Caspian Sea

Mystic Azerbaijan

During my undergrad studies I became fascinated with religious mysticism. Mysticism is religious practice off the beaten path; basically the idea that one is not dependent on a religious hierarchy/structure to have a relationship with the divine — whatever that means to the individual. It is universal; movements all over the world have shaken organized religions to their cores and I appreciate anything that challenges the status quo when it becomes stagnant.

And don’t think that mysticism, with its desert-living hermits and vision-having nuns, is a thing of the past. It’s a thriving element of spiritual life the world-over, including Azerbaijan, a country seeking a coherent religious identity as it navigates independence. The two places described below are full of mystic qualities, and are worth visiting as day trips if you get the chance.

Sofi Hamid Cemetery

Legend has it that in the 14th century, an Arabian merchant named Sofi Hamid was traveling southward through the arid steppes of modern-day Azerbaijan when he suddenly realized that he was dying. He asked his entourage to bury him wherever his camel rested; and today we have Sofi Hamid Cemetery.

Out in the middle of nowhere

Out in the middle of nowhere

Once we arrived (we hired a driver for the day, that was taken care of by one of my lovely colleagues), we went to the courtyard that housed Sofi Hamid’s body.

Sofi Hamid 2

Sofi Hamid 3

Right outside is a white camel. Women who want to have a baby crawl under the camel three times, but you can wish for other things too. I witnessed a group of women perform this ritual, and it’s fascinating.

Sofi Hamid Camel

Next to the camel is a bunch of small trees. Women tie tiny cradles made from cloth to the trees, again asking for God’s blessing to raise families. It immediately reminded me of the house of Mary in Ephesus (Turkey), the only other place I had seen people tie cloth as a symbol of their desires.

Tiny cradle

Tiny cradle

Hundreds of prayers

Hundreds of prayers

Now for the actual cemetery. A striking feature we noticed was that the monuments were all facing the same way:

Sofi Hamid 5

All faced towards Mecca…

Sofi Hamid 6

Differences abound in this cemetery compared to traditional Muslim cemeteries, and my local friends were great at pointing those out. For example, the plots you see above act as monuments and draw a lot of attention to that grave site. Traditionally, burial plots are meant to look this this:

A pile of stones, which in English we'd call "cairn" (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

A pile of stones, which in English we’d call “cairn” (I had to look that up). The reddish-pink ribbon indicates that the person died very young, i.e. before the age one typically marries

Simple and basic. But those were in the minority…Sofi Hamid is famous for combining pre-Islamic traditions and themes to Islamic burial practices, which is better described in this article if you’re a nerd like me and want to know more details.


Imagine that you’re walking through this cool cemetery, you turn your head to the right and see…

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

BAM!! Crazy blue!!

Keep walking, climb over some random shrubs and suddenly…

An awesome shade of green

An awesome shade of green

And there’s more…

Like this...

Like this…

And that one

And that one

But there’s something for every taste, even more subtle ones…

Robin's egg blue, for example

Robin’s egg blue, for example

Gentle pastels...

Gentle pastels…

A breezy beach scene...

A breezy beach scene…


A majority of the grave sites had several images and motifs that indicated what that person accomplished in their life, such as a career.

This person was probably a driver

This person was probably a driver

Another driver? Construction worker?

Another driver? Construction worker?

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

This person was perhaps a tailor or cobbler

My personal favorite was the samovar…I don’t know if that means they dealt with tea or made samovars; but it’s amazing.

Sofi Hamid 21

I want one on my grave stone when I pass

Sofi Hamid 20Then there are other motifs: snakes, deer, birds, fruit, etc etc…

Sofi Hamid 23

Sofi Hamid 24

Sofi Hamid 25

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid...

This looks like the story of Sofi Hamid…

Sofi Hamid 28

Of course, I was fascinated by the combination of Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Seriously, where else in the world would you see this?

Sofi Hamid 29

Sofi Hamid 30

Sofi Hamid 31And don’t worry, I didn’t just obsess over the graves, I enjoyed the company of my friends too:

Friends 1

Friends 2

Friends 3

 Beş Barmaq (Five Fingers Rock Formation)

On a separate day, the other ETAs and I connected with one of the Fulbright Scholars who set up a trip to Beş Barmaq. Beş Barmaq is a pilgrimage site mainly tailored towards those who practice Shiite Islam (i.e. Azerbaijan and Iran). I believe the rock formation, in pre-Islamic times, was a hub for ancestral/spiritual worship, and some of those traditions are still practiced today.

