A rustic village high in the mountains

Azerbaijan: land of contrasts

posted in: Turkey and the Caucasus 2022 | 1

I previously wrote about how Baku is a city of contrasts. I now have to take it a step further. In the last two days, as I traveled outside Baku, I’ve seen an extraordinary variety in almost all things. Azerbaijan strikes me as a land of great contrasts.


I think my photos tell a lot of the story. Here are my Google albums:

And here are some examples of different landscapes from the rides I’ve taken to destinations outside Baku:


A note about place name spellings

There may be some inconsistency in the spelling of various place names. That’s because, although Azerbaijani uses the Latin alphabet (since the 1990s), some of the letters aren’t standard, and when written in English, they may be spelled differently. There are, for example, two versions of the letter “I”, one with a dot and one without. There’s also a G with and without a hat, C and S with and without a tail, and and a letter that looks like an upside-down lower-case e.

For example, Guba in Azerbaijani is Quba.
Khinalig is Xınalıq
Shaki is Şəki
Baku is Bakı

The upside-down e is pronounced more like “a” but looks more like “e,” so sometimes the town is written in English as Sheki and sometimes as Shaki.

Some of the ugliest scenery I’ve seen anywhere in my travels was on the drive north of Baku toward Guba.
Just past Guba is the lush green arbor formed by the trees of Gechresh forest
Continuing past Guba toward Khinalig
The hills are brown at the end of a dry summer
On the road to Shaki
On the road to Shaki, about 50 km further west
Another 14 km further northwest on the road to Shaki

In architecture as well, there are enormous contrasts. I’ve already shared some photos from Baku, but you’ll see much the same thing throughout the places I’ve been.

In fact, it was really hard to settle on a single “featured image” (the one at the top of this post). Picking one representative photo was futile. I settled on a picture of the village of Khinalig, high on the top of the mountain, isolated and remote, because in a way it tells a story of contrast. It’s like a place out of time. I drove through ugly and beautiful scenery to get there. And it looks like it is both a happy and a sad place. It’s a place where people were joyfully celebrating a wedding, and it’s a place where people live in miserable conditions. Yet it’s also a place people want to come see. The government is in the process of improving the road to get there and building a tourist infrastructure of hotels and restaurants to attract visitors.

Some other observations and stories


When I leave Azerbaijan tomorrow and fly to Tbilisi to start my ten days there, I will not be sorry to part ways with Ramin.

He is an interesting, decent guy and a reliable driver, but he is not a guide. He can get me where I want to go and show me what I want to see, but he can’t really tell me much about anything. At each site we’ve visited, he has procured a guide to show me around, which has been great. But our walking tours have not been tours at all; they’ve just been walks.

In addition, Ramin is extremely busy dealing with other clients and his other drivers on the phone. His phone chirps and beeps and rings constantly. (His ring tone and the other sounds his phone makes are the most annoying ever.) He takes phone calls and sends text messages while driving, which I do not appreciate. 

One other thing I’ve picked up talking with Ramin: he’s a strong lover of his country, and that goes hand-in-hand with being a hater of all things Armenia. It can be interesting talking with him about it, but also frustrating, because he is so tied to his point of view. It could be that he is making valid points, but it’s also worth noting that Azerbaijan isn’t known for freedom of the press, so it could be that his access to accurate information is limited.


Although Azerbaijan has no official established religion, it is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Around 97% of the population identifies as Muslim, but I have seen very few women in hijabs, far fewer than in Turkey. Ramin told me he is Muslim, but he doesn’t pray and doesn’t attend mosque. I saw fewer mosques here than in Turkey, but the ones I saw seem to have great cultural importance, perhaps more cultural than religious.

Azerbaijan, as a nation, and the Azerbaijani people practice tolerance, acceptance, and kindness in their official policies and in their everyday lives. I was greeted warmly at hotels and restaurants and tourist attractions. Service at restaurants was uniformly excellent. Even at immigration when I arrived at the airport, I was met with a smile and a “welcome to Azerbaijan” by the agent.


Azerbaijan is also very friendly with Israel. This has created some tension with their neighbor to the south, Iran. Jews have always been welcome here. When Islamic conquests forced Jews to flee Persia and the Byzantine empire, many settled in the mountains in the north of what is now Azerbaijan. They had a settlement in the village of Qryz (which I saw from across the valley on the drive to Khinalig).

In 1730 the ruler of the Guba Khanate issued a decree allowing Jews to own land, and he resettled them from Qryz to Guba, giving them a large area to build houses north of the Gudyalcay. Today this area is known as the Red Village.

The Red Village is thought to be the only population center in the world, outside Israel and the United States, to be made up entirely of Jewish people. The population today is about 3,500.

I visited the Six Dome Synagogue, built in 1888, in the Red Village.

Coincidentally, while I was there, a few other visitors were also taking a look around. One of them spoke English, and it turns out he is originally from Baku but currently lives in Seattle, where he works for Microsoft. He was back visiting his family.

What are the odds of running into someone from Seattle while visiting a synagogue in Guba, Azerbaijan?


Baku, hands down, is the cleanest city I’ve ever visited. And that extends to everywhere else I’ve been in Azerbaijan. No litter. No cigarette butts (and smoking is ubiquitous). Not even dead leaves from trees, and it’s October. Wherever I walked in the city, I saw people working in public areas sweeping, spraying sidewalks with water, raking, mowing lawns, trimming shrubs.

Baku also had the most elegant pedestrian underpass anywhere.

Safe (except from drivers)

Crime in Azerbaijan is very low. I saw a constant police presence, both in the city and along highways. There’s a very good chance you’ll get pulled over for speeding.

And yet drivers here are insane! I don’t know why there aren’t constant crashes, but I haven’t even see any cars with dents from past mishaps.

The white lines that separate lanes seem to be only a gentle suggestion. If there are two lanes marked, and you’re stopped in one lane at a light, and someone else is stopped in the other lane, if there’s space between you, someone will invariably pull into that space in order to get ahead of you when the light changes.

No passing zones on two-lane highways are also just something to consider.

Ramin said if you can drive in Baku, you can drive anywhere.

Nice cars and houses

I think maybe the most common make of automobile is Mercedes-Benz.

A lot of nice cars in general. 

There are a lot of wealthy people in this country. I’ve seen beautiful homes in Baku and in many other towns, including the Red Village. (Ramin pointed out that Jews are very clever and know how to make money. I bit my tongue.) (He knows I’m Jewish.) (He told me he has lots of Jewish friends.)

Next up: Georgia

Tomorrow’s my last day in Azerbaijan. Tomorrow night I fly to Tbilisi.

I wish I had more time here. (But not with Ramin…)

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