How To Travel To The Autonomous Republic Of Nakhchivan: Tips + Itinerary
Written By Joan Torres From Against The Compass
Before traveling to Nakhchivan, I had heard rumors that the Nakhchivani people were kind of hostile to foreigners.
My obvious conclusion was that the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan has been in complete isolation for many years, so this hostility was merely a product of their misery and little exposure to the outside world, as they wouldn’t understand why a wealthy foreigner would even bother to come to their land.
Still, the idea of visiting such an isolated, off the beaten track region, which belonged to an already off the beaten track country, sounded quite appealing to me, so I didn’t need to think twice before booking a round-trip flight ticket from Baku.
While in the plane, I imagined that I would be landing in an extremely undeveloped part of Azerbaijan, in one of those dusty, chaotic capitals, a Karachi-like-city, and the fact that we were flying over a desert just a couple of minutes before landing, didn’t really help to increase my expectations.
However, you will be surprised to know that, as soon as I stepped out of the plane and took a marshrutka to the center of Nakhchivan City, my eyeballs were suddenly blessed by a city composed of some very modern, wide avenues, neo-classic buildings, and smiley people.
This guide contains everything you need to know to travel to the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, including things to do, practical information and, of course, its historical context.
Below you will find:
- Introduction to Nakhchivan
- How to get to Nakhchivan
- Transportation around Nakhchivan
- Where to stay in Nakhchivan
- Nakhchivan – 4 day itinerary
Introduction To Nakhchivan
The Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan is, in effect, an exclave of Azerbaijan, which means that it is a piece of territory which is geographically separated from Azerbaijan, nestled between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.
As you may know, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are kind of non-existent, basically, because they are at war, so you can’t travel overland from Azerbaijan without making a huge detour through Iran first, so the most convenient way of getting in is to fly.
Today, Nakhchivan enjoys a high level of autonomy from Azerbaijan: it has its own Parliament and its own Ministries.
It was actually the first country or territory to declare its independence from the Soviet Union, becoming the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan in 1990, and being annexed to the Azerbaijan mainland one year later.
After this, especially during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Nakhchivan entered a horrific period of isolated darkness, which forced them to learn the concept and skills of self-sufficiency, so they kind of developed a culture that relies heavily on dairy products and, for some reason, despite their development boost, this culture still persists:
Nowadays, Nakhchivan is the largest organic food producer in the world (per capita), a country whose inhabitants have refused to use any sort of hormone to increase their production.
During my visit, I was lucky enough to stay with a family who was living in the rural part of Nakhchivan so, every day, they fed me with feasts of organic chicken, home-made cheese and vegetables from their garden.
Actually, they are perfectly aware of their reputation, so at every meal, they always reminded me that I was eating organic food.
And yeah, everything was absolutely delicious, so I can perfectly understand why all the Azerbaijanis from Baku who visit Nakhchivan fill their bags with plenty of food before flying back home.
However, the most shocking thing about Nakhchivan was its relatively advanced development, compared to the rest of Azerbaijan.
Whereas in Ganja, the second most important city in Azerbaijan, some streets in downtown itself are still unpaved, generating a massively huge contrast with the capital Baku, Nakhchivan City is composed of majestic buildings that shape broad avenues where surprisingly civilized drivers drive through.
It was like nowhere else I had seen in Azerbaijan before.
How can such an isolated region become so prosperous?
Home to the best University in the country, Nakhchivan is a land of actual entrepreneurs and they are so proud of it that they even have an exhibition/museum that shows all the products and brands produced in Nakhchivan, which are exported to the rest of the country and overseas.
Besides producing most of the branded foodstuff available in the country, they even have a local manufacturing car factory and their own mobile network.
Nakhchivan is, seriously, a must-visit destination, but if you think that their social and historical context are reason enough to travel to Nakhchivan, then hold onto your seat because this region has also loads of things to visit, ranging from historical towns, epic castles, jaw-dropping mountains and beautiful mausoleums, including the place where the worldwide famous Noah is buried.
How To Get To Nakhchivan
If you are already in Baku, the easiest way would be flying in, unless you wanna go through Iran, but just be aware that getting an Iranian visa is already more expensive than buying a round-trip ticket flight from Baku.
You can book your flights through Azerbaijan Airlines and a one-way ticket costs a flat fee of 70AZN (41USD), even if you buy it the day before.
