Few dare to enter the Caucuses and even fewer bother to experience the wonders of Azerbaijan. Baku is the “new” capital of Azerbaijan. New meaning that 900 years ago, the old one was destroyed in an earthquake. The city’s history is almost entirely a tug of war between Russia and Iran, passing both countries’ rule numerous times. Beyond this fight, Baku has been the city of fire.
Rich in oil and in problems, Baku is quite the city of paradoxes. It is new and bright and clean and modern, but the aging public transportation system is almost a joke. No matter how modern Baku is, it can not match the failing capabilities of its aging infrastructure. Old soviet busses zoom across shiny glass buildings, many end up falling into the street ditches. Many roads remain unpaved, along major tourist attractions.
Azerbaijan is improving, several new busses are being bought from Georgia (which has excellent busses, but horrible roads). But maybe its political situation is somewhat of a problem. 1/3 of Azerbaijan’s land is occupied by Armenian forces and is technically a defacto country that no one (not even Armenia) recognizes (even though they have troops in it). Spending is likely going toward war efforts.
Fires burn to this day from the ground, due to the vast gas reserves that lie under the capital city. Numerous traders passed through Baku’s ancient city streets, most that still stand today. Through “over” restoration, the old city still stands today with a complete set of walls and all. The primary landmark of the old city is the Maiden Tower, which is a massive tower to deter enemies coming from the sea. This is under restoration (as of summer 2012), but you can still climb to the top.
At the center is the Palace of Shirvanshahs where you can explore the barren palace (what do you expect after hundreds of years of neglect). Much of the interior is filled with old photographs and some changing exhibits. The tombs are still there and the abandoned mosque as well. It is also a great viewpoint for some of the city, but it isn’t the highest point.
Unless you want to buy a carpet, the old city is best left to just explore. At the information booths, one can pick up a walking tour guide that will give you 3 hours of information around the city. The entire city is surrounded by walls and there is only one entry point for cars.
Outside the Walls
Baku isn’t only about the old, there is a whole new world being built outside the city walls. Soviet architecture is being eliminated from the Caspian shores. Much of the city is under construction as new boulevards, shopping malls, and public spaces are being created. Due to the Eurovision, an outcrop of land sticks into the sea with the Eurovision stadium and the 2nd tallest flagpole in the world.
Not too far away is a new carpet museum, scheduled to open by 2013. The beautiful museum is shaped like a rolled up carpet, unfurling onto the street. The area around it has already been developed with fancy new cafes and restaurants as well as stunning seaside parks. Behind the carpet museum is a new funicular (replacing the old one) , once opened it will take vistors up to the Flame Towers and fallen warriors memorial. New stairs lead up as well.
The train station area is undergoing major redevelopment (rumors said the station would move, but it looks like it is being just renovated). The old carpet museum still stands and looks pretty cool. Fountains Square is a must see, just because you can find relatively cheap food and an escape from the sun. The city streets might be a bit too much like New York City, but they make it easy to navigate. You will soon find out that New Baku could be any major city in the world.
The airport is undergoing massive renovations, the original building is soviet with a new glass facade that makes it look like more of a glowing palace. On the way to the city there is also the Cultural Center which will open in 2013, it has some fantastic architecture and will probably be a fantastic place to check out live performances.
The Fire Temple
Outside of the old city and a considerable drive away lies the Ateshgah Fire Temple. This temple was originally built by Zoroastrians (debated, but that is what the Azeri’s will say) who were enchanted by the fires from the ground. The central fire was worshipped in its own sanctuary, which still stands today. At the advent of Islam, the temple lost use and was given by the authorities to Hindu Shiva worshippers/merchants who took over the site in the 1700s. It is hard to say it was exactly a hindu temple, rather more of a fire cult. Much of the building has a mix of old Persian and Sanskrit inscriptions all over it.
Although billed as a must see in Baku, it is almost impossible to get to without a taxi. Two bus lines drop off near it, but unless you speak Russian it may be quite a bit of trouble finding out when to get off. On top of that, few Azeris even know of this temple’s existence. Bus numbers and routes change frequently, and the entire area is undergoing major renovations. There is no longer a road to the temple, since they are building a new one (maybe a hint on how to get there). Also big new walls are being built to cover what the authorities consider ugly oil derricks. The temple itself is undergoing massive “over” restoration. Matter of fact the ancient stone ground will be covered in marble, which is foreign to that time period and region.
There is a daily overnight train to Tbilisi. It doesn’t cost very much and it is probably worth going first class which includes free drinks and you only share your cabin with one person. Baku is a pretty expensive city, so it is worth jumping to Tbilisi as soon as possible where prices are outrageously lower.