We arrived in Azerbaijan via the overnight train from Tbilisi, which was cheap ($20) and easy. It left Tbilisi’s Station Square at 8:40 pm, arrived at the border just before midnight, and made it to Baku by 9 am. We had already applied for an e-visa for Azerbaijan ($55), which we printed out in Tbilisi, and they do the immigration stuff on the train. We had a 4-person sleeper berth which was fairly comfortable, aside from being super hot for a couple of hours before they turned off the heater.
Our first day in Baku, we dropped our bags at our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to look at the huge Caspian Sea (the largest inland lake in the world). We got a late breakfast/early lunch at a cafe, and went back to the hotel and checked in and took a nap. We were staying at a hotel next to the train station/metro station so it was very easy with the transport. When we went out to dinner that night, we found a little basement tavern where no one spoke English. One patron who knew a few words helped us order, and we wound up with this delicious meal for under $20.
The next day we went on a walking tour of the capital city, Baku. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot. It’s a very interesting place, visually, with parts of the walled old city dating back to the Middle Ages, plus European-style buildings funded by oil-rich oligarchs in the early 1900s, and ultra-modern skyscrapers built with new oil money in the last few years. It’s quite a blend and yet it works.
A brief history:
Early residents of this area of the world were Zoroastrian fire worshippers. When Islam arrived in the early 700s, the Zoroastrians were expelled towards India, and the area became Muslim. Assaulted by the Khazars and the Rus for the next few centuries, the city of Baku was also invaded by Mongols. The Persians finally took over the region in 1501, and even earlier than that were written records of oil being produced in Baku. The Russians and the Ottomans fought over Baku in the 1700s, with Russia eventually winning. Then the Russians fought the Persians for control of Baku (and their oil). By the 1890s, Baku supplied half the world’s oil. In 1920, the Russian 11th Red Army rolled into town and gave Baku an ultimatum: join Soviet Russia or be annihilated. Finally, in 1991, Azerbaijan achieved lasting independence.
Day trip to Qabala
We signed up to go on a day tour to Qabala, about 200 km from Baku. On the way we stopped in Shemakhi, to see Azerbaijan’s oldest mosque site. Built in 743, the mosque has been damaged and rebuilt after fires, earthquakes, and Soviet occupation. The residence of an Arabian caliphate in the 8th century, the mosque is the largest in the Caucases.
Then we drove to Qabala, an ancient capital city along the Silk Road. The area has a long and rich history, but was mostly destroyed during Soviet times. Now Qabala is undergoing a cultural comeback, with parks, green spaces, and recreational activities. We visited a ski resort there and a lake, which is probably really fun in deepest winter and in spring/summer. Although spring was just arriving in Azerbaijan while we were there, with warming-up temps and green buds starting to show, there was still snow in the mountains, but melting quickly.
Back in Baku from our day trip, we took the metro to the Flame Towers (helpful hint: the funicular is closed on Mondays) and walked all around that area of town. When Chris visited Azerbaijan the first time in 2011, they were still constructing these towers. We also took the metro up a few stations to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Surrounded by a large park, we brought a picnic and sat by the “I ❤️ Baku” sign and ate lunch. The city gets winds coming in from the Caspian Sea- the name Baku actually means “wind pounded city”- but this day was warm and not too breezy. On the front steps leading up to the cultural center was an open-air exhibit of work by a photographer named Reza, which was really incredible work. His website can be found here. Inside the cultural center, designed by Zaha Hadid, are rotating exhibits- right now there’s one on classic cars and another on dolls.
We enjoyed visiting Baku and Azerbaijan, but we’re ready to head back to Tbilisi to explore Georgia some more and then Armenia. We took the sleeper train back and got ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned for more Caucasus updates soon!