Azerbaijan got off on a bad start with me - first of all I'd been woken up on the sleeper train by a man kneeling on the floor between my bunk and his wife's and talking in a very loud whisper - strangely all the English he knew before disappeared, or at least he didn't know what "Shut up I'm trying to sleep!" meant. Also the very sovietly (new word) officious train woman locked the toilet doors before we got to Baku and just stood and watched while I tried to open it. Lastly, the similarly officious toilet attendant at Baku station refused to let me in as I didn't have any Azeri money. You'll be relieved to hear that some nice ladies came along and gave her some money for me.
Looking back I'm not sure why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and go in anyway, but early in the morning and a new country is a bad combination for me. Its so easy, when traveling, to fall into the trap of assuming that individual people represent a whole country, which, of course, is silly. I do think that different nationalities have a general "personality", but its impossible to form a proper impression of this after a few hours! However, I carried on with the feeling that the Azeris can be quite a forceful people and that you have to keep on your toes with them. They can also be very warm, hospitable and friendly people too.
We arrived in Baku, the capital, which is on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, across which is Turkmenistan, to the south is Iran and the north is Russia and Dagestan. Baku is a city rich in oil, the proceeds of which are obvious around the city, infact it has the poshest Debenham's I've ever seen. We went to the Old City and were immediately accosted by the local guide, Ali, who actually showed us comparatively cheap hotel ( his brother's of course, in the old city. As in Tbilisi, this was for the same price as a bed in an overcrowded dorm. The Caucasus seem to specialise in expensive hostels, knowing that foreign backpackers like to keep together. It is nice to meet other travellers, but its still possible to do so while having a bit more value for money.
The Old City in Baku is surrounded by its mostly original walls with a several gates, at one of which is the large Maiden Tower. Unfortunately, the buildings have been either rebuilt or sandblasted, giving it a rather sanitised look, in fact it reminded me of an oriental Poundbury! Still it was possible to imagine the Caravans arriving across the desert. When I was travelling along the Silk Road before I became very interested/obsessed with how many humps camels had in each country. To explain: when the Silk Caravans set out from China they used 2 humped, hairy mountain camels, but when they arrived in the Middle East, the camels were single-humped desert camels. Where, I wondered, did the camels loose a hump? The answer, as far as I could tell, was Uzbekistan, where there had been both types. Baku was also on one of the numerous Silk Roads but although it is surrounded by desert, the hairy mountain 2 humped variety was the one in most of the old pictures.
The Azeri people are of Turkic origin and their language is pretty close to Turkish. Here is a quick, but highly academic history of the Turkic people:
Quite a long time ago, a tribe called the Turks left the homelands somewhere around Mongolia, though they weren't Mongolian. They spread down through Xinjiang, which is now in western China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and into Turkey. There might be a few Stans left out of that. This is mainly Central Asia and Turkey. Its a massive area and explains why in China there are people whose language and culture are strongly related to Turkey, thousands of miles away. Now you know.
We were in Baku twice, but I'll tell you about the stuff we did there in one go.
Although the centre of Baku is very modern and wealthy, the areas surrounding it were full of filthy old oil wells and ecological destruction. This is being slowly cleared up but it makes for an interesting comparison. Out of the 3 Caucusus countries, Azerbaijan has the largest division between rich and poor. One of the places we went to was an old Zorastrian fire temple. This had an eternal flame, which was originally fueled by natural gasses, but now by the compliments of the gas company! The trip on the bus from Baku took us through areas that became more and more run down until we arrived in a dilapidated town full of old nodding donkeys and a train line full of oil tankers.
We also did a couple of trips with the speedy but informative Ali to some mud volcanoes, the "James Bond Oil field" used in a Bond film, strangely enough, a mountain that has been on fire for a few hundred years - not fueled by the gas company, and a sea-side resort with oil fields in the distance.
After a couple of expensive days in Baku we decided to go south to the Talysh Mountains, which border on Iran.
Author:: Sue Deegan