Destination: Baku (also Quba)
- Mission 1: Fire worship: not in a divine sense, but by paying homage to the ever-burning gas fire in the Absheron Peninsula, and the Zoastrian Fire Temple (Ateshgah) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: The bizarre beach experience: classy beach clubs, cocktails and sunshine to the backdrop of oil rigs and quite-probably polluted seas (SEMI-ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Source some of Azerbaijan’s many mud volcanoes, to hear if the sounds they make are as amusing as claimed (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Become a tea-convert once again with the Azeri tea experience (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Stroll through the Baku oil fields without any trespassing ordeals (ACCOMPLISHED).
- Mission 6: Dine in the retired TU-134B aeroplane restaurant built into a mountain in Quba (SEMI-ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: Sitting hypnotically by Yanar Dag (natural, constantly-burning hillside gas fire) after dark. Although a few marshmallows wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Lowlight: Traffic chaos, and witnessing a horrifying pedestrian accident at night.
Feat of Architecture: The truly unique Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (Azərbaycan Xalçası Muzeyi) shaped, extravagantly, like a rolled-up carpet.
Recce Fact: Azerbaijan’s borders are complicated, and a “frozen conflict” still exists (and escalates intermittently) between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a bitter dispute regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding territory.
Envision a mix of Turkic culture, Persian influence, Soviet history, decadent luxury, dramatic skyscrapers, traffic chaos and a generous helping of hydrocarbons.
Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is continually transforming, having recently hosted global events such as the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games and 2015 European Games, and is the latest addition to the Formula 1 map with its very own high speed city circuit. If you’re expecting another Azer-bashing article, I guarantee that this will not be it, as I have become completely infatuated with the place.
In this bilingual city (of Russian and Azeri), one never knows if they’ll be greeted with a “Salam” or a “Здравствуйте”, but best not rely on English too much, regardless. Most tourists come from Russia or Arabic countries, and because of its industry, expats of many nationalities are living and working in Baku today.
At this stage of the game I’ve landed at all sorts of airports, but NEVER have I stepped off an airbridge to be confronted with a fully luxury-carpeted terminal building, all the way to Immigration. One could say that the Heydar Aliyev Airport is the gateway to opulence on the Caspian.
It is tempting to draw analogies with the UAE, and indeed I once saw Baku tourism promoted unofficially as the “Poor Man’s Dubai” (intended as a backhanded compliment). Yet, the grandeur is somewhat offset by the wealth imbalance; evident from the clunky Soviet era automobiles that would have been deemed unroadworthy several decades ago by EU standards, and from people living in relative poverty outside the capital and even behind the façade of Baku’s lustrous skyscrapers. But why create this extravagant and luring city on the Caspian that has been relatively closed off for global tourism in the past, with a longstanding skepticism of foreigners?
If anybody from the West was considering visiting Azerbaijan for tourism in the past five years, they may have been put-off by one of two things:
a) An arduous visa process since replaced by the $20 eVisa for most nationals as of 2017 (unless you fall into the Armenian, and thus by default, persona non grata category);
b) The 2012 BBC Panorama “Eurovision’s Dirty Secret Azerbaijan” documentary, set to “expose” the country prior to hosting the 2013 competition.
Although I am usually a proud advocate of the BBC, preaching that it can do little wrong with its zero-state-funding mechanism, this account was both utterly condemning and blatantly one-sided. The documentary paints a picture of a paranoid, controlling state, corrupt to the core with the Aliyev family at the heart of it, sending a clear message – “Do not visit, lest you will be supporting a regime with serious human rights concerns and will probably be followed around by some KGB-type agents who have nothing better to do”. Okay, maybe the allegations are not entirely absent of fact, but highly exaggerated and oversimplified for sure. We (in the West) do love to sensationalise situations in lesser-known corners of the world for media hype, to turn us into a bunch of stereotype-affirming “global-intellectuals”, just so we can impress our kindred spirits at Philosophy Dinner meetings. Excuse me while I reach for my “List of Fallacies” handbook to help me select a starting point. But more about those more specific claims later on.
