Azerbaijan: a look from Wellington

Azerbaijan: a look from Wellington

Ashleigh Stewart, journalist New Zealand has recently returned from Baku to Wellington. During her trip to Azerbaijan, feijoa amazed her the most. She wrote about these and other impressions in the article "Baku, Azerbaijan is shaking off its Soviet shackles", published by Stuff.

My guide held up a little green spherical fruit, and furrowed her brow, seemingly attempting to find the words in Azeri to describe it. As she turned it over in her palm, I couldn't help but think it looked remarkably like a certain fruit New Zealanders are genetically predisposed to fawn over.

"This is very famous in Azerbaijan," Assia began. "They're grown all over, I don't know how to describe it…"

Could it be?! The last time I'd seen one of these was when a friend flying back from New Zealand into Dubai presented us with a singular one he'd smuggled in at the bottom of his bag - which I'd preceded to hold triumphantly in the air like the Holy Grail.

"It's a little fruit, we make it into juices but you can eat it like this too…"

It can't be…

"It's called a 'feh-wa'," she finished. I stared at her incredulously.

As it turns out, the humble feijoa has found quite the foothold in Azerbaijan, the small country in the Caucasus region, wedged in between Iran to its south, Russia to its north, and Georgia and Armenia to its west.

You'll find it everywhere from your hotel breakfast buffet, to a restaurant menu, to distilled in a juice. In fact, the Azeri people claim their country as the second homeland to the feijoa after South America, despite the fact that New Zealand has all but taken it upon itself to endear the world to the tiny fruit. This might've been the moment, in a tiny restaurant on the Caspian Sea just outside of Baku, that I fell in love with this country.

You might not know much of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, and its capital of Baku, aside from perhaps a vague recognition of its iconic Flame Towers, rising above Baku in all their glassy, bulbous glory.

And indeed, the city is a sight to behold even as you first drive in from the airport. It's littered with architectural marvels. What would be a flashy headquarters of a multinational corporation anywhere else, turns out to be a humble hypermarket. Even the petrol stations look like they've been fashioned out of architectural blueprints for the future.

The oil boom is largely to credit for the country's change of fortunes, but it hasn't always been this way. Azerbaijan first proclaimed its independence in 1918, becoming the first democratic state in the Muslim-orientated world, before being incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920. It didn't manage to writhe out of the grasp of the Soviets until 1991, when it reclaimed its independence a couple of months before the dissolution of the USSR. But all is not quite yet well in the region. The Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia remains a disputed territory, and has soured relations between the two countries. You can't cross directly from one to the other - having to go through Georgia instead - and if you're heading on to either one and have stamps from the other in your passport, expect a few questions from border control officers.

Luckily, it's done nothing to deter tourism, and it seems that this is where the city is looking to prop up its economy in the face of dwindling oil stocks. Well that, and the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The Azerbaijan you see today - all gleaming skyscrapers, spotlessly clean streets, flashy architectural wonders and a Zaha Hadid centrepiece - is a long way from the meeting place on the Silk Road it once was.

Modern-day Baku is a direct result of two-thirds of the country being utterly impregnated with oil. In fact, this country is considered one of the birthplaces of the world's oil industry - and by 1901, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world's oil. Today, oil derricks and pumps are still dotted across the landscape, even across the city. It's even become something of a tourism draw in itself. Just outside of Baku you'll find Yanar Dag, a fire that burns permanently on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula thanks to the gas oozing from the earth, a sight which has been mystifying tourists for years.

Baku itself is a seamless incorporation of the old and the new. Not far from the iconic Flame Towers - the trio of serpentine skyscrapers that also house the Fairmont Hotel - you'll find the cobblestoned streets of the UNESCO-listed old town, or the 12th century Maiden Tower.

Along the sweeping Bulvar, a striking promenade that runs several kilometres along the waterfront, you'll find the almost-completed Caspian Waterfront building - which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sydney Opera House - and the Carpet Museum; a cylindrical object built to resemble a monolithic, gleaming, rolled carpet.

The Heydar Aliyev Center, built without any straight lines and housing a museum and a n auditorium, is one of the world's best examples of famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid's work. Hadid died in 2016. Drive a bit further into the suburbs and you'll find the historic 18th century Ateşgah Məbədi, a fire temple originally built by Zoroastrians; or out to the Gobustan National Park, and you'll bear witness to more than 6000 UNESCO-listed rock engravings etched into a plateau of rocky boulders, dating back over 40,000 years.

Azerbaijan even boasted the world's highest flagpole until Turkmenistan knocked it off its lofty pedestal with one three metres higher. The world's second-highest flagpole has since disappeared, and Assia tells me in a hushed voice that it's clear that th up to construct one even larger. Apparently there's even talks of a Baku Disneyland, she adds.

And yet, Azerbaijan's Soviet past hasn't been erased completely. The city still bears some of the scars of that era in the form of Russian Imperial or Soviet buildings, and the sombre hilltop memorial of Martyrs' Lane. Assia recounts the Soviet period with a mix of nostalgia and solemnity. After all, her grandfather worked for and with Stalin closely, and her father was a well-respected colonel.

But perhaps nothing better personifies the country's Soviet past than the trip out to the famous mud volcanoes, near Gobustan. We need to change cars to get out to the volcano site, Assia says, as most taxi drivers refuse to take their cars over the rugged, hilly landscape.

As I stepped out from our Mercedes-Benz, I was expecting a hardy four-wheel-drive primed for the arduous journey. What I was met with instead, was a beat-up old Lada. These old cars ply their trade across the countryside, going where no Mercedes-Benz would dare, and hooning over a countryside that would be solely the realms of a Pajero or Hilux in New Zealand. Admittedly, it fared impressively well.

These days, Baku is testament to a country flexing its muscles across a multitude of industries, free from its Soviet shackles. Assia explains that its culture revolves around looking after one another, in more ways than one. It's not unusual for strangers to chat in the street, pay for each other's bus fares, or buy each other food.

"We are smiling and saying hi to each other - the tourists think we know each other. We don't know each other," she says.

"These are very traditional things that can't be destroyed. We will not be under other people's influence, we keep our roots here. It's all about respect."

And if nothing else, come to Azerbaijan for our cultures' mutual love for feijoas. But we still have one thing over them in the feijoa stakes; it seems they're not using them to their full capacity just yet.

"So do you make feijoa crumble? And cake? What about feijoa ice cream?" I ask Assia, as we polish off a bottle of feijoa juice on our second day together.

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