Suzi and I visited Baku, Azerbaijan on a long weekend from T’bilisi in spring 2004. Since we took the pictures in these posts Baku has hosted the Eurovision contest and has seen a lot of changes. This is kind of a time capsule. I had posted pics from Baku on my old website, which crashed. I never got the Azeri pics back up. This series of posts has pictures and a highly edited letter I sent from Baku 17 years ago. I removed political references and cut it’s length in half. There are links from this post to more pictures. I put this series of posts up because a friend is thinking of going to Baku. Susan, this is for you.
May 3, 2004
At first glance Baku is both exotic and familiar. It’s Midtown Anchorage parked in the Middle East. Like Midtown it features a glassy, not quite high-rise, architecture with familiar corporate logos and spaces of undeveloped land between the buildings. Some are filling up with strip malls, which I have not seen anywhere else in the region. Of course, there are McDonalds, SUVs and oilmen wearing checked shirts. There are also some jackets with familiar corporate logos, including some with totemic designs. (Huna Totem.)
But this transplanted Anchorage isn’t quite right. You don’t see many mosques in Midtown Anchorage. At familiar looking gas stations an attendant, in a crisply ironed uniform, stands “at ease” by each set of pumps but snaps to when a car comes in, pumping gas and cleaning glass. Mixed with the SUVs and pickup trucks are a fair number of Volga, Lada and Moskovich automobiles. Babushkas, who’ve tied fresh flowers to their broom handles, sweep the streets. Perhaps the flowers give off a nice smell because, unlike Anchorage, there are old oil fields immediately surrounding Baku and in parts of the town I would be afraid to light a match.
Baku is actually four towns, aside from “New Anchorage” there is the “Old Town,” “Boom Town” and “Soviet Town.” Old Town is an ancient trans-shipment place with a fine natural harbor on the Caspian Sea. Ships with goods from Persia, India and the Silk Road unloaded for caravans that took goods across the Caucus Isthmus to the Black Sea. At the north end of the Caspian is the mouth of the Volga, the gateway to Russia. The old town has Caravanserais, walled courtyards with merchant stalls where the trading took place. One Caravansary is a restaurant with private dining rooms in the stalls and live Azeri music in the courtyard. We ate a multi-course dinner with wine for under $15 and watched a young boy try to run off with a musician’s drum. There are old dwelling houses, warehouses, mosques, churches and a Shah’s palace enclosed within the old city walls. The main old town pastime seems to be selling carpets. They are hanging from windows and balconies; “come, take a tea, just look no need to buy.” The mysterious Maiden’s Tower, a thick keyhole shaped tower that some think was an observatory for the Zoroastrians, sits near the water. Or it could be just a strangely shaped defensive tower, no one really knows.
Boomtown, to me, is the most interesting. Oil barons from the mid 1800’s to the Russian Revolution built their fantasies with a mixture of Russian Empire, Italian Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Indian Raj, French Gothic and Turkish delight, sometimes all in the same building. There are broad boulevards and parks with outdoor ping-pong, backgammon and chess tables. Men sit on park benches with their worry beads. A kitten pounces on one set of beads hanging from a man’s hands and he begins to play with the little cat.
The promenade along the Caspian shore is broad and green, with amusement rides just like at the Jersey shore, and a long pier where they fire off the May Day fireworks. I would not recommend swimming in this sea. Just off shore you can see old oil derricks. Sludge balls bounce off the sea walls of the promenade. I don’t understand people who eat Beluga Caviar that comes from fish that swim in this sea.
Gary Kasparov, the International Chess Champion was born in Baku and learned chess on this seaside promenade. The benches along the sea were being repainted for the summer. The painters are persistent, painting a bench while people were still sitting on it. This is the only place where I have seen bench painters wearing suits, albeit with open collar shirts and no ties. The centerpiece of “Boom Town” is the terraced Fountain Square. “Boom Town” buildings have mosaics, cut stone latticework, statues, and art in relief. In one ersatz Venetian palace, now a museum, the Soviets redid the mosaics to create red stars.
This brings us to Soviet Town; more Stalin than Brezhnev, but you can guess what it is like. And finally, “New Anchorage.” Suzi and I spent a lot of time walking old town and boomtown. The four towns don’t have firm boundaries but merge into each other and encroach into each other’s territory. The broad prospect along the Caspian cuts into the old town and expands beyond it having elements of all four towns. In all parts of the town mobile phone antenna are mounted on fake oil derricks.
The Irshad Hotel, a “New Anchorage” building, sits on a broad boulevard laid out as part of Boomtown, but ending in a Soviet sports complex. The hotel advertises; “Pope John Paul slept here.”
One of the things that savvy travelers learn is that even in countries not known for having clean, or any public restrooms, McDonalds toilets sparkle. They do a lot of business because of that. Suzi and I were having a coke and ice cream on Mickey D’s terrace on Fountain Square and watched the changing of the guard at McDonald’s.
