A smallish former Soviet
republic, at the eastern end of the Caucasus and on the shores of the Caspian Sea (opposite Turkmenistan
). It's rich with oil – but oil extraction also causes severe environmental problems, esp. along the coast of the Absheron peninsula, as well as nearer the capital Baku. Moreover, nature alone provides some obscure and bizarre sights in the form of mud volcanoes. These are the separate chapters here:
For some dark tourists the oil-related industrial wastelands may in themselves be an attraction – and the forest of oil rigs by or even in the sea is certainly a sight to behold. But it's not really developed for tourists ... and wanting to see it may arouse the suspicions of the police/security guards, at least in the more remote locations. Even the country's capital Baku
is surrounded by oilfields – including one that was popularized in the modern media through the 1999 James Bond movie "The World is Not Enough".
A natural kind of dark but certainly weird attraction of the county is its countless mud volcanoes. About half of the world's mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan (and they've formed naturally, unlike the Sidoarjo mud volcano
). They come in all manner of shapes and natures. Mostly they are just peacefully bubbling away – occasionally, however, they make a more violent appearance, e.g. in 2001 when just outside Baku a gas vent ignited and shot a flame several dozens if not hundreds of feet into the air. Some of the mud volcanoes can be visited relatively easily, esp. at Qobustan
, because that's also near an important historical site.
Technically speaking ('de jure') part of Azerbaijan, but cut-off (de facto) from it is the region Nagorno-Karabakh
, a mainly Armenian populated enclave that Armenia
and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war over in the early 1990s until a ceasefire was negotiated by Azerbaijan's old-school dynasty leader Heydar Aliyev in 1994. That ceasefire held for a long time, even though the conflict remained unresolved. Armenian forces occupied not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also what they saw as a "buffer zone" of Azerbaijan's territory around the enclave. Azerbaijan had to bear the brunt of the problem of hundreds of thousands "internally displaced persons", i.e. mainly Azeri refugees from the conflict region, whose status remained in limbo …
Then in 2020 the conflict erupted again, this time it was Azerbaijan that reopened the armed conflict and, partly thanks to military aid from Turkey
, managed to reoccupy the former buffer zones as well as the town of Shushi
. The reoccupied territory also includes the former "corridor" through which access to Nagorno-Kabakh from Armenia was possible. Now the remaining Armenian-held territory was cut off, also from all tourism!
Before this, going to Nagorno-Karabakh
from Azerbaijan was impossible – you had to go from Armenia
. Since all borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan are sealed, you'd first have needed to travel to Armenia via Georgia
or, theoretically, Iran. And it had to be in that order too – because going to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia has always been considered illegal by Azerbaijan and if you have a Nagorno-Karabakh visa/registration stamp in your passport, they won't let you enter Azerbaijan! Whether travel to the reoccupied parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that are now under Azeri control may one day be possible from with Azerbaijan remains to be seen.
UPDATE July 2023:
I’ve been informed that Azerbaijan's government (an authoritarian regime, let’s not forget) have organized paid-for trips to the “liberated” parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that the Azeri military regained in the 2020 resumption of the Karabakh armed conflict with Armenia
. These are clearly propagandistically-informed activities, and according to various reports to some success, as participant tourists and “influencers” have reported positively about these trips (see e.g. this Swedish article
– external link, opens in a new tab). Parts of the itineraries apparently consist of staying in a military camp, even dressing up in Azeri military fatigues, shooting machine guns and going on tank rides. Given that Azerbaijan was/is the aggressor in this renewed conflict, and that the people in the remaining parts of Karabakh are currently suffering from an Azerbaijan-enforced blockade, such tourist trips are obviously (to me at least) highly dubious. They basically amount to supporting and celebrating the aggressor (it’s a bit like visiting and posing with Russian soldiers on the Ukraine
front line – would you do or condone that sort of thing?).
Unfortunately, such sponsored Karabakh trips have even been advertised as being part of dark tourism (or ‘black tourism’; see e.g. this Azeri article
– external link, opens in a new tab). This is yet again giving dark tourism a bad name, and I strongly object to that. Dark tourism, as the concept
is understood on this website, is primarily about dark pasts, not ongoing conflicts (see also ethical issues
). Karabakh can be considered a still active conflict zone, and thus going there now may even constitute danger tourism
, which this website does not promote (see also beyond dark tourism
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the allure of going back to
, Fuzuli and Shushi
(‘Shusha’ in Azeri) and see what has changed. But doing so as part of an Azeri government-sponsored organized trip that clearly serves the dictatorial state’s propaganda is not acceptable. Please do note that dark-tourism.com strongly distances itself from such tourist offers!
UPDATE November 2023: in September Azerbaijan launched another offensive and this time quickly took over the entire region of Nagorno-Karabakh and drove out its traditionally Armenian population, who had to flee to Armenia
. I’ve heard of more recent trips to Azerbaijan that may even now include visits to former Artsakh areas such as the former capital Stepanakert. At this point in time such visits have to be discouraged on ethical grounds. Whether Nagorno-Karabakh
will ever become a legit dark-tourism destination is currently unclear.
