The Return To Yerevan

The Return To Yerevan

 

After 3 days in Artsakh it was time to return home. We woke up at 9am, had breakfast and quickly packed our bags ontop of Yerish’s car, who had come just in time to drive us back to Yerevan. 

Instead of the southern route we took to reach Artsakh, we would return instead via the northern area of Karabakh today, known for leading us to new vistas along Lake Sevan.

 

 

Quickly glancing around the village of Martakert, we continued up north and took a northwest weave towards Yerevan.

 

 

We passed through a few canyons…

 

 

… and made our first pit stop at Dadivank Monastery, built somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries.

 

 

Free to enter, the monastery boasts superb views over the Karabakh region.

 

 

After about 20 minutes here we continued our drive and within the hour reached the norther border outpost to get stamped out of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

 

If you’re feeling a little peckish, there’s a perfunctory rest stop nearby and a coffee vending machine that also serves cups of “Whiskey Cappuccino” and “Whiskey with Milk.” They both tasted…odd.

 

 

Another hour away was another rest stop where we got real food: a wrap of herbs and fried chicken. It was so good I got 2.

 

 

After about another hour’s drive, we reached Noraduz/Noratus Cemetery, a medieval-era burial ground and  the largest cluster of khachkars in Armenia. 

Following the destruction of the khachkars in Old Julfa, Nakhchivan by the government of Azerbaijan, this is currently the largest surviving cemetery of khachkars.

 

 

Finally, we got to see beloved Lake Sevan one more time.

 

 

After about 6 hours total on the road, we finally returned to the capital city of Yerevan, where we re-checked in back at our hostel (once again having it all to ourselves) and grabbed coffee at this adorable “Starbus Café” down the block.

 

 

Then we had some free time for a few hours before reuniting with Sandie and a friend she made at her hostel, Abby, for dinner at CEO3 BBQ.

 

 

We followed up with some drinks and shisha at Malkhas Jazz Club talking up into the wee hours of the night.

 

 

We finally turned in at 4am while Fanny on the other hand got hungry and made an attempt to find food, and got herself a delivery of stuffed peppers.

We also goodbye to Nishant who was to leave on an early morning flight in a few hours. 

 

 

We’ll miss you Nishant!

 

 

Thank god our flight was the next afternoon, otherwise I don’t think we would have made it.

 

 

Time to explore Kiev! Good to be back. It’s been 6 years!

 

 

- At time of posting in Gandzasar, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 90% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

The Last Lights On The Right: Shoushi, Agdam, & Martakert

The Last Lights On The Right: Shoushi, Agdam, & Martakert

 

 

After a morning in Stepanakert we headed out towards the rest of the Karabakh region to explore other areas evidently affected by the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Karabakh/Armenian forces.

The first sign of the war was a tank memorial on a hill, refurbished from the shell of the first tank to oppose the Azerbaijani military when they took Shoushi during the 1994 war.martakert

 

 

From here you can see the advantage of occupying Shoushi as it overlooks Stepanakert below.

 

 

Unlike Stepanakert, Shoushi retains the ghost city vibes we had mentioned earlier that would remind me of our time in Nakhchivan.

 

 

Near the entrance of the city is a church frequently booked for baptisms and weddings.

 

 

Around the edge of Shoushi is a field leading to a viewpoint of Hunot Canyon.

 

 

It seems to be built like steps; the farther you hike the more you can gradually head down into the gorge.

 

 

Inside Shoushi are a series of empty shells of bombed out buildings that still serve as reminders of the Azerbaijan/Armenian conflict in the region. The most poignant is a former school that is now used occasionally as a backdrop stage to concerts and operas.

 

 

You’re technically not supposed to go inside, but go inside we did.

 

 

This is urban exploration at its finest. We can’t guarantee that it’s a safe place to wander, but we did not have any issues, whether it was into rooms or going up and down the stairs.

 

 

In another part of Shoushi is Karabakh’s only mosque, which is now undergoing restoration.