Baku’s McDonald’s guards wear gray uniforms with chevrons on the sleeve. The leader sports Sergeant’s stripes. The others are either Corporals of PFCs. At 4 PM the shift changes and the Sergeant of the Guard counts the chairs and tables on the terrace and signs the manifest over to the next shift. The guards seem to be there to make sure that the furniture doesn’t get nicked. They also look after McDonald’s image. Parents come so their kids can play in the big McDonald’s climbing tower. They sit with their bottles of Vodka on the table. This does not fit McDonald’s image and the guards go around asking people to cap the bottles and either put them into a bag or lay them flat on the trays, which they do after pouring a gulp into a McDonald’s paper cup. All this happens while Dean Martin sings Bésame Mucho on the McDonald’s PA.
Azerbaijan is a Moslem country with the crescent and star on its flag, and vodka. The call to prayer sounds in Baku but near McDonalds it is drowned out by other noise, nothing stops for prayer, especially not sipping vodka from a Mickey D’s cup. During the evening call to prayer someone cranks up his car stereo. He is listening, I am not kidding, to Phillip Glass. God is Great and Einstein is on the beach.
On Saturday we arranged a car from the hotel to take us around the Absheron Peninsula just outside Baku. The driver did not speak English, but we were able to understand enough of his Russian to enjoy the day. The Absheron Peninsula may be one of the strangest places I have ever visited. It is one of the first oil fields exploited commercially and is an industrial wasteland of old oil derricks, “praying mantis” oil pumps and industrial litter. Sections of ground are soaked with black crude. Yet it was a place of wonder and mystery for the ancients because of natural gas vents that caused sand to burn for no apparent reason. Marco Polo wrote of the place. We visited Yanar Dag, literally “Fire Mountain” where natural gas vents from a seam a little over thirty feet long burn with flames up to nine feet high against a cared hillside. Someone has set some stones near the flares on which they set metal kettles and china teapots. They manipulate the teapots with long poles. You sip tea from water boiled by the Yanar Dag.
The temple of Atesgah (fire temple) near Surxani was sacred to the Zoroastrians for 1500 years and remained a pilgrimage place for Parsees even after they were driven from Persia to India by the Arab invasions of the 8th century. The inscriptions at the temple are in Sanskrit letters. The temple was built over a natural gas vent that had created an eternal flame. The temple builders diverted some of the gas through the pillars of the temple so that each of the four corners of the temple breathed fire. There is at least one other natural gas flare within the temple walls, which are made up of cells for the pilgrims to camp in. This area immediately around the temple was one of the first oil fields developed commercially. The commercial exploitation depleted the natural gas pressure so that the temple now had just has enough gas for the central flare and not enough to burn at the four corners. We had heard that even the central eternal flame now needs help from the Baku municipal gas works. When you climb the temple walls and look out you see a scene of utter devastation surrounding the temple, abandoned oilrigs, blackened soil and a crude stench. Someone has hung laundry from a line stretched between two abandoned oil derricks.
A third strange sight on the Absheron Peninsula is the pilgrims’ shrine of Mir Movsum Aga. The complex has the mausoleum of a Moslem holy man, a mosque and a madrasa, or Moslem school. The complex has two elaborate blue mosaic covered domes and a minaret with the same blue and gold pattern. It is a favored burial ground, and the monuments include traditional Moslem headstones, orthodox crosses, monuments with red stars, ones with photographs of the deceased and one grave marked with a small oil derrick. A constant stream of people lines up to enter the mausoleum, the entrance is lined with elaborate carpets. An imam makes sure all women have their heads covered, the only place I have seen this in our brief trip to Azerbaijan, and the pilgrims circle the tomb and kiss the carpets at the head and foot of the holy man.
The driver took us to one of the saddest places I have seen, the beach where Baku swims in the summer. He was very proud of it. “Very beautiful” he said. And from a distance it might be and in the past it certainly was. But we got close enough to see the water. While there was broad sand the abandoned oil derricks behind it and the petrochemical plant just to the east made it a place I would not want to swim. The fact that someone was building a resort there was the triumph of hope over reason.
Finally, we went to the martyr’s shrine, dedicated to those who died in the war with Armenia that happened on the breakup of the Soviet Union.
I had one other experience in Baku worth mentioning. In the Bazaar in the new town, I was pick pocketed. I saw it coming and was able to minimize the damage. A gang of boys cut me out of the herd like a calf at a rodeo and started bumping into me. It was kind of a non-violent assault. I usually carry several wallets and was able to protect my wallet with the passport, my cell phone and my camera but the pickpockets got my other wallet, which was zipped into an inside pocket of my jacket. It was the wallet advertised by Magellan as being pickpocket proof. It has little rubber spikes that are supposed to cling to the cloth. Right. I lost my ATM and AMEX cards and about $25 in local currency. I was easily able to cancel the ATM and AMEX cards. However, AMEX needs to change their telephone pitch. I called the lost and stolen card department from my cell phone almost immediately after it happened. “Good morning. (It was morning in America.) This is American Express Card Replacement, are you having a pleasant day?”
Well, actually, I was. I was enjoying Baku, lost relatively little money and had my passport, driver’s license, camera, phone and a story to tell. But it seemed like a stupid question, so I answered, “No, it’s a lousy day.”
“Oh, and why is that?”
“Because I was just robbed? Why do you think I’m calling you?”
“We at American Express are SO sorry to hear that.” And she ended the conversation, in which I learned that they could NOT replace my card until I got to someplace not Baku or T’bilisi (I can’t use it in Baku or T’bilisi anyway) with, “And we at American Express hope you have just a wonderful rest of your day.” Who hires these people?
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