I did wonder if security is the highest employment sector in Baku, as there are guards/police/security personnel on every street corner and outside practically every building or monument. Subtlety isn’t their game either, as many-a-time they silently hovered over me as I took photographs of various points of interest that were not even on the strictly forbidden list (which includes subways/metro, oil fields, government buildings etc.).
Approaching the city at night, one can really see the city in all its illuminated splendour. Every single light is LED-bright and dazzling. So much so, that anti-glare sunglasses would be a handy thing to prevent
oneself becoming momentarily blinded when the traffic lights switch to all-go. Azpetrol stations glow like emerald green palaces, with signs boasting prices of a mere 1.25AZN/€0.60 per litre. No need to fret about your fuel-guzzling 14 mpg engines here (make mine a Rolls-Royce Phantom, please-and-thank-you).
The Old City in Baku is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and fortifications, with quaint hotels, bazaars and cafe-restaurants nestled in between the winding residential streets. The 12th Century Maidan Tower (Qız Qalası) and 15th Century Shirvanshahs’ Palace (Şirvanşahlar Sarayı) offer a stark architectural and cultural contrast to what lies outside the perimeter walls.
Usually, I would not manage to roll out of bed in time for sunrise, but due to the 0530 arrival time, I had the pleasure of strolling along the ever-extending promenade while the sun was coming up. Baku’s cityscape can be best seen from a short Caspian ferry round trip; hugging the coastline to pass by the 5* hotels, new skyscrapers mid-construction, harbour cranes, fancy shopping malls and the sparkling Crystal Hall (best seen after dark). Mixed in with all the modern architecture, and iconic Flame Towers in the background, is the remaining architecture of the USSR era.
Among the more novel attractions are the the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (Azərbaycan Xalçası Muzeyi), shaped like a giant rolled-up carpet, and “Little Venice“; complete with miniature waterways and gondolas. Despite undergoing a recent facelift, Little Venice has been a feature of Baku since 1960, though slightly deserted off-season.
Proximal to the new Olympic Stadium, eerie “ghost villages” lie vacated, i.e. brand new apartment blocks which popped up just in time for the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) funded inaugural event and are currently unoccupied. The government has come under come serious criticism for the means by which all the infrastructure was created; razing historic and residential parts of the city to the ground, allegedly forcing evictions and undercompensating occupants, and censoring/crushing any sort of protests. Of course, it’s not the only country accused of such activity in preparation for hosting any prestigious global event (think of China, Russia, Qatar, Brazil… and pretty much any state that doesn’t already have such facilities in place).
Part of Baku’s 2021 strategic vision involves the transformation of the former Black City into a fully redeveloped White City and continuation of the boulevard, with three-quarters of all developments to be residential. Notable among the many feats of engineering achievement, is the fact that they managed to preserve certain protected buildings in the city by sliding them intact on specialised rails installed below their foundations. Extraordinary! Unlike other observers, I would not merely brand Baku as a Potemkin Village (akin to the fake portable village built only to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787). They are clearly capitalising on every opportunity to host future sporting events and expos and have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of doing so.
It may not be common knowledge (or was perhaps classed as pure fantasy and hence ignored), but Azerbaijan has been planning to construct the world’s tallest building for some time now, as part of an ambitious Khazar Islands development- the Azerbaijan Tower (planned to be even taller than Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, scheduled to become the world’s tallest in 2020). Since first hearing of the plans back in 2012 I have been attempting to track progress, and when all fell silent, suspected the worst. This was confirmed during my visit in September 2017. Plans for the tower have been cancelled, and the Khazar Islands construction site has come to a standstill, with guards on duty 24/7 to deter trespassers. The story goes something like- founding businessman went bankrupt, was detained for unpaid debt, couldn’t manage to cover the repayments in exchange for his release so offered up his Khazar Islands project which was subsequently liquidated. The current and future status of the project is unknown, but a 2025 target completion date seems but a dream.
