What It’s Like In: Baku, Azerbaijan
Baku is an odd city, straddling as it does so many lines between distinct realms. Desert and sea, Central Asia and the Middle East, rich and poor, historic and modern; Baku has a touch of all of these and plenty of other more subtle distinctions besides. Despite hosting the popular Eurovision ‘music’ competition in 2012, Baku (and really all of Azerbaijan) remains as yet a pretty uncommon stop on the tourist trail.
On the Streets
For the average traveler, Baku is really split into two main areas. The historic Old Town with the Caspian Corniche just outside, and the entire rest of modern Baku beyond that. The Old Town is a small but engrossing maze of old doors and old buildings and old men selling old trinkets, whereas the newer town even just outside is part post-Soviet construction and part modern development. Though most of the photos are waiting to be taken in the former, the latter is where the more interesting personal stories reside for those looking less for sightseeing and more for modern culture. I found the citizens of Baku to not necessarily always be friendly, but more often than not to be willing to chat.
Food in Azerbaijan is a bit of an amalgamation of all the diverse cuisines that surround the country, with a Turkic focus on eggplant and pahklava and a Central Asian penchant for meat on a stick combined with the wild flavors of Iran and even a touch of caviar from the Caspian. Just note that one can eat cheaply in Baku or one can eat well in Baku, but rarely will you find yourself doing both at once.
Baku is an oil town, and prices here often reflect that fact. (Starting looking at hotel rates or restaurant menus and you might suddenly understand how they qualified to compete in Eurovision in the first place!) For a long time there was only one small hostel in town (and it often filled up), but luckily this looks to be changing as a few other names start popping up in search results. Keep costs down by using public transit (busses and the metro system) and eating cheaply and you might be able to visit the city for 30 Manat per day (the currency stays roughly on par with the Euro).
This is probably particular to my experience, but I had a lot of really strange interactions while traveling in Baku. Aggressive passengers on the subway, folks who were oddly reluctant to help decipher bus destinations, and just general unfriendliness. Perhaps the most delightful was simply the lack of touts and potential guides and all the other accoutrements that are some common in the more visited corners of the planet. Traveling in Baku is a lot like just *being* in Baku, except that you speak less of the language than most. Revel in the feeling while it’s still available. Azerbaijanis play a lot of backgammon (nard), so if you’re familiar with the game this is a good way to approach people.
The most popular tourist site for visitors to Baku is, in fact, super far away from Baku: the Qobustan Mud Volcanoes. Azerbaijan’s Caspian coastline is the site of more than half of the mud volcanoes in the entire world, and the closest concentration to the capital is here. Unless you happen to catch one of the fiery eruptions that happens every fifteen or twenty years, these are mostly noxious gases and bubbly mud. The Qobustan Petroglyph Museum, however, offers exhibits of more historical interest.
Closer to Baku itself, the Old Town is undoubtedly the tourist center of town but the Corniche area is also nice for a stroll and the more modern bits of the city can make for interesting walking.
Have you been to Baku, Azerbaijan? How long did you stay? What were your most memorable parts of the experience?