Central Azerbaijan

Most of the central region is flat and undramatically agricultural and would not be high on any tourist's itinerary. Monotonous central plains consist of drearily flat steppe, semi-desert and salt marsh. The scenery gets much more interesting in the beautiful Lesser Caucasus mountains, southwest of Azerbaijan's second city Ganja, where the originally German village of Xanlar is a minor highlight.

On exceptional spring days when the air clears, distant glimpses of snow-topped Murovdag (to the south) and the high Caucasus (north) transform the experience of usually very dull scenery, especially around Geranboy. There are battered historical sites, some ancient (if utterly rebuilt) cities such as Barda and Ganja and the foothills of the lovely Lesser Caucasus mountains are worth exploring.

The pageant of autumnal colours on dramatic Mt Kyapaz reflected in Lake Goy Gol is perhaps the single most beautiful view in Azerbaijan. It would be all the more delightful if you could get there. Sadly the Armenian occupation of nearby Nagorno Karabagh renders much of the surrounding area inaccessible.

The finest areas beyond are in (or sensitively close to) Armenian-occupied Karabakh. The occupation renders huge swathes of central Azerbaijan inaccessible from the rest of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Shusha. The ceasefire line is mined and the only access to Nagorno-Karabakh is through Armenia, a trip that is considered illegal trespass under Azerbaijani law. Refugees remain a big political issue and police are often suspicious of foreigners snooping around anywhere much south of the M27 Yevlax - Tbilisi highway.

Comparing east/west routes

At Alat, south of Gobustan the main M4 highway swerves west with a few kinks, it then runs relatively fast and straight all the way to Qazax and on to the Georgian border at Red Bridge (approx 8 hrs drive from Baku). Sections are dual carriageway and vehicles drive pretty fast but watch out for checkposts, badges and occasional roundabouts where speed limits plunge to 50km/h or less and fine-hungry police will be waiting. The lack of lights or markings makes this route quite nerve-racking at night.

A somewhat more scenic, slower but well-surfaced route to Ganja starts out through Shamakha then cuts down across the Agsu pass to Goychay and Agdash rejoining the main road south of Mingachevir.

If you're heading for Tbilisi, the route via Qabala and Zaqatala is far more attractive than either, but will be more comfortable with one night's stop en route.

If you're planning a trip to Azerbaijan you may be interested ▶ Azerbaijan highlights - For those who prefer to go unbeaten path, to explore less visited places and check national charisma of this small country in Southern Caucasus on the edge of Europe.