It’s time to shift monsooning back into higher gears — today we’re visiting Nakhchivan!
A landlocked exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia (or as some say, physically located within Armenia), but an otherwise autonomous region under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is similar to exclaves like Alaska (thanks Alan Sedgwick!) and on a level less extreme than Transnistria and Kurdistan, in that this region has its own elected “federal” government that largely functions independently and yet remains a dependent within another sovereignty. Whether you count it as a separate country depends if you think places like Alaska should be considered separate from the USA (aka if you visited Alaska, can you really say you visited the USA? Or if you visited Hong Kong, can you really say you visited China?).
Nakhchivan first gained international recognition in January 1990 when it became one of the first “nations” to declare independence from the USSR as it was collapsing. Unfortunately, despite being one of the pioneers of independence from the Soviet Union as well as the birthplace of Azeri hero and president Heydar Aliyev, Nakhchivan could never keep up as it has continue to suffer from the turmoil of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as a mass exodus of its locals to Baku and Turkey. Whereas Baku is teeming with growth and wealth, Nakhchivan has remained forgotten in stagnation since the 1990s.
FYI, Nakhchivan’s pseudo-counterpart in Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh) — although that region physically lies in and internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, it functions as an “independent” state that Azerbaijan no longer exerts political control over since the Karabakh movement in 1988. For many travelers Nagorno-Karabakh can be accessed easily but illegally overland via Armenia, and such an action will lead you to being banned from future travel to Azerbaijan if they ever found out.
On the flipside, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan; so if you have any wishes to visit both regions either head to Nakhchivan first, or enter Nagorno-Karabakh legally by applying for permission from the Azerbaijan government.
Beginning our journey, Brandon, Elizabeth and I got up at 5:30am and hailed a 10 manat Uber ride to the airport to catch our 8:10am Azal Air flight from Baku to Nakhchivan.
Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 2 and not the fancy International Terminal (or Terminal 1).
You can tell the difference because where Terminal 1 is super fancy and won 5 stars from Skytrax…
….Terminal 2 has seen better days.
If you end up at Terminal 1 anyway, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk through the parking lot.
When you enter Terminal 2 at the main entrance, turn left. Flights departing to Nakhchivan has its own board and separate terminal.
At this point staff and locals will try to usher you to the other terminal thinking that you’re making a big mistake. Reassure them or pay them no heed; insist that you’re going to Nakhchivan and you’ll get a variety assortment of looks ranging among confusion, amusement, bafflement, and dismay.
Either way we were initially confused too; we went through security checks 4 different looking for the right desk to check in (it’s hidden in a corner somewhere upstairs) until we decided to be assertive and insist on flying to Nakhchivan despite protests from the staff.
Once at the right check-in desk, the agent didn’t think I was serious. However, I had already booked our flights on Azerbaijan Airlines’ website prior to the trip as the option of purchasing them remotely had just became possible last month. The only catch is that you have to have the physical credit card you used to purchase the flights on you when you check in. So when I showed the ticket agent my confirmation and passport, he relented and asked if I had that credit card on me.
After checking us in and being relaxed with the baggage restrictions, we had to remind him to print us our tickets. He insisted he had no clue what we were talking about…eventually, he got it. What is going on here?!
Nothing much else to do otherwise; they do have a business lounge posting a sign that allows Priority Pass holders to enter, but it was closed when we were there.
Boarding began promptly at 7:30am and we took off without delay at 8am. A legion of officers in military fatigues boarded with us; they may shoot you quizzical looks as well as remind you where you’re going is a war zone. Oh well. I guess you can thank them for their service.
The whole flight takes about an hour. It would’ve otherwise been much shorter if it were not for the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; our flightpath had to be redirected around Armenia and through Iranian airspace to get to Nakhchivan:
We landed at 9am.
Disembarking was quick as we were in arrivals within 5 minutes, hailing a cab to our hotel in the city center for 5 manats (apparently this is the morning rate — it can be up to 8 manats later in the day) without any haggling needed. Love this place already!
We got to our lodgings at Tebriz Hotel in 10 minutes, quickly checking in and then scurrying up to their rooftop restaurant to snag their free breakfast before it ended at 10am.
After settling in for a bit and vegging out after a whirlwind morning of traveling, we headed back out to explore the rest of the city at noon, beginning with signing the guestbook at their cozy but empty tourist information center.
The staff there was very surprised at our presence and it seemed their guestbook entries were spaced out from every few days to weeks at a time.
