Friday, April 14, 2017

The rich pearl in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan with the Wandering Writer

As it arrived the time to say goodbye to lovely Georgia, Tbilisi, the great food experience, and unforgettable wine, we reached the point to decide the next destination.
As adventures seeking people, we were looking at all the possibilities offered by the neighbouring countries, and the first that attracted our attention was Chechenia, particularly the city of Grozny, mostly for the interesting political history it holds, and the two Chechen wars. Important events, such as Chechen war, have a very deep impact on the culture, life, and the development of a country, and the thirst of understanding the events from the people who lived them in first person, was the reason for that choice.
Unfortunately, Chechenia has also a very strict border policy and crossing the border from Georgia would have been quite difficult. The easiest, and Im really pushing the meaning of the word easy, was flying to Moscow, and from there take another flight to Grozny. Therefore, we decided to skip Chechenia just to move this trip to a better time, when for example we would have travelled to Russia.

Therefore, we had to decide whether visiting Armenia, Turkey, or Azerbaijan. Our choice, this time was for the latter, and we booked a place for the first class in the night train to Baku. The first class was not a snob choice, rather a convenient one. In this way, we wouldnt be separated for the night, making our journey more comfortable.
The price was not crazy, being about 80 USD but the purchase needed some patience. Besides trying to understand where we had to buy the tickets, (top floor of the railway stations shopping mall in Tbilisi) we had to wait some time in an endless queue, but as soon as we arrived we realised that we needed our passports to complete the purchase. I know we should have thought about it, but we also believed that they would have checked our passports at the border. Anyway, we went back to our hotel, got the passports get back to the railway station, waited on another long queue, just to realise that we were in the wrong queue.
At that point, you can imagine we were a little nervous, but grabbing the last vestiges of patience, we waited for another queue, and our perseverance paid off. We finally had the train tickets, and we were ready to go.
Now, if you will find yourself in the same position as we were, remember one very important thing; in the night train from Tbilisi to Baku, there isnt any restaurant, nor any sort of snack is provided.
We were lucky to arrive at the station quite in advance and that we asked to one of the ticket inspectors about the meal plan, so we could buy something to eat from a small kiosk at the station, and since the ticket inspector was very nice, we offered her also something to eat.
At 17:00 the train left, and we were happily on our way to Baku.
We reached the border in the evening at about 20:00 and at that point all the sort of checks and controls. Something interesting to know is that as an officer was checking the passports and allowing travellers with the visa to enter Azerbaijan, another went to check with a Geiger counter the wagons to be sure that there wasnt any radioactive material imported illegally into the country.
We had a good laugh about it, as for a western citizen might sound crazy to smuggle radioactive material to another country. We generally smuggle drugs, weapons, people Oh well, every country has its own problems, I guess.
Our cabin was very comfortable, and I would really suggest to invest a bit more money to get the first class ticket:

We woke up in the morning, and I went to check immediately for the kind of scenery Azerbaijan were offering. The first glimpse were the oil fields, giving me a foretaste of the main activity in the country.
Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence, for the first time in 1918, being the first democratic country in the Muslim orient world. The independence didnt last long, as the Soviet Union incorporated it already in 1920, but was able to proclaim its independence finally in 1991, just before the dissolution of the USSR.
The city of Baku is, at the first glance, showing off the richness coming from oil, gas and natural resources like precious metals and fertile/arable land that give them a great deal of independence from other countries, despite the economic highs and lows it had. Generally, the streets, the parks, the buildings are very well kept, and at the time of our visit there was a big deal of building new going on in the city. However, all that shines is not gold, and in some cases the front side of the buildings, like houses and flat house, were maintained in the front, and left non maintained on the back side.
Something really amazing of the city was the light show offered by the flame towers. Those are the tallest building complex in Baku, and consists in apartments, a hotel, and office blocks. The complex consists in three buildings flame shaped, which facades turns into an amazing light show using more than 10000 LED-lights.

They were indeed impressive offering a staggering show during the nights. The city itself is a real must see, and a tourist attracting hub, with its fashion streets, wonderful parks, restaurants to accommodate all the tastes and entertainments for everyone, from the young to the not-so young-anymore.

For the history seekers, there is plenty to discover, and as usual, the best place to ask is the local pub tender. They are always keen to share their experience about the history that shaped their country and can give great insights about the average lifestyle of the people. As much as the hairdresser can give you the latest gossip, the pub tender gives you the best knowledge about the other side of the world you wont see from the outside, or that is hidden from the main news; they know it all.
At the beach, one of the tallest flag proudly displaying itself to the wind, and I guess this is the first thing you will ever see, as you approach the country by the sea.

The city is divided mainly into three different parts, the ancient city, the Soviet city and the new one.
The old city, is a must see, and it is also a UNESCO Heritage Site; nevertheless, it is quite small, and can be easily visited in a few hours by walking, including the Palace of the Shirvan Shaha and the Maidens tower.
The city, it is fast building up its own cultural identity, and it seems as it is trying to forget the Soviet past. The new buildings in the city are built following a more classic style, rather than a modern one, which is reserved mostly for business headquarters like the flame towers. This creates a very interesting blend between old and new that will surely catch your attention, at least it caught mine, and made me want to have the same blend also in my hometown.
The food experience was interesting, but I was lacking something more traditional and local, like I have experienced in Georgia, but on the other hand, in such a multicultural environment you have to expect a blend of cultures also in the cuisine which is not bad at all.
In this way, I collected another country to the list I-loved-it-and-I-dont-know-why because there were too many things that made me love that place, but I could not put a real priority on any of them.

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