Travel to Azerbaijan on the ground is further limited by the fact that the border with Russia
is only open for citizens of those two countries, but closed for foreign tourists, leaving only the borders with Iran and Georgia
as entry points on land. The latter is easy to do: there's a daily overnight train between Tbilisi
. I've used this train in the other direction and found it quite OK – the carriages were old (ex-GDR
-built!) and without air-conditioning, which in summer can make for stifling heat … but since the journey was mostly at night, it wasn't such a great problem once the train got moving. It's advisable to take your own food and drinks supplies – although an old-Soviet style attendant in each of the sleeper carriages can ply you with tea from a samovar ... not for free, though, as it may at first appear: in fact it worked out quite expensive for me and my wife in the end since we didn't have the exact change, so the attendant simply pocketed the whole 20 USD bill – for 4 cups of tea!
At the border, there's a long wait for proceedings to finish, which on the Azerbaijani side were especially laborious (even a tad intimidating) and long-drawn out. Fares for a fairly comfortable two-berth sleeper compartment aren't so expensive as such, but having them pre-booked by an agent added a substantial surcharge to the price when I used the service; but it was in the summer holiday season when trains can get booked out, and I needed the connection on a specific date. If you are flexible you can save money by buying train tickets yourself on the spot, though best at least a day in advance. The language barrier can prove a hard nut to crack, though. You need your passport to buy train tickets – and also for boarding the train, when you even have to hand over your passport for a while, which is slightly unnerving sitting there without ID waiting for it to be returned eventually … but it's unavoidable.
There's one further intriguing way of travelling to/from Azerbaijan: by ferry across the Caspian Sea. There are connections to Aktau in Kazakhstan
and to Turkmenbashy in Turkmenistan
on the eastern shores of the Caspian. However, these are mainly freight connections and don't run to a fixed schedule. To use these you'd need to be flexible. This is, however, complicated by the fact that for obtaining a visa for Turkmenistan you'd nominally have to specify the exact arrival and departure dates. But still, some people have apparently been able to use this rather exotic mode of trans-Caspian travel …
As for visas for Azerbaijan, you'd have to have obtained one in advance if entering the country any other way than flying into Baku
. Only at Baku's international airport can you get a visa on entry, albeit for a somewhat higher fee. To apply for a visa at an Azerbaijani embassy in advance you also need to have a LOI – a letter of invitation. This annoying leftover from Soviet days is a pain, but it can't be helped. You can get a LOI from various travel agents/tour operators in Azerbaijan or from hotels. Since you'd likely need a tour operator to do some of the things listed here, it's easiest to have them issue you a LOI when you book a tour or use an accommodation booking service.
UPDATE: apparently you can now get 30-day e-visas with much less hassle.
For the dark tourist it's enough to stay based in Baku
, and do the other sites listed here as day trips. The rest of the country is more for those seeking a slice of the old Orient and/or remote mountain landscapes and villages, but for the dark tourist, all points of interest are centred in and around the capital. For more travel info see the separate entries for Baku and surrounding destinations.
As far as food & drink
are concerned, Azerbaijan is probably the least interesting of the Caucasus countries, unless shashlyk happens to be your favourite dish. The cuisine is generally a bit limited for non-meat-eaters. But that said, I did have a few very good Azeri meals, both fish and veggie. As a strict vegetarian or even vegan you're restricted to salads, soups and starters, though there is also one traditional herbed-omelette-type classic main dish (kuku). Foreign cuisines are popular with the well-heeled elite, i.e. especially in Baku, with sushi featuring especially prominently (and expensively!). A Russian influence is quite overt in many restaurants too. Otherwise there's always pizza. Turkish food is also widely available, even though Azeri cuisine is very similar anyway. I had some of the best mezze of my life in Baku, including the best humous I've ever had outside Israel
The language of Azerbaijan, also called Azeri, is virtually identical to Turkish, except for a few different words and some letters deviating from spellings in Turkey
. So a working knowledge of Turkish will get you a long way in Azerbaijan. Even if you don't know any Turkish, at least the script is largely decipherable ... quite unlike Armenian or Georgian. Russian is also still widely in use, and almost everyone will understand it (and be willing to use it – unlike in Georgia
). English is slowly establishing itself in more upmarket tourist and foreigner-oriented businesses, but is not widely understood in the streets.
- 01 - one of the omnipresent Heydar Aliyev posters
- 02 - flying over Azerbaijan
- 03 - prison near Baku
- 04 - island in Baku bay
- 05 - oil installations in the Caspian
- 06 - oil rigs in the sea outside Baku
- 07 - a system of trestle bridges connecting oil rigs
- 08 - barren off-shore island in the Caspian
- 09 - a road in the Caspian Sea
- 10 - Caspian shipyard
- 11 - the Caspian at Baku seafront
- 12 - the Caspian Sea with offshore oil installations
- 13 - oil train
- 14 - Azerbaijani semi-desert with oil seeping from the ground
- 15 - Azerbaijani camel with daughter
- 16 - melons are popular in Azerbaijan
- 17 - Azerbaijan
- 18 - minaret and flora
- 19 - ancient metal work in Azerbaijan
- 20 - the train to Tbilisi may be based in Baku alright but does not look like this Japanese bullet-train in reality
- 21 - train built in the GDR
- 22 - train ploughing on from Baku towards Georgia
- 23 - father and son Aliyev in deep thought about Azerbaijan