Summer 1998 (6.2)
We asked expatriates and
frequent travelers to Azerbaijan for some tips that could help
you prepare for your visit to the country. Note that these are
only suggestions, and may not hold true for your own experience.
Keep in mind that Azerbaijan does not yet have a tourist industry,
so "roughing it" may describe your travel experience
there. The easiest way to ensure a good visit is to strike up
conversations with local Azeris; you'll soon make new friends
who will be glad to answer your questions and chances are, they
may even show you some of the unique places to visit themselves.
Flying To Baku
These days, there are numerous ways to fly to Baku. During the
Soviet period, it was impossible except via Moscow or Leningrad
(St. Petersburg). Nowadays, most travelers avoid Russia.
British Air has four flights weekly from London, including
First Class service on DC-10s. Three times a week, you can fly
from Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Amsterdam (KLM), Dubai (Emirates
Airlines) and since May 1998 from Zurich (Swissair).
Turkish Air offers four flights
weekly from Istanbul. Iran Air flies from Tehran and from Tabriz
once a week. Azal (Azerbaijan Airlines) flies to numerous destinations
including London, Istanbul, Tehran, Dubai and many CIS countries.
PIA (Pakistan International Airline) has weekly flights to Karachi.
Most flights leave Baku for
Europe in the wee hours of the morning (3 A.M. and 4 A.M.) which,
though incredibly disruptive and inconvenient, permits travelers
to make connecting flights onward to other locations in Europe
and the U.S. on the same day.
Many young people in Azerbaijan are learning to speak English,
but older people tend to know Russian as their second language
or even first language as it was the prestigious language in
Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. You'll find that Azeris
are anxious to practice their English with native speakers and
will welcome your attempts at conversation. Try to learn some
useful Azeri and Russian phrases from the people you meet. At
the present time, phrasebooks will probably be difficult to find,
except a few published in Azeri Cyrillic. (See
Incredible Demand for English, AI 2.2.
Public pay phones are available for local calls. To use them,
purchase tokens from the Telephone Exchange. However, it's usually
easier just to go into a store and ask to use their phone; they
usually won't mind. Azerbaijan does not yet have phone cards.
Local Internet providers are available, and cellular phones are
For international phone calls,
you can go to a hotel or to the PTT (Post / Telephone / Telegraph)
to place the call. Make sure to check the rate first-it's extremely
expensive to call out from Azerbaijan. (Rates to the U.S. are
typically $6 or more per minute.) You may want to make an arrangement
with a Call Back provider ahead of time. To call out, dial 8
to get a dial tone, 10 to get outside of Azerbaijan, then the
country code and number.
Don't bring traveler's checks; bring cash, preferably U.S. dollars.
Make sure the bills were printed after 1990 or that they have
the larger "Benjamin Franklin" portrait (printed since
1993) as there has been a problem with counterfeit bills circulating
in Azerbaijan, and exchanges and banks will not exchange the
Safe, legal "Exchanges"
exist on nearly every other street corner in Baku. Automatic
Teller Machines (ATMs) are not yet available. Credit cards are
being accepted in more and more establishments, especially in
hotels and in some restaurants. It is possible to have money
wired to you (and given to you in manats). Foreigners are able
to open bank accounts-go to banks such as British Bank of Middle
East or Azerbaijan International Bank. Checks are not used very
often; most all exchanges are still on a cash basis.
An international driver's license is valid in Azerbaijan if you
stay in the country for less than 4 months. After that, you'll
need to get a stamp from the road police. Also, make sure that
your car's paperwork gives you authorization to drive it. Rental
cars are available-Avis, Hertz and others. It's still quite rare
for women to drive in Azerbaijan.
Expect a little craziness when
driving; roads are poor and there are lots of gridlocks and potholes.
Azeri driving behavior is not incredibly dangerous nor aggressive,
but don't depend on drivers to stay in their own lanes. Nor with
they always pay attention to traffic signals. Also pedestrians
constantly cross the street everywhere.
Note that "left-hand"
turns across traffic are absolutely forbidden. You have to find
a way to get to the other side of the street and then make a
"right-hand" turn. Sometimes this means driving a mile
or so out of your way and reversing direction. Sometimes, you'll
find cars backing up a one-way street just so they can "legally"
head in the direction they want to go. Drive defensively at all
If a policeman signals you to
pull over, he'll use a siren or point with a baton. Above all,
stay calm and don't get out of the car. The officer will shake
hands with you first, introduce himself, then ask for your license
and car's documentation. Answer his questions, but don't volunteer
information. Be ready to apologize. The officer may be looking
for a bribe, but will eventually let you go without one.
Drinking and driving is a very
serious offense in Azerbaijan, so make sure to have a designated
driver even if you plan to drink even a small amount of alcohol.
Baku is known as the "wind-beaten city" or Windy City.
You'll want to have a warm sweater or windbreaker handy. Sunglasses
help to protect your eyes from the wind and glare, especially
if you're out on the Caspian. The late summer is hot and humid,
so bring light-textured, light-colored clothing. Women's clothing,
in general, tends to be fairly modest (except among youth). Long
skirts are a favorite because of the wind. Also, bring comfortable
shoes for lots of walking.
These days, you can buy almost anything in Azerbaijan, for a
price. In the past, you had to pack film, cassettes, batteries,
everything. But those days are past. If you have specific needs,
especially medications, you should bring them with you. It's
also helpful to have vitamins and medicines. Many people come
prepared for about with diarrhea.