While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice how the streets are nearly always empty, wide avenues have not seen cars in days, and there is a calm, pervading silence wherever you roam.
From the tourist information center we walked south, entering a large park and walking past what seemed to look like an outdoor movie theater.
We then headed downhill from here towards Maiden Fountain, an esplanade with a pleasant footbridge leading around to a natural spring and small waterfall.
We then headed back upstairs and into the southern half of the park to visit the Momina Khatun Mausoleum, one of many you can find in Nakhchivan:
Each mausoleum has one entrance for its basement crypt:
…and a regular ground level entrance that usually hosts an exhibition about the burial grounds:
Next door to the mausoleum is an open air museum and sculpture park:
Down the steps from the mausoleum will lead you to the former Khan’s Palace, now converted to a simple carpet museum:
Afterwards we headed out of the park and walked southeast to the Mausoleum to Yusif İbn Kuseyr:
Unlike the previous mausoleum to Momina Khatun, this one is completely empty:
We then walked further south from here, entering the huge city cemetery from the north.
The goal was instead of walking around the entire cemetery to our next destination (as Google Maps would indicate), we hoped that there would be a shortcut via an exit on the south side of the cemetery…however, we instead made due with what previous like-minded souls had created for us:
Much to our dismay, later on we’d found out just steps away is a legitimate southern gate. Oh well. Fences are meant to be overcome, rules are meant to be broken.
Our shortcut through the cemetery nevertheless saved us 15 minutes of walking in the midday sun, as parked right by the cemetery is the Naxçıvan Qala Tarix Memarlıq Abidəsi fort complex:
It was completely empty and devoid of souls when we entered through the open door. No guards, no security, no tickets, and totally open. It felt like I was playing a game of Myst/Riven.
You can go inside the central dome structure for a free exhibition on the excavation findings in the area:
You can also climb the fort walls for an elevated view of the fort and its surroundings, as well as the cemetery we just strolled through:
We then exited from the fort from its southwestern gate and walked a few steps down to the Mausoleum to the Prophet Noah.
Yes, that Noah, of Noah’s Ark fame. It is believed that the ark had finished its journeys in this area where Noah then settled until his death. His assumed remains were found right in this spot and thus, a mausoleum was fashioned over his tomb:
The mausoleum closes from 1pm-2pm for lunch so we waited about 30 minutes outside for someone to arrive and show us in. We didn’t come this far to give up so easily!
At around 2:05pm a girl came by and opened the door for us, giving us a great rundown of the history of the mausoleum. Totally worth the wait.
You can head down into the basement crypt; right beneath is Noah’s tomb.
With that, we were done with our entire tour of Nakhchivan City! We then walked 20 minutes up Heydar Aliyev Street north back to our hotel, where we had lunch at the adjacent Zumrud Restoran and recharged for 2 hours.
At 5:30pm we returned to the lobby and hired a driver to take us to Alinja Fortress for 40 manats.
About a 35 minute drive outside of Nakhchivan, the 2,000 year old Alinja Fortress — or “The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan” — is inexplicably unmentioned in any travel guides to Nakhchivan, but don’t be fooled: this was the main event.
Dating back to the 1st century, the fortress was formerly known as an Armenian fortress called Yernjak and was one of the most impenetrable in its time. It currently now exists as an open park that local villagers and their families venture to freely in the evenings.
Why they would choose this spot as a place of leisure baffles me — it’s a 1600+ step climb up 100+ flights of stairs! That’s not what I call fun with the family on a Tuesday evening! But alas, we found tons of kids with their families running around when we climbed back down.
Take your time, drink lots of water, and know that the end result will be worth it. If that doesn’t help, some of these views will mitigate any effect of the battery acid pumping from your muscles during your long climb up:
Don’t be surprised if local families next to you ask for a photo — months to years can go by before they see another tourist in these parts!
One even added me on Instagram.
About 2/3 of the way up you can walk around and through the fortress “ruins” themselves, although it now feels more like a renovated public park than a sacred historical site.
Views from the fortress:
Climb up a little more and you’ll know you’ve made it when you see this:
But why stop here? More stairs await you.
Even when you’ve reached the last step (which ends suddenly and arbitrarily), you can climb up some more up a well trodden hill. Because why not? You’ve gone this far already and when will you ever be back here again?
This is physically as high as you can get:
We spent about 20 minutes here taking it all in and hanging out with a local villager who came up with us, before heading back down:
And from here we admired Alinja in all its majestic beauty as the sun began to set behind it (more photos here). Linger a little longer and Alinja lights up suddenly in the night at around 8:10pm:
Take it all in and take your time; like every other thing we saw today whether they be mausoleums or museums, Alinja is free to enter. Moreover, Alinja is open 24/7!
