After landing in Baku, I discovered one thing straight away: Azerbaijan is an incredibly hospitable country. This realization put a bounce in my step as I considered the days of discovery ahead.
Azerbaijan is surrounded by a diverse range of countries, from Iran in the South to Russia in the North, and has been shaped by a huge history of cultural heterogeneity. A reborn country again thanks to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan prides itself on progress. Baku, the capital sits overlooking the gorgeous Caspian Sea, which the locals proudly call the largest lake in the world, facing the rising sun.
Though Azerbaijan is a predominantly Islamic country, natives are free to practice any religion they choose and their seems to be a genuine pride taken in the respect disperate faction give each others' beliefs and practices. This was the first Islamic country in the world to grant women the right to vote, beating -- among others -- my very own Britain. This tolerance and open thinking has historical precedent. The traditional Jewish communities that spread all over the world hundreds of years ago are now spotted by memorials to the dead. In Azerbaijan, the large Jewish population still lives as they did way back when.
To wander through Baku is to wander through centuries of history. At the center is the "Old City," with its aging palaces, high walls, and beautiful mosques, some of which date back to the 11th century. Still, this is no ghost museum or tourist trap, but a working neighborhood with traditions intact.
The newer parts of Baku present architectural wonders as well. The Nobel brothers lived here in the late 1800s and brought along some European influence. To walk along many of the streets, is to feel that you are in Paris walking towards a futuristic horizon.
You do not have to travel far outside the city to appreciate the wonders of nature. Azerbaijan is home to 70 percent of the world's mud volcanoes and it is a marvel to watch them bubbling away. Nearby, nearly 6,000 rock paintings crowd the walls at Gobustan, where 40,000-year-old carvings have been discovered.
The countries namesake -- Azerbaijan means "Land of Fire" -- is its flaming blessing. Ignited natural gas rises from the ground, creating stunning if not shocking sites that, hundreds and hundreds of years ago., attracted Hindu fire worshippers to this, the true gate between the East and West.
The photos below will show some of the many experiences I had during my visit. Still, I know I have barely scratched the surface in exploring this land.