Day 46: Baku, or Bakı, or Baqy, or Baky, or Baki or perhaps Bakou?

Baku Travel Blog

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The Kür steppe, seen from the train
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Yelena (Ukraine/USA), Christiane (Germany), Hussein (Azerbaijan)

The border crossing into Azerbaijan was the most stringent border crossing so far on this trip. My entire compartment got searched and scanned, my luggage was searched and I had to declare all my valuables and equipment. They were particularly interested in my camera equipment. Why would I take such a large camera with me to Baku? What was I going to do with it? I showed the man the pictures I had taken in the zoo today, and also those of Kazbegi, and that seemed a satisfactory explanation to him.

But I must say that I was somewhat nervous crossing this border.
The wonderful views from the train as I approached Baku
For the first time ever that I have been nervous crossing a border. I mean, I had been in Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia aren't the best of pals and there had been some stories doing the round of tourists being refused entry in Azerbaijan with an Armenian visa in their passport. Though these are likely people who have visited the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Armenia controlled region within Azeri borders which is the cause of the conflict between the two countries.
That said, this is a strange region, anything can happen. I already had to explain why I only had a four day visa (hey, I never asked for such a short term!) and where I was going next.  

Apart from the camera incident the border crossing was relatively painless (a bit slow though).

When I woke up the next morning and looked out the window it was as if I had arrived on another planet.
The wonderful views from the train as I approached Baku
Gone were the green lush hills of Georgia and they had made way for a very arid semi-desert. Now, I like deserts, but there was something really wrong with this one, it didn't look all that natural. It isn't, the Caspian Sea coast in Azerbaijan is one of the most polluted areas in the world. Blame it on the oil industry and the Soviet disregard for the environment. The area here seems all  covered with a small layer of oil. Pools of water look so black you wonder there is actually any water in there. The stench of oil was unbearable in parts. And everywhere you look you see old equipment. Most of it electric wires, but also old trains, oil pumps and even military equipment. All left lying here to rot (which it does very very slowly in this dry climate).

In Baku I was staying with some couch surfers.
Baku train station
I had booked a hotel in advance (which was needed for my visa), but I figured couch surfing would be much more fun (and cheaper). I didn't have much luck finding someone though. One guy wrote me back telling me that he was out of the country, but I could try his flatmate. His flatmate turned out to be travelling as well (in Georgia, go figure), but he gave me the name and e-mail address of another flatmate. Christiane, his flatmate, kindly agreed to host me, despite the very late notice (as in, yesterday).

Upon arrival at Baku station I called Christiane for instructions on how to get to their flat, which turned out to be a very pleasant, if very warm, walk. Their apartment was brilliantly located in the city centre. Upon arrival I was greeted by Yelena, yet another flatmate who had just moved in.
Modern city centre of Baku

She was American of Ukrainian descent and had only arrived to Baku a few days earlier, so she hadn't seen much of the city either.

We decided to do some sightseeing together and for the rest of the afternoon we wandered around in the 'new centre', the modern part of town which clearly shows the effect of the oil industry. This is how I'd imagine Dubai, even though there's hardly any high rise in Baku. But the wide streets are filled with expensive cars, there are expensive shops everywhere, and all the buildings look as if they have been built in the past five years (which they probably were, the whole city looks like one big construction site).

Our walk brought us to Bulvar park, the Caspian Sea front. For the past six weeks the Black Sea had dominated my trip, for the next two months it will be the Caspian Sea as I travel through four of the five countries bordering the largest lake of the world (it is a lake, but international law provides for more lenient territorial claims at seas, hence the surrounding countries prefer to call it a sea).
Hello Caspian sea


The Bulvar (boulevard) is one of Azerbaijan's more controversial national parks, as it consists of little more than a city park, some walkways, several fountains and some fairground rides.
It is a nice place to chill out for several hours, as locals do on a daily basis. I guess it is even nicer to hang out in the cool of the evening, rather than in a 30-degree heat of the day.

Baku is a strange city. The country is predominantly Muslim, but people do not practice all that openly. Hardly and woman wears a head scarf and I was surprised by the seemingly absence of mosques. Quite a difference from Turkey.
The only thing that betrays this country is Muslim is the idolisation of politicians. Azerbaijan's father figure Heydar Әliyev, is almost considered sacred here, with his face plastered all over the place and statues everywhere.
Statue of Heydar Әliyev - one of several hundred items to bear his name in this city
Almost worse than Atatürk in Turkey, this guy has pretty much every square, street and important building in the country named after him.

Back in the flat I met my other host, Christiane, who works as a German teacher in Baku. Unfortunately being a teacher means she has to work at the strangest hours and that evening she was to tutor some students, so she couldn't join Yelena and me for a meal.

Yelena had been in touch with some couch surfers before coming to Baku and she was meeting up with an Azeri, Hussein. I joined them for dinner.
Hussein was an Azeri Kurd, and like the Kurds I met in Turkey he was very friendly and hospitable. He works as a drilling engineer on an oil rig (what else) and it was very interesting to hear his point of view on the oil industry and how it has shaped the world.
Dinner with Hussein and Yelena
It was also refreshing to hear an expert's opinion on the disaster that is currently unfolding in the gulf of Mexico.

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The Kür steppe, seen from the tra…
The Kür steppe, seen from the tr…
The wonderful views from the train…
The wonderful views from the trai…
The wonderful views from the train…
The wonderful views from the trai…
Baku train station
Baku train station
Modern city centre of Baku
Modern city centre of Baku
Hello Caspian sea
Hello Caspian sea
Statue of Heydar Әliyev - one of …
Statue of Heydar Әliyev - one of…
Dinner with Hussein and Yelena
Dinner with Hussein and Yelena
Just imagine living in this house,…
Just imagine living in this house…
The wonderful views from the train…
The wonderful views from the trai…
Baku as seen from the train
Baku as seen from the train
Modern city centre of Baku (under …
Modern city centre of Baku (under…
Some locals doing souvenir shopping
Some locals doing souvenir shopping
Souvenirs! Anyone want to buy a vi…
Souvenirs! Anyone want to buy a v…
Or maybe some coins or medals or a…
Or maybe some coins or medals or …
A souvenir shop specialised in old…
A souvenir shop specialised in ol…
Bakus Caspian sea front
Baku's Caspian sea front
The Caspian sea is not the cleanes…
The Caspian sea is not the cleane…
Dom Soviet, the government house
Dom Soviet, the government house
Yelena in front of her flat
Yelena in front of her flat
Fountain square (this is not the f…
Fountain square (this is not the …
Baku
photo by: RJawad