west of it and the Talysh Mountains lie between Azerbaijan and its southern border with Iran. The capital city Baku sits on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula, a headland that extends into the Caspian Sea.
There are no direct flights from India to Baku. The quickest route to Baku is via Dubai or Doha in the Middle East. Travellers can also fly in via Istanbul, though that requires a longer layover.
To travel to and obtain a visa for Azerbaijan, tourists need to either be part of a tour group or approach a travel company approved by the government, such as Improtex Travel Tours & Conferences (improtex.travel) or Geo Travel (geo-travel.az). These agents assist in making stay and travel arrangements, (which are necessary for obtaining a visa) and will also organise a visa on arrival (visa fee $46/₹3,066 for Indians). There is an Azerbaijan embassy in New Delhi but to obtain a visa you need to contact one of these agencies (full list available at azerbaijan.travel/upload/File/viza_shirketler_en.pdf).
’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.
is Photo Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. He is the author of "A Village in Bengal", a portrait of rural Bengal.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.