Sometimes quotes are the best way to describe a place. Here are a few from our friend, Yahya, about Azerbaijan's capital Baku.
Posing as Estonians
The influence of Azerbaijan's current oil boom (its second, the first occurred in the early 1900s) can be felt just about everywhere, not least in the price of accommodation which happens to be geared more towards oil executives with large expense accounts than independent tourists. Based on our research, hotels were out of the question. Baku didn't seem to have a network of homestay families as in Tbilisi and Yerevan, so we opted for a short-term apartment rental.
“Don't speak English when the woman comes. I told her you were Estonian. We get a better price this way.”
Yahya gave us these instructions just a few minutes before the apartment agent arrived. Audrey's Russian skills matched the stereotype – Estonians are known for speaking Russian poorly. Estonians are also known for being reserved. Dan fit this role nicely, throwing in a reassured “da” (yes, in Russian) here and there.
(Note: Audrey lived in Estonia for over two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so she knows a thing or two about imitating Estonians.).
Yahya did the bargaining for the poor Estonians. The agent looked us over, telephoned the landlady, acted as our advocate and asked whether it would be possible to give a discount to a “kind couple from the Baltics.”
We admit it. We posed as Estonians to take full advantage of the residual nostalgia for Soviet times…and we got our discount. Given how expensive Baku is these days, even we became nostalgic for the “good ol' days.”
Yahya acted as our impromptu tour guide, showing us his city on the way to and from our multiple visits to the Uzbek embassy and our favorite bakhlava shop. One evening, we went together to Shirvanshah's Palace, one of Baku's several UNESCO sites.
“You must get a guide. A guide will show you a pile of rocks and explain that it was once a toilet. I will tell you just a pile of rocks.”
The truth throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia is that much of what you see is likely the effort of reconstruction. Such is the reality when you happen to live in the greater neighborhood of epic preservationists such as Genghis Khan and the Soviets.
Baku's old quarter is no different. Shirvanshah's Palace has recently undergone “Euro-Remont,” as the locals affectionately call it. Athough the walls are in-tact, the place has lost much of its soul under layers of new cement. Not able to resist Yahya's advice, we got a guide. She took us around the palace, feeding details to our imagination about what the place must have felt like hundreds of years ago when it was in use. The toilet has yet to be “Euro-Remonted” – it's still a pile of rocks from hundreds of years ago but now we know their secrets.
Baku is a fast-growing and prosperous city where old and new compete for space. Construction sites dot every other corner. Skyscraper apartment buildings and office centers are the latest trend, crowding turn-of-the-century European-styled buildings from Baku's first oil boom. As anywhere, cars (and their brands) are an important status symbol. No wonder that traffic and pollution are growing problems – more than half of Azerbaijan's population is currently in Baku trying to make it in the new economic boom.
“The biggest difference between Baku and Tbilisi is that we like Mercedes and Georgians like BMWs.”
A startling amount of German luxury autos ply the streets of major cities throughout the Caucasus (Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku) Some of these wheels are for real – that is, new purchases made by oligarchs and oil barons. Wanna-be barons opt for one of the endless stream of cars that fail inspection in Germany and are then shipped eastward to the far flung states of the former Soviet Union. And unless our eyes are playing tricks on us, the majority of the throw-away BMWs seem to go to Tbilisi and the Mercedes to Baku.
For your next visit to Baku…
Our advice is to enjoy Baku to the fullest – brush up on your broken Russian and act the part of a citizen of a former Soviet Republic when negotiating for an apartment, take a tour to see the royal toilets that are no longer there and drive yourself home in a luxurious, newly uninspected Mercedes. Most of all, try to find a friend like Yahya.
Baku Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation, and Food
- How to get there: Overnight train (around $30/person for a couchette) or flight from Tbilisi, Georgia. Overnight boat ($55/person) from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.
- Where to stay: Apartments in Baku are outrageously expensive. Even without Yahya's help and pretending to be Estonian, you can rent a furnished apartment for around $50/night in the center through this company.
- Where to eat: See our Azerbaijani food post.
- What to do: Visit the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower in Baku's Old City, admire Baku's early 20th century architecture, take a ride out to Gobustan to see the mud volcanoes and rock drawings, sample illegal caviar at the bustling Taza Bazaar.
If you have a high-speed connection, stick around for the slide show: