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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


48 Hours on the Run
‘A gentleman may walk, but never run,’ except for those weekends away when he has only 48 hours in which to explore Baku in Azerbaijan.
By Piers Gladstone
Photos by the author

Old Town, Baku

I like a $99 ticket. It has taken me all over Russia and the ‘near-abroad’ (with Aeroflot’s special offers). Baku is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind when you think about going away for a weekend, but from Moscow the flight is only 3 hours.

On a late Friday afternoon I am met at the airport in Baku by Simon, a friend who recently moved from Moscow. We jump in a cab and head to town. Large billboard posters of a suited Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan who died in 2003, smile down benevolently on us as we speed along in our Volga. Although Aliyev has been dead nearly two years, his presence can be felt literally and metaphorically in all spheres of Azeri life. His son, Ilham, succeeded his father in a feudal transfer of power, but the cult of personality is all the father’s.

The Volga crawls through the narrow back streets of Baku, never leaving second gear, weaving around potholes and seemingly abandoned road works. Everybody is wearing black, and big bushy moustaches appear to be the order of the day for the Azeri men.

Our first stop is Beirut, a Lebanese-Azeri restaurant on Nizami Street, Baku’s Arbat, close to where the apartment I arranged from Moscow is located. We start with a salted yoghurt drink before firing into platefuls of kebabs and shashlik.

Caryatids, Old Town, Baku

The apartment has three bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room and a dining room complete with a gas fireplace that looks like a grandfather clock made out of gunmetal. For $25 per person per night, it is great value for something so centrally located. We leave my bags and head out to explore.

Baku’s Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a labyrinth of alleys surrounded by ancient walls untouched by the Soviet era. Vines twist their way up from street level to balconies, while telephone and electricity cables loop across from one building to the next. Carved wooden doors face out onto cobbled streets, some ajar offering a glimpse into others’ lives. Ornate metal grilles protect ground floor windows. Cats prowl around bins, looking for something to eat. Centuries-old houses, mosques and palaces are all squeezed into this maze of humanity. For an old town in an Islamic country, it seems unusually quiet and residential, almost genteel, rather than bustling with noise and trade.

We make our way uphill to get a view out over the Caucasus’s largest city and the Caspian Sea. Somnolent late afternoon sounds, diffused with distance, waft up to us. We sit with some Azeris looking at the view while a young man sings in a theatrical falsetto voice below us, much to the amusement of his friends.

Hamlet and the author

As dusk descends we head down towards Primorsky Park and the promenade by the Caspian, leaving the tranquillity of the Old Town for the buzz of traffic-filled boulevards. We walk along the promenade by the shore before heading out onto an old pier as the muezzin starts the call to prayer, his incantations drifting out from the Old Town and across the water to us. The lights of the city glint in the dark water and offshore oilrigs wink from the distant horizon.

At a house party hosted by Simon, I sit with Bibi, an Azeri artist, and Symon who works for the UNHCR, discussing Nagorno-Karabakh. Between 1989 and 1994, a vicious war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this Nagorno- Karabakh area within Azerbaijan, resulting in the loss of fifteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory, forty thousand lives, and eight-hundred-thousand Azeris fleeing their homes. These people are now ‘internally displaced’ people – refugees in their own country. A delicate ceasefire has been in place ever since, but tensions still are running high, and will remain so until a solution is found. “The Armenians massacred our people and stole our land. I would fight and die for this land”, Bibi states emphatically and sincerely.

On Saturday, despite our best efforts to start the day early, we do not finish our breakfast of walnut lahumacuns and egg pide until midday. We go in search of transport, passing men selling weekend newspapers that they carry in armfuls as if they were bouquets of flowers. We find a taxi willing to take us to Qobustan, 50km south of Baku, where we hope to find mud volcanoes and rock art.