The Living Landscape
The landscape of Azerbaijan is alive with the elements. The “Land of Fire” alias roots back to the Zoroastrian religion present in Azerbaijan in ancient times and is almost certainly linked to its geological phenomena.
Azerbaijan is said to contain nearly one-third of the world’s mud volcanoes (many of which are underwater), releasing hydrocarbon gas build-ups intermittently. Qobustan is home to a cluster of them, still rather off the beaten track from its National Park where Prehistoric rock engravings can be found.
Mud volcanoes come in all shapes, sizes and “temperaments”. Some are gently simmering away like broths, bubbling at a high pitched steady rate, while others are thick and gloopy like a chocolate fondue (and they do look deliciously tempting enough to dip your finger in and have a lick, but it’s generally not recommended). The most fun ones are those that lie dormant for some minutes, before building up to a large crescendo and violent “PLOP”. Thankfully I was not transformed into a mud creature that day, even though I did get overly curious peering into the crater of one of the larger more bad-tempered ones that made me jump and almost land on my backside when it surged like a cauldron. The mud trails were evidence that these things do spew their guts out from time to time, and were truly splendid. Some slow, glistening toffee-like ones reminded me of something in between pyroclastic flow and an elephant’s foot (the nuclear kind), whereas others were light and rippled just like mini rivers. Once again, I was privileged with a fantastic sunset and very few tourists around.
Another geological phenomenon found on the Absheron Peninsula is the Yanar Dag naturally burning gas fire, best enjoyed after dark if accessible. Sit there for long enough being mesmerised by the flames, and who knows where your train of thought will end up. Possibly the closest I have ever been to some sort of meditative state. Level up? Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell.
In keeping with the fire theme, the Ateshgah Temple has served as a place of worship for Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians, with its actual origin date unknown but suspected to pre-date 17 AD. The temple was formed over a pocket of natural gas that kept the temple fires alight; fires that were thought to be divinely symbolic and the media of purification rituals (and some excruciating ones by the sounds of it).
The Persian New Year festival Novruz continues to be celebrated in Azerbaijan, with seven days dedicated to each of the elements of wind, water, earth and, of course, fire.
The Importance/Unimportance of Islam
Well over 90% of the Azeri population identify as Muslims, and more specifically, Shiite Muslims. That means that Azerbaijan joins the Shia-dominant minority along with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. While it’s clear that there are deeply religious folk, Azerbaijan also falls into the “Muslim Lite” category; along with moderate Islamic countries such as Turkey, Kosovo etc. In fact, it’s all very secular these days despite a sort of post-Soviet religious revival; from a government and administrative level, to an every-day sense.
To an outsider, it may not intuitively feel like religion isn’t of any great importance to the people, standing at the foot of the Heydar Mosque (the biggest in the Caucasus) overlooking Baku and listening to an incoherent sonance of dozens of adhans calling simultaneously from all over the city. Oddly… the grandest mosque of them all had the weakest-sounding adhan, with not so much as a loudspeaker (a greatly anticipated anti-climax!).
I am definitely developing a mosque-fascination as my missions progress. Yet, Baku mosques had one feature that I had never seen at the entrance of any others before; full body scanners and x-ray machines. Exactly like an airport central security search. Is Azerbaijan really on such a high terror alert that these measures are necessary even within religious buildings? Some light internet delving yielded the following insights.
Despite the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabkh, it is not rogue Armenian terrorists that Baku is most concerned about (Armenians aren’t permitted to enter the country anyhow, although the reverse is possible). It seems that the capital has fallen victim in recent years to other targeted and indiscriminate terror attacks. The main threat in capital continues to be Wahabbists; for example, the 2008 grenade attack on the Abu Bakr Mosque and a series of civilian attacks in Baku’s metro. Sadval, a Lezghin separatist movement was found to be responsible. It’s clear that Armenians aren’t the only threat within Azerbaijan’s borders, although it is claimed that the Armenian Secret Service had backed and funded Sadval.
