Along the Caspian Sea is Azerbaijan, a country that's so opposite the typical tourist destination. In fact, they really don't have all that much tourism. Sounds perfect for anyone who wants to get a feel for what it's really like.
Azerbaijan is a country of valleys and mountains, with a semi-arid desert thrown in just to make it even more interesting. This is a predominately Muslim country, but you'll find it to be quite secular. But, if you are going to visit--please try to dress modestly.
Getting that out of the way, think about getting around. The capital city of Baku is conveniently located to make your way from here. Baku's Metro system will zip you around the city, otherwise negotiate fares with taxi drivers beforehand.
Azerbaijan's rail system might not be fast, but it's exceptionally affordable. And if you're going to head up into the mountains, think about getting yourself a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Baku can keep you busy for a while, though. So no need to head out too quickly. Its walled city is a UNESCO site, and the Shirvan Shah's Palace dates to the 12th century. The Maiden's Tower offers a 360-degree view. A good place to scope out all the ancient buildings you want to see.
Over in the village of Xinaliq you'll find an Iranian ethnic group known as the Tats--there are only about a thousand Tats living here, but they retain their own identity in a sea of over 8 million Azeris.
Azeri is also the name of the official language spoken in Azerbaijan, but you'll also hear Russian. Understandable since the country once belonged to the Soviet Republic.
The name Azeri also applies to the wonderful carpets you can buy here, as well as silk and ceramics. The Sharg Bazary in Baku is a great market to buy yourself something.
You might think nothing could compare to the beauty of an Azeri carpet, but Azerbaijan's scenery shines. The Yanar Dag, or Wall of Fire, should be seen at sunset; and the Beshbarmaq Dag juts some 520 meters overhead.
Eating in Azerbaijan is equally as wonderful, influenced by both Turkish and Asian cuisine. Since much of Azerbaijan tends to be warm, try Dograma, a cold potato and cucumber soup. On the cooler nights try some Piti, made with chickpeas and mutton.
Even being a Muslim country, of sorts, you can find all sorts of wines and brandies--although the drink of choice is tea.
All you need to experience Azerbaijan is a passport, and most foreign nationals can get their visa on arrival--but it's best to check with the consulate. Be sure to take out comprehensive medical insurance before you leave, and used boiled or bottled water only. Dairy in dishes and beverages is OK, just make sure you've cooked the veggies and peeled the fruit.
You wouldn't want anything to stop you from taking in any of Azerbaijan's Operas, Ballets, or Theater performances, would you? No, didn't think so.
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