I was expecting to arrive in a land of hijab clad women called Marjani, Fatima and Hayat walking behind hirsute men. I was expecting to find load-bearing donkeys, reluctantly trotting down narrow streets that disappeared into an arid nothingness. I was expecting chai khanas and bazaars where shisha smoking men traded cattle along with carpets.
But when our plane landed in sub-zero Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, the grand idiocy of my visual assumptions were revealed to me almost immediately. Wide roads and cascading flyovers stretched in front of us as our car drove into the city. The sun had barely just set and beautiful, illuminated buildings from the different architectural periods that the city had borne witness to, were lighting up the landscape. Moving along the gentle curves of the road that raced alongside the Caspian sea, we arrived at the Fairmont hotel, perched over a hilltop that overlooked the sea with the city unfurling around it. The hotel was a part of the iconic Flame Towers that proudly blazed with digital incandescence and could be seen from anywhere in the city.
The chill in the air stung our faces even as we hopped out of the car and made a dash for the warm hotel lobby where more warmth awaited the men from our group in the form of beautiful Azeri women moving about busily on the premises.
We were lead to the 15th floor where, from the window of our room, the expanse of the city glimmered beneath us. In the dark of the night, strong winds, which the Azeri’s called khazri began to blow and a flurry of snow started to fall from the night skies. When we woke up in the morning, Baku was under a light blanket of snow and such a delightful sight that I began to squeal with joy.
Snow is snow and it makes anything look beautiful, but when snow falls over a mélange of buildings that have their roots in the city’s Russian imperial, communist and Islamic past it takes on a dreamlike quality. Add to this the new gravity defying, modern steel and glass edifices that dotted Baku’s landscape that compelled you to ponder over the country’s new-found prosperity.
Driving around the time warped streets of Baku, one was in the past one minute and present in the next and sometimes, one was simultaneously in the past and the present. As we drove down the cascading roads that took us into the heart of the city, the view outside of the windows was Arabian Nights meets Star Wars. This spectacular look, of course, has been achieved with help from the oil that seemed to be spouting from the Azeri soil as easily as mould grew on stale bread. It was not uncommon for the farmers living in semi squalor of the early 20th Century Baku to have dug into gushing oil and become billionaires overnight. One of the most famous families that made their fortunes on Azeri oil was the Swedish Nobel family of the Nobel Prize fame. The Nobel brothers along with Russian General Oil Company and Royal Dutch Shell, owned most of the oil being extracted out this country by the eve of World War I.
With the oil continuing to surge as generously as ever, a century later, Baku glistens in its glory and beckons the beau monde. In the wake of this new prosperity and freedom, designer stores like Gucci, Dior and Armani have suddenly appeared along the Neftchilar Avenue, Baku’s very own Sloane Street. Their presence seemed like a contradiction of sorts to us because the general public in the city did not give the impression of being fashionable or brand conscious.
Chingiz, a very young, very helpful and highly accident-prone man, who worked for the agency that had facilitated our trip to Baku, informed us that the forlorn looking designer stores were a part of the ‘Let’s put Baku on the destination map’ package.
Even though our agenda was crammed with historical sites to be seen, the city was paralyzed owing to the unexpected snow. There were hardly any vehicles on the roads because people were not used to driving around in the snow in this seaside town.
We did manage getting to the old city and walking around the most intensely quaint and deserted part of Baku, which also happens to be a UNESCO World heritage site. The locals of Baku lived inside the fortified confines of the old city in the 1800s while the Russians and the Georgians who had recently annexed Azerbaijan lived outside of it. It was while walking around in the narrow lanes of the old city that I realized that not only were the load-bearing donkeys and women in black burqas from my imagination missing, also missing in Baku were dervishes in the stone walled old town where minarets tore through the winter sky.
I had first encountered Azerbaijan as a child in Tintin comics and I die a little as I say this, but I had failed to update my information about the country in the decades that followed. Agreed that reading and quoting from the National Geographic might’ve been a better idea than relying solely on the fountain of knowledge that is Tintin comics, but it was too late to have retrospective regrets.
Be as it may, the snow continued to fall the entire day, and all of us felt shaken and stirred at the same time. The infamous khazri from the Caspian sea was giving us unsuspecting people from warm climes a hypothermia of sorts.
