When in Baku, Azerbaijan: Open your arms, like SRK, as taught us a local cabbie.
Baku is home to palaces and skyscrapers, mud volcanoes and ‘fires’, kebabs and pakhlavas — and is a must-visit for anyone, who wants to experience history and nature, the modern-architecture and traditional recipes, and more over a short stay
If you’re an Indian, then irrespective of the land you travel to or how far you go from home, you’d never be alone. For, there’ll always be Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) to give you company, and even butter chicken, dal fry, and paneer butter masala (more on that later); but foremost SRK, the Indian legendary Bollywood. Now, over the years of my travels, the foremost reaction I’ve got from anyone (tourist guides, chefs at local eateries, hotel staff, shopkeepers, etc.) who’s asked me the ice-breaker question — where are you from – India, I say, with pride — has been, ‘Oh, you know Shah Rookh Khan’, and I’ve smiled, as though he’s a friend, I run with every morning, or sharing my evening cuppa with! Of course, I’ve diligently assured everyone that SRK would have indeed loved their country, their cuisine, and more. It was the same this winter, December 2022, when I landed in Baku, Azerbaijan, a transcontinental country located at the boundary of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. So, let me start from the Bollywood jukebox that was played for us on the way to the Mud Volcanoes, Gobustan Reserve (an hour's drive from Baku).
We’re in a vehicle, let’s for the sake of ease, call it a modified car, a cross between a Lada, a Nissan, and many other unidentifiable names. On the wheel is Samundar, who with pride claims, “I was born in 1994 and this car dates back to 1992.” As soon as we get into the vehicle, he welcomes us with the biggest smile and welcomes us, the people from the land of Shah Rukh Khan. Before he hits the accelerator (and gosh, we’re scared for the vehicle is let’s just say way past its age of being on the road, forget mountains), he opens the YouTube app on his phone and searches for his most-loved number, Tujhe Dekho To (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). We sing along (the rusty vehicle adds to the charm), as we head to the volcanoes of Gobustan, an attraction for both scientists and tourists. Samundar tells us that when the weather permits tourists bathe in the mud, which is supposed to have medicinal qualities. Not today, it’s nine degrees. Samundar, who’s a new father, emphasizes how his name too comes from an Indian word! He’s surely a fan of all things Indian, for his playlist after SRK’s numbers moves on to songs like Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja Aaja; Awara Hoon; et al. Not only is he a Bollywood buff, he’s also an ace photographer (he insists we get a handful of pics clicked at the spot in the atypical SRK pose (arms spread wide open!) and a good tourist guide, for when we reach the spot, he’s quick to light a matchstick and show us how the volcano flickers!
Mud volcanoes erupt naturally, but how they light up on fire is still debated among scientists. As mud volcanoes are not really volcanoes at all, but take their name from their resemblance to the molten-lava kind — it’s safe to get closer. It’s methane and carbon dioxide gasses released from deep within the Earth that lead to Gobustan’s mud volcanoes to constantly bubble away and release a drizzle of wet mud.
How to plan: It’s free-to-enter, the short taxi ride from the Gobustan Reserve costs approx 20 AZN/12 USD.
Fact Check: It's estimated that 300 of the planet's estimated 700 mud volcanoes are located in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian Sea.
The charm of Azerbaijan then does truly lie in the warmth of the locals, not all of them may be hospitality-trained, but they sure know how to show their country in the most pleasing way to outsiders. Before we headed to the volcanoes, we’d made a stopover at The Gobustan National Park Museum, an interactive, modern museum, which explained the meanings of the carvings (in the park outside). It’s here that you can take a moment to understand the history and meaning of the petroglyphs, caves, and settlements dating as far back as 40,000 years.
Fact Check: Petroglyphs are images engraved or drawn into the rocks.
Once outdoors, explore the landscape of stacked boulders, rock shards and caves, and identify the petroglyphs. And yes, start by trying your hand at Gavaldash; most likely ancient inhabitants used it as a musical instrument — is quite simple — the marks on the stones show that they were struck in places that protruded in some way into the air, and could reverberate.
