Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic in the Caucasus and variously considered part of Europe or Asia. The country lies on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran and is bordered to the west by Georgia and Armenia. The autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan lies between Armenia and Iran with a short border with Turkey.
Azerbaijan regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is part of Azerbaijan, was the subject of a war with Armenia that has left it a de facto independent republic, which is not internationally recognized by any UN member including, ironically, Armenia which "supports" it. Azerbaijan has lost 20% of its territory and must support some 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict. Despite a 1994 cease-fire, Azerbaijan has yet to resolve its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Occupied by the local Armenian troops to this day, this conflict has not officially ended with minor skirmishes frequent, and is a major source of contention among Azerbaijanis.
The majority of the population (over 90%) is composed of Azeris, who share a culture very similar to Turkey. History, with Russian and Persian influence, has left the Azeris of Azerbaijan and Iran with some moderate differences. Minorities in Azerbaijan include Lezghins, Russians, Avars, Turks, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Georgians. Most inhabitants are Shia Muslim, although a long history of European and Russian colonialism has left many with very liberal, laisez-faire attitudes towards Islam and the country is staunchly secular. The government is a kleptocracy of the Aliyev family and their allies. While the opposition is often sacked or imprisoned, it is not as severe an authoritarian government as you'll find in Turkmenistan, Iran or the Russian Caucasus. Following independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has allowed western companies to develop its neglected, but extensive, oil fields and has seen oil production skyrocket, especially since the mid-2000s. Despite this and related investments, most of the new-found wealth remains in the hands of a small number of people and the city of Baku. While Baku is full of new construction and a growing middle class, much of the country remains poor, where most people are rural agrarians and merchants.
These are the nationally recognized holidays for people living in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is known for having nine of the 11 defined ecological zones. Much of the country is temperate year-round. Nation-wide the average temperature for the year is 14-15°C (57-59°F). The Caucasus Mountains protect the country from the Arctic air masses that affect Russia in winter while the Caspian Sea shields it from the hot, dry air of Central Asia in the summer. Temperatures in the winter are mild (0-15°C/32-59°F) at lower altitudes and along the coast and drops moderately as you head inland and drastically as you head into the mountains (-20°C/-4°F is possible in the Caucasus Mountains). Summers range from warm to hot (20-40°C/68-104°F) throughout most of the country, although breezes off the Caspian make life pleasant along the coast. Nakhchivan is quite different, high and arid, summers here can easily surpass 40°C (104°F) while winter nights often drop below -20°C (-4°F)...in fact the country's extreme minimum and maximum (-33°C/-27°F & 46°C/115°F) were both recorded in southern Nakhchivan!
Snow is rare in Baku and along the coast in general while common inland and copious in the mountains, where many villages may be cut off during the winter. The southern forests are the wettest part of the country, with plenty of rain in late autumn and early spring. The western central coast is fairly dry. Lankaran receives the most annual precipitation (1600-1800 mm/63-71 in) while the region around Baku averages 600 mm (24 in). Baku is very breezy, much like Chicago or Wellington, most of the year.
Large, flat Kur-Araz Ovaligi (Kura-Araks Lowland) (much of it below sea level) with Great Caucasus Mountains to the north, Qarabag Yaylasi (Karabakh Upland) in west; Baku lies on Abseron Yasaqligi (Apsheron Peninsula) that juts into Caspian Sea.
Electricity is supplied at 220V 50Hz with sockets the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 "Europlug" types. Generally speaking, US and Canadian travellers should pack an adapter and tranformer for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Azerbaijan.
Additionally, some older buildings may be still equipped with Soviet-era outlets. The Soviet GOST-7396 standard was very similar to the current European CEE-7/7 "Schuko plug", but the pins were of a 4.0mm diameter, while the Schuko features 4.8 mm pins. As such, the pins of a Schuko may be too large to fit into a Soviet-era outlet, although the smaller Europlug will still fit. Although the Soviet-era outlets have largely been phased out, travellers who are particularly concerned with having the ability to plug in at all times may consider packing an adapter for the Soviet-era outlets too, just in case.
Also, make sure to bring your own automated voltage transformer because the electricity in Azerbaijan short circuits and "jumps" a lot and many items may get shocked if you don't bring the adapter.
