I had the “pleasure” of taking a 3:30 a.m. flight from Ashgabat to Baku, Azerbaijan on Sunday night/Monday morning. My option in flying to Baku from Ashgabat was to either take the 3:30 a.m. 1 hour nonstop flight or a late morning 9 hour flight to Baku through Istanbul. So I sucked it up and did the 3:30 a.m. flight. It was grueling to stay awake until boarding (although I was dozing off with the rest of the passengers), but it was made much “easier” by the T.V. in the gate area playing music videos at a decibel level that would have made most people deaf in a very short period of time. So the Ashgabat International Airport continued the trend of strangeness. And to add to the total comfort of passengers waiting to board, we were constantly watched by soldiers on the second level above the boarding area. It certainly gave me pause as I sat there.
Once I arrived in Baku, a young man was waiting to pick me up and take me to my hotel in old town Baku. I could hardly keep my eyes open for the 20 minute drive through the barren streets to my hotel within the stone walls in old town Baku. I was checked in and was in bed ready to sleep by just before 5:00 a.m. Happy Days!
I woke up just before 11, showered and got ready for my half day tour of Baku. Now I was still trying to figure out what to do about my camera so I asked the young man at the front desk if he knew of a camera shop. He gave me a map and told me there was a store just outside the old 12th century walls where they sold cameras. Since I had about an hour before my guide and driver arrived, I wandered down the street only to find that the shop was closed. I had passed a tourist office on the walk so reversed course and checked in with the tourist office to see if they could help. I was sent nearby Fountains Square where the folks in the tourist office said there were two or three camera shops. So off I sent over the VERY rough cobblestone streets to hunt them down.
Unfortunately, the square was massive with restaurants, shops, gardens and open spaces everywhere. As luck would have it, I found a sign on the street with “Foto” so went into the shop and explained the problem to a nice gentleman. He looked at my camera, took a couple pictures, immediately understood the problem and motioned to me to follow him. We went out the door, around the corner, down the street and through a gold market (What????? A gold market … I would be back to check this place out!) and out to a courtyard where I saw a repair shop sign (it was in Russian, but the pictures helped me decipher it). We went into the shop and the man explained the issue to some men he clearly knew. Unfortunately, the man who could help was not in. I was given his name and number and told to call him later. I thanked everyone, including the gentleman who walked me to the shop, and headed back to meet my guide and driver.
Exactly at 1:00 p.m., Javid my guide and Elmir, my driver who had picked me up earlier in the day arrived. I explained the camera issue and Javid took over and contacted the gentleman. We were told to come to the shop at 3:00 p.m. With that issue solved, and having my tiny (but crappy) backup camera with me, we left for our tour of Baku. First up was the Flame Towers and the Schindler Xiyabani memorial and viewpoint. We got out of the car at the base of the Flame Towers and walked a short distance for a better view.
The Flame Towers were completed in 2012 and just like the name, are shaped like flames. The three blue skyscrapers, range from 28 to 33 floors height and are Baku’s signature architectural design. At night, the towers feature a light show and varying pictures, including fire, water and patriotic images. I would come back to see the light show tomorrow when I have had more rest.
The Schindler Xiyabani memorial and viewpoint was sobering and gorgeous all at the same time. The memorial features 120 graves of victims of the Red Army crackdown in 1990 Karabakh conflict. There is an eternal flame at the site, which fronts amazing views of the Caspian Sea and the city. Javid and I wandered around the viewpoint and it was absolutely spectacular.
And I have to say, at this point, I was really surprised by Baku. My initial reactions were that this city is one of the great hidden gems in the world. First, the architecture is phenomenal, a mix of old that reminds me in many ways of Paris, but at the same time with massive modern high rises that could be found in the new cities of the world. (The building boom of new high rises has been funded by massive oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.). Somehow, the blend of old and new completely works creating a visually impressive city that walks the line between Asia and Europe. (Baku is often called Eurasia since it is not really Asia and not really Europe.)