 

I guess this is where all the Florida ballots are

 

At probably one of the most poignant moments of the trip, Susanna then introduced us to her friend living next to the mosque: A veteran commando from the 1994 war where at 19 years of age he received a bullet wound to his spine while on a mission, rendering him bedridden and paralyzed from the stomach down for the past 24 years. 

He continues to live in Shoushi receiving benefits from the government. When asked if he would do it all over again, he says without a doubt he would.

 

 

After about an hour and half wandering Shoushi we drove north of Stepanakert towards Agdam, passing by Askeran Fortress

 

 

There’s also the Stepanakert Airport which given the current political situation, is barred by the Azerbaijani government from flying any commercial aircraft; helicopters and single-seater joyrides for tourists are otherwise allowed. 

Therefore, the only way to leave the country for a local here is still to endure an 8 hour drive to the international airport in Yerevan.

 

 

As we approached the ruins of Agdam, we passed by another tank memorial.

 

 

And then, about 20 minutes north of Stepanakert, lies the deserted ghost town of Agdam. Described by Lonely Planet for years as the “Hiroshima of the Caucuses” — until our host Susanna had asked them to take it down — we could see why a nickname could be ascribed to this region, but also render pain to the locals that once lived here.

 

 

Miles and miles of abandoned buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.

 

 

Our 10 minute drive across the expanse of Agdam’s ruins reminded me of our drive through the outskirts of Mosul.

 

 

Then we reached the literal and figurative “end of the road.” Past this point is the limit of where the ceasefire currently holds for Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces. 

The only people who can go past here without fear of provoking an international war are human rights and Red Cross volunteers.

 

 

So we made a left instead, driving towards the ancient ruins of Tigranakert, where Armenia’s greatest king once ruled from. Entry fee is 125 drams.

 

 

There’s a renovated castle that somehow still stands after being stuck in the middle of countless Azerbaijan/Armenia conflicts

 

 

It only takes 10-15 minutes to run up and down the castle.

 

 

And there’s a modest museum inside with collected pieces found from nearby excavations.

 

 

By now it was getting dark so to end the trip Susanna drove us about 45 minutes towards Martakert, the village closest to the current ceasefire border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If rockets were to fall again, it would hit us first.

This took place just 2 years ago here: 

 

Thanks to Susanna, we were parked up at the fanciest hotel there.

 

 

And even though only one room was left, they were very efficient with the spacing:

 

 

And with that we said goodbye to Susanna and thanked her for her hospitality in showing us around her Karabakh. As a survivor who had every reason in the world to find refuge in safer lands, she instead carries on with defiance. After all, this is her true home and who are we to cast judgments without ever knowing what it is like to grow up and live everyday with a sense of dread that war might break out nearby at any given moment?

While the possibility of war is her daily reality, those of us who live comfortably in our bubbles also must confront the possible exploitative nature of our visit; is it more for us or for them? We have been reassured by Susanna and her family that our physical presence here gives them hope that the international community has not forsaken them, and we debate whether traveling and supporting the locals here is truly the lesser of two evils; many of us could instead have chosen to turn a blind eye and never have bothered to visit at all.

As we struggle with this question with Susanna and amongst ourselves, we nevertheless realize that at the very least we will develop the stark understanding that this reality too, could arrive at our own doorsteps. And when that day comes, I only hope we may channel a similar sense of strength and bravery of the people living here, and confront that possible future with the same kind of fortitude and grace that Susanna has shown us the past 2 days.

 

- At time of posting in Agdam, it was 6 °C - Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers

 

Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

Stepanakert And Never Look Back!

 

From Tatev we turned and drove up north towards the town Goris, famous for being the home to the Settlement of old Kores, a series of previous inhabited rock caves similar to the cave homes in Cappadocia.

 

 

And thus began our final leg of our roadtrip into Nagorno-Karabakh, aka Artsakh, a disputed 8200 sq. km. territory that has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been de facto governed by the Republic of Artsakh, an independent state populated by an Armenian ethnic majority.

With the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994 and the recent 4-day war in 2016, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to dispute over the region’s political status and is still regarded as an active conflict zone between two hostile countries.

And similarly to how Armenia claims Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh within the politically recognized geographic landmass of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan claims the exclave of Nakhchivan, which we had visited just 2 months ago, as is its own “disputed territory” inside the politically recognized geographic landmass of Armenia.

