A backdrop to the 1999 Bond movie, ‘The World is Not Enough’ and then winners of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, Azerbaijan is now well and truly on the map! When a friend of mine Mark Elliott published the first guidebook to Azerbaijan in 1999, I wasn’t sure that more than a handful of oil workers would be interested. However, his Trailblazer guidebook to the country is into its fourth edition and following the song contest there are now a few more guide books to this far eastern European country.
There are international flights to Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport from several European cities, though other international airports in Azerbaijan only handle flights from Russia and Istanbul. There are daily flights from London on BMI to Baku and Lufthansa has a couple of flights a week to Baku that continues on to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. Turkish Airlines connects Baku with Istanbul.
You can take the train to Georgia but non-Russians can’t take the train into Russia as the border is not an international border crossing point. A night-sleeper service connects Tbilisi with Baku and there’s also a line from Astara in Iran that goes to Baku. Daily buses run daily from Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Russia into Azerbaijan. Ferries across the Caspian Sea go to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, and to Bandar Anzali and Bandar Nowshar in Iran. Visas are needed in advance for most nationalities.
There’s plenty to see in and around Baku. Go to the top of the imposing 12th century Maiden Tower that was originally part of the city wall for good views of the city. Explore the Old City and visit the medieval Palace of the Shirvan Shahs. See the world’s tallest flag flying at National Flag Square. At 162 metres it’s been confirmed as a world record by the Guinness Book of Records.
Image Courtesy: http://wikitravel.org/en/Image:Atesgah_Baku_Fire_Temple.jpg)
Nicknamed “Land of Fire” there are eternal fires that burn naturally all over the place. Not far out of Baku is the amazing Yanar Dag (“Fire Mountain”) where flames three metres high burn up on a hillside by the Caspian Sea. You can visit the classic Suraxanı Fire Temple where Zoroastrians follow their old religion. Fires can be seen at Xınalıq in a scenic amphitheatre of mountains. There are burning springs at Archivan and near Qäsämänlı and there’s a stretch of river west of Masallı that catches fire if set alight.
This is also the place to see curious mud volcanoes. More here than anywhere else, (they can also be seen in Turkey, Turkmenistan and elsewhere), they constantly belch gas, some letting off steam through vents (gryphons) while others bubble away (salses). A few even rise up offshore in the Caspian Sea to form small islands in the shallow coastal waters. Though the biggest ones like Turaguy are impressive from a distance, the smaller volcano hills often have more interesting collections of active gryphons. Near Baku there are some by the road to Shamakha but the most impressive groups are between Älät and Gobustan at ‘Clangerland’, Bahar near Dashgil and more in the desert between Ceyrankachmas and Pir Hussein.
Image Courtesy: http://wikitravel.org/en/Image:Azerbaijan_mud_volcano.png
Outside of Baku there’s less choice of places to stay, but in the cities there is a reasonable selection of hotels including many Western chains. Rooms are not cheap, but rental apartments can be a better alternative for longer stays. There are a few budget places in Baku like the Caspian Hostel in the centre of the city, with a few more mid-range places. Otherwise you could splurge at any of the big international chains like the Hyatt Regency.
Dining and shopping:
A mix of Turkish and central Asian influences, Azeri food has a number of specialities like spicy minced lamb ‘Lyulya’ kebabs; ‘dograma,’ a cold potato soup; a cold soup of cucumber and onion; ‘piti’ a hot soup of mutton and chickpea; pancakes stuffed with spinach, herbs or pumpkin; and ‘badimjan dolmasi’ which are made of mutton with aubergine, tomatoes, basil and sour cream. Local drinks include ayran which is a yogurt drink based on sour milk and sherbet made from rose petals or saffron.
Baku has many international style restaurants though a few offer Azeri menus. You can dine in style at the authentic Karvansaray Restaurant or try the local cuisine at the L’aparte. Go to an outdoor tea house (çayxanalar) and try the sweets that normally come with your tea to get a taste of local culture.
If there is anything that would be top of my shopping list, it would have to be a carpet. Azerbaijan is where some of the world’s very finest carpets come from. You can also find antiques from the Old City in Baku.
Azerbaijan is not just about oil and though this used to be the main reason why people came here, there’s plenty to see and do in this fascinating country.