There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 11 August 2014

Baku (1): City of Fire: Part 1 of From The Caspian to the Black Sea

Arriving before dawn at Baku’s Heydǝr Əliyev airport, we taxied past the new terminal, a glittering crystal palace studded with unexpected angles and slopes like a melting snowflake, and disembarked at the ‘Old’ Terminal, completed in 1999. Baku wants you to know it is a city on the move.

We were met by Yassim and drove into town along Heydǝr Əliyev Avenue, which offered more of the same. Some buildings, like the 65,000-seater football stadium* (and I have no idea how they intend to fill it) are under construction, while others like the magnificent Heydǝr Əliyev Centre (designed without a single straight line by Dame Zaha Hadid**) are complete.

The Heydǝr Əliyev Centre, Baku 

Anyone reading this far with even the slightest concentration will have noticed that the name ‘Heydǝr Əliyev’ appears three times in the first two paragraphs, and that it involves a strange letter - twice.

The new National Stadium, Baku
Taking the second issue first: Azerbaijani (or Azeri) is similar to Turkish (Togrul, our multilingual driver claimed ‘all our grammar and 70% of our vocabulary is Turkish’). It is spoken by 9 million people in Azerbaijan, 15 million in northern Iran and several million more over the border in Russia. Traditionally written in Arabic script, as it still is in Iran, Azeri, like Turkish, changed to a modified Latin script in the 1920s. In 1939 Stalin, wishing to break Azeri links with Turkey, decreed that the language should be written in Cyrillic. It still is in Russia, but Azerbaijan reverted to Latin after independence in 1991. As with Turkish, a host of accents are used to modify pronunciation, but they have one letter all of their own.  Ə is the commonest letter in Azeri and, according to the Lonely Planet, is pronounced like the a in 'apple' to distinguish it from dotless ı, which is the a in 'ago'. This may be very important, but I had never noticed they were different.

And Heydǝr Əliyev? Once the leader of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic he later became effectively vice-president of the USSR. After falling out with Mikhail Gorbachev he returned to provincial Azerbaijan and re-invented himself as a moderate nationalist just in time to step into the turmoil which followed independence. In 1993 he became the third President of independent Azerbaijan. Neither of his predecessors had lasted long but Heydǝr Əliyev was Presdent until his death in 2003, at which point his son Ilham, the current president, took over. Elections are held regularly, their conduct being described by international observers as ‘well below the expected standard.’

Heydǝr Əliyev, 3rd President of Azerbaijan
So we were in a land with a dead president whose name – and photograph – were ubiquitous. He had been succeeded by his son and we were driving on largely empty roads past monumental architecture. Were we back in North Korea?

We were taken to a small hotel in a street shaded by old and dusty plane trees.  Yassim departed, saying he would return after lunch for our tour of the Absheron Peninsula.
Our hotel in a street shaded by old and dusty plane trees, Baku

After an overnight flight, politics felt less important than a cup of tea, a shower and a nap. Our room was modest but clean, and had all the expected offices - though a kettle without teabag or cups would be of limited use to less well-prepared travellers.

Later, partly refreshed, we took a stroll. Venturing out on our own was a definite no-no in North Korea, but it seemed acceptable here. Also unlike North Korea we had a pocketful of local currency  – Yassim’s first act had been to guide us to the airport ATM (1 Manat is worth roughly 75p).

A block away we found Heydǝr Əliyev Park. His statue waved to us, but unlike those of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il we were not required to bow. The other parallels started to fade. Now the sun was up there was ample traffic, drivers leaning on their horns as soon as the lights changed. There were people, too, either walking with purpose, like they had a job to do, or lazing on the shady park benches; in other words behaving normally, like North Koreans don't.

Lynne and Heydǝr Əliyev, Heydǝr Əliyev Park, Baku
Free to wander, we passed the Heydǝr Əliyev Opera House and found ourselves in Summer Park with its fountains and bonzai trees. It was already hot, but there was a pleasant breeze and the splashing fountains added their cooling effect. Occasionally a gust of wind through the spray produced what is best described as drizzle, though it was pleasant in a way drizzle never is. There were businesses, signs and advertisements, and a clutch of smart looking cafés and restaurants.

