The pipes are calling: Baku beckons

In Dubai, Travel on January 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The capital of Azerbaijan provides the backdrop for a long weekend of surreal sightseeing, gold teeth and geological oddities

Fly Dubai flight 705 leaves the UAE half full and lands in Baku half empty. As we touch down at Heyder Aliyev International Airport, our fellow passengers passengers cheer. Any place that treats a successful landing as a privilege rather than a right falls into the “alternative” category of weekend breaks. The capital of Azerbaijan is no regular tourist hub.

Tickets are cheap; we picked up our flights for a mere 554 dirhams return, including taxes, in a Fly Dubai sale. But, as with any off-the-beaten-track destination, things got a little tricky after that. Brits, Yanks and others lucky enough to have access-all-areas passports can pick up visas on arrival in Baku for $100. For those with less permissive papers, getting a visa is more complicated, and potentially more expensive. Swankier hotels[1] should be able to arrange official invites from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which you need to take to the Azeri consulate in Abu Dhabi (; call +971 4 235 5232), along with $50 to get a visa in a few days. We went for a cheaper hotel, which couldn’t (or wouldn’t) arrange for an invitation letter. This meant the Lebanese and Indians in our group had to go through a visa service, which set them back around 800 dirhams each.

For an Eastern-European, ex-soviet, Caucasus country, Azerbaijan is surprisingly expensive. This is for the same reason that Dubai can get tough on the wallet: oil. At the turn of the last century, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world’s petroleum. And for the past half decade, it has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This boom means every facade in Baku has been renovated, and gleams. From its sandstone buildings to its marble courtyards, downtown Baku has been restored to its late 19th century glory, and the back streets of its medieval old town have been spruced up, too. The city is clean and pretty, which leaves it at odds with many of its residents.

Expensive taste

Azerbaijan is an economically polarized country, with many of its residents visibly poor, juxtaposed with a few post-Soviet millionaires. It’s split in other ways, too, and this is apparent in its bars. Above-ground, street-level pubs are largely populated by expats – oil workers from Texas and Scotland. Many bars sport Aberdeen Football Club flags, testimony to the imported talent of rig workers that serves to push the rental prices of apartments to Dubai levels ($1,200 per month for a one-bedroom flat seems to be the going rate in the English-language Baku Weekly).

Next to the expat bars are the underground pubs and clubs. They are populated by sour-faced Azeris listening to early 90s electronica and swilling Xirdelan beer and vodka.

Entry point

But before we hit the bars, we need to clear the airport. We must fill in visa forms in duplicate, then clear passport control. This is before we approach the visa desk. There’s clear potential for a Terminal moment in this airport, as we are stamped into the country without yet having acquired the visa that will allow us to be there. Luckily, when an official – a young man in a crumpled uniform – eventually turns up behind the counter, he is so drowsy with sleep that he even waives the two passport photos guidebooks say are needed for a visa.

“Have you been to Armenia?” he asks, blearily.

“No,” I reply. “Would it be a problem if I had? Would I not be allowed in?”

“You’d be allowed in,” he says. “But you would be followed. You could be a spy.”

He takes our $100 (each), handwrites our visas, and waves us through.

Oil barren

On the way from the airport to the city, our taxi driver drifts lethally round motorway curves, wheels screeching to the other lane, then back again in the nick of time.

Tearing our eyes from the terrifying road, we see a nightscape of barren ground and pipes open up. This is Baku’s surrounds. The countryside is not beautiful; it’s post-apocalyptic. And there are pipes everywhere.

Baku-is-an-oil-city is the mantra that helps visitors get a grasp on the city. Oil, gas, and all the trappings of such fossil fuels dominate the landscape. The pipes carry gas virtually straight out of the ground, and transport oil that has been coaxed to the surface by timeless yet ancient nodding-donkey pumps that buck methodically along every roadside.

A place to stay

We arrive at our hotel, The Old City Inn, in the walled old town. It is run by a hospitality training college, and is one of the more affordable, tolerable hotels. We have haggled the rates down to $100 per night, per room. There are other, cheaper options, but these come with tales of bed bugs, and pay-by-the-hour neighbours.

The Old City Inn is basic and well located. In each room is a gas fire that we can’t light, but that doesn’t appear to leak. The toilet needs to be flushed by filling the room’s dustbin and emptying it down the pan. But the bed is comfortable.

In the morning our balcony opens to reveal a gold-toothed man feeding his pigeons on the roof next door. Pigeon man is about three feet away, and as surprised to see me in my boxers as I am to see him in his anorak.

