Baku, Azerbaijan Report of what it's like to live there - 07/15/18

Personal Experiences from Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan 07/15/18

Background:

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

This was our second tour. We were in the Middle East before coming here.

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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?

We don’t have a real home base in the US, but usually travel to DC (about 19 hours with a stop in Frankfurt), Utah (about 17 hours with 2 stops), or Germany (6 hours direct flight to Frankfurt)

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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.)?

State Department.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

In general, housing is pretty good here and most people are very happy with their housing. Houses and apartments are good-sized and adequate. Commute times vary from a 10-minute walk to a 25-minute car ride. For most housing units, there is, if at all, little green space.



Of course, housing changes all of the time, but we live in a high apartment building “Turkish Red Brick,” a 10 minute walk or 5 minute ride away from the embassy, 10 minutes away from the downtown area, with three groceries stores within a 10-minute walk. Singles, couples, small families as well as bigger families have lived here. The Baku International School is about 15-minute car ride away.



The embassy rents new and very nice apartments right near the Bulvar, mostly for singles, couples and small families (about a 10-minute ride by car).
A little compound “Izmir Villas” is a great option if you want to be somewhat closer to the embassy (less than 10 min by car). Houses are American style and look very nice, but have routine maintenance issues.



Another compound is Grand Park, which also has nice single houses and is close to a big new grocery store. Again, routine maintenance issues.
If you would like to send your kids to The International School of Azerbaijan and live close to the school, but don’t mind the 25-30 minute commute to work, chances are high that you will live at the big compound Stonepay, which looks like a little dated American suburb. There is not really much around Stonepay, so you’re a little out there in your bubble.

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

Prices are decent as long as you buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and are grown in the area or are imported from nearby countries. The variety of produce is not the most amazing, but we were able to find most foods. It’s a consumables post, so you can ship typical American foods and drinks as they will be difficult to find here. People still cook a lot from scratch, so you won’t be able to find many good convenience foods.
About every six months, the Baku Employee Association orders goods (including frozen) from Aviano at a moderate price increase.



If you turn in your VAT receipts, you can get 18% back of your grocery purchases, which makes a big difference. For us, all of our VAT reimbursements add up to about $1.5k per year.

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

For the consumables shipment, I would focus on hygiene products (shampoos, hand soaps, nail polish remover, lotions, make-up), cooking oils (they mainly sell sunflower, corn oil and olive oil here), typical American baking and cooking ingredients (pumpkin puree, molasses, evaporated milk, corn syrup, chocolate chips), sauces for cooking, good mayonnaise (theirs taste very different), peanut butter (especially the ones without sugar can be either difficult to find or are expensive), different bean varieties, gluten-free products. I would also ship your favorite cereals as the variety is not that great here or packed with sugar and not enriched.



Good-tasting basmati, risotto, jasmine and mixed rice varieties can be difficult to find or can be expensive.
Different kinds of flours can be difficult to find or difficult to identify if you can’t read Azerbaijani or Russian (bread flour, whole wheat flour, cake flour, almond flour, flaxseed flour). I would also bring spices like pumpkin spice, cream of tartar and good meat rubs.



Typical American drinks like root beer, cream soda, or good beer can be difficult to find or are expensive. They have a good variety of cleaning products at the stores, but they are cheaper in the US.

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

There are many restaurants especially in the downtown area. Most restaurants are decently priced. I haven’t found many that are amazing, but the food scene seems to be growing. Lots of Azerbaijani restaurants, East European restaurants (Mari Vanna is our favorite among them), Turkish/Middle Eastern, and a few Asian ones that are mediocre. There is a Hard Rock Cafe and more and more decent burger places are popping up. Vapiano, which is an international casual Italian chain is pretty good and cheap, too.



Hotels like the Four Seasons, Hilton and Marriott offer great breakfast buffets for good prices. There are not too many food delivery services, but Papa John’s and other pizza places seem to be the most popular ones.

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

We live in an apartment building and never had any kind of problem with insects, but some of the houses have problems with ants or other insects, but nothing out of the normal.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Baku is currently a pouch-only post (Li batteries can be problematic). We never used the local postal facilities.

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

Household help is good and affordable here. Most of them are from Azerbaijan and are live-out. Expats usually pay between 7-10 AZN per hour. Two days off/week is the norm here.



