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Published: October 7th 2014
For some idiotic reason I've always had a long standing desire to visit Azerbaijan. I have no idea what triggered the interest, but somehow that little country hanging off the Caspian sea has always stuck out like a sore thumb on maps and beckoned to me. So I was thrilled that one of the better flights that would take us to Iran was Azerbaijan airlines, giving us an excuse to stop over for 3 days on the way back.
We arrived from Iran at 4am in Azerbaijan to an empty and rather gruff airport. The staff were sleepy and definitely not smiley. A stark difference to the warm hellos we encountered in Iran. We were heading into the soviet part of the world obviously. I made a blunder with our taxi driver that didn't help in winning any friends. As we were walking out of the airport an older friendly-looking man approached me and started shouting 'taxi taxi, official airport taxi'. We've learnt that you never take those random walkup guys because they are scammers so I shooed him off and told him I wanted to go to the official stand. He kept insisting that he was official and that
he was the first in the queue and basically kept harassing us. My shooing got stronger, but he was insistent. As we kept walking looking for the official taxi stand, we passed a hotel booking counter, so I stopped and asked them where the taxi stand was. They gestured at the man and said - 'its him'. Wow - this was a well co-ordinated scam - he even had the hotel guy in on it. So I ignored that guy and walked up to the information desk and asked the same. Same gesture. Embarrassed I turned and apologized profusely. Which put me in an terrible strategic spot for negotiating a good taxi fare - because no way was I going to call his outrageous bid of 50USD a rip-off. Faithfully I put my trust in the goodness of people and agreed to that ridiculous fare. Though on subsequent investigation, looks like it wasn't too far off the mark.
The drive into Baku was eye opening. What little reading we had done on Azerbaijan had painted it as a scarred wasteland of oil derricks (oil pumps). Instead we saw a city overflowing with architectural intoxication. Construction dollars gone mad, each
building tried to outshine the next with even wilder shapes and more daring structures. It’s pretty impressive and new-looking city - or at least it is when you are driving at 5am and the streets are empty. The oil dollar has been clearly kind.
We pulled up to our hotel to find it locked. The 24hr desk was manned, but the receptionist had her head down and was fast asleep. Our futile attempts to knock on the glass doors did little to grab her attention. Luckily a few minutes later a waiter and a giggling lady cook snuck out of a side door and headed over to the bushes - they looked like they were up to no good. We grabbed the opportunity and ran in - great security! Though we were due to check-in at noon, the receptionist was kind enough to let us check-in early, and even threw in an extra breakfast. I think it was our two comatosed girls laying on the nearby sofa that may have swayed the deal in our favor. On a side note, we were blown away by our hotel - the Grand Hotel. Hotels are crazy expensive in Baku and we
Tour de Azerbaijan
Kind of like the Tour de France. It was on at the same time we were there.
had gotten for an incredible online price apparently. Ultra huge room, great breakfast, nice staff, and all for just marginally higher price than a cheap hostel. Highly recommended if you are travelling as a family!
We grabbed a few hours of shut eye, and then headed out late morning to explore the city. There isn't much to see in Baku itself - the interesting sites are all congregated around a promenade area overlooking the Caspian sea. Enroute we passed through a pretty shopping area that reinforced that this is a city with a lot of development dollars - lots of great shops and beautiful public spaces. There are also a number of pretty tree-lined streets with old European style buildings that make for a pleasant walk. We were lucky enough to witness a hoard of bicycles whizzing down the main street - today was one of the days of the Tour de Azerbaijan (kind of like the Tour de France), so we joined the countless onlookers and cheered the riders down the street (mostly cheering because once they were out of the way the roads would be unblocked and traffic could get back to normal again).
one highlight in Baku is the Maiden's tower. The story has it that a lady was betrothed to an old man (her step-father) that she didn't want to marry, so she threw herself off the top of the tower. The story is more interesting than the tower - which is just a short little brown Rapunzel-like tower. It does however back onto Old Baku which is a pretty enough walk through older picturesque buildings. My brown skin did garner a bit of interest from the locals. At one point I had a queue of 5 girls lining up for photos, much to the joy of my wife. At the top of a hill lies the Shirvanshah palace, the old palace of the royals. It’s now a completely redecorated and modern museum that shows old clothes and spoons and other exciting stuff. Not really that interesting to be honest.
Mid-afternoon we ducked into a caravanserai restaurant - a circular building that used to serve as a hotel for traders long time ago. We sat in one of the peripheral rooms that probably used to house camels back then. Azerbaijan food is a hybrid of Russian influence and Iranian influence -
kebabs, cheese, dumplings and soups. One specialty is Gutab - which is a giant meat-stuffed dumpling. There was also a really nice broth with mint that we loved.
We spent the evening walking as far as we could - because truthfully there wasn't much in the way of sites to see. We stopped beside the Caspian sea to enjoy the beautiful blue sea view. Its temptingly blue. However if you look closer you notice a thick layer of oil on top - very gross. But somehow deceptively blue. We walked through the CBD area just to do some people watching and see daily life in operation. Checked out a grocery store. Bought some kebabs. Generally wasted time enjoying the city for what it was.
Baku is a pretty and modern city and feels very much like any other European city. The government has spent a lot prettifying the downtown area with boulevards and fountains and other monuments, so its great for strolling. But after a day, we were keen to head outside to see something. Luckily the next two days were packed with volcanoes and prehistoric paintings and candycane mountains. Stay tuned.
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