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Published: October 16th 2014
On the ferry off Baku October 13, 2014
It is a beautiful day and we lie anchored off Baku on our Caspian cruise. We are sitting on a wooden bench with the expanse of the city laid out before us around the bay. As we face West the flag square and Flame towers are on the left. The old city is crowded out by new tower blocks. The docks are to the North.
Most places you look there are signs of construction no just of any old buildings but impressive modern architecture. As we have discovered Baku is changing every week. It is certainly set to continue to do so with many major projects underway. The guidebook, LP or local and even the internet, just can not keep up.
The transformation from Lahich is stark. The best analogy I can think of is the experience I had once of swimming from freshwater to seawater. Lahich was in the fresh water with its green beauty and dramatic landscapes and geology. Once down from the valley the main road to Baku quickly moved away from the mountains. The scenery turned to a semi desert
treeless scrub. At first there was agriculture, vines, corn etc, soon to be replaced with arid tuffs of grass for a few cattle to munch. This hour of scenery was like the murky interface of confused refraction you see as you swim into the salt water zone. Baku appears first as series of sprawling suburbs. The eye was soften by the road always being grass and flower lined, sometimes with a barrier wall to keep the images of the dilapidated housing at bay (was this a presidential route?).
You reached the true salt water coral reef in down town Baku. There are new modern buildings every where sponsored by the oil and gas from which the city feeds. A leafy 'boulevard' has replaced the old water front. The Flame towers dominate the skyline and are superb. Versace, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, YSL, Next, M&S and even WH Smiths are here in sleek shops on pedestrianised avenues. Range Rovers and Mercedes abound. The car wash business by our apartment was constantly busy. The Hedyar Aliyev Foundation, in honour of the venerated National leader and current President's Father, is a complex curveous sculpture. There is clearly more to come: a
development called 'White City' will dominate the north west shoreline. A new airport is being built to the South. If you come back in two years it will look considerably different.
Surrounded by semi desert and oil derricks you can help thinking they are trying to create another Dubai (note I say this without having ever been there). No wonder Zea is bitter about the size of his pension when he visits Baku.
We arrived at the main bus station and were swarmed by taxi drivers sensing rich pickings. We had done our research and got a local bus (again £0.15 a ride) to the place we were meeting Rahib. Rahib was a lovely chap, an EU employee fluent in many languages, who was renting the apartment for his friend's mother, now in Portugal. It had a spacious bedroom, large lounge and dining area and well equipped kitchen. And all to ourselves. Downtown, traffic allowing, was a simple bus ride away.
You can find Rahib on AirBnB, WhatsApp and Facebook. The latter two allow you too avoid the AirBnB fees which add significantly to the price. Rahib manages his and this
flat and we can highly recommend him.
Our first job in the city (after catching up on washing) was to locate the ferry ticket office. This in fact was all part of our Trans Caspian adventure so I will leave the details to the next blog. At this point, I will simply note that there was a half built building where all the guidebooks and internet said the office would be. It turned out to be 6km to the North. We found it none the less and were told to come back on Sunday at 11am the day we wanted to sail.
The number one place we wanted to visit was the Carpet museum. We went where the local and LP guide books said it was. Here we discovered that it had moved. A new purpose built museum had opened further down the water front the month before. (Are you getting the picture about Baku?) This remarkable Austrian designed building was in the shape of a rolled up carpet and epitomised the new Baku. The entrance had its obligatory Presidential quotes and pictures.
The museum was on three spacious floors and
we paid an extra 8 manats for an English speaking guide. She was knowledgable without being expert. It turned out that she was evacuee from a town in Karabach and had fled with her family in 1992 when the Armenian army had taken over her town. After twenty years of ceasefire this remains a sensitive subject. She described how 'she had lost her childhood and had had to flee across the river aged three with her parents to Iran before coming back into Azerbaijan'. We listened empathetically without comment.
The museum had woven carpets (Kilims etc) and pile carpets. You saw the different designs and styles by region and got to recognise the different motifs used. The largest carpet turned out to be a copy - the original was in the V&A! Some modern carpets were garish, some older designs exquisite and all were intricate.
It was nice to self cater again. We had several supermarkets to choose from. Later I saw a local butcher across the street from our apartment. There were two live sheep tied up outside on the pavement when I went passed. They weren't there in the morning!
The local butcher
Note sheep outside waiting their turn. This was in the middle of Baku!
The following day we headed for the Old city. It is still much intact and the palace and walls are UNESCO listed. There is very good walking audio tour around the main sights. There happened to be an EU sponsored free museum day so we visited the palace and the famous 'Maiden's' tower, with its great views of the city, as part of the walk.
In the afternoon we went to the Historical museum. This has exhibits from early times but that is not why we would recommend it. It is housed in a mansion, a block in size, which was owned by one of the local oil tycoons of the late 1800's, Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. Once you have got through the historical exhibits you go up the stairs to the rooms as he had had them decorated. Many had photos of the time when the rooms were in use.
The opulence was staggering and emphasised Baku's position as the original oil boom town in the later 1800's. It had helped make the early fortune of the Nobel brothers and the Rothchilds as well as others. Taginov himself had started as a bricklayer before
amassing his fortune. In the 1880's Baku had 50% of the world's oil market.
One room had a mirrored ceiling with Islamic patterns. The ballroom was massive with an exotically painted ceiling. The grandeur of these rooms completely overshadowed the historical exhibits on the floor below.
So we have seen the full spectrum of Azerbaijan life. The next stage of our journey was to catch the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. It certainly lived up to expectation.
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