Around Baku

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Asia » Azerbaijan
September 2nd 2016
Published: October 1st 2017
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Geo: 40.3953, 49.8822

First official day of touristing. The day was overcast and comfortable – very windy but in mid-20s C … much better than the anticipated 35+ which they've been having the last week.

We had brekkies on the 9th floor of the hotel – decent collection of food, decent view, but very crowded. Then we met our guide, who is excellent, at 9am. We climbed into the van and headed up to the Park – Martyr's Lane – at the top of the hill behind Old Baku. Baku is a beautiful city – arranged along the waterfront, with hills to the back. The old city is partially preserved, with narrow, winding streets and cobblestones. There has been some tear down of old buildings and new construction, and some poor reconstruction, but it feels kinda old. Outside the old city, the city feels very Baroque – it was built by oil barons in the beginning of the 20th century using architects from Paris and Poland. A few buildings are very Belle Epoque. Outside of that ring, there are some Soviet era buildings, mostly typical concrete block construction, although part of the second oil boom construction has included trying to improve the facades to make these buildings more attractive. The second oil boom also includes all the very modernist architecture, some of which I saw last night.

But I get ahead of myself. The view from the Martyr's Lane is nice of the sea and the city. We saw several lanes of martyrs from different periods of defending the city against attacks from Russia and Armenia. There is a set for the Azeri fighters who died during the first independence movement of 1918-1920. There is another set of people who died one night during the second independence movement of 1990. There is also a monument to Turkish fighters who supported Azeri independence. The main monument is a large eternal flame, over-looking the sea. It was so windy that the flame was barely visible.

From there, we went to the old town. The walls were partially destroyed during the Soviet era but have since been reconstructed. I was surprised by how much I was missing the truly "old town" feeling – with the exception of the Maiden Tower (more of that later) and two caravansaries, there has been extensive renovation, some of which has left the town feeling more newly built than old.

We climbed the Maiden Tower, which had some well-done exhibits (and some strange, artsy exhibits). Our guide told us it was called “maiden” tower because it had never been breached by the enemy; the signage said it was called “maiden” tower because a maiden through herself of it rather than marrying a nasty man (after having first demanded he built it). The Caspian Sea used to come to the base of the tower but has since receded. (The interactive exhibit about the changing sea levels was nice touch.)

After the Tower, we visited the royal palace. The most interesting part of this was that the Soviets covered up bullet holes from a Russian invasion of 1920. These were re-exposed after independence (although, again, the signage contradicted our guide … maybe both stories are right). The architecture was fairly plain for the era in which it was constructed. A few (well, maybe one) of the cavern arches. Inside the main building, they were projecting colors onto the plain dome of the throne room. Sometimes it was a projection of what the ceiling might have looked like; other times, it was of the sky. We learned about the three main kings who built the wealth of the kingdom of … Shirvanshahs but were defeated in 1539 by the Safavid empire from Persia. We also saw the madrasa and the hamam, which may or may not have been connected to the palace.

We then walked to Fountain Square and had a very tasty lunch at a restaurant that caters to both locals and tourists. Quite reasonable – dolmas, soup with dumplings, stuffed vegetables, bread, water – for less than $5 per person.

We then returned to the van and drove to the Zoroastrian fire temple, which was been reconstructed in 2010. We had to have a Ministry of Tourism guide, who was okay. The origins of the temple date to 2000BC – built here because of the natural gas emerging from the rocks, which created an excellent place for eternal flames. The complex we saw was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It ceased to function in 1880s, when the oil fields started pulling the gas out of the ground and cut off the source. In addition to the Zoroastrian fire worship, it was also (or even mainly) a Hindu temple. Several rooms had shrines to Ganesh, because Indians had a large community and controlled much of the local economy during the main era of the temple. The cells have mannequins depicting Indian/Hindu and Zoroastrian worshipers.

Our final stop was Yanar Dag, where rocks are on fire. Methane leaks from the hillside, and the fire has been burning for (likely) hundreds of years. Alexander Dumas was here in the 1850s and recorded seeing the hillside burning near the same town, so it is assumed he saw this fire. It is fairly small – about 20 feet long and about 3 feet high. It burns in rain and snow and wind (and it was very windy today). Sometimes the flames expand, but not by much. I was glad we were there on a day when it was relatively cool, as the flames were hot. They think it might have begun by lightning strike, but no one is certain, just as no one is certain how long it has been burning. Writers from the 1200s, including Marco Polo, talk about the flames burning on the peninsula, but there might have been many different locations over the years.

Actually, I lie – our final stop was the Heydar Aliyev Center, the cultural arts building in Baku. It was designed by Zaha Hadid, the British-Iraqi architect … very curvilinear, parametrical, and trippy. We took photos … but by then I had a massive migraine and just wanted to get back to the hotel to deal with it.

The four of us spent the evening hanging out together. Paul and Keegan went out for a quick dinner of kebabs. I recovered from the migraine, then we went to bed.

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