Azerbai-where? An introduction to Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan was never on my list of countries to visit.

In fact, the only context in which I’d heard of the place was in catchy retorts – you know: “Oh it is ON like the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.”

So when I accepted a gig that would see me spend a month in the country, all I knew about the place was that it had a fun-to-pronounce name, and was a former Soviet republic.

I couldn’t even find it on a map.

Thanks, Google.

Turns out, Azerbaijan is really charming.

I liked it from the minute I stepped off the airplane and saw the beautiful airport at dusk, and it pained me to say goodbye at the end of the month. I didn’t want to hop on that plane back to Paris; living in Azerbaijan felt like stepping back into a simpler time.

Now this is an airport.

 

THE BASICS

Located in the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is surrounded by Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Russia, with the Caspian Sea on the east border. The people speak Azerbaijani, which sounds closer to Turkish than Russian — though many people also speak Russian, as up until 1991 Azerbaijan was still a part of the Soviet Union. The currency is the Azerbaijani manat, which as of October 2012 was basically at parity with the euro. While the citizens are almost all Muslim, I have never seen a more relaxed Islamic country than Azerbaijan.

HISTORY

It’s hard to escape Azerbaijan’s past when visiting the city. There’s the appropriately named Old City, which dates back to at least the 1100s and is just a fabulous place to spend an afternoon walking around or relax over tea and jam. The long stretch of tombs called Martyrs’ Lane, which leads to an Eternal Fire memorial against a beautiful view of the Caspian Sea, is a very present reminder of the massacres of Black January in 1990. There are also large portraits everywhere of Heydar Aliyev, the country’s former president who still commands a cult of personality even after death (his son is now the current president).

 

CROSSROADS

My first impression of Azerbaijan was that it was truly where old meets new and east meets west.

I kind of joke that Azerbaijan is charming in that, old-motherland-country-meets-new-oil-money kind of way. I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I mean you can still enjoy being surrounded by (authentic) old world charm while not also not being hard-pressed to find modern western conveniences.

Okay, maybe Pizza Hat is a bad example.

Take the people themselves: walking down the street you would run into any number of people who looked Caucasian, Asian, Eastern European, and Arabic. Crossroads. And their appearances even more so — women would be in all manners of dress: from 80s chic to modern styles; from conservatively covered head-to-toe to wearing heels so high and dresses so short they looked like Barbie Gone Wild.

Baku, as the capital, was (not surprisingly) the most modern. I wandered through malls selling upscale designer clothes while Gangnam Style pumped through the speakers. Subway stations looked like works of art. The nearly-finished Flame Towers loom above the city as the latest icons of Baku, not far from the Crystal Palace on the edge of the Caspian Sea, where the Eurovision song contest was hosted earlier this year. There’s even an already half-completed Trump Tower in Baku.

Remnants of the old city still exist and surrounds (or is integrated into) the modernization. Soviet-era Ladas and clunky buses speed down brand new highways while London-style purple cabs jostle over cobblestoned streets. 12th-century castle turrets are dwarfed by the new Four Seasons hotel; Dior and Tiffany’s share space in tiny alleys with local hammams; and hilariously, designer shops for children are housed in buildings that imitate Azeri architecture along the promenade.

There is oil and gas here, and it shows.

Buildings are illuminated with thousands of lights come dusk, enhancing Baku’s metropolitan feel at night. Gasoline is only 0.65 manat — roughly 75 cents — per liter (for Americans, that amounts to a $2.84 gallon of gas). Many of the expats are Americans and Brits taking advantage of the boom in business (who dine nightly at the rooftop restaurant of the Hilton and are happy to buy bottles of champagne for people they’ve just met…so cheers to that).

THE COUNTRYSIDE

Out of eleven known climate zones in the world, Azerbaijan has nine of them. This leads to a variety of landscapes, which I noticed on long bus rides through parts of country: Baku was humid and sub-tropical, the northern towns were mountainous and lush, and in between were stretches of plains, deserts, grasslands, and undoubtedly more landscapes that I completely slept through.

