Azerbaijan used to be a closed country, with almost no tourism. Now it’s trying to reinvent itself, promoting Azerbaijan travel under the slogan ‘take another look’. I think it’s a really great way to approach the country. Underneath the petrodollars-sponsored shiny buildings in the capital and the president Aliyev posters everywhere, there’s the real Azerbaijan. As soon as you leave downtown Baku you start seeing it. In the suburbs and in the villages around the country. Where people have a Turkish heritage, mixed with bits of Russian and Persian. Where poverty is still a big issue. Where there’re many natural wonders to be discover.
Disclaimer: I had a meeting with the tourism board of Azerbaijan. There was a possibility of us working together. Nevertheless, I’ll be completely honest here. I’m not the biggest fan of the country as a whole, so I’ll be critical with what I didn’t like, while highlighting what I did enjoy. Honesty is of the utmost importance to me –that’s what my readers have grown accustomed to– so I won’t compromise 🙂
Arriving to Azerbaijan
Crossing the border was painful. I took an overnight bus from Tabriz in Iran towards Baku. We arrived at the border a bit before 5 AM. I had an e-visa, in which you give a time frame of when you’ll be in the country: 3 months, out of which you can stay for 30 days. This is really convenient when you don’t know the exact date of your arrival. I asked for it a month earlier of the date I thought I’d get there in case I had any issues with my visa on arrival to Iran. But when I got to the border, the officer told me that my visa was not valid. Of course he spoke no English, so I showed him that the document states ‘valid from’. Another officer came, angrily telling me that today was not the date that my visa says. A lovely Azerbaijani girl that was in the same bus and that spoke English helped me to explain the situation. But it didn’t help much. After a long hour, they called another officer, who told them that it was ok. He asked me why I was going to Baku. I said tourism and he seemed convinced. He stamped my passport. Finally, I thought. But nope.
The first one came back and asked where I was going. Stupid me didn’t think (it was 6 AM by now, with almost no sleep), so I answered with the truth: I’ll go around Azerbaijan, then Georgia, and then Armenia. The moment I said it I realized it was going to take a longer while. He told me to wait and another officer came asking ‘Nagorno-Karabakh?’. I said of course not (because by then I wasn’t sure yet if I’d visit the breakaway territory, and in any case, honesty had left the building). He took my passport and asked me to wait again. There I was, with my backpack on, with everyone in the bus waiting for the only crazy foreigner that crosses the Iran-Azerbaijan border overland and overnight, explaining to me that the officers are bothering me because they want to seem tough. After another 15-20 minutes a different officer came back with my passport and said ‘welcome to Azerbaijan’. I said thank you very much and ran back to the bus. Only to get one more officer to ask for my passport! Finally, around 7 AM we started moving. My gosh, Azerbaijan! How can you expect more tourists if your border control officers have no clue about what they’re doing?
A shout out to border control officers everywhere: please don’t disappear with our passports. There’s nothing more unsettling for a traveler than losing sight of that little book that allows you to see the world.
It’s worth mentioning that I was told that if you arrive at Baku airport the situation is completely different. Everyone actually knows how to do their job, and you’ll get a much nicer welcome.
Baku was waiting for me with a cold, rainy day, so I didn’t have the best first impression. The city feels like a love child between Paris and Dubai, completely lacking a personality of its own. The petrodollars tried to make the city grand, but in my view, they only made it pretentious. Everything looks new and shiny. Shame, because it has so much potential. The Azerbaijanis have a mix of Turkish and Persian heritage, plus a ton of Russian influence. This weird combination could either result in something amazing, or fail miserably. At this point I’m not sure which one it is. So keep reading! By the end of the trip I should make my mind up 🙂
It feels like they want to seem hospitable, but most people just want to sell you something in the touristy places. The Turkish heritage is really alive. Out of the Old Town, however, you’ll see the kindness of people. When I arrived at the bus station, I was going to take the metro to the center. While looking for a way to get a ticket, a lady grabbed my hand and allowed me to go in with her card. Of course she refused to take money for it (a ride is only 0.30 manat -the equivalent to 0.16€, but still). She even went with me when I had to change lines and dropped me in front of the train I needed. What a sweetheart!
Pro Tip – A piece of advice that applies everywhere in the world: learn some basics before you arrive. Hello, goodbye, please and thank you. When you can’t communicate, a heartfelt ‘thanks’ in the local language will be really appreciated.
