You can’t place Azerbaijan on a map? Doesn’t matter, go anyway. It’s really nice.

This is the first picture I took in Azerbaijan.

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What could possibly be interesting about this picture? To you, probably nothing. To me, it was amazing. Cars stopped to allow pedestrians to cross! A kind of civility I had not seen in a long time. But as a matter of fact, the country has a reputation for poor driving habits and a high rate of traffic fatalities. This only shows how everything is relative and a matter of perspective.

I didn’t know much about Azerbaijan before visiting. But I joked with my girlfriend that after a month in India, I would almost certainly like Azerbaijan no matter what.

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The contrast was more than extreme! A city with sidewalks and pedestrian streets. They don’t smell like urine. People throw garbage in garbage bins. Cars drive for vast distances without ever honking. Young women walk in the streets after dark, unconcerned about getting raped. After weeks in India, I could not believe the utopia that was Baku and I walked around with a constant stupid grin on my face. People probably assumed I was a little deranged.

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Despite the fairly cold March weather, a lot of people were walking around in the beautiful parks. I saw many people walking about with no apparent purpose, so I am guessing that just “going for a walk” is a popular activity. The city is certainly designed and maintained to make it pleasant. On a side note, you may notice a woman with a head scarf in the picture. Despite the country being around 95% Muslim on paper, it is a very secular place and this is a highly unusual sight. Maybe the only one I saw, aside from some Turkish(?) tourists. In fact, in school and universities, head scarves are banned. Most old women wear them, but that is not a Muslim thing at all, just an “old Soviet woman” thing. Any convenience store, grocery store, restaurant or cafe will also have all the beer and vodka you can drink in stock.

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Honestly, if I said: “Look at this nice picture I took in Brussels”, you would believe me, yes?

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Even the KFC looks nice!

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If you have to cross a major intersection, there is probably a tunnel like this one. Not using the tunnel can result in a fine.

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Older ones are lined with small stores, as is the norm in all parts of the former Soviet Union I have visited.

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There is an obvious interest in keeping public spaces pleasant, as you can see with this fake stone tarp, covering scaffoldings around a major renovation project.

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I was stunned to find a Second Cup, a Canadian version of Starbucks. I had no idea there were any outside Canada, but a quick search revealed that for many years now, they have been expanding internationally, especially in Muslim countries. They have locations in “easy” places, like Baku, Doha and Dubai, but also in Yemen, Syria and Iraq!

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There are lots of fountains in central Baku. If you want to see them in action, don’t go in early March. Most are shut down for the winter.

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So is “Little Venice”, a fairly large network of canals where you can rent a boat and paddle around during the Summer.

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The most iconic structure in Baku, the Maiden’s Tower. Surprisingly little is know about it. The construction dates are estimates, and even its purpose is a mystery. The arrangement of the windows suggests it was an astronomical observatory, the location suggests it was part of defensive fortifications and other archeological finds point to the tower being a temple. Each theory has plenty of evidence to contradict it, so perhaps it will remain a mystery.

 

I had never before seen this kind of display. Instead of glass, the object is kept behind a transparent display screen. The little video shows the animation.

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In an ancient palace partially destroyed in World War II, another interesting use of technology. Actually re-building the dome as it was would probably cost an enormous amount of money, so they did the next best thing: build it out of concrete and, using old photographs, project an image of the old dome on the new one. EDIT: The palace was not damaged in WWII, but rather during the Russo-Persian war of 1722-23, and then again when the Russian army used it as a headquarter starting in 1828. Thanks Maksim!

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The old and the new.

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The city’s tallest buildings, the Flame Towers. Built to celebrate the country’s oil and gas ressources.

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Every year, billions are spent to re-build the city, which used to be dominated by Soviet concrete boxes.

Perhaps I should tell you a bit about Azerbaijan, because when I told people I was going there, I got a lot of: “Where’s that?”. In Canada, I can’t say that Azerbaijan is in the news very often. So, in a nutshell:

1. Azerbaijan has three big neighbours: the Turks, the Russians and the Persians (Iran). Therefore, Azerbaijan’s long history is about being invaded a lot.

2. In 1918 the latest invader, Russia, was defeated in World War I and Azerbaijan became the first Muslim majority democratic republic, complete with woman’s suffrage (that’s 22 years before my native province of Quebec, BTW). They had oil and things were looking good.

3. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded and maintained the principle of gender equality, except that both men and women now had the right to not vote.

4. After a brief 70 year stay, the Soviets left and during difficult times, the country became independent again. However, it fought a war with fellow newly independent Armenia, its archenemy, and lost control of 20% of its territory (Actually, a war against Armenian separatists backed by Armenia, but I will say more when I write about Armenia).

5. Because of oil, they are much richer than their neighbours, so they build really cool buildings.

6. If you want a deep understanding of the relations between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and the influences and pressures on them from Russia, Turkey and “the West”, you will have to read somebody else’s blog.

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Government House, in my humble opinion one of the nicest Soviet-era buildings. I had assumed it was ancient.

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The much newer National Assembly.

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Martyr’s Lane, with an eternal flame at the end. The people honoured in this specific lane died in 1990, when protests in favour of independence were put down by the Soviet Army. But the “lane” actually has a few “lanes”, and in other parts you find the graves of people killed in the war with Armenia/Armenians (1988-1994, but especially violent in 1992-1993, after the dissolution of the USSR).

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Azeris take their carpet weaving very seriously. This is the Carpet Museum, in case you hadn’t guessed.

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Baku has several unusual museums. This is the Museum of Literature.

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And the Museum of Miniature Books! Apparently the largest collection in the world.

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Sorry for the bad picture, but I wanted my hand in there for reference. Apparently these little black books contain everything ever published by Shakespeare! I can’t show you the smallest book, because special photographic equipment would have been needed. It is a 22 page Japanese book called “Flowers of the four seasons”, measuring only 0.75 x 0.75 mm. Millimetre!

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A section of the walls of the Old City.

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And one of the oddest grocery store promotions I have ever seen: 2 bottles of orange juice and a bottle of Pepsi for 4.90 AZN. What a strange combination.

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The statue of Heydar Aliyev, in front of the Heydar Aliyev Palace. To go there, you have to fly to the Heydar Aliyev International Airport. You get the idea.

After the fall of the USSR, the man did not emerge out of nowhere. The former KGB Major-General had already been ruler of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic for 20 years, before being sidelined by Gorbachev in 1987. Although he was not the first, but rather the third President of independent Azerbaijan, the first two only lasted about a year each and he is widely regarded as the Father of the Nation.

Upon his death, his son took over. If you read Western media and NGO reports, both father and son are accused of much of the same things as Mr. Putin is in Russia. Although I read somewhere that in the last few years, the country has become an easier place to do business, it has also become a harder place to be any kind of opposition figure.

I find it difficult to form a more informed opinion on such matters, just like I did when I visited Belarus. Sometimes the Western perspective does not recognize local realities. For example, a Western politician might be tempted to organize fraudulent elections if he thinks he is going to loose, but certainly not if polls give him 60% support. But in many countries, including in the former USSR, 60% is completely unacceptable. The President wants to be reelected with 75, 80 or 85% or the vote. So he cheats. But does it mean he did not have a majority support? Maybe, or maybe not. It is rarely easy to find unbiased opinions on such issues.

I did not get a feel for local political opinions. Many young people speak English in Baku and doing basic things like ordering food is very easy. But I only met one man, on the train out of the country, with whom I could have had a discussion in English about something like politics. He had lived in London. Instead, we talked a little and drank a lot.

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The Heydar Haliyev Center, a combination of national museum, library and concert hall.

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The spectacular building is also nice from the inside, if you can manage to find the entrance.

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Not a lot of straight lines. A saw a Youtube video about the construction of the centre. Needless to say, it was not simple.

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I have often been to places where photography is not allowed, or places where you need permission to use a tripod. But this place had a policy I had never come across before: you can take all the pictures you want, but only with a phone! No cameras allowed. I don’t even have a theory for this one.

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The cafe. I visited in winter, on a weekday, but it still felt a little eery that I was the only visitor in this enormous building.

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I had never seen a Torah in the National Museum of a nominally 95% muslim country! There are about 20 to 30 thousand Jews in Azerbaijan and they live there completely unperturbed. Actually, much safer than being a Jew in France or the Netherlands! Edit #2: It’s a Talmud, not a Torah, which comes in a scroll. Thanks Karinne!

