The Caspian

Posted by on 30, Jun 2010 in 2010 - The Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Caucasus, Europe

The Caspian

After 7927 km we have reached the Caspian. Sadly we didn’t come over the brow of a hill and sea the blue waters sparkling in the distance it was more we got off the metro and could smell it – not salty sea air with chips and vinegar from Aldeburg(oh that sounds sooo good!) – but a pungent oily smell. It wouldn’t matter how hot you were here in Baku you wouldn’t want to go in the water, at least not without the RSPB there to de oil you when you got out. Actually its not that bad, and certainly not as bad as the smell suggests, but you can clearly see lots of little ball bearing size droplets of oil floating close to the shore. That said the rest of Baku is breathtakingly shocking. We have driven through villages with no mains water, stopped to give shepherds water and driven over roads that needed replacing centuries ago but Baku is a cross between Florida, Cannes and Vienna. It has the most impressively decorated motorway you’ve ever seen, with the 8 lanes of tarmac being guarded by a series of gorgeously decorated walls and mini towers. The centre though is totally immaculate. No litter, every building either completely renovated or in the process of being done, perfectly manicured gardens, an enormous tree lined boulevard along the sea front which runs for at least a mile and an old town with a UNESCO castle wall and palace that is exquisite. The streets are lined with buildings straight from Vienna mixed with a lovely mix of modern glass buildings. There are plenty of pedestrianised areas with numerous parks and all sorts of fountains in a multitude of shapes and sizes. I can’t imagine what someone from a more remote area thinks when they see Baku. We loved it!

The new town is littered with large impressive and grand buildings. Theatres, the opera house and the literature museum were just a few highlights. Whilst the museum has romanesque statues lining a first floor balcony with islamic blue tiling, the theatre is a contrasting new glass building sitting opposite an imposing opera house. The old town by contrast is cosy with narrow alleys ancient walls and the UNESCO site. The Maidens Tower – part of the old city wall – provides a great view over both parts of the city and a much better view of the oil rigs off shore which are half hidden by the curvature of the earth and loom like an approaching army. At the top we met 3 Brits working in the industry and one of them came from Oulton Broad!

We enjoyed a long walk around the walls of the old city which look like Disney were brought in to design them, and a stroll down the sea front, a nice mexican where we watched England lose to Germany and then another stroll along the promenade till about 10pm. With the heat here – it was 34C and humid – people emerge around dusk and stay out till well after midnight, toddlers and all. It was fascinating to sit and watch, it is almost impossible to tell you are in an Islamic country. There are families, couples and groups of both men and women promenading with only the very occasional headscarf on view and only 1 burka. Despite being in the capital we only heard one call to prayer and mosques are hard to spot and seem few and far between. People seem much more interested in putting their posh clothes on and going out. Young people in particular could just be transported to London and they would fit right in. The bars all serve alcohol and it seems to be as much a part of their lifestyle as in western society. Whilst girls can where short skirts and not cause any furore men can’t where shorts without causing offence which is peculiar. It is however like all Islamic countries a male dominated society, and in my opinion much poorer for it. With the exception of the centre of Baku, there is little effort made to make shops, cafes and streets in general pleasant. Cafes are normally a male preserve and look like a dishevelled garage with a few plastic seats in. They are often dirty and bland. Shops too are muddled and unkempt. No effort is made to ‘sell’. It is just assumed you will come there and spend money because that’s what’s always happened. There is no competition, they are just places to go and get coffee or groceries. You feel that if women were being taken to the cafes it is almost inconceivable that they would remain the same. I can’t see many women putting on a posh dress and being happy going to a dingy greasy spoon like cafe! Its not that they need to become Starbucks, just that they need some paint, a few plants and some non plastic chairs! Havings said that the people are extraordinarily friendly and kind. Without exception the men on buses will always give up their seat for any woman, and everyone waves and smiles at us as we drive by. They invite you for meals at a drop of a hat love to talk to you even if all they can say is “What is your name” and are so pleased to get a chance to have a look in Taffy. There is no envy or jealousy when they do this, just a child like sense of delight, wonder and innocent joy. They take photos and laugh. They climb up to the bed sit in the chairs and wow at the fridge. They ask to see the TV go up and down. Its great fun!

Our campsite in Baku was just a huge section of Tarmac outside the fire temple. This was where the locals came to stroll, play football, ride their bikes and chat well into the cool of the night. On our second night here we arrived back at Taffy at around 11pm and had to walk through the whole village to get to Taffy. No sooner had we unlocked the door and we had the local kids at the door all saying “what is your name?”. They were followed by their mums who came in for a tour and then the teenage boys and girls – some of whom looked longingly at the picture of Ben – we dished out sweets, surprisingly as many to the cool teenagers as the toddlers, had our photos taken and all laughed non stop even though all we could establish was our names! It was the icing on the cake for a wonderful day.

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