This is a repost of a piece published a year ago on this site, especially for all the Baku newbies who have arrived in Baku or are about to:
Arriving in a new place can be incredibly daunting, no matter how experienced you are as an expat. So you’ve found somewhere to live in Baku and are happily getting ensconced. You’re exploring the area and taking note of every recommendation that comes your way. With any luck, you may have moved to Baku with all your furniture and belongings but perhaps you are renting a furnished property and want to set a few accents of your own to make it feel more like home. And then there’s the every day stuff, cooking, cleaning, getting your daily routine to run smoothly. Friends and a social life are important too. Where to begin? It’s all different, challenging and plenty of things take some getting used to. If you are one of those lucky people who already speak Azeri or Russian, you’re off to a head start. Not for you the shopping bags full of useless products that you’ve mistaken for something else because you can’t read the label! The rest of us, however, grope our way through the fog and learn by trial and error. What’s that weird looking vegetable and what can you do with it? Will you be able to find Baked Beans? Where do you go to have your eyebrows threaded? Don’t worry, help is at hand! For a start, Baku expats are a friendly lot. Everyone is in the same boat, we’ve all been there and we’re ready to lend a hand and share our knowledge. Just ask!
Step 1, without a shadow of a doubt, is getting in with the expat network. Listed on the left hand side of this post are several fantastically useful expat forums and websites. AngloInfo, Internations, Expatblog and all the other sites are well worth exploring and registering with. They are full of useful information. The be all and end all of expat communication is the Facebook page Baku Expat Community. Here, you will get questions on everything and anything answered virtually immediately and you’ll get a whole spectrum of different opinions, presenting you with a rich choice of options. Also on Facebook are pages which cater to the different natonalities. DeutschSprachige Gruppe Baku for German speakers, Bakou Francophones for the French and I’m sure there are plenty of others too. All of these groups organize activities from time to time; ideal for you to start mixing and mingling and meeting new people. The IWC, the International Women’s Club (www.iwcbaku.org), meet weekly for coffee mornings, happy hour and many other interesting gatherings. Join for a small fee and aside from gaining an automatic social life, you also get discounts in cafes, restaurants and shops with your membership card. An absolute wizard wheeze! If you want to know what’s happening in Baku get on the mailing list of Ann Sutherland (email@example.com), a fountain of all information.
There’s the British Business Group, the Rotary Club, the BP social club (open to non BPers too), the Caledonian Society, sports clubs, ballet, yoga and pilates, bridge, poker, canasta and mahjong clubs, reading groups, cookery lessons, craft circles, Restaurant Rovers, Mother and Baby Play Groups, you name it, we have it here in Baku. All will welcome you with open arms, irrespective of age, abilility, nationality or gender, so don’t be shy!
After all that socializing, a cosy evening in might be of the order. The Empire DVD shop on Nizami almost beside the Casual Brasserie has a vast selection of English language DVDs, including the latest releases and series. I can’t vouch for the integrity of their origin but they are good quality and the service in the shop is excellent.
Music and entertainment may be the food of love and friendship but, at the end of the day, we all need something more substantial to dig our teeth into. Food shopping in Baku is quite specialist: Firstly, you have to remember that fruit and vegetables are local and seasonal here, so you have a delightful sunshiney tasting selection during the summer months but winter fare can get quite monotonous with potatoes, carrots, squash, courgettes and aubergines and not that much else. If you can, it pays to cook and freeze while it’s all available. Otherwise swat up on ‘100 things to do with butternut squash’. Most of the produce is organic which means it may not look so pretty or last beyond a few days at most but it tastes all the better.
Almost every street has one or two little vegetable shops, cubby holes really, where you can buy wonderful fresh produce. The go to destination for fresh fruit and vegetables is the Yaşil Bazaar or Green Bazaar. Apart from the huge selection on offer, it is also a visual feast and definitely worth visiting. I don’t have a driver, so going there is an inconvenient shlepp for me. My favourite fruit and veg shop is Üç Meyvə (Three Fruits) in the street beside the 28th May Mall and close to Neptune Supermarket. The selection is great, the produce fresh and the staff helpful and nice.
Talking about the 28th May Mall, this is a good place to go and check out early on. For a start, the giant Bazar Supermarket will fulfill most of your shopping needs. Fresh food and dry goods, deli specialities, cleaning liquids, drug store, household items, it covers almost everything one needs. You will be asked to leave any shopping bags or big handbags in the lockers by the entrance, for which you’ll receive a ticket, redeemable when you’re ready to leave. Unencumbered, you can roll up your sleeves and get down to it. Some products will be instantly recognizable, others may need a bit of working out. Almost all are labeled in Russian but you soon get the gist. If your phone has a translation app, use it, or if you are after something specific, find out on Baku Expat Group it’s name and what it looks like beforehand, otherwise like me, you may end up sugaring your coffee with salt or bringing home buttermilk instead of semi skimmed. There are other Bazar Supermarket outlets, notably in the smaller mall in Park Bulvar on Bulvar and another close to the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. And there are plenty of others: Fresco, Bee Gross (yes, you read correctly), Grandmart and other supermarkets all offer plenty of product choices.
