Walk around the city of Baku and you cannot help but to be impressed. It is clean, well-manicured, and burgeoning with skyscrapers. Historic districts have been restored with beautiful façades and shopping and restaurants abound. Families are out for a stroll in the park or enjoying ice cream and there is a sense of tranquility that pervades many cities. But if we roll back the veil of Baku, is there more to Azerbaijan than a country trying to integrate itself into Europe through market reforms and rapid development?
Khajija Ismayilova says yes, making that explicit point in a documentary entitled Amazing Azerbijian! in which I have included excerpts below. Human rights organizations accuse the government of severe beatings, torture, arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, and forced disappearances. At the same time, the government has made some inroads in promoting civil liberties, even if progress remains slow. A UN report declares, “Azerbaijan has achieved progress in many areas of governance, through reforms in the executive, improvement of national legislation, and adoption of international normative agreements in areas such as human rights, including those of women and children, among many others.”
Even if the truth is somewhere in-between, it becomes reasonable to question whether your money spent as a tourist is going to support a government that abuses human rights.
But if no one ever visits Azerbaijan will the situation ever change? I do not believe in boycotting countries: studying past boycotts, the Cuban Embargo in particular, is an examination of failure and a government determined to abuse its citizens will find a way to do so, at least for a time. Sanctions rather than boycotts seem to be a more effective strategy for compulsory change, though the jury is still out on that too. Does the money you spend in airport taxes, hotel taxes, and to visit historic state-run sites underwrite the abuses that many allege?
Or does it support the modernization of an oil-rich nation whose riches will inevitably lead to democratic and constitutional reforms as the populace becomes more wealthy and will no longer tolerate the sort of Soviet suppression that has been a blight on Azerbijian’s history?
Call me overly optimistic, but I tend to think the latter option is more likely.
Most Americans and many Europeans, I suspect, could not place Azerbaijan on the map and cannot fathom what this country of 9.2 million people could be like. But only a few hours from central Europe and one-stop from many North American airports lies a city with a certain unique charm to it that I hope my pictures below will capture.
The nicest KFC in the world. Can’t speak for the food.
There is no doubt the city is trying to modernize and advance from a very spartan Soviet metropolis to a destination that caters to tourism and offers the feel of Europe at a much more affordable price.
I was only in Baku for three days, out and about for two of those days, but I felt totally safe my entire journey, enjoyed the beauty of the city, and met some extremely kind people.
Baku has an extensive Metro system and requires a reloadable card like the Oyster card for the London Underground. At one point I encountered some trouble loading the card and a man standing in line behind me stepped up, motioned for me to watch (not speaking any English), and loaded it for me…with his own money.
English is spoken in high-end shops and hotels, but do not expect to be able to converse with most on the streets and in more casual restaurants…that is part of the charm.
Döner Kebab is comfort food for me when I travel and döner stands are widespread in Baku. For a couple bucks, a huge sandwich awaits. I ate at a small stand adjacent to the central railway station and had to wait in line for 10 minutes it was so popular…but it was worth the wait.
Walk down the harbor road and be sure to check out the Maiden’s Tower. Wind your way through the ancient part of the city and at the other end you’ll come out in the shopping district.
Cabs are widespread, though only the official purple London-style cabs are metered. Avoid all other cabs unless you are a good negotiator. The Metro is cheap, reliable, and as I will detail in the next installment, a tourist attraction itself.
I stayed at the Hyatt complex, a review of which will be published shortly, and the city now boasts many other western chains including a brand new Hilton on the banks of the Caspian Sea.
You’ll notice the cult of personality surrounding Heydar Aliyev by the numerous posters of him that fill the city, but just ignore those if you are uncomfortable—the people do not seem to worship him like they worship King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Thailand. Aliyev was the leader of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982. He returned to power a decade later and served as President of independent Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003. His son Ilham has succeeded him and remains president, likely by rigging elections like his father before him.
Is it really worth the long trip? For me it was, without a doubt. Include Georgia and Armenia on the same trip for a true experience of the Caucusus. I enjoyed all three countries, but Azerbaijan (at least in Baku as opposed to Tbilisi and Yerevan) was by far the most advanced, modern, comfortable, and interesting.
Read the rest of my trip report to the Caucasus!
Thrown Off a United Airlines Flight for Taking Pictures!
Washington Dulles to Kuwait City in United Airlines BusinessFirst
Six Hours in Kuwait City
Pearl Lounge – Kuwait International Airport
Kuwait City to Istanbul in Turkish Airlines Economy Class
Istanbul to Baku in Azerbaijan Airlines Economy Class
Baku – A City of Illusions?
Review: Park Hyatt Baku
Baku Metro (Pictures)
Overnight Train from Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia
Pictures: One Day in Tbilisi, Georgia
Overnight Train from Tbilisi to Yerevan, Armenia
Feeling at Home in Yerevan
Yerevan to Istanbul in Armavia Economy Class
The Flight Home from Istanbul…