Azerbaijan is an incredibly diverse country, often touted as having 9 out of 11 different climatic zones. When travelling through the country the variety is remarkable. In Lankaran, tea and citrus fruits are grown in the lush green landscape. By comparison the Abşeron Peninsular is a semi-arid climate with dry sandy soil and very little rainfall. For climbers Azerbaijan is still quite unknown and we found very little information about the climbing here before our visit. Climbing aside we wanted to visit as the country looked both beautiful and interesting. We made contact with some local climbers before we arrived and we were very lucky to meet some others on our first day in Azerbaijan. Their help and information made this article possible. Climbing in Azerbaijan is still developing as a sport, but we were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the routes here.
Currently there is no guidebook, topo or route list for the climbing in Azerbaijan. The existing routes aren’t named, graded or documented anywhere. This seems like a hurdle at first, but once you’ve located the climbing areas it doesn’t cause much of a problem. It can be quite fun to set off on an onsight of a route when you really aren’t sure what to expect.
Beşbarmaq is perhaps the best climbing area in Azerbaijan and it is absolutely stunning! We had no idea about this place or what it looked like until local climbers showed us some pictures and we felt we had hit the jackpot. The climbing here is great quality, all of the routes are very well equipped and spread out across the hillside. The routes can be tricky to find, so have a good walk around all the giant boulders and pinnacles to make sure you don’t miss the best spots.
Beşbarmaq means five fingers and relates to the shape of the mountain, which can be found near Qalaşixi. The stunning main walls of the mountain have been climbed before, but not for a long time. The routes on there are all trad and the quality of the rock is unknown. The rock surrounding the main mountain has a wealth of great sport routes and bouldering, as well as the potential for single pitch trad if you have the gear. The majority of rock is very good quality and generally you can spot the good from the bad. There is an enormous amount of potential for new routes in the area, but make sure to contact local climbers first if this is your plan, particularly if you want to place bolts.
The landscape at Beşbarmaq is very unusual, you almost feel like you are in an alpine meadow, despite being at around 300 meters elevation with a view of the Caspian Sea! The lush hillside is covered in beautiful flowers and insects and is also well known to bird watchers – we were delighted to spot a Hoopoe while we were here. The boulders and pinnacles with single pitch routes don’t seem to be home to any birds, but always check anyway so as not to disturb anything.
The climbing can be approached from two directions, either from a Mosque on the main road below the mountain, or a Mosque above the climbing, reached via a dirt road. Although it is a longer walk, our preference was to approach from the main road at the bottom. Beşbarmaq is home to grazing cattle and it isn’t uncommon to see a horseman herding the animals across the hillside. The area is very tranquil and relaxing. It is possible to follow the sun or shade and due to the walk it is best to make a day of climbing here.
Nardaran is a small but interesting crag, found in a village of the same name and is directly opposite the ‘Sea Breeze Hotel’. There are lots of routes that have been climbed here, But not all of them are fully equipped. Some routes are fully bolted with a lower off, others are fully bolted but with no lower off (make your own anchor at the top on a selection of pitons, threads etc) and some routes are not equipped at all (either trad or top rope only). We didn’t expect much from this crag but we enjoyed climbing here, it is easy to access and close to the beach for a post climb swim.
The rock varies in quality, and there are some genuinely great sections of rock to be found. The routes are generally 10-20 meters long and the grades are roughly spread from French 5-7. The climbing is quite fun and athletic with lots of pockets, some are big jugs and others are disappointingly sloping. A few routes on the right hand side of the crag had drilled slots, but the majority of routes here are natural. We were really lucky to meet some friendly local climbers at the crag, who helped us a lot and gave us some great recommendations of other places to climb and visit in Azerbaijan.