Summer Park fountains, Baku
The buildings, unlike those in North Korea, were on a human scale and many looked well designed, even elegant. Most of the old Soviet blocks, we later learned, have either been demolished or refaced with local limestone – I hope as much care was spent on improving the insides, where the people actually live. Baku, it became increasingly obvious, is experiencing a boom and signs of new affluence were everywhere. The ordinary people, too, appear to be sharing in the growing wealth - which is not to say it is evenly distributed or that corruption is not a serious problem.

Soviet blocks in new limestone cladding, Baku
After retreating to our hotel for more sleep we returned to Summer Park for lunch. The restaurants seemed to be open, but were completely empty. We sat and watched for a while and eventually two would be lunchers appeared and chose a restaurant. We followed them in, like sheep.

Bonzai and cafés, Summer Park, Baku

The menu was in Azeri and Russian. We were not particularly hungry and identifying the salads was straightforward enough. Lynne’s choice was dictated by a desire to discover the meaning of the oft recurring word gobelek (mushrooms, apparently). I decided ‘Sezar’ meant Caesar salad but instead selected something which sounded like Mongol Salad and involved an ingredient I thought might be ‘aubergine’ (it was). We have visited Mongolia, and to find a nation less inclined to eat salad you would need to look beyond the Arctic Circle. The salads were small, inexpensive and wholesome, though it probably helps not to have a long list of dislikes when navigating a menu by guesswork. They offered a choice of five beers, though I was slow to spot that all were non-alcoholic.

Yassim arrived as arranged and we set off for the Absheron Peninsula, a hook of land jutting 30km into the Caspian Sea just north of the city. Absheron is not a beautiful place, it is an arid plain randomly dotted with dwellings and industry. If you want to buy a truck load of limestone blocks, or a gate for your estate, then Absheron is the place to go.

Azerbaijan means 'land of fire' and it was in Absheron that it earned that name. Oil and natural gas bubble to the surface here and the resulting natural fires have been of great significance to Zoroastrians since antiquity. The modern world finds oil and gas important for different reasons. The deposits in Absheron were easily exploited and in 1905 half the world’s oil came from the peninsula and Baku was experiencing its first boom. The deposits are now largely exhausted but the land is still covered in derricks and nodding donkeys, pumping the last drops from several thousand metres below.
Derricks and nodding donkeys, Absheron
Today, exploration is off-shore where vast gas reserves lurk beneath the Caspian Sea. The recently completed pipeline through Georgia to the Black Sea coast in Turkey is of great strategic importance, being the only major European supply route not involving Russia. The gas is responsible for Baku’s second, current, boom.

In a simpler age spontaneous fires were interpreted as the underground activities of the gods. Zoroastrianism grew from this basis and the area was crowded with fire temples until the medieval expansion of Islam doused the Zoroastrians ardour.

Large scale extraction of the oil and gas finally finished off the fire temples. 18th century Ateşgah Mǝbǝdi was the last to be built and is the sole survivor.  It has been heavily restored but remains atmospheric though even here the fire is no longer spontaneous, but is artificially fuelled. Around the walls are cells where the pilgrims stayed, most equipped with their own fire pits, so they could pray and meditate in the presence of God. They travelled from the Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India, but they now no longer visit, and those communities are in decline. Only 25,000 Zoroastrian remain in Iran and there are a similar number of Parsees in India – descendants of Zoroastrian Persians who migrated there a thousand years ago.

Ateşgah Mǝbǝdi, Absheron
A fifteen minute drive took us to Yanar Dag, literally ‘Fire Mountain’. 'Mountain' is an overstatement. Rising less than twenty metres above the plain it is barely a hill, but the ‘Knoll of Fire’ lacks the right ring. Along the base, where the land folds upwards, are a series of fissures where methane, forced up under pressure, burns in a line of flames. Such sights were once commonplace but this is the only spontaneous fire left. Probably first ignited by lightening, it has been burning longer than records have been kept, impervious to rain or snow - not that the area (which is classified as semi-desert) has a great deal of either. It is a weird and wonderful sight, and if you stand as close as Lynne is in the picture, quite a hot one, too.

