“Visions of Azerbaijan”.-2008.-Spring.-P.16-25
Azerbaijan’s National Parks
By Fiona Maclachlan
Domestic policy. Ecology. National Resources
Access to Azerbaijan's National Parks is opening up. There are
currently eight parks open to the public, with Goy-Gol,
the newest, added to the list this year.
For a newly independent country, these steps indicate a special
commitment to conservation. Thank goodness, because this country is so unique
and so amazing in many ways. Many areas have been designated as Nature Reserves
over the years, but the newer National Park designation indicates a commitment
to encourage access.
Climatic and geographical variety within such a
small area is unmatched by any other country - just a few hours' drive takes
you from semi-desert through grasslands and forest and up to unique villages
and mountain passes, cut off by snow except in summer, and these are still
virtually at the foot of Europe's highest mountains. Add to this fascinating
diversity of landscape the fact that Azerbaijan was for many recent
years relatively unexplored because of Soviet restrictions. Prior to this, Azerbaijan's
location at the crossroads of civilisations was of
strategic importance. The same can be said of today's Azerbaijan.
Rural life here
follows an ancient pattern. There are vast agricultural landscapes which are
still largely tended by hand, where no pesticides or fertilisers
are used; meadows filled with brightly coloured wild
flowers; land is generally unfenced; shepherds herd their flocks of sheep and
goats; horses and donkeys are a part of everyday life and every child can ride
bareback. Summers are hot and winters cold, and every year follows the same
seasonal pattern of planting, bumper harvests and storing for winter. Rural
life in Azerbaijan
sounds idyllic, and for us onlookers it is. However, those involved in the
daily grind are probably more than glad to see the arrival of shiny tractors,
combine harvesters, new roads and so on.
explorers, and indeed property developers, can wander much of Azerbaijan with
a freedom almost unknown in history. The rural population is under pressure to
make a living. Together these put immense pressure on this special environment.
Internationally recognised National Parks, therefore, can hopefully preserve
some of the idyll, while supporting those that live within the boundaries,
whether flora, fauna or man.
Of course the
parks have not been open for long, and the practicalities of running and
staffing the parks for visitors is still in the early stages. But I have
decided to visit them all in turn and, with special permission from the
Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources who are happy; to support my venture,
I shall let you know how I get on. The signs at the entrance to the parks list
optimistically the species which the park is intended to protect. For further
information on this, it is best to speak directly to the « Ministry of Ecology
and Natural Resources, because information at the parks is limited. If there is
something in particular that you want to see, or a species you want to know
about, then this is your best route to information. Staff at he Ministry in Baku speak good English
and will be delighted and proud to help you.
you may have in arranging your trip ill be offset by the pleasure of being
amongst the first eco-tourists in Azerbaijan, and seeing such a
wonderful environment at first hand. (And then, like me, you will want to share
further information, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources
can be contacted by email in English, Russian or Azerbaijani at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their
new website http://www.eco.gov.az/ should
also be a good resource.
Altiaghaj National Park
Situated about an
hour and a half s drive from Baku
Altiaghaj is a world away from the dry semi-desert
which surrounds the city. It is difficult to believe you are on the same
planet, as it is such a particularly beautiful and restful area. This is one
of my favourite days out from Baku. Winter or summer (though preferably
spring for the flowers), there is always plenty to
north from Baku
past Sumqayit, the old Soviet industrial city, and onto
the dual carriageway heading up the coast towards Quba.
After some distance the dual carriage way becomes a two way road, and a
further 7 km
ahead, in the village of Galesi, turn left towards
the village of Khizi (Xizi). Once off the main road and through the village you
are into the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, travelling up the Tikhli River valley, past the wonderful hilly landscape
dubbed the Candy Cane Mountains
by travel writer Mark Elliot. Keep straight on, and as you climb out of the valley
the vegetation becomes greener and greener, and in spring and early summer the
roadside flowers are fantastic, whetting your appetite for the National Park
ahead. Just stop and take a walk and you'll find dainty purple Iris reticulata among those grazing cows with bells around
their necks; a little bit later in the season you'll find bee orchids; then
crops filled with magnificent purple wild gladioli. Khizi
village, at the top of the hill, is the capital of Khizi
District, but despite its official importance there isn't much to stop for,
except the unexpected traffic lights.
Beyond Khizi the road drops back down, via a hairpin bend, into a
valley set in a scenic undulating landscape of hills and deciduous forest.
Follow the road and you will drive through the entrance to the National Park.
The facilities here are new and comprise a good space for educational purposes
with a classroom and so on.
