Azerbaijan, the nation and former Soviet republic, is bounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains, which span Asia and Europe. Its capital, Baku, is famed for its medieval walled city. Within it lie the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a royal retreat dating to the 15th century, and the centuries-old stone Maiden Tower, which dominates the city skyline.
Selling itself as the ‘Land of Fire’, Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan) is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. Neither Europe nor Asia, it’s a nexus of ancient historical empires, but also a ‘new’ nation rapidly transforming itself with a super-charged gust of petro-spending.
The cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings a Unesco-listed ancient core with dazzling 21st-century architecture and sits on the oil-rich Caspian Sea. In the surrounding semi-desert are mud volcanoes and curious fire phenomena. Yet barely three hours’ drive away, timeless rural villages, clad in lush orchards and backed by the soaring Great Caucasus mountains are a dramatic contrast. In most such places, foreigners remain a great rarity, but in return for a degree of linguistic dexterity, you’ll find a remarkable seam of hospitality. And a few rural outposts – from village homestays to glitzy ski- and golf-hotels – now have have the odd English speaker to assist travellers.
HOW TO GET THERE
The primary international gateway is Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, with additional international airports (whose international routes are basically just Moscow & Istanbul) found in Nakhchivan City, Ganja, & Lankaran.
National air company AZAL (Azerbaijan Airlines) is the main carrier which flies to Ganja, Nakhchivan, Yevlakh, Lenkoran, Tbilisi, Aktau, Tehran, Tel-Aviv, Ankara, Istanbul, Trabzon, Antalya, Aleppo, Dubai, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Nizhniy Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Urumqi, Mineralniye Vodi, Milan, New York, Beijing, London and Paris. British Airways flies seven days a week to Baku. Lufthansa also has a couple flights a week to Baku (which continue onwards to Ashgabat). Turkish Airlines is another carrier connecting Baku with and via Istanbul. Also, there are several Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Iranian, and Austrian airlines connecting Baku with several cities of the world. Qatar Airways flies to Baku with 2 flights a day, one to Tbilisi and one to Doha connecting to their global network.
Trains connect Azerbaijan with Georgia and Russia. The Russian border is closed to non-CIS passport holders with no change likely in the foreseeable future, so the weekly trains to Moscow via Mahachkala are not a viable option for most.
There is an overnight train connecting Tbilisi, Georgia and Baku. Heading out of Azerbaijan, this costs 26AZN and departs nightly from Baku at 20:00. The time of the trip varies considerably based on how long is spent at the border (longer when entering Azerbaijan). Be careful on your visa as the train does not arrive at the border until the next day. They will boot you off the train and make you take a taxi to the border control (50km away from the border) and then you need to take a taxi back to the border (50 euro, May 2014). This segment of track is currently being modernized as part of a project, financed in part by Azerbaijan, which includes the construction of a rail segment from Akhalkalaki, Georgia with Kars, Turkey. Originally scheduled to open in 2010, it is now planned to finish in late 2014 connecting the railways of Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia. Look out for Baku-Istanbul service once completed!
There is a domestic train line running from Astara on the Iranian border to Baku and there are high hopes to get a 300km connector line built from Astara to Qazvin,Iran to connect the Azerbaijani and Iranian rail networks. Rail service to Iran, which once existed from Nakhchivan after crossing through southern Armenia, was severed after the border with Armenia was closed.
WHAT TO DO AND WHAT TO SEE
Discover the remote mountain village of Xinaliq, where you can find a unique ethnic group of proto-Caucasians who have inhabited this part of the mountains since the Bronze Age and have preserved their original language, customs and traditions. The drive from Guba is spectacular and there are great hiking opportunities. Look out for Imperial eagles. Near Guba, northeast Azerbaijan.
Bubbling out of the lonely hills of Gobustan, these enchanting mud volcanoes are just an hour’s drive from Baku and offer the chance to witness geology in action. The mud is reputed to have therapeutic properties, but don’t get too close: it is boiling and from time to time splutters out in a great ball of fire.
