All about travel and backpacking in Azerbaijan
So you can imagine my delight when Astrid contacted me offering to write another Off the Path post (she’s already shared her experience in Salalah, Oman and Puerto Edén, Chile) about this intriguing country.
In May 2014, I went on a tour through the Caucasus region for a couple of weeks. After travelling through Armenia and Georgia, we made our way to Azerbaijan and spent a week in the country. I have always been interested in off-the-beaten-path places and lesser visited countries and Azerbaijan definitely falls into this category. Like most people I know, I had hardly ever heard of the country except when the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Baku in 2012.
Why You Need to Visit Azerbaijan
Where do I begin? It is a very special place, not really comparable to any other destinations. The country lies at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it is a very unique mix of cultures and religions. Although most people (95%) are Muslim, you hardly see any hijabs (headscarves) but instead women parade the latest international fashion on the promenade in Baku and at the beach resorts at the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan is a secular state and ensures religious freedom. Very close to politically instable regions and countries (Chechnya and Dagestan in particular) and despite ongoing tensions with Armenia over the exclaves of Nachitchevan and Nagorno-Karabakh, the country is very safe and the people are almost universally genuinely friendly and very interested in foreign visitors.
The Azerbaijani language is similar to Turkish, but because of the Soviet past, many people still speak Russian, too. 9 out of 11 climate zones can be found in the country, from high mountains to sorchingly hot deserts, from green lush meadows to a moon-like landscapes with mud volcanoes in the Gobustan province.
Architecture, fashion, people and food are a blend of East and West. Turkish and Arabic influences together with European and Russian traits are most visible in the markets, restaurants and bazaars. Some people compare the cultural diversity to Bosnia but in my opinion Azerbaijan is far more exotic and the Persian/Arabic/Turkish mix with Soviet heritage is something you will find nowhere else in the world.
If you like architecture, the county is a wonderland of Soviet style, ancient mosques and modern monumental buildings. The oil industry of the Caspian Sea has made the country rich and ist effects can be seen all over Baku.
We spent some time in Sheki in the northeast as well. The Shah palace there is magnificent and the market was a memorable experience. We were the only foreigners there.
The farmers from the mountains sold their sheep, wool, vegetables and farm products – huge jars of homemade walnut and rose jam (never even knew walnut jam existed before!), bundles of wool, sheep heads on plates (yikes), tomatoes the size of grapefruits, self-made liqueur or vodka of some sort in plastic bottles, spices … so much to see! The markets are also good for buying some local crafts as souvenirs as they cater mostly to locals and almost everything there is still hand made.
As an easy day trip from Baku, head to Gobustan and see one of the world’s oldest petroglyph collection-over 4000 petroglyphs dating back to the stone ages can be seen there. But don’t only go to see the petroglyphs. The desert scenery is stunning, there are lizards and small snakes (if you love reptiles as much as I do) and the drive itself is an attraction. You drive along the coast with a view of the oil rings in the Caspian sea as well as the oil refineries and industrial plants stretching almost 100 km south from Baku. This is spectacular to see by itself – I don’t want to get into a discussion about the effects on the environment there though…
Next time I come to Azerbaijan, I would like to spend some time at a homestay in the mountains, hike or ski and get to know the life up there. Airbnb and some tour operators offer experiences like this but we didn’t have enough time.