by Ian Peart and Saadat Ibrahimova
Mark Elliott is another guest of Azerbaijan whose many stays have made a lasting impression. He first turned up in the mid 1990s on his way across Asia. His interest was sparked and he returned; 18 months of research followed and the result was the first guidebook to independent Azerbaijan in English. Others have followed in his footsteps since, but none so far have matched the depth, joyous enthusiasm and, yes, quirkiness (those maps!) of ‘Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia’.
The quirkiness comes from his determination to present the whole picture. We were once with him as he updated the section on Amirjan, surely one of the most creative villages in the Absheron, but also quite small and rustic; we’d be walking along chatting away only to turn round and find he’d disappeared up a side track, just in case he’d missed a statue of Lenin, or a night club... His expectation and love of the unexpected is what takes him to discoveries that other traveller writers can only wish for. His love of the country and its people is as evident in the writing as in the kilometres he’s covered here.
With the recent appearance of the 400-page 4th edition, we decided that we had to catch up again with this legend among ex-pats, without whose book no journey into the back of Azerbaijan’s beyond is complete. We managed this as he paused on his way between the Faeroe Islands and Kashmir....
Can you tell us how you came to write the first modern guidebook to Azerbaijan?
As to why I did it, that would take ages but, essentially, in the mid 1990s I had co-written Asia Overland, a 600+ page book on how to cross Asia. In its day that book happened to be the only one in English to cover the Caucasus and we discovered that this had led to a surprising number of sales to folks that were far from our target backpacker market... I thus had the idea to go and do a book about one of the countries there and nobody had considered doing Azerbaijan.
And how did you go about it?
In the British library I was literally cutting open the pages of never-read books from the 19th century oil-boom era... Of course nowadays there’s the Internet, but my research in the late 1990s was laborious, old fashioned stuff in libraries and, on the ground, using a very simple formula - with a friend, Vasif Sadikhov, and a sponsored car from Serdar Koleli’s Avis, I’d simply drive up every road, pick up hitch-hikers and get them to introduce us to old men in each village where we collected stories. Real amateur anthropology! Added to that I would visit each local museum and carefully peruse the faded photos of historical ruins and ask for names and directions as to where each one was. The first edition took about 18 months to research - which is a vast amount of time compared to the average travel guide - but it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
You must have been a bit of a novelty in the remoter regions at that time. Did you have any problems?
Admittedly, the process was not helped by police and KGB types who frequently thought of me as a spy! In reality I could see their point, but I was actually only trying to be helpful in drawing maps and, given the Soviet mentality back then, some officials simply couldn’t understand that travellers like to have a map rather than an official guide. But it was possible thanks to the generous support of Cedric Philp at Mobil who arranged a sponsorship that meant the book could be printed.
Yes, the last edition was printed back in 2004 so an update was seriously overdue, especially given how far-reaching the changes have been in Azerbaijan... probably more in the last three years than in the whole decade before. Annoyingly for me, the publication date got pushed on quite a bit after I’d already written the manuscript so I’m afraid some of the book will already be a little dated. But it should still be a big improvement.
What changes presented the biggest challenges this time?
Preposterous as it seems now, until the last edition the book included a map marking where each Baku hotel was. There were fewer than thirty in all. Yet just five years on there are simply hundreds of choices, while many of the old faithfuls have disappeared - forget $2 a night at the Circus Hostel these days! In purely personal terms I can’t say I regret the demolition of the Absheron Hotel - each storey of the old monster used to be separately managed, so one of the low points of each research cycle would be a whole day checking out the place floor by floor.
You still also include ‘Excursions to Georgia’ and give useful information for visits to neighbouring Georgia and Iran. Any changes in the new edition?
It still includes partial coverage of Georgia, but now it’s more focused on places closest to Azerbaijan that you’d be most likely to visit on a long weekend from Baku. A particular gem is Sighnaghi, which had had a major facelift since my last visit and now has a very inviting Mediterranean feel - although perhaps that’s an odd description for a mountaintop town that’s nowhere near the sea... One other plus in the new edition is that the maps of Astara and of Culfa (Julfa) actually cover both the Azerbaijani and Iranian sides of each town - something that I think is probably unique as existing maps are inevitably one or other.
Finally, as you have probably seen more of Azerbaijan than almost anyone else, what is your favourite beauty spot – and is there anywhere you haven’t been yet?
As to favourite places in Azerbaijan I guess it would rather predictably be the scenery between Xinaliq (Khinaliq) and Laza. I think Car (Jar) is pretty too. The reasons? - Stunning scenery, clean air, staying in those timeless homes with brilliantly hospitable shepherd folk. Wonderful!
For a variety of reasons I have never made it to Lake Goygol, although I am told it is very beautiful. I would love a chance to get an official visit to Goygol if anyone suitably powerful is reading this!
‘Azerbaijan, with excursions to Georgia’ (4th Edition), by Mark Elliott, is published by Trailblazer (www.trailblazer-guides.com), available at bookshops in the UK, Ireland and the USA – and at select hotels and bookshops in Azerbaijan.