The South Caucasus: Old Town Baku, the polluted Caspian, and conversations with an Azeri carpet salesman
Don’t you love how my “New Baku post will be up in a few days” turned into a few weeks? Anyways…When I last left you, Laura and I had just arrived in Baku, the lovely capital city of Azerbaijan, situated on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea.
We woke up early and took advantage of our awesome hotel’s free breakfast. Fresh fruit, French toast, white linen, and the Gypsy King’s cover of “Hotel California” playing over the speakers. Where the hell am I again? I sized up the other hotel guests, and if their wardrobes were any indication, Laura and I were definitely the only people visiting Baku who weren’t there to sign multi-million dollar contracts regarding the extraction of Azerbaijan’s plethora of hydrocarbons. When we checked into our hotel the evening prior, the clerk asked us what company we were with. “Uhhh…we’re not here on business. We’re tourists.” (Although if I had actually answered with where I worked, I would have fit in quite well with the other guests). Yep, doesn’t seem to be many tourists in good ol’ Baku.
Our first stop was the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, located in Baku’s old city. Much of the Palace was built in the mid-1400s by the Shirvanshah dynasty (hence the name). The Palace is currently undergoing a major restoration project, so everything looks quite new. The place was devoid of tourists, so we basically had the place to ourselves.
Our next stop was Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century. No one is exactly sure why it’s called Maiden Tower, but there are several local legends you can choose from. Did a young Maiden throw herself off because her father wanted to marry her? Was it built as a fire-worshipper’s temple? The more pressing question, though, is why the hell did these guys not install an elevator when they built this thing? It was a long, winding walk to the top, but the view was well worth it. At the top, two Azeri guys started talking to us, asking us if we liked Baku, where we were from, etc. They said that someday they hoped to visit the U.S., but they were planning on avoiding California because there were too many Armenians there, and they hated Armenians. Avoiding the Great State of California because of its Armenian population? Are you guys out of your minds? We’ve got Disneyland, and beaches, and In-N-Out! Nothing could sway them, however. I was immediately reminded of a seminar at LSE that I attended…was forced to attend, I should add, but the promise of several pints afterwards was indeed tempting. This particular seminar was on the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno Karabakh (click here for the Wikipedia entry, because I’m too lazy to write about the conflict). Entire cities were razed, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the area, and over 35,000 people were killed. Needless to say, there is still a lot of resentment on both sides, and at this particular seminar I was convinced a fistfight was going to break out amongst the Armenians, Turks, and Azeris. Here were some of the most educated members of their respective countries, sitting in a classroom at the London School of Economics, and almost coming to blows over a war that “ended” in 1994. If these students were going back to their countries to work for the government, then I’ve just about lost hope that the region will ever find peace.
View from the top
We bid farewell to our new Azeri “friends” and told them to look us up if they ever come to D.C. I should also mention that we never told them that we were actually using Armenia as our base of operations and merely stopping over in Baku for a few days. “Uh yeah, we came from Tbilisi…and then we are going back to Tbilisi. But we love your city, it’s beautiful.” There were no lies in that sentence, so it’s all good.
I didn’t really have a next destination in mind, so I dragged Laura on an incredibly long walk that took us along the side of a highway and into the slums of Baku. If you’re ever going to travel with me, you better be prepared to walk A LOT because I will drag your ass all over whatever city we are visiting. No joke. Katerina nicknamed my penchant for walking everywhere the “Lindsay Fincher diet” because you will probably drop a few pounds, no matter how many crepes you eat.
I suggested we grab a taxi and check out a Caspian beach. My trusty Lonely Planet said the Crescent Beach hotel had a decent beach so we hopped in a taxi and were soon speeding down the freeway towards suburban Baku, which is NOTHING like suburban D.C. Instead of TGIFriday’s and California Pizza Kitchen, suburban Baku mainly consists of ramshackle houses and rusty nodding donkeys.
Once we arrived at the Crescent Beach Hotel, we headed straight for the restaurant because we were ridiculously hungry. I had a rather decent pad thai and a great view of the Caspian. After lunch we made our way down to the beach and stuck our feet in the Caspian while bewildered hotel guests watched. Perhaps they, too, read the Lonely Planet entry that stated “The beach may look clean, but the water is heavily polluted both by oil extraction and one of Baku’s main sewage outlets.” And yes, I did read that warning, and yes, I totally ignored it and still stepped foot in the Caspian. I’m still alive aren’t I?
After semi-frolicking in the cesspool that is the Caspian, we decided to go back to Baku proper. We grabbed a taxi, and in my horrible Russian I asked him to take us back to the city, but to first stop near the mosque on the side of the freeway, not because I wanted to take photos of the mosque, but rather wanted a few of the oil fields nearby. Yes, he thought I was crazy, but understood my request and that’s all that really matters. He was a cool guy, trying his best to narrate the drive in the few English words he knew.
Our next destination was the carpet museum, which on the surface sounds incredibly boring but actually turned out to be very interesting. So while I was on this “OMG look at all these beautiful Azeri carpets” high, I did what any respectable tourist would do and bought one.
As we were exiting the carpet shop, we were accosted by two Peace Corps volunteers who were spending the weekend “in the big city.” They were a bit surprised to run into some fellow Americans and asked “Uh, are you guys…tourists?” Yeah, why? “Well, you don’t see many people who come to Baku as tourists.” Damn, really? It was just dawning on me that Baku wasn’t considered a vacation hotspot.
We ended up having dinner at a restaurant near Maiden’s Tower. The food was stellar, and the restaurant itself was located in a courtyard dotted with trees and fountains. There were several small shops on the second floor, and after dinner we headed up there to see if there was anything we wanted to waste our manat on.
The salesmen were, of course, interested in showing us more carpets even though I explained that I had just purchased one. My protests were futile, though, as they kept throwing the carpets on top of each other, turning them over to show you the high-quality materials and craftsmanship. The stack became so high, and my eyes grew so large, that I had to restrain myself from purchasing another. They were so incredibly beautiful that I wanted them all. Wood floors be damned, I was ready to cover the entire area of my room back in D.C.! Instead of buying another carpet, though, we opted to purchase a few tablecloths. The salesman invited us to have tea with him, sat us down on the balcony overlooking the restaurant, and ran downstairs. He returned with scalding hot chai, which turned sickingly sweet as we dumped large sugar cubes into our glasses.
We ended up talking to this guy for an hour or so, listening to stories of his time in the Soviet Army, and answering questions about life back in the States (again, all this done through my paltry Russian skills). He showed us a hand woven map that displayed Nagorno-Karabakh as firmly a part of Azerbaijan. Unlike the younger Azeris we had encountered earlier in the day, though, there was no hatred or anger in his voice, just sadness at this loss of “their” territory. He wanted to know what we thought of his country, his fellow citizens, and more importantly, his hometown, Baku. “I love it!” I told him. Really? “Oh yeah, I think I’d like to work here someday…for BP!” I partially joked. “Ah,” he grinned, “like David Voodvard!” I was a bit amazed he knew the name of the President of BP Azerbaijan. “Yes, like David Woodward!” When it finally came time to bid him farewell, I promised that I would stop in to purchase some carpets when I started working in Baku, whenever that may be. It could happen, right?
On our way back to the hotel, I was almost killed by several children driving recklessly around the boulevard in their rental Power Wheels cars. Where are the traffic cops when you really need them?
(Next up: We visit a fire worshipper’s temple, mosque, and “fire mountain” on the outskirts of Baku, hop a plane back to Tbilisi, and drive back to Yerevan on a road that the U.S. Government, like, totally told us to avoid…yeah, all in one day!)