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Thursday, September 12, 2013

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A rich man’s playground

I’ve enjoyed the history and culture of many different cities on my travels, but Baku has been the one I can’t wait to leave. The oil money has produced a city with life, but no soul. It is a shining, glitzy paradise for the wealthy and their 4×4’s or SUV’s, each one sparkling like it’s just come out of the showroom.

The Presidential Palace, Baku

Even the Presidential Palace is brand new, probably built to resemble some other palace elsewhere. That’s exactly what’s wrong with Baku, you walk around and see buildings copied from famous landmarks around the world. There is nothing original here, not only have we seen the National Art Gallery, but we’ve taken a ride in a London taxi cab. Copies, but it just doesn’t work. You cross under the huge roads via incredible marble underpasses – the real deal. They shout WEALTH out loud.

Playground for the rich. Baku City

McDonald’s has a huge flat screen LCD outside, showing the latest possessions that you simply must have. We have been inside a few times, laughed at the kids in their designer clothes and wondered if a ‘real’ local from one of the poorer villages or towns would even be allowed through the doors; – I doubt it. In the same square there are two statues that for me perfectly sum up this City with no history and no soul, but a beautiful facade. One shows a girl sitting on a bench, mirror in hand applying makeup and the other, a girl on her mobile, brolly in hand and designer sunglasses pushed into her hair.

You’re so vain.

Looking cool is so important!

The promenade is empty most of the time as there are much better places to strut around and show off your latest designer clothes. All the shops are here, it’s a shoppers dream if you have money and want to go on a spree. You won’t find Primark or other budget retailers, but you will find Gucci, Armani, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana. I could go on… they’re all here. Walking the streets gets boring, because there is nothing else.

Empty promenade, Baku City

Don’t get me wrong, there are some sights here worth seeing. It’s just the whole wealth thing I abhor, having spent time with the real Azerbaijan people who are hidden from view. As both myself and Clive cycled through some of the rural towns to get here, we noticed the (castle like) walls being built to hide the old buildings. A facade, the president doesn’t want reminding of how the people outside his oil rich capital live. OK now I’ll climb down from my soapbox, as if I publish this I do need to be careful.

For those wishing to visit Baku, here’s a pictorial guide to a few of the highlights:

At night, the City looks amazing.

The Funicular at night, Baku City

Souvenirs are plentiful and everywhere!

Like the City, the souvenirs are new.

Maiden Tower – A UNESCO Heritage site. Must be old then?

Fountains are numerous… sure I’ve seen the cropped heads somewhere else though?

The City walls, Baku

Walking to fountain square, Baku

Spotlessly clean – no graffiti or chewing gum here!

The three towers dominate the skyline

Rich man’s toy – well it must be a highlight for someone!!

The Round The World Cyclist’s Club – or TRTWCC for short!

Baku is the place to meet other travelers and along with the arrival of Clive, I met up with Ed and Giles at the Caspian hostel. Ed is cycling from Bristol to Brisbane and brought along Giles to ride the first part of the journey with him. They’re a couple of interesting guys and I’ll be following Ed’s progress once he gets back on his way.

Four members of TRTWCC, Clive, Ed, Giles & Derek

The fifth member of our exclusive club was a Polish cyclist called Dominik, who had such an infectious smile he could lift you however glum you were feeling. He left early to continue his travels through Kazakhstan, but is now a friend on Facebook – so we’ll also no doubt keep in touch. You may have noticed that Clive, Dominik and myself are sporting our ‘desert’ haircuts – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will be uncomfortably hot so we’ve opted for shaven heads!

Always smiling, Dominik I miss you already!

Waiting around for our visa’s has been really hard for us all. Me and Clive have got our Kazak and Tajik visa’s, but are still awaiting news of the Uzbek one. I always knew this would be difficult and it’s very frustrating not knowing when we will be able to move on. I’m worried because my Azerbaijan visa expires on 20th of September, so I need to be on the ferry and heading for Kazakhstan soon.

Our room in the Caspian Hostel, Baku

As we have been hanging around the staff at the hostel are becoming more approachable and maybe I was a little harsh in my initial assessment, as I’m warming towards some of them. The hostel cat is the star, and it’s certainly been the place to meet people. I’ve made a few new friends, and not just cyclists. I love hearing tales from other travelers and it’s really interesting comparing our thoughts on the different countries and cultures we’ve experienced.

When I’m not sleeping, I catch mice!

Having to wait around, I’ve fixed up the bike with a new chain and cassette. While the chain was well worn their looked to be lot’s of life left in the cassette, but I thought it best to change both. Apparently it will be many kilometers before I find another decent bike shop in China, if I can get there! Clive has researched our Chinese visa’s and it is going to be a nightmare getting them, possibly involving sending our passports back to an agent in the UK to do it for us. Time to worry about that later though, for now we still have to get our Uzbek visa’s. I’ll let you know in an update when we get them and get on our way again.

More soon…

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Friday, September 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Nice update! Baku sounds EXACTLY the same as Astana in Kazakhstan. But if I remember correctly, it’s not on your route. Have a nice time in Kazakhstan! p.s. nice hair cut, you’ll mix in well with the locals in Kazakhstan;) p.p.s. In my mind, I’m referring to your and Clive’s team as ‘Band on a Run’ (after Paul McCartney and Wings song):D I’ve been listening to it quite a lot lately and every time when I listen to the song I cannot help but think it’s you guys! 😀 “I hope you haaaving on the run”;) I’m sure you are.

    Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Wow, haven’t heard that song for ages, I’ll download it from YouTube! Waiting around has taken too long Hansi, but I think the fun will start tomorrow when we get underway on the ferry across the Caspian Sea. Can’t wait for Kazakhstan… but for me I’m just dreaming of the Pamir Highway. Stay tuned!!

    Great to hear from you, keep me informed about your news too. 🙂

Monday, September 16, 2013 at 9:04 am

Very interesting to read your thoughts about Baku! It sounds like I imagined it to be… Great that you´ve got all your visa´s now!

Good luck for your next country!!

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Um….what do you mean Presidential palace is brand new? It was built in the 50’s! Baku has lots of old historic parts to it and the soul of the city is with everyone who ever lived or visited there (with an exception of you). Do some research before you slander this old and beautiful city!

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 5:27 am

    Hi Lea, I don’t think you can call my thoughts ‘slander’, we are all allowed our own opinions. Incidentally all the other members of our group in Baku agreed with me.



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