Besh Barmaq 1

A friend from home mentioned it looks like something from a Tolkien novel. I have to agree

Got a good work out too with these stairs

We met a woman on the stairs as she made her way down. She made sure we were covered correctly, and gave her scarf to Madeline without a second thought. I think we were each deeply touched by her willingness to help the obviously clueless tourists, and I’ll never forget her.

Bash Barmaq 3

Looking back

Looking back

Along the main path was a flatbed area where people stacked rocks. I’m sure there was some religious significance, but Dana mentioned that hikers often do this at the end of a long hike. So I’m going with that.

Besh Barmaq 5

Besh Barmaq 6

Then we climbed through the rock formation to reach one of the top peaks. Ladders and rails made from ersatz materials, and steps worn from heavy use made for a somewhat precarious climb. Not to mention having to worry about other people, especially the elderly women who somehow braved the trail. There was also a young woman who climbed in her wedge heels. Devout women, with the skirts of their chadors billowing behind them, drifted around the formation. We passed a couple others on the stairs and throughout the formation with faces uplifted, palms extended toward heaven, a friend conveniently nearby snapping pictures on her phone.

Hiking Besh Barmaq 1

Starting the ascent

It was intimidating, to say the least

It was intimidating, to say the least

View of the Caspian

View of the Caspian

In some places, old women stationed themselves on the ground, granting blessings after pilgrims donated a manat.

Besh Barmaq Offering

Or candy too, apparently

And like at Sofi Hamid above, people tied pieces of fabric in certain areas as they made a wish or said a prayer. Luckily our contact mentioned this detail to me, so I cut some strips for us to tie.

Make a Wish 1

Make a Wish 2

Of course, happy to be there  :)

Of course, happy to be there 🙂

And there you have it, another side of religious culture in Azerbaijan. I talked about the different mosques around Baku in this post, so I think it’s appropriate to add something different. Honestly, visiting Sofi Hamid Cemetery and the Beş Barmaq pilgrimage site are some of my top moments during my Fulbright year; and I encourage future Fulbrighters or adventurers in Azerbaijan to check them out.

Until next time…  😉


Long Weekend in Lənkəran/Lankaran

Prior to a few weekends ago (April 24 – 26), I imagined that southern Azerbaijan was nothing but a vast desert. Being my blonde self, I didn’t perform a simple Google search before the trip to see if I was correct. So when our bus lumbered its way over the bumpy two-way streets on our way to Lankaran, I was mesmerized by the richness of the landscape’s color. The Talysh Mountain range, which runs between Azerbaijan and Iran, slowly integrated itself into the landscape, becoming more prominent with each passing mile.

Speaking of Iran…

Iranian Border and Astara

Hayley by Iran

So happy to be by the Iranian border.

Iranian Border

Those mountains in the background are IN Iran!

We totally saw the Iranian border. F*ck yes.

Would you judge me if I admit that seeing the border was the main motivation for venturing to southern Azerbaijan (at least on my part), and that it’s one of the many reasons why I applied to be an ETA in this country? It’s inaccessible territory for most Americans, and to be *this* close to it was exhilerating. 

The taxi driver that we hired for the day didn’t really get it either. Ehmed was a funny guy, and was equally baffled by and impressed with us. He spoke in Russian to Madeline and Dana, and when they translated into English for me, I added a couple words in Azeri. If something was confusing, I would try to clarify in Azeri while they clarified in Russian.

This is not to say that I speak Azeri well. Definitely not. But I got the gist of situations, such as whenever Ehmed rolled down his window to ask for directions as he weaved through the calm streets of Astara, the town that leads to Iran. It went something like this: “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans in my taxi, and they want to see the Iranian border. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed, don’t advertise us!

