Chilling in Baku

The night train to Baku was great.
It started off quite strangely when a woman wanted us to change cabins but we didn’t understand she just wanted me in the cabin with her and her sons. I wasn’t having any of it because I didn’t know whether we would arrive suddenly in Baku with no idea what was going on and it’s much easier if you’re with your own group!

At the border crossing in Georgia, I suddenly spotted that my Azerbaijani e-visa said I needed to present a hard copy so I suddenly worried that we were going to get kicked off the train but there was no problem. After Georgian emigration, we passed into Nagorno-Karabakh and then after at least 45 minutes we stopped again at Azerbaijan customs and immigration where we spent hours.

The train was supposed to arrive in Baku at around 9am but it’s gone 11am and we are still in a desert. It’s great though, I do love sleeping and from my top bunk I’m able to see the desert, distant mountains and the tracks.

Over two hours later and we are still only just reaching areas with civilisation. Lots of shallow pools that look like they are caustic. So far, Azerbaijan is striking but I wouldn’t say it’s countryside is beautiful.

At 1:45pm we are told to get ready as we are nearly there but the city is still not looming.

So I found out that my phone thought we had moved forward an extra timezone so we actually arrived at 1pm at Baku Central Station. The station building and the metro seems like a really fancy version of the Soviet metro system, all sparkly and marble.

We went immediately to find an ATM and this was much harder than expected so I just went for food instead while Seb carried on looking for cash.

While I was ordering food I saw that everybody else was paying with cash so I started thinking I was going to have my payment refused! It was fine though, I guess everyone here just prefers cash. Phew!

Seb returned with cash and we tried again to get on the metro but the 50 Manat bill wasn’t accepted!! Argh! And we couldn’t use contactless payment either. And there was no booth to get change from. So we gave up and got a taxi. We paid 5 Manat (£2.25) which may have been over the odds but the driver was so careful to find out exactly where we needed to go, he got out to walk and find out which door our hostel was through so we didn’t have to walk further than necessary.

Sahil Hostel was recommended by our friend Cassiana and it seems nice so far. It’s a bit strange at the moment because they are having an issue with the computer which I think means they have overbooked but the staff are nice and the common room is full and there is a cheap bar. Thumbs up. One member of staff even let me try some of the pomegranate wine when I arrived, so that’s a great start.

No sightseeing today, so I hereby announce that today is mani-pedi day, after having my feet in hiking boots too much. I sought a recommendation from the hostel and the woman sent me to Face Studio, a 10 minute walk away. It was nice to see some of the shopping areas of Baku straight away as it’s easy to navigate and things seem easy to find.

The manicure wasn’t the most relaxing experience because I’m not used to having UV curing polish but my nails look the best they have ever looked! I spotted the most striking metallic colour I’ve ever seen on the colour chart and asked for it. It was quite a bit of effort because it required a powder coat as well to give the liquid metal finish but it’s beautiful and I couldn’t be happier with it.

The therapist, Khayale, was absolutely fantastic and my pedicure was incredible. She was so thorough that she has managed to get my tired feet as good as new.

The ladies at the Face Studio are following my blog now, so shout out to them!

I walked back to the hostel for some more relaxing and a nice big glass of pomegranate wine for 2 Manat (£0.90!) then I suggested we could get dinner at a place near the hostel.

After dinner we went for a walk around the waterfront, an absolute must do. The atmosphere is lovely because this is a pastime of so many people, all enjoying the wonderful views across the water.

There was an enormous storm in the early hours of the morning and we decided to go for brunch long after the rain had stopped only to find that the road and pavement outside the hostel was under water!! There was an enormous flood! I didn’t realise that the water was still rising as I moved a wooden plank into position as a bridge to a shallow spot. I managed to get across a road but Seb and I got separated on different sides of the flood so he ran back to the hostel to grab sandals so he could walk through the water more easily.

I managed to hitch a life across the road/river with a van at one point!! Super helpful guys.

We met again at the Central Restaurant where I had definitely hit the jackpot accidentally while looking for anywhere to escape the flood. The New Yorker breakfast was way more food than we could manage and took up so much room that we had to add a second table!

Baku Old Town Walking Tour

Gani is the tour guide for our two and a half hour tour of Old Town.

Until the mid-19th century Baku was fairly insignificant city that in 1806 was isolated and surrounded by desert. In 1860 the oil boom began and it took until the 1890s for Baku to outgrow it’s medieval city walls. During the oil boom many newly rich families sent their children to study in St Petersburg so it was only when they came back that this younger generation decided that the medieval town was outdated and too religious for their tastes.