Foreign nationals of the following countries can enter Azerbaijan visa-free:
For up to 90 days: Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan
For up to 30 days: China, Turkey
For up to 15 days: Iran
All other travellers who require a visa for entry into Azerbaijan can obtain single-entry visas by mail or in person from any Azerbaijani embassy offering consular services. Travellers are no longer able to obtain visas at Heydar Aliyev Airport in Baku. Multiple visas are generally not issued for tourists outside of Azerbaijan. EU nationals generally pay 60AZN while US passport holders pay US$160 (based on reciprocity) for any visa from 1 to 3 months length. For Information on visa requirements visit the web site of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry.
A letter of invitation (LoI) from a contact in Azerbaijan is required. The embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia does not issue transit visas. Around the corner from the embassy, MEDEA TRAVEL will organise a visa within 3 days, priced €80 in total which covers everything. The embassy of Azerbaijan in Washington, D.C. will issue visas without a LoI, provided your stay in Azerbaijan is no longer than a few days. According to Azerbaijani law, foreign nationals intending to remain in Azerbaijan for more than 30 days must register with local police within three days of their arrival. Foreign citizens should approach the passport section of the local district police office and fill out an application form. The registration fee is AZN9.90. If you should fail to register within the first three days of your arrival, you are liable to a fine of AZN300. If you are still within the 30 days and happen to have a double or multi entry visa, an option is to hop over to Georgia and the period will start over.
The primary international gateway is Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, with additional international airports (whose international routes are basically just Moscow & Istanbul) found in Nakhchivan City, Ganja, & Lankaran.
National air company AZAL (Azerbaijan Airlines) is the main carrier which flies to Ganja, Nakhchivan, Yevlakh, Lenkoran, Tbilisi, Aktau, Tehran, Tel-Aviv, Ankara, Istanbul, Trabzon, Antalya, Aleppo, Dubai, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Nizhniy Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Urumqi, Mineralniye Vodi, Milan, London and Paris. British Airways flies seven days a week to Baku. Lufthansa also has a couple flights a week to Baku (which continue onwards to Ashgabat). Turkish Airlines is another carrier connecting Baku with and via Istanbul. Also, there are several Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Iranian, and Austrian airlines connecting Baku with several cities of the world. Qatar Airways flys to Baku with 2 flights a day, one to Tbilisi and one to Doha connecting to their global network.
Trains connect Azerbaijan with Georgia and Russia. The Russian border is closed to non-CIS passport holders with no change likely in the foreseeable future, so the weekly trains to Moscow via Mahachkala are not a viable option for most.
There is an overnight train connecting Tbilisi, Georgia and Baku. Heading out of Azerbaijan, this costs 26AZN and departs nightly from Baku at 20:00. The time of the trip varies considerably based on how long is spent at the border (longer when entering Azerbaijan). This segment of track is currently being modernized as part of a project, financed in part by Azerbaijan, which includes the construction of a rail segment from Akhalkalaki, Georgia with Kars, Turkey. Originally scheduled to open in 2010, it is now planned to finish in late 2014 connecting the railways of Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia. Look out for Baku-Istanbul service once completed!
There is a domestic train line running from Astara on the Iranian border to Baku and there are high hopes to get a 300km connector line built from Astara to Qazvin, Iran to connect the Azerbaijani and Iranian rail networks. Rail service to Iran, which once existed from Nakhchivan after crossing through southern Armenia, was severed after the border with Armenia was closed.
A minibus also runs from the Georgian border at Krazny Most (Red Bridge) and should cost about AZN10 or 12 (or GEL25). It can be picked up at either side of the border (don't worry if they ask you to pay on the Georgian side - they turn up to pick you up. Insist on bringing your own bags across, however). Journey time to Baku should take about 8 hours. Be warned, driving in Azerbaijan is a genuinely scary experience. Virtually all drivers have scant regard for the rules of the road and the standard of the roads themselves is shockingly poor. It is emphatically not for the faint-hearted, so whilst the long train might challenge your stamina your nerves should remain intact. Check AZAL flights from Tbilis-Baku well in advance for some reasonable deals.
Return minibuses to Tbilisi can be caught at the indescribably chaotic bus station, which doubles up as an eerily quiet shopping-centre (take bus 65 from outside Double Gate in the old town for the 20min trip, which leaves you with a 400m long dodgy stretch of road/highway with pestering taxi-drivers on which to walk: Cost 20q) or simply taxi it from the centre for approx. AZN15 (worth it!), which saves on hassle. Both buses and minibuses are available from this station direct to Tbilisi, price approx AZN12 for both. Bus counter 26 at very back of ground floor. The bus is a few hours slower and not guaranteed to pick you up once you cross the Georgian border, so minibus is preferable.
