Azerbaijan is 93% Muslim (majority Shia) and 90% Azeri (ethnicity). It is, however, a pretty secular culture. In Baku, the capital and the largest city in the country, you will see only a few women with covered hair. In fact, the women are pretty cosmopolitan – complete with high heels and lots of make-up.
Still, I thought I would compile here a few tips for women, in particular, when traveling to Azerbaijan.
1. Travel to Azerbaijan requires a visa. You can get one in the U.S. at either the Azerbaijan embassy in Washington D.C. or in Los Angeles. From my experience, the Los Angeles embassy is better. The fee is $131 and you will need to fed ex your passport and application to them. You can get the application online.
2. Azerbaijan is 12 hours ahead of pacific daylight time so jet lag is inevitable – on both sides. I highly recommend bringing sleeping pills for at least the first night in Azerbaijan (note that many refer to the country in abbreviation as AZ).
3. In general, women shouldn’t be out alone after 9pm. I heard a number of first hand accounts of women being harassed when out late at night by themselves or with other women. If you’re out late with a man in the city, you’re usually okay.
4. While women here do wear tight clothing, most are pretty covered up. Dress modestly. I should also add that women very much dress like women. Which is to say it is rare to see a woman dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and running shoes. I saw exactly one woman dressed like this during my entire trip and she was a young woman who said she wanted to be a computer scientist when she grew up!
5. In some places in the capital, and in most places outside of the big city that is Baku, you will encounter “Turkish toilets” aka toilets that amount to a hole in the ground. Most restrooms do not have tissue paper. So carry tissue with you everywhere. I found the bulk tissue packs you can buy at Walgreens to be life savers. Also, the best way to navigate the toilet infrastructure, I found, is to wear skirts. I know this sounds odd, but it’s true. When you wear long pants you run the risk of your pants hitting the ground in some pretty dicey locales. I traveled to Azerbaijan in the winter and skirts with tights were just the ticket.
6. There are surprisingly few trash cans in restrooms. So, if you’re a woman, you may need to bring your own hygiene bags. Also of note, the use of tampons is very limited in the country. You will not find tampons with applicators in pharmacies. Fyi. (BTW – if you are a man reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
7. Also, because the rest of the world is not as germ phobic as the U.S., it is difficult to find hand sanitizer in Azerbaijan. So bring your own. I found it very helpful when traveling outside of Baku as most restrooms had limited means for washing up.
8. If you’re traveling from the U.S. you won’t need a converter, but you will need an adapter for using electronic devices in Azerbaijan. South European/Middle East adapters work in Azerbaijan – even outside Baku.
9. The food is pretty heavy on the meat and fat. Even fish, when available, is usually fried. The good news, though, is fresh vegetables and fruit are plentiful. In fact, I found the produce to be very good. Now, it won’t look as pretty as the cosmetically enhanced produce in U.S. grocery stores, but the flavor of the fruits and vegetables in Azerbaijan was superb.
10. There is wi-fi for internet access at most hotels, but very limited in other places – even universities. There are internet cafes that can be used to check email in most towns. Surprisingly, my Blackberry was of no use to me in Azerbaijan. Verizon charges on a per use basis in this country. Which means that you will have to pay close to $5.00 per mb to check your email using your blackberry. Not worth it! I disabled data on my phone during my trip and had it turned off the entire time I was there.
11. Many travel websites will say you can use U.S. dollars in Azerbaijan and in theory you can. But in practice, few people accept them. Also, outside of Baku, most won’t accept credit cards either. My hotel in Seki said they could accept credit cards but their system was down and I ultimately had to pay in Manats. So you are better off bringing Manats (AZN) or using an ATM to withdraw Manats when in Baku. You won’t be able to use ATMs in most areas outside of Baku.
12. Finally, some odd but true cultural guidelines:
a. It’s not appropriate to go outside with wet hair; if you walk around with wet hair it implies that you just had sex
b. It’s also not appropriate to put on Chapstick in public – again, it has sexual connotations
c. It’s unseemly to drink water from the bottle; women are expected to drink from a glass
d. Women are not allowed to smoke and a woman smoking here would be a big no-no
There you have it. Some travel essentials for women. It’s an interesting country and if you find yourself traveling there, I hope you find these tips useful.