It seems many families with school kids have a driver. Not sure how much they pay them monthly.

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

No idea on this, but the previous post report has more information on this topic.

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

We always had cash with us, as you never know if a place will accept credit cards. Most international hotels accept credit cards, but some terminals won’t accept American-based credit cards.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I have heard of people going to Christian English services, but I forgot the name of the church. There is also a small expat LDS group present here.

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

Of course it’s always helpful to know the local language, but we did survive with the most basic Azerbaijani. We usually just spoke English with people or used hands and feet, and rarely had a problem. Young Azerbaijanis learn English now and can understand basic English. Most Azerbaijanis speak Russian and/or a little bit of Turkish, too. Many products at the stores are imported from Russia, so Russian might be a little bit more helpful to learn than Azerbaijani, especially if you like to travel to other post-Soviet countries.

The embassy offers group classes every once in a while, and tutors are at the embassy to help employees.

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

Yes, very likely. Unless you're walking on the Bulvar or other downtown areas, it is difficult to even push around strollers because underpass escalators are not always turned on (with no lift nearby) and most curbs are very high and uneven. There are lots of steps, too, because Baku is a hilly city, which would make it difficult to get around in a wheel chair. They have recently made street corners accessible both by wheelchairs and strollers, but there are still many curbs that are too high.

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Transportation:

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

Most people either drive or take Uber or Taxify taxis, which are cheap. You only pay around 2-4 Manat for most rides. The purple London cabs are an option, too, but I find them much more expensive (starting at 3 AZN).



The Metro is safe to use, but the system is not very extensive yet, so it’s usually not the most convenient to take. It’s very cheap, though, at 20 qepik cents per ride. Both Metro and busses are usually packed

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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?

For city driving, any car will do. You see everything here from big cars to old, small Ladas. If you like driving around in the countryside, I would take a 4-wheel drive. Gas is cheap here, especially if you turn in your VAT receipts. Repairs are very affordable and good here, too. Dealerships do relatively pain-free and inexpensive repairs and maintenance.

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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 is not super fast, but we have not had many problems streaming videos. Internet bills vary from 20-80 AZN, depending on your housing and speeds you want.

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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?

We’ve used unlocked phones with a local SIM card and put money on them every few months. It is pretty cheap.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Most spouses try to find a job at the embassy, although there haven’t been too many open positions during our time here (especially with the hiring freeze). Some expats work as teachers at the international schools (TISA and BIS).

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

Depending on the section, it will be business or business casual. Azeris like to dress well in public. You never really see people in sweat pants, with crazy hairstyles or colors, lots of tattoos or piercings as they are still frowned upon. People always look very neatly dressed and styled. Women wear a lot more skirts and dresses here than in the US. I would bring a few formal dresses with you for Azerbaijani weddings, the Marine ball, and other expat balls.

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Health & Safety:

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

Baku feels like a really safe place. With cameras and police everywhere, pretty crime is low. No need to dress down here like in many other countries. Men behave very respectfully towards women here and will help you with heavy grocery bags, open doors for you. I have noticed that men don’t catcall here as I've seen in many other countries.



Azerbaijanis typically have dark hair and brown eyes, so people like to take pictures of your light-skinned kids and/or give them a hug or kiss.
People with darker skin and Asian people might get a little bit more attention just because they seem somewhat rare here.

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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?

We haven’t had any issues here. It’s a big city, so of course, the air is not as clean as it is in the countryside, but it hasn’t affected us.
Medical care is not the greatest, so most people are medivaced for anything more serious. Dental care is okay, but not great. Health Unit sends most people to WorldMed, but I would not recommend them anymore.



I like the Dr. Smiles Boutique a lot better, although her practice does not look as impressive as WorldMed does, but I find the services better there. She also seems a lot more honest. Dr. Latafet Aliyeva got her degree in the US and was a dentist there for many years, so she is very familiar with American standards.

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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?

The air quality is okay. It’s a big city with lots of older cars driving around, a little bit of sand in the air as it doesn’t rain too often, and the smell of oil from the Caspian Sea sometimes lingers in the air, so of course, the air is not as clean as in some countries or outside in the countryside, but we never had any issues. There was never a day when the air was too polluted to go outside.