Relating it back to politics; we often assume by default that countries maintain alliances based on religious similarities. If that were the case, we might assume that Russia would fully back Orthodox brethren Armenia and leave Azerbaijan by the wayside, while Azerbaijan and Iran would join together in some sort of powerful brute force. Neither of these are the case; and if anything Iran outwardly shows more support for Armenia. Another surprising strategic alliance is the Azerbaijan-Israel one. Puzzled? I’m not ashamed to admit that I was, but not for too long. In the end, Raison d’etat (national interest) always prevails.
Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) – Remnants of the Past
In the wake of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy which shook the Soviet Union into radical change and eventual dissolution, Azerbaijan SSR saw dark days of political unrest in 1990. Today, Martyr’s Lane and the Eternal Flame stand as memorials to the tragic events of Black January, where civilians were massacred by the Soviet army in state of emergency before independence was finally declared in 1991.
The giant Kirov monument (in honour of the Bolshevik leader involved in establishing a Soviet government in Azerbaijan in 1920) which once overlooked Baku from above must have been quite a sight. It has since been dismembered and dismantled after independence in 1991 and replaced with a national memorial. Many other Soviet monuments were subsequently removed, yet a few still remain in situ today. One such statue is that of Nariman Narimanov (erected by Heydar Aliyev in 1970), another Bolshevik head of government in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s. It’s a mystery how he has survived the cull, but he is impressive in stature. It’s less of a mystery that there is a Baku monument in memory of Azerbaijan’s own Soviet superspy, Richard Sorge. He did, after all, gather vital intelligence on Operation Barbarossa and warn of the Axis invasion of the USSR. How Hitler would have loved to get his grubby little hands on Azerbaijan’s oilfields, but had to abandon that idea after the Nazis demoralising defeat at Stalingrad. Elsewhere, statues of Azerbaijan’s iconic late president, Heydar Aliyev, replace the former Lenin cult.
Since the nineties, Azerbaijan has been reinventing its image, reviving all aspects of its own culture and achieving gradual de-Russification. This does not mean severing links with modern-day Russia by any means, but is purely about escaping the shackles of the past and securing an independent future. For example, the Russian language is still widely spoken in Baku today, albeit in decline. Azeri surnames are so often identifiable around the globe by their Russified -ov(a)/-ev(a) endings (e.g. Mammadov or indeed, Aliyeva), though many families have chosen to nationalise their names and remove these endings. I have noticed on more than one occasion that Russian-produced crime films/series love to portray Azeri migrants (some Joe Bloggs Hasanov) as stereotypical petty thieves or criminals. On the plus-side, they are allegedly perceived as much better-integrated middlemen than their Central Asian counterparts, who are among those most affected by racist incidents in Russia today.
Russian imperial style buildings continue to stand their place within Baku’s evolving and domineering skyline. Khrushchev-era apartment blocks have been undergoing demolition, no longer fit for habitation. Although I should point out that one source that I came across claimed that these shoddy apartment blocks have merely been concealed by new façades, like veneers over rotting teeth, although I have not witnessed it personally. Such utilitarian architecture is a thing of the past, yet there is something vaguely reminiscent of socialist classicism about the new residential builds. Also still present from the SSR era are the baroque style Government House, as well as the Former Lenin Museum.
The Pearl Cafe is an outstanding spectacle of brutish architecture that stands out like a pork-shop in a synagogue on the chic promenade. Next to it, stands the parachute tower (constructed in the 1930s), which is no longer serves in use as a jumping platform after an unfortunate fatality in the sixties. Other Soviet remnants and symbols are scattered around, including an old Soviet locomotive. It may come as a surprise that Baku’s gigantic TV Tower is not a Soviet construction despite many of its kind throughout the Former USSR, but was erected later in 1996.
Uniquely, Soviet and Azeri culture sometimes gets blended together. I cannot find a single better example than the traditionally woven Lenin carpet that I came across in the Old City bazaar. These sorts of finds are truly kitsch, and Mister Lenin Furry Face nearly came home with me in my suitcase. In the end, I settled for a selection of Azeri silk scarves and woven table mats instead, unconvinced that he would find a fitting place in my living room without antagonising any Eastern guests. Furthermore, the Soviets were kind enough to leave behind a legacy of squat toilets. I was ever-so-grateful for this gentle reminder of my days studying in Beijing and coping day-to-day with chronic constipation, lest I should have to attempt to use them.