For a visual idea of how complicated the situation is, here’s a pretty good map I got from newsonia.com (ignore the part where it says “nuclear strikes” since there obviously haven’t been any…think they mean “nuclear powers”).

 

Graphic credit: Newsonia.com

 

This regional hodgepodge has been the result of Soviet bureaucratic insanity where back in the days of the USSR, Soviet leaders would “gift” regions arbitrarily to its subjected communities in order to sow discord (aka divide and conquer) and maintain ultimate power. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the leaders of these once subjected communities — now newly independent — would be quick to quarrel with each other over their rightful ownership of these lands while the common people on the ground would continue to suffer. 

And despite the USSR’s collapse, this current-day divisiveness would maintain Russia’s dominance and influence over the region. You can also see this today similarly with India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Israel and Palestine over Gaza, North Korea and South Korea over the villages in the DMZ and each other . . . .when you ensure that your formerly occupied territories continue to fight each other, a status quo maintains its power.

So what does this mean for the average traveler? In this case, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan via Azerbaijan whereas Azerbaijan does care if you visit Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh via Armenia; for example when you register for an Azerbaijan visa the final question on their form is: “Do you intend or have you ever visited the territory known as ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’?”

So if you as a traveler want to “win the game” or “have your cake and eat it too” without any drama, visit Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan FIRST before visiting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. If you try to do it the other way around you will be banned from ever visiting Azerbaijan as long as this conflict continues. In other words, you’ll be on an international blacklist forever. A Russian blogger even was jailed and extradited to Azerbaijan prison for traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh.

For those of you who feel you should be more “lawful”, there is also the option of visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh “legally” via Azerbaijan, but that requires enduring a bureaucratic nightmare where you have to claim an official reason for going such as being a Red Cross volunteer. In other words, the opportunity cost for doing the “illegal” way has been extremely nonexistent; every year thousands of tourists have been visiting Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh through Armenia every year without any difficulty or retribution. While the Russian blogger has been the only exception, mind you he was traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh multiple times and flaunting his nonchalance with a giant middle finger; in the words of many travelers who know about his situation: “he was asking for it.”

But we knew the costs going in so after driving up from Goris for 20-30 minutes we towed the “internationally recognized” border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

 

 

…and continued to drive onwards without a hitch.

 

 

After another 20 minutes we reached the southern border outpost where we submitted our passports for registration.

 

 

Although they’ll tell you not to take photos here, it was the most cheerful warning I ever received.

 

 

After 10 minutes of processing, you get this slip reminding you to get your official visa in the capital city of Stepanakert.

 

 

As we drove further north, darkness began to set and it didn’t help we were driving into a thick fog with zero visibility. We were also running out of gas.

 

 

We drove for nearly another hour in this fog and not to mention up the side of countless mountains, while avoiding being swerved off the road by incoming cars who barely saw us coming. This night drive is not for the faint of heart.

 

 

We finally reached the capital city of Stepanakert at 7pm where our host Susanna greeted us with open arms at her guesthouse Qirs Hotel. Although we found her on one of many listings on AirBnB, she is quite famous all over Karabakh and also has been strongly recommended by both the Lonely Planet and Wikitravel communities. She has been leading tourists around for the past 20 years since she was 17 years old.

Having skipped lunch, our first order of business was FOOD FOOD FOOD, so Susanna drove us herself to the “first and best restaurant in Karabakh”: Ureni Restaurant.

 

 

Afterwards we returned to our guesthouse and stayed up watching a Russian edition of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (so that would make it Russia’s Funniest Home Videos?) before turning in at around midnight for our morning walking tour the next day. 

 

 

We arose the next day at 8:30am for breakfast in our guesthouse living room, after which we re-packed our bags and headed out into the city for our walking tour, led by Susanna’s 17 year old son Valery.

Unlike the ghost town vibes of Nakhchivan, or the odd Soviet time warp of Tiraspol, Stepanakert seemed to be an otherwise normal small city that felt like it was trying to place one foot towards progress with one still trapped by the circumstances of history.

