Hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan
Capital city: Baku
Read this carefully, as it’s not possible to obtain an Azeri visa on the border (unless you hold a Turkish or Irani passport)!
So far, in our travel experience, Azerbaijan has been the country with the most difficult and expensive visa procedure. It is not impossible, although it takes time and lots of money and if you are not prepared for this and not determined enough, you will be denied entry. What we found difficult, was that before travelling to the Caucasus we’d read so many misleading pieces of information that till the last day we weren’t sure what the best way to do it was and what documents we would need.
We applied for our Azeri visas in Tbilisi, Georgia and now it seems to me that it was the easiest of all the alternatives. Don’t even bother going to the Azeri embassy as they are open to the public only 3 days a week for 2 hours. You would have to queue up just to be given the address of the only company in Tbilisi which does the visa procedure. So, go straight to this company, it’s called TOUR (Chavchavadze gamziri 68). You won’t need any letter of invitation (they will do it for you), just your passport, a couple of photos and the money.
For the EU citizens the visas cost around 90$, for the US citizens 100$ and for the UK citizens 101$.
You will need to pay the money up front and leave your passport with them for around 3 days as this is how long it usually takes. So it’s probably best to go there at the beginning of your stay in Tbilisi.
Beware! Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months after the expiry date of the Azerbaijani visa applied for.
Also, you will be denied entry if you have a stamp of Nagorno Karabakh in your passport!
For specific visa information for your country check here.
Azerbaijan is an interesting country both culturally and landscape-wise. Its highly under-developed tourist infrastructure can be viewed both as an advantage and as a disadvantage. It’s hard to be an independent traveller in a country which provides hardly any public transport and the concept of hitch-hiking is not recognized at all. However, we found it very rewarding, if a bit tiring.
The Azeri people we encountered were nice and hospitable and I’m sure if they had known what hitch-hiking was they would have been more helpful.
As I have already mentioned, hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan turned out to be extremely difficult and that is simply because the people don’t know the concept. Some drivers seeing us on the side of the road stopped their cars but didn’t know how to help us and even when we tried to speak to them in Russian and used the Russian word for hitch-hiking, they still didn’t know what we meant. An Azeri boxer even took us to a station and insisted on buying us a ticket! :-) So you are bound to meet really nice locals but as for hitch-hiking we weren’t particularly lucky.
Another difficulty is the fact that in Azerbaijan there aren’t that many major routes on which people would frequently travel, so if you decide to travel off the beaten track, you might find yourself stuck in a place for a long time.
After we’d realised that hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan wasn’t possible, we got around using marshrutkas (paid mini vans), which wasn’t easy either due to the fact that outside the big cities, there are no proper marshrutras stations. You may be able to find a square from which they frequently depart but finding a decent timetable might give you a headache. On the whole, if you don’t speak Russian, Turkish or Azerbaijani you might find it difficult to obtain any information regarding your destination, timetables or fares.
Another disadvantage is that, along with the underdeveloped transport infrastructure, you might find it difficult to find any accommodation if you travel off the main route. We managed to find a couchsurfing host (Jamil, you’re great!) in Baku only and that was pretty lucky too! Like in the other Caucasus counties, you only option in this situation are homestays, which are a sort of unlicensed guesthouse run by local families, who offer paid accommodation under their roof. In most cases they also provide food (at least one meal a day), which is a huge advantage, since there aren’t many restaurants outside the cities. The best way to find a homestay (as they don’t advertise) is just to walk the streets looking lost. You will be quickly spotted by a friend of a friend of someone who runs a homestay, so just let yourself be found and they will do the rest. In the Caucasus this form of accommodation is the cheapest and provides the most authentic sort of experience. Speaking Russian helps as English is rare in these parts.
Another disadvantage is the fact that borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia cannot be crossed due to the tense political situation, so if you want to visit this country you have to travel via Georgia. As far as I’m aware, the Russian-Azeri border is also closed to non-CIS citizens, however we’ve never tried to cross this border, so this is not a first-hand piece of information; double check before you go.
Things you should be aware of while hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan
There are some cultural peculiarities you should be aware of when starting your Azeri adventure. First of all men aren’t supposed to wear shorts. Azerbaijan is a traditional Muslim country and apparently according to the Quran male legs are sexually tempting and should be covered at all times. During our first days in Baku, Jon experienced some laughs, hostile looks and even some pushing in the metro and all due to his shorts. Once he started wearing long trousers the problem disappeared. It was hard to believe that this was the reason of sometimes hostile or aggressive behavior, especially considering the fact that I could wear shorts without any problem, but our Azeri host confirmed that wearing shorts in Azerbaijan is probably not the best idea if you’re a man.
Another thing you should keep in mind is that women are not supposed to enter traditional tea houses chaykhanas. During our visit to Gobustan we met some locals who invited us to one of these, but only after a long conversation, which included explaining that I’m a TOURIST, was I allowed in. After that they asked me to go to the owner and thank him directly, which I did :-)
You should also keep in mind that, as in other Caucasus countries, Azeri currency cannot be exchanged in any surrounding state, so either spend all your manats within the country or pray that you meet other backpackers on the way who would be kind enough to cut you a deal.
Also, keep in mind that Azeri people are terrible drivers and the driving culture is devoid any rules. Don’t be surprised if you see five cars lined up next to each other on the two lane road, even if that means the possibility of a head-on collision. They are not frightened by any dangerous maneuver and they don’t pay attention to pedestrians, so be careful! :-)
Another thing to keep in mind is that, due to the underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, you won’t meet that many other Westerners (we met ONE!) and the sight of them is guaranteed to be surprising both to you but also to the locals. Many a time we found ourselves being secretly filmed by the Azeri people using their phones or sometimes even directly asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We found it highly amusing, considering the fact that we were the ones who were supposed to take pictures and be amazed by them, not the other way round. But it was pleasant most of the time.
