Baku — more than expected

Men playing nardi on the streets of the old city
 
Men playing nardi on the streets of the old city

This is a long text about my short experience in Baku. It is more about politics than good places where to eat; more about understanding a culture than how to get around the city.

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Baku is not a common holiday destination; it should be a typical post-soviet city, with modern, a bit ugly, communist buildings, trying to fit in modern buildings and skyscrapers.

Surprisingly, Baku is a bright and European city, with European architecture, good roads and spectacular new buildings.  Most of the buildings are illuminated, a things which makes Baku the third brightest city in the world.

Nice house.

Nice house.

This enchanting view lasts until you leave the center of the city, where the bad roads start, the dark streets, the kiosks and somehow, in a sweet way, this reminded me of my hometown, of Chisinau.

But let’s start with the beautiful things about Baku. As a tourist you will be thoroughly impressed by the city.

Architecture: The architecture is impressive. Coming from the capital of a former soviet country, I cannot but feel jealous for Baku’s architecture, public and green spaces, roads, street lightening and cultural life.

Baku is a combination of architectural styles which reflect the Azerbaijani history and culture. There is the Islamic style of architecture, with mosques and old palaces.

The Maiden Tower was built in the 12th century as part of the walled city of Baku

The Maiden Tower was built in the 12th century as part of the walled city of Baku

There are the buildings of the Russian Imperial and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Yes, Azerbaijan was once a democratic country and a republic, which lasted, sadly, only two years.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rich Azeri people were bringing Europe home. It did not matter how costly it was. According to what my friends said, people were finding oil in their gardens and overnight became rich.

 

The building was made after an Italian building and dedicated to the memory of the owner’s sun. The red stars are a sign of the Soviet time.

The building was made after an Italian building and dedicated to the memory of the owner’s son. The red stars are a sign of the Soviet time.

With a good guide you can learn adorable stories, like the one about the Palace of Happiness.

Made by the Polish architect Józef Plośko

Made by the Polish architect Józef Plośko

An Azeri millionaire spent his holiday with his wife in France. His wife, impressed by a building, said that she wants to live in a house exactly the same. The good and loving husband hired an architect who had built the house. One night the couple was walking in the city and the wife was stunned to see the building which she loved in France, but this time in Baku. They moved in, lived happily for a while. One night soviet soldiers stormed in, the man shot himself, the woman left for Europe. The building became state property. Now it is the Palace of Marriage Registrations. At least, it is still celebrating love. (More on this here)

The Soviet architecture reminds me of home. Big and somehow all similar to each other apartment buildings and of course a TV tower and circus.

casa sovietica

The late-modernism and postmodernism is what I wanted to see in Baku. I even gave up a day at the sea, just to be next to the enormous Heydar Aliyev Center. Azeri people say that looked up from Cosmos the building looks like Aliyev’s signature, a thing which I refuse to believe. The Center has a conference hall (auditorium), a gallery hall and a museum. It is huge and impressive.

heydar alyiev heydar aliyev

The famous Flame Towers are already a symbol of Baku, as well as the Crystal Hall which hosted Eurovision.

Flame Towers

Flame Towers

 

The Crystal Hall and the Big Flag

The Crystal Hall and the Big Flag

You can see this mixture of styles resting on the big boulevard next to the quiet and oily Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan wants to catch up. They have the highest flag (Dushanbe beat them recently, a weird Eastern competition), the biggest boulevard and soon will have the biggest building in the world. When drinking a beer on the shore of the sea and suddenly an enormous fountain gushes from the sea, you wonder: what is with all this megalomania?

The megalomania is a state policy. Some countries need big narratives and big leaders. Azerbaijan is the first country I have visited with a cult of personality. The airport is “Heydar Aliyev”, there are numerous billboards with Heydar Aliyev, even his quotes are everywhere.

At the orphanage for disabled people, the portraits of the family are in each classroom, even the children’s drawings and crafting are about the Father and the Son. In other schools, there are photographs and portraits of the Aliyev family in each classroom.

heydar heydarii

 

Everyone’s story about the president is the same: he saved them from the Soviets, made them one of the richest countries in the region; now the oil belongs to the country. Only they always forget to mention that the country belongs to the Aliyev family and to another two or three powerful family that run all the businesses in the country.

For a tourist, Baku has the beautiful image of a European city with Oriental essence. It may be a bit too presidential, but at least the leader takes care of his people. If the tourist is from Eastern Europe or any developing country that has too many elections and mini-revolutions, he thinks: maybe it is better to have a strong president, no freedom of expression, but a good life.

What the uninformed tourist does not know is that the poor people in Azerbaijan are as poor as in his country, the percentage of poor people is the same, the rich people are richer and the prices are higher than in his country.

I knew that from the open minded people of Baku. I did not trust them entirely. Everywhere intellectuals only complain.

It took a 20 minutes taxi ride and a good conversation with the taxi driver to understand what is Baku. He told me Azerbaijan has everything for a good life: gas, oil, gold, silver, and land for agriculture, fishing industry, sea, mountains, and cultural heritage, but the majority are still poor.

In the 90s, people lived better, the prices were lower, now there is monopoly and everything is expensive:

–  “You see all these expensive restaurants, I cannot go in there. No teacher or doctor can. It is only for them.” The salaries in the educational system and medical system are not at all impressive around 300-350 manats (a manat is almost an euro). But the prices are European.

At some point, he looked at me and said: you understand that what we are talking should stay between us, if you tell someone, I might have problems. Of course, I am only a taxi driver, with no influence on other people, but still.

He showed me beautiful apartment buildings in the center of the city:

–          You see this. They built it before Eurovision. People were forcibly removed from their houses. The singer who won the contest saw this illegalities and said that there is no democracy in Azerbaijan.

We had a long conversation about the standards of living, freedom of speech and the future of the country. At the end of the discussion, I thought that for now, there is no hope for democracy in Azerbaijan. I wished him good luck and democracy. After our friendly discussion, he still tricked me and I had to pay two more manat for the trip. Sometimes, you just have to pay more to get correct information.

Human rights: The last big protest was in 2003, on the Freedom Square. Now people do not come up on the streets in huge numbers. Activists are arrested and, in the past, journalists were killed. More information about Azerbaijan you can see in this BBC documentary and Foreign Policy piece.

It is my small obsession, wherever I go on a vacation, I am too interested in the politics of the country. It does not happen only in Azerbaijan.

I did not spend much time in Baku, but these are the things to do (some of them I still have to do during my next trip there):

–          Walk around the boulevard, you can try their local London Eye;

–          Get on the top of the Flame Towers;

–          Go up to the Martyr’s Lane which is dedicated to the victims of the Black January. You will have a beautiful view from there;

The view

The view

–          Visit the old city, the walls of the old city and the Maiden Tower;

–          Visit the mosques;

–          Buy a carpet, a traditional hat or any souvenirs;

Souvenirs

Souvenirs

–          Eat. You should definitely try the plov, kebabs, shashlik, dolma and the many delicious soups; also the sweet pakhlava.

sweets

 

–          Visit the Oil-Boomtown, this is where the money is;

–          Go to the Museum of Modern Art. The art of the 80s and 90s is impressive. Nothing like the presidential art.

IMG_2273 IMG_2277

–          Visit at least one museum.

The Museum of Poetry

The Museum of Poetry

–          Try to talk people which are close to the government, it should be funny;

–          Get out of Baku.

If you want to feel the Caucasus, go to Baku. It is both European and Oriental, it is super presidential and a proclaimed democracy, it is rich in culture and traditions that should be discovered. It is an experience which inspires you to go further to the East.

* And the traditional song at the end of each blog entry. 

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