We headed back down to the car park at 9pm, rendezvous’ed with our driver who waited for us patiently all this time, and had dinner back in Nakhchivan city at Deyirmanci Kafe, where they were so shocked and grateful to our presence they gave us free tea and dessert when we asked for the check.
After a workout like that where we walked 22,700 steps over 12 miles up 102 flights of stairs (thanks Apple), it was a dinner well worth the wait.
We then returned to our hotel at 11pm and crashed, hard. I woke up about 8 hours later for the free breakfast and enjoyed a few hours using up our hotel’s basement gym, spa, sauna, and swimming pool.
After check-out at noon, we decided to make a run for the last thing to see in Nakhchivan, Duzdag, a massive salt cave converted into a sanatorium. And like every other place we’ve been to in Nakhchivan, it’s free to enter.
Built in early 20th century, Duzdag was designed to house various clinics/hospital beds for any patient eager to treat (or cure, as they say here) their chronic bronchitis and asthma from the salt emanating from the mines. It’s much like how you go to a fancy spa featuring sauna rooms that have been built with salt lining the walls.
The similarities otherwise end here, however, as it’s not exactly a full on spa where you pack a swimsuit on you, change, and lounge around. Rather it’s more of a place to stop by, walk up and down, and spend as long as you like. Whether you chill in the café or sit on the various benches parked along the path, imagine as if your lungs are being cleaned out.
It’s about a 10 minute walk up and down. You’ll know when you reached the end when a bunch of staff members cross their arms telling you you’re being too loud or that “patients only” are allowed through.
From here we walked back and with the rest of our hour we had some tea for 2 manats total at the indoor café.
After that we headed back to our hotel, had dinner back at the adjacent Zumrud Café, and hailed one more cab ride back (whereas it was 5 manats when we took a cab from the airport yesterday morning, this time we paid 8 manats for a cab to the airport at some kind of apparent afternoon/evening rate) to the airport for our 8:40pm flight back to Baku.
Despite what other travel blogs say about this airport being so basic you shouldn’t arrive early lest you’d be bored to tears, my recommendation is to either arrive early before the crowds or risk the stress and come at the very last minute: Checking in at Nakhchivan for Baku can be a shitshow; when we arrived to check-in there was no semblance of a queue as dozens of families mixed in to drop off a huge number of goods for their folks back in Baku.
However, there does exist a separate section all the way to the right for people without any check in luggage, as a helpful local directed us there (the sign displaying this is in Azeri and not in English, so we wouldn’t have known). Either way, even when we switched over and waited in this particular line, we still had to assert ourselves and fight our way through the stampede to get our tickets.
After receiving our boarding passes, we then had to present those and our passports to a separate “Migration Desk” by security for a recheck and verification. They then give you a tiny sliver of paper that you have to hold onto for security to let you through. Looks like a wifi password.
Once you’re go through security, it’s another stampede at the gate to board your flight.
Despite a chaotic ending to an otherwise ethereally pleasant 48 hours, I’m going to miss you Nakhchivan.
For the record, everywhere we went we’ve been showered with overwhelming hospitality by everyone, as well as having the rare opportunity to explore a gorgeous land filled with beauty and awe-inspiring sights totally alone — it felt like we had this place all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. And despite the border conflicts around this region, we never once felt like we were in danger.
We landed back in Baku at Terminal 2 by 10pm, where we were picked up by an Uber driver who initially refused to take us and instead took another passenger right in front of our faces. Oh boy, this was the moment when I knew I was far removed from the hospitality of Nakhchivan and back in the hustle of Baku.
Knowing that it can take up to another 30 minutes to get an Uber to come to Terminal 2 (most are parked outside Terminal 1 and refuse to move, making you walk to them), I responded by showing the driver that he was supposed to pick me up, with his license plate number displayed on my phone/Uber app. He then asked me to cancel, and when I refused, he asked again. Eventually the other passenger got out of the car and we were begrudgingly driven back to our lodgings at Stay Inn Hostel. That was pretty weird.
This otherwise concludes the official itinerary through Azerbaijan! We now have a full free day tomorrow in Baku before Brandon and Elizabeth head out on night flights and I depart for Japan early the following morning for the next monsoon!
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- At time of posting in Nakhchivan, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 36km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with periodic clouds