Fact Check: Gobustan National Park officially called Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape is a hill and mountain site occupying the southeast end of the Greater Caucasus mountain ridge. In 1966, Gobustan was declared a national historical landmark of Azerbaijan in an attempt to preserve the ancient carvings, relics, mud volcanoes and gas-stones in the region. In 2007 Gobustan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you like you can spend some time here, or head to Baku, and be ready to be mesmerized with its aesthetic blend of the modern, with the old. This would be a sudden surprise from the history and nature you witnessed! At one point, you’d be looking at the skyscrapers in steel and glass, and at the other you’d be in awe of the minarets and domes, atypical of Azerbaijani architectural style. I’d recommend not leaving the capital, until you’ve spent half a day stopping at the Heydar Aliyev Center ( fluid, sweeping curves, the typical stamp of renowned late architect Zaha Hadid), Baku Flame Towers (LED lights embedded in the exterior add a charm at night), Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum (home to centuries-old carpets and other textiles), and more. Admire the Heydar Mosque, which was completed in 2014, and is built in the ancient Azerbaijani architectural style.
You can’t leave Baku, without sampling their cuisine, yes, please make space and time for Azerbaijani gastronomy
Mangal Salad: This eggplant-based salad, with other chopped, mixed and barbecued vegetables is likely to remind you of baingan bharta from India, Salatet Rahib from Lebanon, and Baba Ghanoush from the larger Levantine region.
Adjika: It’s a herb condiment, prepared with peppers, largely; and served with breads, kebab, etc. as a dip.
Gutab: The country’s flatbread, that comes with stuffing of your choice from greens to meat. Locals refer to it as their ‘fast-food’ and you can pick one freshly prepared from various shops, bakeries, eateries, et al. It is prepared on a large circular metal griddle called ‘saj‘.
Pakhlava: Made from rice flour and filled with nuts, it's their baklava — and try the ones made in Shekhi, with generations old recipe (especially the ones with walnuts,
Kebabs: Take pick, minced or chopped meat, fish, or chicken. Enjoy the deep, roasted flavour with lavash (bread)
Dushbara: Think momos, dumplings — only tastier and filled with minced meat and seasonings, cooked in broth.
If trying out a newer cuisine is not what you enjoy, then step into the The Hindistan Mətbəxi (The Indian Kitchen)
Savour the ‘Little India’ vibe on Nizami Street, Baku. The aroma of tadka (tempering: ground Indian spices heated in hot oil or ghee) is likely to instantly make you feel at home. The countless eateries including (but not limited to) Bombay Zaika, Shahi Darbar, Delhi Darbar, and more. A few of the eateries like Namaste have been around since 1998, only stating that Indians have been visiting the destination for long, and also how the desi is relished, globally. Most of these eateries offer a mix of Indian (Hind) and Middle-Eastern (Arab) cuisines; with exclusive biryani zones even. We ate at Namak, and our hostess, Gul, was well-versed with how Indians crave dal makhani!
Even if you make a short trip to Baku, you’re likely to take with you in addition to a box of pakhlavas, of course, the sights of cobbled streets and palaces (Palace of the Shirvanshahs, 15th-century palace built by the Shirvanshahs and described by UNESCO as one of the pearls of Azerbaijan's architecture) at Icheri Sheher (oldest inhabited part of Baku, a five-minute walk from Nizami Street), the music of the locals playing on the streets and the welcoming vibe of the cats that suggest this is home!
The House of Fire (many call it the Indian Temple)
Atashgah Temple, also known as the Fire Temple of Baku, is where you’d spot Indian inscriptions (alongside Persian, and others); the temple was once a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. It was built during the 16th and 17th centuries; and was abandoned in the late 19th century as the Silk Road gradually lost its importance and a new oil-gas industry took shape around the temple overwhelming the ancient place of worship. You’ll be amazed to see the ‘eternal flame’ (until the 19th century natural gas leaked through the rock around the temple; causing the ‘burning earth’ phenomenon, but it went out after nearly a century of exploitation of petroleum and gas in the area), and is now lit by gas piped from the nearby city. The temple ceased to be a place of worship after 1883 with the installation of petroleum plants at Surakhany; and the courtyard/complex was turned into a museum in 1975. Now, every year, ancient fire rituals are commemorated during the celebration of the national holiday, Novruz.