Absolutely essential hitch-hiker’s phrasebook
– hello – Salam; Salam əleyküm (salam aley-kyum)
People love it when you address them in their mother tongue, even if you don’t speak the language
– thank you – Təşəkkür edirəm (teshek-cure edir-arm)
– goodbye – Sağolun (“ğ”pronounced at the back of throat like the French ‘r’)
– yes – Bəli
– no – Yox (yokh)
– I don’t have money – Mən pul yoxdur (man puhl yokh-duhr)
– We don’t have money – Biz pul yoxdur (beez puhl yokh-duhr)
– hello – Здравствуйте (ZDRAHST-vooy-tyeh)
– thank you – Спасибо. (spuh-SEE-bah)
– yes – Да. (dah)
– no – Нет. (nyeht)
– please/here you are – Пожалуйста. (pah-ZHAH-luh-stuh)
– you’re welcome – Не за что. (NYEH-zuh-shtoh)
– excuse me – Извините. (eez-vee-NEET-yeh)
– what’s your name? – Как Вас зовут? (kahk vahs zah-VOOT?) (always good to know the name of your driver)
– my name is … – Меня зовут … (mee-NYAH zah-VOOT…)
– I don’t understand – Я не понимаю (ya nee puh-nee-MIGH-yoo)
– I don’t know – Я не знаю. (ya nee ZNAH-yoo)
– where is…? – Где …? (gdyeh …?)
– train station – вокзал (vah-GZAHL) (you should know this word and listen out for it to avoid situations when your driver, in their best intentions, takes you off the road and drives you to a station)
– bus station – автовокзала (ahf-tuh-vah-GZAHL)
– I don’t have money – У меня нет денег (oo-mee-NYAH nyet DYEH-neg) (useful in any language)
– we don’t have money – У нас нет денег (oo nah-s nyet DYEH-neg)
– money – деньги (DYEN-gee)
– now – сейчас (see-CHAHS)
– today – сегодня (see-VOHD-nyuh)
– yesterday – вчера (fcheeh-RAH)
– tomorrow – завтра (ZAHF-truh)
– friend – друг (droogh) (very useful when they ask you where you’re staying. The concept of Couchsurfing is often too difficult to explain, so just say you’re staying with a friend. You can also use this word to express the relationship between you and your fellow travellers).
Road map of Azerbaijan
Main border crossings
1. Matsimi (with Georgia) – This border crossing is located on the road M5 between Telavi (Georgia) and Şəki (Azerbaijan). It was pretty easy to cross on foot especially after meeting an Azeri customs officer who had done his training in Poland and therefore spoke a bit of Polish. Speaking the same language always breaks ice between people, even during such scary experiences as crossing borders.
Caution! If you want to enter Azerbaijan, you have to organize your visa in advance.
2. Böyük Kǝsik (with Georgia) – it’s a rail border crossing, which you will use if you are travelling on a train between Tbilisi and Baku.
3. For information about border crossings with Iran go here. We haven’t used any of these, so we can’t help you with first-hand information.
4. All the others border crossings with Armenia are closed for everyone.
5. As far as I’m concerned all the others border crossings with Russia are closed for third party citizens.
Azerbaijan’s absolute must
1. Best areas for hitch-hiking
There are no good areas for hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan because, as I mentioned earlier, the concept of sticking your thumb out is not known in this country. Of course it all depends who you meet as our CS host from Baku was well educated and “Westernized” (if I can use this word) and he surely was accustomed with hitch-hiking. However on the road we weren’t as lucky.
You might try your chances away from the cities for example in the mountainous Ismailli Rayon or in the north after Şəki and before the border crossing with Georgia. Beware, however, that during winter months the roads in Ismailli are full of snow and almost out of order.
2. Most beautiful natural spot
There are two, completely distinct, regions of Azerbaijan that we found equally interesting. The first of them is the Ismailli Rayon which landscape is dominated by forests, hills and high mountains (which height oscillates between 200 and 3629 m above the sea level). There are no proper hiking paths, but you can make do, as it’s quite pretty just to stroll around, even though it would be quite difficult to try and conquer the peaks without local knowledge, a guide or at least clearly marked paths.
In this region you can also visit the tiny copper village of Lahic, which is well worth a visit! Before going there we were expecting something quite touristy but we were very pleasantly surprised as it wasn’t touristy at all and we were the only Westerners in sight. In this village you can observe real old-fashioned copper craftsmen at work, stay with nice Azeri families and drink some wood-tasting samovar tea.
Another natural spot worth mentioning are the mud volcanoes of Gobustan (Qobustan). Everyone knows volcanoes, but have you ever seen a volcano which instead of hot lava spits out cold gooey mud? These can be found only 64km southwest of Baku.
It’s a pleasant day trip from Baku that you can combine with visiting Gobustan National Park which includes some interesting prehistoric rock carvings dating back to 10,000 BC (It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Click here to see more pictures and videos of the mud volcanoes.
3. Best city/town
While in Azerbaijan, you should definitely visit its capital Baku. It’s a strange city that juxtaposes the old and the modern, both in terms of architecture and culture. It’s the largest city on the Caspian Sea and it’s the cultural and industrial centre of Azerbaijan.
There are also plenty of sights to draw your attention to, starting with the Walled City of Baku, the Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower which have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you drive away from the city, you can also visit a Caspian beach, although it was a bit oily for our liking.
Click here to read and see more pictures of Baku.
written by: Ania