Within 28th May Mall, virtually beside the supermarket , is the Sel Home Store. This is not unlike Zara Home in the UK and you will find some attractive home deco things here, crockery, candle sticks, cushions, bed spreads, that kind of thing. There’s another one on Samad Verghun near Malakan Square. Then there’s the Music Gallery. The name is misleading; they have a good selection of white goods, TVs, computer products and household equipment but apart from stereos, no music. It may not be the cheapest but you find everything in one place. The MG Gallery has several outlets throughout Baku. Within the mall you will also find an Ideal Perfumerie, MAC, Mango, Zara, New Yorker, Massimo Dutti, New Look and other shops as well as KFC, Mc Donalds and various cafes. Park Bulvar Mall on Bulvar with it’s mini Gherkin is a similar mall but smaller.
Supermarket shopping in Baku is different to at home. You are unlikely to get everything you want in one place and when you do see what you’re looking for, it’s worth stocking up on because it may be some time before you see it again. Here at home, we have a Warholesque arrangement of Baked Beans, Marmite, Branston Pickle and Bonne Maman Cherry Jam. Buy while you can! Often it’s completely futile to head out with a particular recipe in mind. You may well have to adapt and replace some items as you may not find them all.
Citimart (Samad Verghun and Badamdar) is a great little food market where you find many things so beloved by expats. What’s more, if you speak to the manager, he will try to procure for you whatever it is you’d like to have and can’t find elsewhere. Kontinental on Nizami is expensive but great for certain items, especially those of German origin. Gastronomy just along from the Nariman Narimanov Statue is the go to place for a good choice of frozen fish, booze and some of the out of the ordinary items you may need in your kitchen. They also offer a preorder service.
For household linen and towels, I like the TAC outlets. One is at Alibey Guzeyinzade Street 64 by the Nizami Metro Station. Again, you can get these items cheaper elsewhere but here they have reasonable quality. Just a few doors along to the right, in the basement, is a great little household wares shop for bowls and plates, buckets and brooms, door mats and bread baskets and all sorts of other things you may need.
Many expats swear by the Teze Bazaar where you can buy fruit and veg and all kinds of household items as well as plumbing or electrical parts. This is also a good place to buy caviar but remember to bargain! The other place to check out is Sederek Market on the outskirts of Baku. Wear comfortable shoes to explore this enormous market where absolutely everything is on offer at many stalls and shops, from furniture to clothes to toothpaste, all at much cheaper prices than anywhere else.
One of the culinary delights of Azerbaijan is the fabulous bread, tandir. Available in most corner shops, this is often still warm from the oven and absolutely scrumptious, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. For more European style bread and cakes, much more expensive, of course, my personal favourite is Paul’s Bakery in Port Baku but Azza, Café Mado and the German Bakery also offer some irresistible delights.
If, like me, you are a bit of a cheese wallah, the Pendir (meaning cheese) shop off Fountain Square just beyond the ISR Plaza on Mirza Ibrahimov 1 is the place to go. They also have a couple of other outlets elsewhere.
So now that you have friends and your fridge is full, it is time to treat yourself! You can’t miss the plethora of designer shops in Baku but clothes are expensive here at roughly 30% more than you’d pay in Europe or the US and familiar names frequently have different merchandise to the same shops at home. Still, it is worth keeping an eye on the Sales (Endirim) which occasionally offer substantial discounts making a purchase worthwhile. Watch out though, not every designer label is actually what it purports to be, not even in the designer shops themselves! And there are plenty of obvious and less obvious fakes unashamedly available everywhere. Grandezza on Nizami, The Emporium just by ‘Fashion Street’ in by Port Baku and Bisque on Neftchilar are high fashion temples where clothes come at a price but you can also pick up bargains in little boutiques mostly on or around Fountain Square, Nizami and Malakan Gardens. I bought a cute little cotton summer skirt for AZN 5. You can’t say better than that!
I’ve been here a year but I am still too chicken to visit a hairdresser. I have seen some amazingly elaborate up dos at special events and every one of my expat friends has a different hairdresser they highly recommend. Long hair and bobs are well done here but I’ve not yet seen many good layered cuts. If you need colour or highlights, it might be prudent to bring your preferred products from home. The Nailspa outlets (for instance Park Bulvar, ISR Plaza) may look a bit outdated but they do a good job on manicures, pedicures, including shellac, and threading. There are many beauty salons and spas all over Baku but for my money, so far, the best are still in the big hotels. I’ve tried the award winning ESPA at the Fairmont Hotel and the Spa at The Absheron Marriott and have liked both. Sadly, they are not cheap!
Now you’re set and ready; go knock ‘em dead! All the above are a lazy person’s (me!) recommendations to finding your feet in Baku. There are many other options and possibilities, everyone has their personal favourites, and as you get to know the city and its people, you will soon establish what works best for you. Of course, there are things which will quietly drive you to distraction: the taxi drivers who often haven’t got a clue where they’re going, the ustas or ‘masters’ (handymen) who frequently need to return several times before they properly fix a problem, the restaurants in which you sometimes don’t get served what you ordered but get billed all the same, the sales assistants who follow you around so closely that you can barely look at the displays without treading on their toes, the credit card signs on the shop windows which are nothing but empty promises, the chaotic traffic which comes to a standstill because drivers insist on blocking the junctions and then hooting wildly. Complain to other expats and they’ll smile at you enigmatically and say ‘Welcome to Baku!’
Before I sign off for today, I’d like to share with you the best piece of advice I received when I first arrived here. It was given to me by an American lady who has contentedly lived in Baku for the last 20 years. It’s been my key to equilibrium when things have been challenging and on those occasions when I’ve felt like bashing my head against a brick wall with frustration. ‘You’ll be very happy in Baku if you never ever use the W word” she said. “The W word?” I asked not unreasonably. “Yes” she said “the W word. Just never ask ‘Why?’”.