But we made it just fine. And Ehmed’s excitement seemed to match ours because he accelerated toward the gate. “Ay Allah — dur, dur, DUR!!” I almost screamed. [“Oh my God — stop, stop, STOP!!”] We spent just a few minutes at the border before asking Ehmed to take us to a park next to the Caspian that was also close to the border.

It was lovely that day. This is facing north...

It was lovely that day. This is facing north…

And this is facing south toward Iran

And this is facing south toward Iran

Astara Caspian 3

Brand new seaside park


Astara Park

Astara Shrek


Astara Caspian Park 3

To add excitement to Ehmed’s day, the group needed to use the restroom. Off he went, about 15 steps ahead of us, asking random people where the nearest facility was located. It was hilarious and excrutiating at the same time, “Hey there, how’s it going? So…I have these Americans and they need to use the bathroom. Where is that?”

Ugh, Ehmed — stop advertising us!

Yanar Bulaq and Istisu

Crisis averted, we drove back north to see a few more points of interest. Yanar Bulaq (literally “combustible spring” in English) is right off the side of the road, and free to enter (at least we weren’t told to pay anything).

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

It looks a little ghetto, but I promise the people are nice.

As implied in Yanar Bulaq’s name, you can set the water on fire. It’s crazy. Ehmed saved the day again when he hopped into the taxi and rushed to find matches when none of us had a lighter. He hustled back through the rusty gate and whipped out a match:

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Ehmed is wearing the checkered sweater.

Let there be light!!

Let there be light!!

Yanar Bulaq 4

We were told that drinking the water was “good for health reasons.” My mind jumped to gruesome images of my body bursting into flames after having a sip. Hahaha, is it, now? You couldn’t pay me to ingest any of that.

But I was willing to submerge parts of my body at our next stop: Istisu (literally “Hot water/springs”). Set off a ways in the Talysh hills, Istisu is a collection of natural hot springs that serve as a natural healing spa for tourists (Ehmed informed us that many Iranians come here every year). We only dipped our feet, but it felt oh-so-good and was oh-so-hot.

Our hut. You're only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

Our hut. You’re only allowed to be in the water for about 15 minutes.

But most of all, I enjoyed the views…

Talysh Pano

Talysh View

So green!


Now for the actual town. The events described above occurred on the second day of our trip. Our first day we spent in Lankaran after we arrived in the afternoon from Baku — a bus ride that took over 5 hours.

We stayed at Qızıl Tac Otel (Golden Crown Hotel), which we found thanks to our taxi driver who drove us from Lankaran’s Avtovağzal (central bus station) to the town’s mərkəzi (city center). We asked for the cheapest hotel in town, and he walked us to Qızıl Tac, leaving only after he negotiated a price for us: 10 manat per person per night. Sweet. It’s actually pretty nice; clean, safe, and located next to Lankaran’s largest park:

Main park, I'm 90% certain it's Heydar Aliev Park

Main park, I’m 90% certain it’s Heydar Aliev Park

Lankaran Park

Statue commemorating WWII.

Statue commemorating WWII.

Then we just meandered around.

It's a chill place

It’s a chill place


Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Legend has it that Stalin was imprisoned in this tower. He escaped and sailed across the Caspian to safety.

Lankaran Stalin Prison

Lankaran is a tiny town, so we saw the main areas within a few hours. “How about we go to the beach? I want to see the water,” I insisted. Off we went, heading in the general direction of the Caspian…

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook mentioned these as "no-no places" but we accidentally walked by them.  :P

Passed by some military bases of some sort. The guidebook called these “no-no places” but we accidentally walked by them. 😛

Crossed the train tracks. I'll take this time to let you all know back home that every "Stop" sign I've seen in this country is in English. I don't know why.

Crossed the train tracks. I’ll take this time to let you all know back home that every “Stop” sign I’ve seen in this country is in English. I don’t know why.

It was challenging to find a road that led to the beach. We finally made it, but were discouraged at its condition:

Lankaran Caspian 1

You couldn't pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

You couldn’t pay me to walk on this beach barefoot

Lankaran Caspian 3

There is hope for Lankaran’s beach; we saw how nice Astara’s seaside walkway was the next day (in the pictures above). Azerbaijan is slowly developing its tourism industry outside of Baku, it will just take time.