This park covers
over 11,000 hectares
and comprises mostly deciduous mountain forest. It was established in 2004 on
a state nature reserve and took in some adjacent state-owned forest land as
well. The park borders villages with the prettiest of white and blue painted
Russian cottages. While it's an easy day trip, many people like to come and
stay in this beautiful area, particularly in summer, and there are various
popular accommodation options in the vicinity. Delicious samovar chay is
served in little chaykhanas or tea gardens in the woods by the
Up above in the
forest, bears roam free in this wonderful environment, protected by national
Ask at the
entrance office about what you can access in the park. There is a road route
around the park, some 20-25 km
long, which takes in the variety of scenery including a very special meandering
mountainside section through deep forest. Some of the route affords wide open
views across open landscape studded with juniper. In early March the forest
floor has drifts of snowdrops; in the open clearings the wet flushes are home
to masses of spring flowering crocuses. Later in the month Scilla
and then Primula and tiny violets take over, with Muscari in the dry open areas. Then
cowslips and anemones (the Caucasian anemone, Anemone Caucasica).
In May the forest floor is shaded but in the clearings you will find beautiful
orchids. Wild sweet peas, campanulas and many other flowers are just at the
roadside. There are so many species endemic to this part of the world to look
out for. Access to exquisite plant life couldn't be easier.
When leaving the
park and heading back to Baku, stop in the Candy
Canes and pay a visit to the Mushfiq Museum
to find out about the unfortunate story of the poet Mikayil
Mushfiq who loved his country. Look out for the
statue of a tar on the hillside opposite.
Absheron National Park
Or how to stand on the tip of an eagle’s
After a trip to
the Absheron National
Park, I was telling my friend all about
it. You get to stand right on the very tip of the eagle's beak -something I
had wanted to do ever since I came to Azerbaijan. The shape of the map of
Azerbaijan is often described an eagle in flight, with the Absheron
Peninsula, which extends out into the Caspian Sea, as the beak of the eagle.
National Park, com-] prising some 783 hectares of low lying semi-desert grassland, is at the very end bf the Absheron
Peninsula. Formerly a
Mature reserve, this area was decreed a National Park in 2005.
To reach the park
you need to drive approximately 70
km from Baku,
roughly an hour's drive. Head out past the airport and then take a right turn
following signs to Zira. Here you are right in the
middle of the Absheron
Peninsula, and the flat
relatively featureless landscape alternates between olive groves, oil industry
nodding donkeys, low lying villages and desert scrub land. It's a little hard
to believe you are on your way to a national park.
immediately after the Abu Petrol station and you enter the Zira
settlement. Continue to the left and nature takes over as glimpses of the Caspian Sea on either side of the road give clues to the
approaching end of the peninsula. And just when there is seemingly nothing
else left to turn up to, here is the entrance to the National Park. Entrance is
by ticket at the gate, 2 AZN for Azerbaijani visitors, and 4 AZN for foreign
Our guide for the
afternoon was Namiq. He has worked at the park since
1998 and has been involved in protecting the area. His knowledge is based on
his experience of the park over these years. What do you want to see? - he asked. Everything, I replied. He jumped in our car and we
were off. Namiq doesn't speak any English, but I had
been warned beforehand so had taken Visions
editorial board member Vusala to help me with
We travelled in
our personal car, but it was a bit 'city smart' for the terrain, and I would
recommend a local Lada Niva
4x4 or an old UAZ jeep if you can get hold of one. We drove along tracks which
were barely perceptible through the grassland, over the sandy terrain, along
the beaches, and through a shal-low lake. Namiq was confident in our route, and as we went he
explained how the peninsula had been under water depending on the level of the Caspian Sea, which rises and falls. He explained
something of land use during Soviet times, how melons had been grown here, Chinar (or plane) trees planted, and how this had been
affected by the changing, brackish water levels and the high levels of sa| exposure. There are also some old concrete remains from
Soviet oil exploration.
Being March the
most colourful aspect of the landscape was the amazingly
bright yellow lichen, which features on the local entrance ticket. We saw
plenty of large birds of prey whicl Namiq told us were eagles, and green-headed ducks
(mallards) and some large white vulture-like birds. Typically you might expect
to see jackals or foxes, though we didn't. Come in May for the colourful flowers, Namiq told us,
and in May or June you can go by boat to Tyulen or Seal Island
to see the Caspian seals. German scientists apparently spent some time here
last summer (2007) studying the grasses.
However, Namiq very proudly found us two other much loved park
inhabitants - a couple of grand old lady Bactrian camels. We had followed their
footprints along the sands and Namiq had eagerly
watched out for them, keen for us to get a good look.
For me the tip of
the eagle's beak was the highlight. Whether this highlight is enough to drag
you out from the cosy cafe bars of Baku (or air-conditioned, depending on the
time of year) is up to you. You can bring your own picnic and eat on the beach,
though they don't allow swimming. But a visit to this park is the closest
you'll get to discovering what the countryside just outside Baku was really like, many years ago. A visit
here might be low key, but nonetheless the environment is special. The Ministry
of Ecology and Natural Resources have plans to extend the facilities here to
include, for example, picnic areas.
Well done to the
conservationists of Absheron National