And so after 1991, when Russia largely withdrew economically from the newly independent state, Azerbaijan were not left “holding the baby” for too long before Turkey stepped in to fill a void. Today, Azerbaijan and Turkey maintain strong links, economically, strategically and ethnically. Ex-President Heydar Aliyev even went as far as to describe them as “one nation, two states”, and indeed, I have come across Azeris who refer to themselves as “Turks of Azerbaijan”. Yet, this matter still confuses me somewhat, as any Azerbaijani or Turkish folk that I have personally asked about the other nation were entirely nonchalant about it. I sensed no particular affinity other than “Yeah, our languages are more or less mutually intelligible“.
Eternally skeptical of a Turkish expansionist agenda and the spreading of pan-Turkic ideology, this relationship shattered any aspirations that Iran might have had that the two may unite in some sort of Persian Islamic brotherhood alliance. This is one of the contributing factors which pushed Iran towards siding with Armenia (at least diplomatically, so as not to cause issues with the many Azerbaijanis living in Iran or sparking their own conflict). Once, they might have been convinced that Armenia would overcome Azerbaijan and they could quickly step in and exert influence. Conveniently, it also keeps them out of strategic partner-Russia’s bad books, who continue to equip their military and maintain much-needed trade amid such crippling global sanctions.
A-ha, now the Israeli-Azeri connection begins to make some sense, but to truly understand the nature of the friendship, we must put it in a military context (which just so happens to be my favourite topic of all).
Karabakh Conflict, Key Players and Bizarre Borders
The land borders of Azerbaijan are not only contested, but are astoundingly complex (partially thanks to Soviet bureaucracy); with numerous exclaves and enclaves within, and belonging to Armenia, respectively. The largest detached “chunk” is Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic that’s accessible via Iran, from which the famous ex-president Heydar Aliyev originated.
Turbulent relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia date back over 100 years, with a history of conflicting territorial claims. Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh to Armenians) and its surrounding regions have been long disputed, with major ethnic conflict escalating in the 1990s and again in 2016 after 12 years of ceasefire. Officially, Nagorno-Karabakh remains part of Azerbaijan, but is controlled by Armenia as a largely unrecognised de facto independent state and is presently home to an ethnically Armenian majority.
The most significant external player in all of this is Russia, of course. On the face of it, Russia does not choose a side but sees the greater strategic importance of maintaining trade relations and an influence on both, even if that ironically means arming both simultaneously. It’s no secret that Armenia is still the golden child, buying Russian weapons on credit, whilst Azerbaijan’s are all bought-and-paid-for. Armenia look towards Russia as their guarantor of peace and stability, whilst Azerbaijan are savvy enough not to place all of their eggs in one such basket. While NATO officially has no involvement in the conflict or its resolution, President Erdogan recently stated that Turkey (NATO member) “backs Azeris to the end”, yet Turkey is wisely cautious about providing support in such a manner that would drag them into a proxy war. This may frustrate Azeris; the fact that Turkey could do more. In spite of routine joint-operations, NATO membership for Azerbaijan is not on the horizon, as Azerbaijan continue to form part of the Non-Aligned Movement.
While it appears that this struggle is very much outside of Western influence, Russian political thought emphatically argues otherwise, i.e. that recent heightened tensions are direct causes of the West (namely the US) meddling, exacerbating problems on Russia’s borders and provoking the situation. A counter theory is that Russia have intentionally exploited the situation in order to exert control and influence over both states. Whatever version of the truth exists, it’s clear that no one can broker a deal or resolution except the two parties themselves, neither of which particularly want to come to the negotiating table at the moment; least of all Armenia who one could say have the upper hand as things stand, being relatively content with the status quo.
