The Land of Fire

By Shannon Olson

After 24 hours of flights and waiting in airports, my plane finally approaches the night covered city of Baku. The faded city lights appear ominous, reflected in the black water of the Caspian Sea, and I am greeted at the airport by my exchange sister, Sabina, and her family, all of us tired due to the late hour. As we drive towards their apartment along the main boulevard in the city, I am surprised by the lack of desert and abundance of city (and a little afraid of the driving…). I am also in awe by the left­over presence of the first ever European Olympic Games. Even in the middle of the night, the stadiums, arenas and road decorations show the story of the early summer months.

August, one of the hottest months of the year, is when I arrived in the ‘Land of Fire’. Luckily, the temperature in Baku never drifted too far above 100 degrees fahrenheit, although neighboring Iran broke 160 degrees. I quickly learned that Baku is known for its rich and ancient history as well as its abundance of oil, which is clearly illustrated by the countless oil rigs casted into to the Caspian landscape. The city wrestles between the ancient influences of the East and the modern influences of the West. The ‘old city’ in Baku dates back to the fifth century, is surrounded by a castle­-like wall and is adorned with treasures like the Palace of the Shrivanshahs, the Maiden Tower and countless tombs and places of worship. In a remarkable contrast, the downtown area causes you to feel dwarfed by skyscrapers, high-­end malls, and the avant­-garde Flame Towers, ­a symbol of the land’s ancient connection to fire. Despite all these beautiful places, my favorite part of the city is the shore of the Caspian. Although a main tourist attraction, it is lined with museums, emblems of the country’s proud history and delicious food stands. It looks out onto a body of water that is so ancient it is believed to be all that is left of the original ocean from however many billions of years ago.

In my three weeks in the small country of Azerbaijan (which is about half the size of Wisconsin, but double the population), I traveled to the northern regions of Quba and Qusar, the north­western region of Qabala, and the National Park of Göygöl. If there is one thing that I learned from these excursions, it’s that paved roads and cars made w​ithin ​the last 30 years as well as general traffic rules are a gift from God. I don’t think I can even count the number of times that I actually feared for my life while driving along the winding, mountainous roads of the Azeri countryside.

Quba, which is the region that my exchange sister’s family is originally from, is a rural region, like the majority of Azerbaijan. As we drove through the region, we saw, interestingly enough, a predominantly Jewish village in the middle of this Muslim country, named for the color of their red roofs. This ‘Red Village’ is known for being wealthy (for example, people driving Porsches instead of soviet­era vehicles), with houses and gates beautifully embellished with the Star of David. In the region of Qusar, my exchange sister, her brother, her mother and myself, stayed in a mountain resort called Park Qusar. Situated high in the mountains, the air was clean and cool, which provided a refreshing contrast to the bustling, hot city. While we were staying at the resort, we took an excursion to Shahdag, or ‘King Mountain’, where we rode on a ski ­lift to the top of the mountain. After about 20 minutes or so on the ski­lift, we arrived at the top, where there was a food stand that served tea and water (very typical for Azerbaijan). On the way back down the mountain, the lift stopped suddenly, terrifying me and my exchange sister who were taking a much needed selfie with an iPhone. Suspended and swinging in midair over a trench in a mountain is not an experience I would recommend, but after only about a minute, the lift resumed its route down the mountain and we could again breathe a breath of fresh air.

On another excursion in the caucasus of Azerbaijan, we drove several hours along narrow, winding roads up the sides of many, many mountains to the remote and ancient village of Xinaliq. Xinaliq is the highest village in Azerbaijan and possibly in all of Europe which makes it extremely difficult to get to. Xinaliq also happens to be one of the most ancient and continuously inhabited regions of the world, with history dating back over five thousand years. In the upper portion of the village, after stumbling through paths of stone, broken glass and animal waste, we came across a museum, detailing the history and artifacts of the village. Speaking to the children who live very humbly in the village, we learned that they speak their native language of ‘Xinaliq’, and, in school, they learn Azerbaijani, Russian and English. Before we left, Sabina’s brother, Zaur, gave the children an old cell phone he had in his car, and I gave them each U.S. coins that I had left in my coat pocket from some time or another.

After returning to the city for a few days, we decided to take a trip to Göygöl National Park, which only opened for a couple days over the entire summer, and which is normally closed to foreigners. Göygöl, however, is a six hour trek to the other side of the country, nearing the Armenian­-occupied territories of Nogorno­Karabakh. Travelers are warned upon entering the country to avoid this region and Americans are forbidden from going there. It is dangerous to everyone who may want to pass through since Armenian troops are supposedly commanded to shoot at anyone who tries to make it across. Rumor has it only soldiers in the Azerbaijani military dare to drive across, topping 120 miles per hour to cross over to the part of Azerbaijan that lies on the other side these territories. After driving across the country to Göygöl, we were stopped at the gate as Zaur needed to prove his Azeri citizenship and say who else was in the car. I was told to say I’m journalist if asked, as Azeri authorities are apparently nervous and careful when it comes to the foreign media. Upon entering Göygöl, we had to hire a man in a jeep to drive us up the rest of the mountain, so we could walk up about 200 stairs, so that we could swim in the famous Göygöl Lake that lies at the top.

Sabina and I waded into the water as Zaur and his friends jumped in with everyone else to swim. It was only after I arrived back in the U.S. that I discovered the lake had been once rumored to contain nuclear waste … after soaking up the natural beauty of Göygöl, we decided to head towards the ski resort region of Qabala in mid­western Azerbaijan. After a minor car accident in the parking lot of a hotel, we were free to finally eat our first meal of the day (at 10 p.m. at night, by the way) and get a good night’s rest before swimming in the resort pool the next morning and heading back to Baku.

Once back in Baku, Sabina and I enjoyed our last days of seeing each other and reminisced about our time together in the States before I had to fly back to Wisconsin for school. I was most excited to eat spaghetti, Culver’s ice cream and Kraft mac and cheese, and I was most sad to leave my sister and her family. Yet, I know we will reunite soon, as we plan out the possibilities of meeting ‘halfway’ in Paris, or her family visiting Wisconsin for my brother’s wedding in a few years. But until then, I will miss the Land of Fire, and I look forward to when I can visit again.