Posts Tagged ‘Caucasus’

Last Saturday, I flew off to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, another ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus. I had not planned to go there at all, but a fellow grad student invited me to visit. Rebecca and I had shared an apartment at a University of Illinois summer research session. Rebecca saw that I had been in Armenia and invited me to Azerbaijan. Curious, I checked the visa requirements and saw that they had just changed as of January for American citizens. There is now a fast, electronic visa that is ordered online for a total cost of about $25.00. I applied for my visa late on a Thursday night and got the visa via email around noon the next day.

Flying in to Baku over the Caspian.

The flight to Baku was uneventful. The only news to report is that I’ve been flying frequently enough that I’m repeating Aeroflot planes. I was on a Boeing 737 in the name of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was the same plane that I flew to Yerevan on. One thing of note did happen on the flight, which was a slightly different safety demonstration. As a good chunk of the flight crosses the Caspian Sea, the flight crew had to break out the lifejackets to demonstrate how to wear and use them in the event of a water landing. Sadly, the lifejackets do not have winged hammer and sickles on them. Flying into Baku over the Caspian was a real treat. We landed slightly late as there was some sort of medical incident with a passenger while we boarded, but it was all ok in the end. I passed customs without any problems, though the guy did stamp my passport right next to the Armenia stamp. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me anything about my trip to Armenia.

After crossing customs, I was met outside the airport by Rebecca and we hopped in a cab to her apartment in the center of the city. Interestingly, a lot of the cabs in Baku are the same ones as the London taxis, though they are left-hand drive. Thankfully, Azerbaijan carries in the car traditions of the other Caucasian republics. There were a lot of 1990s Mercedes on the roads, especially W201s, W202s, and W210s.

Just a few Mercedes.

We popped into Rebecca’s apartment to drop off my stuff. We then walked to one of the main pedestrian areas of Baku, Fountain Square, to see the fountains and meander our way towards the waterfront park. Along the way, we kept running into barriers that are being erected for the Baku Formula 1 Grand Prix, which will be taking place in a few months. I didn’t realize that Baku hosted F1 events. Similar to the Monaco Grand Prix, the race takes place on the actual roads of the city and not at a race track. Apparently, there are special paving materials that they can put down to cover some of the cobblestone roads, which can easily be removed after the race to restore the charm of the old city streets.

Stands and barriers going up for the race.

The waterfront is spectacular, and immediately highlights Baku’s claim to fame. Baku is a major site of oil production. Many American and European fortunes were made there prior to the Bolshevik takeover in the early 1920s, and around the turn of the century, Baku produced about half of the world’s oil. It was particularly interesting to travel to Baku immediately after Volgograd. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa was a three pronged attack. One group of soldiers worked north with the goal of Leningrad, one more to the middle towards Moscow, and a third group down to Stalingrad (Volgograd). Stalingrad was to be a double target for both propaganda and tactical reasons. One major goal was to conquer the city named in honor of the Soviet leader (one reason why Stalin ordered the Red Army not one step backward). The other major reason was that Stalingrad was a major port city on the Volga River, which would allow access down to the Caspian and to Baku and its oil reserves. And what an oil city Baku is. The coastline smelled of crude oil, which is extracted both from the grounds of the city and from offshore rigs. There was even some oil floating on the water of the Caspian.

The main drag along the water.

From the waterfront, we walked over to the Funicular, and rode that to the hill overlooking Baku (Soviet city planning at its best, having a funicular or gondola to a hill overlooking the city, which has an imposing TV tower on it). While riding up, it started to rain heavily, which is very rare for Baku. There was even some thunder and lightning. We stood under cover for a while before venturing out into the rain. We walked along a series of graves for people considered to be Azerbaijani martyrs. They died in the tensions and clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Azerbaijan and the Soviets during the end of the Soviet Union. At this hilltop park, there is a great overview of the whole city and the Caspian. We also walked near the base of the Flame Towers, the architectural symbols of Baku. There was no easy way to cross the road to the base of the Flame Towers, so we gave up and walked down the hill and back to the center to get dinner. We had some decent Mexican food before calling it a night.

Panorama from the top.

The next morning, we got up and walked to the Old City, which is as the name suggests, the old part of the city. The narrow, winding roads and architecture made it feel like we were in another world. While there, we climbed the Maiden Tower, and then wandered around the Palace of the Shirvanshahs museum. The old architecture was fascinating. We then walked back to the Fountain Square area for lunch before taking yet another adventure. We hopped on a regular bus and rode about 30 minutes out of the center to see a beach and the oil fields. I was excited to go see the fields because it’s where they filmed the 1999 Pierce Brosnan James Bond film “The World is Not Enough.” Immediately after the main city limits, there are fields of oil derricks pumping away, and it was pretty interesting to see them still working. They were apparently built in the 1930s and continue to pump to this day.

