Baku was the liveliest, most cosmopolitan city we’ve seen for months. Even arriving after midnight we found the streets still filled with people out enjoying Saturday night – a complete contrast to Central Asian cities we’d visited which tended to shut down around 8 o’clock. At customs we found the border guards all glued to the Champions League Final, which possibly explained why our border checks were the most cursory we’ve faced so far!
We’d travelled to Baku on a cargo boat, the Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan. The only passengers on the boat, we were shown on board by the captain, whose breath reeked of vodka, but who was friendly and welcoming. The crossing itself was uneventful and relatively smooth, though we were pleased to have been given a cabin as the journey ended up taking 30 hours rather than 12 as we’d expected.
Exploring properly the next morning we discovered a beautiful city centre of newly restored sandstone buildings, many now housing expensive boutique hotels and designer shops. The heart of the Old Town is the walled city, a maze of narrow alley ways with small mosques and caravanserais, and the 15th Century Palace of the Shirvanshahs who ruled the area before the Russian invasion. Beyond the old city walls were smart pedestrianised shopping streets and leafy parks, surrounded by grand houses built during the first oil boom at the start of the 20th Century when Azerbaijan supplied half the world’s oil, while for miles along the sea front stretches a wide park lined with benches and ice cream vendors. Much of the architecture was European in style, and many of the buildings wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris or Vienna.
With the expensive shops and restaurants and smartly dressed locals, Baku oozes wealth. Yet unlike Ashgabat the Turkmen capital, which also felt affluent, Baku has a life and vitality about it, which made it a much more enjoyable city to spend time in with the streets, parks, bars and cafes all filled with people out enjoying themselves.
We’d intended to walk across the mountains in Azerbaijan, from near the Caspian coast towards the Georgian border, a route which we’d heard was beautiful. The mountains were indeed stunningly beautiful, but very disappointingly we discovered when we reached Laza, a small village up in the hills, that the military had closed the region to foreigners so we were restricted to the area around the village. Even so we were able to spend a couple of days doing shorter walks, and to enjoy Azeri hospitality: we stayed with the local school teacher, whose wife fed us enormous and delicious (dairy dominated) meals of homemade bread, cheese, sour cream, butter and yoghurt, supplemented with kebabs, fried potatoes and vodka. On one of our walks we came across a group of men who invited us to join their picnic and plied us with more food and vodka. Again we were humbled by their hospitality, and reminded of the vast scale of the USSR when they told us that they’d served their military service from Eastern Europe to the Arctic all the way to the Pacific.
Unable to walk across the mountains we were forced to spend a bumpy 11 hour bus ride travelling round them. And while we’re both still really enjoying travelling we did find ourselves looking forward to leaving long bus journeys behind us, and to reaching a country where the roads are well surfaced – a luxury we’ve not experienced since Eastern China.
There seems an unofficial dress code amongst the men, at least, in Azerbaijan. Over 40 the style seems to be dark coloured suit jacket, shirt and over-sized flat cap, frequently completed with portly pot-belly, bushy moustache and mouth full of gold teeth. By contrast younger men seem to sport tight jeans, flip-flops and a fitted shirt. Amongst both Kieran felt distinctly out of place in walking trousers and t-shirt.
We spent our last couple of days in Azerbaijan in Seki, a sleepy pretty little town nestled in tree covered hills. As elsewhere in Azerbaijan we were struck by the popularity of dominoes and backgammon, with small groups of men, usually wearing flat caps, huddled round a board in every park and on benches by the side of the road. We stayed in one of the town’s historic caravanserais which has been restored and again serves as originally intended, accommodating travellers, and which was one of the most unusual and atmospheric places we’ve stayed on our travels.
Although Azerbaijan is 98% Shia Muslim we’ve seen little sign of Islam in the country, with vodka drinking seeming to play a much greater place in daily life than prayer. Instead we were reminded travelling here of the earlier religions that were once followed here: near Baku we visited a fire temple built around a natural gas vent that was sacred to Zoroastrians for centuries, that was also a site of pilgrimage for Indian Shiva devotees. In the hills above Seki we visited a beautiful and simple limestone church built in the 4th Century, apparently the oldest Christian building in the Caucuses, which was itself built on the site of a 1st Century BC pagan temple.