Pipes are as evident in the hotel as elsewhere when a wake-up call comes from the plumbing at 8am. It starts with a clattering like a wooden mouse having an epileptic fit in a jam jar. Then it turns to the scream a cat would make if you dipped it in boiling vinegar. Running the tap for a minute drops the pressure, stops the din, and allows for another half-hour in bed.

In the dark

Electricity in Baku is also notoriously sporadic. Bring a torch, suggest the guide books. Back streets can be ill lit, and – although we were blessed with continuous electricity throughout – power cuts are apparently common[2].

Like water in the pipes and electricity in the wires, wealth, health, prosperity and happiness come in spurts for the people of Azerbaijan. Perhaps that’s why they don’t smile much. Wikitravel actually warns you not to smile at Azeris. They will think that you are mocking them or are mentally ill. This isn’t an attitude that makes the country welcoming to tourists.

The streets of Baku are dug up when we visit. The city’s focal point, Fountain Square, is being renovated, and the city’s residents hop across excavated water mains. In a square, a young couple snog. He is wearing a shiny black suit[3]. She wears a hijab. She strokes his crotch as they cuddle against the cold on a park bench. Neither smiles.

Just as, when you turn on a tap in Baku, you don’t know what will come out (or even if anything will), if your language cistern isn’t full to the brim with a grasp of the Azeri tongue (or Russian – or even, to a small degree, Persian), you can’t predict what will come out of conversations. This is a place you need a phrase book, or at least a note book – to draw people in taxis next to numbers and destinations – for haggling and navigation purposes. Or find someone who speaks English.

This last is what we do to negotiate a taxi to the cave drawings at Qobustan, and the mud volcanoes the Lonely Planet assures us are just down the road at Dasgil Hill. We initially tried taking a bus, but none came. We needed a taxi with an English-speaking driver, we decided; that was the bare minimum. In the end, we settled for a taxi whose driver had a friend who spoke a little English. I suspect he learned that under interrogation during the Cold War.

We explain, using pictures, gestures and words, where we want to go. Our driver looks confused.

“Does he know it?” We ask his friend.

“Everyone knows everything,” the friend assures us with a golden grin[4].

“And he will take us to these places for this price? He knows that’s what we’re asking, and he’s OK with that?”

“Everyone knows everything,” says the friend again.

As we drive off, the translator friend waves at us. He is shouting, “Everyone knows everything.”

Sights for sore eyes

Sights in Baku come in drops, like oil from a pipe. There are things to see, sure; every city on earth has enough things to see to keep you busy for three days. But most of the world’s tourist attractions make at least a token attempt to keep you there for longer than it takes to snap a photo and leave. Around Baku they don’t.

There is the Maiden’s Tower. A lord fell in love with his daughter. She was perturbed by his passes and told him to build her this tower to prove his affection. When he had built it, she leapt from the top.

We walk up to the top of the tower, past a landing where you can dress up in period costume and have your photo taken. At the top we take photos of the Baku cityscape: some high-rises under development in the middle distance, the old city’s alleys and squares (closed to cars) below us, and oil rigs out to sea. A policeman on duty at the top asks us for cigarettes. We ask to take his photo; he has gold teeth. He refuses. We descend.

At the bottom of the tower, a woman comes up to us and smiles; she’s obviously a tourist. She says in stilted but practised English that she is from Iran, on holiday with her family[5] over Iranian new year, the festival of Nowruz. Where are we from? Do we like the city? Have a nice day.

We move on to the Shirvanshahs’ Palace. Its stonework has been lovingly restored, although it still carries bullet holes from a vague, yet evidently recent, battle. There is nothing in the restored rooms. We photograph some carvings, then leave.

Cave in

Our taxi takes us to see the cave carvings at Qobustan. There are more than 6,000 depictions of boats, of hunts, of warriors and maidens and horses and buffalo and dogs. Some of them were chipped out to lionize the tribe’s greatest warriors[6].

We return to our taxis and tell them we want to go to the mud volcanoes. We don’t speak Azeri, they don’t speak English, and it turns out we were misinformed when we were told everyone knows everything. Our drivers don’t, and look at us blankly until we fetch our guide to the caves, Shaheen, who tells them where the mud volcanoes are.

The directions don’t seem to please our drivers, who claim they never agreed to what sounds like a 40km round trip on top of the road to the carvings. After a bonus round of haggling, Shaheen agrees to come with us and navigate. He’s used to taxis who don’t know where to go, and tourists who believe the guide books’ assertions that the volcanoes are only 10km down the road.

Our battered Ladas have to drive for about that distance again with threat of grounding out on the potholed mud track. But our grumbling driver handles the ruts like a rally pro. We pass great fluffy sheep herded by St. Bernard-sized dogs. “They are for killing wolves,” explains Shaheen. “Sometimes they attack humans.” The dogs chase the car for a bit, as we ratttle down the road.

Muddy hell

Once we reach the volcanoes, they are just that: mud volcanoes. They sit amid a mountain range that has been formed by cold goo bubbling to the surface, pushed up by natural gas. It is the largest such range in the world. The volcanoes are two or three feet across at the widest, gurgling occasionally, and dribbling from their caldera.

The volcanoes are perhaps five feet off the ground, and sit amid a plain of the same grey mud in differing degrees of solidification. Where it is fresh, it is easy to squelch in accidentally, covering your shoes with goo. Where it has dried, it crazes like a National Geographic river bed. The plane looks like a moonscape, hauntingly barren and beautifully bleak. It is also howlingly windy. This is what the world will look like after the Apocalypse. We take photos, pull our hats down over our ears, and return to the cars.

On the way back, we pass by abbatoirs, where sheep and cattle stand around waiting patiently for their end to come. A live cow lies placidly next to a severed cow’s head.

The next day we take a taxi to the fire temple at Surakhani. It is a compound – an old caravansary, where travelers would sleep and rest their camels – surrounding a courtyard of natural stone with a gazebo in the middle. This structure has a pillar at each of its four corners supporting the roof. In the middle, under the roof, is a pit of fire. At the top of each of the pillars, there is sometimes a flame. Today it is too windy.

The flames used to be eternal, coming from natural gas under the ground, and guarded by a Zoroastrian priest. Today they are run on piped gas, and turned on and off by a guard. The natural flame went out when the area was tapped for its gas deposits. It must have been a bad day for the priest on duty that day, as he cursed and fumbled with his matches in a panic about what his disciples would think.

On our way back to Baku, we stop off at Yanar Dag, where a mountain is on fire. There are records of natural flames coming out of this hill a thousand years ago, but more recently a shepherd tossed his cigarette to one side around 50 years ago, and 20 feet of the bottom of a grassy slope burst into flame. It’s not gone out since.

We warm our hands, pose for photos, singe our hair and watch an Azeri family do the same. They are accompanied by a solid looking man in a cheap black suit, who doesn’t smile. This doesn’t, in itself, single him out in Azerbaijan. But he wears a security guard’s earpiece. In the parking lot there is a Baku VIP’s black Mercedes with tinted windows.

Carpet bagging

We go souvenir shopping in Baku. There are stalls that sell regular tourist tat such as overpriced snow globes and flick knives. There are also shops that sell carpets. We buy a small silk rug to hang on the wall. We check whether we need an export certificate.

“Not if it is under a square meter, says Ennes, the carpet salesman. “And if you fold it and put it under your clothes, customs never look at it.”

We ask whether we shouldn’t perhaps get a certificate anyway. He says a certificate will cost an extra 50 manat ($60). We take the rug without a certificate[7].

We go back to the soviet uniform shop. This time it is open and lit. We pick up badges, belts, hats and a gas mask. You never know when that might come in handy. Behind the counter there is a large poster with a picture of a girl in a bikini. She wears a sash, reading, “Miss Polonia 1991.” Beside her is a framed, soft-focus photo of a woman with a perm. One of her breasts is hanging out. A peek into the elderly proprietor’s back office reveals a shrine to soft porn. It looks like the shop where London mechanics buy their wall calendars.

As we stock up on cheap vodka, babushka dolls with Osama Bin Laden on them, and old Russian uniforms, we are like many other visitors to Baku, waiting for the sticky residue of a Soviet past to trickle through Azerbaijan’s system. It may not be there yet, but city has some interesting attractions in the pipeline.

[1]There’s a Park Hyatt and a Radisson Blu in Baku, among other high-end hotels, and a Four Seasons was under construction when we visited.

[2]One shop we passed was shutting up by candle light. It looked eerie, stocking ex-Soviet military uniforms and other kitsch and common junk and bric-a-brac, its Bakelite phones and stuffed turtles’ heads lit by the flicker of a guttering flame. We decide to come back tomorrow.

[3]To a man, the male population of Baku wear either a black leather jacket or a shiny black suit.

[4]Gold teeth are this year’s black. No leather jacket or shiny suit is complete without 24-carat dentures snarling above it.

[5]The woman’s husband and infant son stand by, smiling blankly as they wait for Mum to practise her language skills.

[6]If I posed for a picture that ended up as an ill-defined stick man that looked just like the one next to it, I’d be miffed. Even without a grasp of perspective, surely these portrait’s sitters must have been dismayed by the lack of individuality in the carvings.

[7]There are similar restrictions on the export of caviar, a local speciality; and I suspect there are similar ways to bend those rules.


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