Baku, Azerbaijan Report of what it's like to live there - 05/07/18

Personal Experiences from Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan 05/07/18

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I've also lived in East Africa and SE Asia.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

United States. Common routing is through Frankfurt or Istanbul.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

If you're in Baku with an embassy or corporation, you will likely find your housing size to range from adequate to large. If you're with an NGO or have to find your own accommodation at your own cost, you may have a smaller apartment. Housing does not have much storage space and closets are often quite narrow. But living spaces are good-sized and can easily accommodate social gatherings if you like to entertain. Average expat commute times range from 10 minutes on foot to 35 minutes by car. There is no specific expat neighborhood, but the general footprint of where most expats live, work, and play in Baku is fairly compact.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

As usual overseas, you're not going to find all the international brands and products you love from home. If you have favorites, bring them with you or order online. Except for Georgian wine, local wine and beer is unexciting, however the vodka selection is fabulous! If you're not wedded to specific brands, you can find most products if you're willing to look and pay for them. However, going local is your better option. My housekeeper rarely spends more than 10 AZN on any given day for groceries and cleaning supplies for a family of two.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Ski equipment and clothing for winter weekends in Shahdag, although rentals are cheap. Camping and hiking gear if you like weekend outdoorsy trips.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is a decent variety of restaurants for expats to choose from, mostly in the Fountain Square, Old City, and Port Baku areas. Georgian restaurants are a particular favorite among expats. Pizza delivery is common. We experimented with some other delivery options, but communication barriers when ordering, long delivery times, and uncertainty if the driver would find the apartment led us to discontinue that. Takeaway is not very common, although you can find shwarma or doner in many neighborhoods, and Cafe City offers takeaway at their various locations. Going out to eat is a regular adult social activity.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None that I'm aware of. Had ants a few times.

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Daily Life:

1. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Most households have a part-time housekeeper. Those with kids generally have a nanny and usually a driver also. Baku has seen a steady stream of expats leaving as the economy has declined and NGOs have shuttered. Therefore, plenty of household helpers are looking for jobs. You can expect to pay in the range of 5-10 AZN per hour.

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2. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Several hotels and Port Baku have nice gyms with quality equipment and pools. I'm a little hazy on the cost, but I believe they are over $1200 for a year. If you don't need all the bells and whistles, there are "local" gyms everywhere, which generally focus on weightlifting and have fewer cardio machines or other amenities. My local gym costs 35 AZN per month. There are also many community sports groups - Hash House Harrier runners/walkers, soccer, Ultimate frisbee, volleyball, etc. Some of the apartment buildings also have small gyms.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I used a credit card once to pay for a hotel in Guba, and there was some issue with the AZE bank communicating with my US bank and the transaction wouldn't go through. After a lot of fussing, the hotel agreed to let me pay upon check-out, at which time the transaction went through with no issue. But after that experience, I decided not to bother with credit cards and always carried cash. Several of my expat friends use cards regularly, but you do have to be prepared for establishments that are cash only. ATMs are widely available and safe.

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4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

I always think learning the local language is helpful, and much appreciated by Azerbaijanis. I have an Azeri language tutor twice a week, and the language is useful in taxis, markets, restaurants, when traveling, etc. because you will definitely encounter people, especially taxi drivers, who don't speak English and there will be products in the supermarket with only Azeri/Russian/Turkish labels. However, my spouse has not learned any local language and gets around perfectly well. Learning Russian is perhaps more useful than Azeri, because Azeris assume foreigners speak Russian, and Russian is helpful for personal travel to Georgia, Armenia, or other parts of the former USSR. However, Azeri is closely related to Turkish, so Azeri is more useful for personal travel to Turkey or Turkic-language countries.

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5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

People with mobility difficulties will have trouble in Baku. The chancery has a small set of stairs at the entrance and it is the only entrance and there is no elevator or other way in besides these stairs. Beyond that, Baku's sidewalks are uneven and cracked and sometimes have stairs in them. Staircases at underpasses around town occasionally have ramps, but they are so steep I would not advise anyone in a wheelchair to use them. Sidewalks or curbs are often paved with marble/granite that turn into a slip-and-slide with the slightest bit of rain.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Metro is clean, ridiculously cheap (less than $1 per ride), and runs regularly; I've never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. It does get jam-packed at peak times, and body odor seems quite strong, especially in the summer. The bigger issue with using metro as a regular mode of transportation is that the system is not very extensive, so you may not be near enough to a metro stop for it to be useful for you. Most expats use Uber a lot. It is also ridiculously cheap (less than $5 for rides within Baku's central area) and convenient. The only difficultly is that Uber drivers do not reliably speak English and may not know how to read a map. And if you live in Stonepay/Royal Park, Uber drivers have a hard time finding it and getting past the guard booth to pick you up. There are also several local taxi services and you can always, always find a taxi on the street. With hailing taxis off the street, you need to bargain hard to avoid being ripped off and if you take the purple metered taxis, you may have to press hard for the driver to turn the meter on. Most taxis/Ubers don't have functioning seatbelts. I never felt in danger in cabs or metro, even as a woman at night.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Bigger cars definitely rule the road in Baku, especially expensive ones with a lot of bling. Four-wheel drive is nice if you plan to ski/hike/camp in the mountainous areas of northern and central Azerbaijan. Frankly, any car will do just fine, even to the mountains. You might have a harder time if the mountain passes are snowy, icy, or muddy, but in those situations you would be best off to change your travel plans rather than rely on 4-wheel drive to get you out of a jam. The roads in and around Baku are well paved. The Subaru dealership was helpful when we needed another key; otherwise I have had very little need of service or parts.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet speed isn't lightning fast, but I am able to do my web-browsing and video-streaming with low levels of frustration. My organization set-up my internet before my arrival.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

