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To you health! A market scene in Baku - photos by David Brown
To you health! A market scene in Baku - photos by David Brown

Azerbaijan: Unlike Anywhere Else

The author visits Azerbaijan, and finds the good side of exploding oil prices.

“We are very close to everything,” my driver from the airport explains, smiling as he swerves around a truck with one hand on a cigarette and the other out the window, “And very close to no one.”

For a moment I am at a loss as to what he means, and can’t decide if it is a language error, or whether he is, indeed, making a fairly abstract point about the contradictions of Azeri life.

Either way, the more time I spend in Azerbaijan, the more convinced I am that his statement actually makes sense. With its semi-desert plains and thickly forested hills, gorgeous coastline and polluted slums, Baku does make you feel like you are within reach of a dozen different places.

And yet for all this, it is still a country so unique as to make being in Azerbaijan quite unlike being anywhere else.

While all countries are riddled with contradictions, perhaps nowhere else on earth are those contradictions either as deep or as apparent as they are in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

Azerbaijan is, like Iran, a Shiite Muslim country, but one in which few women veil, and where almost everyone seems to drink. Azeris do not enjoy good relationships with their fellow Shiites to the south, but enjoy strong trading relationships with secular Turks and Christian Georgians.

A City of Contrasts

It is a city of gorgeous belle époque towers and tree-lined parks, overlooked by housing which is little more than mud huts. And it is a city which oil has built and paid for, but which it has poisoned to the extent that the sea wears a permanent rainbow sheen.

The Maiden Tower in the Old City of Baku
The Maiden Tower in the Old City of Baku

In Baku I find myself constantly wondering where I am, where everything reminds me of somewhere else, and often somewhere unlikely.

The newer city reminds me very much of the recently constructed Solidere district of Beirut; the metro system is an exact replica of St. Petersburg's; the climate is Singaporean and the Old City similar to that of Qom or Damascus.

In short, whatever one's preconceptions of Baku, you are more than likely to be surprised.

The upside of that is that so much of that surprise is positive. While I had feared Soviet modernism and the less-than-welcoming attitudes that generally come with them, in fact the Azerbaijani people are charming and open, and much of the city is breathtakingly beautiful, safe and tolerably well organized. Things function, albeit at a fairly leisurely pace.

The Old City

For the traveler, much of what is of interest is located in the Icari Sahar, or Old City. From the city waterfront, the mysteriously named Maiden Tower fronts a labyrinth of winding alleys, sandstone towers and houses.

Taking watermelons to market
Taking watermelons to market

Local legend has it that the tower was built for a young woman so distressed at the looming marriage to her own father that she threw herself from the top as soon as it was completed, but I am assured by locals that the original use of the tower was probably more astronomical than romantic.

Whatever its intended purpose, the unusual Q shape of the tower is charismatic, an effect intensified by the clouds of pigeons and swallows nesting amongst its walls.

In a strange twist of fate, the day I ascend the tower turns out to be Armed Forces Day, and as I'm admiring the sandstone towers and alleyways below me, a crowd is gathering to watch a serious display of military might.

It starts off fairly low key, with some camouflaged motorbikes and jeeps parading up the main boulevard, followed by a long line of vehicles carrying katyusha rockets.

A doorway in Baku

But then in come the air force; first a squadron of helicopters and then the fighter planes, who roar overhead, complete with colored smoke and the occasional burst of firework-like stars.

It is impressive, and certainly hits the right note with the crowd, who applaud and cheer on the display with slightly disturbing abandon.

Disturbing, because Azerbaijan is a country so well used to warfare that one might have thought the sight of the fleet anchored Pearl Harbor-like in the harbour might be more a cause for concern than celebration.

A Rocky Road to Independence

Having forged a democratic republic out of the ashes of the First World War, only to lose it again as the Soviet state expanded, Azeris had to wait another 70 years to rule themselves.

The early days in independence seemed to be cursed – first by an aborted Soviet re-invasion in January 1990, then by a four-year war with neighbouring Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a war which forced 800,000 Azerbaijanis to flee their homes and during which the new republic lost 13% of its territory.

A 12,000-year-old petoglyph at Qobustan
A petoglyph at Qobustan

It is a loss the people have never accepted, and even today daily TV weather maps still show Nagorno-Karabakh as being part of Azerbaijan.

