Baku, Azerbaijan: Land of Fire

Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
Trip End Feb 06, 2014

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Flag of Azerbaijan  ,
Monday, September 30, 2013

Here we sit on the train as it chugs its way through the outskirts of Baku, awash in the pale pinks and yellows of the rising sun. Can't say either of us slept overly well. The two bottles of red wine we shared during the night made me feel like a coke bottle being constantly shaken from side to side by the overly enthusiastic clickedy clack of the train. Urrrgh won't be making that mistake again. At least we didn't have to share a cabin which was a pleasant luxury.

First impressions of Baku? Dusty. Small brick houses with corrugated iron roofs held down by rocks. Power lines running every which way. Car congested streets with no apparent rules or direction. But this soon gives way to spotless parks, a sea of highrises and the obvious signs of oil wealth.

Flash forward to present day:

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan's architecture is something to be admired with newer builds embracing that of a softer rounded edge over razor sharp ones. Cities all over the world should take a page from their book and be inspired to do something similar. The latest creations, Baku's Cultural Centre and the Flame Towers, are fine examples. The latter of which is lit up at night by light projected flames interchanging with the flag of Azerbaijan.

The inner city of Baku is spotlessly clean with not a leaf out of place let alone any rubbish laying around. All of which is achieved by an army of workers constantly sweeping and pruning. Even the massive cat population doesn't stand a chance of leaving a poo undisposed of. Shame the same can't be said for the Caspian Sea and its rainbow layering of oil which has definitely made us think twice about ordering seafood.

Walking around town you could easily be in London with the seaside boulevard similar to that of South Bank and the pedestrianised shopping area a wonderful place to while away a few hours by one of the many fountains or in a teahouse. Shopping choices are endless from high end Dior, Tiffany's, Gucci, Burberry, Escada to high street Accessorise, Oasis, Gap, New Look, Zara and Mango. Surprise surprise, I've not bought a thing. Oh except two pairs of shoes but they were a necessity, not a want.

Food wise local cuisine is kebab but unlike the ones you have at 3 in the morning after a skinful of booze these are slow cook by coals and taste almost healthy. Back in the day I used to go to a kebab house in Camden on a somewhat regular basis then one day I walked in all confused. I asked them why they had moved. To which they responded they hadn't. I couldn't work out why everything was different, until I realised it was the one next door. No wonder they didn't know my name. Not that its ever a good thing for a kebab house to know your name but as I say, this was back in the day of a carefree 20 year old.

There are so many varieties of kebab here we are still to come to terms with them all. The classic rotating chicken, lamb or mixed comes served on a plate with salad, in a wrap or on a bun which is then toasted, or in a thick savoury pancake type thing. If that doesn't take your fancy you can get lamb or chicken on a skewer or in a sizzling metal bowl perched over hot coals and filled with peppers, onion, tomato and mushrooms. All very delicious and covered in oil but if that isn't your flavour you can always opt for some classic Italian, McDonalds or KFC.

Our first two days were spent in taxi's going from one consulate to another. A simple enough procedure had they all been opened from 9-5 Monday to Friday. But no, one opens from 9-12; 3-5 Mon, Wed, Fri whilst another opens 10-12 Tues, Thurs, Fri and another five days a week. One takes 2 days to approve, another 7, another 5. Nothing is simple.

With our timescale based around Iran we figured we were best getting this approved before specifying dates for the others. In order to get that we had to:
1) Drive 20 min from Old Town to Consulate.
2) Fill in application, provide photos, be given an address of a bank where we need to pay money (30 min drive away) before application can be processed.
3) An hour later by underground and taxi we arrive at bank, pay money, obtain a receipt which we need to return to the Consulate.
4) Consulate now closed for the day so the next day get in taxi, drive 20 min from Old Town to Consulate to provide proof of payment.
5) Consulate ask us to come back the next day whilst they keep our passports to process. Due to applying for another VISA that day we ask for it to be done sooner which they agree to and tell us to come back in 2 hrs time.
6) Catch tube to shopping mall to waste 2 hrs before returning to Consulate to collect VISA.

See, simple process really. And that was just for one VISA! The most expensive I might add at EURO 180 each!! Plus that was after we had each paid GBP 60 to obtain a code in order to speed up the process. Iran had better be amazing. If only I had been able to change to my Aussie passport and get it for free. The other VISA's we are waiting for is Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Had Sam been a Liverpool supporter we might have been able to get Uzbekistan for free but no, Sam supports Man U so the very nice man at the Embassy joked that I could go but Sam could not. The love of football is definitely strong throughout the world. Even the driver today proudly told us the linesman from the Football World Cup 1966, the historic game England won, was from Azerbaijan. He must have been on the take! :-)

So yes, today the manager of our hotel drove us out to Yanar Dag which is a continuous fire caused by leakage of natural gas from a rocky hillside. Quite spectacular to see considering it was, as legend goes, accidentally lit by a shepherd in the 1950's and has never been extinguished. Certainly makes for a nice warm place to be in the snowfalls of winter. Azerbaijan itself means "Land of Fire".

It is with that history lesson which brings things up to the present and finds us sat in Kafe Araz by Fountain Square enjoying a bite to eat and chilled Efes beer in 25 degrees. For all those at work - we wish you a most productive day. Cheers.

The rest of our time in Baku passed by in much the same way. Sleeping until 11am, browsing the internet, skyping friends and family, trying to figure our the world's most confusing metro, walking down the seaside boulevard, grabbing something to eat from one of the teahouses or shopping centre food courts followed by a couple of beers in some obscure bar. It was during one of these afternoon sessions that we fell upon a bar called O'Malleys which had a pool table and cheap beer (every good town must have an Irish bar). It wasn't long before we heard some English accents and got talking to two nice lads, Ian and Martin, who were out in Baku for work. It was interesting to get their take on what it was like working and living there. Equally I think they enjoyed hearing about our travels and where we were off to next. Nothing better than meeting some random people and enjoying some good quality banter.


Iran: Submitted Monday, collected Tuesday (code obtained beforehand) Price: EURO 180
Uzbekistan: Submitted Monday, collected following Monday. Price: US$75
Tajikistan: Submitted Tuesday, collected Friday. Price: US$35

Hotel: Old Gates Hotel located in Old Town. Price: GBP 48 pn (through which hotel said was cheap)

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