Nardaran is around 35 kilometres from Sumqayit, and Beşbarmaq is around 60 kilometres from Sumqayit, making the city a reasonable mid point between the two. As There isn’t any climbing related infrastructure, it can be difficult to find accommodation in the climbing areas, particularly for Beşbarmaq. While there is accommodation in Nardaran, this puts you a long way from the better climbing at Beşbarmaq. We found Sumqayit to be a good location to enjoy both crags, with Baku and other activities also close by. Make sure to leave enough time to see other parts of Azerbaijan, it is a beautiful country.
Minor Climbing Areas
The Bakikhanov cave is a small crag, currently with three routes. The cave can be found near a government building marked on Google maps as ‘Sabuncu Mehkeme’, use satellite mode and you can easily spot it. As the cave is in a metropolitan area, there is some graffiti and carvings on the rock, including on some of the routes. This area, Like Bibiheybat, is a minor location for climbing in Azerbaijan. However, as it is difficult to find information about the climbing, these areas are worth mentioning. Perhaps for someone passing through Baku there are a few hours of enjoyment to be found here.
Bibiheybat is famous for its beautiful Mosque, which is a recreation of a 13th century Mosque that was destroyed in 1936. The current mosque was built in the 1990s. The interior of the Mosque is very beautiful and is worth visiting in its own right. As we understand it, the climbing here is very limited, with only one equipped route of poor quality rock. However the location is very close to Baku and can be combined with a visit to the mosque. Climbing here is feasible, but don’t make it your plan A.
Rest Day Activities
Qobustan Mud Volcanoes and Petroglyphs
Qobustan is perhaps the most famous place in Azerbaijan with the exception of Baku. Once you have seen Qobustan for yourself, you will understand why it is so highly regarded, both by tourists and Azerbaijanis. The landscape and history of Qobustan are both sources of fascination. Here there are over 6,000 petroglyphs, some of them 40,000 years old. There are many mud volcanoes in the area, which are both bizarre and interesting. Azerbaijan has the most mud volcanoes of any country, being home to over half the number found in the entire world.
The mud volcanoes and petroglyphs combined make for a great day out, easily done in a day trip from anywhere on the Abşeron Peninsular. We were warned about some of the roads to the mud volcanoes, so opted to go with a local guy in a Lada instead of destroying our car. Turns out the guy was a total legend, who let us drive his Lada off road and took us further afield to some volcanoes that appear much less frequented. We visited in April and we were amazed at how quiet the whole area was, we had over half of the mud volcanoes to ourselves, seeing only 4 other people in total. The mud is ‘good for the skin’ and it is tempting to try and give yourself a little spa treatment, but be warned – it is really difficult to get off and there are no proper fresh water sources out there!
The petroglyph museum is nearby and is definitely worth a visit. First you visit a museum in a building at the bottom of the hill, before walking among the boulders at the top of the hill. Whilst we were in awe of the petroglyphs, as climbers we couldn’t help but notice all the amazing rock (obviously banned for climbing). There is another area of boulders nearby, which we understand has no petroglyphs and did have some climbing. However, that area is now protected and climbing is now prohibited there. It is always sad, but worthwhile here to preserve the amazing history of the area.
Ateşgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple
The Ateşgah fire temple was built during the 17th and 18th centuries and resembles a castle. The temple was built on an area with natural eternal flames. Sadly, due to exploitation of local gas reserves, the natural flame went out in 1969. The flames you see today are from piped in gas. The temple has an interesting history and has been used by Hindu, Sikh and notably Zoroastrian worshippers. Ateşgah has been a museum since 1975, which is a great place to learn about the history of the temple, who built it and how they came to Azerbaijan. Some parts of the temple have been reconstructed, which slightly detracts from its historical charm. It only takes an hour or so to see the temple and tour the museum properly. The temple is 37km from the crag at Nardaran so can be comfortably done as a post climbing activity in the afternoon.