What perhaps has been forgotten is also that the conflict was sparked by Azeri mobs attacking their Armenian neighbours during street riots in Sumqayit, unleashing a wave of fury in Armenia that quickly escalated to the ethnic cleansing of Azeri townships within Armenia.

Impressive Petroglyphs

The army duly celebrated, I head out of Baku to check out a few of the areas claims to fame. First up is Qobustan, home to some of the worlds most impressive petroglyphs.

The journey alone is well worth the price of admission; down along the gorgeous coast, studded with oil rigs and monumental engineering projects on the one side, empty semi-desert on the other.

The 12,000-year-old carvings are located high up above the town in a series of caves, and are impressive even to the novice. Even I had no problem making out goats, horses, people and even Viking-style longboats, especially when I had a guide to help me.

A rug seller in Baku
A rug seller in Baku

My guide, Farhaat, is disturbed that I came well out into the desert by taxi, which then promptly fled.

“How will you leave this place?” he asks, sounding concerned, but with a hint of promise in his voice that suggests that just maybe he knows someone who can help.

A Rattlling Lada

The problem is solved in a typical Azeri fashion – we drink tea with the local policeman and another guide, snack on biscuits and discuss football and the apparently hilarious idea that my country (Finland) has a female head of state.

Phone calls are made, and a half hour later a rattling Lada appears to drive me 20 kms south to see a small volcanic area, and then deliver me into town, from where I can pick up a 'marshrutka' or collective bus, back to Baku.

Suleiman speaks little English apart from the words “no problem,” but drives like a demon across the featureless dusty plateau. If there is a road, I can't see it. Finally, we climb a first-gear hill and stop in a cloud of dust.

The mud fields at Qobustan
The mud fields at Qobustan

We're surrounded by a ring of one-meter (three-foot) high volcanoes, happily bubbling away and spurting the occasional mouthful of mud. It is made even more incongruous by the fact that we're in the middle of a desert, but still within sight of the sea, and the black spots I can see in the distance turn out to be small swamps of oil (which Suleiman calls petrol).

A day later I head north and into the Abseron peninsula. Apart from being the center of the oil industry and the location for an unlikely Zoroastrian temple, it's also a place in which one really experiences the dichotomy of life here.

Nodding Headed Beasts

The densely populated area seems to be a never-ending series of small concrete dwellings, overgrown with grapes, melons and oil wells – the same nodding headed beasts that seem to crop up in so many TV series murder scenes.

The reality is gruesome – the beasts, some 3 meters high, groan incessantly, and sit in a pool of their own oil while children play next to them.

I visit the field known locally as the 'James Bond' field for its role in 'The World Is Not Enough,' and walk across an enormous graveyard of dead oil wells. It takes an hour to cross, and I see nothing but rusting metal hulks, abandoned scrap iron, and pools of toxic muck.

City gate, Baku
City gate, Baku

At the edge of it I come to an ecological project; laudable no doubt, but 90% of the thousand trees that have been planted are dead, hardly surprising in a field of oily, salty dust. It is hugely dispiriting, and gives the lie to the beautiful fountains and parks the oil money has paid for in the inner city.

There is no question that Baku is slick, and far more sophisticated than many might guess. And it's not just the arrival of espresso and Mexican restaurants; there is a genuine sense here of a nation moving forward.

A Sense of Optimism

But beyond the inner city it is hard to enjoy the good without also feeling concern about the dark side. The nationalism on display on Armed Forces Day must surely spill out over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, even though another costly stalemate would seem the most likely outcome.

Many of the environmental tragedies here appear irresolvable, and one suspects the nightmare stories that stem from children playing next to oil wells may never see the light of day.

But I also leave Baku with a sense of optimism. What oil has destroyed it can possible also pay to clean and if the oil wealth can be well used, the city will look more like Singapore or Abu Dhabi, and less like Beirut.

Window in a Baku mosque
Window in a Baku mosque

Wanna Go?

Most visitors to Azerbaijan require a US$100 visa available at embassies abroad, or from the airport in Baku on arrival.

Qobustan petroglyphs and mud pools are 40 km south of Baku. Qobustan can be reached by marshrutka (shared minibus). A taxi to the sites cost around €20.

Eat at:

Kalinka, Qoqol küc, Baku

 

 

David Brown


David Brown is a New Zealand-born travel writer and language consultant based in Helsinki, Finland. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, the US and UK. He hosts a website called Word of Mouth.

 

 

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