So, how do the two opposing military forces stack-up and who has the advantage? Recent conflict indicates, counter-intuitively, that one is not indicative of the other. Azerbaijan has a current Global Firepower Ranking of #58, while Armenia stands at #93 (with a significantly smaller overall population and vastly smaller GDP and defence budget). In 2010, President Aliyev boasted (factually so) that Azerbaijan’s defence spending was more than Armenia’s entire budget. Moreover, Azerbaijan have a greater diversity of weapons and equipment; largely due to major arms deals with Israel. Whilst a fully-mobilised Azerbaijani force proves superior on paper, this is not necessarily reflective of activity or progress in the conflict to date. Not only is the Nagorno-Karabakh terrain rough and thus obstructive for any major offensive, but it is home to an Armenian majority, familiar with the territory and are “bravely defending their homeland”. Many Azeris are convinced that they could liberate the territory at any time, but are reluctant to go in at full force for other obvious reasons. Over a million people have fled from the region; the vast majority, Azeris. As for what the endgame will be and when? Azerbaijan’s first objective (as per the Madrid Principles which still offer some sort of a fathomable solution) is likely to involve the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to full Azerbaijani control. As to whether or not a peaceful resolution will ever be agreed while the two current governments remain place, it’s anyone’s guess, but more than likely a pessimistic one.
The Caspian coast of Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly famous for its exclusive beach club resorts, which by the way, die a death as soon as the weather starts to turn. Unluckily for me, September was not the best time for beach clubs as they were all winding down for the season.
Not to be disheartened, I was fortunate enough to capture a wonderfully tranquil beach backdrop at sunset near to Sumqayit (the third largest city, not far from Baku). The real lure of the beaches was not the sun, sea and sand, but the odd juxtaposition of an artificial “paradise” and the monstrous, black oil drilling rigs only several miles away in the not-so-far-off distance.
Sumqayit was environmentally devastated by Soviet era industry, and was declared to be one of the world’s most polluted cities as recently as a decade ago. Cancer and birth defects were a major problem and life expectancy was low among the local population; particularly the poor who lacked access to adequate healthcare. Major investment and an intensive clean-up programme have dramatically reduced hazardous waste (mercury and heavy metals, for example) and stringent environmental regulations are now in place for safeguarding against such damaging practices in the future.
Officially, the main beaches are professed to be clean and safe enough for swimming today, but nobody could be blamed for having reservations, given that the Caspian is “critically polluted” and abundant with dead zones, devoid of life. If you’re still not deterred, perhaps you’d consider going one step further and taking an indulgent bath in crude oil at a national spa? As memorable a mission as it might have been to experience one of these, forgive me for declining on the primary basis that the precious liquid is not changed in between clients! Besides, naphthalene is a possible carcinogen in spite of the health benefit claims, and I had unpleasant visions of trying to scrape black gunk out of my hair for weeks to come.
A Truly “Royal” Family
The legacy of the late president (and former KGB major general), Heydar Aliyev lives on in an affectionate yet cult-like manner (coined as Heydarism). His name prospers in the form of the outstanding specimen of architecture that is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, as well as Heydar Aliyev Palace, the Heydar Mosque, Heydar Aliyev Sports & Exhibition Complex, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, Heydar Aliyev Avenue and Street, Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Heydar Aliyev Baku Oil Refinery, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Heydar Aliyev Park, the Heydar Aliyev School Museum, the Heydar Aliyev Water Reservoir, as well as commemorative statues in practically every city.
The Aliyev Family really are something special. The current government under Ilham Aliyev (affiliated with the ruling New Azerbaijan Party) is often described as an autocracy (or worse still, as a totalitarian regime), and Azerbaijan became first Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country to transfer power from father to son, in 2003. If nothing else, the current president is globally infamous, having earned the titles of everything from “World`s Person of the Year 2015” to “Corrupter of the Year 2012” and “benevolent dictator”. There are a plethora of resources on the specific corruption and human rights allegations, rigged elections, as well as claims of exploitation of the Nagorno Karabakh situation to detract attention from the economic downturn or other domestic concerns, and preserve a tight grasp on power. The truth about such allegations is neither for me to support nor comment on, and I just can’t help but succumb to the charisma of this charming clan, as with any “royal” family. So much so that I nearly purchased an Aliyev Family phone cover in a souvenir shop then thought better of it.