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

No extreme weather. Baku has four seasons, but the spring and fall always felt pretty short. It does not rain too often and never very long, which is great, but it can get quite windy a few days a month.



We have had snow the first winter we were here, but didn’t have any during our second winter.

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Schools & Children:

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

Most children go to either TISA or BIS. Both schools are great, but parents seem a tiny bit happier with BIS. TISA is a lot bigger than BIS and is right next to the Stonepay compound where many oil people and other diplomats live. It can be a little bit cliquish from what I’ve heard.

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2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Both TISA and BIS offer pre-school classes in English, starting at three years. Not sure about the current prices at TISA, but at BIS we paid around US$8300 per preschool year with school hours from 8.45am-1.30pm.

A few other parents send their kids to Azerbaijani/Russian preschools for a lot less money.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Most kids join after-school clubs that are offered at the international schools. Violin and piano classes are cheap. We paid around 20 AZN for a full hour.
There are more and more activities for kids offered at various restaurants like making pizza, chocolate pralines, art, cupcake decorating, etc.

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Expat Life:

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

Not sure about the numbers, but the expat community seems medium-sized. Lots of oil people, other diplomats and business people.
Overall morale seems good. Most of our friends have really enjoyed their time here. I found that those who had several cushy posts before coming here (especially posts in Europe), had a harder time adjusting. We came from a harder hardship post than Baku, so for us, this place was much easier.
It might take a little bit to make friends beyond the people who live in your housing complex, just because housing is so spread in Baku and we didn’t have a Community Liaison Office (CLO) Coordinator for a while, but that’s all changing.

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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?

Lots of eating out and hosting parties and other get-togethers, just like at most posts.

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

This city is great for everybody. Life is affordable here and more and more fun activities are offered. People especially like that it is so safe here.

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

Yes and no. I think culturally, it is not really accepted, but it’s not as bad as in some other countries. I think people who are LGBT expats just don’t show in public, but I can see that you can probably find other people in the community.

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

Azerbaijanis mostly still have the traditional roles in their minds, with the women taking care of the home and children and the men earning the money, but I find Azerbaijani men very polite towards women. Azerbaijani women enjoy the same legal rights, but like in so many other countries, societal discrimination seems to remain.

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

We have really loved our two years here. We have liked our housing, house help is affordable, eating out is reasonably priced, so we felt like we could do and eat most things without feeling bad about spending too much money. The hardship pay is 20%, which makes saving money easy.



The Thai House offers 2 hour massages for less than $50, so we took advantage of that many times. One of our highlights in the city were watching a Formula 1 race and attending the Opening Ceremony for the Islamic Solidarity Games. During our time, we have had so much luck with all the great people at the embassy who were easy to work with, and we have become good friends with many of them.

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

We really like just walking around Baku’s downtown and old town and the Bulvar along the Caspian Sea. We love the interesting mix between Muslim, Soviet and European influences on architecture, music, food and culture.

We enjoyed going skiing in Shahdag several times (about 3 hours away by car) for very affordable prices. We have driven to Georgia (mainly Tbilisi) a few times, and stopped in several interesting Azerbaijani cities along the way. Gobustan and the mud volcanoes are fun to visit, too. There are also a few beach clubs at the Caspian Sea that are decent. Wizz Air offers cheap direct flights to Budapest, so we went there a few times.


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

Many people buy carpets. We love the art here and have bought several beautiful paintings for decent prices. Azerbaijanis like to use nice and bright colors in their arts.

Some people like buying copper bowls and plates, which are mainly made in a little village up in the mountains called Lahic. Sheki Silk is popular, as are scarves and Turkish bowls and plates. And anything with pomegranates on it. Azerbaijanis loooove their pomegranates.

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

The safety and affordability of things.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Azerbaijanis don’t smile much in public and tend to dress in darker colors, but they are very warm and good-hearted people. They are very generous, polite, honest (besides taxi drivers and sales people), down to earth, and are always willing to help. Azeris loooove children.

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

Yes, we could have easily lived here longer.

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

Driving rules. We like to say that in other countries you drive to not hit others but here you drive to not be constantly hit.

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4. But don't forget your:

Flexibility. Things don't always go smoothly here, i.e. stores are closed even though their website says that they should be open, so it's good to stay flexible.

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