(Click photos to make big)
Stocked with only a hostel address and a belly full of McDonalds, we boarded an airplane in Dubai, half full with Brobdingnagian body builders and others who looked like they knew where they were going. We didn’t. Shouldn’t I feel like I’m going home at long last? said the Caucasian in me. It is, after all, the Caucasus. But the feeling didn’t take, and I settled in excitedly for our trip north (“it’s north right?”) — to a capital city whose name I’d learned a month earlier, in a country I couldn’t yet place on a globe.
Baku is calculated city filled with spontaneous people. Or is it the other way around… somehow, in the hustle and bustle that surrounds and penetrates the walls of the millenium-old “Inner City,” a sense of order prevails — the sense that someone knows exactly what’s supposed to be going on. The popular section of downtown near İçəri Şəhər (ih-cherry sha-har), the “Old” or “Inner’ City, could compete for most fountains per-capita, with wide, immaculate stone boulevards reminiscent of Vienna or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. In this small section of town where Medieval meets Soviet and the urban plans of a new and liberated city, folks mingle to the sounds of construction and cultures smashing together.
But a traveler also gets the feeling that most of the smashing is in yesterday’s history — that Persian traditions, Turkish culture and Russian influence have already been absorbed, and that the modern result is a cocktail that is almost exclusively Azeri. This is not like the New York of today, where we eat sitting on the floor to “try something new”. This is like the New York of tomorrow, where we pick up tacos with chopsticks because it’s what we’ve been doing for years.
Through this wanders the rogue tourist, usually directionless and lost in “the ride” (like us), or else feverishly dedicated to the voyage — the trip through forgotten places overlooked in the travel guides printed wherever home is (was). A discombobulated Irish woman, face worn with wind, headed for Turkmenistan with a long-awaited letter of invitation. She left our hostel for one of the cargo ferries the internet says no longer exist, across the Caspian just to get somewhere else. Another bunkmate packed his bags for Kazakhstan. Others woke up late, stretched, and drank tea.
We found sustenance in veal stews sprinkled with luscious pomegranate, and in food that looked just like its picture.
Past the iconic twelfth-century Maiden’s Tower, stone streets swirl past carpet shops up the hills to the complex of the Shirvanshahs, the rulers of the Azeri territory for a long, long time a long, long time ago. Small mosques and chambers, the ruins of ancient bathhouses, and crumbled friezes engraved with Persian script stand out as the main “attraction” of a city whose character is better walked through than photographed.
(Here’s some photographs:)
In its way, the city wanders with us, fazed by the speed of its own development. A triangular roundabout was designed so openly that drivers would blast straight through to their deaths without the now necessary police cars stationed full time to direct traffic. Palm trees grow resolutely next to evergreens. The city is even unsure of its own name: Baku to some, Baki (or Baky) to others. And of course, with confusion comes coincidence. The brother-in-law of a would-be cab driver worked in the very town where both of my parents grew up — in suburban Connecticut.
Up a giant flight of stairs at a high point in the city, we looked down at the entire Absharon peninsula, where like an eagle’s beak Baku and its suburbs curl into the Caspian. With so distinctive a coastline, Baku does offer one of the world’s solid “Google Earth” views — a moment when your internal compass is perfectly calibrated and you see in front of you the vision of a perfect map. The sight is amazing: dense city sprawl blankets every visible plot of land. Past the mysterious old city and the sparkling corniche, past the coastal oil drills and the unfinished glass skyscrapers lurks the uninviting, ultraindustrial Baku populated only by necessity.
“What other metro stations should we go to?” I asked one local who spoke English outside a subway stop other people seemed to have found very deliberately .
He never really understood that I was just looking for things worth seeing, anywhere worth being in. He mentioned İçəri Şəhər, the stop we’d gotten on. Oh and also, he added, there’s a place to walk the chic boulevard.
“What stop is that?”
“That’s İçəri Şəhər, too.”
We climbed back down into the city where few locals drink but you can open local wine in the street, where taxi drivers pounce on anyone with a camera, and where English is the language of far off lands whose influence runs dry by the time it trickles through the highest levels of government. “Ruskei znayet?” everyone asks (in improper Russian), do you understand Russian? And with that, we descend into a language of hand gestures, frustration, and silence. What we can’t point to, we’ll just have to find on our own.
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
More Azerbaijan photos coming soon. For now, check these out.