The “James Bond” oil fields.

Getting to the derricks and the offshore platform was easier said than done. We got off of the bus at the correct stop, but there was no way to cross the road. We walked in one direction and didn’t see a place to cross, so we walked in the other direction only to see an unending stretch of road. As we didn’t want to run across a few lanes of highway speed traffic, we got into a cab that was parked on the side of the road and had him loop us around a roundabout and drop us off at the beach by the offshore platform. Apparently, the first offshore oil platform was built in Baku. We saw some people fishing in the Caspian and some swimming. Rebecca put a foot in, and I waded in the waters a little bit. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea as when I came out, there was definitely some oil residue on my feet.

Touch waters of the Caspian: check.

We took the bus back to the center, grabbed some caffeine to recharge, and hopped on the metro to a different part of town to check out the Heydar Aliyev Center. Heydar Aliyev was a Soviet leader of Azerbaijan, and its second president after the Soviet collapse. His son is the current president of the country.

The Baku metro is an older Soviet metro that was opened in the late 1960s. I would have taken photos, but it’s forbidden to do so. The trains are the standard 1970s design of rolling stock that operates in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. Like the other Caucasian republics, the Baku Metro cars are renovated and repainted in colors different from the standard Russian blue and white exteriors and plain interiors. The stations themselves were a hybrid of Soviet metro design. They were smaller stations, generally of the caterpillar design favored in the 1950s-1970s, but mixed in elaborate mosaics like those of earlier Moscow Metro stops. Inside, the trains made the station announcements in Azerbaijani and English. A nice touch unique to the Baku Metro is that the noise that plays before a stop is different for each station. Each station has its own snippet of famous Azerbaijani music assigned to it. Like the Moscow Metro, police presence in the stations was high, and unlike the Moscow metro, each of the train cars had tens of cameras operating in them.

The Heydar Aliyev Center is a joint museum and concert hall space. We saw some interesting exhibits about the culture of Azerbaijan, the history of the Aliyev family, and a showcase of miniatures of the architectural highlights of the city. My favorite exhibit was a collection of three cars that had been used by Heydar Aliyev in his capacity as a leader of Azerbaijan. There was a Soviet ZIL limousine as well as two armored Mercedes W140 S-600s, once of which was a stretch Pullman.

I’ll take one of each, please.

From the Center, we went back to the center of the city for dinner at a great Lebanese restaurant, and then we went to see the waterfront and the city lit up at night, which we couldn’t due the night before due to the rain storms.

The next morning, Rebecca had to go off to her Azerbaijani classes and the archive, so I amused myself until she was free. I first went to the Fountain Square area to find some postcards, and then headed off to the post office to get some stamps. The Azerbaijani post office was nice. There was a kiosk to determine what kind of service you needed, which printed out a number. My number was immediately called to a desk, and the woman there sold me stamps, which I was then told to glue onto the postcards. She then stamped them and told me to put them in the box on the street, which I did.

After the post office, I strolled the streets and enjoyed the weather before getting some döner for lunch. Azerbaijan is very influenced by Turkish culture and history. Many of the foods are shared, and Azerbaijani itself is basically a dialect of Turkish. The döner hit the spot, and then I went along the waterfront to the carpet museum. Besides oil and caviar, the other main product of Azerbaijan is carpets. The museum is even in the shape of a carpet. Inside, there are all sorts of different carpets from Azerbaijan, and cool information on how all the different rugs are woven. There are even a few weaving stations set up in the museum, and I watched a woman making a carpet for a while. I don’t know how they do it. It seemed extraordinarily complicated, and I would find myself lost and frustrated very easily.

I have neither the motor skills nor the patience for this.

Sadly, the museum didn’t have any carpets of Soviet leaders, which are my favorite ones, but they did have some lovely socialist-realist carpets, one of which saluted the Baku oil industry. There was also a second oil industry carpet, and a portrait of the composer Shostakovich.

Carpets are probably my favorite socialist-realist medium.

