Blogs come in all forms. This week we're featuring something a little different – an informative, up-to-the-minute guide to travelling economically through some of the world's more intriguing countries called the Hitchhiker's Handbook.
Below you'll find an extract from their excellent post on hitching through Azerbaijan. You'll find even more details on the official website.
Azerbaijan is an interesting country both culturally and landscape-wise. Its highly under-developed tourist infrastructure can be viewed both as an advantage and as a disadvantage. It’s hard to be an independent traveller in a country which provides hardly any public transport and the concept of hitchhiking is not recognised at all. However, we found it very rewarding, if a bit tiring.
The Azeri people we encountered were nice and hospitable and I’m sure if they had known what hitchhiking was they would have been more helpful.
As I have already mentioned, hitchhiking in Azerbaijan turned out to be extremely difficult and that is simply because the people don’t know the concept. Some drivers seeing us on the side of the road stopped their cars but didn’t know how to help us and even when we tried to speak to them in Russian and used the Russian word for hitchhiking, they still didn’t know what we meant. An Azeri boxer even took us to a station and insisted on buying us a ticket! So you are bound to meet really nice locals but as for hitchhiking we weren’t particularly lucky.
Another difficulty is the fact that in Azerbaijan there aren’t that many major routes on which people would frequently travel, so if you decide to travel off the beaten track, you might find yourself stuck in a place for a long time.
After we’d realised that hitchhiking in Azerbaijan wasn’t possible, we got around using marshrutkas (paid mini vans), which wasn’t easy either due to the fact that outside the big cities, there are no proper marshrutras stations. You may be able to find a square from which they frequently depart but finding a decent timetable might give you a headache. On the whole, if you don’t speak Russian, Turkish or Azerbaijani you might find it difficult to obtain any information regarding your destination, timetables or fares.
Another disadvantage is that, along with the underdeveloped transport infrastructure, you might find it difficult to find any accommodation if you travel off the main route. We managed to find a couchsurfing host (Jamil, you’re great!) in Baku only and that was pretty lucky too! Like in the other Caucasus counties, your only option in this situation is 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.
Another disadvantage is the fact that 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 I’m 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.
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.
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!
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.
Also, keep in mind that Azeri people are terrible drivers and the driving culture is devoid any rules. Don’t be surprised if you see five cars lined up next to each other on the two lane road, even if that means the possibility of a head-on collision. They are not frightened by any dangerous manoeuver and they don’t pay attention to pedestrians, so be careful!
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.
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