Five things I learned in Azerbaijan

I traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan for two weeks in the middle of June to be a doping chaperone volunteer for the European Games. As a doping chaperone, my job was to inform an athlete at random that they had been selected for doping control, and then I followed the athlete around until they went to the doping control office. Basically, I just had to make sure they weren’t cheating. During my two weeks in Azerbaijan I learned a ton about myself and the culture, but these five are the most important and most entertaining lessons I learned.

1. Azerbaijani people are some of the kindest people out there.
During the day, I had time off work to explore the city. And no, the city is not entirely tan as I had imagined. I navigated the streets trying to figure out where the legendary Heydar Aliyev museum was located by attempting to decipher the local language which looked like a bunch of consonants thrown together. When I couldn’t figure it out, I asked a local on the street if she could point me in the right direction. Heydar Aliyev is considered the hero of Azerbaijan so I figured that if I said his name, someone could show me where to go. I asked an older lady on the street how to get there and not only did she point me in the right direction, she turned around and escorted me all the way to the museum which was at least four blocks away in the opposite direction she was going, and not to mention we were walking in 100 degree heat. Don’t see that too often in the States.
At first, I was intimidated by the people in Azerbaijan. I only knew how to say hello, and I looked like such a foreigner that people were almost blinded by my whiteness, they couldn’t stop staring. However, once I got used to the stares, I realized that these people don’t see too many foreigners in their country, and that they were just simply curious. I decided to say salam (hello in Azeri) to everyone I passed on the street, and they would respond with a big grin and usually say salam salam salam over and over again, genuinely impressed that I knew a word in the native language.

I know that there are kind, warm-hearted people all over the world, but I did not encounter a person from Azerbaijan that didn’t go out of their way to say hello, offer up their seat to me on the metro, or even beckon to me to watch them skin and slaughter a live sheep (which I politely but firmly declined), and one of the most memorable pieces I’ve taken back with me from Azerbaijan is that kindness to anyone really does go a long way.

Heydar Aliyev museum and cultural center.

2. The mountain region there is stunning, and completely untouched.
Okay, the Rocky Mountains will always and forever come in first place for most stunning mountain range, however I was completely surprised at the unexpected natural beauty of the region in Azerbaijan. A few of the other volunteers and I made the trek to the region of Azerbaijan which is four hours outside of Baku, and we traveled to Xinaliq, a remote village extremely close to the Russian border. The drive was beautiful. We passed through dense pine forests where locals were selling tea, we wound through a canyon with steep walls and sheer cliffs, and we passed sheep herders guiding their herd on the rocky slopes. The road was only wide enough for one car, yet it was a two way road, and when we encountered another car we had to slam on the brakes and try to find a place to let them pass. Not to mention there wasn’t a guard rail the entire way. Finally we reached the village and all of a sudden the village we thought look deserted sprang to life as kids ran from their houses to follow our car until we came to a stop.

Of course, they knew we were tourists from a mile away so they ushered us to the small museum the town had and charged us each one manat after we walked through the museum that was filled with random artifacts. Then, the kids showed us the rest of the village. There was a peculiar smell to the village, and one of the other volunteers said that the walls stacked around us were not mud, but were dung piles compacted into bricks that were most likely used as a fire source during the winter. The houses were also very interesting. Xinaliq is located at a very high elevation and receives up around three meters of snow in the winter, but the houses all had flat roofs. We were puzzled that all of the houses had intact roofs and that none of them caved in during the winter, so clearly the locals know what they’re doing. We arrived back at our car, and all the kids retreated back into their houses, and all of a sudden the village was deserted again. We took that as our queue to leave. While we wanted to stick around and maybe explore some of the mountains, the locals in Baku warned us that without a permit, hiking was illegal and the consequences were severe. Especially if one was to unknowingly cross the Russian border. Clearly, it was not worth it so we climbed back into the car and made our way back to the city feeling satisfied that we got to experience such an amazing, remote place.

IMG_2043 IMG_1988

3. If you don’t love fighting sports, you’re not a true Azerbaijani.
The European Games had all different sorts of sports like swimming and diving, athletics, 3 vs. 3 basketball and beach soccer (yes, people actually compete in these) and all different types of fighting sports. The Games had judo, taekwondo, wrestling, and Sambo, which I had never heard of before. As a volunteer, I got to watch other events, and I chose to attend the fighting events because I heard that it was quite the experience. The venue that I was working was swimming and diving, and I thought that there was a decent sized crowd there, but when I attended Sambo, the crowd was enormous, rowdy, and a whole different scene. I don’t know anything about Sambo, but I googled the sport and it said that Sambo is basically “self-defense without weapons” and it is Vladimir Putin’s favorite sport. Self-defense without weapons is exactly what it looked like. Punches were flying left and right, opponents were tripping each other, and people were getting thrown to the ground. While I looked around horrified, the local spectators were going wild, especially when an Azerbaijani was on the mat. Watching this sport made me wonder how one becomes good at Sambo fighting, and what age you have to start training. Once again, I was shocked, surprised, and fascinated by Azerbaijan and it’s distinct culture.

Sambo fighting at the Heydar Aliyev arena in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Sambo fighting at the Heydar Aliyev arena in Baku, Azerbaijan.

4. The Azerbaijani “hard no” needs to be incorporated into our everyday lives.
In Azerbaijan, there are two ways to say no. First there’s just no, where you shake your head and repeat “no no no” over and over again until the message gets across. The other way is the “hard no” and nobody messes with it. The “hard no” is when you cross your forearms in front of your body to create and “X” and it means business. For example, if the cafeteria food that was being served was a combination of mystery meat and plastic looking hard boiled eggs, I would simply give the server the “hard no”, and no questions were asked and I didn’t have to force down some questionable food. The “hard no” is rarely used, therefore when someone uses it, it is taken extremely seriously, and that is how it is so effective in every day life. If we started to incorporate the “hard no” here, there would be less confusion about what people are allowed and not allowed to do, and giving the “hard no” is a lot more fun.

5. Who wears short shorts? No one wears short shorts.
Except me. I knew that the people of Azerbaijan (especially the women) dressed very modestly before I visited so I only brought two pairs of shorts and a bunch of pants. Even though the daily average temperate was 95 degrees or above I gave wearing pants and a long sleeve the good old college try. Nothing could have prepared me for how hot it was or how much I sweat wearing all those clothes. Maybe if I had conditioned myself before I left by standing next to a hot oven for eight hours a day fully clothed from head to toe, I might have been prepared. Lucky for me I had some shorts, so the next day I put them on and went to the metro only to be stared and glared at by all the locals, especially the women. At first this really bothered me, maybe not as much as it bothered the locals, but I felt like I was in the dream where you go to class with only your underwear on and everyone stares, unfortunately though, this was not a dream. Over the next two weeks, I got used to these stares and the locals got used to the shorts (sort of), and I was able to stay as cool as one can in 100 degree weather, however the lesson was clear: either wear long pants and sweat your ass off, or wear shorts and get stared at. I went with the latter.

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