My employer provided my phone and paid for the plan. It's easy enough to buy a personal SIM and get top-up cards, but you have to register the number with the government. Cell signal is excellent everywhere, including on the ski slopes of Shahdag. Azerbaijani plans have exorbitant international roaming charges, so be sure to switch off cellular roaming before you cross any borders.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

AZE does not require pet quarantine. Cat import was easy enough with the standard health certificate and vaccination paperwork; I think it's just as easy for dogs. Azeris love cats. They don't often keep cats in the house as pets, but neighborhoods take care of stray cats by leaving piles of food and bowls of water on the sidewalks. Azeris are not so keen on dogs; many are afraid of them. In general, it is not acceptable in Baku to walk on the grass, so there are very few green spaces to take a dog on a walk. There is a good vet called AARC (I believe it stands for AZE Animal Rescue Center) that many expats use. AARC is located on the northern outskirts of Baku.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Azeris dress well. Guys won't even go to the gym in their gym clothes - they will wear street clothes and change at the gym. Women are always well-coifed, from their high heels to perfectly-arranged hair. I often felt like a slob in comparison and stepped up my wardrobe game and began ironing a lot more. Although miniskirts are entirely acceptable (the shorter the better it seemed), women don't wear shorts much at all, so I didn't either. Shorts are slowly becoming more common on men, although it's more of the foreigners than the locals wearing them. There are various balls to go including the UK, US, Irish, and Scottish. Formal wear would come in handy for those occasions, although it's never required.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Baku is THE safest place I have ever lived, including in the US. Cameras everywhere mean that petty crime is practically nonexistent. Men stare at foreign women, but don't force themselves on them physically, so risk of sexual assault from strangers is low. Racial discrimination, however, is real. My African-American friends have complained about people staring, touching, and wanting pictures, although the attention is definitely curiosity rather than malignant.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I have had no health issues in Baku. The healthcare system isn't great, so medivacs are frequent for serious issues. I've gone to a good, inexpensive dentist called WorldMed.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air seems great to me. I love the beautiful, clear blue skies in summer.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

My seasonal allergies have bothered me much less here than in other places.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

None that I'm aware of. Just the normal expat difficulties of adjusting to the local way of life.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Baku has four seasons. Summer is from about May to September and is hot (30s C/90s F) and humid. Winter lasts about 3 months from December to February. It rarely goes below freezing and rarely snows in Baku. Autumn and spring are beautiful. It rains periodically throughout the year, with less rain in the summer. Baku gets amazingly strong wind periodically at all times of the year...which can make a windy winter day absolutely miserable.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The International School of Azerbaijan (TISA) and Baku International School (BIS) are the most popular English-language schools. My friends with kids say these schools, particularly for high school, are great, but I don't have kids myself. There are other schooling options, too.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

It's very common to run into people you know when going out to restaurants, Fountain Square, Old City, so in that sense, the expat community is not large. Since the expat community is comprised of diplomats, oil companies, and other business people, you can make a variety of expat friends. I think morale is generally high, although many people have said it took them 3-6 months to adjust before they really start enjoying life in Baku.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Going out to eat or drink with friends is the norm, much more so than dinner parties or house parties.

There are many social groups for adults to join and they are very welcoming and fun. I have had some interaction with were InterNations. International Women's Club, and Hash House Harriers. Most groups have a mix of expat and local participants, so it's a great way to meet a variety of people. Many have Facebook pages, so it's easy to find them. I would highly recommend Hash House Harriers - they have both a running group and a walking group and get together regularly for dinner, drinks, or weekend trips outside of the Sunday Hash times.

The compact city center makes nightlife fun. You can start with dinner, move to a bar for drinks, and then head to a dance club or hear a live band, and all these places are often within walking distance of each other. Granted, there aren't a lot of options, so the scene can get stale if you desire a lot of variety. But most places don't require a cover and since there aren't too many places to go, you're likely to bump into some friends along the way.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I think singles, couples, and families all can and do have a good time in Baku. Azeris love children, and children are out at all hours, even at midnight on the Bulvar.