Lankaran Train Tracks

Heading back to town

Lankaran Mosque


Lankaran 20

 Are You Kidding Me?

There were a few moments during the trip that left us all in bewilderment. Blame it on cultural differences, language barriers, maybe the local quirks of people clashed with our quirks…whatever the reason, we experienced the following awkward interactions:

“You Are Too Noisy”

Okay friends, I hate talking badly about places and people, but I’ll make an exception for this restaurant, which is called “Titanic”:

Don't eat here!

Don’t eat here!

We tried this place out because it was raved about in the guidebook; supposedly they prepared the best levengi, a whole chicken stuffed with a walnutty herb paste. Especially tasty when paired with plov, or rice.

Long story short, we were ripped off. That’s what you get sometimes as young, single lady travellers. The chicken was small, and the rice was old. [Note: The next day we went to a different restaurant and ordered the same thing. It was MUCH better in terms of quality and for the price. That restaurant is called “Dalğa.”] The service at “Titanic” was also a little strange, like when we chatted as we waited downstairs for a taxi.

Waiter (walking over to our group): You are too noisy. Too noisy for the other guests.

Me: Sorry, but I am also a guest.

Waiter (after mumbling with another waiter): “Where are you from?”

Me (making a disgusted sound): No, I don’t think so — you can’t yell at me for being noisy one minute and then expect me to let you know where I’m from. [I’m usually sensitive and careful about my word choice when I talk in English to non-native speakers. But he was rude first so I did not care.]

Waiter (slowly blinking confused eyes): …I don’t understand.

Me: That’s fine, you don’t need to understand.

Just then music blasted from the kitchen downstairs. Like, it was WAY louder than our talking level, and much ruder to the other guests he referred to. Now it was our turn to be confused, “You said that WE were loud? This is VERY loud!” He smirked, “It is for you,” meaning that the music was to drown us out. Why I oughta….I wanted to lurch forward and strangle him.

But I didn’t. They did call us a taxi, which thankfully came a minute later, but which ended up being another strange interaction….

“Germany, NOOO!”

We established the fare with our driver and settled in the car (Note: Don’t pay more than a couple manat to get around Lankaran). It didn’t take long before he asked what languages we knew, where we were from, and why we’re in Azerbaijan. Like many, he was impressed with my friends’ knowledge of Russian and that they learned it in the States.

He made small talk in Russian, at one point commenting, “This car is a Mercedes; it’s from America.”

I pondered aloud, “I think Mercedes is a German brand…right? From Germany?”

His literal response was to yell half in English, half in Russian, “Germany NEYYYYYYYYYYT!!!!!!” [НЕЕЕЕЕТ/NOOOOOO]. It totally caught us off-guard, and all we could do was laugh at his outburst as he pouted. Sir, do you want me to pay you? THEN DON’T YELL AT ME. Truly bizarre, like when our hotel manager didn’t want to give us our passports…

What Passport?

The next morning we were on our way to Astara and the other places I talked about above. Since we were leaving the city, and going close to Iran, we wanted our passports. It’s not unusual for hotels to hold them for a night while they make copies of the front page for their records. But this manager treated it too casually and took his sweet time to make scans. When we asked him about our passports that second morning, he blew us off and made some crappy jokes in Russian.

There we stood in the office, anger simmering in each of us — at least in me. If you know me, you can imagine how annoyed I got by this dude. He beckoned us to sit, we all refused, but we weren’t getting anywhere with Russian or English. I stared down at him and summoned my brave side, “Pasaport, indi.” [Passport now.]

He looked up and sighed, grabbed our passports, and rushed out the hotel. He came back a few minutes later with the originals and scanned copies. I was happy to be reunited with my official form of identity, but was irked by his offer to drive us around that day for free. Ugh, seriously? You held my passport hostage and you tell bad jokes, there is no way in hell I’m going to spend a full day with you.

Despite all this, I had a good time in Lankaran. And I felt comfortable in the sense that I knew I could handle whatever life decided to throw my way, a feeling that I didn’t have during earlier travels in Azerbaijan. Of course, I have Dana and Madeline to thank since I survived off of their awesome Russian skills, and I hope that future ETAs will be able to bond over seeing the Iranian border and surviving weird social moments.

Until next time…  : )