A friend from Turkey, Jon, was interested in traveling to Azerbaijan and beyond as well, so he and I met in Baku’s Aliyev Airport. Jon got there about an hour before I did, and already had some taxi buddies that insisted we use them for our taxi needs. We negotiated a price with them that was higher than what I was told to expect, but was half of what they initially asked.
The Hilton Baku is hands-down a nice, western-style hotel. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. On the plus side, I used the gym there several times, and swam for an hour on one of the days as well. On the negative side, one can get that same exact experience in Basel, Boston or Bengal; not the stuff of rich travel-writing.
On our first real day there, Jon and I wandered around Baku, in search of Old Town. Old Town, as its name might imply, is where Baku got started. The walled compound of Old Town is impressive, and there are many residences still inside of the castle walls. We enjoyed this part of Baku the most. Looking for Old Town was not as easy as we thought… at
least, it would’ve been, had we consulted the map. We trudged for just over two hours, in the direction pointed to us, and after all the build-up about how pretty Old Town was, we ended up in some part of town where people, crowds of people, just stared at us. Baku is very old and dirty, like so many of its other former Soviet counterpart cities. The streets are shabby, as are the dirty, broken-down houses spread around Baku’s beachside hills. We had dirt and water sprayed us enough for one day, so we turned around and went back to the hotel via taxi. We were very happy to have found Old Town that evening during an after-dinner walk, and my opinion of Baku sky-rocketed to unexpected heights.
The next day was truly fun. We linked up in the morning, sealed a deal with a cabbie, and off we went on an adventure. The travel guide we’d read promised us a melancholy time out on Artyom Island, a dirty spit of land jutting off of the peninsula. Rusty oil machinery, rusty boats at harbor, crumbling old Soviet block-apartments – all these were laid bare for our viewing pleasure. It was every bit as depressing as the book said it would be. As part of the 50 Manat (approximately 60 dollars) upon which
we had agreed, he would also take us to Yanar Dag, “Fire Mountain”. It was hilarious trying to find the place. Although he swore he knew where it was, our driver had to very frequently ask for directions from groups of men who seem for some reason to stand around in clusters of seven or eight all over that country. What made the process so amusing was, as Jon translated to me in the back (he is the Turkish/Turkic languages expert during our travels this time around), people will give you directions only until the next point, where you are then to stop and ask further. Everyone appears to know in which direction to get you going, but nobody will give you directions all the way to your destination. We bounced around the entire Absheron Peninsula before we finally pulled up to the site after sunset. I think our unplanned late arrival-time actually worked in our favor; it’s nice to see the flames coming out of the rocks in the dark. Yanar Dag is an area where a gas fire burns non-stop. Gas escapes up through the loose ground soil, and is burning at the surface. There are several sites like this in Azerbaijan, one of which has a religious connotation to it. That one burned out several decades ago, though, and is kept artificially alive by feeding gas to a flame from a tank. We didn’t go to that one. Yanar Dag is the real thing, though, and there seems to be no good idea of how long that fire has been going. The travel book says 50-60 years or so. The men who were guarding the park after-hours and who (for a small “donation”) let us go into the grounds swore that the flames were there for 5000 years already. Jon and I acted suitably impressed for their benefit, but both looked at one another at the same time like we had just heard a tall tale from a Private First Class.
On the way home from “Fire Mountain”, we asked the cabbie to take us to a good Azeri restaurant near the hotel. He nodded enthusiastically, as though he had just heard the first decent request in our entire drive of five or so hours up to this point. When he pulled up in front of a restaurant, we passengers had no idea where we were. I asked the driver where our hotel was, and how far, and he pointed down the road and said we were still a half-hour’s drive away. We had meant to have him drop
us off, we’d settle up, and then walk home to the hotel. Instead, we now had an Azerbaijan dinner companion as well as a taxi driver. To his credit, he took us to a very (make that VERY) ethnic Azeri place, and the food there was quite good. Jon ordered something kebab-like, I cannot even imagine what it was that was placed in front of the driver, and I had something called “Piti”. Piti comes in two parts; one is a lamb soup, the other is the meat from that soup, pressed together with chickpeas and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t catch the name of, and mashed until it is more paste than anything else. Eaten with garlic bread, Piti is really tasty. Besides our main dish, we were served an endless supply of fresh bread (Ukrainian Lavash bread most closely approximates the kind), as well as fresh vegetables and goat cheese. Our driver really did choose well. The entertainment was a lot of fun, with musicians who were thoroughly enjoying the music they were making.
We had a good if at times visually-underwhelming second day of travel in Baku, but got dropped off at the hotel satisfied that we had received a good sense of Baku and the Absheron Peninsula, and with a fair understanding of the kindness and patience of the Azerbaijani people. We were already looking forward to our next days’ travels as this one was drawing to a close.