Baku, Azerbaijan Report of what it's like to live there - 06/22/21

Personal Experiences from Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan 06/22/21

Background:

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

We've done USAID tours in Paraguay, Afghanistan, Senegal, and DC prior to Baku. We met in Peace Corps Tonga.

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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 usually do home leave in Connecticut, and if you fly into NY or Boston instead of Hartford, flight time is around 13-14 hours. With layovers it usually ends up being around 20 hours total. During non-Covid times the typical flight route goes through Frankfurt, Germany. I prefer the Turkish Airlines flight through Istanbul, but you need the Fly America waiver. You can also go to/from with Qatar Airways.

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3. What years did you live here?

2017-2021.

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4. How long have you lived here?

Four years. Typical tour is two years and I rebid on my position to stay longer. A lot of people extend for a third year, but the four year crew is quite small.

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

USAID.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Probably the biggest house we'll ever have in the Foreign Service. It was brand new when we moved in and has been a great house to live in. It has 4 floors total that include a giant open area attic and a basement with garage. The International School of Azerbaijan (TISA) is located in the neighborhood. Commute time for my wife and kids to get to school was a five minute walk. Driving to the Chancery or Annex (at Landmark Hotel) can take 15-45 minutes depending on traffic, and the return trip is usually 20-60 minutes. If you can change your schedule to go in early and leave early you will miss a lot of the traffic. I found that if I left the Annex by 5:30 I could get home in 30 minutes. If I left at 6pm or later, it would take 45 minutes to an hour plus. The Chancery and Annex are about a mile apart, but the Annex is in a more trafficked area so getting out can be more difficult. Certain times of the year, like when Formula 1 is in town, the traffic is a complete nightmare and everything is gridlocked. Or when the president goes anywhere they shut down the roads and you could be stuck for 30 minutes.

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

I think there is pretty good availability for most things. It's not Africa where you spend US $15 to buy cheese. Like many countries in the Foreign Service, if you can't go without your American products, you can just use Amazon. I haven't had a problem making anything really as long as I substitute certain things. Plus, there is even a pork delivery service that will bring products right to your house. It's fantastic!

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

My wife likes to bring American cake mixes and frosting. I brought some IPAs, but they lose flavor quickly if you don't drink them. Honestly the availability of things here is pretty good and if you are a halfway decent cook you'll be able to do well. Making brownies from scratch takes about five minutes longer than using a pre-made mix. Being in America makes you lazy in terms of food. Buy fresh and eat more vegetables. The tomatoes here are to die for!

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

A pretty good variety. We even had a Mexican place for a while until it shut down. No Ethiopian or Korean unfortunately. Lots of great fancy Turkish and Russian places. And you can get good Georgian food here, which if you haven't had it is superb. There is even a Hard Rock Cafe, which my kids love after a sweaty day wandering around the old city. Azerbaijani food is also great and when you travel outside of Baku the kebabs and salads are so fresh and delicious. Breakfasts here are also really great. We haven't done much takeout or food delivery, but the options are many.

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

Some ants and mosquitoes, but, again, it's not Africa so the issues here are not significant. Every spring we have baby snakes that pop out near our house. The cats and foxes usually get them quick though.

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Daily Life:

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

We use pouch and DPO. Some of the BP families use some shipping services, so there are options if you aren't an American diplomat.

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

We've employed a nanny/housekeeper and pay about 1200 manat a month (it's 1.7 manat to the dollar). So, compared to other parts of the world it may cost more, but it has been totally worth it to ensure that our kids have after school care and our laundry gets done. We've been really impressed with the quality of local staff here. Some people hire multiple staff - nannys, drivers, gardeners - but we really haven't needed all those people. They are available if you need them though.

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

I've been fortunate because there is a great gym and pool at the Landmark Hotel that is available for Embassy staff use. And it's free!!! There may be a small workout room at the Chancery inside a container or something, but honestly I've never been bothered because the Landmark gym is so amazing. My boss decided he needed an even fancier gym so he got a membership at Port Baku, which has state of the art equipment and squash courts. You pay for it though.

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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?

Most expats use cash, while locals in Baku do a lot of transactions with their cards. If you have a local account it's easy to pay with a card. Most expats don't bother with that and just use cash. When you go to the ski mountains and stay at fancy hotels you are totally fine using credit cards. I just paid a traffic fine online with my US debit card. It triggered an alert and freeze on my card that I had to call and have removed before I could finish the payment. Most ATMs are fine, but the fees are not cheap.