Even in the Old City you can find some love. I stopped at a food stall to get a cheese filled pancake-like thingy. It was freezing cold, so the lady that was making this delicacy invited me in to sit by a heater, and gave me a cup of tea <3
You’ll also find a ton of cheeky sellers telling you they’ll give you whatever you like from their store as a present, only if you give them a kiss. Even saying you have a husband doesn’t stop them! Are we women just objects that can be bought for a knickknack? It also happened that a few guys on the street started talking to me and inviting me to their places for a shot of vodka.
I want to make a quick note here for other solo female travelers, a simple no (maybe twice) did the trick. I never felt unsafe in Azerbaijan. I think that people (especially out of the touristy places) are not yet used to visitors, so a western-looking girl does attract a lot of attention.
As I told you, the Azerbaijani capital did not impress me. I’ve heard many people being dazed by it, and it might be that I don’t get amazed that easily after many years of traveling, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting place to visit, just not what I expected. Instead of seeing layers of the fascinating history of the place, you see a few historical houses surrounded by Paris-wannabe grand buildings, which are surrounded by shinny new constructions. The potential is there, but the need to show us the money is covering it. Still, leave a day to explore the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the Muhammad mosque, and the Maiden Tower, stroll alongside the Caspian Sea at the Dənizkənarı Milli Park, visit the curious Carpet Museum (the building is shaped as a carpet) and the interesting National Museum of History of Azerbaijan.
My favorite places in the city were the Heydar Aliyev Center and the Highland park. The former is great for photographers. There’re so many great angles that you’re guaranteed to get amazing shots. This architecture wonder houses a museum of the heritage of the Azerbaijani president that gave it its name, who was in office from 1993 to 2003 (position that is now hold by his son, to no one’s surprise). The building is surrounded by the coolest modern art, including a plastic snail family guarding the entrance, and some other animal surprising you as you walk up the stairs towards the center. The latter is a lovely park from where you have the best views of Baku’s skyline and bay from above. I went at night and I was truly impressed –all the shiny things that bugged me during the day have a wow factor at nighttime. You’ll also have a first-row view of one of the landmarks of the city, the Flame Towers.
Best day trip from Baku: Qobustan
Note that the letter Q is pronounced as the letter G. In most guides you’ll see this place written as Gobustan, but in Azerbaijan you’ll encounter it always as Qobustan.
One of the many things that people will try to sell you in Baku is a tour. In general I’m more comfortable visiting places on my own (and I’m happy to save on my DIY adventures), so I took a public bus to the outskirts of Baku and then another that drove me to Qobustan (from the old city take bus #125 for 0.20 manat and then bus #195 for 0.80 manat, the former is paid with the BakuCard, that you can get from a machine in any metro or bus station, and the latter is paid in cash). The way there goes alongside the coast and all you can see are oil drilling rigs. I don’t know why, but they caught my attention. Even though I know the country lives from its oil, I was surprised to see them everywhere!
The second I arrived to Qobustan a taxi driver offered to take me to see the sights. I negotiated to go to both attractions I wanted plus waiting time for 10 manat. He already had another person, so I have the feeling that one got charged way more. Anyhow, the excursion started on the place I wanted to see the most in Azerbaijan, the mud volcanoes.
Reaching this curiosity is not that easy, since there’s no signaled road, just the car wheel prints of other visitors in a muddy terrain. It’s a rough ride, but it gets you to a plateau filled with strangely beautiful conical shapes that emerged from the center of the earth. I’ve seen photos before, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Still, it surprised me to see this cute little volcano-shape ponds of mud.
What I didn’t know is that mud volcanoes are associated with oilfields –they appear in fields rich with oil and gas (which explain the billions of oil drilling rigs on the way!). The Caspian Sea coastline is full of minerals, that’s why these little wonders are found in this area. Azerbaijan has almost half of all the mud volcanoes on earth. An although the ones in Qobustan are small, the biggest one in the country is 700 meters high, with a diameter of 10 km! In 2001 it erupted sending flames shooting out 300 meters into the air –so much for tiny and cute!
This is quite a sight. Although my driver gave me about an hour to explore, I wish I had longer. There’re tons of these mud-spitting petite mountains around, and they all look different –in size, activity, way the mud flows. Writing this I’m thinking I must sound crazy, but there’s something really special about this place…
The other stop in the area was Qobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape. This place houses petroglyphs, that is rock carved drawings made during the Stone Age, around 40,000 years ago. The well-preserved art displays dances, men with arrows and animals. The site is located between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountain range, in what today is an arid semi desertic area with scarce vegetation, but that once was a lush green forest –at least according to the messages in the petroglyphs.
