Jun 7, 2018
Coming from Tbilisi to Baku, the strange mix of graceful buildings in the architectural style of nineteenth century, mixed in with ultra-modern chrome and glass in bizarre shapes, makes it feel like a different planet. The area near the Old Town has been spruced up to within an inch of its life. Green parks with fountains dot the landscape, designer stores line the streets, wide avenues have a constant stream of fast-moving traffic, people stroll along the boulevard lining the shore of the Caspian Sea and cafes and restaurants lining the pedestrian streets do brisk business. An area geared to tourists, it is frequented by locals as well – the ones with deep pockets. And there are plenty of them.
The skyline is dominated by the trio of Flame Towers, so called, because of their shape. At night, they are lit up, the images evoking flames, in a grand display of digital pyrotechnics. Azerbaijan, selling itself as the Land of Fire is pulling out all the stops, diving into the tourist business with a vengeance. Other such novel bits of architecture have one staring in flabbergasted awe, if not appreciation. Giant multi-colored bunnies dotting the green expanse before the Heydar Aliyev Center adds the final touch. There are art galleries aplenty but genuine art or sculptures on the streets are rare.
The Old Town, easily recognizable by the towering Qiz Qala leads the way into a labyrinth of winding lanes, fronted by buildings. Cradled within the arc of the old fortress walls, it contains most of the historic sights. Since 2008, with the help of foreign experts, Baku has been in a frenzy of reconstruction. Most if not all old buildings have got facelifts while work continues on the remaining ones. The building material is exclusively limestone, the bricks obtained locally, all identical in color and shape. But it feels as though there is something vaguely missing. Even the supposedly grandest building, the Palace of the Shirvanshah feels like an empty shell with a smattering of lackluster display cases inside. The Cuma Mosque has detailed carvings and a more real feel to it. A small caravanserai is converted to a restaurant and some of the old buildings into boutique hotels. As expected, most lanes and streets are lined with souvenir stalls selling carpets, the gigantic furry hats that symbolize this part of the world along with sheepskin jackets and the usual kitsch knick-knacks. The sea front is lines with a wide boulevard, shaded with trees and lined with flowering shrubs. A couple of giant chessboards has an audience of men occasionally offering advice. Not to be outdone in the cheesy department though, there is a toy train that chugs along ferrying families and a man-made set of canals are supposed to evoke Venice.
The people strolling along the boulevards and sipping cappuccinos in cafes are hip in dress and manner but are not reflective of Azerbaijan or even Baku. Barely a couple of metro stops away, the real Baku emerges. It is in the frenetic traffic of beat up Ladas and rusted trucks, a far cry from the flashy cars of the well-to-do; it is in the strident shouts of the drivers of shared taxis hawking their destinations. It is in the bustle of the market places and in the buses crowded with people. The chic lifestyle gives way to a deeply conservative way of life. Tandoor ovens churn out fresh bread and cafes are frequented only by men. The chaikhanas, the exclusive domain of elderly men. Over tulip-shaped glasses of tea and cigarettes they play backgammon or dominoes with a focused intentness. Gone are the sleeveless or short dresses and tank-tops of women. While only a few women wear the hejab, modest covering is the norm.
The scattered English that I hear in and around the tourist areas vanishes but the earnest desire to help a visitor increases. Asking for directions of a woman, I was told to wait a few minutes. Her husband drove up soon and not content to give me directions, insisted on giving me a lift to the place.