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Best Things To Do In Azerbaijan
Written by Richard from The Travel Tramp.
Azerbaijan is the land of fire and oil – lots and lots of fire and oil! – and this former Soviet Socialist Republic will surprise you first with the glitz of its emerging capital Baku before transporting you through history to ancient Silk Road cities and isolated traditional villages.
Azerbaijan is a land rich in resources, where oil literally seeps from the dusty ground that cities are built on, but more than this it’s a land rich in culture and history that not even communism could completely eradicate.
Across the country, this unique culture and history is just waiting to be explored, from the modern wealth of Baku on the coast to remote mountain villages in the north. There are a lot of things to do in Azerbaijan, and here are the best of them.
Marvel At The Glitz And Glamour Of Baku
Baku is Azerbaijan’s increasingly glamorous capital city. It’s a city where expensive, sleek and modern towers rise above the preserved, traditional old city. This is where Azerbaijan’s oil rich wealth has invested much of itself, and it’s a city that in its short time since independence from the Soviets has transformed itself from a Soviet frontier town to a regional powerhouse.
Start in the streets of Baku’s Icheri Sheher. This is ‘The Old City’, the historic centre of Baku that has been painstakingly restored and revitalized to become a cultural focus piece of the city.
Then move onto the pristine streets of Baku’s new city centre, where huge fountains gush water and a long boulevard stretches endlessly along the Caspian Sea.
The real symbols of today’s Azerbaijan are the Flame Towers, three unusual skyscrapers which light up vividly at night, and can be seen from almost any vantage spot in Baku.
Visit Azerbaijan’s Unusual Mud Volcanoes
After experiencing the eccentricity of Baku’s newfound wealth – flaming towers aren’t exactly found everywhere in the world… – head outside the capital to visit Gobustan National Park, where you will soon find that Azerbaijan’s nature is as unusual as its capital is eccentric.
Gobustan is where Azerbaijan’s Mud Volcanoes are found. It’s a dry, featureless landscape where oil literally can be found seeping from below ground. It’s a geologically strange area, rich in resources, and where conditions are right in certain places for bizarre mud volcanoes to form.
Mounds of mud pile up and ooze onto the surface. The volcanoes can even be bathed in to take advantage of the supposed healing qualities of the mud too.
Experience The Fire Mountain
If mud volcanoes aren’t the strangest thing to find in Azerbaijan, then next on the list of bizarre natural phenomenon is Yanar Dag. This is literally a mountain of fire that continually burns on a hillside near Baku. There is so much natural gas and oil beneath the surface of the earth here, that these unusual flames can simply light up anywhere and burn for decades. After seeing Yanar Dag, it becomes clear why Azerbaijan is known as The Land of Fire.
Enjoy A Relaxing Crude Oil Bath In Naftalan
Okay, so in terms of health and safety, this particular thing to do in Azerbaijan might not be the most advisable, but in Naftalan, a city a few hour’s drive inland from Baku, a particular type of crude oil is used in spa and health treatments.
Naftalan Oil is a local crude, and it’s used exclusively to attempt to cure ailments and illnesses. It’s heated up and patients will sit back in the oil bath and relax, but for no longer than ten minutes at a time.
It’s unclear how safe this treatment really is, and despite local champions of its health benefits, it’s always best to keep on the side of caution when it comes to crude oil spa treatments in post Soviet nations.
Delve Into The Palace Of The Sheki Khans
Much of the coast and the land around Baku is dry, hot, oil country, but head to the far west and towards the border with neighbouring Georgia and things change drastically. Sheki is a beautiful, green and verdant city nestled in the mountains and if you visit just one city outside of Baku, it should be Sheki.
This is an old stop on the Silk Road, where even today Caravanserais from centuries ago are still used to accommodate visitors. It’s a step back into Azerbaijan’s past, and the real highlight is a visit to the Palace of the Sheki Khans. This ornate, colourful palace is perched high above the city and was for centuries home to the region’s local Islamic rulers, the Sheki Khans.
Oh, and watch out for the wolfman of Sheki. If you see him, you’ll know.
Admire The Work Of The Artisans Of Lahic
Lahic is a small, traditional village in the hills of central Azerbaijan. A long, winding road navigates through immense canyons to reach this isolated and remote village. The scenery is spectacular, but equally impressive are the local artisans and copper workers who carry on centuries old traditions in the workshops that line the old cobbled streets.
It’s a rural place, which has only recently been easily connected to the rest of the country with a rough, dirt road, but as testament to Lahic’s unique artisanry it’s already becoming a centre for tourism and culture in Azerbaijan.
Trek Into The Mountains of Xinaliq
Xinaliq is a long way from the glitz of Baku. It’s a small, remote mountain community in the far north of Azerbaijan – right on the Russian border – and one of the highest altitude villages in Europe.
It’s not easy to get here, but the little village offers some of the most spectacular hiking opportunities in Azerbaijan and a look at the traditional lifestyles and culture of the people who call the Caucasus Mountains home.
Get Really Off The Beaten Track In Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic
Nakhchivan is a peculiar anomaly of world geography, history and politics. This autonomous area is an exclave, completely separated from the majority of Azerbaijan by Armenia. That makes it very difficult to travel to, as Azerbaijan and Armenia have long lasting disputes which have kept their borders closed for decades. The only way in to Nakhchivan is to fly, or to take the really long way around through Iran and Turkey.
Azerbaijan is a country that has only recently started opening up to tourism, and Nakhchivan is a region that is even further behind than the rest of the country. Few foreigners visit Nakhchivan, but those who do will be rewarded with an authentic Azerbaijani experience unlike anywhere else.