Thursday, 25 October 2012
Day 213 – Big flags and small books. (Azerbaijan)
We arrived in Baku expecting it to be another ex-Soviet Dictator’s artificial capital. What we in fact found though was a very European feeling city with a lovely big central square sporting the usual array of designer stores and up-market bars. Surrounding the centre was a jumble of very narrow, over-crowded and definitely organic laneways and alleys that were built long before cars were an everyday commodity – just like most European cities. Navigating our way from the outskirts to the centre was simple enough despite the one way streets, but once we got there, getting through the maze and finding a parking spot was a different story. In streets barely wide enough for two cars, there was double parking, and every dead end was used as a parking lot. I wouldn’t be overly happy if I parked at the end of a dead end, only to find myself parked in by 20 or so other cars.
Enjoying our first McDonald’s meal since Thailand (yes, we enjoy McDonald’s and we’re not going to apologise for it), we used their free wi-fi to try to no avail to find an apartment for rent. Hospitality Club and Couch Surfing couldn’t help us out at such short notice, and we ended up staying at the only vaguely reasonably priced hostel in town. Azerbaijan is quite an expensive country, especially considering its neighbours, and accommodation in Baku is no exception. At 16 Manat ($20) each per night for a dorm bed, we felt incredibly ripped off, but seeing it was in the centre of Old Town and the only option under about 60 Manat pp, we had no option. It’s hard to describe it as “value for money”, but it was actually a decent place – the rooms and bathrooms were clean, the staff were reasonably friendly and we met some other very interesting travellers.
Whilst enjoying Fountain Square, we noticed a few people in “Press” jackets with large camera bags standing around a particular point. Unsure what they were waiting for, and disinclined to hang around just to find out, we continued on our way. As we were leaving the square a few minutes later, we heard a few screams and excited voices and looked over to where they were coming from. Realising that the peaceful square was now occupied by a large group of protestors, we looked on as they marched up and down the square, followed by rows of fully armed police. They seemed to disperse, then a few minutes later a small riot would break out and the police would emerge with a handful of kicking and screaming activists. This pattern went on for a couple of hours. A fellow bystander told us the people are “unhappy with the government”. Are anti-government protests happening all the time, or do they only break out when we’re in town? (Blog Day 193 – Batons and tear gasand Day 194 – Economics andGender Studies)
Baku, and in fact all of Azerbaijan’s recent claim to fame, is that as the 2011 winner of Eurovision, they were the 2012 host of the song contest. Only two months after the event, the city is still strewn with posters, murals, advertising, merchandise and shaped plants. Even specially produced Eurovision beer is still sold in most shops. From a point on top of the hill, we got a spectacular view of the Crystal Palace where the contest was hosted, lit up at night with shimmering blue lights, shining into the sky and sparkling against the dark sky backdrop. Next to the Crystal Palace is Azerbaijan’s less recent, but possibly more legitimate claim to fame – the former tallest flagpole in the world, and the current largest flag. Stretching 162m into the sky, it certainly is a sight to behold, not to mention the engineering prowess that surely went into constructing such an object. At the time of construction, this was the tallest in the world, but was overtaken by Dushanbe in 2011. At 70m x 35m the flag is too big to fly at the moment because of high winds, so the one we saw was its smaller replacement.
Apart from the usual variety of picturesque cobble-stoned streets, ruined bazaars, mosques, walls and towers, we did find one particularly interesting museum in the old town. Having walked around all the standard sights we stumbled across the small, but extensive Miniature Book Museum. Housing over 2,000 books from all over the world, covering several topics and ranging from antique to modern, it was a delightful and unique little museum. With free entry and a very passionate spiel (albeit in Azeri) from the grandmotherly curator, we were very glad to have found it.