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Things to do, see, and experience in Baku
Some not-fun facts about the dictatorship in Azerbaijan
Baku, capital city of Azerbaijan, core of the dictatorship, temple of the oligarchs. With a population of 2,374,000, this is the only big city in Azerbaijan, if you really want to feel the mood of the country that’s where you should be, but be aware (and I’m sorry to say that), it is not a great mood.
In this blog post, we’ll describe our experience in the wind city of the Caucasus, I don’t know if this will help anyone planning a trip here, but if you’re thinking of visiting Baku you might find it interesting. Check also this list of things to know before visiting Baku.
How the hell we got here
After bicycle touring the whole length of Azerbaijan from the southern border with Georgia, Elena collapses less than a hundred km from Baku. We just took a bus and arrived here, where a friend of a friend will host us for a few days.
Arrived at Baku’s bus station we ask a taxi driver how much he wants to take us to the house of the guy who will host and he shoot us a ridiculous amount of money, something like 30 euro. Besides, he doesn’t even know where the address is.
Some other gentlemen tell us the taxi drivers are crazy and give us directions.
Elena is still pale green, but we find out that the place is very close, so we try to cycle.
We immediately find the street, but the house-number is a problem. The road is a string of Soviet apartment blocks without house numbers and without bells.
Fortunately, while we wander back and forth, Ismail (fictional name) appears before us. The father was playing chess somewhere and saw us passing, so he warned the son.
He lives on the 9th floor, luckily there’s an elevator and in a few trips we can bring all our things. We’ve been together for an hour, then he and his wife go out and Elena goes almost immediately to sleep.
The Caspian Oil-Pond-Front
The apartment is really nice and big, we have a room all to ourselves. Baku is hot but luckily ventilated and, here on the 9th floor, even more.
They say the meaning of “Baku” is “the city where the wind blows”.
Our main aim here is to get visas for Uzbekistan and find out how to take the ship to cross the Caspian Sea. Today and tomorrow though are holidays (for the end of Ramadan) so port and embassy are closed. We’ll go for a tour of the city. Around 6 PM we go out together with Ismail, he too must go downtown.
We take the subway, which is quite cheap. Everything else instead is very expensive. Especially the supermarkets here are more expensive than in northern Italy (and it is not easy), and salaries are quite low. As far as we understand a teacher earns something like 300 euro per month.
Out of the subway, in May 28 street (May 28th is the Republic Day), we find the usual statue of the former president and the usual quote. They are everywhere in Azerbaijan.
After the square, we head towards the Caspian seafront, which we could also call oil-pond-front. The avenue is perfect, everything spotless, manicured gardens, not a cigarette butt on the ground (as befits a regime).
But the Caspian sea is black, literally. That is, it’s oil, and it smells a lot. To see the fishes swim there eating crumbs and oil is very impressive. Doesn’t really inspire for a fish meal in Baku.
But the people here are sitting and enjoying, looking at the sea as if they are in Sorrento.
A first-hand account of the political repression in Baku
Petrol is cheap (60 cents per liter), and people are wealthier than in the countryside, or at least so it seems. For sure they are richer than Georgians. And all thanks to the puddle of oil that they face.
They say that in ten years the oil will be over, but nobody seems to care much. The oligarchs have already accumulated enough Manat and have another ten years to accumulate even more.
And the common people do not even know about this theory, the information is controlled by the government, those who try to say something different (not just about oil) are arrested on absurd pretexts.
So, for who doesn’t have access to the internet, or maybe has never been abroad and, above all, only knows the Azeri language, it is not easy to form an opinion. Although, of course, everyone is aware of living in a dictatorship, I guess.
Ismail is part of a group of political dissidents, that’s why we’re using a fake name. Because of the upcoming European Olympic Games, there has been a recent crackdown on all the voices of dissent, even worse than usual. To prevent any kind of action that could draw the attention on the lack of democracy, freedom, and the other many political issues of Azerbaijan, the government arrested everybody they could guess to be connected with independent political groups.
Among these, there are many friends of Ismail, just today they arrested the lawyer who usually defends political dissidents. The accusations are always ridiculous, such as supporting Armenia; even worst, often the police place drugs in the houses or belongings of the victim, so to charge him/her with drug dealing.
Most of the time, the convict has two choices: go to jail or enroll in the army. Needless to say, who choose to enroll will be sent to the most dangerous positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, where they’ll be constant victims of hazing.
