With another long weekend coming up and looking for places to go, Azerbaijan popped up on my screen! It’s one of the places which has been on my bucket list for a while. Easy reachable by daily flights with Azal the local carrier, it gave the best opportunity to make the most out of the three days available.
Simplified visa regulations since the beginning of this year are making the country very attractive as a short trip destination. The visa process was quite an expensive hassle earlier but most nationalities can now travel to the south Caucasian country with an e-Visa costing you just $20. For Emiratis, it is available on arrival. Travelling with a group coming from all kinds of backgrounds it was a very important point for us to have a simple arrival process.
Our adventure started early in the morning at the Heydar Aliyev airport in Baku. After being picked up by our chauffeur we were taken to Baku city to have a coffee and meet our local tour guide there. Having a small drive through the city we got a slight idea of what to expect on our last day. But first, we found ourselves on the road to Gabala, a small quaint village in the greater Caucasus about 200km northwest of Baku and close to the Russian border.
The drive took us through the plains and rolling hills of the country. After a short stop for some delicious brunch on the way at a tranquil restaurant and we carried on. The sleepless night, travelling and the food knocked us out for the rest of the way. Upon waking up we had reached Gabala and our hotel. From its former times serving as a Caravansary, the building was transformed into a beautiful boutique hotel with a nice inner courtyard. With a tight program and already some delay there was no time to relax.
The sleep we got in the car should have been sufficient. So we quickly changed and some of the group went into the mountains for a casual hike through dry river beds it had not rained for the whole summer. Hiking along the Russian border can have its trails.
There are some military checkpoints and it is always recommendable to have your passport with you in order to pass and get to the hidden gems like the waterfalls. Nevertheless, the hike was a great exercise and got rewarded with a nice BBQ with the locals.
The other part of our group went horse riding. Azerbaijan is well known for their horses. The Karabakh horses are well tempered mountain-steppe racing horses. And we could actually experience how fast they can run! On the backs of the horses, we were riding through fields and streams to a forestry set up by the president Ilham Aliyev himself. After a small break with tea and peaches freshly picked from the trees we had to head back. What a great ride through amazing scenery! It was a much diversified day and we learned that the next day will not be any different.
Waking up the next day all the excitement was about rafting. Until now we only saw dry river beds and could hardly imagine where we could possibly do that. After a short drive from Gabala, we actually did find a river. So we took the boats from Savalan and paddled approximately 15km down the river. It was quite a challenge as the water level was pretty low. We got stuck many times on the sandbanks and the captain had a very hard job to make sure we can continue. For rafting, it will be definitely better to visit Azerbaijan in October. Nevertheless, we had lots of fun… until one of the boats got dragged by the current and flipped. After what happened we were glad that there was not more water! Thankfully we got away with just a shock! The rafting ended with a great lunch and afterwards, a long drive back in the direction of Baku. A short but worthwhile tea stop with a view on the way made the drive a bit more bearable. But there was one more stop on the route we just could not miss. The famous mud volcanos! This phenomenon took place not too long ago in 2001 when eruption spit out a huge flame that could be seen from 15km away. Those kinds of mud volcanos form in places where pockets of the underground gas find a weak spot to force their way to the surface. As the volcanos are not caused by magma they can be very cold. With more than 400 mud volcanos almost half of the world’s occurrences are in the coastal areas of Azerbaijan. To reach there you either need a 4×4 or you can go with one of the local Lada taxis. The drivers are incredibly good at manoeuvring their soviet ‘sweethearts’ (Slavic translation of Lada) through the desert to the hidden area. It was definitely worth the detour! Returning late and exhausted to Baku did not stop us from visiting another amazing restaurant with live music for dinner. No matter how tired we were, the food was just too good! The country for sure is not the best place for vegetarians, but the Azerbaijani kitchen offers a big variety of tasty meat dishes!
Finally, at the hotel, we just dropped into our beds and slept. Thankfully it was a late start into the next day, which every one of us welcomed. We reached the last day of our three days trip. But it felt like we’ve been in the country already for a week. At least we experienced that much already! So we were all happy about the upcoming relaxing city tour through the heart of Baku. The city presents a mix of various styles of architecture. With buildings from the 12th century like the Maiden Tower, you can also find Victorian, Soviet, Western and Islamic influences present all over the city. The city’s old town has been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000 and provides perfect settings for scenic photographs. With the modern buildings like the flame towers in the back, the Baku Crystal Hall and the Heydar Aliyev Centre you can find a big contrast between old and the new. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan and on the coastline of the Caspian Sea. The country was holding a majority of the world’s oil reserves which was the foundation for Baku’s existence and prosperity. Passing by Little Venice and the Carpet Museum we took the rack railway, for a short ride up to the flame towers presenting us a beautiful overview of the city. At the end of the railway, we reached the Dagüstü Park with the cemetery of the martyr’s fighting for the country’s independence. Next stop Heydar Aliyev Centre. The architecture of this building is fascinating and presents a completely different perspective from every angle. Last but not least we even made it to the burning mountain Yanar Dag which is a natural gas fire blazing continuously up to 3m flames on a hillside outside the capital. The country definitely deserves to be called the “Land of Fire!” After another long and eventful day, we headed back to the airport to catch our late night flight.
This country is definitely worth visiting. Also for those who are looking to cool down for a bit from the summer heat as the climate is very pleasant. What a trip and stories to take home! ■
Words + Photos by: Denise Ostermann