Unless it’s obligatory to erect a picture of the president’s portrait in every home à la mode de la DPRK (highly doubtful), it would seem that he really is genuinely popular among some of the population at least. There he was, in a quality frame in the glass cabinet of my Baku apartment. The First Lady and Vice President (having secured a whopping 90% of the votes within her constituencies) Mehriban Aliyeva is an icon of glamour, as are the two daughters, Leyla and Arzu. She’s not just a pretty face either, with a PhD and a medical degree. The children are already wealthy entrepreneurs in their own rights as well (officially).
The Hydrocarbon Empire
On the run-up to the trip, I was growing increasingly anxious that I might not get to see the famous oil fields, or have the opportunity to photograph an archetypal “nodding donkey” (or pumpjack). It’s generally forbidden to photograph the oil fields for security reasons and I imagined that they would be somewhat off-the-beaten-track. My concerns were quite unfounded. These contraptions are in abundance, and locals frequently walk through the fields in their everyday comings and goings-and I was able to as well.
A reconstruction world’s first-ever mechanically drilled oil well (in the Bibi-Heybat suburb in 1846- before the US) stands (guarded) next to a field of labouring pumpjacks, as a reminder that the Absheron Peninsula was pioneering in early oil production.
The Bibi-Heybat Mosque offers one of the best panoramic views over the city’s massive port and oil fields. Oil symbolism is everywhere. From the minting on coins to football club logos (Neftçi PFK) and miniature nodding donkey/pumpjack souvenirs. Makes perfect sense, when petroleum products constitute 95% of the country’s total exports and are hence the primary driver of GDP. But what happens when Azerbaijan runs out of oil? Although it’s not looking likely with the extension of Azerbaijan’s “Contract of the Century” (to extend production in collaboration with the BP-fronted consortium until 2050), the dramatic downturn in oil prices since 2008 has reinforced the importance for all hydrocarbon-rich states to diversify their revenue sources and to begin putting plans in place for the future and for thriving off such a volatile commodity.
SOFAZ (the state oil fund) has a more than sufficient budget to handle a rainy day, but growing inflation, unemployment, soaring import prices and a slowing economy has triggered SOFAZ to further diversify profile to include additional real state investment abroad etc. Residents complain that they see plenty of the state oil fund being used for infrastructure but despite the government increasing pensions and salaries, but not enough dedicated to social welfare and coping with general living costs.
Food of Azerbaijan
As a Brit, the prospect of another nation being as fond of tea as we are was intriguing. The Azeri tea experience is starkly different altogether than high tea at 5 o’clock in the UK. Traditional tea is brewed gradually in ornate metallic vessels called samovars (also popular in Russia). This tea be STRONG stuff undiluted, if left to brew for long enough. Tea is served with sliced lemon, sugar cubes, dried fruit, a selection of nuts, pakhlava (Пахлава) (my very favourite, especially the newly-discovered coconut type) and oddly-in-my-opinion, jams. Sure, there’s nothing odd about jam itself, but I was half-expecting some sort of bread-like vessel to emerge in the absence of scones or crumpets. But no. Apparently you just spoon the jam directly into your mouth…right. No offence to Azeris, but I think I’d rather hold onto my teeth for a while longer.
Azerbaijan is also home to superior pomegranates. As pictured below under “Ladas and Lambourghinis“, it’s common to see Ladas packed full of these ripe, bulbous fruits picked from prime growing regions outside of Baku, and they are also sold by the roadsides. They are easily twice the size of our pathetic imported varieties, a fraction of the price and they aren’t packed full of that white membrane. You really need one of these superb anatomical specimens to properly understand how to dissect and open one up the right way– as I learned through trial and error.