Second, the people are incredibly warm, friendly and almost exuding a laissez-fair attitude. Although the country is Muslim, it is secular, and along with this separation of Church and state comes a sense that there is no expectation that non-Muslims conform. In fact, I asked about wearing sleeveless shirts and was told “sure, why not”. And all of the beautiful cafes featured alcohol prominently at the order area. It was all so surprising and lovely at the same time.
Third, the city is green, green, green. There were fountains and parks and trees and flowers everywhere. The gardenlike atmosphere really enhanced the city and sent it over the top from my perspective.
Anyway, after our walk along the viewpoint, we made a trip down to the waterfront to see the very first industrial oil well in the world, built in 1846 and adjacent to a massive sports hall built for the European Games in 2015.
We then drove along the waterfront where I saw gorgeous parks, lovely colonial style buildings, a new waterfront mall, a bike path and on and on. Perhaps the most phenomenal building I saw was the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center completed in 2012. The center houses a conference hall/auditorium, a gallery hall and museum. The building has no corners and has waves that are designed to look like either (1) the first President of Azerbaijan’s signature or (2) as the architect disclosed, Marilyn Monroe’s windswept skirt. It was absolutely fantastic.
We drove back along the waterfront to the old town area where we stopped by the repair shop, but the repairman was still not back. We left with a message we would be back at 5:30 since the man apparently works until 8:00 p.m.
So after the tour of the new city, we began a walking tour of the UNESCO listed Old City (Icari Sahar) that is surrounded by a 12th century wall. We walked along the outside of the wall, past buildings that made me think I was in Paris, through Vahid Park featuring a bust of Azerbaijan’s most famous Poet, Aliada Vahid, and past a number of fountains, before walking under an arch into the old city. Now Baku, was a trading city on the Silk Road, and its historical importance on the Silk Road was evident throughout the old city with remnants of caravanserais, hammans and baths everywhere.
After walking for a bit, we visited the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a sandstone fortress that was the power base for Azerbaijan’s rulers during the Middle Ages. The palace dates to the 15th century, but was restored in 2003. The interior of the main building has been converted into a pretty interesting museum that featured ancient artifacts and an interesting audio option that permits you to listen to music using three ancient instruments. In addition, in one display I saw two eye shaped masks that I learned were mustache tamers used in the Middle Ages. Huh?? THAT was something new to me.
We left the main building and wandered down some steps to see two different mausoleums, an ancient bathhouse and hamman recently uncovered, and an open air courtyard.
After the palace visit, we walked back through the old town to the opposite end of the area past the medieval market square where the remains of a Zoroastrian Temple and an Islamic cemetery had been found before reaching the signature attraction of the old town, the stone 29 meter Maiden’s Tower. It was unknown how old the tower actually is, but it is believed to be at least 800 years old. The walls are 5 meters thick and the shape of the backside of the tower (a wavelike sweep of bricks) was really unusual. Unfortunately, I was so tired, I opted out of climbing to the top.
Our tour of the old city was finished and by now it was after 5:00 p.m. We walked back to the camera repair shop where we finally met the repairman. Javid explained the problem in detail (focus is not working) and after a couple phone calls and some conversation, I was told the repairs could be made for the sum of 120 manat (about 65 USD). Given that the option was paying a lot more for a new camera, I agreed. They assured me it would be as good as new, so I left the camera and said goodbye to Javid for the day. We would meet up again at 9:30 a.m. for a tour to some areas outside Baku.
So before I walked back to my hotel, I took a walk through the gold mart (I was not going to pass up that chance even though I was overly tired) and found a nice pair of hoop earrings to replace the hoops I lost in Turkmenistan (actually lost one hoop). The negotiation with the young Muslim woman was a riot and she and I both ended up laughing throughout the whole process as we tried to communicate.
After the earring purchase I stopped for dinner at one of the many restaurants near my hotel in old town (fantastic tea, salad and grilled chicken, mushrooms and flatbread). As I walked back to my hotel, I found a sweet shop selling baklava (my absolute favourite), chose a couple pieces oozing with honey and happily dragged my tired butt back to my hotel to enjoy my baklava and view from my hotel room. I was really looking forward to bed.