THE MOUNTAINS

During a weekend in the northern towns of Gabala and Sheki, I learned more about the country’s history, experienced one of the simplest yet memorable meals along a misty mountainside, encountered awe-inspiring sunsets and found overwhelming peace in unexpected places.

It was here that I felt truly charmed by Azerbaijan.

FOOD

I already described the sometimes sweet, often salty, and always mutton-y goodness of Azerbaijani food in this post {here}. But who doesn’t want to see a photo of that amazing piti soup again?

THE PEOPLE

The Azeri people are undoubtedly what made my time in Azerbaijan the most memorable: unwaveringly friendly, polite, and hospitable, even when I myself was frustrated and on edge. I was there for a big FIFA event so to those who think people were only nice because they wanted to leave a good impression — No. You can tell when that hotel manager is faking the smile for appearances’ sake, and when someone is genuinely kind with a good heart.

These were good-hearted people. The locals I met were welcoming and always wanted to make sure these visitors to their country were well-fed, taken care of, and having a good time — whether that meant sharing a large meal or bottles of booze, or complete strangers inviting us into their dance circles at a dinner party. In Baku I saw older men gathered in parks and open spaces to play boardgames and drink tea, providing a sense of calm and slowing the pace of life in a chaotic city.

Even when I was approached for photos, because for some reason women really wanted their photo taken with me, it was done in a respectful, adorably shy manner — not the aggressive and presumptuous requests I’ve seen by people in other countries.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

I was in Azerbaijan for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, of which most of the games were hosted in Baku. Therefore I also encountered some unique moments during my trip: watching J.Lo and Shakira perform at the Opening and Closing ceremonies(respectively), being on live television (I may have danced a bit), touring national press and television offices, meeting quite a few government and sports officials, living in a hotel for a month that found me waking up every morning to see the sun rise over the Caspian Sea, watching more football games than I’ve ever seen before in my life (including the World Cup in 2010), and go-karting at a dinosaur-mascoted theme park in the mountains of northern Azerbaijan.

I had such a hard time choosing just handful of photos to act as both an introduction and an overview to my time in Azerbaijan. I have so many more photos and stories — I can’t wait to share them all.

Update: Some readers seem to think I stayed in the Four Seasons and did not get a true sense of Azerbaijan. While I admit being there for work exposed me to a different side of the country, for the record I was NOT in the Four Seasons. I just took some photos of it — which doesn’t necessarily mean I stayed there.

Also, yes I am American; and no, I was not paid a single cent to write about Azerbaijan.

Any questions about Azerbaijan? Let me know and I’ll try to answer them in upcoming posts!

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Comments

  1. Azerbaijan looks really awesome! I wasn’t expecting it to be as beautiful as depicted in your photos. Sounds like you had a great time there.

    (And it looks like I might be adding a new country to my list!)

    • I wasn’t expecting it either, I really enjoyed visiting the country — would definitely recommend a trip to that part of the world!

  2. Wow. Absolutely amazing photos and write-up! It’s true: Azerbaijan was never on my radar either . . . until now.

    Now I want to go. And I want a big bowl of that soup!

  3. I’ve never heard of it until this post. Now I’m adding it to my travel wish list!

  4. I had heard about Azerbaijan while working at my previous job… We used to have a few possibilities to invest in some of its big national projects. I didn’t have the chance to go to the country, but my work colleague did – and he really liked it! He said that Baku was surprisingly modern and beautiful… and the countryside was also worthwhile a visit. Ever since – it’s on my list! (As are other “-stan” ending countries).

    • Oh my gosh your colleague is so right, the countryside is gorgeous. You should go visit if you ever get the chance!

    • Thank you for your kind words and welcome to Azerbaijan!… The land is fascinating and fast transforming. Another 5 years and it will be a completely magnificent place… Just wanted to clalrify that Azerbaijan is not a STAN country! Not by name nor lifestyle… All stans are on the other side of the Caspian and are strikingly different from Caucasus region… Take care!

  5. Wow looks spectacular! I love when you visit a place and don’t have any, or the best, expectations and then it knocks your socks off!

