Enter the Caucasus: Azerbaijan

I’ve actually wanted to come to Azerbaijan for awhile. Not for any real reason, though. There was a time when I was looking at a globe and trying to find a country that sounded interesting, and Azerbaijan seemed to be the only one I hadn’t really heard of, much less knew anything about. Plus, the name is probably one of the most foreign-sounding names I’ve ever heard.


That being said, it’s not a country that’s on most people’s radars. It wasn’t even on mine until relatively recently, and I’m a total map and travel nerd. I spent many a history class in middle school and high school looking at the maps on the wall when I was supposed to be taking notes, and never did Azerbaijan stand out. So, let’s break it down a little, because I don’t even know that much about it.


Where Even Is Azerbaijan?


Azerbaijan is directly across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan. This made it my only real logical stop after Turkmenistan, because every other country on my way to Europe is a visa nightmare as a US citizen (i.e.; Russia and Iran).

As you can see, Azerbaijan shares borders with Russia, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia. It’s one of the Caucuses, which puts it in this weird geographical limbo. Is it Europe? Middle East? Central Asia? You could make the argument for each one of them.

Maybe Europe because after all, it borders eastern Russia, which no one would really dispute is part of Europe. But, the regions of Russia that it borders (such as Chechnya) are predominantly Muslim, a cultural trait of the Middle East and Central Asia, not Europe.

Maybe the Middle East, because it borders eastern Iran and isn’t far from Turkey and Syria. However, Turkey is also in a slight cultural-geographical limbo as well, and you could make the argument that Iran is closer to Central Asia (like Afghanistan) than it is to the Middle East.

Maybe Central Asia, because technically, it is in Central Asia. There’s not really an argument to refute that fact. Culturally, it might not be Central Asian (many who I talked to compared it to Turkey), but geographically, that’s where it is.

I personally am inclined to place it in the Central Asia category for the time being. If anyone reading this has a different opinion, they should tell me because we’re gonna have this conversation all over again when I get to Georgia.

The best description I got was from a Spanish guy I met in Baku: “Azerbaijan is the most Middle Eastern country in Europe.”


Azerbaijan at a Glance

Azerbaijan declared independence in 1918, making it the world’s first Muslim-majority secular nation. However, it immediately came under the USSR in 1920 as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, or ASSR (lol). It did not regain its independence as modern Azerbaijan until 1991, shortly before the collapse of the USSR entirely.

As is the norm with countries that have gained independence from the USSR as a result of its instability and impending collapse, Azerbaijan did not have an easy transition into independence. In the same year, the Armenian-majority region known as the Nagorno-Karabakh seceded to form the Republic of Artsakh, sparking a three-year war between Azerbaijan and its neighbor Armenia. A ceasefire was declared in 1994, and technically Azerbaijan remains at war with Armenia today. It’s one of several frozen conflicts leftover in former Soviet states.

Suffice to say, Azerbaijan does not like Armenia, and vice versa. I did not visit the Nagorno region as it’s not really accessible via Azerbaijan (moreso via Armenia), but for anyone who plans to visit but also wants to see Azerbaijan, do Azerbaijan first. They won’t let you in if you visit the Nagorno-Karabakh without their permission, because it is internationally recognized as a region of Azerbaijan under occupation by Armenia. So that’s under my “next time” file.

I say this in the “At a Glance” section because it’s hard to visit Azerbaijan, even today, without taking note of this general hostility for Armenia. I personally have not yet visited Armenia, so I can’t speak to much to this issue except that it’s noticeable. However, if you want more information, my older brother runs a travel blog much more robust than this one, and he was in Armenia while I was in Azerbaijan. More on that later.

Historically, Azerbaijan has been fairly poor as are many of the former Soviet Republics. However, once they gained independence, Azerbaijan was quick to exploit its natural resources (mainly oil and gas). They began to slip into a phenomenon known as “Dutch Disease,” which basically shows that when a country’s energy sector outpaces the rest of its economy, inflation follows and non-energy exports become more expensive. After a series of reforms passed through the mid-2000’s, Azerbaijan has climbed international rankings and might be considered quite prosperous (though from my albeit limited observation, the capital city of Baku is mainly the “prosperous” part).

Nowadays, Azerbaijan and Baku in particular are a beacon in an otherwise struggling region. They have been steadily rebuilding their tourism sector since the wars of the 90’s, and aim to make Baku a destination on par with the likes of Dubai and Doha. But for the time being, it’s not there yet and is relatively unsaturated by tourism when compared to places like Dubai or anywhere in Europe.


Getting to Baku from Alat

As I said in my previous post, the port of Baku is actually 66 kilometers south, in a city called Alat. It’s actually quite easy to get from Alat to Baku, and the difference between the two cities is astonishing.

If you find yourself in the specific situation of entering Azerbaijan by sea and needing to get to Baku, don’t bother trying to take a taxi. Bus 195, with a fare of like five manat (2.59 USD) will get you nearly there in an hour. The bus will stop at a station on the outskirts of Baku, where taxis are waiting. From that station, I took a taxi all the way to my hostel in central Baku for 15 manat (8.80 USD). All in, from leaving my hotel on foot and walking along the highway until I found a bus, to arriving at my hostel in Baku, I’d say it took about three hours.

Back to the difference between Alat and Baku — this is why I say that Baku seems to be the part of Azerbaijan that’s actually “prosperous.” Alat is crumbling. Aside from the highway, a lot of the roads aren’t really that paved. Children play in piles of rubble because at least there’s no cars or cows there. The road from Alat to Baku is nothing but factories and decrepit towns. Even the outskirts of Baku look more like what I saw in Kathmandu. But when you go over the ridge that surrounds three sides of Baku, the city itself is gleaming. It’s a pretty dramatic and sudden change. You essentially go over a hill and you’ve gone from the developing world to Dubai. Of course this is a totally superficial observation, but it stuck with me, so into the blog it goes.

There will be a couple more posts on Baku featuring photos of it all. Today is just a brief country profile to get some information and context for a place that’s not on most people’s radars. So stay tuned for next time!


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