Deities of Ganesha, Natraja, images/stamps of Guru Nanak Dev, and more are part of the space
Interestingly enough, many Indians still visit this temple for blessings on special occasions
Though not much is known about the arrival of Hindu worshippers to the Temple, the inscriptions and other evidence suggest that the place was of particular importance for Indians worshiping Shiva and Ganesha.
How to reach: A one-hour drive from Baku
From The Temple take a detour to Yanardagh (burning mountain), a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula, Caspian Sea near Baku. Unlike mud volcanoes, this flame burns fairly steadily, as it involves a steady seep of gas from the subsurface. The 10-meter wall of fire is constantly burning at the foot of the hill. Since it burns irrespective of weather conditions, the mountain is considered sacred. Natural fire inspired ancient people and played a crucial role in the creation of religious beliefs, such as Zoroastrianism, in the center of which was the cult of fire. Today, the place is protected and extensive archaeological research is being conducted in this area.
How to reach: Half-hour drive from The Temple
Plan your trip
Direct flights from various destinations in the US (New York, Chicago, Washington) to Heydar Aliyev Airport, Baku, Azerbaijan
Stay in Baku, and make day trips to Gabala, Shahdag and Shekhil if time permits
Disclaimer: Sayers and philosophers often ask us to stop and smell the flowers. Little do they know that our lives are jammed up with tricky deadlines, urgent presentations, must attend parents-teachers meets, sudden electricity failures, uninvited dinner guests, etcetera. And hence they suggest we include travelling as a mandatory activity in our schedules to not just smell the flowers but also do a lot more that our busy routines don’t leave us time for. They remind us to pack our bags and drive down to a nearby place, hop on to a bus for a weekend trip, board a train for a lovely ride or fly down to a gorgeous destination. This is a place where we relive some ordinary moments away from homes. Yes, travelling does a lot more than transporting us to a different location; it revamps and refreshes our day with activities and moments that routine lives keep us away from.
During my school years, the day after Holi was just as important as the festival of colors itself. One of our many quirks was the competition to see whose hands were covered in the brightest, even darkest colors possible—a proud sign of Holi played well. Deep, shocking magenta and indigo blue were the usual winners each year.
On the day of Holi, usually, there was still a slight chill in the air, and we started the day by following instructions from the elders in the family to apply oil on our hands and legs (the unexposed bits too), especially hair, or the color won’t come off. Now, I am talking of the days when colors weren’t all natural and organic; and as teenagers, while we were aware of the risk of acne and pimples from using these non-organic Holi colors, on this one day of the year, these concerns became less important than daring to play the festival to the hilt.
Once we had done the needful, we ran around the neighborhood armed with our pichkaris. For us, the ones with the really high-pressure water guns were the lucky ones.
The fun-filled “war” would begin with us targeting as many friends as possible while also willingly offering ourselves as targets of their pichkaris loaded with pakka—the highly concentrated kind— colored water. Carried away by Holi fervor, we kids preferred these hard-to-remove colors over the gulaal that could be easily dusted off.
Hours of fun ended only when we got exhausted both from chasing one another as well as refilling those buckets of colored water. By noon, our energy levels faded away and we joined the adults who’d all be gathered in the park for a community lunch. A portable water tank with a tap was enough for us to clean our hands for a simple meal of puri and masala chhole. We’d be hungry and eat unabashedly. The adults would then go home for a shower and a much-needed nap, while we, the children and young adults, would get onto our secret mission.
Step one, for us, was to share all our wisdom on how to make the colors last longer. We then proceeded to rub our hands aggressively with just a few drops of water and drops of pakka liquid color. We let it blend and rest for a bit before washing it off. This ensured that it lasted for a few days. One of us sacrificed the ink of our favorite fountain pen or cartridge and, at the risk of a scolding from our parents, we added it to our hands as well. This continued until we were satisfied with the results.
The next morning, on the ride to school, we flaunted how well our Holi went—so much so that the color from our hands hadn’t come off—even when each of us knew how hard we had worked for that effect!
Looking back, I can’t help but smile at all the colors that made the festival special. That special day was filled with shades of fun—patterns formed by gulaal on the floor, the old pair of clothes spotted with orange-blue-red that we wore year after year, the spots of ink on our hands, and more. The Holi colors brighten my memories even today.