Twenty-four hours in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku really isn’t enough, but as the morning dawned grey and drizzly, and with the whole of the city to see and a day in which to do it, I ignored the elements and waited for Aydin.
Aydin co-owns, among other enterprises, a travel company in Baku and our mutual friend Ia in Tbilisi thought that we should get together while I was in town. Aidyn generously offered to come and show me a couple of things and would be at my hotel by 9.00.
By about 9.45 he arrived, having been gridlocked in Baku’s traffic; and what traffic it is! I have never, ever in my life seen such traffic; not in Mumbai, not Aleppo and not even Rome during a rainstorm in the rush hour. Baku’s traffic is awesome; traffic jams without apparent end, Ladas stuck alongside top-of-the-line Beamers, angry motorists neck and neck with those taking it calmly; I am so glad that I didn’t rent a car!
And off we went; to drive around the city and then to head out to the Abseron Peninsular to the north and east; we saw a temple on land sacred to Zoroastrians but built in the 18th century; the everlasting flame, so mystical to the Zoros, actually burned out some years ago, and today’s flame comes courtesy of the gas company, but the principle remains sound. We did, however see a real everlasting flame at Yanar Dag, as noted by Marco Polo himself. Ablaze for a thousand years is the story, although another has it that a local shepherd in the 1950s carelessly tossed away a cigarette and ignited a gas vent that has been blazing ever since.
In either case, it doesn’t matter; the principle of endless energy is synonymous with Baku’s astonishing growth, and it is a country that seems to be coming to grips with its new wealth in dramatic ways.
It is under construction; the city itself lies in complete contrast to the acres of oil derricks, some modern, some dating from the first oil-boom in the 1900s, that festoon the landscape as one drives out to the peninsular. In Baku however, all is new, becoming new, will be new and is absolutely Under Construction.
It is amazing; the turn of the century buildings sand-blasted to a uniform cleanliness offer a curiously movie-set veneer to the city; without the variable patina of age, it is not easy to detect the old from the faux-old; it is, however, really quite splendid.
A vast cornice runs for three kilometres along the Caspian shoreline, planned to expand to cover at least eight kilometres; substantial, gorgeous buildings inhabited by the worlds’ most expensive and recognisable brands lie adjacent to the old and rutted side streets that maze through Baku.
And in the centre, an Old Town that is breathtaking, and fortunately preserved. Town planners in the past fifty years have been less moved by historical culture that we would have hoped for, and much of Baku’s heritage has been usurped by modern Soviet Blocks; the Old Town, however is delightful and a most welcome diversion from The Traffic.
And so we continued our tour and walked through the new business district to a hotel whose 19th Floor Sky Bar offered a spectacular view of the city.
If I sound overly impressed, I am. All is not perfect, however, and one wonders about the division of wealth among the populous as whole, and the long-term consequences of the massive population shifts that they are undergoing. Such thoughts from a one-day visitor are churlish and require considerably more study. Which I will gladly undergo.
So why should one visit Baku? Well, firstly to see it, and realise that this great Middle Eastern city is no figment of a cartographer’s imagination, but a vibrant, exciting and important centre of commerce, culture and energy; it is an important and tolerant Islamic centre with none of the trappings of radicalism so devastating in other countries of the region. It is important to understand Azerbaijan; very important.
One can visit as side trip to a trip to Istanbul to admire and observe the differences and similarities of these two great Turkic cities; to complete an exploration of the Caucuses, one of the great cultural and crucial ethnic melting-pots in the world today or simply visit to have a look.
I am grateful to Aydin for his most generous hospitality on today’s frenetic tour; we saw a lot, talked about a thousand subjects and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company; well, I certainly enjoyed his. We agreed to look at a number of exciting business opportunities and looked forward to our next meeting.
Which will be a lot sooner than either of us thought when we realised that we will be together in Australia in June at a trade show in Adelaide.