Yanar Dağ is an ‘eternal’ flame, caused by natural gas seeping out of a porous layer of rock. The phenomenon is the same as the Yanartaş (Chimaera) flames we visited in Turkey. However, Yanar Dağ hasn’t been burning for thousands of years, but instead was set alight accidentally by a shepherd in the 1950’s, which is a very amusing thought! Despite this, Azerbaijan has long been known as the land of fire and flames are recorded to have been burning on the peninsular for hundreds of years. This is more than believable given the huge oil and gas reserves found in the region. Yanar Dağ is a small and quick place to visit, best done before or after climbing. It fits in perfectly with a day at Nardaran which is only 20km away.
The small city of Sheki is a historically and culturally significant part of Azerbaijan. Sheki is known for its interesting food and the beautiful summer and winter palaces of the Sheki Khans. The summer palace is the most beautiful and was built in 1797. The Khans ruled here between 1743 and 1819, with significant trade coming from the production of silk cocoons and the breeding of silk worms. Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside. This even was the case with the winter palace when we visited, which is normally an exception. Although it seems taking photos without a flash is harmless, we saw a guy get a firm telling off, so keep your phone in your pocket! There is plenty of time to savour and enjoy the interior while you are visiting, and you can find professional photos of the inside online if you don’t make it in person.
Pitisi is one of Azerbaijan’s national dishes, and the real home of the dish is the town of Sheki. Pitisi is a hearty stew containing meat, chickpeas and a variety of other flavoursome ingredients. Eating Pitisi is very different to any dish we’ve eaten before, and is a delicious and interesting experience. Bread is torn into pieces and put in a bowl, over which you strain the stew, pouring all of the liquid over the bread and keeping the rest inside the clay pot. Once the bread has had a chance to absorb the broth, this is eaten as the ‘first serving’. Next, you smash all of the solid ingredients into a paste with a wooden pestle, then transfer this from the clay pot to your bowl and enjoy your ‘second serving’. It is a genuinely tasty meal and is definitely worth seeking out, especially if you are in Sheki.
Another of the towns famous dishes is Sheki Halva. This is different to standard halva, and is much tastier in our opinion. In essence, Sheki Halva is more like baklava than most halva. It is made of rice flour, sugar, hazelnuts and a variety of aromatic flavourings such as saffron, cardamom and coriander seeds. Sheki Halva has a distinctive appearance due to the way the rice flour is used to form the dish. It is a truly unique desert and very specific to the local area.
Ganja is Azerbaijans third largest city, with Sumqayit being the second largest. Ganja is a significant city in the country and is the hub of activity in the west of Azerbaijan. It’s a great place to visit as part of a journey through Azerbaijan, and also works well as a stop off when travelling from Georgia. We particularly enjoyed visiting the Imamzadeh Ibrahim mausoleum and mosque, and the historic city centre surrounding the Juma mosque. The nearby Göygöl national park is a beautiful nature area with good hikes. Ganja is also close to Naftalan, a town famous for people that go there to bathe in a specific type of crude oil, which seems like a terrible idea on many levels!
We visited many different Mosques during our time in Azerbaijan and had an overwhelmingly positive experience. If you have never visited a Mosque before, we would definitely encourage you to do so, you will be welcomed with open arms. All you need to do is follow basic etiquette like dressing appropriately, removing your footwear and asking permission before taking any photos. We were usually helped by friendly local people, who were very happy to see us and share their space with us. We initially thought that language may pose a barrier, but it was never a problem.
Lankaran and Astara
The towns of Lankaran and Astara are some of the quietest parts of Azerbaijan, tucked away at the far south of the country, near the Iran border. The environment here is incredibly fertile, with tea and citrus fruit being famous exports of the region. Lankaran actually receives the highest level of precipitation in the whole country, which accounts for the beautiful green landscape. Everywhere sells tea grown in the local area, which is great to buy and take away with you, as well as to savour a cup in one of the local Çay gardens.
