I always loved maps as a child. In looking up the index for Australia, Azerbaijan was very near it. All those As combined with a Z, B and J, just a fabulous word. I decided that one day I would visit there and the family joke became: “When are you going to Azerbaijan, Mum?”
At last visas are available online and three days after applying I am booked to fly Azerbaijan Airlines to Baku. I think everyone is worried I’ll be disappointed but, from the moment the plane touches down and everyone claps and smiles, I just know they’ve been waiting for me.
My taxi driver from the airport speaks English and gives me a most informative tour. He is so excited I’ve come all this way and am going to stay for 30 days. The next day I catch a local bus to visit a famous mosque and am handed a loaf of bread by a local woman. I later discover that giving bread is a sign of friendship.
Baku is a wonderful mix of ancient and modern. Soviet-era apartments have been given a sandstone facade to match the old buildings. The Caspian Sea is polluted, but still the beautiful Azeri people promenade. The most spectacular drive imaginable is from Quba to Xinaliq, a remote mountain village. At the first bend, my jaw drops, I put down my camera and just live the experience and enjoy the stunning views. Snow-topped mountains with little white clouds float by at eye level. Outlines of ancient terraces are visible, dotted with sheep, goats, cows and shepherds. The animals are taken back to the village for the night. Their dung is mixed with straw and made into large bricks to be dried and stacked for fuel in the winter. Azeris are such hardy people.
The highlight is my stay in the beautiful, old mountain village of Lahic. Stone-paved roads lined by ancient houses are very narrow for cars and it’s made more exciting by the occasional group of young men galloping through on horseback. Everyone in the village who can speak English comes to chat with me. A 70-year-old grey-haired Australian woman is a rarity.
Many local buses, wonderful meals, home stays, villages, markets and friendly people later, my 30 days are up. Azerbaijan seems one of the safest countries I’ve visited. Thanks to its wonderful people, the expectations of my childhood dreams have been exceeded.