In January, I went on a journey through a largely undiscovered country, one that has yet to experience mass tourism – Azerbaijan. From expensive futuristic skyscrapers with daily lightshows in the capital to citizens struggling to make an income in small run-down villages in the mountains, Azerbaijan is without a doubt an interesting place to explore.
When I first told people that I was going to Azerbaijan in January, I got a lot of similar questions asking why on earth I wanted to go there and if there’s anything else to see than the Eurovision concert hall. First of all, I have no idea where that is and I had no intention of seeing it, and YES, there IS more to Azerbaijan! In fact, it’s quite a naturally beautiful country and historically and culturally, it has a lot to offer too.
I arrived in Azerbaijan early in the morning on January 25th, after a 21-hour stopover in Moscow. The next six days were spent exploring the incredibly modern capital of Baku, having fun and making new friends at my new favourite hostel, discovering cultural history in Sheki, hiking in the snow in Kish with a taxi driver, studying petroglyphs and watching mud volcanos in Gobustan and chilling at a thousand-year-old mountain on fire. Needless to say, Azerbaijan is a very diverse country that offers many different experiences to the adventurous travellers.
I got to see a lot in those few days, and more than enough to get an impression of the country, its incredibly hospitable people and also the problems that come with having a president who focusses more on modernizing the capital than improving the lives of the country’s 10 million inhabitants.
The social problems in Azerbaijan are apparent around every corner. Despite how modern and rich Baku seems and looks, beggars still line the streets. And it gets even worse once you venture outside the city center and the capital as a whole. I visited Sheki in the north and Qobustan in the south, and I was taken aback by how messy and run-down literally everything is outside the center of the capital.
People live in crumbling houses, and struggle to make a daily living. Street cats roam the entire country, even the fancy streets of Baku. I even saw cows going through garbage to stay alive.
It makes me wonder just why the government has prioritized modernizing Baku, which I was told looked very different just 10 years ago. Today, Baku stands as a modern city with very few locals who can actually afford to live there, surrounded by a country that is steadily crumbling. Baku is definitely a beautiful city, but it’s the proud capital of a country that it does not represent one bit.
In many ways, it seems to me that central Baku is sort of a staged view of the country, giving tourists that only stay in this part (and there are bound to be some that do that) a false impression of the country.
Don’t get me wrong, I too loved Baku, and just like most foreigners that come there, I was pleasantly surprised by the city. Baku is in many ways a fascinating and beautiful sight, and it does tie the country more with the West than before, but it also has its price.
What made me fall in love with the country was its people, many of them terribly poor. The people who can’t afford to live in the polished streets of central Baku, but are instead forced to live in crumbling buildings that will never get prioritized. These are the people that live and breathe Baku, and overall seem to be proud of their city and country.
Hopefully a modernized Baku isn’t all bad, as I’m sure it will bring in more luxury tourists, which hopefully will help the economy of the people of Azerbaijan in the long run.
So despite all the social problems in Azerbaijan, I must say that I loved it there. People are so friendly and hospitable and always eager to help, and despite everything, they’re proud of their beautiful country.
One thing that I will give Azerbaijan is that the road conditions are much better than I ever imagined them to be, so for once in a former USSR country, I didn’t feel scared for my life everytime I sat myself in a bus or taxi!
Azerbaijan was my first country in the Caucasus, but I’m not done with this region of the world. In many ways, it reminded me of my beloved Central Asia, so I’m very excited to see what Georgia and Armenia have to offer, as well as the semi-independent states of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I would also love to return to Azerbaijan, to stay at the awesome hostel again and to visit the landlocked exclave of Nakhchivan!
Travelling to Azerbaijan has never been easier, since the visa policy was changed for many countries in January 2017. Before, the visa process was expensive and complicated, but now citizens from 93 countries (including all EU countries) are able to obtain an e-Visa for 20 USD that is issued within three working days.
Getting to Azerbaijan is relatively easy as well. Flights will get you there with one stopover for a fair price, depending on the time of year. I flew from Copenhagen via Moscow and paid about 2.600 DKK return in January. You can also travel overland to Azerbaijan via Russia, Georgia or Iran. You will NOT be able to cross from Armenia, as the two countries are at (cold) war, so the border crossings are closed.
In Baku, stay at Cheeky Carabao Backpackers Hostel! The owners are such good people, and it’s full of life with the coziest and most laid-back atmosphere.