There are many interesting things to do in the area, and it seems to receive very few tourists compared to other parts of the country. In the general Lankaran-Astara area, the Hirkan National Park, Khanbulan Reservoir, Gizil-Agach state reserve and Yanar Bulag are some of the most popular things to see. We also visited the thermal springs at the village of Istisu. The water here was piping hot, beautifully clear and you get a private cabin with a pool at Havzava Istisu for around €3.
Naturally high methane levels in the water cause it to ignite when exposed to a naked flame. The fountain will then burn away for several minutes, until a gust of wind blows it out. Locals believe the water has health benefits and travel to the spring to fill up bottles to take home with them. We tasted a mouthful from the spring and it was… pretty flavourful! Our unscientific opinion would be not to drink very much of this water.
Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan and a big source of national pride, the city is loved throughout the country. Baku is also the largest city of the Caucasus region and amazingly is the lowest lying capital in the world, at 28 meters below sea level. The city has a beautiful mix of old and new, with lots of interesting things to see. We enjoyed exploring Baku and it is definitely worth a visit when you are in Azerbaijan. We would say that it isn’t necessary to spend too long here, a couple of days is perfect. Baku is great, but so is the rest of Azerbaijan and sadly lots of tourists never leave the capital on their visit to the country.
Azerbaijan has a wide variety of delicious food to enjoy and one of the great pleasures of eating here is the regional variations in food. Different parts of the country have speciality dishes or tweaked versions of classic national dishes. For example Qutab from the Abşeron area are usually a little larger than your hand, whereas Qutab from Ganja are much bigger and have different fillings. Below we will mention a few of the tastiest and most popular dishes in Azerbaijan, there are of course many more to be enjoyed.
Qutab are savoury pancake/ unleavened flat bread that is stuffed with a variety of fillings. Qutab are very popular and you’re never far away from somewhere serving them. They vary in size and filling throughout the country, our favourite and perhaps the most unique is filled with camel meat. This type of Qutab is traditional to Corat, a village in Sumqayit and it is the best place to get authentic camel Qutab.
Dushbara is a delicious dumpling soup, a very hearty meal to enjoy while you are in Azerbaijan. The dumplings in Dushbara are very small, known to be difficult to make, and are traditionally filled with lamb. The dumplings are served in a type of broth, also usually flavoured with lamb. Baku area is the best place to find Dushbara.
Saj Ichi takes its name from the type of griddle it is cooked in, which is served bubbling hot over coals that keep it warm. Saj Ichi generally contains chicken or lamb, potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers and a host of other delicious ingredients. It should be possible, particularly in Baku, to find a vegetarian version of the dish.
Pomidor Yumurta is a very simple and authentic dish, consisting of eggs and tomatoes. The eggs are cooked in the pan with the tomatoes and seasoning. One of the best things about this dish is its easy to recreate at home. It’s very filling, tasty at any time of the day and very cheap.
Plov is a rice dish, a staple in Azerbaijan as well as all across Central Asia. There are an enormous amount of variations of plov, with Şah plov being the most magnificent. Şah plov combines rice, saffron, meat and dried fruit and is served inside cooked lavash. The plov filling spills out of the bread casing when it is cut open. The name Şah means crown, with the dish getting its name from its shape when served.
Köfte Bozbaş is a meatball soup, with one large meatball usually made of lamb or beef, served in a broth with potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes and other vegetables. The meatball is about the size of a small apple and traditionally has dried fruit inside, particularly a dried plum.
We had a fantastic time in Azerbaijan and we were really impressed with both the climbing and hospitality. From the little we knew before we arrived, we were never expecting a climbing area as good as Beşbarmaq. The people of Azerbaijan are also special, they made us feel incredibly welcome in their country and showed a great interest in our visit. In the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan is definitely the least known to climbers. While Baku is a very popular tourist area, other parts of the country are relatively unvisited by foreigners. The experience of climbing, travelling and making friends in Azerbaijan made for a superb leg of our caucasus journey.
You can read more about our Caucasus trip and climbing in Georgia here.
Relevant links and resources
Useful information and resource for tourists visiting Azerbaijan