An oil-rich former republic of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has had a smoother go of things over the past 20 years or so compared to their compatriots. Though part of that time has been marred by a war that has seen part of the country separated as an exclave via a conflict with Armenia, and another region (Nagorno-Karabakh) has expressed a desire to separate from Azerbaijan (if you choose to go here, get stamps from the authorities on a separate piece of paper, as having evidence of visiting here will bar you from Azerbaijan for life), it has largely been a time of ascendance for this tiny nation in the Caucasus region of Europe/Asia.
Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, has been decorated with a variety of new, post-modern architectural gems, while European influences over the years has left this country with a tolerant interpretation of Islam, which is practiced as a religion by 95% of the population.
As such, one needn’t be intimidated by this cultural foible when visiting this eclectic nation, which boasts an incredibly warm and friendly people who will make your visit to Azerbaijan one to remember!
Currency: Azerbaijani Manat
Languages: Azerbaijani, Russian, Lezgin
What To Do
The first place you should check out after arriving in the capital of Baku is the Maiden Tower. This tower was constructed in the 12th century, and according to local legend, it either owes the origin of its name to a women who flung herself to her death after being jailed by her brother to escape the shame of it all, or the fact that this tower has never been taken by an offensive operation conducted by a foreign military. What isn’t in dispute is the fact that it offers enviable views of the Old City of Baku, and that it is a national symbol of Azerbaijan, as it is prominently featured on the currency of this country.
The second place you should grace your presence with prior to leaving Baku should be the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which is located in close proximity to the Maiden Tower. This site is known for its exquisite architecture, which many locals argue its origins, be it an actual palace where a ruler once held sway, or a mausoleum, where the bodies of former leaders were buried with the intention of being remembered by future generations.
Once you are ready to leave Baku, the first place that you should visit in your explorations should be Gobustan National Park, which features many points of interest of manmade and natural origin. What has gotten this park listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site is the fact that it has many rock art engravings from prehistoric times that display the hunting traditions of those days, as well as the animals and plants that existed in the days before recorded history.
While they exist in many places throughout Azerbaijan, Gobustan National Park is probably the best place in the country to observe the Mud Volcanoes that exist in abundance in this nation. With respect to this geological formation, there are 350 mud volcanoes here, out of 800 that exist in the world. They are formed by geothermic activity that heats watery deposits of earth above it, resulting in a feature that erupts pockets of mud as a result of the activity that goes on beneath it.
Those looking for a taste of rural Azerbaijan as opposed to the petro-boosted urban life of Baku can find it in Khinalug. This village was previously difficult to reach, but due to a recent visit by the Azerbaijani president, much of the route has been paved, making it easy for those seeking a taste of life in the high alpine country of this nation to sample it. Here, one can get in touch with the best natural assets that Azerbaijan has to offer, with many caves and waterfalls located close by within hiking distance.
Lastly, Lake Goygol is a stunning sight for those that love the scenery that nature provides, as it is a pristine body of water that was formed by an earthquake that occurred almost 1000 years ago. The beauty of this lake is so profound that it has served as inspiration for books, poems and songs over the years, and as such, it is a popular tourist attraction for locals during the summer months.
What To Eat
Being located in relative proximity to Central Asia, Plov has become a significant part of the culinary landscape in Azerbaijan. It has been adopted here with such a great fervour, that 40 different kinds of this rice-based dish have emerged over the ages. The best known of these has been Sabzi Qovurma plov, or mutton plov, which is created by cooking rice in a heavily seasoned broth with sheep meat.
Known as the national soup of Azerbaijan, Piti is created by cleaving mutton meat from the bone and cooking it with various vegetables to synthesise a broth that delights the taste buds of locals and tourists alike.
Lastly, Qutab is a pancake that is cooked with thinly prepared dough that is often filled with pumpkin, lamb, cheese and spinach. It is a savoury treat that is enjoyed throughout the nation, from the gritty streets of Baku, to the humble villages of its hinterland.