Baku – the unchained city
As for South Caucasus Baku is real megalopolis with the population of three million people which is more than Tbilisi and Erevan together. Walking along the streets you can see white Lexus vehicles, hotels’ offer starts from three stars. Lonely Planet has recognized the capital of Azerbaijan as one of the best destinations for nightlife lovers. While Georgian Batumi is designed to be European Las Vegas, Azeri Baku aims to be European Dubai.
Getting out from train or leaving Baku airport you will see that everything looks exactly like in Europe. Until the first junction – here starts brutal clash with The New World for us. Do you know what does Turkish word döner means? Just imagine the following: when you cross the road you should behave like a döner which means to spin around your own axis, exactly like grilling meat in the kebab bar. Lack of such attention and you may not reach kebab bar (by the way, who knows from where the owners of the bars get the meat?).
At a first glance it is visible that Azeris have a car fetish. Nota bene passion for the vehicles is a distinctive feature of all Turkic peoples – once they crossing prairie on usual horses and some centuries later changed to mechanical ones. In Baku the most popular “modern horse” is white Toyota Prado along with Honda, BMW and Lexus preferably of white color as dust brought from desert is less visible on such cars. What is remarkable – despite of pumping out thousands of barrels of oil every day, the overall quality of petrol is very poor – the most popular is Euro 2 standard which was withdrawn from the EU market in 2000 (nowadays the EU standard is Euro 5). Although the global increase of petrol standard is mainly driven by its impact on the environment, the low-standard petrol damages also cars’ engines. That’s probably why Azeri generally do not buy expensive cars and change it quite frequently.
Let’s come back to the streets of Baku. We have just crossed first junction and what we see is definitely not minarets towering sky, like in any other country in Muslim World, but luxurious hotels with famous Flame Towers as a pearl in a crown. I firstly heard about five-star hotel recalling flames from Anar, a student of the forth course at the local university who was guiding me around the city during first day.
– Two weeks ago I have started working as a night manager – Anar made serious face as he was appointed at least a director of Hilton. – But one day I would like to work at Flame Towers. – He sounded like a priest turning water into wine.
-What are flame towers? – I heard the name for the first time.
-You don’t know what is Flame Towers?! – Anar opened eyes widely and even his ideally square face became round.
-Hotel? – I recalled. Honestly it wasn’t hard to guess – instead of showing me the Old Town or ancient minarets Anar brought me to the most luxurious hotel. We looked at the building from the outside, Anar sticked his nose to the glass case and his mind has immediately gone to another world.
-Hotel! Hotel, of course! – although Anar made a pose of a father ready to punish spoiled child, he looked rather funny than serious. – Symbol of Baku! El Dorado amongst hotels! One night in double room costs 440 dollars – Anar probably kept in mind prices of every hotel in the city. –With the view on Caspian sea, of course.
We reached Flame Towers in the evening. Not without the reason – exactly that time buildings look the most impressive – covered outside with multimedia panels they show animations in turn: firstly blazing fire, then man waving Azeri flag and finally the image of the flag. Over and over again.
– I feel like walking into Mordor. – I was looking at buildings covered with the projection of fire.
– Mordor? Do you know how much does a night in president’s room cost? Seven and half thousand dollars!
– Oh, really… – I tried to sound excited, however my efforts did not satisfy Anar. His round face squared into irritation. It looked like I offended him naming marble as a sandstone. – I don’t know what to say. It simply took my breath away. – I looked through the glass window. I saw a hotel boy wearing ideally ironed uniform who was piling suitcases on the golden luggage cart and a balky Azeri sitting behind the counter who was instructing him where to deliver this baggage.
-You see. I want to work as that man behind the counter – Anar pointed with his finger. I looked at Anar, previous irritation was replaced with absent glance. It looked like he attaind blotter soaked with bleach. The bleach, which is used at Flame Towers, of course.
Walking along streets in Baku tourists may think that Flame Towers is an architectural manifestation of the power of oil industry. But architectural Baku’s pearl in the crown is not Flame Towers, but futuristic building located far away from downtown – cultural center named after – beating the drum… – Heydar Aliyev! The white construction reminds famous opera in Sydney however a glance around the area brings you back to where you are – the building have grown among old railway and field in dire need for urban revitalization.
