7 things to be aware of when backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Azeri people who stopped us in order to have their photo taken with us - On the road, Azerbaijan

7 things to be aware of when backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Food & Drink

Lamb is the staple ingredient, and is present in many common dishes, and is typically seasoned with saffron, cinnamon and fresh coriander. Cabbage, grape leaves, and eggplant wrapped meat (kelem, yarpaq, badimjan – dolmasi), kebab (kabab) nad rice with different variety of toppings (plov), are some of the many national dishes.

Black tea (chay is the national beverage, and is drunk after food is eaten, other popular drinks include sherbet (şərbət) a sweet cold drink made of fruit juice mixed or boiled with sugar, and often perfumed with rose water.

Also be warned that the restaurant culture is not so ingrained as in the west and outside of Baku, finding food can sometimes be problematic. Make sure that if you are staying at a homestay, then you get at least a meal included.

Tea Houses – chaykhanas

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 :-)

Statue of woman holding an umbrella and mobile phone, taken on Fountains Square – Baku by night - Bakı, Azerbaijan (4), backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Accommodation

Couchsurfing in Baku is hard to come by, and hostels don’t come cheap. Outside of Baku, 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.

Poor but friendly, the lovely Azeri family that hosted us - Lahıc, Azerbaijan, backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Weather

The climate of Azerbaijan can be described as continental influenced climate marked by warm summer and very cold, dry winters. However, for such a small country it has a diverse set of weather variation that can be broadly divided in three different climate zones; one north of the mountainous regions, one south of them, and along the coast of the Caspian sea.

Temperatures during the summer months vary from between 20°C – 30°C. summers in Azerbaijan are often warm and sunny with dry periods, but sometimes heavy cloudbursts and severe thunderstorms can occur, and can cause flash floods and damage.

The deserted landcape of Gobustan Mud Volcanoes - Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan (20), backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

During the winter months of December – March it the temperature drops significantly, with daily temperatures far below 0°C and some snowfall. The mountainous regions of Azerbaijan are known for severe weather conditions and extremely cold weather during the winter months, with very strong winds and snowstorms. The Sheki Zakataly region lies just south of the mountains and has quite different conditions than the northern regions, with less rain, warmer summers and milder winters. The coastal areas are significantly warmer then the northern mountainous regions of Azerbaijan, due to the tempering effect of the Caspian Sea.

Political Situation

One thing to keep in mind is that the 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 we are 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.

The barren surrounding of Gobustan - Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan (1), backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Clothing

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 behaviour, 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.

Jon with a village local - Lahic, Azerbaijan, backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Curious Locals

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.

Azeri people who stopped us in order to have their photo taken with us - On the road, Azerbaijan, backpacking and hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan

Money Exchange

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.

written by: Ania

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2 comments

  • When it comes to shorts, it’s not a matter of islam. Abkhazia is Christian country, but I’ve also got lecture for wearing shorts in front of my host’s mother.

    Funny thing is, I completely agree with people from Caucasus about shorts being good for women and young boys and I wear them only in bed. But even that isn’t humble enough for tough guys in Caucasus.

  • Thanks so much for sharing! Perhaps it is more widespread than me thought. Can’t see I agree with you about the shorts though, especially when we were in Baku and the temperature was around 45oC!