I had a month to pack for this trip and had forgotten to carry a few important winter staples such as my hand gloves, along. I was, however, so enchanted with the 11th Century Islamic architecture of these buildings that I had literally thrown caution to the wind and was busy clicking pictures even as the sensation from my fingers slowly slipped away.
By the time we reached Mugham Club, a 14th century keravanserai, I was sure I had frost-bite and was mentally preparing myself for a fingerless future. Fortunately, the warmth of Mugham Club helped and my dying fingers were revived with a little help from some local wine. Incidentally, Mugham Club was a popular overnight stop for caravans of traders to take rest when they traveled into the city of Baku to sell their wares. I was expecting to see Alibaba and his forty thieves emerge from one of the many stone balconies that overlooked the courtyard of the serai, but I saw waiters emerge in an equally large number instead. Several lamb chops, berry pilaf and some olive murabba later we were back in our mini bus. It was minus 7 degrees Celcius outside and I could see why vodka was so popular around these parts.
Inside the mini-bus we thrived on Chingiz’s stories of Azerbaijan and himself. An Azeri born and brought up in Dagastan, Russia; Chingiz spoke fluent Azeri, Russian, English and Japanese. In fact, he had graduated in Japanese literature and worked and lived in Tokyo before the smell of fresh oil drew him back to his country. It was from him that we learnt that Azerbaijan was a secular state and a progressive one too. Muslims did not feel morally compelled to keep rozas during Ramadan and the few who did observe this fast, usually did it to detox. Women wore western clothing and were allowed to pick their own groom, but this came with a caveat for the groom. He had to propose marriage to the girl within six months of dating her, failing which, he would have to suffer the wrath of the girl’s father and there was no telling what form this ‘wrath’ would be served in.
In the three days that we spent around Chingiz, in three unrelated incidents, he managed to acquire a hairline fracture, an uneventful car accident and another fall that fortunately did not lead to any more breaking of bones but only damaged a gadget or two.
The names of almost all the streets of Baku changed every time there was a new ruler. Street named after Islamic rulers changed into streets named after Russian Czars that then took on the names of famous communists leaders and symbols and now finally, they were being called by local Azeri names. According the Chingiz, his father and he never referred to a street in Baku by the same name, both preferring to stick to the names concomitant with their respective eras and this often caused much confusion between the two.
Back at the hotel, Anna Kournikova’s doppelganger, long golden tresses and the same bright smile in place, waited to greet us inside the lobby and even though it the cold outside had frozen the marrow in his bones, there was a sudden spring in the husband’s step and a grateful smile stretched across his face. I could not blame the man, the blending in of the Central Asian and Russian blood had rendered the women of this country astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, this cocktail had not worked too well for the local men.
The following morning we were driven to the famous burning mountain or Yanar Dag. Our guide spoke in an insufferable accent and even though she spoke in what she thought was English, most of what she said sounded unintelligible. The men had to put on their earmuffs inside our severely heated minibus in order to escape the sound of her voice. She was very sweet, pleasant even and I did not like myself for finding her intolerable as a guide, but one had to be a masochist to enjoy her company. The burning mountain, however, was well worth the drive because it was unlike anything one had seen before. Freshly fallen snow covered the mountain and it continued to burn with natural gases from the underlying earth. Some claim that it has been burning this way since before Christ and even Marco Polo had made a mention of it in his travel records. Fire worshippers from Iran frequented this spot from across the border to pray and our guide urged us to do the same. Or maybe she asked us to jump into the flames and stay there, there was no way of telling.
Back in Baku we were taken to the picturesque Ateshgah, an ancient fire temple (yes natural fire again, sigh!) and even though we spent a few minutes clicking pictures, we did not learn much as the guide herself seemed clueless. We only found out after our return to the hotel that the temple has inscriptions in Punjabi made by traders from India during the Middle Ages. And before you decide that my Punjabi brethren might have scribbled assorted abuses involving mothers and sisters on those hallowed walls, I would like to inform you that these inscriptions are, in fact, quotations from the Adi Granth in Gurmukhi. There were also Sanskrit inscriptions in praise of Lord Shiva and Ganesha. In hindsight it might have been a better decision to stick to Wikipedia on our smart phones instead of the misguided tour guide, who I think might be better off as a body embalmer or post-mortem specialist, because the dead don’t complain nor do they have a problem with warped accents.
[More on Baku in Notes from Azerbaijan part 2. Coming soon to a blog near you]