When I was walking there for the first time a metal fence separating the area designated for revitalization was bloated by the wind and the corrugated iron pieces several meters length were dancing around. Glamour is glamour, but Azerbaijan is Azerbaijan. This country is a unique combination of Caucasian stopgap and Middle Eastern imperfection.
Eurovision – Azerbejdżan in a nutshell
Eurovision competition which was held in 2012 in Baku has demonstrated all positives and negatives of life in Azerbaijan. For that occasion was build Crystal Hall which can accommodate more than twenty thousand visitors and an outstanding flagpole 164 meters high where the flag larger than the county’s size waves. Nowadays it is the second biggest flagpole in the world (first place belongs to Tajikistan). After sewing first flag, second one and third one (every time Tajikistan was sewing bigger) some citizens of Baku started to raise question of low wages – if the government has enough funds to bid for Guinness record, why not to distribute some money to society? All in all flagship investment absorbed around 30 million dollars (moreover workforce was not native, but American) while minimum wage was as low as 120 dollars.
Another controversy arose over Crystal Hall which was built for Eurovision concerts and on this occasion millions of dollars flowed into someone’s pockets. Although authorities’ squander of money passed almost unnoticed by the international actors, much more attention has been given to the human rights violations. Some NGOs joined campaign „Sing for democracy” which supported democracy activists fighting for respecting of human rights in Azerbaijan. To suppress manifestations the government used police forces what resulted in unhestitating statements from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. International observers accused government not only for the limiting freedom of expression but also for mandatory evictions of citizens living in the neighborhood where main investments for Eurovision were planned. Although citizens protested, the evictions took place, victims were deprived from their right to fair trial and authorities refused to pay any compensation. In turn during transmission of Eurovision German speaker said: “Tonight nobody could vote for their own country but it is good being able to vote and it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey Azerbaijan, Europe is watching you.”
Beside luxurious hotels, Baku has also its second face – medieval and historical, hidden in the narrow streets of the Old Town on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The Old Town is definitely the most frequently praised tourist attractions in guidebooks – you can find Maiden Tower dated back to XII century, UNESCO-listed Royal Palace of the Shirvanshahs or an extravagant house of an artist Ali Sham where in front yard instead of flowers “grow” paintbrushes. There is also charming museum of miniature books which is the only one in the world and plenty of art galleries, carpet stores and cafes.
Looking for museum of miniature books I occasionally found an interesting art gallery displaying pieces of arts made by locals. I discovered wonderful paintings of Yusif Mirza but later the owner, a forty years old elegant Azeri man, showed me astonishing watercolor drawings. At a first glance they look quite ordinary, like any other landscape painted on a piece of carton, but when you look closer you may notice that trees are not drawn with brushstroke but they simply flow and spill exactly in the way artist had planned – beginning from trunk, through branches, up to crown of the tree.
Nevertheless, the complete picture of Baku we will find when we get out from the downtown and indulge into ordinary districts and dilapidated streets. Here instead of lanterns you may see cloth lines with wet lingerie, pants or dingy t-shirts and along the pavements are parked not white Lexus vehicles but old heaps gaining their second and third life, mostly Ladas. Other towns and settlements in Azerbaijan, like Gobustan or Shaki, are also look like this.
– All that stuff create the ecosystem of Baku – perfectly concluded Antonio, forty years old Italian whom I have met during one of the trips outside the city. – Azerbaijan is like Ireland during times when the church somewhat stepped aside. By the way, for a couple of years I had been living in Cork and laughed that the second language is Polish – said Anthony. – It is like someone has unchained them, like an Erasmus student, like a teenager left alone in the house. They build palaces, hotels, stadiums, buy Lexus, Dior, Armani but when the oil finishes they will discover that money had disappeared somewhere. Instead of investing funds they have now they squander money, politicians defraud, citizens try to make ends meet, but all in all it will all fall apart sooner or later.
And nothing will left from Baku.
Nothing will left from awesome Flame Towers.
Translated by: Alyona Kononenko