  6. The countryside photos look amazing! What a wonderful opportunity!

  7. Awesome piece Edna. Yeah I’d like to make a visit as well!

  8. I really didn’t know much about the country either until you started posting photos. Now seeing all of this together makes me want to go. You really know how to make me jealous of your travels.

  9. Wait…J.LO and Shakira were in Azerbaijan?!? JEALOUS.

    Azerbaijan sounds lovely, but damn their expensive visa! I’ll make do with Georgia and Armenia next year…they better have that piti soup! Fascinating read though, and love the photo of you getting down and dancing haha!

    • Oh yeah they were there. Shakin’ their thang. And you think your visa’s bad, Americans have the most expensive visa of them all: 160 USD! Haha there are more dancing photos, we’ll see if they make it onto the internet or not…

      • At works here is the principle of equality – Azerbaijan charge people the same amount their countries charge Azeris for visas! we pay USD160 to go to the US, for example. And curerntly our country is negotiating equal relaxation for visas with the EU, for example, so that if we cancel visa requirement for the EU citizens, they also either cancel or make it very easy for Azeris L:-) Principle of equality. Armenia and Georgia don’t have oil and Georgia for example totally depends on Azerbaijan for ecenomic development (so woudl Armenia if they did not occupy our lands and lost thie opportunity ofbeing supported by us economically – Azerbaijan being the leader in the region – 75-80 % GDP in Caucasus is Azerbaijan’s share), so they heavily rely on tourism (especially Armenia which is really in bad shape) which we don;t although we need tourism for diversifying our economy so we can afford time to negotiate better visa condiitons for Azeri citizens, hence not rushing making in free unilaterally. I hope you understand. Azerbaijna is making a statement here about it’s significance in the region and actually in the world and it works – in 3 years we expect visa rejime to be almost totally free with EU for Azerbaijan on equal basis :-) US may follow to an extent :-) But hey USD 160 is not such a huge amount to change your mind from going there. And I think the visa process is being simplified (it’s not that bad even now), you can even apply on-line if not mistaken. Cheers!

      • There’s been so much development in the country over the past decade.

        왜국 Tom’s right.I remember going to Azerbaijan with my family (well-not exactly Azerbaijan, but Nexcivan -anyway) about ten years ago and back then the visa cost us more than it did three years ago when we traveled to Armenia!

        Both are fantastic places to visit anyway.

    • Fariza says:

      It’s funny but it’s written on the site of our (Azerbaijani) ministry of foreign affairs that visa to Az-n costs the same price for the citizen of any country that citizens of Az-n pay for visa to this country :-) . So, EU citizens pay 60 EUR as we pay 60 EUR for Schengen visas, and etc :-) :-) . so, now you know how much we pay for American visas ;-).

    • No, no piti in Armenia and Georgia – this is Azerbaijan’s Sheki specialy only :-) In Armenia they make Azeri soup Boz Bash which is a more diluted version of piti, that’s about it :-) You cannot compare the 3 countries in terms of tourinst destination, I’d advise you only Geirgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia only if you like extreme (poverty, lack of infrastructure except for few areas that have been done before the financial crisis of 2009 hit them badly). They are in a state of war with Azerbaijan over territories and even Armenisns themselves are fleeing from the country by thousands every year – theyr population is decreasing rapidly…

    • Dear Tom, you are right that Georgia is also a nice country with its sightseeing and places of interest as well as its cuisine. However, be informed that PITI soup is intrinsic to Azerbaijan (Sheki district). It means that Georgians can’t do it the way Azerbaijanis do.

      Regards,

      Sanan (from Azerbaijan)

  10. Your title made me burst out laughing! But I completely agree – and must admit I am guilty of the same thing. I did not realise how awesome Azerbaijan was until I read this! You’re right: I think you’re one of only 5 people I know who’s ever been there. (And I grew up in the Middle East – so 5 is a lot.)

    I especially loved the shots of the architecture. I would never have imagined that it would have such modern buildings. They kind of remind me of Abu Dhabi a little bit – the whole crazy spaceship kind of design.