Pay attention to the fact that Azerbaijani customs will request you to pay a deposit of several thousand US dollars for your car.
There is currently no ferry or cruise service with any other country on the Caspian. Be forewarned that the much talked about "ferries" on the Caspian are simply cargo ships with some extra space to take on passengers. Getting a ride on one of these "ferries" is no easy task. First you must find the notoriously difficult to find ticket office, which basically keeps track of ships which are departing. If you manage to find the ticket office and manage to get a booking, you still have little idea of when the ship will depart. Give them a phone number to reach you and be prepared, they may call you an hour or two prior to departure...two days after the first departure the office gave you and the day before the second departure date they gave you! This is only the first of you troubles. After paying for your place on the boat (about USD50-100), the captain and perhaps other crew members will expect an additional amount to get a bed and a shower. You are expected to bring your own food. The crossing will only take 1 day (Turkmenistan) or 2-3 days (Kazakhstan). Most ships go to Turkmenistan, where ships must wait for an open berth...so you can wait 2-5 days on the boat just waiting for a place to dock! Unless you are on a very small budget or have a bike and especially if you are on a short time schedule, you should pay twice as much (c. USD200-250) for a one way airfare to Kazakhstan, Russia, or Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The total of 31,800km of "paved" roads includes some all-weather gravel-surfaced roads and many "unpaved" roads are made of un-stabilised earth and are difficult to negotiate in wet weather.
Buses, minibuses (marshrutka), and taxis connect most cities. There is often a hub such as a bus station near the bazaar in these cities. The fares for buses and minibuses are posted usually in both old and new manat (qupik). Taxis, on the other hand, require negotiating skills, and this usually takes a proficiency in the language that ordinary non-Azeri/Russian/Turkish speakers do not have.
There are roads to all cities of Azerbaijan. They are not really wide and most of them have only two lanes.
Local travel agents can arrange private cars to the borders. Some Georgian travel agents such as Concord Travel can arrange to pick you up in Baku and then go to Tbilisi. Although more expensive than bus or train, it will be faster and can be combined with sightseeing along the way.
If you decide to rent a car, there are a growing number of car rental companies, including Europacar, Naniko Rent a Car and others throughout central Baku.
Azeri is the official language. This is a Turkic language, closely related to Turkish itself. However, English is spoken in some places frequented by Westerners. Most people speak Russian (which is now declining and slowly being replaced by English), especially in the capital city, Baku. Turkish is mutually intelligible with Azerbaijani, so people will likely understand you as long as you stick to simple words and speak slowly.
Currency: New Azerbaijani manat (Yeni Manat)
Currency code: AZN
Exchange rates (approximate, July 2014):
Keep in mind that import and export of manat is strictly forbidden.
Economy - overview: Azerbaijan's number one export is oil. Azerbaijan's oil production declined through 1997 but has registered an increase every year since. Negotiation of production-sharing arrangements (PSAs) with foreign firms, which have thus far committed $60 billion to oilfield development, should generate the funds needed to spur future industrial development. Oil production under the first of these PSAs, with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, began in November 1997. Azerbaijan shares all the formidable problems of the former Soviet republics in making the transition from a command to a market economy, but its considerable energy resources brighten its long-term prospects. Baku has only recently begun making progress on economic reform, and old economic ties and structures are slowly being replaced. An obstacle to economic progress, including stepped up foreign investment in the non-energy sector, is the continuing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Trade with Russia and the other former Soviet republics is declining in importance while trade is building with Turkey and the nations of Europe. Long-term prospects will depend on world oil prices, the location of new pipelines in the region and Azerbaijan's ability to manage its oil wealth.
Cabbage, grape leaves, and eggplant wrapped meat (kelem, yarpaq, badimjan - dolmasi), kabab (kebab), rice with different variety of toppings (plov - It is said that plov is the king of Azerbaijani cuisine), gutabs and meatballs (kufta) are some of the several specialties of Azerbaijan.
Bread is a staple, and is quite revered by the people of Azerbaijan.
Georgian food, in particular kajpuri (a cheese-filled bread), along with some Russian staples (borsh, creps) have become common throughout Azerbaijan. Other cuisines such as Turkish, Italian, Asian, Western & fast food, along with Asian food can be found in Baku.
