(Get it? A-Zerbaijan? Yeah I thought it was clever and original. Turns out someone else has already done it (http://www.atoz.az/) Anyway, mine is in no way based on this official tourist propaganda site, so read on for an honest breakdown of the country…
A is for…Architecture
Beyond acknowledging that the Shard is pretty cool, architecture isn’t something that I tend to focus on when I’m visiting a city. This was definitely not the case in Baku.
The Flame Towers
The Flame Towers are Baku’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, iconic and inspiring. Housing offices, apartments and a hotel (the Fairmont) the sky-scrapers also double up as giant LED screens, showing flames or the Azeri flag at night. Not too shabby.
Look up from almost anywhere in Baku and you can see them, flames rising up over the old town.
From the boulevard you can take the funicular, or walk up the steps to the towers, enjoying a view of the city and the Caspian.I wouldn’t recommend walking during the summer, but in early November the climb warmed us up nicely. Look out for the distorted reflection of the city in the glass.
At least 60% of my photo album consists of the towers from a different angle, in different light, or with a different contrast. Juxtaposed against the mosque. Mirrored glass reflecting yellow sandstone. Sweeping curves over soviet blocks…
Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center
I could go on, but Zaha Hadid’s design for the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center is even more breathtaking. A big white bubble plonked in the middle of a busy junction, a beacon of calm among the beeping and fumes. Its flowing curves are proof that a building does not have to be phallic to be impressive. Go Zaha.
Walking here from the Old Town seemed like a good idea in order to see some less touristy parts of the city, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Trying to find safe places to cross the tangle of motorway surrounding the center was pretty traumatic (but ultimately worth it!)
While the building is home to various exhibitions, including a collection of late leader Heydar Aliyev’s cars, the building itself is definitely the main attraction. Space-ship, skate-park, futuristic sex-toy or even giant cat head, every angle brings a new perspective. The front of the building is also a perfect vantage point for admiring the rest of Baku’s skyline, especially at sunset.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
In a competition for Baku’s most creative building, the carpet museum may be the underdog, but it’s definitely up there. Designed to look like a rolled up carpet, I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the designers’ brainstorming session.
While it definitely draws attention to a museum that conventionally wouldn’t bring in the crowds, its curved walls aren’t exactly well thought out as far as the exhibition is concerned. Nevertheless the museum is interesting and also has a great restaurant (Xalca)…With a red carpet entrance!
B is for…Baku
It’s a cliché but Baku is definitely a blend of East and West. Not like the vibrant chaos of Istanbul, a more subtle blend. Balconies and boutiques lining the boulevard are distinctly Parisian (Dior, Delloyau and even Bistrot du Paris) while the smell of oil wafts off the Caspian.
Maiden’s tower, or Qiz Qalasi marks the beginning of the old town from the boulevard. From this point glass and marble fade into sandstone. Carpet shops and cats dominate here. The tower and the palace of the Shirvanshah’s (Azerbaijan’s old dynasty)are the main attractions and they have impressive interactive exhibitions and a Game of Thrones vibe.
Despite the rise in tourism it is refreshing to see an ‘old town’ retain authenticity and not become too gimmicky. Vendors are nowhere near as pushy as in other eastern countries. Expect random locals to stop and chat, and maybe even offer you tea!
Moving out of the old town, the National History museum tells you everything you need to know about the country (from their side, of course) and is housed in the former mansion of an oligarch. Their living quarters are exquisite, and give you an idea of the kind of wealth that oil brought the country.
In a similar vein, Port Baku lies to the east. And is definitely not a port. A complex of tower blocks including apartments and offices, a luxury shopping mall and restaurants…In short a little bubble in which expats can go about their lives whilst forgetting that they are actually in Azerbaijan.
Maybe this is why the city seems so empty. While its modern streets are spotless and orderly, they lack the bustle of a capital city. Starbucks is probably the most ambient spot during the day. I don’t want to use the word soulless, but I had the feeling that Baku was missing something. It seems like modernisation has pushed the city’s soul out of its heart.
C is for… Corruption
Despite signing the UN Convention against Corruption, it is still a big problem in a country where political opponents are routinely imprisoned. When Baku hosted the European Games in 2015, hoping it would raise their international profile, critics of the government seized the opportunity to voice their troubles. Most international media coverage focused on the country’s dirty little secrets. If they even covered the Games at all.
Amnesty international has reported several cases of journalists who are critical of the government being locked up on tenuous charges. The most high profile case of this kind was that of Khadija Ismayilova. The investigative journalist was incarcerated because she was about to spill the beans on the first family’s infamous use of the national oil company (SOCAR’s) superyachts. Their use costed an estimated 12$ million a year.
Agil Khalil was less fortunate still when investigating illegal land clearing by authorities. He was harassed and then stabbed by two men who were eventually identified as agents from the Ministry of National Security (So 1984!)
It comes as no surprise then that almost half of the country perceive the judiciary and the police force to be corrupt. It is well known that judges accept bribes or ‘facilitation payments’
On the surface efforts are being made to clean up the country, however like in most of the region, the culture of bribes or patronage is too deeply ingrained.The main problem is that there is no legal framework in place to protect employees who dare to report corruption. I actually heard about someone who works in procurement having a client complain to their boss because they refused to take a bribe!
On a darker note I also heard expats lamenting that it is far more difficult to bribe police officers these days. While this remark was probably tongue in cheek, it points to the fact that cleaning up the country is not in everyone’s best interests. The government have actually postponed negotiations to enter the World Trade Organisation in order to protect the interests of local oligarchs.
D is for…Driving
Ok so D should definitely stand for Dolma, but since I’ve already waxed lyrical about them in my post on Azeri food (link) you’re going to have to make do with Dangerous Drivers…
I’ve driven in a lot of places. Being half Greek, I’ve always thought of myself as having pretty thick skin when it comes to keeping my cool on foreign roads. I’ve kept it together on a moped in Ho Chi Minh, and even managed to fall asleep on Laotian mountain passes. But Baku is different.
Driving out of Baku in a hired car was one of the most stressful experiences of my life (and I was only the passenger /navigator!) Cars merge continuously, from all directions without indicating or even beeping. It’s like LA on acid. They double (or even triple) park on main boulevards causing hold- ups, if they’re lucky, and pile-ups if they’re not.
When we finally saw the open road we started cheering. However our spirits were soon dampened when the car rental clerk’s warnings started to sink in and we realised that there is actually a police car for almost every mile of road. Having heard horror stories of police corruption and hefty fines we played it safe and stuck to the speed limit for the whole 3 hour journey. Even when we were overtaken by Ladas that looked like scenes from Borat.
While driving was a great way to see a bit more of the country, with taxis/ drivers being so cheap, it’s almost not worth the stress. We paid around 30$ a day to rent a car (from Azcar at the Hilton) but took it back a day early and instead booked a taxi to visit Gobustan. The taxi cost 60 Manats (around 35$) and our English speaking driver doubled up as a very knowledgeable guide, even braving the treacherous road up to the mud volcanoes…