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If you stand in front of one of the traditional musical instruments, a motion sensor will detect your presence and the parabolic speaker will play a little tune.

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“My Engine”, Andris Vitolins, 2015. Modern art for dudes.

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A tiny animated section of the Presidential exhibit. The size of it, and the fact I was alone with the security guards, made it feel a little bit “North Koreanesque”. But only a little bit, because the story of the country is also told through the narrative of the life of the Father of the Nation.

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During his rule, he was presented with this eagle by President Bush The Younger.

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And President Putin gave him a shotgun. Go figure.

So, is it worth visiting Azerbaijan? AB-SO-LU-TE-LY. Unfortunately, they retain ridiculous Soviet visa rules, but the process can now be done online for US$65 (for Canadians anyway). That being said, after I wired the money, Western Union blocked my account until I explained why I wanted to send money to Azerbaijan. After I did, they sent the money. Then MasterCard blocked my card for the same reason!

But don’t let that discourage you, it was the only difficulty. I cannot speak for the rest of the country, but Baku is beautiful, very pleasant to walk around in, full of attractions, expensive for the Caucasus but still cheap by rich country standards, and depending where you live, not that hard to get to. Even WizzAir will have cheap flights from Budapest starting this year. If you dont speak Azeri, Turkish (mutually intelligible) or Russian, I would recommend going with friends. Maybe I didn’t go to the right places, but I didn’t meet a lot of fluent English speakers, tourists or locals. And traditional Azeri cuisine is really meant to be shared.

#Azerbaijan

10 thoughts on “You can’t place Azerbaijan on a map? Doesn’t matter, go anyway. It’s really nice.

  1. Very nice. I have friends who have been there quite a lot and love it. BTW it’s a Talmud (annoyed commentaries on the Torah) and not a Torah, which comes in a scroll 😉

    • Indeed. I knew that, I even wrote about the new Torah proofreading software they now use when I visited Israel. In any case, the main point stands; it’s Jewish and it’s in the museum!

  2. It’s great to follow you around the globe. Very fascinating to see this side of Azerbajdzjan. To Swedes in general Baku is just the strangest place to host the Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately I’ve heard too much about the political oppression to set it aside. I have a friend who fled the province of Naxcevan because the local governor, nephew of the president, wouldn’t allow a privately owned bakery. So they had to give up their business, and were imprisoned for political activism (such as baking cakes…) Her father was involuntarily hospitalized into a secluded mental institution. She speaks Russian and Turkish fluently, but was to afraid to move to any of these places because of the close links between their government and that of Azerbajdzjan. The Swedish immigration board, however, does not recognise this and consider it to be a safe country. Anyway, my friend and her sons have finally received their recidents permission here in Sweden!

    • Hi Sofia,

      As a general rule, I never choose not to visit a country because of any human rights concerns. I could make arguments about the impact of openness, exchange, etc, but really, I’m just being selfish. Obviously, I don’t know anything about the situation you describe, but it matches the narrative of what I read about Azerbaijan politics.

      That being said, when visiting such places, I often discover that the western criticism may not be false, but it focuses on such a small part of life in the “oppressed” country. For example, what Condoleezza Rice called “the last bastion of tyranny in Europe”, Belarus, is a pretty nice place. I know ethnic Russians from the Baltic countries who told me they would rather live there than in Russia. Nobody in China ever told me they wished they had a democratic system like in Pakistan or India. Even in North Korea, 99% of the time it’s about normal people doing normal things (and sometimes signing Celine Dion karaoke, which I found a little strange). But of course, as you know, if you are not the “average person”, but an opponent of the authorities, your reality can be very different. A friend recently forwarded me an article about an artist/activist who walked around Yerevan in Armenia with a cardboard tank around him. He now faces 10 years in jail for “hooliganism”!

      Hope the kids are doing well,

      Colin

  3. Au musée nous avons déjà eu cette politique de photo prise uniquement avec un cellulaire. Ils avaient mentionné que c’était pour des questions de droits d’auteur, comme les photos devaient être de moins bonne qualité lorsqu’elles étaient prises avec un cellulaire. Le règlement n’a pas été appliqué bien longtemps et nous sommes de retour avec la bonne vieille politique du sans «flash».
    J’adore lire tes textes!

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