Day 47: Europe? Asia? Middle East? Soviet Union? Where am I?

Baku Travel Blog

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The streets of Baku
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Yelena (Ukraine/USA), Christiane (Germany), Heidi (Norway)

Today I ventured through Baku on my own. My first quest was to figure out how to get away from this place. My idea had been to take an overnight train to Astara, on the Iranian border, tomorrow night. However, apparently trains don't run to Astara anymore, so I would have to take a bus. And as it turned out, getting information about buses was quite an adventure.

It started with getting a taxi to the bus station. It took several minutes and at least four other people to understand my pronunciation of avtovağzal.
Baku bus station
While Azeri may be closely related to Turkish, some of the most useful words in Turkish (otogar, for example) don't exist here.

The bus station of Baku is massive. I think it might even be bigger than the bus station in Istanbul. However, whereas the Istanbul bus station is filled with ticket offices for bus companies, the Baku bus station mainly serves as some kind of mall. After wandering around for half an hour I still hadn't found any place that even remotely looked like a place that sold tickets. I came across plenty of platforms with buses leaving, but most of them seemed local buses.

Eventually I found it at the top floor. Had to ask half a dozen people for 'bilet, bilet' before I was directed to a row of unmarked cubicles where apparently tickets for different long distance buses were sold.
Baku historic city
None of them seemed overly busy. The few that were open had some very bored looking women sitting behind the counter, none of them in a particular hurry to help me. While I am too young to ever have experienced the Soviet Union, I imagine this was exactly what it must have been like back in the day.

Finally I managed to get my information. There would be a bus to Astara roughly every hour. That was good news. And as it only took about 6 hours, I would be better off staying another night in Baku and leaving early Monday morning.

I just couldn;t get my head around the massive bus station. I looked at the electronic signs showing the departures and there were no more than two or three long-distance buses leaving per hour. In fact, there were hardly any destinations served by a direct bus at all! It was as if Baku was the centre of the world and the rest of the country doesn't matter all that much.
The streets of Baku old city (with not-so old modes of transport)


Getting back to the centre was also an adventure. I didn't want to take another taxi, so I went for public transport instead. I quickly found out why I hadn't been able to find any bus to the bus station in the morning. There weren't any. There is no direct transport between the bus station and the city centre. Hmm, I guess this is not too different from some of the cities in Turkey.
So I had to take a bus to the nearest metro station, and take it from there. That bit was easy enough, but riding the metro posed some more challenges. The Azeri government is very frantic about their metro. It's a Soviet relic (similar to Kyiv, Tbilisi and Yerevan), with some very interesting megalomaniac art in the stations. However, it is forbidden to take pictures in the metro.
Baku historic city
There are stringent security checks at the entrance and my bags got searched and I had to clarify why I had a camera on me. I just muttered tourist, tourist and they seemed to accept it.

Then buying a ticket. The Baku metro works very efficiently with charge cards, but as a non-resident you can't buy a charge card. Or so it seemed. I wanted to buy one with two trips, but this seemed not possible. However, the lady at the ticket counter apparently had dealt with this before. She just asked one of the other passengers if I could travel on their card, charging it with an extra ride. I thought this was a very good solution and very nice of her. This was in fact the first nice Azeri I met (with the exception of Hussein yesterday). Or maybe nice is the wrong word, helpful, would be better.
Baku historic city
I found the people here to be awfully similar to Russians, with their general indifference to anyone who doesn't speak the language.

Back in Baku I went to have a look at the historic centre of Baku, İçәri Şәhәr. The entire area is a UNESCO site and it is the main attraction of the city. I have to say, I wasn't all that overwhelmed. The place has been completely restored, but it now looks so sterile and fake. Even though people are still living in this area, it just looks as some kind of open air museum.
What makes it worse is that the old centre is not closed off for car traffic. And the SUV's, Porsches, Mercedeses and Bentleys parked in the streets don't particularly add to the charm of the old buildings.

One of the main attractions is the Palace of the Shirvashahs.
The Maiden Tower
This 15th century palace and the surrounding mosques and hamams have been painstakingly restored. The result is an almost brand-new looking building with room after room being completely empty, making it very hard to imagine this place what it looked like in the time of the shahs.

More interesting is the 29m high Qız Qalası, or Maiden's Tower. This 12th century watchtower is very interesting for its unique shape and height (it was one of the highest buildings in the region at the time), but also for its folklore. A popular version of the tale behind its unusual name is about a wealthy ruler falling in love with his own daughter and proposing to marry her. She stalls him by commanding a high structure to be built in order for her to survey the extend of his domain before she agrees.
The views from the Maiden tower
Once the tower was constructed she committed suicide by jumping off it.
While most historians don't buy this tale as the actual purpose of the tower, they have a hard time agreeing on what it was used for. It's been called a watchtower, a military tower, a temple and a astronomy.

Whatever its original purpose, the views from the top of the tower are excellent. The historic centre might not be overly interesting from the ground, from above it certainly is!

Baku is a strange place. The historic centre looks decidedly Middle Eastern, with its mosques and hamams. The new centre looks very western. Geographically this country lies in Asia, although opinions are divided about where the border actually is. The country participates in the Eurovision song festival and is trying to become a member of the EU.
The views from the Maiden tower
Meanwhile the relics of the Soviet era are still very present. Both in the local psyche as the sometimes horrible bureaucracy. What a weird, weird place.

In the evening I had a look at the nightlife in Baku. Christiane was meeting some friends/colleagues in a pub and Yelena and I joined her. Nightlife in Baku is a bit odd. There are bars and even the odd nightclub, though you will be hard pressed finding any locals here. The only locals you might encounter are prostitutes, hoping to score with the many expats who work here. For the rest the night scene is dominated by oil workers, mainly Russians, British and American, and teachers. The latter being a surprising number of different nationalities, German, Spanish, Norwegian. Norwegian? Yes, apparently there is a lot of interest in learning Norwegian in this country.
Maiden tower and old hammam
I met one of the teachers who explained to me that Norwegian is one of the most popular languages to learn in Azerbaijan. Why? I have no idea. My only guess is that local students might hope to migrate to Norway some day and work in the oil industry there. I don't know.

The bar we were at was so raunchy it was actually funny. The prostitutes, nor their clients, made any attempt to hide their business. The live band played contemporary pop songs, or old classics in a very contemporary style (read: electronic beats and synth loops). And while homosexuality isn't supposed to exist in this country (while it was decriminalised a few years ago, it is still very much a taboo) the lead singer of the band was one of the gayest people I've ever seen.



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The streets of Baku
The streets of Baku
Baku bus station
Baku bus station
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
The streets of Baku old city (with…
The streets of Baku old city (wit…
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
The Maiden Tower
The Maiden Tower
The views from the Maiden tower
The views from the Maiden tower
The views from the Maiden tower
The views from the Maiden tower
Maiden tower and old hammam
Maiden tower and old hammam
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku historic city (and modern cit…
Baku historic city (and modern ci…
Maiden tower
Maiden tower
The views from the Maiden tower
The views from the Maiden tower
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku historic city
Baku
photo by: RJawad