If you need to see a doctor, go to the medical services that
practice Western medicine. Don't go to an Azeri doctor. If you're
going to be in Azerbaijan for a while, register at a local medical
facility, and check with them about any vaccinations that you
might need. Make certain that your health insurance is valid
in Azerbaijan. Medical evacuation is possible and flights leave
Azerbaijan to European cities on a daily basis. Some areas of
Azerbaijan, but not Baku, have malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Bring
mosquito repellent to ward off mosquitoes during the summer.
Don't drink the tap water unless it has been boiled first. In
restaurants, ask for bottled water, and make sure that any ice
in the drinks has been made from bottled water. Many varieties
of bottled water are available; you'll see brands from Turkey,
Iran, even Dubai. The "Barjom" brand of bottled mineral
water comes from Georgia. Azeris are proud of a local water called
"Badamli" and have even written a song about it. (See
Water, AI 2.3).
Taps in Baku issue water from
Sholar, a spring originating more than 100 miles north in the
Caucasus mountains. This channel was built by oil baron Taghiyev
at the beginning of the century. Bottled water of Sholar is available
Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola
are also available, as well as bottled juices from Sweden, Germany,
France, Turkey and Iran. The hospitality drink is hot black tea
with sugar cubes or candy.
Although public toilets are much cleaner than they used to be,
it's best to use the more comfortable restrooms at restaurants
and hotels. You'll find it convenient to always carry Kleenex.
It never hurts to bargain for prices in the bazaars. A few goods,
such as cigarettes and bottled water, have set prices. When buying
food and clothing, and especially souvenirs, you may be able
There are not many hotels in Baku and those that exist tend to
be very expensive. For example, a single room in the Hyatt
runs about $300. Reservations are absolutely necessary since
the hotels are often fully booked. Make sure to check and confirm
the reservation before your stay. Unfortunately, there are few
other options: hostels and campsites are rare. Outside of Baku,
accommodation is even scarcer.
Bring adapters for your electronic equipment and appliances.
The standards for electric power (220 volts) are not the same
as in United States. The plugs require two round narrow prongs.
Also, make certain to bring surge protectors for your computers
or appliances as electrical current can vary immensely.
A taxi ride from the airport to the main part of the city usually
takes 30 minutes, and costs about $20. It's best to arrange ahead
of time to have someone to pick you up. If you need a taxi, don't
take the private cabs; use the yellow cabs instead. Bargain on
the price before you agree to ride.
Taxis don't usually have meters,
so there's some guesswork involved when paying the fare. A 15-minute
ride costs about 10,000 manats (U.S. $2); a shorter ride will
cost less, but never less than 3,000 manats. Judge the distance
and figure out the cost for yourself; don't ask the driver how
much to pay. Drivers are not able to make change.
If you're in a taxi and the
music is so loud that it hurts your ears, kindly ask the driver
to turn it down. (This also applies to smoking, something else
taxi drivers are notorious for.)
This is one of the cheapest ways to get around the city. The
stations underground, unlike many Western cities, are quite clean
and artistic. Keep in mind that the subway is quite busy at rush
hour. A U.S. State Department travel advisory discourages use
of the Baku Metro. This is due to two terrorist bombings that
occurred on the platforms in 1993 and 1994. Also in 1995 a disastrous
fire occurred enroute due to electrical malfunctioning and resulted
in the deaths of more than 300 people. So there may be risk involved,
although some foreigners who live in Baku use the Metro all the
Metro Accident, AI 3.4).
Make sure to get out of Baku and see the countrywide. When traveling
in between cities, it's most convenient to take a private car.
Distances are never more than a few hours. Another option is
the train. Private trains are cleaner, a little slow, but usually
run on schedule. There are also buses in between cities; you
may not want to take them if you have a lot of luggage. Hitchhiking
is not common. The U.S. State Department cautions travelers to
avoid travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied
Satellite TV, international newspapers and the Internet will
help you keep in touch with the rest of the world. There is a
weekly English-language newspaper in Azerbaijan.
Hotel concierges are a great source of information. You can also
check with your embassy (See Directory at the back of this issue).
In summary, your experience
in Azerbaijan is largely what you make of it. Some people make
the most of it, while others cling to the familiar. Baku offers
most Western conveniences, at a price. Those who adapt will observe
the rapidly diminishing differences between Baku and home and
find that Baku and Azerbaijan are well worth exploring. As for
the rest, they'll tick off the days, hit the Irish pub and watch
Not many souvenirs are yet available. Choice items would include
handmade carpets, copper from Lahij, paintings from individual
artists' studios and caviar.
A photo book of contemporary
life in Azerbaijan called "Azerbaijan, Land of Fire"
can be obtained from Azerbaijan International. The book is in
paperback format, 8.5" x 12" and contains 168 pages.
Price $25 plus shipping.
Also a unique collection of
"Classical Music from Azerbaijan" can be obtained
as a set or as individual titles. The album includes (1) Symphonic,
(2) Ballet, (3) Concerto, (4) Piano, (5) Opera, and (6) Chamber.
The set is a unique blend of east and west.
For samples, check Web site:
<azer.com>. The price is $65 plus shipping. Contact Azerbaijan
International, Box 5217, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413. Tel: (818) 785-0077;
Fax: (818) 997-7337; E-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; In Baku:
Tel: (99-412) 98-93-53; Fax: 98-31-81. Or visit 7 Alizade Street
across from the Taghiyev History Museum.
From Azerbaijan International (6.2) Summer 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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