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, ironically including 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 Azerbaijani 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, & 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 benevolent Aliyev family and their allies although, while 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, rural agrarians and merchants. Corruption is ubiquitous compared with neighboring Georgia and Armenia.
These are the nationally recognized holidays for people living in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is known for having nine of the 11 existing ecological zones. Much of the country is temperate year-round. Nation-wide the average temperature for the year is 14-15C. 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 (0-15C) at lower altitudes and along the coast and drops moderately as you head inland and drastically as you head into the mountains (-20C is possible in the Caucasus Mountains). Summers range from warm to hot(20-40C) 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 40C while winter nights often drop below -20C...in fact the country's extreme minimum and maximum (-33C & 46C) 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 (1600-1800mm) while the region around Baku averages 600mm. 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. Outlets are the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 "Europlug" types. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travelers should pack an adapter 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 4.0 mm 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, travelers 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 adapter because the electricity in Azerbaijan short circuits and "jumps" a lot and many items may get shocked if you don't bring the adapter.
Note that if your passport shows any evidence of travel to the separatist republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, such as a Nagorno-Karabakh visa, you will be denied entry (even if you already have an Azerbaijani visa). If you do intend to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, the authorities there can issue the visa on a separate piece of paper at your request. Insist on this to the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, otherwise you could permanently be refused entry to Azerbaijan. Entry will be refused to citizens of Armenia and to all foreign citizens of Armenian descent and ancestry and those with Armenian names and surnames, as well as any products made in Armenia and with Armenian labeling, etc. see here. Travellers have reported border guards and police confiscating guidebooks which include info about Nagorno-Karabakh, especially the Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia, & Azerbaijan guidebook, because Nagorno-Karabakh is introduced as separate from Azerbaijan.
A passport and visa are required. Travelers should obtain single-entry visas by mail or in person from any Azerbaijani embassy offering consular services. Travelers are not 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 60 AZN while US citizens pay US$131 (based on reciprocity) for any visa from 1 to 3 months length. For Information on visa requirements visit the relevant page in the web site of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry..
A letter of invitation from a contact in Azerbaijan is required. Travelers have reported, however, that the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia does not require LOIs, with a turnaround time of 1-3 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 AZN 9.90 (approximately USD 12).
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. BMI 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.
Trains connect Azerbaijan with Georgia & Russia. The Russian border is closed to non-CIS passport holders with no change likely in the foreseeable future (they don't want foreigners seeing what they're up to in the Caucasus), 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 2012 connecting the railroads 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.
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 Exotour can arrange pickup in Baku to delivery in Tbilisi. Although more expensive than bus or train, it will be faster and can be combined with sightseeing along the way. Pay attention to the fact that Azerbaijani customs will request you to pay a deposit of several thousand US dollars for your car.
There are buses that run daily from Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Russia to Azerbaijan.
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 ship 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 US$50-100), 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 timeschedule, you should pay twice as much (~US$200-250) for a one way airfare to Kazakhstan, Russia, or Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
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). Taxies 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.
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.
Currency: New Azerbaijani manat (Yeni Manat)
Currency code: AZN
Exchange rates (approximate, jul-aug 2009):
For more rates please visit web page of Central Bank of Azerbaijan Republic
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 throughout Azerbaijan. Other cuisines such as Turkish, Itaian, 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 estragon.
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 $60 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.
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 phrasebooks.
Make sure your diptheria, tetanus, and Hepatitis A & B immunizations 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 in a sealed bottle—buying sodas or sticking to boiled drinks like tea and coffee negate the risk.
Azerbaijanis are a very reserved but very polite and well mannered people.
Social custom and ettiquette breaches:
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 three mobile operators: Azercell, Bakcell, Nar Mobile, Azerfon-Vodafone. Azercell is the largest one. To dial an Azercell number you need to dial (050) or (051) and then the number. Only with Azercell can you talk in the metro(subway) in Baku. Nar Mobile is pretty cheap but doesn't work in some regions. For dialing Nar Mobile numbers you need to dial (070) and then the number. Azerfon-Vodafone is new operator have 3G. For dialing Azerfon-Vodafone numbers you need to dial (077) and then the number. Bakcell is ok. It works almost everywhere and is cheaper that Azercell. To dial a Bakcell number you need to dial (055) and then the number. The numbers have a 3 digit code (different for each operator) + 7 digits number. For example (050)xxx xx xx, (051)xxx xx xx, or (055)xxx xx xx, or (070)xxx xx xx, or (077)xxx xx xx 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.