Jason Billam is one of the most well-traveled people on the planet. With a YouTube following of over 500,000, he has become one of the most trusted and authentic voices on world travel. Jason's style is down-to-earth and direct. He doesn't overhype, and he isn't afraid to tell it like it is.
We recently sat down with Jason to talk about his recent trip to Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire.
Q: Hi, Jason! So good to talk to you. Was this your first time visiting Azerbaijan?
A: Thank you for having me. Yes, this was my first trip to Azerbaijan, but I suspect it won't be my last. I was really blown away by the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people there.
Q: What were some of your favorite places?
A: Well, Baku has to be one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. It is a totally unique blend of ancient and modern, you can walk around in the old city and be completely immersed in the 15th century. Hop in a cab and head to the Port Baku area, and it's like you're in the 22nd century. I'm a big fan of modern architecture, and Baku has some of the best in the world. The Flame Towers are some of the most famous, but there is also the Heydar Aliyev Center, the site of the national museum. It is this totally fluid, organic structure by Zaha Hadid--quite breathtaking, actually. And of course, the National Carpet Museum, which is definitely worth a visit. The exhibits are amazing and beautiful, but the building itself is shaped like a giant rolled-up carpet. The Park Bulvar mall is a really modern shopping center with a mix of international and Azerbaijani stores. The best photos are from Nagorny Park. To get there, you take a cable car up to a high point in the city, and the views are incredible. What I loved most about it was that you could see the old city, the modern parts, and the Caspian sea all at once. It's the perfect place to take in Baku.
Q: Were you able to explore the country outside of Baku?
A: Yes! And actually, this may have been my favorite part of the trip. Azerbaijan is incredibly diverse and beautiful in its landscapes. I spent some time in Novkhani, a beautiful beach town on the Absheron Peninsula with clear water and orange sand. On the north side of the peninsula, there is a beautiful stretch of beach called Bilgah, where a lot of the wealthiest people in the country have second homes.
After hitting the Absheron Peninsula and Caspian Sea beaches, I headed inland for the mountains. Qebelewas maybe my favorite place in the whole country. The mountains are spectacular and are dotted with lakes and waterfalls. I went on a couple of hikes, and it was exactly what you picture in your mind when you think of the Caucasus. Just rugged, untamed, natural beauty. I'm told the skiing around Qebele is pretty great, so I'd love to go back in the winter sometime.
Q: Were there any cultural sites that stood out?
A: Sheki has a beautiful ancient church leftover from Caucasian Albania, and I also loved the spectacular Khan palace with its unique shebeke mosaics. And near Quba in the north, there is a town called Krasnaya Sloboda, which is the only fully Jewish settlement outside of Israel and the US.
Q: Were there any festivals or events going on while you were there?
A: Yeah! There was the Zhara Festival in Baku, which is a music festival that draws acts from all over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Earlier in the year, there is a well-known Jazz Festival that was banned in Soviet times but has made a comeback.
Q: There was a conflict recently between Azerbaijan and a neighboring country, Armenia. Did you feel safe?
A: Yes, safer than in many places I've visited, actually. I didn't visit the border, which is where the conflict happened, but Baku and the Caspian region as well as the mountains around Qebele felt as safe as any destination in Europe.
Q: It seems like Azerbaijani population is predominantly Muslim. In your experience, how does religion impact daily life?
A: To be honest, I didn't see any difference between Baku and other European capitals in that regard. Azerbaijan is completely secular, and unless I learned about the history of the country, I wouldn't have known about religious affiliations. I can tell you that I saw various churches and synagogues as well as mosques in Baku, which makes me think that any kind of worship there is a private choice.
Q: What were some of your favorite food experiences?
A: Well Baku is really like a smaller Dubai, so you can get virtually any kind of food there. My favorites were Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant and Qaynana, which is this beautiful traditional Azerbaijani restaurant in the Old Town. Qaynana is known for their plov, the national dish of Azerbaijan. It's a rice-based dish that you can order with different kinds of meats and spices. Sort of a combination of Middle Eastern, Turkish, and Eastern European cuisine. I'm a vegetarian, so I had the dolma, which are stuffed vine leaves.
Q: Was it difficult to get to Azerbaijan?
A: Not really. It was a 5 and a half hour flight from London, and the customs and immigration process was relatively easy. I flew with Azerbaijan Airlines, which is the main airline serving Azerbaijan, and the service was outstanding.
Q: For a lot of Westerners, Azerbaijan sounds like a really exotic, faraway land. What would be the main draw for a regular tourist over more well-known places in Europe or Latin America?
A: Just that, in Azerbaijan, you are completely unprepared for the mix of Western and Oriental, tradition and modernity, the kind of eclecticism that comes from mixing so many opposing cultures in one place. When you go to Paris, or to someplace in Mexico, you enjoy it, but mostly you know what to expect. These are traveled waters. But Azerbaijan offers something new and exciting for everyone, and the good thing is, whether you're interested in history, art, local cuisine, adventure, sports - it has something to offer.