    After reading this, you’ve got me thinking about maybe planning a whole “former Soviet republic” kind of trip one day for Mr. Milsters and myself. I am actually quite curious to see this country now with my own eyes after this post!

    x Milsters

    (http://www.littlepiecesoflight.com)

    • Haha thanks Milsters, I struggled to come up with a good title for this post for so long! I’d like to see more of the -stans now as well — especially Georgia (though it’s not a stan).

      • Edna, thanks a lot for a wonderful story about my country! I just wanted to correct one misconception here: Azerbaijan is not a STAN country! The name of the country come from Azer Bayghan (Protector of fire) which Arabs after conquest made sound like Azerbaijan. Where do you guys see STAN in it? Funny but Geirgia and Armenia in Azeri language soun like GurjiSTAN and ErmeniSTAN though! Also our language is not just closer to Turkish than Russian, It has NOTHING to do with Russian and all and is ENTIRELY Turkish (being one of the more ancient dialects of it). I’m sure you did not mean these mistakes as you had no idea at all about Azerbaijan before you got there so what you learned is impressive. I’m from Sheki – happy to know this place charmed you the most! Come again to Azerbaijan, hopefully by then our lands will be free of Armenian occupation (20%, 1 million refugees – did you know that?). And despite all this trouble for over 20 years, we managed to take our country out of Soviet ruins into one of the most dymanically growing countries in the world! Thank you again for your blog!

  11. I’d never really thought much about Azerbaijan until I had a few students from there last summer-between that and your posts, I’m really intrigued now!

    • I never did either, but now that I’ve been I really think more people should visit, it’s lovely!

  12. Azerbaijan sounds incredibly interesting! I really love all your descriptions of the clash of old and new, simple and decadent, retro and stylish – and all the layers in-between… Must be such an exciting country!

    • Thanks Julika! There’s the feeling that the country, or at least Baku, is on the brink of something, so I’d say it’s an exciting country to be in at the moment.

  13. everyone I know who has visited Azerbaijan went only to Baku. And it looked nice but not really like a place I’d desperately like to go to. But now, after seeing and reading about the Azeri countryside I think I’ll head to Caucasus again! Have you also been to Georgia and/or Armenia when in the area? These two are so much better than Azerbaijan (well, especially Georgia is amazing)! I’m not surprised you enjoy your time there, the Caucasus is kind of a special place :)

    • I’ve never been to the other countries in the Caucasus region — Azerbaijan was my first time — but I’d love to head back now, I know so little about the countries there!

    • Hi! I guess you’ve already visited Georgia and Armenia, and think they are better. But you have to travel to Azerbaijan now to see that it is even better! :) Honestly, I have never been and will probably never be able to visit Armenia (because I’m from Azerbaijan), but I think they only have beautiful mountains and a huge lake. When it comes to Georgia, I agree, it’s beautiful, been there several times and loved it. But I can assure you that people in Azerbaijan are so much more hospitable and lovely when they have guests! So yeah, I would be glad to read about your experience in Azerbaijan when you visit it :)

    • I have been to Armenia, to Georgia, and to Azerbaijan. My friends were saying that Armenia is a nice country to visit, but when I arrived there I was really disappointed, there is nothing to do and nothing to see, their capital is a former Soviet-era town with dirty streets and in bad shape buildings, it looked like they do not have money to take care of their country. Now, Georgia is nice and clean, but very small. People are nice. Azerbaijan, on other hand, has money and it shows. Baku, the capital, is beautiful, new buildings, new cars, clean streets, extremely friendly people…I , just like Edna, highly recommend visiting Azerbaijan. You will not regret it.

      • Also had bad experience in Armenia. Boring country. Kinda lost my interest in that region after that. I guess I should have travelled to Azerbajan. Maybe one day…Author’s photos and story are very intriguing!

      • You are right, Armenia is very poor country bu culture, architect. and resort. Nothing to see there. Looks like soviet city of 70th. The only good view to mountain (but it’s located in Turkey and you may see it because it very close to border). Georgia is very nice and has extraordinary ancient buildings and beautiful landscape. But most beautiful city in Caucase is Baku, with different style, ancient and modern, eastern and western, Oriental and Europian, to many shows, festivals, sport tournirs, concerts, theaters, lovely parks, fountains and cuisine. I remember the concerts of Chik Corea and G.Benson. I ve heard that most famous musicians were there. Amazing place and I recommend to see it!