It’s recommended to book in advance, especially if you are planning to fly on a weekend. Moreover, for some reason, tickets may not be available online the day before departure so, in that case, you can buy them through any travel agency. The price will be the same.
If you are traveling in Iran or wandering around Eastern Turkey, you should know that both borders are friendly and open.
Visa For Nakhchivan
Visiting Nakhchivan doesn’t require a special visa or permit anymore.
You can just enter with your regular Azerbaijani visa which you can apply for through their e-visa portal.
The visa takes 3 working days and it only costs 23USD. The urgent visa costs 50USD.
How To Move Around Nakhchivan
Public transportation is not very good in Nakhchivan, especially if you wanna go to remote areas:
Local shared taxis – Quick, easy and effective, but the destinations they go to are very limited, as they mainly stick to places close to the main road. This includes all major cities like Nakhchivan City, Ordubad and all the villages in between. Typically, a journey costs around 3-6AZN (1.80-3.60USD).
Marshrutka – They go pretty much everywhere but, unfortunately, they don’t run very often, sometimes just once or twice a day, depending on where you want to go. In Nakhchivan city, there is a bus station, so I recommend you go there early morning or the day before to find out when your bus will leave. Typically, a journey costs around 2-3AZN (1.20-1.80USD)
By private taxi – They are quite expensive and, most likely, they will try to rip you off. For example, when I wanted to go to Alinja Castle, a taxi driver was asking me 50AZN (30USD) for a 70km round trip. Then, my local friend managed to get it for 25AZN (15USD).
Getting from and to the airport – The airport is around 5km FROM the city center, so you could almost walk but a taxi will cost you 4-5AZN (2.40-3USD). Alternatively, there is also a bus that only costs 0.30AZN (18C)
Where To Stay In Nakhchivan
Being such an off-beat place, the accommodation options in Nakhchivan are pretty scarce and all you find is a 4-star and a 5-star hotel.
- 4-star hotel – Tebriz Hotel: It’s right in the city center and despite being 4 stars, it is not that expensive. It has a nice restaurant attached where I used to go in the mornings to have some coffee and work for an hour.
- 5-star hotel – Duzdag Hotel: More luxurious and a similar price but it is quite far from the city center, so I definitely recommend Tabriz.
Things To Do In Nakhchivan – 4 Days Itinerary
Here your best itinerary for 4 days in Nakhchivan:
Day 1 – Nakhchivan City
The extremely chilled-out and quiet capital of Nakhchivan is officially called Nakhchivan City. If you have been in Ganja before, or even in Baku, it totally feels like visiting a different country.
The architecture has its own unique style, not only as compared to the Azerbaijan mainland but also anywhere else you have been before, as the different buildings, whose facades seem like colorful toy houses, are aligned to perfection.
Moreover, its urban planning is way different from what you may expect: traffic-less and ridiculously wide avenues, similar to those streets of Naypyidaw, the fake capital of Myanmar, but with more soul and charm, as they are actually pretty pleasant to walk around.
From mausoleums to curious locals and a very lively market, Nakhchivan City could keep you busy for a few days.
Things To Do In Nakhchivan City
According to the local legend, Nakhchivan was founded by the worldwide famous Noah after he crashed his ark into Ilandagh Mountain. This is what many scholars and historians suggest, as this is the most obvious interpretation from the Bible and the Quran.
Actually, Nakhchivan literally means the place of descent and, according to many scholars, it is a Biblical reference to the descent of Noah’s Ark on the adjacent Mount Ararat so, in the eyes of both Muslims and Christians, this could be actually the home of all mankind.
Wrapping up, Nakhchivan is where you find Noah’s Tomb and you can visit it for free.
The Local Bazaar
On a normal weekday, the bazaar of Nakhchivan City is just a regular, traditional bazaar with its vegetable and kitchenware stalls.
However, on a Saturday, the souq transforms into a bustling and extremely chaotic market where different people come from all over Nakhchivan to either sell or buy everything you could ever think of, mostly vegetables and fruit, as you need to remember that this is the largest organic food producer in the world.
Also, don’t forget to check out the particular circle-shaped Soviet building that dominates the center of the bazaar and has been turned into a local café.
Momine Khatun Mausoleum
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this relatively newly restored and 25-meter-high mausoleum is decorated with some very complex geometric patterns and quotes from the Quran.
