Azerbaijan

  
A small-ish former Soviet republic, at the eastern end of the Caucasus and on the shores of the Caspian Sea (opposite Turkmenistan). It's rich with oil – but oil extraction also causes severe environmental problems, esp. along the coast of the Absheron peninsula, as well as nearer the capital Baku. Moreover, nature alone provides some obscure and bizarre sights in the form of mud volcanoes. These are the separate chapters here:
  
  
  
  
  
For some dark tourists the oil-related industrial wastelands may in themselves be an attraction – and the forest of oil rigs by or even in the sea is certainly a sight to behold. But it's not really developed for tourists ... and wanting to see it may arouse the suspicions of the police/security guards, at least in the more remote locations. Even the country's capital Baku is surrounded by oilfields – including one that was popularized in the modern media through the 1999 James Bond movie "The World is Not Enough".
 
A natural kind of dark but certainly weird attraction of the county is its countless mud volcanoes. About half of the world's mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan (and they've formed naturally, unlike the Sidoarjo mud volcano in Indonesia). They come in all manner of shapes and natures. Mostly they are just peacefully bubbling away – occasionally, however, they make a more violent appearance, e.g. in 2001 when just outside Baku a gas vent ignited and shot a flame several dozens if not hundreds of feet into the air. Some of the mud volcanoes can be visited relatively easily, esp. at Qobustan, because that's also near an important historical site.
 
Technically speaking ('de jure') part of Azerbaijan, but cut-off (de facto) from it is the region Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian populated enclave that Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war over in the early 1990s until a cease-fire was negotiated by Azerbaijan's old school dynasty leader Heydar Aliyev in 1994. That cease-fire still holds. However, the conflict remains unresolved, and Armenian forces still occupy not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also what they see as a "buffer zone" of Azerbaijan's territory around the enclave. Meanwhile Azerbaijan has to bear the brunt of the problem of hundreds of thousands "internally displaced persons", i.e. mainly Azeri refugees from the conflict region, whose status remains in limbo …
 
Going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan is therefore impossible – you'd have to go from Armenia. Since all borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan are sealed, you'd first need to travel to Armenia via Georgia or, theoretically, Iran, but the route via Georgia is naturally the much easier option. And you'd better do it in that order too – because going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, i.e. through occupied territory, is considered illegal by Azerbaijan and if you have a Nagorno-Karabakh visa/registration stamp in your passport, they won't let you enter Azerbaijan!  
 
Travel to Azerbaijan on the ground is further limited by the fact that the border with Russia is only open for citizens of those two countries, but closed for foreign tourists, leaving only the borders with Iran and Georgia as entry points on land. The latter is easy to do: there's a daily overnight train between Tbilisi and Baku. I've used this train in the other direction and found it quite OK – the carriages were old (ex-GDR-built!) and without air-conditioning, which in summer can make for stifling heat … but since the journey was mostly at night, it wasn't such a great problem once the train got moving. It's advisable to take your own food and drinks supplies – although an old-Soviet style attendant in each of the sleeper carriages can ply you with tea from a samovar ... not for free, though, as it may at first appear: in fact it worked out quite expensive for me and my wife in the end since we didn't have the exact change, so the attendant simply pocketed the whole 20 USD bill – for 4 cups of tea!
 
At the border, there's a long wait for proceedings to finish, which on the Azerbaijani side were especially laborious (even a tad intimidating) and long-drawn out. Fares for a fairly comfortable two-berth sleeper compartment aren't so expensive as such, but having them pre-booked by an agent added a substantial surcharge to the price when I used the service; but it was in the summer holiday season when trains can get booked out, and I needed the connection on a specific date. If you are flexible you can save money by buying train tickets yourself on the spot, though best at least a day in advance. The language barrier can prove a hard nut to crack, though. You need your passport to buy train tickets – and also for boarding the train, when you even have to hand over your passport for a while, which is slightly unnerving sitting there without ID waiting for it to be returned eventually … but it's unavoidable.
 
