And so it begins. Finally in Baku.
(NB: This is a live blog from my phone. Will tidy up with tidy pictures when I get home. And boy have I got some pictures)
Having dumped our bags we headed out into the night in search of a local live music pub I had found on the internet. The Old School Cafe Bar. I thought I knew where I was going but not being in the European Data Roaming zone meant no sat nav. When on wifi in Fort Knox, google maps said it was only four minutes away. After twenty minutes we decided any old pub would do .
We headed down a street with a rip down the middle. There was a trench dug for the installation of some cable or another. The trench went on for about half a mile, with not a cone or a sign in sight. To make matters worse all the bricks ripped out of the footpath were just left on the side. Very trusting. If that were back home they would have been turned into missiles.
We then stumbled upon the Shakespeare Pub (as featured in the FSFC guide to Baku). We normally try to avoid british pubs when abroad, but lack of sleep and lack of beer drove us into the arms of the English speaking bar staff.
The local beer is OKish, and at least it comes in pints.
The bar food, it turns out, is something special. There is a full indian menu that any curry house back home would be proud of.
Eventually lack of sleep cannot be resisted and we head back to Cell Block Number Nine.
FIRST FULL DAY
Waking up at the crack of noon we consult the guide book and plot our day. We have not seen any free walking tours advertised so we set out armed with our guide book and a pocket full of hope.
We walk towards the ‘coast’. Baku is the lowest city in the world, apparently, sitting 28m below sea level. So we hope we dont get wet.
We walk past modern bars and restaurants, many of them familiar looking western bars, including a Hard Rock Cafe. We opt to stop in a coffeehouse that serves food. Burgers and salads are consumed.
Our journey to the coast resumes. The FSF Cymru guide correctly warns of it being dangerous to cross the road. Luckily there is a subway enabling us to walk safely underneath the deadly road that runs parallel with the sea.
Once on the other side there is a park and a boulevard that runs along the edge of the Caspian Sea. Scanning along the coast we spot the famous three flame towers that dominate the skyline, along with several new structures going up that will, on completion, no doubt become just as iconic.
At first glance the Caspian looks beautiful, but on closer inspection we can see that the water is grimy and pretty much covered with a thin layer of the oil that has made the region so wealthy. There are birds around, but many of them look oily and greasy. Amazingly there are fish close to the surface of the water and birds are spotted diving for them.
We walk along the coast toward a marina and a spectacular looking building that resembles Sydney opera house (well, a little bit). As we get closer we can see that it is not yet complete.
Next door to it we spot the famous Carpet Museum, which is cleverly designed to look like a rolled up carpet. Apparently carpets were a big thing in Baku before someone discovered a use for the oil.
Next to the carpet museum is ‘Little Venice’, a network of canals and Italian restaurants. We are not talking old canals that have found a new use, but canals built specifically for tourists and other people with too much time on their hands. A gondola is spotted cruising down one of the waterways.
Back through another subway we head up the hill towards the Flame Towers. There is a funicular railway, but it appears to be closed, with no English signs explaining why.
Half way up the hill we are stopped by police who try to force us to go into a museum. We nod politely and walk vaguely towards the museum, then back out onto the road. Another copper tells us to go into the museum. This time we strike up a conversation and it turns out they are making way for the President, who is about to come through in a convoy. Off to get a pint of milk or some such thing no doubt.
There is an old phrase that government should fear the people, not people fear the government. I agree to a certain extent, but when you need to clear the streets every time you go out, something is not right.
Soon a convoy of three cars shoots passed, and we resume our journey up hill. For a city that is supposedly below sea level, we spend a lot of time looking down at the sea. Although perhaps the Caspian, which is an in land sea, might be below sea level ? (Mental note to look it up).
We walk up a huge flight of steps leading up to a viewing platform. From here we get a spectacular view of the city below. Lots of photographs are taken of the Caspian vista laid out before us.
Around the corner we find a monument with a flame going full bore, changing direction as the wind blows it around. There is no security barrier to stop you getting toasted, but there is a bored looking security guard hanging around. I’m not sure what his job is but he does not bat an eye when people go up close to the flame. Perhaps his entire day is spent hoping something tragic will break up the monotony.
We realise the flame may have some significance as we continue walking and find a row of graves dedicated almost entirely to people who died on 20th January 1990.
A search on Wikipedia (other pedias are available) when we have wifi reveals that January 1990 is known as Black January. As the Soviet Empire was crumbling and Azerbaijan was setting out on the road to independence, Russian troops brutally put down an uprising killing one hundred and forty seven people (or three hundred, depending on which source you believe). Independence was not far behind though, arriving in 1991, with the dead of Black January becoming martyrs to the cause.
At the other end of the cemetery we find the flame towers. I say find, it’s not as if they were hiding, but we thought we had got there several times, only to find that they were still a few blocks away. It’s like the Father Ted sketch with the toy cow near, and the real cow is far away. They are huge, and you dont really appreciate how big they are till you are on top of them.
The sun is going down. We hang around for a bit to see the towers light up, but they don’t. We walk back down hill and by the time we are one block away, they are lit up. Sometimes like a flame, sometimes the colours of the Azerbaijan flag, sometimes an animated bloke waving the flag.
Eventually we hit Shakespeares pub. It starts to fill up with red shirts and bucket hats. The Wonky Sheep crew have finally arrived. We bump into Barbara, a lady from north wales who had joined us on our trip around Albania (which reminds me, I must get that blog on line).
Much as we enjoyed the food last night, we decide to hit the curry house next door. A good move, the food is sublime.
This little street is full of curry houses, pubs, bars and nightclubs. All aimed at the western market. We decide to make another attempt to find the Old School pub.
This time our brains are not running on fumes and we head in the right direction. We do have a moment of doubt as we find ourselves walking down dark back alleyways, but find it we do.
How it found it’s way onto a list of ‘Ten best live music venues’ on the net is beyond me , there does not appear to be any room for anyone to perform. But it is a cracking little place, almost like being in someone’s living room, with a collection of vintage televisions, telephones, record players, cameras and film projectors scattered everywhere. There are musical instruments up high, and scribbled graffiti down low. Old school indeed.
Thd pub seems to be frequented mainly by bohemian locals and there is no bar in the traditional sense, but if you catch the eye of one of the dudes that look like they might work there, beer appears. And cheap beer at that.
Eventually we head back to Colditz, finally getting our bearings of where to head in this amazing city.