Azerbaijan has always been the most mysterious country of the Southern Caucasus for me. While Armenia and Georgia seemed culturally close, in the case of Azerbaijan, even the name of its capital – Baku, sounded orientally. In fact, the Caspian Sea, actually the world’s largest lake, was an important communication route between the East and the West over the centuries ago.
Actually, I hadn’t known what to expect from Azerbaijan. This country had seemed to me isolated from the rest of the world and expensive. However, Baku turned out to be a very cosmpolitan and cheap city. Apparently, my notion was caused by the high cost of obtaining a visa – around 50€.
According to the plan of the trip, we hired a car for the whole trip across the Caucasus, but due to the problems with car rental company in Tbilisi (which I’ll will in another post), we were forced to use the night train to Baku, which later turned out to be a very interesting experience. In the evening, we got on a train. It was surprisingly clean inside. All train was covered in seals and tapes from customs control, blocking access to every gap which could be used to smuggle something.
The train pulled out from the station, lady assigned to keep order in our car handed out fresh sheets, and I don’t even remember when I fell asleep. We were exhausted after a night flight from Warsaw to Tbilisi, problems with the car rental company and long hours waiting in line to buy desired tickets to Baku.
After an hour, we arrived at the border, at first everything was normal, border control service took passports from travellers. I expected that it would take some time to check the documents collected from the entire train, so I went to sleep.
After an hour, someone shook me, I opened my eyes, and saw a worker from the train service who was calling to get up because of the control. In fact, after a while behind the edge of my bed, something like a selfiestick with a camera started looming. While the camera operator was checking every gap in the compartment, the second man asked the essential question: ” Are you transporting something from Armenia?”. Lukasz, brutally woken up from deep sleep, not fully conscious, responded that we had food. It was that moment when I felt my face turned pale proportionally to the purple on the face of the aggrieved customs officer. I knew that the stamps from Armenia in the passport and even any things related to Armenia, could prevent entering to Azerbaijan. That’s why I had arranged that Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh were the last destinations to visit during our journey, while all evidence of the planned crime, in the form of a guide and notes, I had meticulously hidden before border control.
I could hear the border control officer again, which sounded like astonished by the fact that somebody would dare to carry any Armenian food on the way to Baku! In vain I tried to explain that we hadn’t been to Armenia and for sure we didn’t have anything connected with this country. We’re supposed to open our backpacks and show their contents. Fortunately, they didn’t find my notes. Finally we could come back to sleep. After an hour in front of my eyes, I saw lady from the train service again, this time she started dragging me to another compartment. I was completely confused. I came in and saw three duty control officers. They asked me several questions: whether I had been in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, why I was going to Azerbaijan, where I would stay and so on. I answered all the questions while being dazzled by the camera flash, as one of them was taking photos of me. One of the gentlemen put a stamp in my passport.
We did it! Welcome to Azerbaijan!
Finally I could rest…
I woke up in the morning, almost blinded by the sun, I carefully opened one eye and saw the monotonous steppe landscape of the Absheron Peninsula with the contours of Baku, far away on the horizon.What I saw in front of my eyes in no way resembled beautiful pictures of modern Baku. The landscape could be used as a set for Mad Max film.
Abandoned oil wells, postindustrial areas, mountains of the rubbish, and foam-covered ponds. It’s obvious that massive oil extraction on the Absheron peninsula caused an ecological disaster.
The landscape, every once in a while, was diversified by huge drilling towers, and drilling platforms on the Caspian Sea. The monotony of the steppe was sometimes interrupted by high buildings, built in the middle of nowhere. So far, they’re a mystery to me. Often they’re luxury condos. Their residents certainly don’t complain about traffic on their way to work, or the neighbors in the windows, because there’s iterally nothing near these hood.
The train started passing some villages, I saw destroyed houses, some kids running and playing and homeless people rummaging in a pile of garbage.
I wondered what was happening with the petrodollars from oil industry and what’s going on in this country?!
Azerbaijan suffers from the so-called “Dutch disease” – it occurs when economy is excessively dependent on oil processing, at the expense of other branches. Maybe that’s the problem or maybe it’s caused by bad financial economy and big corruption.
The train pulled in. From the first sight, Baku surprised me with its wealth worlds apart from what I had seen previously. The capital of Azerbaijan looks almost like a green oasis on the arid Absheron Peninsula.
You can see the dynamic development of this city, the suburbs have already built infrastructure for the new skyscrapers. Buildings in the center dazzle with glass and gold.
However, I don’t perceive Baku as a modern city without character, on the contrary! Baku struck me with its unique atmosphere. There’s an amazing mix of cultures here. For centuries, Azerbaijan had been under the influence of Turkey and Persia, and then it was included to the Russian Empire.
The architecture of the city is completely diverse, and at the same time everything is amazingly compatible. It’s visible that the city connects the East with the West.
Although Islam is a dominant religion here, Azerbaijan is a Republic and the attitude to religion is not as orthodox as in other Muslim countries. There is no special dress code and Azerbaijan is also famous for the production of wines and cognac while alcohol is forbidden in Islam.
It combines modernity with traditional lifestyle. Just a few blocks away from the shiny glass center, you can see such an image:
The symbol of modern Baku are Flame Towers – a complex of three skyscrapers resembling flames. The walls of the buildings are made of LED screens, on which spectacular visuals are displayed at night.
There’re apartments, hotel and offices. The towers can be reached by funicular. The best view of skyscrapers is from the boulevard at night.
Strolling along boulevard, you can meet old men playing chess. Chess is the national sport in Azerbaijan, and the famous Garri Kasparov was born in Baku.
On the east side of the boulevard is the architecture jewel – so-called The House of Soviet, a huge monumental building in socialist style. Now it’s a government building, which houses ministries of Azerbaijan.
On the second, west end of the boulevard there’s a Carpet Museum which building is shaped like a coiled carpet.
The heart of the city is Iceri Seher – Inner City. It is also the oldest part of the capital of Azerbaijan. The pastel houses of the old town are so close to one another that reducing the amount of sunshine, seems to be the only reason to this. The temperature in the Baku can reach over 40 Celcius degrees.
As Richard Kapuscinski wrote: If you stand here in the middle of the street and spread your arms, you can stroke a child sleeping in a cradle in the apartment to the left. People walk here in a single file, because when a couple goes, it’s already crowded.
In the old town, I expected to see hundreds of stands and shops with Chinese souvenirs and a lot of crowded restaurants. Meanwhile, it turned out that Iceri Seher was a calm place.
Local vendors sell traditional carpets and old everyday items. You can find here some figures or carpets presenting Lenin and Stalin – in some parts of the Caucasus, they are the subject of a cult.
Moreover, around the walls of Iceri Seher, on the circuit reaching around 6 km, a Formula 1 race is organized.
The symbol of the old Baku is the Maiden’s Tower. For a long time, the 29-meter Maiden’s Tower was the largest structure in the capital, and now from the terrace on its top you can admire a beautiful view of Baku.
There’s an also archaeological site near the tower.
One of the most interesting places is Palace of the Shirvanshah – a complex consisting of palace, burial vaults and shah’s mosque and minaret.
The main place of meetings and nightlife is Fountain Square – there are many bars, bars, boutiques and restaurants.
To be continued…