'Lada Landscapes': Road-Tripping Azerbaijan With Its Iconic Car : The Picture Show In Lada Landscapes, photographer Thomas Marsden takes the viewer on a road trip between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea — all with the iconic Soviet-era cars.
NPR logo In Azerbaijan, You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Lada Automobile

In Azerbaijan, You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Lada Automobile

Hajikend village in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, February 2015. In Lada Landscapes, photographer Thomas Marsden takes the viewer on a road trip between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea — all with the iconic Soviet-era cars. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

Hajikend village in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, February 2015. In Lada Landscapes, photographer Thomas Marsden takes the viewer on a road trip between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea — all with the iconic Soviet-era cars.

Tom Marsden

Nestled between Russia and Iran — at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia — the small country of Azerbaijan is as culturally diverse as it is geographically varied. Azerbaijani landscapes range from snowy, forested peaks in the Greater Caucasus Mountains in the north, to windswept beaches along the Caspian Sea, to arid desert just outside of the capital city of Baku. It's also known as the Land of Fire due to a natural phenomenon where gas seeps through fissures in the earth and ignites.

The foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Gobustan district, October 2018. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

The foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Gobustan district, October 2018.

Tom Marsden

In his project Lada Landscapes, photographer Thomas Marsden takes the viewer on a photographic road trip through the ever-changing landscapes of Azerbaijan. He was also drawn to one of the region's most iconic cars: the Lada.

Marsden acknowledges that like many Western tourists who visit the region, he found the cars intriguing. "Coming from the West, they symbolize a different kind of ideology," he said. "It has the whole Soviet historical influence, which, in the West, was a whole different world that we didn't have contact with, so it's kind of a curiosity to see them everywhere."

A portrait of former President Heydar Aliyev on the outskirts of Gabala, Northern Azerbaijan, September 2015. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

A portrait of former President Heydar Aliyev on the outskirts of Gabala, Northern Azerbaijan, September 2015.

Tom Marsden

A melon seller near Sumgayit, September 2018. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

A melon seller near Sumgayit, September 2018.

Tom Marsden

The first Ladas were intended as a reliable and affordable solution for the average Soviet citizen — and one that could be produced for cheap. They came into existence through a collaboration with Italian carmaker Fiat; the Zhiguli VAZ-2101, which first rolled out in 1970, was simply an adaptation of the Fiat 124. The cars were later rebranded as Lada, since the original name was thought too difficult for non-Russian speakers to pronounce.

Many models and alterations later, Ladas eventually became the most popular car in Soviet history. Ladas remain plentiful on roads throughout Azerbaijan, which was a Soviet republic from 1920-1991, and they are still produced today by the Russian automotive company AvtoVAZ.

Picnicking in Gadabay district, July 2018. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

Picnicking in Gadabay district, July 2018.

Tom Marsden

These days in Azerbaijan, it's commonplace to see older Ladas pressed into service as all-purpose utility vehicles, piled high with anything from construction materials to whatever fruit is in season. In the regions, Marsden witnessed firsthand how these cars can tackle often dubious driving conditions: "If you're living in a place where the roads are bad, these cars are very, very good at getting around and getting up roads."

In one of Marsden's photographs, a white Lada zooms past the Candy Cane Mountains of Khizi 90 kilometers north of Baku. Composed of shale, the mountains' unique red-and-white color variations are the result of groundwater affecting the oxidation state of iron compounds.

Candy Cane Mountains of Khizi, September 2018. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

Candy Cane Mountains of Khizi, September 2018.

Tom Marsden

Only a few kilometers to the northwest of here, Besh Barmag Mountain emerges; composed of solid rock, it nearly marks the end of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Marsden captures this sacred holy site for Muslim pilgrims with a nearby mosque — and, of course, a Lada in the foreground.

Drive south to Gobustan, and you will encounter a geothermal phenomenon: mud volcanoes. As gases emerge from the deepest layers of the earth and build in pressure, they mix with fine solids and bubble up through geological fissures, creating eruptions of mud. At one of the biggest mud volcanoes, in one of Marsden's frames a Lada taxi is waiting to take passengers back to Baku.

Mud volcanoes, April 2019. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden

Mud volcanoes, April 2019.

Tom Marsden

In many ways, the Lada in each of Marsden's photographs acts as a man-made tour guide, traveling with the viewer to each scene. The contrast between the industrial aesthetic of the cars and the quiet beauty of nature is a visual motif present in each frame. With this symbol of a bygone era ever-present, we can put eyes on a country that few have the opportunity to see.

Caspian Sea in Astara, Southern Azerbaijan, February 2018. Tom Marsden hide caption

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Tom Marsden