The original building dates from 1186 and it was originally built by Shamsaddin Eldaniz, the founder of Eldiguzids (Atabegs of Azerbaijan), a dynasty that controlled northwestern Persia.
More Things To Do In Nakhchivan
Go to the tourist information center – The red-brick building with the black dome is the tourist information center. The staff are really nice, they speak good English and they have loads of information about places to visit, not only in the city, but in the whole region. You will see that you would actually need a few weeks to explore all the Republic.
Next to Noah’s Tomb, you find a fortress from the Sassanid period that contains a museum with plenty of artifacts found in the region. From the fortress walls, you can also get fantastic views of the city.
Next to Momine Khatun Mausoleum, there are many stone sculptures that date from the 16th century. You can find this kind of art all around the Caucasus
Did you know that Nakhchivan was chosen as Muslim capital of the year in 2017? Like in any ex-Soviet Republic, most people in Nakhchivan are kind of secular or, at least, they are quite flexible when it comes to practicing Islam. I mean, even those who go to the mosque may drink a bottle of vodka afterward for dinner, no problem. Cuma mosque is a cute red-tile mosque located right in front of the bazaar.
Day 2 – Alinja Castle And Qarabağlar
These 2 places are in opposite directions but, if you go by taxi, you can easily visit both of them in a day.
Probably, the most stunning site in Nakhchivan and, perhaps, in the whole of Azerbaijan, Alinja is a completely refurbished castle that reminds me pretty much of Machu Pichu, both for its composition and its epic location.
Climbing the 1,600 steps that comprise the staircase leading to the top of the mountain is a real sport but definitely worth it when you finally reach it and incredible to think how well-protected this castle used to be.
From the top, you get amazing views of the entire region.
How to get to Alinja – The village named Alinja is 4 or 5 kilometers before the castle and you can probably get there by marshrutka but, like I said at the beginning, marshurtkas don’t run that often and you should go to the station the day before to ask for the departure timing. Otherwise, the local price for a taxi, round-trip, including waiting time, is 25AZN (15USD). By the way, it is 36km east of Nakhchivan city.
Another mausoleum but, in my opinion, nicer-looking than the previous two, Qarabağlar is named after the tiny village where it is found and it is composed of a 30-meter tower with semi-cylindrical walls, beautiful mosaics and two minarets attached to it. The minarets belong to the 12th century and the tower from the 14th but everything has been beautifully restored, like all the archaeological sites I visited in the Autonomous Republic.
How to get to Qarabağlar – Remember that the mausoleum is 30km from Nakhchivan city, in the opposite direction to Alinja castle. The village is around 10km from the main road. I actually took a shared taxi to the intersection (3AZN) and then a private taxi to the mausoleum and paid 6AZN for the round-trip.
Day 3 – Ordubad
The second largest city in the country has a village-like atmosphere and a pretty cool medieval old city with very old buildings that, somehow, reminds me of some mountain villages in Europe, but a little more decadent.
Things To Do In Ordubad
Abandoned Silk Factory – The city center is dominated by a half-ruined building that used to be a silk factory during the Soviet Union. You can still see some communist signboards and, inside the building, they have built an underground boxing school. I was invited in by the boxing coach and they were all very excited to see me there.
The red-tile beautiful building from the city center is now a historical and ethnographic museum.
The central café – I had some chai in a very authentic café that later turned out to be one of the most famous cafés in the Republic. The place is, clearly, male-dominated but for just a few cents, you can enjoy some tea in a beautiful garden among a very local vibe.
From outside this looks like an old palace but, from the inside, its a beautiful wooden, colorful mosque whose entrance used to have plenty of Russian leaders statues but they have been removed to recover its mosque functionality.
Old City – From houses to mosques, the medieval old city has buildings as old as 500 years old. My recommendation is to get lost among its narrow lanes. Do expect the local people to stop and talk to you.
Day 4 – Batabat
Personally, I didn’t go to Batabat and the reason is that I was keener to learn about the local culture than to discover mountains, as I had already been trekking around the region for a while.
Nevertheless, if you want to see some striking green rolling hills, snow-capped peaks, and a beautiful lake, you should definitely go to Batabat, located just 60km from Nakhchivan city but at an altitude of 2,500m.
You reach Batabat by taxi and, in spring and summer, when the weather is warmer, the shore of the lake is filled with locals from the city who come here to picnic and spend the day.
The surprising thing about traveling to Nakhchivan is that in such a small region you get some really astonishing landscape contrasts.