There's one further intriguing way of travelling to/from Azerbaijan: by ferry across the Caspian Sea. There are connections to Aktau in Kazakhstan and to Turkmenbashy in Turkmenistan on the eastern shores of the Caspian. However, these are mainly freight connections and don't run to a fixed schedule. To use these you'd need to be flexible. This is, however, complicated by the fact that for obtaining a visa for Turkmenistan you'd nominally have to specify the exact arrival and departure dates. But still, some people have apparently been able to use this rather exotic mode of trans-Caspian travel …
 
As for visas for Azerbaijan, you'd have to have obtained one in advance if entering the country any other way than flying into Baku. Only at Baku's international airport can you get a visa on entry, albeit for a somewhat higher fee. To apply for a visa at an Azerbaijani embassy in advance you also need to have a LOI – a letter of invitation. This annoying left-over from Soviet days is a pain, but it can't be helped. You can get a LOI from various travel agents/tour operators in Azerbaijan or from hotels. Since you'd likely need a tour operator to do some of the things listed here, it's easiest to have them issue you a LOI when you book a tour or use an accommodation booking service.
 
For the dark tourist it's enough to stay based in Baku, and do the other sites listed here as day trips. The rest of the country is more for those seeking a slice of the old Orient and/or remote mountain landscapes and villages, but for the dark tourist, all points of interest are centred in and around the capital. For more travel info see the separate entries for Baku and surrounding destinations.
 
As far as food & drink are concerned, Azerbaijan is probably the least interesting of the Caucasus countries, unless shashlyk happens to be your favourite dish. The cuisine is generally a bit limited for non-meat-eaters. But that said, I did have a few very good Azeri meals, both fish and veggie. As a strict vegetarian or even vegan you're restricted to salads, soups and starters, though there is also one traditional herbed-omelette-type classic main dish (kuku). Foreign cuisines are popular with the well-heeled elite, i.e. especially in Baku, with sushi featuring especially prominently (and expensively!). A Russian influence is quite overt in many restaurants too. Otherwise there's always pizza. Turkish food is also widely available, even though Azeri cuisine is very similar anyway. I had some of the best mezze of my life in Baku, including the best humous I've ever had outside Israel.
 
The language of Azerbaijan, also called Azeri, is virtually identical to Turkish, except for a few different words and some letters deviating from spellings in Turkey. So a working knowledge of Turkish will get you a long way in Azerbaijan. Even if you don't know any Turkish, at least the script is largely decipherable ... quite unlike Armenian or Georgian. Russian is also still widely in use, and almost everyone will understand it (and be willing to use it – unlike in Georgia). English is slowly establishing itself in more upmarket tourist and foreigner-oriented businesses, but is not widely understood in the streets.
 
 
  • 01 - one of the omnipresent Heydar Aliyev posters01 - one of the omnipresent Heydar Aliyev posters
  • 02 - flying over Azerbaijan02 - flying over Azerbaijan
  • 03 - prison near Baku03 - prison near Baku
  • 04 - island in Baku bay04 - island in Baku bay
  • 05 - oil installations in the Caspian05 - oil installations in the Caspian
  • 06 - oil rigs in the sea outside Baku06 - oil rigs in the sea outside Baku
  • 07 - a system of trestle bridges connecting oil rigs07 - a system of trestle bridges connecting oil rigs
  • 08 - barren off-shore island in the Caspian08 - barren off-shore island in the Caspian
  • 09 - a road in the Caspian Sea09 - a road in the Caspian Sea
  • 10 - Caspian shipyard10 - Caspian shipyard
  • 11 - the Caspian at Baku seafront11 - the Caspian at Baku seafront
  • 12 - the Caspian Sea with offshore oil installations12 - the Caspian Sea with offshore oil installations
  • 13 - oil train13 - oil train
  • 14 - Azerbaijani semi-desert with oil seeping from the ground14 - Azerbaijani semi-desert with oil seeping from the ground
  • 15 - Azerbaijani camel with daughter15 - Azerbaijani camel with daughter
  • 16 - melons are popular in Azerbaijan16 - melons are popular in Azerbaijan
  • 17 - Azerbaijan17 - Azerbaijan
  • 18 - minaret and flora18 - minaret and flora
  • 19 - ancient metal work in Azerbaijan19 - ancient metal work in Azerbaijan
  • 20 - the train to Tbilisi may be based in Baku alright but does not look like this Japanese bullet-train in reality20 - the train to Tbilisi may be based in Baku alright but does not look like this Japanese bullet-train in reality
  • 21 - train built in the GDR21 - train built in the GDR
  • 22 - train ploughing on from Baku towards Georgia22 - train ploughing on from Baku towards Georgia
  • 23 - father and son Aliyev in deep thought about Azerbaijan23 - father and son Aliyev in deep thought about Azerbaijan
  
  
  
  
  
  

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