Baku to You, Too

Thirty kilometres in two hours. It just wasn’t fair. They claim that one in every four people of driving age in Moscow has a car, and the ungodly traffic on the ring roads circling this city of nine million and leading to the airport add tremendous weight to this statement. The rain was also pissing down, adding to my foul mood. It will come as no surprise that I was happy to see the backside of Moscow as the plane darted off the tarmac into the wild blue yonder. Baku in Azerbaijan was our next destination, and the sight of the Caspian Sea upped the pulse in my veins just like a few cups of espresso injected straight into my bloodstream. I had just finished leading a tour through the Baltic countries, over to St Petersburg then down through countless towns with churches chock full of icons to Moscow and was accompanying a group of clients on to the next leg of a tour through the Caucasus region. The temperature over the past few days in Russia had been hinting at the Arctic blast that autumn and winter bestow upon this massive body of a country, and I could imagine the Muscovites fluffing up their furry hats and putting a shine on their lined boots in preparation as I snickered to myself of the warmth and sun I was about to experience.

The first glimpses of the capital city of Baku were confirming my expectations of a solar warming of the bones, but there was something there that I knew to expect, but wasn’t fully prepared for. Baku is a city built on oil … This I knew. As far back as Peter I of Russia, this place was in demand for its black gold, and the multitude of wells, platforms and tanker ships consolidated in and around the bay of Baku and spreading into the Caspian prove there is fossil fuel galore to be had. What you don’t expect is the beauty and wealth of gorgeous buildings that make up the city centre … a striking contrast to the rusting tankers in the harbours and the industrial coastline strewn with refinery stations. There is even a stunning promenade dotted with cafés and viewpoints, though I am not sure why you would take a romantic stroll here with your object of affection. Lines like: “I love the way the glare off that pipeline in the distance makes your eyes twinkle, my dear!” just don’t seem to cut it, do they? Anyway, if you turn your back to the sea, the view of the city centre may reignite your passions. Maybe not so much for getting you randy on date night, but if you like shopping at high end stores, then you are set. The newer section of the city could be the up-scale parts of Paris, London or New York City. And this area is still growing, too. New construction is everywhere, and no expense seems to be spared. OK, let me rephrase that; no expense SEEMED to be spared … before the economic crisis hit. A pause button has been pressed at most of the building sites. It’s as if ‘Bob the Builder’, to celebrate all the new contracts he had won, went on a week-long binge of biblical proportions and just couldn’t seem to face the ungodly racket that comes with the turf. A multitude of concrete and steel fingers reach up from the ground, patiently waiting on a glove to fit them. But the idea is still there, and you can already see it will be a city that ranks as one of the finest, that is as soon as the rest of the world comes to realise that there is even a country called Azerbaijan.

There is an older, classical side to the city as well. The historic centre of Baku claimed UNESCO status in 2000 and used to be a fortress, a formidable one at that. Inside its ancient walls are the beautiful (though barren of furnishings) Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the thick-walled Maiden Tower, quaint winding medieval streets and beautifully restored caravansaries (now converted into restaurants … as you do). I am quite sure that during the summer months, this gem of a place would be bustling with punters peaking in to all the carpet shops, snapping shots from atop the tower and pounding back coffee at the cafés, but we happened to show up in mid autumn. It was so quiet that you could here a cricket pass wind. Even the majority of cheesy “antique” shops knew there was no money left to con people out of and had closed their doors. In other words, it was pleasant and hassle free!

Something else that catches your attention in Baku, and Azerbaijan in general, is the peoples’ sense of religion. Technically, they follow Islam, but you would be hard pressed to find any women with their hair covered or the echoing sounds of calls to prayer blaring across the landscape from megaphones strapped to the tops of minarets. I asked our local guide the reason behind this lack of show, and he said it as plainly as possible: “If you had the religion beaten out of you by the Russians for as long as we had, you wouldn’t put too much effort in when you got the chance to, would you?” I suppose not. And when I inquired about Ramadan and any restrictions one might impose upon himself, the reply was: “I know a few people who cut down on smoking a bit.” And there you go. Could be religion anywhere.

We had dinner that night a a charming little smoked filled restaurant (in Islamic countries, every place seems to be smoke filled) a few minutes walk from our equally charming hotel in the suburbs. I love a good grilled meal, and the Caucasus countries are in no short supply of meat that needs a good grilling. A spicy kebab dish puts a smile on my face any day, but what really made the meal and location special was the proprietor of the joint. He spoke English well and loudly, but in a manner that was welcoming and arrogant all at once. It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. After telling my group that, even though they carried alcohol at the establishment, we could bring in our own from the off-license down the street (a comment that pleased many folks), the owner came over for a chat. It turned out that he had managed a restaurant in New York City for many years before returning to his life in Baku. That was the reason for his mannerism, I thought to myself. He said that nobody in Azerbaijan knew how to run a service oriented diner, and since he had the experience from the US, he was going to be the best Baku had to offer. He had only been a few years into it, but was already gaining a reputation. The food and service were superb, I must admit, but a few points have to be shaved off for the entertainment. Nothing worse, I tell you, than a keyboard player and a singer with a slightly off English accent doing covers of Sting tunes. I was truly glad I brought my own wine at that point.