Wednesday, 6 May 2009
Neither Europe nor Asia, Azerbaijan is an incredible tangle of contradictions and contrasts. It’s a fascinating nexus of ancient historical empires. Yet it’s also a new nation finding its feet as it emerges from a war-torn post-Soviet chrysalis on a petroleum-funded gust of optimism. Surrounded by semi-desert on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the nation’s cosmopolitan capital Baku is a dynamic boomtown, where flashy limousines and mushrooming skyscrapers sweep around a picturesque Unesco-listed ancient core. Yet barely three hours’ drive away lies an entirely different world: timeless villages clad in lush orchards from which shepherd tracks lead into the soaring high Caucasus mountains. Where Baku is multilingual and go-ahead, the provinces shuffle to the gently paced click of nard (backgammon) on tree-shaded teahouse terraces: women stay home, herds of cattle wander aimlessly across highways, and potbellied bureaucrats scratch their heads in confusion on finding that an outsider has wandered into their territory.
Visiting the country takes creativity and imagination, as the tourist industry is at best ‘nascent’. Although there are plenty of rural ‘rest-zones’ for holidaying city folk, they cater mainly for locals who want to unwind with hefty feasts and family chats, so rarely provide any activities. Very few people outside Baku speak English, but the challenge is a great part of the appeal. So where to, then? Southern Azerbaijan is one of the country's more pleasant regions, both along the coast and inland: Lәnkәran is a quaint seaside town famed for its flowers, while Masalli & around makes a good entry point for exploring the Talysh mountains. Northern Azerbaijan is where you'll find the Caucasus Mountains and the incredible village of Xinaliq, with its jaw-dropping views and traditional mountain culture. And for something completely different (in a country full of completely different travel experiences!), there's always the remote and intriguing enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Apart from the sometimes-terrifying driving, Azerbaijan is generally a very safe country. You’re more likely to encounter hospitality than crime. However, that hospitality is tempered with a certain intrusive inquisitiveness, which can become tiresome. Lone travellers are especially likely to raise questions in local minds. Police in small, out-of-the way places seem to imagine any outsider to be a potential spy.
The best time to visit lowland Azerbaijan is April to June, when skies are clear and the land is green and full of flowers. October is also lovely in Baku, with warm days and crisp nights, though much of the countryside is parched brown. Summer is unpleasantly hot in low-lying areas, with Baku unpleasantly humid. However, in the higher mountains July is the ideal trekking season, although you might still need a decent jacket at night.
Winters are mild around the Caspian shores but can get strikingly cold inland. You’ll need heavy sweaters in Şəki and the mercury can dip below -20°C in Xınalıq or Lahıc, with snow ploughs struggling to keep the roads open.
As a general guide, offices work 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, but late starts and long lunches are not uncommon. Most shops operate seven days a week, opening around 10am and closing after 7pm. Bazaars tend to be mainly morning affairs. Restaurants in Baku typically function from 11am to around 11pm but outside Baku opening hours don’t necessarily exist and are more dependent on the number of people visiting the establishment.
Most hotels are now private and standards of hygiene, service and catering have improved a great deal, especially in Baku where the best hotels can be found. Most hotels have satellite connection facilities, telephone and fax services. Many major hotel chains, including Hyatt, Meridian and Radisson are now represented in Baku. If you want to book a room, go to www.medestino.com for the best rate.