Azerbaijan. What’s That??

The first time I encountered the word “Azerbaijan,” I was reading a news report about Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2006. Come to think of it — Russia’s invasion is probably the only reason I knew about the countries in the Caucasus region before this trip. Otherwise I’d probably be in the category of most Americans. “Azerbaijan. That’s actually a place?” a friend of mine wrote on facebook recently.

Geography bragging rights aside, I couldn’t tell you anything about the country itself before arriving. I had no idea what we’d find there. Azerbaijan was just the place where we’d go to collect central Asian visas and catch a ferry across the Caspian. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Baku, the country’s capital. The place looks like a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland.

Even arriving in the rain it looked impressive. Nicknamed to the “Dubai of the Caspian,” Baku is a sprawling mass of neo-futuristic architecture and faux French facades that pack in half of the country’s population of 8 million. In the city’s center, everything looks brand new. There are towers designed to look like flames (complete with moving LED lights at night), Parisian cobbled stone shopping streets, and parks with choreographed fountains. There are luxury shops like Burberry and Louis Vitton, and Mazaratti sports cars that race recklessly between stop lights. It’s all thanks to oil money. Azerbaijan was the world’s fastest growing economy between 2005 and 2008, growing at 24% a year, and Baku is the image the country wants to show the world. There’s even plans to build the world’s largest skyscraper. (NY Times has a great piece on the megalomaniac behind it).

But as with many countries and oil, Azerbaijan’s petro wealth comes with a curse: an autocratic government.

“Ughhh not again!”

The motorcades in Baku frequently disrupt traffic, as senior government officials are known to shut down streets any time they cross town, which can happen a few times a day. We were already getting tired of it. It seemed more a show of government power than a legitimate safety measure.

Whoosh!!

One. Two. Three. Four black cars went zipping past, pushing 100mph. The police cars that followed were sparkling white BMW sports cars that could have been mistaken for a movie star’s if they didn’t have police decals painted on them.

The motorcade was just the beginning of the show though. The main act commenced once we arrived at our friend Julia’s apartment. From her balcony, we watched a procession of about 40 tanks roll slowly down Baku’s main boulevard, tearing up the smoothed asphalt below. Being the Azeri military’s 95th anniversary, the government decided to throw a parade. It was a good excuse to show off the $1 billion dollars in arms they’d just purchased from the Russians two weeks before. Some new howitzers obtained in the deal were included in the lineup, and the parade in Baku was a short detour en route to the Armenian border, where sporadic fighting was occurring under a broken cease fire. We found it best not to mention “Armenia” too much during our time in Azerbaijan. It usually generated sharp stares.

“Aaah. Nothing like tanks and pancakes to start off the morning!” I smiled at Julia. The Italian expat had invited us and a bunch of other courchsurfers to her place to watch the parade and have brunch. Like most meals in Azerbaijan, it consisted mostly of bread.

Azerbaijanis have this weird thing where they practically worship bread, to the point where it’s forbidden to throw it out. No joke –  I almost tossed out a half-eaten loaf in the park when a man came rushing up to stop my hand from releasing it into the trash can. “No no no!” Instead, he insisted I leave on the bench. Later, I started noticing bags with rotting bread hanging off dumpsters and door handles all over the city. There are apparently Islamic traditions associated with this, but I think there’s a more practical reason to worship bread in Azerbaijan: It’s just about the only affordable food item in the country.

The sticker shock of Baku was intense, especially coming off the heels of Vietnam. Much of the country – especially Baku — is simply not geared towards young budget travelers. It is full of expensive hotels and chic restaurants and swanky bars for businessmen who don’t mind shelling out the $360 it cost each of us to obtain a visa and letter of invitation to enter the country.

The prices were inhibiting, making us feel like we were stuck in a place that was pretty to look at but that we couldn’t be a part of. The point was underscored after the parade when our expat collective visited the city’s new cultural center, named after the former president Heydar Aliyev, whose portraits adorn every street corner and office, chairman Mao style.

“No entry.” The guard said sternly. The center was closed for the military holiday.

Our group of Expats at the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

Even so, the building was stunning to behold, constructed with custom-molded fiberglass panels that gave it unnatural curvatures, apparently designed to resemble Heydar Aliev’s signature from above.  The government had dropped about 200 million to build the architectural centerpiece.

“But there’s nowhere to chill” Morgan pointed out.

He was right. After being denied entry, we tried to salvage our trip by looking for benches or cafes or anything remotely inviting to hang out around outside the building. There was nothing, not even a shaded tree. The 200 million had not been invested to make this a public place, but a show piece, an impressive trophy to greet motorists entering the city from the international airport.

“Well, what do you want to do now?” I asked.

I would be asking that question a lot over our two weeks in Baku.

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