As there’re no signs in the site, it’s recommended to go to the museum first to understand what you’re seeing, and not miss out on this historical wonder.
Qobustan, the village itself, is exactly was I thought the Azerbaijani countryside would look like. A place where the petrodollars haven’t reached, where you hear ‘spasiba’ instead of ‘teshekur’, where 50 years old Ladas are the normal means of transportation. People here are not used to tourists. Visitors only come to see the sights around the town, no one stops in it. The few ones that do are stared and questioned. Not that I understand Azerbaijani (or Russian), but I’m pretty sure they were trying to ask me ‘what the hell are you doing here?’. I walked around for a little while and sat down for a cup of tea at a Çay Evi to do some people watching (after being the one watched!). Finally I felt like I was in the really Azerbaijan, the ‘off the beaten path’ destination I wanted to experience.
The other popular day trip, to the fire!
Azerbaijan lives under the slogan “the land of fire”. This trip gives you two of the reasons. The first one is Zoroastrianism. In Baku there’s a Fire temple: Ateshgah. It was built in the 17th century, and its eternal flame went out in 1969. Today is lit by gas. It’s promoted as a must-see in Baku, but after seeing much older ones in Iran, it felt pointless to pay this one a visit. If you haven’t seen one, then go for it. Fire is one of the sacred elements for Zoroastrians, and it’s interesting to learn about it in a place where it’s worshiped.
The second place to understand the slogan is Yanar Dag, the burning mountain. In a hillside just outside Baku (reachable by public bus #217) there’s an everlasting fire which blazes from underground natural gas. There’s no clear answer as to how the fire started, but the more widespread theory says that a shepherd accidentally ignited a fire in the 50’s. What we do know is that today there’s a 10m long (little)-wall of fire that never extinguishes. I visited during sunset to see it both with day light and at nighttime. It’s an interesting concept, but in all honesty, I don’t think it’s worth the trip.
The Sheki region
After a few days in and around Baku, I was ready for the countryside. In the hostel I met Andre, a fellow backpacker from the United States, that was planning on going to the west of the county too. So we got in (yet another) marshrutka and off we went to Qabala (remember that Q=G, so Gabala). While leaving Baku behind, the road got greener and greener, and then hillier until the Greater Caucasus mountains appeared in front of us. What a sight!
We didn’t plan anything, so when we got to the town, we stopped at a little shop to ask for wifi to look for a hostel. Not only the lovely people working there gave us the password, they also brought us tea <3 It felt like a different world from touristy, I-want-to-sell-you-everything Baku! On the way there Andre was telling me about his adventures hitchhiking, and with shame I confessed I’ve never done it. I have no issues traveling alone (solo female traveling is great!) or staying in Couchsurfing (the coolest adventure of my life started with a CS host) but getting into a stranger’s car was where I drew the line. I always wanted to try it, but I was too scared to give it a shot. Until now. We found a hostel 4 km away from the shop, so when he suggested to try hitchhiking there, I was happy to put my thumb up! The first car stopped and I was thrilled to not to have to keep carrying my backpack!
There’s nothing special in the town, but the surrounding nature is gorgeous. The views of mount Bazardüzü, Azerbaijan’s highest peak, are stunning. We walked around and sat in a wall overlooking a green meadow with horses and waited for sunset. It got me in a peaceful state of mind to see the last rays of sun sneak through the clouds.
Next morning we hitchhiked up to a ski resort and hiked from there to a little village, Durja. I was expecting a touristy small town, full of winter chalets. What we found was a poor but full of charm settlement, one that apparently hasn’t heard that the ski resort is getting more and more known. Thank to all the gods! To reach it you can get the cable car that runs all year around, but it’s an easy hike, and the path is full of beautiful vistas. Back at the resort we hitchhiked our way to the center of town. I’m getting the hang of this! 🙂
Off we went to Ismailli. A nice family picked us up. On the way we stopped in a magical forest for tea. Trees in a shade of green I don’t know how to describe surrounded the tables that were scattered around. When we reached our destination they told us that we are their guest, but if we want to stay over and pay 20-30 manat that would be ok. We stayed and gave them 30, only for them to say it was actually 40. Of course, they had no change for a 50 bill. So much for hospitality, right? It’s no too much money, but the double standard in the speech really bugged me. Anyways I fully enjoy walking around the town. It feels like no tourist had ever set a foot there. All you can see are locals living their day-to-day lives.
