Our Azerbaijan Tour started in Baku which was in celebratory mood as our group of considerable travellers descended on it. Amidst the multiple country flags, there were endless posters celebrating November 8th which is now a national holiday. This is the day the Second Karabakh War ended in 2020, whereby Azerbaijan emerged victorious having reconquered a big part of the lands that had been under Armenian control for almost 30 years.
And this year, for the first time in its history, Azerbaijan was able to claim that they had returned all the land they claim as their own. The Azerbaijan Tour by NomadMania provided an unparalleled opportunity to witness and understand this significant moment in the nation’s history firsthand.
Putting together an international group is always a challenge. In the travel community, far too many of the highly ranked travellers are male and Caucasian. Aiming for diversity meant targeting a much broader group of people. And we achieved this, bringing together representatives of all six continents, including from countries as diverse as Guinea, Kuwait and Singapore. We ended up having 13 UN Masters – people who have visited every country – of which no less than eight joined the latter part of the journey to Nakhchivan, which must be a record for that small exclave.
We strongly considered the ethical angle of going to Karabakh yet again. When the Azerbaijan tour was being planned, the politics of the area were very different. Gradually Azerbaijan started getting a lot of unsavoury international headlines before launching what it called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ which ended in less than 24 hours with the capitulation of the Armenian side.
Since then, it appears most Armenians have left what used to be the de facto independent ‘Nagorno Karabakh’. The land is now under Azerbaijan military control as per the UN accepted boundaries. Given that eight Azerbaijan tour s had already been attempted, this one initially promised to be no different. Only that due to the political circumstances, it happened just before the first Azeri parade in the capital of the region Khankendi, known as Stepanakert in Armenian.
The group of 43 travellers heading there learned a lot, realizing that the Alpine beauty of the mountainous region is far greater than what they had expected. In between hot springs, where they had the chance to unwind, and seeing the border region with Iran across an ancient stone bridge, the group were also explained the Azerbaijan perspective on the conflict and what had happened, and why they were celebrating so much. The group had a seminar in advance of their departure, and were sent a number of Armenian positions on the issue in the hope that, following it all, they could reach their own conclusions.
The intensity of that trip was counterbalanced by the much more relaxed pace of the add-on experience to the exclave of Nakhchivan. In the olden days, getting there required a flight that would have to go over Iran. In the past years, however, thanks to an agreement with the Armenian side, the plane flies over Armenia, which allows great views of the spa town of Jermuk (see our Armenia article), as well as Lake Sevan and Karabakh itself and mount Ararat.
Nakhchivan may not have a specifically standout sight per se, but it makes for a very worthy experience thanks to its relaxed pace and the considerable efforts of the Azeri government to elevate its profile and infrastructure. The capital of the same name sports what is alleged to be the tomb of Noah. This it may or may not be, but it makes for a photo-worthy moment, as does the newly completed Heydar Mosque (especially at night) which overlooks the plain that ends in the border with Iran.
One of the newly included sights not to be missed is the Alinja Castle, hailed – with some exaggeration – as the Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan. This is quite a climb up more than one thousand steps, guaranteed to exhaust even the most athletic. While the rebuilt area may seem a little too well-crafted overall, the views of the mountains in the distance, along with photos of the group, will certainly result in a good overall feel.
Further south is the town of Jolfa, near which is the Gulistan tomb from where you can see cars go by a few meters away in Iran. For lovers of borders, especially one as impenetrable as this one, this is clearly a worthy place.
The end of the road, before Armenia’s Meghri region, is the small town of Ordubad where time seems to have stopped. One of the greatest hidden gems of our planet is the main square where groups of men – women seem to be totally excluded – drink their tea under the sycamore trees while playing backgammon or pondering the great issues of human existence. Mature, tough faces will greet the visitor with curiosity and smiles. They were all happy to have their photos taken, the general festive mood of the times making everybody more relaxed.
North of the capital, there are two worthy experiences. One of a tomb at Karabaghlar, reminiscent of those further east in Uzbekistan. Maybe this is not a mini-Samarkand anymore but back in the day it was a significant source of Islamic education and reminds us of Nakhchivans ties to Iran across the river.
A more natural sight, which is on NomadMania’s Cave Series, is the Salt Mountain Cave which serves as a therapeutic centre. Patients spend up to 12 hours daily within the salt mountain, where they can cure ailments such as bronchitis. It is an unexpected marvel amidst the rugged mountains.
What is not unexpected, however, is the incredible food that every visitor on an Azerbaijan tour is constantly offered. Much like in Turkey, the offering of meat will not disappoint, but thanks to the Soviet traditions, there are also potato pies galore and soup lovers can choose between Turkish traditions such as lentil soup or the more Northern solyanka-like options.
As for the desserts, it is almost a certainty that almost everyone’s waistline is now in need of a few days of detox. NomadMania’s Azerbaijan tour was one more great success where we believe, and hope, that everyone not only learned a lot about a country which is ascending rapidly but also met a few more travellers they can call friends.