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Few can find it on a map, let alone travel to Azerbaijan. But the Land of Fire has history, incredible hospitality, and nine climatic zones creating astonishing diversity. With the new eVisa and fall in oil prices, Azerbaijan makes for an affordable destination to spend a week.
You’ll fly into Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Getting to the city is easy: either take one of the black cabs (make sure you negotiate the price) or the bus, which drops passengers at 28 May tube station. The express bus departs every 30 minutes costing AZN1.30 ($0.80). You need to buy a BakiKart from the machine in the terminal and give it to the driver.
Depending on what time you arrive in Baku, the priority may be either sightseeing or food. For sightseeing, head to Icheri Sheher, the 15th-century old town and visit Maiden Tower, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and walk around the fortress walls. If you’re hungry, you’ll find several traditional restaurants in the old town area and international ones on Fountain Square.
Other must-visit attractions in Baku include strolling along the promenade (Baku Boulevard), riding the funicular to Martyrs Alley and Eternal Flame for views of the city, and taking a Caspian Sea Cruise. Walk along Nizami Street for shopping and to see late 19th century architecture, photograph the Flame Towers during both the day and night, and marvel at the futurist Heydar Aliyev Centre.
Azer translates to ‘fire’. Azerbaijan has strong cultural links to fire from the early Zoroastrians to the burning mountain at Yanar Dag and modern Flame Towers. Day two takes you to experience the full extent of the Land of Fire. Either join a tour or use the metro and bus, which cost less than $3 in total.
Get up early and visit Ateshgah Fire Temple and Yanar Dag, the burning mountain. The Fire Temple dates back thousands of years. The current temple was built 500 years ago. Take bus 184 from Koroglu Metro Station. After the temple, return to this station and take bus 217 to Yanar Dag.
Yanar Dag in a rural Baku suburb is both awe-inspiring and surreal. A 10 metre-horizontal strip (33 feet) across the scorched mountain continuously burns regardless of the sub-zero winter temperatures or occasional torrential downpour. Ignited natural gas leaks from underground reserves and burns.
Day three involves visiting Gobustan (Qobustan) National Park and the mud volcanoes. UNESCO Gobustan, 60 kilometres (37.3 miles) southwest of Baku, has more than 6000 rock carvings including some estimated to be 40,000 years old. Inside you’ll see Gaval Dash, a large rock that makes a similar sound to a tambourine when struck. The weird mud volcanoes spewing freezing mud from subterranean gas reserves are are nearby, too.
Be prepared to splurge on a tour or else settle for a complicated day on public transport. Tours start at $70 per person with an English-speaking guide and last six hours. If you use the bus, first get to Field of 20 (20-Ci Saha) bus stop in Baku and take 195 heading to Alat. Get off in Gobustan. Write the name in Azeri along with a request to stop here on a piece of paper and show the driver. They probably won’t speak English. From the bus stop, either take a taxi or walk the 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) to the National Park. You’ll need to get a taxi to visit the mud volcanoes.
Visitors who travel to Azerbaijan often visit the historical second city, Ganja. Dating back to the 6th century and the birthplace of famous 12th-century poet, Nizami Ganjavi, Ganja offers a glimpse into traditional Azerbaijan before the the wealth from black gold.
It’s a long journey from Baku to Ganja, taking up to four-and-a-half hours on the 370-kilometre trip (230 miles). Tickets cost AZN10 ($5.90) departing from Baku International Bus Terminal on the outskirts of the city. Take the green line to Memar Ajami and the purple to Avtovaghzal.
When you arrive in Ganja, head to the central square near Ataturk Avenue and grab a bite to eat. Don’t expect any English. If you have the energy, go sightseeing or wait until tomorrow.
Ganja’s main attractions include the Bottle House, giant Tomb of Nizami, and 15th-century Shah Abbas Mosque. The History and Ethnography Museum along Ataturk Avenue makes for an exciting stop for an hour, and the ruins of Shah Abbas caravanserai are on the square opposite. Walk along the pedestrian street, snap a few photographs and head to the historical Khan Baghi Park.
Lake Goygol, a mountainous lake surrounded by lush forest, is 45 kilometres (30 miles) and accessible on a half-day trip. In the evening, take a taxi to the large Heydar Aliyev Park on the outskirts of Ganja.
Sheki, the historical mountain town near the Georgian border, is the final stop. Regular buses leave from Ganja, and depending on the weather, should take up to three hours.
Most who travel to Azerbaijan skip Sheki, but they miss out on the historical and natural wonders. The main attractions include the 18th-century Sheki Khan’s Palace (Khansarai), the caravanserai that once housed Silk Road traders and a set of medieval baths.
Stroll along the streets in Sheki and soak up the history one last time. Tourists who travel to Azerbaijan often visit neighbouring Georgia from Sheki. If this is your route, take the bus from Sheki to Azerbaijan’s border town at Balakan. Get a taxi to the border, cross into Georgia and then catch another marshrutka (minibus) from nearby Lagodekhi to Sighnaghi. Or, take the six-hour bus from Sheki back to Baku.