 

 

We first walked by the Stepanakert Bus Station, which would be your first point of arrival if you took the 8 hour matrushka bus or shared car from Yerevan, Georgia, or Russia.

 

 

After about 10 minutes of walking through the city we reached the Foreign Ministry where we registered our passports for the highly coveted and rare Artsakh visa. 

 

 

The process takes about 20 minutes and costs 3000 drams per person. If you want to have the slim chance to visit Azerbaijan ever again, there’s the option of having your visa issued separately from your passport where you can always stick it in later.

 

 

We continued to walk south along the main road to the center of the city, marked by a statue of the founder of the city.

 

 

To the east of the center lies the humble Stepanakert History Museum where it’s free to enter and you get an included English-speaking guide taking you from room to room up to the 2nd floor starting with the prehistoric history of the region to the current day strife between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

 

 

After about 30 minutes in the museum, we left and walked the large public plaza/square marked by a few government buildings and upscale hotels.

 

 

We then walked up the longest street in Stepanakert to reach a partially constructed church.

 

 

We then turned around and returned to the city center to visit the Fallen Soldiers Museum, with the first part dedicated to soldiers killed in action.

 

 

There’s also a second part dedicated to soldiers that remained missing in action. For the past 23 years since the 1994 war, families of these soldiers keep their doors unlocked at their homes in the hopes that any of them may still return.

 

 

After about 30 minutes at the museum complex we returned to the city center.

 

 

We finally finished our walking tour at the local city market.

 

 

There Susanna picked us up and treated us for lunch with Jengalov Hats, a local type of delicious wrap of herbs and vegetables.

 

 

Susanna then drove us up north to the Tatik Papik Memorial, aka “We Are Our Mountains” that serves as the symbol of the region. It is a tradition for a new husband to carry his wife in his arms down the steps from here once they’re married.

 

 

As we drove on outside of Stepanakert and then south towards Shoushi we passed by a few war memorials that the entire city gathers around every year on May 9th to commemorate their independence and Azerbaijan/Armenia ceasefire.

 

 

We continued onwards to the next half our day that would be devoted to the more war-torn areas of Shoushi and Agdam

 

 

- At time of posting in Stepanakert, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 91% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: showers

 

Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

 

It’s time to shift monsooning back into higher gears — today we’re visiting Nakhchivan!

A landlocked exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia (or as some say, physically located within Armenia), but an otherwise autonomous region under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is similar to exclaves like Alaska (thanks Alan Sedgwick!) and on a level less extreme than Transnistria and Kurdistan, in that this region has its own elected “federal” government that largely functions independently and yet remains a dependent within another sovereignty. Whether you count it as a separate country depends if you think places like Alaska should be considered separate from the USA (aka if you visited Alaska, can you really say you visited the USA? Or if you visited Hong Kong, can you really say you visited China?). 

Nakhchivan first gained international recognition in January 1990 when it became one of the first “nations” to declare independence from the USSR as it was collapsing. Unfortunately, despite being one of the pioneers of independence from the Soviet Union as well as the birthplace of Azeri hero and president Heydar Aliyev, Nakhchivan could never keep up as it has continue to suffer from the turmoil of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as a mass exodus of its locals to Baku and Turkey. Whereas Baku is teeming with growth and wealth, Nakhchivan has remained forgotten in stagnation since the 1990s.

FYI, Nakhchivan’s pseudo-counterpart in Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh) — although that region physically lies in and internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, it functions as an “independent” state that Azerbaijan no longer exerts political control over since the Karabakh movement in 1988. For many travelers Nagorno-Karabakh can be accessed easily but illegally overland via Armenia, and such an action will lead you to being banned from future travel to Azerbaijan if they ever found out.

On the flipside, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan; so if you have any wishes to visit both regions either head to Nakhchivan first, or enter Nagorno-Karabakh legally by applying for permission from the Azerbaijan government.

 

 

Beginning our journey, Brandon, Elizabeth and I got up at 5:30am and hailed a 10 manat Uber ride to the airport to catch our 8:10am Azal Air flight from Baku to Nakhchivan.

Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 2 and not the fancy International Terminal (or Terminal 1).