Some local drinks include ayran (a yogurt drink based on sour milk) and sherbet (made from rose petals or saffron). There are also different sorts of quite decent wines produced from local grapes and a wide array of mineral waters from natural springs. In some areas of Azerbaijan the markets offer lemonades (limonat/dushes) made from pears or taragon.
There is a good selection of hotels in Baku, including many Western chains, but options elsewhere in the country are limited. Prices for the hotels start from USD60 and higher. Rental apartments might be a good choice as they are cheaper than hotels and sometimes are even more comfortable.
You can get the information you need about Azerbaijan from the hotels where you will stay. They have different guides for Azerbaijan. Also at some new bus stations in Baku there are maps of the capital.
There is a great deal of work to be done in Azerbaijan from teaching and NGO work to work in the oil and tourism sectors.
Robbing and pickpocketing in the capital Baku, especially in poor and sparsely populated areas is possible but rare and is higher across the capital at night. Common sense is useful as in all other countries. Also watch your stuff in public transport.
Corruption is widespread. But as a foreigner you have a fairly strong position in refusing to pay "hörmet" (bribe). Never give any bribe. Often Azeris are so ashamed of their corrupt economy, that they might hide it from you anyway.
Emergency contact numbers
You must speak in Azeri, Turkish or Russian to communicate your needs. It would be a good idea to memorize key phrases before coming to Azerbaijan - see the Talk section for phrase books.
Make sure your diphtheria, tetanus, and Hepatitis A and B immunisations are up to date. Malaria is a risk in lowland Azerbaijan, particularly around the border with Iran. Anti-malarials are not a must for Baku, but the risk is present in rural areas not far from the city.
Water should not be consumed unless from a sealed bottle. Bottled soft drinks or boiled drinks, such as tea or coffee, also reduce risks.
Azerbaijanis are a very reserved but very polite and well mannered people.
Things to do
Things to avoid
Social custom and etiquette breaches:
Other things to watch for
Gay and lesbian travellers
Homosexuality is no longer criminalized in Azerbaijan, but the negative stigma still is strong throughout Azerbaijan. Same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government and showing your orientation openly is very likely to draw stares and whispers. The few establishments geared towards homosexuals are almost (if not exclusively) in Baku and and are mostly underground. Azerbaijan is not the happiest place in the world for GLBT travellers; be quite cautious when travelling as a GLBT traveller.
There are four mobile operators: Azercell, Bakcell, Nar Mobile, Azerfon-Vodafone. Each network has its own 3 digit code that's different for each operator followed by the 7 digit long subscriber number. For example (050) xxx xxxx, (051) xxx xxxx, or (055) xxx xxxx, or (070) xxx xxxx, or (077) xxx xxxx You can buy cards for use with different operators almost in every store.
Agjabedi 113, Agdam 192, Agdash 193, Agsu 198, Agstafa 244, Astara 195, Babek 136, Bakou 12, Balaken 119, Berde 110, Beylagan 152, Bilesuvar 159, Dashkesen 216, Devechi 115, Fizuli 141, Gandja 22, Gedebey 232, Goranboy 234, Goychay 167, Hajigabul 140, Horadiz 141, İmishli 154, İsmayilli 178, Jebrayil 118, Jelilabad 114, Julfa 36, Kelbejer 137, Kurdemir 145, Lachin 146, Lenkeran 171, Lerik 157, Masalli 151, Mereze 150, Mingechevir 147, Nabran 156, Naftalan 255, Nakhchivan 136, Neftchala 153, Oguz 111, Ordubad 136, Qakh 144, Qazakh 279, Qazi Memmed 140, Qebele 160, Qobustan 150, Quba 169, Qubadli 133, Qusar 138, Saatli 168, Sabirabad 143, Salyan 163, Samukh 265, Sederek 136, Shahbuz 136, Shamakhi 176, Sheki 177, Shemkir 241, Sherur 136, Shirvan 197, Siyezen 190, Sumqayit 18-64, Shusha 191, Terter 246, Tovuz 231, Ujar 170, Khachmaz 172, Khankendi 162, Khanlar 230, Khizi 199, Khojali 102, Khudat 172, Yardimli 175, Yevlakh 166, Zagatala 174, Zengilan 196, Zerdab 135.