Baku – where Moscow meets the Mediterranean!

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Getting there: From Moscow, Aeroflot, Azerbaijan Airlines (better known as AZAL) & S7 all fly at least daily to Baku’s brand new airport, although good luck getting a return ticket for anything under RUR20,000. The flight takes approximately two and a half hours. There are also flights to most major cities throughout the CIS, except Yerevan.

An increasing number of destinations are focusing on mixing business with pleasure, but if television and press advertisements are anything to go by, one city, which seems to be going the extra mile is Baku. Extensive PR coverage stressing the country’s history & culture are beginning to put Baku on the map, coupled with the city’s hosting of the first European Games in June 2015 even if most outside of the energy industry would struggle to point out Azerbaijan on a world map.

The country’s recent rise and its relative wealth can be summed up in one simple word; oil. Black gold has funded a construction boom in the capital Baku. The word Baku roughly translates as ‘fiery sands’ and is situated 28 meters below sea level. The city certainly oozes wealth as can be seen by the number of shops selling the latest fashionable clothes & accessories, flash cars and top-end recreation venues, from hotels to restaurants and nightclubs. Nevertheless, many ordinary Azeris feel that the oil boom has provided them with little obvious improvements to their everyday lives, benefitting mainly the corrupt elite, and that Baku’s beauty is all for show.

Azerbaijan likes to portray itself as a ‘Europe meets the Orient’ destination, although ‘Moscow meets the Mediterranean’ would probably be a more accurate description – in a good sense, of course! President Aliyev keeps a tight grip on power, and is accused of human rights abuses by some western countries as no real opposition to his family’s rule is tolerated. Most however prefer not to meddle in the country’s internal affairs to keep the oil pumping, turning a blind eye although in fairness Aliyev is genuinely a popular figure who has transformed the country from a remote backwater to a mini-Dubai with at least some international recognition.

One area where Azerbaijan has made considerable improvements is in the ease of doing business – the country was recently ranked 57th in the Global Competitiveness Report, which is significantly higher than other CIS countries. Ironically though, it has recently become more difficult (and expensive) for Westerners to enter Azerbaijan, despite the introduction of e-visas since you used to be able to just rock up & buy a visa upon arrival at the airport.

The oil is predicted to continue flowing for years to come, so with the right leadership Azerbaijan can look forward to a bright future, even though the frozen conflict with Armenia shows almost no sign of ever being resolved; the two sides are locked in an apparent stalemate. Azerbaijan has been using some of its oil revenues to purchase military equipment and has been making threatening noises, although it is highly unlikely to attack Armenia – Russia maintains three military bases there in an attempt to keep stability in this volatile region. Nevertheless, Baku itself is perfectly safe, even at night.

Whilst being the mainstay of the economy, oil however isn’t the only revenue earner, which includes agriculture, fishing, construction and even some tourism centred around the increasing number of events which Baku is fond of hosting, many of a business or sporting nature. Oil however dominates, plus the related services built up around the international majors, and of course the state energy giant SOCAR.

Even if you are pressed for time, be sure to take a walk around the walled old town, and climb up the maiden tower for views of the city. However, if this isn’t high enough for you, take the funicular up to the three flame towers (which light up at night to resemble the gas being emitted from an oil rig), walk along Heroes Avenue and admire the panorama of the harbour. Locals relax in the evenings and on weekends by strolling along the promenade, which hugs the bay, or sitting in the numerous cafes by the water. Azeri food is staple Caucasian (i.e., shashlik & bread) although there are plenty of international restaurants and bars. The local food we tried was more than adequate, even if not quite up to Tbilisi standards, and they make their own beer, wine & cognac, which should of course be sampled.

When you fancy getting away from the glitz & glamour of central Baku, a trip out to the Qobustan National Park makes for an easy half-day outing as it’s just over an hour’s drive from the capital, along the coast. Qobustan (pronounced ‘Kob-oo-stan’) is best known for its rock formations and deep ravines, plus the numerous petroglyphs which date back thousands of years. In 2007, Qobustan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of only two in the entire country) for the quality and density of its rock art engravings, and in the distance you can see Caspian sea, plus Azerbaijan’s answer to Table Mountain! There is an entrance fee of 5 Manat per person.

And if squiggles on rock faces aren’t enough for you, twenty minutes’ drive away are a group of mud volcanoes; both a bizarre and spectacular sight. Perched on top of a hill, there are several dozen mounds of earth ranging from 1-3 metres in height, occasionally spewing hot, muddy bubbles. Obviously they’re not real volcanoes (they need to squirt out lava to be classified into that category) although they were created by geological faults in the earth’s crust and really need to be seen to be believed. Entrance is free, although there are no signs to point you in the right direction and most likely you’ll have the place to yourself.

We paid 80 Manat (approx $75) for the return trip, including waiting time, although do check that the driver actually knows where the mud volcanoes are, as most don’t, although everyone knows Qobustan and you can ask for directions from there.

Getting in: Russians do not need a visa to travel to Azerbaijan, but visas are now required by all non-CIS citizens and must be obtained in advance, with a letter of invitation necessary (the only exception being for Turks & Israelis, who can buy a visa on the spot upon arrival at Baku airport without an LOI). However, e-visas are now available online, saving you the hassle of making a trip to an Azeri Embassy, which is not most people’s idea of fun. Even so, it’s still recommended to procure this via an agency; I used: www.btmtravel.ru who streamlined the process – even if this service came to RUR16,000 for a single-entry visa. The whole process was completed in under a week.

Saying there: Downtown Baku boasts
a wide range of high-end hotels, but expect to pay top dollar for the privilege as this is essentially a business destination. If you’re on expenses, you won’t care so lie back & lap up the luxury; mid-range options are limited. Occupancy is lower at weekends so some deals can be found if you’re visiting just for fun.

Spending there: Azerbaijan uses the Manat and a recent devaluation means that 1 USD is now worth slightly more than 1 Manat. Major currencies (including roubles) can be easily changed at the airport, in hotels and at ‘obmyenniki’ in central Baku. Costs are high; expect to pay Moscow prices in restaurants, bars, shops and taxis; if you’ve recently been to Armenia or Georgia, you’ll be in for a shock!