We decided to hitchhike to Lahic because we couldn’t find the marshrutkas. Three rides and an hour and a half later we got to there. A bit of walking in the main street gave me some time to take wonderful photos. But the town itself is super touristy and after that short stroll I was ready to go. Andre described it as the beaten path. A street which I’m sure used to be lovely, transformed into a succession of souvenir shops, guest houses and restaurants with English menus waiting for the next tour bus. The guidebooks described it as an isolated mountain village devoted to copper production, but nope. All I saw was tourists. The views around are supposed to be gorgeous, but it was raining, so no hiking for the day. We grabbed a cup of tea and waited for the marshrutka back to Ismailli. I’d recommend to go because the road to get there is stunning, but if you’re visiting other lesser known villages in the mountains, skip this one.
From Ismailli, of course, we couldn’t find the marshrutka to Sheki. After asking and wandering around for a while we saw that they come from Baku, so they were already full when they reached us. Hitchhiking it was. The first guy charged us, which we were told is normal in Azerbaijan. The second one didn’t and left us almost at the doorstep of our Couchsurfing host.
Ziya, his wife and their baby were waiting for us. The next morning he showed us around the Old City. The palace of the Sheki Khan is quite a sight. Unfortunately photography inside the building is not allowed. The intricate framework of the colored windows and the detailed paintings are super interesting, definitely a must see.
The city has 2 big caravanserais, one of them allegedly being the world biggest (I couldn’t confirm this, but internet seems to go in a different direction). Still, one came back to its former glory since it was restored and works as a hotel. The other one is closed to the public. For a nice view of the city from above go to the WWII memorial. And if you don’t mind a bit of sugar, try halva, the pride and joy of the city. You’ll find a hundred places selling this nutty, sweet delight.
A quick bus ride away gets you to Kiş, a little village that has all the non-touristy charm I expected to find in Lahic. The Church of Saint Elishe is the main sight, a well-preserved temple from Caucasian Albania times (a kingdom established in the 6th century BC, completely unrelated to the Albania in the Balkans). After visiting it, stroll around the town’s few roads and do some people watching. Seeing a bit more of the real Azerbaijan was the perfect way to spend the last day in the country.
Time to leave
To go to Georgia from Sheki you need to take a marshrutka to Qakh (1 manat, 45 minutes) and from then another one to Tbilisi (8 manat). I asked if it stops at Sighnaghi, and they told me it does. Anyhow I was left in the middle of the road, 8.5 km away from the town, with 500 meters of altitude difference. Maps.me said it’d be 3 hours and 8 minutes walk. You can read more about this in my post on Georgia, but I mention it here so you know what you’re dealing with if you decide to do this stopover.
Exiting of the country wasn’t nearly as painful as entering it, but they’re on a mission to make it harder than necessary. This time it only took a few minutes, but I still got questions that made no sense. “You came from Iran, right? Why don’t you have a stamp?” Because they don’t stamp passports, I have an e-visa if you want to see it. “Mmmm. No. Where are you going next?”. Well, to Georgia (considering I’m in the Azerbaijan-Georgia border it should be obvious!). “And then?”. Home (because I don’t make the same mistake twice!). The officers think for a while, take a look at every page of my passport again and handed it back to me. Not even a goodbye. I said thank you very much, with my most ironic tone, and walked to the Georgian side, for once, happy to be leaving a country…
To sum up the experience, Azerbaijan’s countryside is beautiful. Different shades of green guarded by lovely snowed peaks. The non-touristy villages have a lot of charm and are completely worth exploring. With the rest, I’m not convinced. I heard wonderful things about Baku’s nightlife, but I didn’t party there to confirm it. Wine was definitely not up to my taste. I only tried a few, but even locals were telling me they drink Georgian. Food was absolutely meat oriented, so I couldn’t try any local specialties. I was stuck with bread, salad and lentil soup for the whole trip (I’ve had trips in which all I ate was bread, so I should count my blessings). Anyhow, being a vegetarian is not easy here, I have to say!
If you’re in the region and have time, I don’t see a reason not to give some time to Azerbaijan. But if in a hurry, I’d spend my time in Georgia instead.