My girlfriend and I wanted to do a bit of traveling this summer. I had for a long time really wanted to visit Central Asia, but given the hassle of getting there and around, we opted for the Caucasus as a destination that was closer and more accessible but did little compromises in terms of exoticism. I had a month to spare while she had only two weeks, so it was going to be short but intense. Our mainstay was to be Georgia and Armenia, with their pristine alpine scenery and millennium old monasteries perched high up in the mountains, but given the proximity of Azerbaijan, we had to drop by for a couple days at least. We both felt like the chance to come in this region again would not come round at least in the foreseeable future so it was our only chance to set foot in this mysterious country.
Getting a visa for Azerbaijan was a complex process which required us to book all hotels in advance, get invitation letters and give a detailed plan of our itinerary. We did not expect much to be honest, but we were both open minded. So after spending my first two weeks of solo traveling in Greece, we had planned to meet in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Having arrived two hours earlier than my girlfriend, I frenetically searched for an electrical outlet to plug my laptop in. According to the brochure the airport, a state of the art hub through which millions of passengers transited every year, had been awarded four stars by a prestigious airport rating firm. It was empty and somewhat kitschy: every piece of vegetation was made of plastic and there was not electrical outlet to be found. Eventually, I encountered one and spent the hour that was remaining publishing posts about Greece. I had prepared a nice written sign with my girlfriend’s name on it to welcome her among the expected crowd of chauffeurs holding similar signs, but she made it through the customs and baggage claim faster than expected. Obviously happy to see each other on foreign lands, we took a taxi to out hostel, settled down a bit and went for excellent Azeri food at a nearby restaurant and decided to walk for a short while before calling it a night.
That night, we encountered the Bulevar, a seafront park several kilometers long which basically ran the entire coastline of central Baku. There were a few rides, cafés and junk food stands with a handful of Bakuvians walking about. There, it struck us, we were basically alone as foreigners. Save for a couple of Russian faces, we could see no other westerners and it would remain so until we left the country (actually, we crossed path with 4 or 5). We contented ourselves with some beers and headed back to the hotel. Speaking of beers, Azerbaidjan might be an islamic country, decades of Soviet rule has done a stellar job at eliminating most traces of religion from the public sphere. Very few women are veiled, mosques are rare and alcohol is available everywhere and consumed in public without shame. Azeris appeared to be fairly liberal people, at least on the outside and in Baku.
I had envisioned Baku to be a dirtier and less crowded version of Istanbul. I was correct on the population density part, the center, which we spent most of out time felt empty and devoid of life. As to the cleanliness aspect, I was wrong. Central Baku was immaculate, shiny and perfectly landscaped. No thrash to be seen and there were more city employees (lots watering the lawn with hoses) doing maintenance on the park than actual citizens or tourist using it. So the next day, eager to explore the capital, we started our day with a walk in the Bulevar along the sea towards the massive flagpole on the other end of the city. Apparently, that pole was the second tallest in the world. The first position belongs to, you might have guessed it, the North Koreans. On the way there, we passed several rows of exotic trees we suspect the city had imported fully grown from their place of origin, more employees watering the lawn with hoses and finally, we reached the foot of the massive base the flagpole was on.
Most entrances were fenced off, but some were only guarded by a policeman. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Canada” we replied, thinking he was just being curious. “You go back. Walk, turn right and continue … ” “We can’t climb the base? We’d like to see the flagpole from up close.” “No, go back!” he told us with an irritated voice.
Alright, it appeared that being in close proximity to the national flagpole was not permitted to Canadians. Go figure. Azerbaidjan is basically a dictatorship. It labels itself as being a democratic country, but a quick glance at its short history since it became independent from the Soviet Union reveals quite the opposite. Only two men have held the highest office since things have became sort of stable, a father and his son. A democratic country will not plaster huge billboards displaying its defunct president ( the current one’s father) along patriotic slogan everywhere, it’s called a personality cult and some people in Azerbaijan have been hard at work building one for some time now.
Then, I spotted the bus line that I remembered could take us to the Baku oil fields. I had wanted to see them even before arriving in Azerbaidjan, but my interest was not quite shared by my companion. I knew there was a mosque that way so I was quick to convince her that devoting an hour or so taking a bus out of the city to see the fields and the mosque was a great plan. And it was, we managed to get a glimpse of how life was outside of rich and affluent central Baku, we passed hordes of petroleum pumps nodding up and down in huge oil fields and as a bonus, we got a panorama of Caspian ship building company workers busy assembling offshore oil rigs. However, the mosque, named Bibi Heyat, was nothing really amazing. Upon reaching it, we donned out « decent » clothes (me a pair of pants and her a scarf) and entered it only to notice it was not really a place of worship but rather a shrine devoted to one of the daughters of the first imams of Islam.
Back in the city, we proceeded to the Alley of the dead, a monument to those killed during a Russian incursion in the 90s and then started walking towards the old town. Central Baku is a spectacular city, with imposing government buildings and huge avenues. There is little publicity and little people walking its streets. In June of that year, Baku had been the host of the 1st European games, something they were immensely proud of. On my flight in the day before, I had picked up a blatantly propagandist brochure about the games which read that the 1st European Games in Baku would be forever remembered as one of the finest sporting event of recorded history. For the occasion the authorities had built a lot of infrastructure which I think had not been converted for civilian use just yet. Anyway, this seemed to be a plausible explanation for the surprisingly large quantity of brand new but vacant buildings in the city.
The old town was itself inhabited, but had been seriously renovated and restored in the last years so contrary to most old towns around the world, it was orderly and clean. We toured around it, trying to follow the route the Lonely Planet guide was suggesting and eventually, we exited it into the shopping district. After a meal and some beers at tables which appeared to be reserved for westerners (There were “reserved” signs; Azeris were directed to sit elsewhere but we we encouraged to take one) we resumed waking among luxury brand outlets. It seemed that this was the hanging out spot for the rich minority of the country, those that have profited from the oil boom and that were on the nicer side of Azerbaijan’s massive wealth gap. The display of luxury was somewhat outrageous given the living conditions we had witnessed a couple of kilometers away on the outskirts of the city. After a short resupply stop at our hostel, we were back out sipping a local beer facing the massive presidential palace and its parade square. Afterwards, tired, we rent to be in our strangely decorated room with violet wallpaper, brown sheets and creepy paintings for some well deserved rest.