Jun 23, 2013

Baku: beautiful but undiscovered (repost)

Having recently returned from another summer school in Baku, Azerbaijan I reproduce here an article originally written for the British Council blog last year.

After travelling to Georgia and Armenia on short-term teacher training missions last year I was looking forward to my visit to the third country of the Caucasian triangle: Azerbaijan. I’d heard that Baku, the capital of the fast growing country rich in oil and other natural resources, was a notch above the capitals of its Caucasian neighbours: Tbilisi and Yerevan. Even so, I was in for a pleasant surprise – or rather blown away – when I arrived in Baku.

Unlike some grim post-Soviet capitals, Baku, which has recently hosted the Eurovision Song Contest – the fact the city takes a great pride in – was vibrant, dynamic and diverse. Perhaps it somewhat lacks the scenic beauty of charming Tbilisi but this is certainly compensated for by the amount of investment poured into it.

Broad boulevards are lined with swanky boutiques and large squares with fountains are decorated by public art. Towering over the well-preserved and polished up Old Town are three futuristic glass skyscrapers, The Flame Towers, designed as a modern landmark of the city.

The largest city on the shores of the Caspian Sea – the largest inland body of water in the world - was unlike any other city I’ve ever been to. And it wasn’t just a delightful fusion of old and new. There are plenty of other cities in the world where you can find modern skyscrapers alongside traditional architecture (take, for example, Tel Aviv –Yaffo). The Baku blend goes beyond that and has several dimensions. It’s an intriguing mix of religious and secular, rich and poor, a place where East meets West and the Soviet past co-exists with the proud present.

These bewildering combinations were also apparent in my conversations with the locals. Since I only had half a day for sightseeing and exploring the city, my main cultural insights into this fascinating place came courtesy of a group of 19 teachers I was working with - in the breaks between the sessions.

“What did you expect? We’re a European country.” responded one of the participants when I complained about pricey drinks in a hotel bar (EUR 8.- for a glass of wine). This was counterbalanced by – perhaps a little too personal – questions you would normally hear in the Middle East: “Are you married? How come you’re still not?!” Just like in Turkey, Europe and Asia meet here both in a geographical and cultural sense.

 “Armenia gets support from Russia, Georgia from the USA. We’re the only country in the region that has supported itself since the Independence in 1991.” And has managed to rapidly transform itself while maintaining strategically beneficial relationships with the countries with opposing – and often conflicting - agendas such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel.

Unlike other former republics of the USSR, Azerbaijan doesn’t seem too keen to say goodbye to all things Russian. Most of the population is effectively bilingual, effortlessly switching between Russian and Azeri, which belongs to the Turkic language family and is very similar to Turkish. Also, perhaps partly owing to 70 years spent under the Communist Soviet rule, Azerbaijan, despite being the second largest country with the Shiite majority (after Iran), is surprisingly secular compared to its neighbour south of the border. Most women’s dress is far from conservative and alcohol is sold freely. The summer school occurred at the time of the Ramadan and a few participants were fasting. Yet, others were happily sipping Heineken on the beach, purchased in the overpriced hotel bar.

The Crescent Beach Resort, where I was lodged, was situated just outside the city on the shore of the mildly salty Caspian Sea. I had imagined the hotel would be full of holidaying Russian oligarchs, their Gucci-clad wives and children with iPads. But the low-rise hotel with an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the Caspian was startlingly empty for July. The Eurovision Song Contest gave the country a chance to showcase their wealth and innovation but did not result in an expected tourist boom. For most part, Baku unfortunately remains a popular destination mainly for business travellers from the oil industry.

 P.S. I stayed at the same hotel this year and it was fully booked. 


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