I took an overnight train from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Baku, Azerbaijan after finally getting my visa. The embassy said it would take 4-5 days but took 6. The train left Baku at 5:30 pm and I only picked up my passport at 4:45 so those last 45 minutes getting to the train station and buying a ticket were a bit stressful. I opted for the cheaper 2nd class cabin which is supposed to hold 4 people, not 2 like the first class, but we were only 2 women in the cabin anyway. I boarded the train at 5:21, relieved to see her and know that I made it.
The border crossing a few hours later was extremely slow – an hour to get the exit stamp from Georgia, an hour to travel between borders (they were unusually far apart), and another hour and a half to get into Azerbaijan. I was asked questions about my visit to Armenia, had my baggage searched, and taken into a private questioning room, but it all felt very routine. Baku the next morning was cold and wet, and it rained the whole first day. I walked around with my backpack, umbrella and couchsurf hosts to see the few things worth seeing: the mini book museum, Ali’s art gallery in the old town, and fountain square.
I stayed in a house of Turkish guys and their one Azeri girl friend, and I mostly ate home-cooked or restaurant bought Turkish food. Not surprising since Azerbaijani people and language are very closely related to Turkey, and Baku felt a little like Istanbul meets Dubai. They have a lot of oil money, highrises, and extremely clean streets (one guy’s theory is that its because women clean the streets), while a cup of chay and the doner (and Turkish people) are everywhere.
There isn’t much tourism or touristic appeal to Azerbaijan, but the café culture was wonderful, and I even indulged in a little western delicacy – a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, only because ‘tis the season. There’s an old walled city and palace complex (Shihrvanshah), the strangely shaped Maiden Tower, and a promenade along the Caspian sea with a range of entertainment.
Nearby in the UNESCO site of Gobustan they have some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world (30,000years!), and archeological evidence of some of the earliest homo sapiens. More modern attractions include a war memorial and the largest eternal flame I’ve ever seen, the iconic flame towers (of which 2 out of 3 are empty?!), and some space-ship looking building called the Heydar Aliyev Cultural center.
I visited them all and also made the trek to the mud volcanoes. Noone warned me before (no one I met in Baku had been there), but the road is also a muddy mess, so my taxi got stuck once before turning around and trying another dirt road, and it took nearly an hour to drive the 13 km (and walk the last km) to the little bunch of bubbly mud hills. Apparently it’s a great foot bath, but my taxi driver was a little creepy so I was hoping to get out of there as soon as possible, in fear of getting stuck there with him until the next passerbys could save me. Walking out of there was out of the question, because the bottom of your shoes would pile up with kilos of mud, dragging you deeper into it, and there was nothing between the mud volcanoes and the nearest town except more mud.