Baku’s Old Town
Going back to our tour, we must say there isn’t a lot of traffic compared to Tbilisi and drivers do not seem psychopaths. It even happens that they stop to let you cross the street.
After our walk along the shore, we head to Baku’s old town. As far as we understood, until the discovery of oil in the nineteenth century (the first drilling of the world was made here), Baku was a village in the desert, ok, on the sea, but still in the desert, with a few thousand inhabitants; and in fact this old town is very small.
The wall and the houses are completely restored, they now look “falsely old”. In short, the cleaning and rebuilding were a bit too much.
It seems that after the earthquake of the year 2000, UNESCO wanted to remove Baku Old Town from its list, due to the lack of restructuring, but it has been restored in this barbaric way and UNESCO has readmitted it. Congratulations. Sure, a nice postcard for tourists.
We walk back towards home, passing through more “peripheral” streets. There we see a more genuine Baku, even enjoyable.
But the fact remains that it’s a 2 and a half million inhabitants city, and it’s dead. In the evening there’s nobody around and in the center, there are very few pubs or bars. At best, someone playing backgammon in front of a house or in some other place where only tea is served.
No women of course. Indeed, since we entered in Azerbaijan we never saw a woman driving. And when in the car they always sit in the back.
Uzbekistan Visa application in Baku
The next day we go to the Uzbek embassy, pretty hard to find. The address written on their website is something like “freeway street, house n °…” but I doubt that this is the way they call this place in Azeri, and in fact, no one knows.
Fortunately, there’s a lady on the bus who helps us in the research, goes down the bus with us and ask anyone. In the end, we see a long-haired blond dude, he knows, he comes from there. Just the fact that it exists is a consolation.
The slowness of the employee is incredible, it takes about ten minutes to hand over the sheet to be filled for the application. The man tells us that next week the visa should be ready. He goes out with us to smoke a cigarette, it’s a weird man, he looks really drunk.
Ferry to Kazakhstan, inquiring at the port of Baku
After the embassy we leave for another visit to the port, to check about the Baku – Aktau ferry. The road to the harbor is full of the usual “fake gardens” constantly under the sun, but with a perfect lawn and pruned plants. Always deserted. Across the road are the usual reptilian buildings, reptile-egg-shaped, to be specific.
We enter the harbor by a dirt road, no indication. The only clue we have is that the ticket office is located behind “gray heavy door”, and fortunately we recognize it immediately.
On the door, many stickers were glued by tourists passed before us. The only problem is that the office is closed and there is no one around. We walk towards the ships to look for someone, we meet a policeman with another guy, apparently the clerk. They speak only Russian.
The clerk tells us the ticket costs $110. We understand it must be done the day of the departure. Cash only. Let’s hope it’s true. Anyway, we go back home happy to have concluded something.
Here in Baku there’s not much to see, so while waiting for the Uzbek visa, we’ll go visit Ismail cousin, who lives near Ivanovka one of the last kolkhoz of former Soviet Union, Lahic, up in the Caucasus, famous for the copper crafts and the typical houses, and Khinalug, the highest village in Europe.
How not to get a visa for Uzbekistan in Baku
After our adventures in the Caucasus, we’re back into the Baku’s pollution. The nose again encrusted.
We call the Uzbek embassy, guess what? The visa is not ready yet. It is not clear why. Our Azeri visa is expiring, so we go to the embassy to understand what’s going on.
And here we are at the embassy, in full combat gear. In front of the gate are three other cyclists, a British couple, and another English lady, lonely hitchhiker at the age of 60, cool woman.
We all have made the application on the same day, almost two weeks ago, and no news, for no one. Something must have gone wrong that day.
After more than an hour waiting, we enter the embassy, the console tells us that he didn’t get any news from Tashkent, that his job is to check every 3 hours on the computer and he can’t do anything else and blablabla.
Sure enough, when we made the application he was drunk, so it’s likely that he had just completely forgotten to send the papers to Tashkent. Then, he says absurd things like “maybe you should apply from Bishkek because it is closer to Tashkent and so easier to get a visa” (wtf?!) I was not aware that fax was traveling by pigeons in Central Asia.
At the end, we agree to call him back in the afternoon to see if he can fix the mess that he created, even if we all know this is just a way to get rid of us. Our hopes to get to Uzbekistan are getting very ephemeral.