I find it slightly tricky to single out exclusively Azeri dishes, with such an influential fusion of Persian, Turkish and Russian cuisines. But I did come across fruits that I have never heard of before and their sherbets. And camel qutab (a griddled pancake-like dumpling) was definitely a first. Speaking of dumplings, dushbara (dumpling soup) is also highly recommended, as are plov (pilaf), kababs, saj (cast-iron pan) and shashlik dishes.
Ladas and Lambourghinis
Little can prepare you for the Baku driving experience, and I’m not talking about Formula 1. There are two categories of vehicles commonplace on the roads:
Exhibit A: The Soviet legacy class
Exhibit B: The supercar class
As much as I dream of cruising about in a Maserati, a Lada packed full of juicy pomegranates bouncing along the motorway has a compelling charm. Besides, even brand new 2017 vehicles contained dings and dents on further inspection. Keeping one’s car dent-free is a stretch mission in Baku, with drivers suddenly changing lanes, slamming on brakes, speeding out of junctions and occasionally playing real-life Midnight Club, drifting for fun after dark. Sadly, there is a dark side of these chaotic roads, and I was unfortunately a bystander to a woman carrying a child being hit at speed by a taxi, while crossing a main road after dark. Shocking and horrific, but hardly an isolated incident I’m sure. Whether you are a driver or pedestrian in Azerbaijan, proceed with caution.
Sounds of Azerbaijan
Try as I may, I have never been able to appreciate jazz. A shame really, as Azerbaijan is renowned for its very own brands of jazz, e.g. Mugham folk blends, and hosts a major jazz festival annually. As with the beach clubs, the fancy outdoor music venue that I had so hoped to visit (aptly named Barrel Playground) was also closing for the season. Fortunately, for anybody else struggling to appreciate jazz, there are a wealth of over options in terms of clubs/live music. The live music that I heard in restaurants was a mix of traditional Azeri songs with ethnic instruments, and karaoke-style Russian language “golden oldies”.
Azerbaijan and Armenia also have a bit of rivalry on the musical front over that characteristic and haunting sound of any duduk-like instrument. I recall when Dilara Kazimova released her enchanting Eurovision number in 2014, “Start a Fire”, it sparked an outcry of “How dare Azerbaijan’s entry feature an indigenous Armenian instrument!”. But Azerbaijan in fact have their own version, the balaban, albeit lesser known than its Armenian counterpart. In hypervigilance, Azerbaijani police launched an investigation into citizens who decided to vote for Armenia in the Eurovision Song Contest in the past. Eurovision will always be a battle arena for these two, and governing body EBU can do little to force them to play nice.
Whilst crossing via the subway, I listened to a young busker chap sing the most alluring, oriental-sounding songs. Remembering that it is forbidden to video/photograph such locations, I discreetly recorded a few snippets on my phone. In the end, my Turkish housemate finally identified one as a song by Turkish composer and rock musician, Barış Manço. I can only conclude from this, that Turkish popular music is appreciated to some extent. There is definitely a similarity at least to the (my) untrained ear between Turkish and Azeri music and singing styles, all of which I have grown very fond of.
Dihaj (who also acquired fame on a more global stage after her participation in the 2017 Eurovision final) provides a perfect example of one of Baku’s obscure oil-rig-beach-paradises in one of her earlier music videos.
Mission Azerbaijan Summary
After a thoroughly enjoyable mission, I tend to become obsessed with a place for a while, and this one hasn’t worn off yet. While it’s true that we change our world views as we mature, I still feel that indulging in an occasional luxury is something that I rather enjoy from a hedonistic point of view, and shouldn’t always be frowned upon or automatically linked to avarice and exploitation. I adore Azerbaijan’s blend of culture and history, and admire the emphatic patriotism. From an outsiders perspective, Baku is something of a dream factory, i.e. “Let’s erect the biggest flagpole in the world just because” or “Why not build the carpet museum, hear me out… in the shape of a rolled up carpet?“. Even if the Khazar Islands and world’s next tallest building never materialise, Azerbaijan will surely continue to look forward and take steps to ensure their prosperity in a post-oil era.