Azerbaijan is a former Soviet state at the border of Asia, Europe and Middle East. While it is a small country it is blessed with plenty of resources and all 9 micro climates. It is hard to classify the country regionally because it is technically part of Middle East, Azeris like to think of themselves as Europeans while most of the country is located in Asia. I’ll leave it to you where you’d like to place this little country (roughly 4 times the size of Wales).
Fun Fact: Azerbaijan is host to Caucus mountain range which led to the term Caucasian; currently used to describe ‘white’ race.
I have always been intrigued by the Russian culture, the things that happen behind that iron curtain which happens to be intensely cold and cruel with expressionless faces and to see it mixed with the Central Asian and Iranian tradition is something one can only get in Azerbaijan.
I must admit when I visited it wasn’t a trip to Azerbaijan alone but it really stood out not only because it has familiar touches in terms of society and life but also because of food.
Fun Fact: Technically Azerbaijan is landlocked since Caspian Sea is a big lake instead of a ‘sea’.
Azerbaijan has had an interesting history post break up of Soviet Union and its independence. It has complicated borders with one part of the country located on the opposite side of enemy territory (Does that remind you of another such country in the past?)
Fun Fact: Azerbaijan is technically still at war with Armenia since 1990 and the relations between both countries are hostile or non-existent.
Azerbaijan has three main regions; the mainland, Nogorno Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh) and Nakhchivan. Most people visit the mainland area. The capital for this region is Baku. Nakhchivan is an exclave of Azerbaijan and is an autonomous region with its own parliament and ministers. The third region is Nogorno Karabakh which is technically part of Azerbaijan but Azerbaijan has not exercised sovereignty over this region since the war in 1990’s and you can only enter this region from Armenia. It has declared independence but it is not accepted by any country other than Armenia.
Getting a visa for Azerbaijan is quite easy and you can apply for the visa online without having to visit the embassy/ consulate via the e-visa portal. I got my visa in 2 working days with minimal paperwork.
Note: If you have ever been to Nogorno Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh) and have a stamp you will be refused entry into Azerbaijan. This also applies to any hint they get that you have been to the region. Since I had been to Armenia I was explicitly asked by the immigration officer.
Azerbaijan is under a strict dictatorship and like most former soviet states, the ruling family is strong and you could be in jeopardy if you are found taking part in politics especially activism against the government or talking negatively about the political system. Beware!
Fun Fact: There are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan; they have their own province called Azerbaijan in Iran.
I spent 6 days in Azerbaijan and spent 3 days in Baku and Qobustan and 3 days going around to Quba, Qebele and Tufendag as well as Nohur Lake and felt like it was enough time to spend.
I kept Baku as my base and did day trips to other spots and with a country so small it was quite easy and saved me from dragging my bag around the country.
Value for Money
Azerbaijan is surprisingly more expensive than expected especially in relation to its neighbours. The value for money is Medium.
Public transport between cities is bad. If you insist, a good option is Marshruthkas which are shared mini vans. Most of these do not have time tables and you cannot find details online. You have to arrive at the bus station and try your luck. I decided to give it a miss.
Within Baku there is metro and public transport available which is good but I found taxis to be the best source of going around. I luckily found a taxi driver on my first ride who spoke English and was reasonable enough so I hired him to take me around. He charged me roughly 300 Manat for 3 days including fuel. Taxi drivers are generally difficult here and try to rip you off especially at the airport or touristy spots.
Azerbaijan is generally very safe. As a solo traveller it is a concern for me but I didn’t face any issues throughout the stay even in the remote areas. I walked alone after hours in Baku and around and there was no question of being robbed. There is secret police around everywhere and punishments are strict and crime rate is very low.
I have no words to describe how amazing food in Azerbaijan is. It is a beautiful mix of food in this region with some Russian but mainly Iranian influence. The food is not spicy but rich in flavour. Since I had already been to Armenia, Georgia and Iran I could spot the inspiration behind the dish. The general standard of food throughout the country is great albeit slightly pricey.
Since this is a Muslim majority country most of the meat here is Halal.
Some must have’s include:
Gutab/Kutabi – Gutab is a type of bread that can be had sweet or savoury and it si sort of national staple food, you will find it everywhere. It is a bit like lavash and the best one I’ve had was in Quba in the mountains stuffed with locals herbs.
Bademjan Ruleti – These are slices of aubergine rolled with walnut sauce and pomegranate and served cold.
Pilaf – Rice cooked with fragrant meat, saffron, nuts and dried fruit. It is a delight to try Taj Pilaf which is steamed inside the puff pastry.
There’s plenty more like Kufta Bozbash, BBQ’s meat, seafood and also tons of vegetarian options.
Fun Fact: You can have tea with jam here and since this is a country of tea drinkers you will find it everywhere. Milk tea is not common here.
The currency of Azerbaijan is Manat (AZN). The currency notes are modelled on Euros. You can use your cards easily in Baku but you’d need cash outside the big cities. Contactless is also available in big cities. ATM machines are easily accessible as well but you should keep some extra cash when you go outside the cities.
Tap water is not drinkable and you should carry a refillable bottle with you. Most restaurants will refill it for you. I bought big bottles and refilled them to avoid buying multiple plastic bottles.
There are no checks generally and I only kept my passport in the accommodation. You should keep your driving license on you at all times if you’re driving.
Most people arrive at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku but there are a few other international airports around the country. Baku airport is modern and beautiful and has a vast range of facilities from ATM machines to hotel booths. You can also arrive in Azerbaijan on land from Iran or Georgia and there is a train that runs overnight from Georgia.
Note: I had some multivitamins packed in my bag with labels. The customs guys became suspicious for whatever reason and held me for an hour. They have had no equipment to test for drugs and no one spoke English. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience so make sure if you are carrying any drugs, you have prescription for them.
Phone and Internet
I used my UK sim card for this trip because I got cheap roaming but I was doing some research earlier and you can get a sim card quite easily. It is not cheap though and if you are staying longer than 30 days you will need to register your phone’s IMEI online. Azercell is the market leader and you will need your passport to get a SIM card. Internet and phone connection is generally good and WIFI is also easily accessible. In the mountains connection was sometimes patchy but nothing too serious for too long.
People are very warm, sweet and friendly. Despite being a former Soviet republic they still retain the Middle Eastern hospitality. From the taxi driver to people I met during my trip, especially the people in the mountains, I have really fond memories of my trip. I still remember the Fast and Furious style trip I took with a father and his 6 year old son in a an old Russian Lada car to see the mud volcanoes. I couldn’t stop enjoying despite the speed at which we were going and the cuteness of my company.
Seeing women folk is not common and there is still a bit of segregation in the society. You should maintain a respectful distance from women and not offer a hand shake or physical contact unless they initiate it. That being said the younger generation is more relaxed and there’s plenty of girls in Western clothing in the capital.
The official language is Azeri with Russian commonly spoken as well as Farsi in some parts of the country. English is slowly gaining ground but I have had to use my google translate a fair few times; the driver helped me a lot as well. In Azerbaijan a nice smile goes a long way!
The Racism factor
Not Racist! Azeris are friendly, warm and sweet and love foreigners. They will make some effort by offering a few words of English and a smile. This is not something I’d worry about in Azerbaijan.
The Gay Factor
Homosexuality is illegal in Azerbaijan and LGBT scene is very limited. Grindr is full of fake and faceless profiles. I met a couple of guys who were very nice but warned me about fake profiles. Gay scams are not very common. Azeri society is also very conservative and homosexuality is a taboo topic. I was invited to an underground gay party but I politely declined because I didn’t want to get in trouble. (It is a dictatorship remember!).