    • Sorry, but Armenia is so much better? Are you serious? Who told you that? How one can even compare? It’s like saying Sharjah is better than Dubai!

  14. Thank you for putting Azerbijan on my radar! Not a place I would have thought of travelling to before reading this, but now I’m thinking a honeymoon here would be very cool.

    • I never thought I’d travel there either, but I’m so glad I did. A honeymoon there would be pretty adventurous and off-the-beaten path!

  15. What a beautiful country. thanks for the introduction and overview!
    I take it you had an opportunity to cover the Women’s World Cup! WOW.
    You keep me inspired!

  16. So interesting! I know basically nothing about Azerbaijan, so it’s always fun to learn a little, especially when it sounds like a place that has a lot going on culturally these days.

    • Thanks Emily! It’s definitely trying to build itself up as a tourist destination so I think we’ll be seeing a lot more coming out of it in the next few years.

  17. Thank you for bringing this country to me! It looks like an amazing place!

  18. excellent post edna! i am trying to plan a trip to the area for 2013 (honestly, more for georgia and armenia…but now will definitely add azerbaijan to the list)! it looks like a quite cool, yet undiscovered, capital!

    • Thanks Megan! I’d love to get to Georgia and Armenia sometime too, Azerbaijan’s really got me interested in the Caucasus region now.

    • Unfortunately, you will have problems with visiting Azerbaijan after visiting Armenia (because of the conflict), so I would advise doing it vice versa.

  19. I had no idea that Azerbaijan was a former Soviet country – how interesting!

    A lady I met in Gabon had spent a couple of years there prior and I always wondered about it!

  20. Wow. . . before reading this, I had barely heard of Azerbaijan, and like you, it has hardly been on my radar as a travel destination. But now – I want to go so bad! It looks like such an interesting and beautiful country. That sunset picture is off the hook!

    • Aw, that’s really nice to hear that you feel that way now! And yes that sunset was incredible to watch, my photos can’t do it justice!

  21. I nice peek into the country! I don’t know anyone who has ever travelled there aside from you!

    • Thanks Audrey! I’m sure that’ll change in a couple years, I think the country’s trying to build itself up as a tourist destination…

  22. Wow, how cool! I don’t know what I was expecting from Azerbaijan, but it certainly wasn’t this. Looks like you had an amazing trip, and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more about it.

    • Thanks Jessica! I wasn’t expecting it either, the country really took me by surprise. I have so many photos and stories to share!

  23. My husband spent two weeks there covering a story on the oil industry, and he loved it as well. Funny, we had an Azeri guide on (of all places) Martha’s Vineyard last year, and we asked where he was from, to which he responded: “someplace you’ve never heard of before.” I said, “try us.” And lo and behold, not only did we know of it, but SVV had visited!

    • Aren’t those small world moments great? I bet your guide must have loved that your husband had been there!

  24. Wow, Azerbaijan looks very charming. I love those old-school cars.

    • I wouldn’t say I loved them, haha, but I did like the blast-to-the-past feeling I got from seeing them everywhere.

  25. Hello.Im from Azerbaijan, can u explain me how I can go to that amazing country?Thanks a lot!

    • I’ve found the best way to see my own city or country through new eyes is to show visitors around. Paris always seems so much more magical when I’m taking friends or family around town!

    • Thank you Edna for such kind words about my native land Azerbaijan. Everyone can visit Azerbaijan and I know it’ll blow your mind.

    • Ilham sene ayib olsun

  26. Hi. I am a native azeri. It is nice to read such a good memories of my country and that my country has some how took place at your radars. lol . Once any of you would need any info of it or choose to travel Azerbaijan you are more than a welcome to be my guest.
    my email: e l i a n o k e r o @ yahoo . com (remove spaces)

    • Thanks Elkhan! I’m very grateful my job invited me to go out there, I don’t know that I ever would have passed through otherwise.

  27. Unregistered says:

    Edna, how much they paid you for that script? also u can invite http://www.disput.az/index.php?showtopic=423118&st=0 to see wat ppl think about ))

    • Oh I’m fairly sure they don’t need my invitation to discuss what they think about it!

      But to answer your question, I don’t accept money on what I write. Every word I wrote is alllll me, buddy (and by the way, this post took me DAYS to write. Pretty sure entire movies are written in less time than it took me to write this post.)

    • I think first of all you must introduce yourself and then say your piece.

  28. Dear Edna,
    I m understand that u r visited country n short term for tourism, but u should wrote a few words about corruption,poor people,n dictator regime in the country! U wrote about like a amazing country.fary tale. Don’t deceive ur own readers.They will meet corrupt officials when they travel to Azerbaıjan tomorrow. ok. If u dont wanna to remove ur rose-colored glasses.Its your right.bah bye.

  29. ~I am a native Azerbaijan, i was born and raised in Azerbaijan for 30 years. But now i live in the United States, I visit Azerbaijan every year, and i plan to continue going there for the rest for the rest of my life. Everything that you have said about Azerbaijan is 100% true. In my eyes, and many other peoples eyes, Azerbaijan is one of the most stunning and breath taking country’s in this universe. I am proud of my country and I would recommend everybody visit Azerbaijan. You are going to have a really wonderful time in Azerbaijan, and taste the most delicious food. c:

  30. Turallino says:

    Ciao Edna,

    Thank you very much for the topic and nice pictures. Actually its a long time that I havent been in Azerbaijan, and to be honest you made me to think to go there in June this year :)
    I do agree that there a lot of nice places in around of the World. Every country and every city have something very nice and something to take with yourself. When it comes to Azerbaijan, my favorit one is to find a contrast about modern and classic life style.
    I always say that, to love the city one should understand and feel the city as my Italian friends advised me, otherwise he/she will stragle. So my recommendation to All would be, before traveling be positive and try to not concentrate on any minor problems.

    Grazie mille Bella :)

    Grazie Mille,

  31. I’m curious what your opinion is on taking a small child there. Are there parks to play in? We are looking into a teaching opportunity there. Thank you!

    • Novica says:

      Dear Amanda,
      I lived in Baku 2008-2009. My wife and newborn child (we are from Serbia) moved there when my child was 4 months old, and we stayed there until he was almost 2 years old. I see that in last 5 years Baku developed a lot, and even then it was absolutely safe and nice for small children. Of course it’s a bit different than EU, but even after 5 years we are often nostalgic for Baku. If you can find well payed job (consider life in Baku is expensive like in UK) I recommend it for families with small children. Only thing the city is quite polluted so you need to live in some green area, and near the center.

    • Emiliya says:

      We have many wonderful parks in Azerbaijan. There are rides for children,place to buy food and even drink a tea.

  32. I am Turkish and my fiancé is Scottish.We are about to move to Baku next couple of months and I am a bit worried about the situation cos I never lived in another country before but your post made me more comfortable, thank you :)

  33. Edna, I am glad I came across your blog today. Its great and so informative. I live in Melbourne, Australia but I was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Its amazing how you beautifully wrote about your experience. I absolutely loved it

  34. Elvin says:

    I am Azerbaijani, but live in Germany. I am so glad you enjoyed out there. Nice blog by the way:)

  35. Yasoda says:

    Hi Edna,

    Extremely enlightening post and gorgeous pics! I’m curious to know, my family is thinking of moving there for a couple of years (from the Caribbean)…do you think it is a place where a (vegetarian) family will be happy to stay for that length of time or is it more of a “touristy” place where a month’s stay is enough?

  36. Edna thank you very much absolutely nice photos…..Azerbaijan looks really awesome..

  37. Emiliya says:

    I am from Azerbaijan but moved away many years ago.However,may move back to my wonderful country.Who knows my next book may be a love story happening in Azerbaijan.
    My people are friendly.Our cusine is the best.I must say I miss my country and people.Nothing can be better than them.

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