1 – Tourism
Alright, hello guys, my name is Ibrahim and I’m going to be talking about the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, what to do there, where to go, all of that.
I feel like this is an important topic to address since recently certain big tourist destinations, like Turkey, have experienced a decrease in tourism due to the instability and the numerous terrorist attacks that had taken place, and because many tourists are looking for new places to visit that have not been visited previously. Italy, Hungary, France, Austria, all of those places are nice, but we know what to expect, many people have already been there, and it can also be pretty expensive. Plus, many of these European countries were also hit by the recent wave of terrorism, which has made places like Paris and London feel less safe for many tourists. So, taking all of these things into account, Azerbaijan can step up and replace a few of these places as a tourist destination.
Overall, a little bit about Azerbaijan: The name itself roughly translates to “The Land of Fire,” or “Protector of Fire” and there is a very good reason for that: for centuries, fire has been spewing out of the ground in many places throughout the country. Some of the notable places are Yanardag, and Ateshgah (Zoroastrian/Hindu fire temple). Additionally, many have reported seeing fire come out of the earth while waiting at a bus stop or something, so it is understandable why people here have worshipped fire for centuries. Obviously there are other theories about the origin of our name, but we’ll stick to this one, as it is the most likely version in my opinion. The reason why I mention this is that Azerbaijan is one of the few places you can go to and find Zoroastrian temples. They actually made the temple of Atashgah into a sort of museum, where they go through all of the cool traditions, and rituals they would go through. Of course someone’s going to say “well Ibrahim, why would I go to Azerbaijan, a place nobody has ever heard of, and not visit a place like Iran, or India, that also have Zoroastrian temples?” Well, I would say that Azerbaijan is a country that has all of the luxuries of a European tourist destination. There are no strict dress-codes like in Iran, nobody is going to arrest you for some crazy reasons, there are clean bathrooms, nice European-style hotels, and all of the accommodations you could ask for.
I feel like I have been being pretty slow about blazing through all the places to visit in Baku, so I will hurry up: Go to Yanardag, Ateshgah, take some cool flicks, post them up on Snapchat, and then you can go to the Qobustan National Park, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. So Qobustan looks like the place where they make all of the movies and cartoons about the hunter-gatherers. There are the rock drawings that go tens of thousands of years, and it has more than half of the entire world’s mud volcanos, so you could check those out. Then there is a very ancient musical instrument, which is this stone that when you hit it, it makes a pretty cool sound, which people have been using to make music since ancient times. There is also this rock carving left by the “Thunderbolt Twelfth Legion” of the Roman army in Gobustan, and it is actually speculated that the settlement of “Ramana” in Azerbaijan is made by these Romans. Anyways, now back to the actual city part of Baku, to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is the “Old City.” The old city, similarly, is a historic part of Baku, where you can walk around, visit the museums, take pictures, all of that. I really suggest you go take a picture in one of our hats, it costs like two dollars for you to take a picture, but that’s one of those things that one must do when visiting Baku. Then I would definitely advise you to go to the Maiden Tower. They made it into a sort of museum, but this place has some crazy theories made about it, lots of legends, some people even say aliens built it (since if you look at it from a bird’s eye view, it represents one of the national symbols of Azerbaijan, the Buta, and also because the roof looks like a landing place for a UFO). But enough about ancient aliens. Then you should go to the Palace of Shirvanshahs, where you walk around, look around, and learn about the life in the palace of a Shah. I don’t see a reason to go too much into detail, since most of the things are explained by English speaking tour guides or written in English, so I will not spoil the fun, go check it out. Then there are tons of museums you could visit, like the carpet museum, which is worth going to since Azeri carpet weaving is also on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list of UNESCO. Then the Heydar Aliyev Center, which is a pretty interesting building in terms of modern architecture, but also has some interesting things to see inside. I personally would focus on the historic and cultural parts of the museums, wouldn’t really go to the parts that have our 20th century accomplishments, but it’s up to you. Then there are a couple of history museums you could go visit, none of them are too expensive, so you could go there and take a look. You’ll bump into some weird things here and there, like a helmet with a radius of 8 inches (I do not know who had a head that big, but hey, I won’t judge) but other than that, unless you are very interested in history, the museums are more interesting for those of us who want to see how our ancestors used to live. Going to the Maiden Tower, Palace of Shirvanshahs and walking around the Old City is more than enough history for those of us who just want surface-level knowledge. But, I personally suggest visiting the Qala Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum Complex , since it has lots of interesting things to check out. Plus, I am pretty sure on your way there there is a little Shishkebab place you could go to to eat.
By the way, speaking of food: that is probably one of the biggest factors why people come to visit Azerbaijan. But one thing you have to understand, Azeris aren’t really fast-food people (although I suggest checking out the Doner and the Qutab), so when you order food, you are getting big dinners, so don’t expect to get off with ten dollars. I suggest being ready to pay at least fifteen to twenty dollars for two people, but you get a drink, a whole giant meal, snacks, everything. There are lots of restaurants in Baku, but which ones to go to I can’t remember off of the top of my head, but I suggest going to several. Now, what foods should you try? I will first list the ones that we are known for, which are mostly meat meals, and then I will go to the more vegetarian friendly choices, since the menus in Baku often give complicated names and don’t really explain what the actual food is. I personally suggest Piti, khingal, saj, dushbere, bozbash, dolma, etc. Our plov (or ash) is a must, you have to try it, but the issue is that we have over 40 different variations, so if you just ask for one they will either give you the “classic” version, or start listing the more popular variations. The Kabab is also pretty important to try, since our kabab has certain interesting elements to it. Specify for it to be lamb, and I suggest asking for some vegetables, like potatoes and tomatoes. For the ultimate experience, ask them to put “quyrug” with the potatoes (quyrugh, by the way, means tail. In Azerbaijan, our sheep have pretty fat tails, that we put with the potato or eggplant kabab, and the result is something to behold). Now to the vegetarian meals. The meatless foods include ecebsendel, kuku, chighirtma, yetimche, and several eggplant meals you could ask for, and then the previously mentioned kutab. The thing with the kutab is that it can be made with almost anything. Some eat it with meat, others ask for “green kutabs” (yashil kutab), then you could ask for a pumpkin kutab, and a weird one I had encountered that was extremely good, is chestnut kutab. I was quite confused when I was told what I was getting, but when I ate it I was like “wow, this is great!” But enough about those. A breakfast in Azerbaijan is quite different from breakfasts in other countries. For example, you could ask for a chighirtma, which is a category of Azeri omelets, or you could ask for my personal all-time favorite, pamidor yumurtta. It is not too complicated, but its simplicity is what makes it good. It is basically a tomato omelet, but from what I have seen on the internet, Azeris make it differently and thus the tomato omelets that you see on the internet differ from the ones I have seen in Baku. Also, you could ask for things like “Dovga,” ayran, qatigh, all of those dairy products. They will almost always bring tomatos, bread, and Azeri variations of cheese, and you could snack on those before the main meal comes. You could also ask for shor and lavash, and the tandir bread (the bread will most likely be given to you by default). A regular omelet is often eaten with honey or sugar, which sounds weird until you try it.
Before I wrap this up, I just want to mention the most important thing about going to Baku: Walk, walk, walk! The Boulevard is super beautiful, especially at night. I personally never grow tired of walking there. Look at the world’s second largest flag while on the Boulevard, and simply enjoy the view. Then go into the Fountain Square, and continue walking. Again, I suggest against going there at one PM in the middle of the summer, since it gets quite hot. At night all the lights come on, so it’s very pretty. You can also go to the many beaches of Baku, like Nardaran and Shixov. There is also the Baku Funikulor, which you can ask a taxi driver to take you to. It takes you to a very beautiful park on the top of a hill, with a very nice view of the city. By the way, the taxi drivers know the city like the back of their hand, and will be more than willing to help. You could also go to a Chayxana, which is where Azeris go to stay away from the sun. It is basically a tea house, but it has a very Azeri feel to it, with carpets and decorations everywhere. Many also offer Hookah sessions, which are fairly cheap, so if you would like to smoke, you can. Azeris are pretty creative with their flavors, so you could experiment with those. There is also a large assortment of mosques you could go visit that are pretty neat in terms of architecture, like the Bibi Heybet Mosque, Teze Pir, and the Heyder Mosque. If you would like to, you could also go to the Sinagogues and Churches of Baku (Both Catholic and Orthodox churches). I’m gonna be honest, in terms of language, the younger generations tend to know more English than the older ones, so if you bump into a fifty year old taxi driver don’t expect him to speak to you in English, but you should be OK. Most Azeris know Russian and Turkish, so if you would like to communicate using those two languages that works too. That’s about it for now, this tour only includes Baku, and this is only a surface level description. There are far more things to do, but these are the main ones. By the way, for those of you living in New York, Azal has direct flights to Azerbaijan, and this airline has a pretty good reputation, so I suggest using that one. There are also direct flights from other countries, but you should check on Google, I’m not gonna list all of them here. Lastly, I know I mentioned a lot, but if you have any specific questions you can check the internet, there is a lot of information out there. I wish you all a safe flight.