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Boomtown Baku

AZERBAIJAN | Friday, 1 May 2009 | Views [2908]

The Baku skyline, viewed from a hill at the top of the city

The Baku skyline, viewed from a hill at the top of the city

April 1-2: First impressions

When the ferry docked in Baku at dusk, I gazed excitedly over the skyline of the Azeri capital. I knew little about Azerbaijan, as it was a last-minute addition to my itinerary after my Iranian visa application was denied. Customs was easy enough to get through and I made the right choice by answering one guard’s rather pointed question about whether I planned to visit Armenia in the negative. One thing that I did know was that these two neighbouring countries are not on good terms; the Azeri embassy in Dushanbe where I got my visa was armed with propaganda-style books and pamphlets about the Armenian ‘genocide’ of Azeris.

After getting a good night’s sleep in a hostel in the Old Town (the historic centre of Baku), I strolled around and soaked up the intriguing mix of nationalistic Azeri, Russian, European, and Islamic culture. They were too many high-end fashion stores for my liking and - gasp - even a McDonald's. The first park I saw sported "no dog" signs, which meant that people actually owned dogs as pets (an unimaginable concept in Central Asia)! Walking past an outdoor bazaar displaying photos of the president, matryoshkas, prayer beads, and Chanel parfums all beside each other, it felt like another world after the black hole of Turkmenistan.

In the evening, I moseyed into a souvenir shop in the Old Town and bought a silk scarf. The shop owners, 20-something guys who spoke decent English, invited me to sit for tea, which I happily obliged. We wound up chatting for a long time and I went out with them and a couple of their other friends for more tea, delicious fruit preserves, and a bit of huka. One of them offered to show me around Baku tomorrow (he was previously a tour guide – how convenient!) and another offered to take me to Qobustan the next day. Yet another testament to my philosophy of never passing up an opportunity/offer of hospitality!

 

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