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

That's been the one drawback for us as USAID is that we didn't get any language before coming here. You can get around without it, but knowing Russian or Azeri opens up so many doors that were closed to us. When you get out of Baku it can be hard to navigate and find things. People are happy to help, but you need to be able to communicate. Trying to find 1000+ year old Albanian churches in the middle of nowhere was extremely difficult. Classes and tutors are affordable and available, but if you don't put 5+ hours into learning and study per week you just won't ever get anywhere with the language.

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

I guess it depends on the person. Some of the sidewalks can be difficult, but there is a great boulevard on the Caspian Sea that is flat. A lot of restaurants and malls have ramps and elevators. It's not fully accessible like the US, but you could definitely do worse in the Foreign Service.

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Transportation:

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

For the most part. Some of the hiking groups use the little mini buses and they can be dangerous depending on the driver. There are public buses, a metro, and a train that goes to Georgia. All of these are accessible if you have some language and can figure out the routes. For taxis there are many options. I prefer Bolt, which is sort of like Uber because you can set the route on the app and you don't have to negotiate price or anything with the driver. With normal taxis the rate doubles when they find out you are a Westerner.

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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?

If you are planning to never leave Baku you can use any type of car, or go without a vehicle altogether. If you want to explore the countryside then it's best to have a SUV. The roads can be a bit rough depending on where you go.

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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?

We've had good connection apart from last year during the war with Armenia when the government restricted bandwidth. I think our connection is 50 mbps, but honestly I can't remember. We pay around $100 per month and can stream movies with no issues or lag time. I think installation took a day or two to get scheduled, but it was so long ago that I can't remember.

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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?

I have an iPhone through my work and my wife has a local phone. It's a pay as you go phone, but she can access the internet and do apps and such. The only problem with any phone is that you have to register it or it will stop working at some point. It can be complicated, but any of the phone stores can help you with the process when you buy something. We also got a GoogeFi phone while we were here and that's worked well for two-factor security authentication and for traveling to other countries.

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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?

There are a couple good vets that work with expats. We adopted some cats here and then found homes for them before our departure. I don't have any idea about quarantine. I think the recent US restrictions on dogs was because of an NGO here in Azerbaijan that sent dogs to the US with rabies. That literally just happened the other day so things might change quite a lot soon.
You should know that most Azerbaijanis don't really like dogs so you don't see them that often. Cats are everywhere though. Cat watching has been a favorite activity for my children these last years.

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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?

My wife is a teacher and has worked at TISA the last four years. There are also jobs at the Embassy. Options for volunteering are around, but you'd have to look carefully. I think Covid is also helping to increase telework opportunities.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Some, although I can't speak to them extensively.

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

Depends on where you work. State staff at the Chancery tend to dress very formally. I've gotten away with khakis and polos working at the Annex (shorts and t-shirt during Covid).

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Health & Safety:

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

It's one of the safest countries I've ever been in. The only thing you really need to worry about is getting into a vehicular accident.

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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?

No real health concerns. It can get dusty in the summer and you might be affected by seasonal allergies. Medical care is decent. There's a fancy Turkish hospital that you can go to for an MRI if you need one. My wife destroyed her knee and they Medevaced her to London. I'm not sure where the line is between evac and local care though.

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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?

Baku is a windy city so that keeps the air fairly fresh. There have been some summer days where the air is thick with dust, but generally it's fine.

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

They probably need to take the same steps they would anywhere else.

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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)?

Not really.

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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?

It's been my first post with actual seasons so that's been nice. My favorite months of the year are May and October. Make sure you get out of Baku to enjoy the countryside then. Summers can get up to 100+ and are super dry, but typically the crazy heat is only a few days at a time. It's snowed once in the four years we've been here.

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Schools & Children:

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

TISA and BIS are the two most popular schools. They are both pretty good.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

TISA has a special needs coordinator so they do make an effort. I'm not sure about BIS.

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3. 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?

Lots of options for English, Russian, and Azeri. We just used the TISA preschool, which was pretty good, although terribly expensive. If my wife didn't work there we probably wouldn't have sent our son there because of the cost, which is equivalent to some universities.

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

I coached football/soccer for a few years until Covid hit. My daughter did gymastics and my son did Judo and rugby. Azerbaijan is known for wrestling and judo, so you can actually get a former olympic athlete to teach your kids for quite cheap. My kids also did horse riding lessons, which are also cheap. There are so many options here that you could have them in classes every day of the week.

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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 a decent size, mostly due to all the BP oil families. We've been friends with a variety of folks from BP and the German Embassy. Some of the BP folks have been here forever. Morale is mostly good. If you have to work on political issues morale can be dampened at times. It's not an easy place to work, but the ease of life can make up for that. We stayed here for four years so ...

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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?

Like anywhere else. Dinners at people's homes, restaurants, bars, etc. You see lots of people at the ski mountain every winter. The football and rugby teams also did a good job with social stuff. One of the best things about living in Stonepay was the annual roving dinner where you go to three people's houses for apps, mains, and desserts. It's a great way to get to know others in the neighborhood.

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

It can be a good city for anyone. There are lots of bars and restaurants. And there's lots for families and kids to do as well. There's a singles group from TISA that gets together for hikes and other adventures. You definitely aren't limited here like in other countries.

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

I don't think it's a good city for people to be openly LGBT. There have been government crackdowns on the community. Even though it is "Muslim Light" here, it definitely isn't a liberal place. There have been LGBT members of the Embassy that have done fine here, but just remember that it isn't Western Europe.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

My opinion is that most locals are a bit guarded. There's also still the post-Soviet mentality where everyone seems a little bit grumpy. That being said, my local staff in Azerbaijan have been the best staff I've ever worked with. The office is really like a family and we do a lot together socially. I think if I had more Azeri language my response on this question might have been quite different.

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

Nothing that you'll see that's really blatant or visible, unless you are Armenian and then you should really think hard about whether you want to live here. The anti-Armenian attitude seems really pervasive, and even some of my introverted local staff become very passionate whenever you mention Armenia. Gender equality is definitely an issue, but it's harder to see in Baku. Pre-Covid there were a lot of Arab tourists and it also seemed they could be discriminated against.

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

Skiing every winter up in Shahdag and seeing my kids go from zero to speeding down the slopes. Hiking in isolated Xinaliq. Spending days hiking and drinking tea in Lahij. Visiting ancient palaces in Sheki. Getting lost in the mountains and waterfalls of Gabala. Taking an old Russian jeep through rivers to get to a hot spring outside Qakh. Doing a wine tour and sipping wine at Chabiant Winery. Hiking up to the lake and castle at Tallistan Forest. Seeing a 1000 year old castle at Qalaalti. Visiting the mud volcanoes. Hiking around Laza. Taking a road trip to Georgia. I'm probably forgetting things I recommend getting out of the city every May and October because they are the best months of the year to see other parts of Azerbaijan.

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

The mud volcanoes are only 30-45 minutes outside Baku. There are some beach resorts you can spend a day at on the northern side of the penninsula. We hiked Baku's tears, which is a mountain just to the southwest of Baku. I'm sure there's a real trail there, but we just followed the goats path. Absheron penninsula national part. The Ashtega fire temple. Getting lost in the tiny alleys of Old City. The winter market at Fountain Square. Walking and bike riding along the boulevard. Dodging all the Azerbaijanis taking selfies during the Baku half marathon.

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

Yes, people buy carpets and many other handicrafts. Lots of interesting stuff!

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

Ease of life. You can easily get sucked into a feeling of normal life. I know many families that never leave Baku. There's so much to see and do in the country that you should make an effort to get out of the city at least one weekend a month. The 13 mile long boulevard is also a great advantage for bikers and runners. It's also nice to hit one of the restaurants there and enjoy looking out at the Caspian while sipping tea.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

How difficult it can be to work with the local government. It's depressing at times how poorly people can be treated here. There's so much wealth here that could be properly invested and improve people's lives, but it seems it is diverted for corruption and flashy infrastructure.

On a positive note, I wish I had known how amazing my staff was going to be. I'm angry that Covid has robbed me of 16 months of being able to work with them face-to-face.

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

Absolutely.

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

desire to only serve in Western Europe. No, it's not Paris or London, but it is a fabulous post if you open your mind.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure and openness.

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