Boarding the plane from Baku to Nakhchivan, the warnings in rare guide books are dispelled as we find no passengers stood in the aisles. Nor sheep, as some had joked in Baku. The import of new Brazilian jets in 2013 mean that the journey is a more luxurious experience than you may be led to believe by Azerbaijani lore. But the warnings give an idea of the stereotypes and contradictions besetting the Azerbaijan’s exclave.
Other a lengthy overland journey via Iran or Turkey, the only way to reach Nakhchivan from the mainland of Azerbaijan is by plane. Even the one-and-half hour plane journey re-routes to arc through Iran and avoid Armenian air space. Flight tickets are subsidized by almost two-thirds for Azerbaijani citizens,- AZN50 ($28) versus AZN90 ($51) for non-citizens - in an effort to maintain a sense of mobility between the region and the mainland, and to knit together the country in a show of national unity.
Descending through the clouds, the stark and forbidding contours of the landscape come into view, towered over by Ilan Dag ('Snake Mountain') which dominates postcards from the region – the legend goes that the distinctive cleft was formed when Noah crashed his Ark into the peak.
Nakhchivan is so isolated that, traveling around the rest of Azerbaijan, you could be forgiven for forgetting that it exists. The few stereotypes that had filtered down to me boiled down to presidents and lemons. I wondered which face Nakhchivan would show me.
Nakhchivan is both a geographical and socio-political oddity. It is a slice of Azerbaijani territory wedged between hostile Armenia to the north (the two countries are formally still at war over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh) and, to the south, Iran - with whom Azerbaijan is by no means friendly. But beyond geography, the Nakhchivani people hold a unique place too in the imaginations of their fellow Azerbaijanis. Raised eyebrows met my announcement that I would fly to the enigmatic territory for the holidays.
Outside visitors are put off by the infamous, if perhaps understandable, surveillance culture. I was told a story of a Bakuvian who landed in Nakhchivan city and was surprised to receive a phone call soon after landing from a friend, berating him - “why didn't you tell me you were coming to Nakhchivan?!” The local, who worked in a government agency, had spotted his friend on one of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras. The smattering of tourists who make it to Nakhchivan are warned to keep their cameras in their bags when around official buildings or in border areas.
But there is more to the stereotype. In a country where even those born and raised in the capital are frequently identified and even pigeon-holed by their region of heritage, the question “where are you from?” quickly arises in conversations in Baku. The response “I’m from Nakhchivan” often provokes a knowing look - associations abound of unearned authority and the infamous “Nakhchivan connection” opening doors in the corridors of Baku Ministries.
Indeed all three presidents of post-Soviet Azerbaijan were born in the exclave. Not only the current president and his father but the country's first pan-Turkic president Abulfaz Elcibey, who they ousted. Elcibey was born in 1938 into a different clan in a village Keleki outside the pretty town of Ordubad - which is unsurprisingly not marked as a tourist attraction.
But the reality is that most Nakhchivanis are hard-working agricultural villagers, struggling to make a living in a country where over 50% of international borders are closed and only a traffic-jammed 15km sliver of a border with Turkey provides a lifeline to a friendly nation.
Nakhchivan does not benefit from the cross-border trade that should come naturally to its Eurasian setting. It produces very little and exports even less. The grandiose public buildings, the 'enthusiastic' renovation of ancient castles, and the gleaming highways connecting them attest to the generous chunk of Baku's oil revenues sent down to Nakhchivan. But there is minimal manufacturing – the only major expert is the salt from deposits on Duzdag (“salt mountain”), which proud locals tout as a cure for asthma.
What economic activity there is comes largely from small-scale mining and agriculture. As we drove south-west from Nakhchivan City towards Ordubad, and the landscape changed from crags to lush orchards, one local pointed across the Araz river, which separates Nakhchivan from Iran’s Savalan mountain range. He picks out the border towns dotting the shore, telling how they set up by entrepreneurial Iranian traders purely to sell goods to the blockaded Nakhichivanis.
The blockade extends to culture. Nakhchivan is significantly more conservative than other regions of the county - arriving as a guest at the famously hospitable NakhchivanI households often sees the men and women separated for meal times. This is perhaps no surprise - the flow of new ideas across borders that erodes such patriarchal traditions is blocked by Nakhchivan’s unique geographical cul-de-sac. The majority of outsiders we did see were religious tourists from Iran, cloaked in chadors on their way to visit religious sites. The work of non-governmental opinion polls and independent NGOs also stop at the border, creating a black hole of data on the region.
It has not always been this way. The stagnancy of Nakhchivan is quite a turnaround from the days when Ordubad – now cornered by the Armenian and Iranian borders – was at the heart of ancient trading routes. Ordubad's most famous son, the provocative Said Ordubadi, was the antithesis of today's obedient, cautious Nakhchivan stereotype. He was one of the men behind the iconoclastic Molla Nasreddin journal and his satirical plays and writings mercilessly poked fun at the mollahs who were influential in society at the time.
It is easy to imagine Ordubadi sat under the shade of one of Ordubad's plane trees wondering how his home town could become one of the biggest losers in the political and territorial knot of the South Caucasus today.