Due south of Gobustan, this little-visited slice of coastal wilderness is well worth exploring. The birdlife is outstanding, particularly during the spring and autumn migrations, and is easily viewed from lakeside platforms. Also on display are Azerbaijan’s last goitered gazelles and their antagonists: wolves. Wild boar and jungle cats are also common.
Housed in an oil baron’s sumptuous Belle Époque mansion in central Baku, this informative museum provides a detailed overview of Azerbaijan’s history with plenty of striking exhibits from Bronze Age jewellery to Ruritanian military costumes, all with English-language explanations. The no-expense-spared interior design and plush furnishings of the old house are also of interest.
This is the largest monument in Baku’s Old City and dates from the 15th century. Painstaking restoration and imaginative new displays give a flavour of the rich and cultured lifestyle of the Persian Sufi ruling dynasty – the music, the paradise gardens, the lovely art and sumptuous costumes. The upper stories were blown away by an early Russian naval bombardment in the 18th century.
Uncover glimpses of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism at the Ateshgah Fire Temple in Surakhany. Flames lick from torches on the roof of the temple, which was established by the Indian Parsee fire-worshippers who lived in Baku in the 18th century. Zoroastrians still occasionally stage ritual dances here.
Take a stroll along Baku’s tree-lined promenade for sea breezes, manicured gardens and soothing water fountains. A Ferris wheel offers fine panoramas of the Caspian Sea, while inviting garden cafés can be found scattered along the leafy prom. Typically, the evening is the best time to visit, when locals go to walk off dinner.
High on a hillside above Sheki, this tiny village serves up a traditional slice of Azeri life. It’s also home to a charming 12th century church, which captivated the late Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, who believed the original Norse gods were Azerbaijanis who migrated to Scandinavia during the Roman period.
Climb the spiral staircases inside Maiden’s Tower, which overlooks the Caspian in the Içeri Seher, and marvel at the stunning 360-degree view of the city from 30m up. Informative multi-lingual touch-screen installations provide a fascinating overview of the building’s history, from 500BC onwards. It was rebuilt as a fortress in the 12th century.
The area has been inhabited continuously for at least 20,000 years and early inhabitants have left striking petroglyphs of giraffes, elephants, aurochs, lions, shamans and tattooed dancers. Archaeologists believe that the first humans to migrate out of Africa also stopped here. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and contains the earliest known representation of a boat.
Explore the fabulous Içeri Seher, the walled old city of Baku and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The narrow streets, honey-coloured city walls, caravanserais, quaint houses and mosques provide a nostalgic glimpse of old Baku before the oil boom of the 20th century created the modern city. Stop for tea in one of many atmospheric cafes and drink in the views.
Discover Sheki, one of Azerbaijan’s most beautiful towns, which nestles in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Highlights include Khan’s Palace, which is set in ornamental Persian gardens and contains stunning murals and stained glass, and the Karavansarai Hotel, whose faded charm captures the once thriving days of the Silk Road.
Watch the flames dance at Yanar Dag (fire mountain), a short distance from Baku, where a 10m (33ft) wall of fire blazes day and night thanks to underground natural gas. Pull up a chair at the nearby chaikhana (teahouse) at sunset for the best effect.
There is a good selection of hotels in Baku, including many Western chains, but options elsewhere in the country are limited. Prices for the hotels start from USD60 and higher. Rental apartments might be a good choice as they are cheaper than hotels and sometimes are even more comfortable.
When you are invited into an Azerbaijani home, make sure to bring them a gift. Anything is fine from flowers (be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals) to chocolate (but not wine and other alcoholic beverages), and indeed something representative from your country. In Azerbaijani culture it is the thought behind the gift, rather than the price, that matters. And if you really want their respect, thank your host for the invitation and compliment them. The host will make sure to make you feel at home, so don’t take advantage of their kindness.