TRAVEL: 192-PART GUIDE TO THE WORLD - PART 11: AZERBAIJAN

OFFICIAL NAME

Azerbaijani Republic

POPULATION

7.5 million

SIZE

33,000 square miles. About three times larger than Belgium.

ENVIRONMENT

Almost everything. In the north are the eternal snowfields of the high Caucasus. The border areas with Armenia and Iran are lush and hilly. The Caspian Sea coast is the beginning of the arid desert and steppe of Central Asia.

BEST MONUMENT

The beautiful but semi-ruinous Shirvanshah Palace in the old city of Baku - with its towers, minarets and baths - is the local equivalent to Granada's Al-Hambra. Reconstruction and restoration work is currently taking place.

MOST FAMOUS CITIZEN

Chess champion Gary Kasparov may be half Jewish and half Armenian, but he was born in Azerbaijan.

NATIONAL DISH

Plov comprises fragrant and spicy piles of rice with vegetables, pine nuts, dried fruit and mutton. Chicken and chestnuts are optional extras. The national drink by the way is tea.

BEST MOMENT IN HISTORY

At the beginning of this century, Baku became one of the great boom cities of the world as oil magnates from around the world rushed to exploit the mineral deposits of the Caspian Sea. For a few years it was on the way to becoming the Manhattan of Transcaucasia. The architectural legacy of that period - grand buildings in Baku - remains surprisingly intact.

WORST MOMENT IN HISTORY

In 1828 the Treaty of Turkmenchai saw the country divided between Russia and Persia, a division that remained essentially in place until the collapse of the Soviet Union (one province of northern Iran is still considered by Azeris to be an integral part of their country). Talking of the Soviet Union, the years from1920 to 1991, when Baku was occupied by the red army, were not exactly a bundle of laughs either.

ESSENTIAL ACCESSORY

Strong gloves, overalls, a hard hat and if at all possible, a licence to drill for oil.

HOW NOT TO BEHAVE

Do not make too much of a fuss when the border police ask you for bribes, and do not attempt to enter the country if you have an Armenian surname. Otherwise you may have to spend a few nights sleeping on railway sidings at the border.

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