You can tell the difference because where Terminal 1 is super fancy and won 5 stars from Skytrax…

 

 

….Terminal 2 has seen better days.

 

 

If you end up at Terminal 1 anyway, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk through the parking lot. 

When you enter Terminal 2 at the main entrance, turn left. Flights departing to Nakhchivan has its own board and separate terminal. 

 

 

At this point staff and locals will try to usher you to the other terminal thinking that you’re making a big mistake. Reassure them or pay them no heed; insist that you’re going to Nakhchivan and you’ll get a variety assortment of looks ranging among confusion, amusement, bafflement, and dismay.

Either way we were initially confused too; we went through security checks 4 different looking for the right desk to check in (it’s hidden in a corner somewhere upstairs) until we decided to be assertive and insist on flying to Nakhchivan despite protests from the staff.

Once at the right check-in desk, the agent didn’t think I was serious. However, I had already booked our flights on Azerbaijan Airlines’ website prior to the trip as the option of purchasing them remotely had just became possible last month. The only catch is that you have to have the physical credit card you used to purchase the flights on you when you check in. So when I showed the ticket agent my confirmation and passport, he relented and asked if I had that credit card on me.

After checking us in and being relaxed with the baggage restrictions, we had to remind him to print us our tickets. He insisted he had no clue what we were talking about…eventually, he got it. What is going on here?!

 

 

Nothing much else to do otherwise; they do have a business lounge posting a sign that allows Priority Pass holders to enter, but it was closed when we were there.

 

 

Boarding began promptly at 7:30am and we took off without delay at 8am. A legion of officers in military fatigues boarded with us; they may shoot you quizzical looks as well as remind you where you’re going is a war zone. Oh well. I guess you can thank them for their service.

The whole flight takes about an hour. It would’ve otherwise been much shorter if it were not for the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; our flightpath had to be redirected around Armenia and through Iranian airspace to get to Nakhchivan:

 

 

We landed at 9am.

 

 

Disembarking was quick as we were in arrivals within 5 minutes, hailing a cab to our hotel in the city center for 5 manats (apparently this is the morning rate — it can be up to 8 manats later in the day) without any haggling needed. Love this place already!

 

 

We got to our lodgings at Tebriz Hotel in 10 minutes, quickly checking in and then scurrying up to their rooftop restaurant to snag their free breakfast before it ended at 10am.

 

 

After settling in for a bit and vegging out after a whirlwind morning of traveling, we headed back out to explore the rest of the city at noon, beginning with signing the guestbook at their cozy but empty tourist information center. 

The staff there was very surprised at our presence and it seemed their guestbook entries were spaced out from every few days to weeks at a time.

 

 

While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice how the streets are nearly always empty, wide avenues have not seen cars in days, and there is a calm, pervading silence wherever you roam. 

From the tourist information center we walked south, entering a large park and walking past what seemed to look like an outdoor movie theater.

 

 

We then headed downhill from here towards Maiden Fountain, an esplanade with a pleasant footbridge leading around to a natural spring and small waterfall.

 

 

 

We then headed back upstairs and into the southern half of the park to visit the Momina Khatun Mausoleum, one of many you can find in Nakhchivan:

 

 

Each mausoleum has one entrance for its basement crypt:

 

 

…and a regular ground level entrance that usually hosts an exhibition about the burial grounds:

 

 

Next door to the mausoleum is an open air museum and sculpture park:

 

 

Down the steps from the mausoleum will lead you to the former Khan’s Palace, now converted to a simple carpet museum:

 

 

Afterwards we headed out of the park and walked southeast to the Mausoleum to Yusif İbn Kuseyr:

 

 

Unlike the previous mausoleum to Momina Khatun, this one is completely empty:

 

 

We then walked further south from here, entering the huge city cemetery from the north. 

The goal was instead of walking around the entire cemetery to our next destination (as Google Maps would indicate), we hoped that there would be a shortcut via an exit on the south side of the cemetery…however, we instead made due with what previous like-minded souls had created for us:

 

 

Much to our dismay, later on we’d found out just steps away is a legitimate southern gate. Oh well. Fences are meant to be overcome, rules are meant to be broken.

