The Road Less Traveled: Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan

Ilan Dag or "Snake Mountain" just outside Nakhchivan City

Few enough people have heard of Azerbaijan but fewer still have come across Nakhchivan, that mountainous area of the country, one-hour flying-time away. It is in fact a land-locked island, surrounded by Iran to the South and East, Armenia to the West and Turkey to the North.

I was aware that I was somewhere different as soon as the aeroplane door opened and one of my travelling companions said “the air smells so fresh, even though we are still on the runway!” He was right, at an altitude of 900 metres, with a stiff cooling breeze blowing in from Iran, the air feels clean and pure. Your eyes travel to the horizon where the massive bulk of Ilan–dag or Snake-head mountain rises dramatically in shades of purple and pink on the horizon. “Welcome to Nakhchivan” said the security officer who checked our resident permits then gave us a wide smile as we walked inside the small, neat and efficient airport. Yes, Nakhchivan is different.

The Iranian border runs close to the road South

If it were not for comrade Stalin, there would be no Nakhchivan. It was he, as Commissar of Nationalities who supported the transfer of Zangezur, the strip of land between the region and the rest of Azerbaijan, to Armenia in 1921. Essentially, the Bolsheviks would have been happy for the new communist government of Armenia to absorb the whole region but a plebiscite of the community identified that 90% of the people violently objected to the proposal. Newly republican Turkey backed up the Azeri community and did some sabre rattling in the background so that finally, only Zangezur became joined to Armenia and over the next ninety years, Nakhchivan developed its unique character.

My friend Basilia drew a lot of attention. If foreigners are rare, black foreigners are as rare as unicorns

If the tourism industry is just developing in Azerbaijan, it is still chiseling its way out of the egg in Nakhchivan. Our appearance turned heads to a much greater degree than in Azerbaijan proper and though everyone we met was friendly and helpful, hardly anyone spoke English.

There is a reasonable choice of places to stay ranging from the prosaically named Bus-Station Hotel, [cheap and clean for 30 Manat a person] to the grander Hotel Tabriz [up to 100 Manat]. The Tabriz by the way has a great restaurant with the world’s oddest menu. I can recommend the Strange Sandals [small pieces of beef, served with fried vegetables] although my friend Mary Beth didn’t think much of the Eggs Must Grudge [eggs served with pieces of sausage].

On our first day, we travelled to Ashabu Kaf, the famous Cave of the Sleepers and the pleasant town of Ordubad with its mud-built old-town.

View from the Cave of the Sleepers

In early Christian mythology and the Quoran [Surah18-verses 9-26], there is a legend of the Seven Sleepers. In the Quoranic version they are described as the Seven Sleepers – and their dog. They were believers [but not the dog] fleeing persecution, who took refuge in an isolated cave. Thinking they had slept for one night, they returned to the town to find that 309 years had passed. This miracle was celebrated by the building of a shrine near the spot about six kilometers off the Nakhchivan to Culfa road. This we had to see.

Climbing up the broad steps to the cave, you twist through a landscape of high cliffs and narrow passages reminiscent of the siq, the path that leads down to Petra in Jordan. At the base of the final climb to the cave itself, is the neat brick-built shrine. Within this is a sacred black stone, worn smooth by the hands of countless pilgrims. Above the shrine, stands the open mouth of the wide but shallow Cave of the Seven Sleepers, offering views down to the plain, far below. A pleasant enough place to spend 309 years, I suspect this cave has seen human occupation since the stone-age.

Ordubad in the far South is a pleasant modern town but the interest for visitors lies in the winding back streets at the top of the hill. There, traditional mud-built houses with arched front doors and domed entrance halls, back on to verdant gardens full of fruit trees. Our driver Mesafeden proudly showed us around the town, that we later discovered was his home. Thanks to him, we gaining access to one of the most interesting old houses and an underground cool-house through which a small stream ran. Here, cheese was left to mature in brine and preserves kept out of the heat and light. He also pointed out the old door knockers, one for the men and a smaller one for women, so that decorum could be preserved at all times.

Alpine pastures at Batabat, where local families come to collect herbs

On our second day, we traveled to the beautiful alpine meadows of Batabat to walk in the foothills of craggy mountains topped by snow. Here you will see a profusion of wild flowers and herbs under an eggshell-blue sky. We were there at the very end of May when families dot the hillsides to pick fresh herbs by the bucket load. Amongst the herbs were patches of flowers familiar to me. There will find big clumps of The Rose of Sharon, bugle, orchids of many varieties, patches of germander speedwell and forget-me-not. It was enough to make you want to spin around with your arms open and sing, “the hills are alive!”…

Teas shop inside the Duzdag salt mine

Duz Dag means Salt Mountain. You just have to visit it. On our final morning, we drove ten kilometres out-of-town to a bare hillside where a former salt mine has been converted into an amazing spa for people suffering from asthma and allergies. It is free to go inside and walk through the salt-encrusted caves where the air is free of pollen and pollutants. Deep inside the mountain there are salt bedrooms where you can sleep to ease your ailments and even a well-appointed tea room that serves a refreshing herbal brew. Managed by the astonishingly plush but reasonably priced Duzdag Hotel , you can book into the resort [complete with indoor and outdoors swimming pools, tennis courts, one of the best gyms in Azerbaijan, astonishing marble-clad Hamam and international standard restaurant] and be provided with two rooms; one in hotel, and another in the salt mine. Check it out!

In this article, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Nakhchivan, there is just too much to say about an area that is little visited. I didn’t even have a chance to mention Noah, the flood and the sights of Nakhchivan city. All I will say, is that I’m going back soon…

Caucasian Cowboy


About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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7 Responses to The Road Less Traveled: Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan

  1. Very interesting, Steve. Do tell us about Noah’s flood too.

  2. stevehollier says:

    According to a local tradition, when the waters of the Great Flood were going down, Noah’s Ark grounded on Ilan Dag [or Snake Mountain]. The Ark took a chunk out of the mountain. giving it its distinctive profile…

  3. Xarici says:

    What a cool place. It’s the one spot in Azerbaijan I’m not sure I will ever get to. Did you guys fly straight from Baku? If so, how much was it?

  4. Nicolas says:

    Good paper and nice photos. I am now in Nakhchivan for work. I am a french archaeologist work with the academy of science of Nakhchivan in Duzdag. This salt mine was exploited in the Bronze Age period too and still now with one tunnel close to the spa. I will go back in Istanbul where I live end of September but come back next year in Nakhchivan. Here a blog I made last years for the 2012 campaign:

  5. Pingback: Duzdag, Nakhchivan – home to the oldest salt mine in the world | Silk Way Travel

  6. Pingback: Zoom tourisme : le Naxchivan | Bakou Francophones

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