Baku is a mix of East and West, old and new, capitalism and communism—all tossed together in an electic combination.
Azerbaijan strikes a delicate balance of cultures. It’s not really Europe, but it’s also not really Asia; rather, it marks a crossroads of both. In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is still creating an identity for itself—it is both an ancient land and modern oil-rich hub. Soaring mountains, desert landscapes, ancient villages and UNESCO World Heritage sites mix with the richness of cities like Baku, where wealth can be seen in the fancy cars and city skyline.
Currency: Romanian Manat (AZN)
Government: Unitary Presidential Constitutional Republic
DID YOU KNOW?
- Azerbaijan’s official language is Azerbaijani, which is spoken by more than 95% of the population. In addition to Azerbaijani, there are 13 other native languages in the country, while English and Russian are the major languages of education and communication.
- In 1924, Soviet Russia carved out the Autonomous Province of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose main population consists of ethnic Armenians. The region was within Azerbaijan, but ever since the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, it has remained under Armenian control. Be careful when mentioning this while travelling through Azerbaijan; there are still minor skirmishes over the territory, and it can be a sore point of contention for both Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
- The former world chess champion Garry Kasparov hails from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The country is also home to the world’s youngest international grand master of chess, Teymur Rajabov, who is only 14 years old.
- The Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan is home to the rare geological wonder of Burning Mountain where, due to natural gases, the mountains burn throughout the year. There are many stories about the mountains and fires, including the legend of Yanardagh, which means “Burning Mountain” and claims that the fire coming out of the mountain rose from a young man deeply in love.
- Backgammon plays a major role in Azerbaijani culture. It’s very popular and is widely played among the local public. There are also different variations of backgammon that have been developed and analyzed by Azerbaijani experts.
In general, the best time to visit Azerbaijan is mid-April through to October, when days are warm or hot (highs range from 21°C to 30°C). July and August in Baku can bring daytime highs of up to 38°C, while evenings tend to be cool, even in the summer (low temperatures can reach 18°C). From December to late February, inland temperatures can be bitterly cold—even in Baku, it can reach below the freezing point.
The climate varies considerably from east to west. In the western mountains, the weather is drier and more extreme. The eastern part of Azerbaijan, near the Caspian Sea, has a more moderate climate.
The name Azerbaijan comes from the Persian phrase “Land of Fire.” The country’s history is a combination of that of the Turks from the 11th century and the ancient Persians.
The area we know today as Azerbaijan was conquered by the Arabs in 642 CE, and the people were converted to Islam at the time. For the next several hundred years, the area was an Arab province and prospered. However, after the Arab empire fell, the Mongols invaded; throughout the 13th to 15th centuries, the area was ruled first by the Mongol II-Khans, then by local rule and later under Persian rule.
Azerbaijan has a strategic location, with ports on the Caspian Sea and trade routes between Asia, the Middle East and Europe. As a result it, was fought over by major empires, including the Ottoman empire, Russia, and the Persian empire. In 1828, the Russians and the Persians split up Azerbaijan.
Up until World War I and the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917, Azerbaijan was ruled by Russia and Persia and was valued because of its oil resources. There was a short period of time between 1918 and 1920 during which the country was independent; however, the Soviets invaded in 1920 and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union. It remained as such until August 20, 1991, when it finally declared independence.
PETROGLYPS AT GOBUSTAN
For archaeology and history buffs, the petroglypphs at Gobustan are a must see. The drawings are said to date back to the 8th to 12th centuries BCE. The images depict various animals, boats and people hunting. Research into these paintings had led to the discovery that the Scandinavians were originally from this part of the world.
Baku is Azerbaijan’s capital city, and a perfect symbol of the country as a whole. It is a city of change, where old-world wonder mixedswith the unstoppable force of new-world progress. The stereotypical Russian car, the “Lada,” still prowls the streets of Baku, but it now has competition from names like Bentley, Mercedes, BMX and Ferrari. But tourists thirsty to experience the old-world can rest easy, as the city is protected against gentrification by its UNESCO world heritage status.
For the bravest adventurers and most serious hikers, there is the Janapar Trail. The trail links many villages, and passes by monasteries and fortresses along its route. As it is directly in the hotly contested region of land between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it’s a good idea to do quite a bit of research about the region before heading off.
How long does it take to board the ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi? A very, very long time. Pamela MacNaughtan shares what to expect (and how to keep yourself entertained) on the long Mongol Rally road.
Pamela MacNaughtan didn’t know much about Azerbaijan when she arrived on the Mongol Rally. But the culture and community she found there quickly captured her heart.
The Mongol Rally will chew you up, spit you out and expect you to keep going as if nothing happened, says Pamela MacNaughtan. Follow her as she braves the world’s most outrageous road trip—and takes Travel+Escape along for the ride!