 

 

Our shortcut through the cemetery nevertheless saved us 15 minutes of walking in the midday sun, as parked right by the cemetery is the Naxçıvan Qala Tarix Memarlıq Abidəsi fort complex:

 

 

It was completely empty and devoid of souls when we entered through the open door. No guards, no security, no tickets, and totally open. It felt like I was playing a game of Myst/Riven.

 

 

You can go inside the central dome structure for a free exhibition on the excavation findings in the area:

 

 

You can also climb the fort walls for an elevated view of the fort and its surroundings, as well as the cemetery we just strolled through:

 

 

We then exited from the fort from its southwestern gate and walked a few steps down to the Mausoleum to the Prophet Noah.

Yes, that Noah, of Noah’s Ark fame. It is believed that the ark had finished its journeys in this area where Noah then settled until his death. His assumed remains were found right in this spot and thus, a mausoleum was fashioned over his tomb:

 

 

The mausoleum closes from 1pm-2pm for lunch so we waited about 30 minutes outside for someone to arrive and show us in. We didn’t come this far to give up so easily!

At around 2:05pm a girl came by and opened the door for us, giving us a great rundown of the history of the mausoleum. Totally worth the wait.

 

 

You can head down into the basement crypt; right beneath is Noah’s tomb.

 

 

With that, we were done with our entire tour of Nakhchivan City! We then walked 20 minutes up Heydar Aliyev Street north back to our hotel, where we had lunch at the adjacent Zumrud Restoran and recharged for 2 hours.

At 5:30pm we returned to the lobby and hired a driver to take us to Alinja Fortress for 40 manats.

 

 

About a 35 minute drive outside of Nakhchivan, the 2,000 year old Alinja Fortress — or “The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan” — is inexplicably unmentioned in any travel guides to Nakhchivan, but don’t be fooled: this was the main event. 

Dating back to the 1st century, the fortress was formerly known as an Armenian fortress called Yernjak and was one of the most impenetrable in its time. It currently now exists as an open park that local villagers and their families venture to freely in the evenings. 

 

 

Why they would choose this spot as a place of leisure baffles me — it’s a 1600+ step climb up 100+ flights of stairs! That’s not what I call fun with the family on a Tuesday evening! But alas, we found tons of kids with their families running around when we climbed back down.

 

 

Take your time, drink lots of water, and know that the end result will be worth it. If that doesn’t help, some of these views will mitigate any effect of the battery acid pumping from your muscles during your long climb up:

 

 

Don’t be surprised if local families next to you ask for a photo — months to years can go by before they see another tourist in these parts!

 

 

One even added me on Instagram.

 

 

About 2/3 of the way up you can walk around and through the fortress “ruins” themselves, although it now feels more like a renovated public park than a sacred historical site.

 

 

Views from the fortress:

 

 

Climb up a little more and you’ll know you’ve made it when you see this:

 

 

But why stop here? More stairs await you.

 

 

Even when you’ve reached the last step (which ends suddenly and arbitrarily), you can climb up some more up a well trodden hill. Because why not? You’ve gone this far already and when will you ever be back here again?

 

 

This is physically as high as you can get:

 

 

Photo credit: Elizabeth Silberholz

 

We spent about 20 minutes here taking it all in and hanging out with a local villager who came up with us, before heading back down:

 

 

And from here we admired Alinja in all its majestic beauty as the sun began to set behind it (more photos here). Linger a little longer and Alinja lights up suddenly in the night at around 8:10pm:

 

 

Take it all in and take your time; like every other thing we saw today whether they be mausoleums or museums, Alinja is free to enter. Moreover, Alinja is open 24/7!

We headed back down to the car park at 9pm, rendezvous’ed with our driver who waited for us patiently all this time, and had dinner back in Nakhchivan city at Deyirmanci Kafe, where they were so shocked and grateful to our presence they gave us free tea and dessert when we asked for the check.

After a workout like that where we walked 22,700 steps over 12 miles up 102 flights of stairs (thanks Apple), it was a dinner well worth the wait.

 

 

We then returned to our hotel at 11pm and crashed, hard. I woke up about 8 hours later for the free breakfast and enjoyed a few hours using up our hotel’s basement gym, spa, sauna, and swimming pool.

After check-out at noon, we decided to make a run for the last thing to see in Nakhchivan, Duzdag, a massive salt cave converted into a sanatorium. And like every other place we’ve been to in Nakhchivan, it’s free to enter.

Built in early 20th century, Duzdag was designed to house various clinics/hospital beds for any patient eager to treat (or cure, as they say here) their chronic bronchitis and asthma from the salt emanating from the mines. It’s much like how you go to a fancy spa featuring sauna rooms that have been built with salt lining the walls.

 

 

The similarities otherwise end here, however, as it’s not exactly a full on spa where you pack a swimsuit on you, change, and lounge around. Rather it’s more of a place to stop by, walk up and down, and spend as long as you like. Whether you chill in the café or sit on the various benches parked along the path, imagine as if your lungs are being cleaned out.

 

 

It’s about a 10 minute walk up and down. You’ll know when you reached the end when a bunch of staff members cross their arms telling you you’re being too loud or that “patients only” are allowed through.

 

 

From here we walked back and with the rest of our hour we had some tea for 2 manats total at the indoor café.

 

 

After that we headed back to our hotel, had dinner back at the adjacent Zumrud Café, and hailed one more cab ride back (whereas it was 5 manats when we took a cab from the airport yesterday morning, this time we paid 8 manats for a cab to the airport at some kind of apparent afternoon/evening rate) to the airport for our 8:40pm flight back to Baku.

 

 

Despite what other travel blogs say about this airport being so basic you shouldn’t arrive early lest you’d be bored to tears, my recommendation is to either arrive early before the crowds or risk the stress and come at the very last minute: Checking in at Nakhchivan for Baku can be a shitshow; when we arrived to check-in there was no semblance of a queue as dozens of families mixed in to drop off a huge number of goods for their folks back in Baku. 

 

However, there does exist a separate section all the way to the right for people without any check in luggage, as a helpful local directed us there (the sign displaying this is in Azeri and not in English, so we wouldn’t have known). Either way, even when we switched over and waited in this particular line, we still had to assert ourselves and fight our way through the stampede to get our tickets.

After receiving our boarding passes, we then had to present those and our passports to a separate “Migration Desk” by security for a recheck and verification. They then give you a tiny sliver of paper that you have to hold onto for security to let you through. Looks like a wifi password.

 

 

Once you’re go through security, it’s another stampede at the gate to board your flight.

 

 

Despite a chaotic ending to an otherwise ethereally pleasant 48 hours, I’m going to miss you Nakhchivan. 

For the record, everywhere we went we’ve been showered with overwhelming hospitality by everyone, as well as having the rare opportunity to explore a gorgeous land filled with beauty and awe-inspiring sights totally alone — it felt like we had this place all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. And despite the border conflicts around this region, we never once felt like we were in danger.

 

 

We landed back in Baku at Terminal 2 by 10pm, where we were picked up by an Uber driver who initially refused to take us and instead took another passenger right in front of our faces. Oh boy, this was the moment when I knew I was far removed from the hospitality of Nakhchivan and back in the hustle of Baku.

Knowing that it can take up to another 30 minutes to get an Uber to come to Terminal 2 (most are parked outside Terminal 1 and refuse to move, making you walk to them), I responded by showing the driver that he was supposed to pick me up, with his license plate number displayed on my phone/Uber app. He then asked me to cancel, and when I refused, he asked again. Eventually the other passenger got out of the car and we were begrudgingly driven back to our lodgings at Stay Inn Hostel. That was pretty weird.

This otherwise concludes the official itinerary through Azerbaijan! We now have a full free day tomorrow in Baku before Brandon and Elizabeth head out on night flights and I depart for Japan early the following morning for the next monsoon!

 

- At time of posting in Nakhchivan, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 36km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with periodic clouds

 

The Land Of Fire: Atesgah Fire Temple & Yanar Dag

The Land Of Fire: Atesgah Fire Temple & Yanar Dag

 

After a late morning checking out Gobustan National Park, its petroglyphs and mud volcanoes south of Baku, we drove up north of Baku to explore more of the land of fire.