The local perception is that "good" Azeri women go home to their husbands or families at night, therefore a woman out at night unaccompanied by a male has loose morals. Unaccompanied ladies will get more attention, usually in the form of eye contact, rarely in the form of physical contact. There are many more Azeri males out at night, creating a heavily male gender imbalance in the nightlife scene. Therefore, many dance clubs have an entrance policy that each guy must be accompanied by a woman. Although I am not a single male, I have heard that it can be hard for men to date, because single Azeri women want to maintain the image of being a "good" girl who doesn't date around. All that being said, I find Azeri people to be incredibly friendly and interested in meeting foreigners, and Baku also has a good-sized, welcoming expat community, so any single person will easily make friends if you choose to.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Many Azerbaijanis are not accepting of LGBT people. I even had someone express surprise that I would be friends with a gay person, since he felt that was unacceptable. I think most gay people in Azerbaijan remain in the closet and it would be hard to be out in Azerbaijan.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is still very real in the Caucasus, and great animosity between the two countries accompanies that. It feels as though Azerbaijan is terrified of becoming a source of Islamic terrorism, so even though it's a Muslim country, the government closely watches conservative religious adherents. Azerbaijan is dominantly Shia and many Sunnis practice quietly rather than overtly. As a part of the former Soviet Union, atheism and lack of strong religious belief is common. Black people remain a source of curiosity for many Azerbaijanis, so they can expect to be stared at, asked to pose in photos, or potentially touched. Women are definitely considered the weaker, fairer sex. Chivalry is in no danger of dying in Azerbaijan anytime soon, but women have to work hard to be looked at as more than a pretty face. Men seem to have free rein to do as they please with their free time, while women are expected to be home taking care of children, dinner, and home. Azerbaijan is a strongly conformist society, with a strong desire by many to fit in, blend in, and not draw attention to themselves.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Skiing in Shahdag is awesome. It's only a 3-hour drive, lift tickets are fewer than 25 USD a day, and they offer inexpensive rentals and lessons. The resort hotels have all the amenities, ski lockers, and ski-in, ski-out locations. The mountains are beautiful and the slopes are well-groomed. Even if you don't ski, you MUST go for the weekend. You won't regret it!

Beach/pool resorts on the Caspian are tons of fun in the summer. The closest one is at the south end of Baku, so it's a quick trip there. Others are within a 45-minute drive. Dalga Beach is a favorite for both kids and adults with its water slides.

Tbilisi, Georgia is also great for weekend trips. The flight is only about an hour. Georgia feels a bit more like Europe, so it's a nice escape and Tbilisi has a lot of charm and of course fabulous Georgian food.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Baku and Azerbaijan has a lot to offer if you can keep an open mind and low expectations and approach activities with a sense of adventure rather then expecting a perfectly-laid out experience. Weekend trips into the Caucasus mountains offer a variety of scenic drives. As a small city and country, I don't think there are a lot of hidden gems, because you end up hearing about all the options of things to do. I would highly recommend what I call the "Caspian Cruise," which is a 30-minute out-and-back boat ride into the Caspian Sea for under 10 AZN. I also really love the view from Martyr's Alley.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Carpets are the primary item to buy. Otherwise, Azerbaijan has not yet figured out how to make and market their unique cultural heritage into a thriving handicraft industry. Many souvenir shops "specialize" in lame Made in China trinkets with Baku in big letters. I can and have found interesting items, but you have to dig through the commercial junk to find it.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

I love the safety of Baku. After living in locations with high crime and terrorist concerns, it is so freeing to go anywhere, any time, and not worry.

The Bulvar is fabulous for strolling and people-watching, particularly when the weather is nice. You also get beautiful views of the Caspian and the Flame Towers.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

You may hear that Azeris don't smile, which Americans often interpret as being unfriendly. It is true that Azeris often have a stern-looking face and they don't smile much at strangers. But this doesn't mean they are cold, hard, unfriendly people. They are actually very friendly and will quickly open up if you make an effort to connect with them. Be open to meeting and getting to know them, and they will be open to you.

If you come expecting the culture, charm, infrastructure, and competency of Western Europe - even Eastern Europe - you will be sorely disappointed.

I think a successful tour in Baku is all about managing expectations. If you keep your expectations lower, Baku will likely surprise and delight. If they are too high, Baku will likely fail to live up and you may be constantly frustrated. Take things as they come, don't expect things to meet your American/Western mindset, and keep an open mind.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely! I love Baku!!

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Desire for tasteful interiors. Your house is likely to have outlandish chandeliers and/or wallpaper!

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4. But don't forget your:

Fashionable clothing, otherwise you’ll feel like a bum next to Bakuvian men and women who always look like they’ve just stepped out of a fashion magazine.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz.

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