A distinctly European feel this side of the Caspian Sea
Arriving from the east, Baku seems like the gateway to Europe: a quaint European style old town with cobble stone alleys and narrow side streets, big squares and fountains, cafes and restaurants - in all a lovely place to spend a few days. The slight distraction are all the oil fields. Oil and gas are the country's main assets, and perhaps what it is most known for, and step out of the old town and you can see oil pumps all around, in the sea, across the harbour, and just in land.
I team up with Graham, a Brit who turns out to have been a contemporary at uni, and Paul and Scott, two Kiwis, to visit the surrounding areas. Ali, our driver for the day, is full of stories, from how the KGB crippled his hand in Soviet times, to explaining that the etymology of the word China in English comes from the fact that early British visitors discovered the locals to be drinking a lot of tea, "chai" - geddit? He takes us to Qobustan, an area full of astonishing petroglyphs dating back to when the water level of the Caspian Sea was 80m higher than it is
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Not a bad pad - complete with remnants of a huge hamam
today. Close by there is an expanse of small holes in the ground that continuously erupt in thick grey mud. They are, curiously, completely cold and are not accompanied by the strong smell of sulphur that you get in other volcanic areas. For a pile of mud they are surprisingly entertaining, though despite Ali's assurances that the mud carries unparalleled dermatological benefits, I resist the temptation of diving into one.
One of the oil fields not far from Baku is dubbed the James Bond oil field since it provided the film location of the opening sequence of The World Is Not Enough
(making me realise that my high mountain adventures between China and Kyrgyzstan must have reminded me of a different Bond, could it be Golden Eye
?). We cruise through, albeit in a Kia and at a leisurely pace rather than in an Aston Martin in a hail of gun fire.
Off a peninsula to the east of Baku lies Artyom Island, now connected to the mainland by a bridge and (bar an offshore drilling platform 'town' constructed in the 50s called Oily Rock) the eastern-most point of Azerbaijan. Its village, Pirallahi, and surroundings are described by the
lonely planet as a "nightmare vision" of oil extraction. Granted, it's not the kind of place you would set yourself up for retirement, but Graham and I have a good time wandering around the near-deserted pumps, pipelines, containers, and other derelict and apparenly disused rusty structures. As we walk back we are caught up by a commando of three policemen who ask us for our papers. After we duly show them our passports they demand to see our cameras and the pictures that we have taken. It emerges that we were not supposed to take any pictures of the actual oil pumps, though all other pictures appeared to be fine. What the rationale behind this was, whether they were afraid we might sell them to our governments who could replicate the latest in oil extraction technology back at home, we could not ascertain, but to their great credit they actually took the time to go through all of our pictures of that day and told us which ones to delete rather than just wiping our entire memory cards. I thought I was doing quite well by stealthily skipping several pictures to keep at least a few of my shots, but
The Olympic spirit is strong in Azerbaijan
Graham somehow managed to convince them that the scoll button on his camera was actually the delete button, and kept them all. Given that we took plenty of pictures of oil pumps the day before I don't think we really committed a major crime by doing so!
Baku is certainly cleaning up it's act: all oil pumps near the city are to be deconstructed, the harbour is to be moved 70km south along the coast and the buildings in the old town are being carefully restored. Baku's bid for the 2016 Olympic Games did not get very far, but it's an ambitious place preparing to welcome the world, I would not be surprised to see them try again in the future..
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