The Ateşgah Fire Temple was our first stop. Built in the 18th century by numerous Indian worshippers of Shiva who traveled along The Silk Road, it stands on the site of a natural gas vent, allowing for gas craters to burn these “eternal flames.” Naturally, these flames would become sacred to the Zoroastrians who would come after the Shiva devotees.

 

 

In the temple’s center is an “eternal flame” on a stone hearth surrounded by four stone side columns that reportedly spit out dragon breath. 

 

 

Unfortunately, the original natural gas vent has long been exhausted by the oil industry that would exploit the region during the 19th and 20th centuries, so today the flame derives instead from Baku’s main gas supply.

 

 

After about 30 minutes here we drove on for Yanar Dağ, which first gained recognition when Marco Polo visited Baku back in the 13th century and wrote about numerous mysterious and natural flames all over the region that gave Azerbaijan’s its nickname as the “Land of Fire.”

These natural fires of Azerbaijan are considered to have played a crucial part in the formation of Zoroastrianism, and of the natural fires that burn today in Azerbaijan, Yanar Dağ is the largest: It is a 10m long wall of fire that never extinguishes and understandably the most spectacular at night.

Local lore states that a shepherd accidentally ignited the fire in the 1950s by tossing a cigarette, and that it has burnt ever since.

 

 

Now I don’t want to compare, but just 5 days ago I was in Turkmenistan where they have their own “Gates of Hell”:

 

 

Just sayin’…So if you’re into this sort of thing, you have other options!

Anyways, from here you can then head up on the hill over the flames, but there’s nothing really to see unless you want to go horseback riding.

 

 

After 20 minutes here Fuad then drove us back to Baku and at our request, dropped us off at Gate 25, a swanky rooftop shisha/tea lounge and restaurant. Thanks for the recommendation Fuad and an amazing tour!

 

 

This is the life. Tomorrow we get up early and fly to the unrecognized country/territory of Nakhchivan!

 

 

- At time of posting in Yanar Dag, Azerbaijan, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 14% | Wind Speed: 29km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Gobs And Gobs Of Mud Volcanoes In Gobustan

Gobs And Gobs Of Mud Volcanoes In Gobustan

 

With 2 days wandering about in Baku behind, Elizabeth, Brandon and I got up at 9:30am today and hopped on with Fuad of Guided Azerbaijan in his 4WD and headed for the Gobustan State Reserve.

Located about 40 miles southwest of Baku, the national park was established in 1966 in an attempt to preserve the ancient petroglyphs, mud volcanoes and gas-stones in the region. For 5 manats per adult (or 1 manat per student) we gained access to its high-end museum that gives a good introduction of the history of the region.

 

 

After about 20 minutes in the museum with Fuad giving a fantastic tour, we drove a few minutes up to the petroglyphs themselves, still preserved to this day.

 

 

Brandon and Elizabeth wandered up towards the coast for the obligatory photo on a cliff:

 

 

After about 30-40 minutes walking around and checking out the petroglyphs, we got back in our car and drove to a parking lot to switch vehicles. Here a local taxi driver drove us for about 15 minutes uphill to Azerbaijan’s famous Mud Volcanoes.

While over a thousand mud volcanoes are known to exist in the world, at least 400 of those are here in Azerbaijan.

 

 

Although the mud volcanoes are still spewing and bubbling out superheated mud right in front of your face, it’s the general surreal moonscape where these volcanoes are located that was most impressive:

 

 

After about 20 minutes here we drove back to the parking lot where Fuad recollected us and drove us back towards Baku, stopping by Derya Fishbar for lunch. 

Funny note, I had previously marked Derya as a place I wanted to go a few weeks back while preparing for the trip, but totally forgot about marking it until Fuad took us here himself and I made the neural connection. Win!

It’s arguably the best place to get seafood here in Baku. 

 

 

After an hour eating here we drove onwards north for the Ateşgah Fire Temple and Yanardag.

 

 

- At time of posting in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 43% | Wind Speed: 29km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny