Visiting Baku in Azerbaijan
I was going to Baku, and my trip didn’t start out well. I had been in Armenia just before, and as I was explaining it on my post about Yerevan, Armenia and Azerbaijan are not in good terms at all. Actually, it’s impossible to go to Azerbaijan from Armenia (and vice versa). I had to go back to Tbilisi in Georgia, before heading to Baku. Obviously the customs officer saw the Armenian stamp on my passport and she bombarded me with questions “What were you doing there? What are you going to do here? etc…”
As usual, I did my little research before getting in the country and I can tell I got by pretty well. Because in some casees, when they see an Armenian stamp on your passport, they ask you to delete all the pictures you took in Armenia, otherwise you can’t get in the country! I had taken all the necessary precautions before getting in Azerbaijan and apart from my Armenian stamp on my passport, there was no trace of my stay in Armenia (I deleted all my Armenian pictures on my phone, on my camera, I changed my Armenian money in Georgia, etc…).
I’m finishing my stay in the Caucasus area with the city of Baku, in Azerbaijan! If we forget about the customs officer, the first thing that struck me, it’s the kindness of people there. A guy helped me when he noticed I was struggling to find the right bus to go to my hostel, some Azeri girls looked happy to see me in their country (“Where are you from? You’re coming here, this is awesome!”), and they wish me to have a nice stay in the city, etc…
The city made me think about Dubai a little bit, but less flashy. Indeed, when you walk around in the city, you’ll see several skyscrapers. The most famous in Baku are obviously the Flame Towers, completed in 2012 with a height of 190 meters (620 feet). The building consists of apartments, a hotel and office blocks.
Baku is a real mix between east and west, between old and new, between rich and poor. Their style is mostly like people from Western countries, but their mentality is mostly like people from Eastern countries. In Baku, there is the modernity of the Flame Towers and not too far the old town, 600 years old, with its iconic palace where various generations of kings used to live. In some areas, you can feel there is money in the city while in other ones, you would think Baku is a poor city.
Around 1880, Baku was a small town, with only 7000 inhabitants. At the time, Baku was only what is the old town area today. Baku grew pretty fast thanks to the oil boom. Indeed, from 1860 to 1920, 50% of the oil sold in international markets was being extracted in Baku. Baku reached its peak around 1900. Today, 9.6 millions azeris live in the country (2 millions in Baku), and 25 millions in Iran. It’s because of the borders “drawn” during the 19th century.
Just like Tbilisi, you’ll find underground passages everywhere to cross the street. And just like in Armenia, people shake my hand in the streets, greet me, they ask to get a picture with me, then my name, then they introduce themselves, etc… Looks like they’re happy to see me! Taxi drivers constantly honk at me. People also stare at me more than usual and I get why. Six days in Azerbaijan, and I haven’t seen one black person. Not even once! Usually, I bump into two or three black dudes…
As a result, on a friday evening, as I was walking on the “bulvar” (pedestrianized road alongside the sea with people taking a walk), a few guys approached me, one of them had a big camera. They were shooting a TV show about tourism in Azerbaijan, they interviewed me, and I appeared on TV in Azerbaijan! After the interview, there was a line with people patiently waiting to get a picture with me. It was a small line (around 10 people), but still! They all got their picture!
Life is cheap. It’s possible to find hostels to stay for less than 10 euros a day. A subway or a bus ticket only costs 0.20 manat (0.10€)! It’s also possible to eat for just a few euros. For those who want to splurge on food, I suggest to go to Firuze restaurant, admittedly touristic, but with typical food from Azerbaijan. Dolma (lamb mixed with rice and wrapped in vine leaves or cabbage leaves), kebab, duchbara (small dumplings filled with lamb, served in broth), khach (broth)…
Religion is not a big part of Azeri’s everyday life. Only 32% of them say they are religious (13th country the least religious in the world). They prefer to go to thermal baths, which are part of the culture in the country. Back in the days, men used to go there to close deals, and women used to go there to gossip.
What to see in Baku?
A little bit everywhere in the city, you’ll be able to see the Flame Towers. I talked about it earlier. Take some time just to walk around the old town, and check out the Maiden Tower, a 12th century monument. Just next to it you’ll see the Shirvanshah’s palace, a 15th century palace. Both of them are inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage List of Historical Monuments. Fountains Square is an area where you’ll find a lot of shops, restaurants, bars… This is where people gather after work or during weekends. Baku, a place to see for the mix between Western and Eastern culture!
- Check if you need a visa to go to Azerbaijan over there. If so, the procedure is pretty simple, and you can do it online. You’ll have to pay 24 US dollars. Just one day after applying, I had my e-visa in my inbox.
- There’s no laundromat in Baku… Make sure the hotel where you stay proposes laundry service. Otherwise, you’ll have to hand-wash your clothes…
- I haven’t been there but one hour away from Baku, in Gobustan, you’ll see mud volcanoes! You need a car to get there. There are more than 400 mud volcanoes in the country, more than half the total mud volcanoes in the world!