Finally, I have access to the Internet again [thanks to The Baku Roasting Company] and can upload my blog entries and associated images.
“Azerbaijan, Is that a country?” asked the American artist that Sandra and I met in Lefkosia. “Yes”, I replied. “It borders Russia to the North, Iran to the south and the Caspian Sea to the East”. As far as the people who have heard of it are concerned, it is just another one of those “stans” like Afghanistan and Pakistan, full of Islamic fundamentalists and crushing poverty. Well, that hasn’t been our first impression.
Azerbaijan sits on the second biggest oil field in the world and has been independent of the Soviet Union for nearly twenty years. In the past two decades, there has been a rush by Western oil companies to ingratiate themselves with the government to get heir hands on the Black Gold.
Baku the Capital, is the most rapidly changing city in the Caucuses where old Lada taxis chase flashy Mercedes along tree-lined boulevards full of designer shops while men with droopy moustaches play backgammon in bars on pot-holed back streets. A limpid, heavily polluted Caspian washes against the beautiful, curving promenade of the city while on the steeply sloping hills, brash new tower blocks create of glitzy backdrop.
Walking around Fountain Square next to the ancient walled city last night, we watched families in smart modern dress and young couples holding hands take the cooling air. The area is full of beautiful old pre-Soviet stone-built streets that have been scrubbed clean, refurbished and opened as coffee bars, restaurants, shops and offices. Mansions built by the robber Barons of the first oil boom face tree lined boulevards while the heroic building that used to be dedicated to Lenin has been converted into a carpet museum.
On the very edge of the “Islamic” world, seventy years of communism followed by a further twenty of rampant capitalism have blunted religious fervour and according to Lonely Planet have turned Islam into a vague cultural identity, where observing Ramadan means cutting down on beer and cigarettes.
Unlike Cairo, you are not hassled every five minutes by street sellers and guides and you don’t endure the anxiety that everyone is after the contents of your wallet. In Windhoek, we were very careful about where we walked, avoiding lonely corners and dark alleys but here, the streets have a very different atmosphere. We felt safe and relaxed as we wandered about. Little English is spoken and people are reserved but genuinely friendly and helpful. One taxi driver could not understand our request and started to phone a friend who spoke English but before he could connect with him, a young student came up and acted as an interpreter for us. That was a breath of fresh air.
Let us see what the new day brings…