Yanar Dag, Absheron
We returned to Baku and were dropped off near the pedestrian streets below the Old City which lies on a hill at the southern end of the bay. Yassim showed us to a bookshop to buy a city map (hotels give them away everywhere else, but not here) and then left us to our own devices.

We were beginning a journey from the Caspian to the Black Sea, so we walked to the water’s edge to establish our starting point. There is no beach at Baku - deep water laps against the rocks alongside the promenade - so we took it in turns to stand on the rocks and stick in a hand.

Dissolving my hand in the polluted Caspian Sea
Whether the Caspian is a sea or the world’s largest lake (at least, by area) is a moot point. Being below sea level the Caspian has no outflow - water is lost only by evaporation – and is, hence, saline. When Alexander the Great's army reached here in the fourth century BC they tasted the waters and decided it was part of the great ocean surrounding the world. Its salinity is, I read, only a third that of the oceans, but the scummy slime on the rocks and the unpleasant odours dissuaded me testing this myself. Inserting a hand felt brave enough, putting the water to my lips seemed suicidal. There were, though, plenty of fish, 10 centimetres long and resembling miniature versions of the Caspian’s best known fish and producer of its best known product, the increasingly rare caviar. Whether they were sturgeon or not I have no idea. Ten metres out a shoal were engaged in a feeding frenzy, the surface of the water a mass of silvery bodies. A local man lobbed a stone into their midst and several thousand fish simultaneously leapt into the air. Then the shoal disappeared.

A park runs along by the shore, a green and shady place boasting plants from all over the world. It was built by the oil barons of the first boom and in this dry climate much watering is required. Baku's soil is an infertile mixture of sand and clay, so the builders even had to import the topsoil.

Lynne and a fountain in the park beside the Caspian Sea, Baku
After seventy years of official atheism as part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan now acknowledges that ninety per cent of its population are Muslims. The constitution, though, remains secular and Islamic practices are not rigidly followed. Few women wear headscarves, the pop videos shown in almost every café display little modesty and we did not hear any calls to prayer in Baku. On the other hand, we had been reduced to drinking non-alcoholic beer at lunchtime.

We sat outside a café beside the park in the belief that a cold, wet beer would perfectly compliment the hot, dry afternoon. Alcohol is in no way banned, and the Tuborg we were served hit the spot nicely. Many Azeris do not drink - more because it is not part of their culture than out of religious prohibition – but, despite our lunchtime experience, beer is widely available. Azerbaijan also grows wine - though none came our way – and vodka is available in every small grocers (well they were part of the Soviet Union!)

Essential rehydration beside the Caspian Sea, Baku
Our thirst quenched, we continued our long walk, though Lynne fell asleep as soon as we reached the hotel.

Continuing our walk back to the hotel, Baku

Later we went out to eat. After much wandering and deliberation we ended up in a basic café close to the hotel. Lynne was happy with a pizza and I chose a pide. Not knowing quite what it was and faced with a selection of five different pide I pointed at the first on the list. The café owner had a long think before scraping the word 'beef' from the recesses of his memory. It turned out to be very like a pizza but square and based on the local flat bread with a lot of melted cheese but little tomato sauce. With it we had a cup of tea, which seemed a better idea than the fizzy sweet drinks which were the only alternative. It turned out to be such a good idea we had a second.

Back at the hotel we were both snoring by nine - we had a sleep deficit to deal with.

* The current National Stadium is named after Tofiq Bahramov, once general secretary of the Azerbaijan Football Association but better known in England as The Soviet Linesman (or more often, if erroneously, The Russian Linesman), the man who awarded Geoff Hurst's dodgy second goal in the 1966 World Cup Final

** Zaha Hadid also designed the aquacentre for the London Olympics among much else.

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