From the carpet museum, I strolled back to the apartment and rested for a while as I had been walking a lot, and we had big plans for Monday night. The first plan was to meet with another former Fulbright ETA, who happened to be passing through Baku on a trip in the Caucasus with her friend. In the evening, we met up near the American Embassy and walked off to find dinner. The guards at the Embassy, rightly, were a little uneasy about Rebecca and I standing around and looking for two other people, but they quickly left us alone when they saw we were Americans and were meeting other Americans. We ended up walking to a restaurant near Rebecca’s apartment that specialized in meat. After dinner, we walked towards the Metro and split ways.

Rebecca had gotten us tickets to see the closing ceremonies for the Islamic Solidarity Games, which is like the Olympics for nations with large Islamic populations. Azerbaijan is technically a Muslim country, but they are very secular. Azeris eat pork and drink, but there are definitely very divided gendered norms in the country and some more conservative values. For example, women rarely drink or smoke in public, and Azeri men can been very forward or harassing towards women, especially foreigners.

Closing ceremony festivities.

To get to the closing ceremonies, we had to walk a long distance from the closest metro stop along areas flooded with police. We then went through security tighter than at airports with metal detectors and pat downs. We finally entered the stadium to catch athletes parading, speeches from the Vice President of Azerbaijan, who is also the wife of the President, and the head of the games committee. After the speeches, there was a concert of a number of Azerbaijani pop artists. Each artist was given two songs, and they seemed to grow in popularity. We saw three women, and left during the second guy we saw. Of the five acts, only one was actually good. One guy seemed to be an Azerbaijani Pitbull. He rapped and had the same outfits and swagger as Pitbull. Tired from the day, we left the stadium while the songs were still ongoing, and went home near 11:00PM.

The final morning, we slept in and then met up with Rikki and her friend for brunch at a Turkish café before seeing the waterfront a last time. To clarify my earlier point about Azerbaijani being a dialect of Turkish, Rikki spoke to the staff at the restaurant solely in Turkish. They understood her, but she had some difficulties understanding the responses in Azerbaijani. Rebecca mostly gets by in Azerbaijani, and when that fails, speaks English to people in the service industry. Like most ex-Soviet republics, I was able to get around in English or Russian depending on the generation of the people I was speaking to. There was still a good amount of Russian being spoken on the streets amongst the local population, and Rebecca said they often mix both Russian and Azerbaijani in every sentence.

The world of Soviet/ex-Soviet scholars is quite small.

After lunch, I grabbed the tings from the apartment and got a taxi back to the airport. I went up to the first taxi in the line, which was a 1995 Mercedes W202 C-Class. The driver spoke Russian and we agreed on the price. As we rode to the airport, he told me about his car and then asked how long I had been in the city, what I had seen, etc. He said that Baku is okay, but that the best parts of Azerbaijan are out in the mountains. He told me that I should come back and find him at the same taxi rank by the hotel, where he always waits. He said we can have him drive us around the country.

At the airport, I had no problems checking in for my flight or passing through customs. My flight back, though, was somewhat unpleasant. I had an empty seat next to me, and the aisle was occupied by a 60-ish Azeri man. He was clearly bored on the flight and at one point started to talk to me while my headphones were out around when I was getting something to drink. He said he was an actor at the Azerbaijan State Academic Drama Theatre. He then proceeded to show me photos of his roles over the years on his phone. He said he was traveling to Chelyabinsk for his friend’s birthday party and invited me to go there with him and to vacation with him in Altai later in the summer. When it was time to get off of the plane, he grabbed my backpack and carried it for me. He wouldn’t let me grab my own bag. While waiting to cross customs, he insisted on giving me his name and phone number.  When I went to the immigration window, he blew a kiss at me and told me to call him. I handed my documents to the official and didn’t look back. I then ran away as fast as possible after being handed my documents.

He also told me some really weird stories on the plane. He said he liked the sportsman who became a present. I looked confused and he responded, “the one who met Gorbachev?” “You mean Reagan?” I asked. “He was an actor.” “Yes, him.” He then asked if I knew who killed JFK. I said ostensibly Lee Harvey Oswald. He response was that it was LBJ, because he wanted to become president. He then ranted about Marilyn Monroe, who was killed—it was made to look like a drug overdose—because of the secrets she knew from dating JFK. For these secrets, she had a secret meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was on a boat, and Monroe entered the boat from below the waterline. There, she traded the secrets for Khrushchev’s weight in gold. It was a surreal experience.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I did laundry before venturing out into Moscow while incredibly exhausted. It was Jean Louis’s last day in Moscow, so we had to go out and do the obligatory group photo by Red Square.

The gang.