Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan perched on the southern shore of the Absheron peninsula, overlooking the waters of the Caspian, cannot be defined, just like the latter which nobody is quite sure is a sea or a huge salty lake.
The heady mix of old and new, east and west, nevertheless fitting in seamlessly, this city of contrasts is fast becoming a popular tourist destination, more so in recent months after oil-rich country Azerbaijan made its visa regime simpler and online for over 90 countries. Even Pakistanis can get the visa in less than a week!
Gala events like the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix, between June 23 and 25, 2017, European Games in 2015, and Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, hosted in the country have only added to its snob value.
It is nothing like London, despite the black London cabs (painted purple) whizzing around town. The wind blows perennially and evenings are pleasant, and despite being so close to the water, it is not humid to turn your hair into a frizz! It has its own androon sheher, like Lahore’s or Nepal’s ancient city of Bakhtapur called Icheri Sheher, with a maze of cobbled narrow streets. Azeris still live here, though many have turned their homes into hotels or rented out rooms or converted portions into restaurants and shops. And it’s definitely not like Dubai though it has high rises and every high-end designer labels and luxury car showrooms you can think of. It’s also unlike Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul or even Tokyo but has its fair share of over and under passes, spotlessly clean if not always green.
It is a smart city with excellent roads, a good public transport — funicular (a kind of a cable car going up and down a steep slope) that can equally excite the young and the old, an underground metro system and a bus service both wonderfully easy to navigate and extremely cheap. A one-way bus or metro fare from one end of the city to the other will cost you not more than 0.20 Manat (or Rs 12.50). Strangely though, despite the city not being congested, you hardly see people using bicycles or motorbikes as a means of transport.
Crossing roads is not always easy as people drive fast and you feel you’d be run over by an oncoming car before it comes to a screeching halt at the edge of the pedestrian crossing, with you physically unscathed but having skipped a few heartbeats. So for the weak at heart, the underground pedestrian crossings is the way to cross roads which neither smelt of stale urine nor were the walls stained with pan spittle or plastered with a host of posters or graffiti.
Most tourist sites in the city are walking distance apart, like Milli Park at the waterfront, the medieval Icheri Sheher, where you can find Unesco-listed Shrivanshah’s Palace and the 12th century Maiden Tower, the carpet museum and the fountain square and more. The eternal flame burning in honour of the people who were killed in a massacre in 1990 and each and every name etched on the black marble grave tombstone at Martyr’s Alley is atop the hill but well worth a visit, and can be done by using the funicular if you do not want to take the steps.
Another reason why people may like to walk about is probably because this city of two million does not seem overly crowded. What’s more, after every block or two there are tree-lined squares with benches and a fountain or a sculpture in the middle, where you can sit and catch your breath. No one seems to be in too much of a hurry, and despite a huge language barrier, the locals are friendly and happy to go out of the way to help you find your way.
Azeri, the national language, is closest to Turkish although most speak and understand Russian because most public schools still teach Russian and quite a few have Russian teachers.
Old men engrossed in a game of backgammon under a tree in a square or a back alley is as common as a young couple holding hands and strolling along the waterfront. And it’s a safe city for just about everyone — no fear of cell phone or car snatching and women say they can use the public transport even after midnight.
In the six days of my stay in Baku from August 12 to 18, I never once saw a homeless person sleeping on a bench in a park, or crouched at a street corner or under an overhead bridge, although twice I saw beggars. But not even once was I stalked by a hawker on the street insisting I buy a set of dusters or a box of pen or even flowers. This seemed too good to be true. Did Baku not have those living on the fringes or had they been pushed out of sight?
But if you want to see some extraordinary places, you will have to leave the confines of Baku to visit the eternal flame (the flame today artificially fed via a gas pipe) at ‘Ateshgah’ or the Temple of Eternal Fire (place of worship by Zorastrians and later by Hindus) or the burning mountain ‘Yanardag’ (caused by gas seeping through fissures in the earth), where you see a small edge of a mountain aflame and this the locals say has been witnessed for the past 4,000 years.
But just 30 minute away from Azerbaijan, off the beaten track and quite into the wilderness, you will find a cluster of mud volcanoes. These rumble and spout thick grey, sludge, not hot to touch, and is really worth a visit. Another 30 minute drive from these mud mounds is the Unesco World Heritage Site of Gobustan National Park in the basin of the Jeyrankechmaz River. The caves there have petroglyphs, ancient rock engravings, dating back to 10,000 BC, and while walking through the huge boulders, you can conjure up your own stories and interpretations of the chiseled rock art.