During the oil boom the city developed and the Baku city wall was where the East/West border could be found. Within its walls, religion reigned, the women could be found completely covered with burka, and outside the walls, the streets were modern with western influence, theatres, concert halls and women with naked shoulders.

Aliaga Vahid was a Baku-born Soviet poet who is still very well respected in Azerbaijan. He wrote about real life and not praising communism. There is an intriguing statue of him at the edge of the Old Town.

When asked whether Azerbaijan is in Europe or Asia it isn’t a straightforward answer. The government policy is to maintain multiculturalism and allow people to live and believe in the way they choose.

Approximately 98% of the population is Muslim (Shi’a 85% and 15% Sunni) but it’s the 13th least religious country because only about 34% (in 2016) use their religious beliefs to influence daily decisions (up from 21% in 2009). The state and religion are separate and the Muslim Cresent moon of the flag does not mean this is a Muslim country.

We walked into the Old Town and straight into the Miniature Book Museum, an incredible Guiness World Record-holding private collection of miniature books covering so many different topics in many languages.

In the photo, above the copper-coloured circle, there is the world’s smallest book standing upright with its tiny pages fanned out.

The 15th Century palace of the Azerbaijan Shirvansha dynasty is beautifully minimalist grey stone and the towering skyline behind shows the modern blue glass and steel Baku.

Baku has almost no water; spring water is piped from 200km in the North and is often limited to four hours per day in summer. Rains only start in October (except that there was a massive storm today of course).

Shirvan was the ancient capital but it is right in the middle of an earthquake zone and eventually the king got fed up of rebuilding and he moved the capital to Baku.

The bathhouse being next to the city gate was highly strategic – the dirty travellers needed to wash before entering the city so that they didn’t bring diseases to the tiny population living within the walls.

During Imperial Russian times the Russians and Persians fought continually over this territory and the border was drawn so that Persia (Iran) took much of the land of old Azerbaijan. Now there are 25-30 million Azerbaijani in Northern Iran; far more than in Azerbaijan itself (10 million).

During our first day here we have seen an unusual number of supercars. I asked about the number of millionaires here and apparently there are “none”. The wealth of individuals is wrapped up in shadow companies so that nobody had to admit to having made that much money. I was very surprised but then Gani told us that oil is a nationalised product in Azerbaijan (so nobody here should be getting particularly rich from it!) so it is pretty shady trading that leads to the individual wealth here…

The Minsk Group, comprising the USA, France and Russia, is the international negotiation team for peace in over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but there are conflicting views on the resolution. Putting it broadly and bluntly, there isn’t any oil in this territory so the US probably doesn’t really care who controls it; the conflict between the two nations is one of the main things keeping them out of NATO, which suits Russia very well. True or not, the Azeris believe that the Russian military is supporting Armenia with discounted weapons to keep them at a similar capability to Azerbaijan (who has oil money to support their military). And the French are seen as not really having teeth in this.

In April 2016, Azerbaijan launched an attack to prove that they had the guts to attack and also that they could break the Armenian defences if they wanted. This was the “Four Day War”.

The external view of the Literary Museum is gorgeous. In the alcoves are literary figures from the 15th to 20th Centuries. The building was designed and built during the Soviet era as part of the special freedoms of Azerbaijan SSR to allow them to express themselves culturally.

The Flame Towers weren’t created as a financially viable project and only 11% of the real estate is currently used. A night in the hotel will set you back around €5,000. The funicular operates (roughly) between 10am – 10pm and it saves you climbing almost 600 steps.

The oil exports started in 2005/6 and Baku has completely changed in that time.

Seb and I went for another walk and then headed up to the Flame Towers for a closer look.

Way up my list of favourite photos

The views from the top are stunning.

For the next couple of days we took a slow pace to explore the city including taking a sunset trip to the TV tower restaurant which was really reasonably priced and had great food.

We had the whole revolving restaurant to ourselves!

The Convention Centre in Baku has some fascinating architecture and is surrounded by a landscaped garden.

Which is randomly filled with giant plastic animals…

Including many snails..

We then visited a strange new and unfinished area of the city which is clearly meant to be inhabited by thousands of people.

And went for cocktails at the Hilton Hotel, not far from this imposing government building.

We also walked miles to get to the Crystal Hall, where Eurovision was hosted; the only reason most people have heard of Baku.

We ate in a couple of nice restaurants including this interesting one in an old train shed.

Baku is a dramatic city of contrasts. I think it is worth a visit for along weekend. There are things to do outside of the city but I have not yet heard many good things said about anything away from Baku.

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