Azerbaijan

Hovering on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, somewhere hazy between the secular now and the Islamic then, Azerbaijan is truly a surprising little gem awaiting visitors from far and wide. This former Soviet republic rubs shoulders on at least one of its borders with Turkey (though in a very small way), Iran and three of its ex-Bloc brethren: Russia, Georgia and Armenia, not to mention the ever-enigmatic Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan was the first democratic and secular nation in the Islamic world, a point that became moot after the Stalin gang effectively banned religion for more than seven decades anyway. What remains is a predominantly - though for the most part nominally - Shia population that experiences a fairly high standard of living since throwing off its Communist shackles and moving toward a freer state. Today the country is a visitor's paradise boasting numerous historical draws, including two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Gobustan, home to world-famous, millennia-old petroglyphs, and in the country's capital, the Walled City of Baku, home to Shirvanshah's Palace, which UNESCO has called "one of the pearls of Azerbaijan's architecture." While these sites and countless museums salute the country's place in the past, it's place in the modern world is not to be denied. The country is (in)famous for its lively night life, endless shopping opportunities, successful participation in the Eurovision music contest (which it hosts in 2012), and, like so many in the region, its obsession with football. Azerbaijan should definitely be more than just a stop on any trip to the Caucasus region, but don't be afraid to make it a destination all its own. It could very well end up being the trip of a lifetime. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara


Mud Volcanoes and Petroglyphics

When I first heard about mud volcanoes, I struggled to imagine what they could look like and how and why they exist. It was easy enough to search out information on the Internet, but even after checking it out that way I honestly didn’t know what to think. In the end, I simply had to make the trip to Qobustan to find out more and - more imoprtantly - see them for myself. Located about an hour south of Azerbaijan's bustling, modern capital of Baku, Qobustan is mostly famous for being a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its place in world history as once-home to an ancient civilization, as evidenced by 3,000-year-old petroglyphs. The region is also home to almost half of all of the world’s mud volcanoes.

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 Full name: Kingdom of Azerbaijan

 Population: 9.49 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Baku

 Largest city: Baku

 Area: 86,600 sq.km. (33,436 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Azerbaijani, Russian,  Other

 Major religions: Muslim, Russian Orthodox,  Armenian Orthodox, Other

 Monetary unit: Azerbaijani Manat

 GDP per capita: US $10,200

 Internet domain: .az

 International dialling code: +994

 Source: CIA World Factbook