Mud volcanoes

As we climb up and out of Baku, the ecological cost as well as the sheer scale of the oil industry that has made this city a boomtown for several centuries becomes clear. At the beginning of the twentieth century Baku supplied half the world’s oil, and so it is no wonder that an area the size of a city is, or was, dedicated purely to oil. Pipelines and pylons, spindly towers and industrial equipment fill the horizon. For the next thirty kilometres there is no sign of human habitation or any vegetation. To our left are the remains of off-shore rigs – mutant metal crabs squatting on the deceptively azure-blue Caspian. To our right is an apocalyptic post-industrial wasteland, a desolate and destroyed desert. We pass a toxic-looking yellow lake before reaching human life at Brimorsk, a town of decaying Soviet tower blocks resembling giant PC hard drives.

At Qobustan we come off the highway and arrive at a fork in the road. A midget in pinstripe trousers – I think for a moment that we have found ourselves in a David Lynch film – is standing at the apex and he tells us to take the left fork for the volcanoes. Within 100 metres the tarmac ends and the taxi is slithering around in the mud of a raised embankment. Our taxi driver stares impassively out of his windscreen as the suspension of our ancient Audi bottoms out again. I wince for him. Five minutes later and our quest for the mud eruptions seems to be coming to an early end – a five-metre section of the track has been washed away by a river. We go back to the midget who says that for two dollars he can guide us there. We readily agree, and I decide that this is all being directed by David Lynch when the midget introduces himself as Hamlet.

After half an hour of off-road driving we finally make it to the foot of the hill on which the mud volcanoes exist. Hamlet sets off up the hill at once, but he is quickly overtaken by our longer legs. At the top of the hill scores of mud volcanoes between one and two metres high stand amid a lunar landscape, flanked by mountains and overlooking the Caspian. A cold wind knives us as we watch the craters bubble, belch, squelch and fart grey liquid. Mudflows curl around the sides. The volcanoes seem alive, almost friendly. Close inspection is necessary, but hazardous. By the time we get back down to the taxi we are covered in grey mud. We say goodbye to Hamlet.

Petroglyphs in Qobustan

Our next stop is to see the rock carvings in the area. Twelve thousand years ago hunter-gatherers settled by the shores of the Caspian and lived in the caves that overlook Qobustan and the Caspian. Back then this area was tropical. Now it feels virtually arctic as horizontal sleet attacks us as we get out of our taxi. The hunter-gatherers are long gone and the sea level has receded fifty metres, but their caves remain, and inside there are petroglyphs depicting the lives of these people – six thousand carvings of pigs, goats and stick men.

Back in Baku at the apartment, we crank up the grandfatherclock fire and dry out before heading off for dinner. Mugam Club is a traditional caravanserai: a place where traders coming to Baku could stay the night before going to market the next day. It is octagonal and two storeys high. Carpets hang from the arched balconies overlooking the central dining area. Two fig trees decorated with lights share the floor space. There is a magical quality to the place, as well as one of celebration – there is an Azeri birthday party in full swing with more than forty guests. We take a circular table next to the huge one occupied by the Azeri revellers and order a bottle of vodka.

While we eat mini dolmasi, sturgeon and chicken shashlik, lamb plov with almonds and prunes and grilled vegetables, we are entertained by the house band and an assortment of dancers. Mugam is the traditional music of Azerbaijan, but since the arrival of jazz with the oil industry in the early twentieth century, a hybrid form was born – mugam jazz. This is what we hear for the first half an hour, before the tempo is picked up and a troupe of traditional Azeri dancers whirl before us. The birthday party revellers leave their table en-masse and start to dance in two circles, swaying with raised arms, hands twisting, as couples take their turns in the middle of the circles. Next comes a suspiciously pale-skinned belly dancer who cannot be more than eighteen. Igor leans across to me conspiratorially, “She is Russian. The best belly dancers are Russian.”

