Wolodymyr our Dacia Duster is in Baku, Azerbaijan.
This is Part 5 of our Dacia Duster adventure through 10 countries and 9000 km around the Black Sea, you can read Part 1: Transnistria here, Part 2: Chernobyl here, Part 3: Belarus here and Part 4: Crossing the Black Sea to Georgia here. As a reminder this Test Drive happened before COVID-19 travel restrictions were implemented. I have decided to escape from shockingly rude Georgia as quickly as possible and after almost no sleep in the capital Tbilisi thanks to street drunks, I make my way to the Azerbaijani border in less time that it takes to write these lines (almost). I’ll have to come back to Georgia, not once but twice during this trip because both the Azerbaijan-Armenia and Turkey-Armenia borders are closed, forcing me to draw “hooks” from Georgia in my itinerary: first into Azerbaijan, then into Armenia. I brace myself for another challenging border crossing after the unprecedented grilling I endured when entering Georgia in Batumi but instead…
Azerbaijan flag and our itinerary through the country.
I am met with the friendliest border agent in the world: “Is this your first time in our country? Yes? Welcome to Azerbaijan!” Well thank you!. “Do you speak English?” Yes. “I do too!”. What a change of scenery. The entire border check procedure is rather complex but handled with love and care and apologies are given when I am asked to – gasp! – open the boot of the Duster for a check. I will open that boot as many times as you so kindly ask me. It remains fascinating to me that two bordering countries can showcase such opposite personalities. The rest of my stay in Azerbaijan will be in line with this first welcome. Home of just under 10 million inhabitants, Azerbaijan is at the true crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Apart from Georgia and Armenia, the country also borders Russia to the north and Iran to the south. After being ruled by Iranian dynasties in the 18th century and the Russian empire in the 19th century, Azerbaijan became the first secular democratic Muslim-majority state when it proclaimed its independence in 1918. It was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920 and became independent again in 1991.
Roughly at the same time and just as the USSR dissolved, the Armenian majority of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region seceded to form the Republic of Artsakh. The region and seven adjacent districts outside it became de facto independent with the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. These regions are internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan pending a solution to the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the conflict reignited after I visited the area during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. This is one of four post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zones, alongside Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria which we visited as part of this adventure.
The first glaring observation as soon as Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster and I cross the border is the deluge of Lada Zhiguli everywhere, all generations of them. It’s literally as if the entire Azerbaijani countryside population is driving a Zhiguli and many times I am faced with only Zhigulis in my field of vision as pictured above. It’s simple, I have never seen such a concentration of the nameplate anywhere else in the world, including Russia.
We drive eastwards to the capital Baku, sitting on the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the easternmost point in this 9000km adventure. In two days we have crossed from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Baku, home of 2.2 million inhabitants, is a fascinating mix of old and new, with grand stone architecture, a medieval walled city centre and modernist tower skyline. Oil has been extracted in the area since at least the 10th century and the wealth of the city is flourishing. Everything is done with good taste. The Old City is Unesco-listed and completely pedestrian, enclosed in a crenelated fortress wall coming straight from middle-age. There are no flashy franchise restaurants within its walls (the usual McDonalds and KFC are relegated further away), only discreet and sophisticated shops playing trendy music. Its high point is the Maiden’s Tower, pictured above. When visiting the Old City, you can’t miss in the background the ultra-modern Flame Towers that animate at night in a light show as… fire of course, but also pouring water and the national flag, in a spectacular display. There’s an air of last frontier in Baku that I have found nowhere else. The Caspian Sea looks mysterious and opens up on the secretive country of Turkmenistan on the other side, making Baku a beacon of modernism in the region. You can sense the oil wealth in the relaxed demeanour of people peacefully walking in the streets.
In Baku I stayed in the Deniz Inn Hotel which has impeccable service, borderline too much: the receptionists stood up each time I entered the hotel or got out of the lift! To me the most impressive and beautiful building in Baku is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, located in the Eastern part of the city and pictured above. Designed by famous architect Zaha Hadid and completed in 2012, it looks both powerful and vulnerable from all angles in its fluid 21st century architectural style mimicking waves and peaks and avoiding sharp angles.
As for the Baku car landscape, in complete contrast with the rest of the country, there are almost no Lada Zhigulis in the capital! Instead, there a very varied mix of different influences. The city’s wealth is obvious with Mercedes G-Class, Toyota Land Cruiser, Prado and Bentleys. I also saw a lot of souped up Lada 4×4 which is the 4WD vehicle of choice here, with the Soviet angle still present through GAZ Volgas of the last generation and bruised and battered ZAZ (including the Slavuta pictured above). There’s a taste of neighbouring Iran with the local and best-selling car, the Khazar SD/LD (pictured above as a Bolt taxi), being a rebadged Iran Khodro Dena but also a few Saipa Saina. Turkey is also here through some Tofas Sahin from the 1990s, and finally Chinese carmakers have entered the Azeri market en masse: I spotted some Lifan 320, Foton Pickup, Chana Honor, Changan Eado, Haval H2, H6, H8 and H9, Chery Arrizo 2 and Great Wall Wingle. The most frequent taxis are of the London variety as pictured above.
Now that we cleared Baku, we circle back west towards Georgian border but take a different, more northern route than coming in. The area is absolutely beautiful, wooded and mountainous. It’s the opportunity to have Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster pose next to a valiant UAZ Bukhanka, and to spot very rare vehicles: pickup variants of the Lada 4×4 and Zhiguli pictured above. A very interesting feat in this part of the country is the frequency of billboards picturing Heydar Aliyev. After overthrowing democratically elected president Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993, Heydar Aliyev himself averted two coups and remained at the helm of the country until 2003 when he died, replaced by his son Ilham Aliyev which was re-elected to a fourth term as president in 2018 with 86% of votes…
Our second and last stop in Azerbaijan is the small city of Sheki, just three hours’ drive from Baku but a different world altogether. It is clad in lush orchards and backed by the soaring Great Caucasus mountains. My bible the Lonely Planet calls Sheki the loveliest town in Azerbaijan and I would agree from what I’ve seen. Interestingly, Sheki was originally higher up the valley and was destroyed by floods in 1716. It was rebuilt by Khan Have Calabi who set up an independent Khanate here in 1740. Sheki was called Nukha before the 1960s. The main attraction here is Xan Sarayi, a 1762 palace pictured in the 2nd photo from the top above. Its main feature is the Shabaka stained-glass windows made by slotting together hundreds of hand-carved wooden pieces. The enduing drive at night to join the main road from Baku to the Georgian border was completely unsealed, dusty and rocky due to road works and filled with slow trucks to overtake, making it the only “4×4” drive of the trip. The Dacia Duster weathered the storm with panache and was up to the arduous task while I felt I was back to the Australian Outback for just a little while.
Next up is Armenia, stay tuned!