We have spent four interesting days in the capital of Azerbaijan – Baku. Described by many as a mini Dubai due to numerous fantastical buildings being built, Baku also has plenty of old world charm. There are lovely green parks tucked between and above major traffic arteries, an old city hidden behind high walls, a beautiful wide treed promenade along the shore front, cafes, restaurants and museums galore.
We stayed in an older Soviet built apartment. It was a bit crumbly, but spacious. An enormous living room, kitchen with clothes washing machine, two decks – one enclosed, the other open and two bedrooms. After frequently sharing sometimes cramped accommodation, being able to go to bed, get up, read, make coffees etc without fear of disturbing each other was a bonus. The wiring was on the sketchy side, the landing light outside the door was burnt out so we had to fumble for the lock in the dark, the bathroom wasn’t grand, the furniture was pretty worn, there was a power failure on our last day, but we enjoyed properly washing clothes, making our own breakfasts and keeping beer cold in the fridge!
We met up with Alan – our British friend from the boat – for dinner one evening and had an entertaining time. We were encouraged to go to a particular restaurant by one of those funny guys who cajole people into their restaurant. This guy was good at his shtick and in we went. We had a traditional meal, presented by the chef himself and I’m pretty sure the fellow who got us in the place earned some sort of commission based on what we spent because he kept encouraging us to order some of the more pricey options. Even so – dining out in Azerbaijan is quite easy on the pocket.
Baku has several museums but we only made time for one. The carpet museum is built to look like a rolled up carpet. There are huge displays of beautiful carpets, some new, others as old as the 17th century as well as other woven goods. Lots of information to enable us to be aware of some of the scams unscrupulous carpet vendors pull when trying to sell tourists overpriced handmade camel wool carpets that are probably polyester and machine made in China.
Curious about the famous flaming mountains just outside the city, we took a tour to see this natural wonder. Hmm. The flames of yanardag were underwhelming. The history though is interesting. They’ve burned for thousands of years. Zoroastrians flourished in this area, understanding the natural phenomenon of burning rock to be divine. Stalin tried burying the flames so Hitler couldn’t use them as makers for bombing runs on Baku. The flames did not take well to burial and found their way to the surface. We had expected to see a mountain side flaming away but there’s only a small patch of flame in a dusty amphitheater with small museum nearby. All around oil derricks pump oil from just below the surface of the industrial scared ground.
We also went to a Zoroastrian temple that had been built around some similarly flaming rocks. During the drilling and extraction of oil in the 19th century, the eternal flames ran out and the temple declined. You have to feel badly for those Zoroastrians. The temple has been repaired, flames burn again – helped along by human intervention, and travellers come once more.
Having explored Baku, we were ready to move inland – this time by bus.