Atashgah fire temple

At around midnight we find ourselves in Neon Dance Bar. The name is literal; the lighting is very neon, there is a bar, and plenty of people are dancing. It is a small, friendly and unpretentious club, full of gay and straight Azeris dancing their socks off to a mix of house and techno.

On Sunday morning I have the option of a traditional hammam bathhouse, or another trip out of the city to see the famous Atashgah fire temple. I decide in favour of the pyrotechnics.

The town of Suraxani, ten kilometres from Baku, is nondescript, but it is home to an important monument. It seems however that neither Nizam the taxi driver nor any of the residents of Suraxani have any idea as to where or what the monument is. We stop several early risers before a policeman gets into the back seat and kindly shows us the way. The gates are closed and padlocked. Nizam looks doubtful and says that it is probably closed on Sundays. I suggest tea, stalling for time.

Shortly after 10am a young woman appears, wrapped in a shawl, and opens the gates. I pay my one dollar entrance fee, and immediately start to ask her a lot of questions, because I am running low on Azeri Manat and want to avoid paying for the guided tour. For free she happily tells me that the Atashgah Temple, also known as the Temple of the Fireworshippers, has been a centre of worship for thousands of years. The area was so saturated with natural gas and oil that flames spontaneously erupted from the ground – hence Azerbaijan’s other name, Odlar Yourdu, or ‘Land of Fires’, and the name of the temple, which means ‘home of fire’. The first temple was built here in the third century but was destroyed during the Arab invasion in the eighth century. The present temple dates from the seventeenth century. Among the most interesting things to see are the ancient Sanskrit and Hindi inscriptions – signs that Atashgah and its fire worship were heavily influenced by India.

A waxen fire-worshipper

The natural gas that used to be emitted from the ground, and which gave the temple its fiery appearance, ceased sometime during the nineteenth century, due to the extensive oil exploration. Now the gas is piped in so that only two small flames remain: one in the centre of the temple and one to its side. There used to be a mass of fire worshippers here, but now only a few of them come, and an occasional Hindu.

The arched temple stands in the centre of a courtyard, complete with a Shiva trident on its roof. We walk around the edges of the complex’s ramparts, ducking into rooms that face the courtyard. Some rooms have life-size dummies of worshippers undergoing various forms of extreme atonements and penance; one lies contorted on a pile of gravel (which the sign says would have been hot coals) while another has chains and weights criss-crossing his body, Houdini-style. Other rooms house historical records of the temple. One eighteenth-century Persian traveller noted that, “the Hindus sit passively by the flames”. Meditation, rather than fire-dances, were the order of the day it seems.

I arrive back in Baku at lunchtime, and with only two hours until I have to leave for the airport, I make a whistle-stop tour of the Old Town to see some of the places I missed the first time. I head straight for the eighth-century Maiden’s Tower, a circular stone tower with five-metre-thick walls. On each floor there are small exhibits; old photos of Baku, ornately-decorated doubleheaded axes, and my favourite, a scene with somebody lying on his back having the soles of his feet beaten, made with Barbie-size dolls. The top of the tower gives a panorama of Baku: the harbour, the Caspian Sea, the ancient Old Town, the New Town’s nineteenth century mansions and boulevards, and the hills where the Soviets built their trademark tower blocks.

My last stop of the weekend is The Palace of the Shirvan Shahs, built in the fifteenth century by the then ruling dynasty. The palace is in fact more of a multi-level complex, complete with its own mosque, gardens, courtyards, mausoleum and hammam. The simplicity of the architecture’s form is complemented by ornate latticework and calligraphy above the doors and windows. The Shahs have long since departed, but it seems that a new dynasty is beginning in Azerbaijan. The capital Baku continues to reinvent itself and thrive, as it always has.

Piers Gladstone travelled to Baku for $99 + taxes with a ticket bought during Aeroflot’s ‘Special Offer Period.’ The next ‘Special Offer Period’ will be in the Autumn.

For apartment rentals in Baku, call Shahin on : +994 503 270470

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