In the final of a series of guides on the Caucasian capitals, our ever-roving reporter Stuart Wadsworth introduces us to Baku, an oil-rich boomtown on the Caspian sea.
Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, the most populous of the three Caucasian capitals with around two million inhabitants, has come a long way since the unlamented collapse of the U.S.S.R. After coming through a bitter war with Armenia (over Nagorno Karabach – which they lost) and an internal power struggle in the 90’s it is now run effectively, if somewhat undemocratically, by the self-appointed Aliyev dynasty – who don’t so much govern Azerbaijan, as own it. It is a bracing, vibrant, and occasionally surreal city in which buildings are mushrooming at an alarming rate – every view of Baku is one of construction, with some of the most audacious and bizarre building projects being undertaken anywhere in the world. Baku’s astonishing reinvention is largely down to two factors – chiefly its huge wealth of oil and gas reserves which at times literally seep through the soil (which it is no longer obliged to cede to Moscow) – and secondly the ambition of its unfortunately authoritarian ruling family.
Baku is not a city for the faint of heart – it is as off the beaten track as you can get, and nothing about travel in Azerbaijan is easy. But to those who are willing to sacrifice some western comfort and come with an open mind, it is a city with some weird and wonderful treasures, which you will probably find you have all to yourself: tourism is a concept only just beginning to take shape here. And if you can ignore the recent placing of Azerbaijan as the world’s 138th least corrupt country (which means it is the 20th most corrupt, ahead of both the Congo and Zimbabwe, and on equal footing with Iraq), and questionable record on environmental health, you might just have one up on some of your backpacking mates who have been everywhere… just don’t mention Armenia!
Best of the Beaten Track
The best place to get your bearings is the ancient old city, Ichari Shahar. Like the kernel of a nut, everything in Baku originates from here, spreading out east and west along the coast and blurring into the surrounding industrial hinterland. Middle-eastern in flavour, this is a pedestrianised haven in which you can wander unimpeded by the city’s otherwise ubiquitous traffic. It contains the two most-visited tourist sights, Maiden’s Tower and The Palace of the Shirvanshahs. The former is most instantly recognisable of Baku’s (admittedly few) genuine tourist sights, the surprisingly squat and medieval 29m tower overlooks the Caspian from the far end of the old town and affords great views out over the (ahem) glistening, azure waters and surrounding old town – and its rapidly changing environs.
From here, you can begin a well-thought out audio-guide tour of the old town (headphones available from the tourist office by the tower, for approx. 7 euros), which gives you some nice insights into the history of Baku – the highlight of which is undoubtedly the aforementioned Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a restored 15th century complex, and the finest surviving piece of Middle Age (Persian) architecture in Azerbaijan. Here, you get a feel for everyday life within the palace walls, from the crypt to the cistern, the hammam and the mosque. For an even better view out over the town, climb up the hill to Martyr’s Lane, an evocative if at times mawkish memento to those who lost their lives in the Red Army’s 1990 quelling of a popular uprising in the city. An eternal flame burns at the end of a long row of engraved tombstones to the martyrs, looking out on the wide sweeping arc of Baku bay.
The real joy of Baku is discovering its wacky hinterland; a Mad-Max landscape, stretching east into the Caspian on the Abseron peninsula, it’s a weird mixture of post-industrial waste – populated by nodding donkeys, disused factories and off-shore oil-rigs (the opening desolate scenes of Bond film The World Is Not Enough were shot here – and oddly compelling natural and man-made sights, the like of which you won’t see anywhere else in the world. Where better to start than Qobostan – home to deeply strange mud volcanoes and a reserve of Stone – and Bronze-Age petroglyphs, some 60km or so south of Baku. Passing possibly the world’s least attractive beach on the way (Sixov), complete with an oil rig you could swim to, the mud volcanoes are located a few miles inland. Nothing short of astonishingly weird, the lunar scenery at the top of an otherwise unremarkable hill is characterized by ‘geological flatulence’, meaning that small volcano-like mounds cover the hilltop, gurgling, oozing, spitting and sometimes erupting thick, grey (cold) mud. The place is completely deserted, and most locals will have no idea what you are asking about if you want directions – just take a cab. Whilst you are here, check out the petroglyphs nearby – cave engravings from 6000 years ago, when the shores of the Caspian stretched way inland, some 80m higher than now.
On the subject of ancient forebears, a visit to the Ateshgar Fire Temple is a must; a relic of the ancient fire-worshipping religion Zorastrianism, you are unlikely to see anything like it outside India, where the religion originated. Because of natural gas vents under the ground, the earth here used to breathe fire (the fire here is no longer natural), and a temple was built up by followers from the east. The very interesting adjoining museum includes models of its followers undergoing brutal self-mutilation. Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain), a little further east on the Abseron peninsula, once boasted countless natural gas flames – they were mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century – and is particularly vivid at night. For the truly masochistic, a visit to Artyom Island might be in order – the region makes the word depressing seem positive, as this island seems to sum up ‘desolation’ in one handy image, with rusting boats, industrial waste, mountains of rubbish and toxic pools of oil populating the grim landscape. There’s nothing to do here except wander how man could allow his environment to get like this, but it’s worth it for that in itself. Abseron’s beaches are the main attraction for locals, and they can get surprisingly busy in summer – but take care in the water, which can be heavily polluted. Bilguh and Amburan seem to be the least unappealing options.
Experience & Events
For a city which straddles Europe and Asia, and which is home to upwards of two million people, finding musical entertainment in Baku outside of the typical ex-pat, cover-band is somewhat tricky. The city does have an annual jazz festival however, and year-round you can sample the scene at the Baku Jazz Centre and Karavan Jazz Club. For traditional Azeri music, you need look no further than one of the many top-end restaurants, for example Mugam Club, in which you will dine to the accompaniment of not only music but dancing too. Others, typically in large suburban gardens, offer top Azeri stars singing at full blast. Many westerners consider this to be more punishment than entertainment however. For a more Middle-eastern experience, customers at some restaurants and several upmarket tea-houses are subjected to belly-dancing, albeit of unreliable quality. Better than most is the show (after 10pm) at the atmospheric, Arabic-themed cellar-restaurant Xalifa (17 Rashid Behbudov). For theatre and classical music buffs, the season runs from mid-September to late May, as in all ex-Soviet countries. It’s worth seeing a performance at Baku’s 1910 Opera & Ballet Theatre, if only to admire the grand interior. Also worth a look is the impressive Philharmonia, which was once an oil-boom casino, containing an even grander interior and an eclectic concert programme. For football fans, watching a game amongst the passionate, partisan supporters of FK Baku is a great experience, and very good value – you can normally get tickets for just a handful of euros.
Baku is a city in which cheap, back-packer style accommodation is at an absolute premium. The 1000 Camels Hostel is one of the very few options, and it is worth booking ahead for one of its eight beds. Bang in the middle of the old city, it’s comfortable and friendly and it’s your best bet if you’re on a tight budget. Right upstairs is the inferior but similarly priced Caspian Hostel. Both come in at 15-20 Euro a night. The other cheap-ish option is Hotel Velotrek, a sports complex with beds for about 20 euro a night in clean, unfussy rooms. It’s a trek from the centre though, and operates a curfew. In the ‘mid-range’, the Sultan Inn is an 11-room boutique place with great views over Maiden’s Tower and is tastefully done out with friendly service. Doubles come in at an eye-watering 150 Euro a night. For those with money to burn, there is the Radisson, the Hotel Meridian and The Hyatt.
Baku offers tourists a selection of restaurants serving good food at affordable prices. Dining out (as elsewhere in the Caucasus) is a family-and-friends affair though, so lone diners may sometimes feel uncomfortable. Russian, Georgian, Turkish and Persian influences suffuse the cuisine. Firuze is an outstanding choice for anyone wanting to sample traditional Azeri food in pleasant rustic surrounds. Dishes include dolma (stuffed vine leaves), qovurma – lamb fried in butter with apricots and chestnuts, and fesanjan – chicken or lamb with pomegranates and walnuts. To sample 14th-century-style dining, try Karvansara Restaurant, where you can eat open-air in the courtyard of an old hostelry, or in one of its atmospheric stone dining cells. Prices aren’t too steep, but take care with your orders – you will be offered, and brought, too much food, and you pay for every single item, including bread. For Russian food, Kalinka is hard to beat – good food at modest prices – and for Persian cuisine, Bibi is fantastic. The best plov (fried rice and lamb with dried fruit) in town is sold here, and its sturgeon is pretty good too.
Despite it being Muslim, Azerbaijan’s attitude to alcohol is ambivalent. Baku’s bar scene is somewhat geared to the oil-rig working ex-pat community, and as such, is a haven for lovers of Irish and English style bars with overpriced drinks, Sky Sports, pool tables and curry nights. If you can’t resist such temptations, Shakespeare’s and Finnegan’s seem to be the most popular choices. If on the other hand your tastes are a bit more eclectic, try The Brewery – Baku’s only brew-pub with wooden furniture and a German feel – you can even sample German sausage here. USSR is a throwback to Communist times, with plenty of memorabilia hanging on the walls and a welcoming vibe. Clubbing is a hit and miss affair in Baku (mainly miss) but Crossroads is usually busy and friendly. For coffee-lovers, Baku is a challenge – it being a tea-drinking nation – but Ali and Nino is a nice modern café/bookshop with a decent lunch time menu deal and air conditioning in the summer. Chocolate, with pseudo-1920’s touches, is worth a visit, as is Café Caramel, which has great cappuccinos and gives out nice street views. For a true Azeri experience, visit a ‘chaixana’ – teahouse – where you can while away your time amongst men playing cards, backgammon and dominoes – they are all over the backstreets of the city. A warning however: women might feel uncomfortable, and may not even be allowed entrance.
Baku is, to say the least, not easy to get to, and for most people it requires a visa. Depending on where you are from, this may be either a simple or infuriating experience. For most European citizens, the simplest option is to fly in to Baku airport and buy a visa on arrival. UK citizens pay $100). Overland options are limited – the land border with Armenia being closed, and the one with Russia (Dagestan) being closed to foreigners. There are three land borders with Georgia, and there is a reasonably cheap and comfortable overnight train to Tbilisi. For those with more time than money, heading east to the ‘Stans’ over the Caspian is an option but be prepared for long waits – there is no reliable ferry timetable.
Information on Baku is, as usual for the Caucasus, pretty hard to come by and of questionable reliability. All government sites will be rabidly anti-Armenian. www.azer.com is probably the best online resource, with an extremely comprehensive archive of cultural articles and resources.
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is the default guide for most backpackers, and it’s the best guide to the region as a whole, but Mark Elliot’s guide Azerbaijan With Excursions is far more comprehensive on this country – if a little too obsessive. Most expats refer to it before expressing an opinion on anything Azeri-related. Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino is a must read – a love story written in the 1920’s which gives a great introduction to the whole region. Lutz Kleveman’s The New Great Game is a great book for anyone interested in the politics surrounding the struggle to control one of the world’s great oil reserves and covers the whole Central Asian – an area known as the ‘black hole of earth’ for much of the last century. Kapuscinski’s Imperium also covers the region with typically witty and thoughtful insights.
Soundtrack to the City
View Baku City Guide in a larger map
Ps. If you’re touring the Caucasus be sure to check our city guide to Yerevan…