And so we begin another adventure to countries you had problems memorizing in Geography class. As we embark on our 2.5 week journey across the ‘stans along the Silk Road, I couldn’t help but add 2 layovers to extend my personal, solo sightseeing before officially beginning the trip.
One of those places would be Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
As a primer, Baku was one of the ancient cities of the early first millennium, coming into the global focus as the new capital city of the region after an 1191 earthquake destroyed the city of Samaxi. It would undergo frequent power exchanges, first repelling the influence of Mongol raiders before becoming a vassal to the Timurids, and then thriving under the rule of Shirvanashah Khalillah of the 1400s. After being sacked by Shah Ismail I and converted from Sunni to Shia Islam, it was then captured by the Russians under the likes of Peter the Great in 1723. Afterwards going back and forth between being occupied by the Persians and the Russians, it regained independence for 2 years as the capital city of Azerbaijan before falling again to Russian hands.
As Baku discovered the potential through its nearby oil-rich fields, the city rose to fame in 1991 by finally gaining permanent independence from the Soviets and then for supplying as much as 50% of the world’s oil afterwards. It would make a cameo in James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough (a little bit more on that below), and to this day continues to reap the dizzying economic boom that can be afforded by black gold.
I took the direct Azerbaijan Airlines afternoon flight on the new Dreamliner from JFK Airport to Baku, arriving at 7:30am in the morning after spending 10 and a half hours in the air (I would happen to be sitting next to a fellow alumna from my alma mater no less!)
I headed out and met with my driver, Ali, who offered to drive me around to all the major sites of the city for 65 Azerbaijan Manats (pre-arranged with Sa-Company Azerbaijan).
We first whetted our appetite by driving through the central city from the airport:
We made our first official stop at the farthest site south from the main city: Bibi Heybat Mosque, curiously placed on the side of a highway by the main oil fields.
Nevertheless, it was a great place to catch a sunrise.
Afterwards we drove less than a mile north to the oil fields made famous by James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough. Baku has been so proud of its cameo in the film that the oil field literally is named “James Bond Oil Field” and listed as a tourist attraction on many guide books, including Lonely Planet.
We then drove up more north towards Central Baku.
…past the world’s 2nd tallest flagpole…
…and Azer-ÍIme, a building that looks like a carpet, and yes, sells handwoven carpets using wool colored with vegetable dyes. Tours are free even if you don’t buy anything.
The Four Seasons Hotel commands the city geographic center.
At the center’s southwest corner and about a kilometer south of the Baku’s Old City is Sahidler Xiyabani (Martyr’s Lane), a corridor of graves honoring those killed in the Soviet 1990 massacre and those who died in the controversial Karabakh conflict with Armenia.
Walk down the somber photographs of the dead and at the end you’ll come across an energetic eternal flame overlooking fantastic panoramas of the bay and the rest of Baku.
Stop by to pay your respects to the tomb of Azerbaijan’s favorite leader, Heydar Eliyev.
From there we drove once more north to Fountains Square, the city’s focal point for people-watching and strolling young couples.
For the quintessential Baku vibe, notice the silvered spheres by the eponymous fountains and the bronze statues of the young Baku girl wearing short-shorts and idling on her cell phone.
We then headed towards the wall of Baku’s Old City, entering from the north:
The UNESCO-listed Old City consists of a beautiful mix of winding medieval cobblestone alleys, stone buildings, ancient subterranean ruins, and neo-classical townhouses.
The main sight in the Old City is the ancient 29m tall Maiden’s Tower, reportedly to have been built in the early 1200s. Judging from the way they describe the tower in all the exhibits, nobody has any clue what the purpose of the tower was.
Nevertheless, it costs 2 manats to climb (8 stories) to the top for the views of the old city.
Finally, our last stop would be the recently completed architectural masterpiece, the Heydar Eliyev Cultural Center.
No matter what angle you look at it, it’s a marvel to behold and fondly recalls our visit to the opera house in Oslo.
Inside are a few museum-style exhibits on random subjects (one on Heydar Eliyev’s life, another on Azerbaijan’s cultural history, a car show, etc.) that have separate costs to enter.
They’re pretty strict on the no-photo taking here, although I managed to sneak one of my favorite pieces:
Afterwards, Ali drove me back to the Baku’s International Airport, right on time for my connecting flight to Almaty.
Even inside the airport, the Azeris love their flames:
Onwards to Kazhakstan!
– At time of posting in Baku, Azerbaijan, it was 53.6 °F – Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 27km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear