The reason we take the night train from Tbilisi to Baku is because I have an unshakeably romantic notion of overnight trains and their glamourous ways. You climb aboard in Liverpool and wake up in London; you go to sleep in Samarkand and wake up in Tashkent. Kathy, being a good sport, goes along with this. My first doubts emerge when we get to the rail station in Tbilisi. It’s a desolate concrete hall with scuffy shops and a tragic cafeteria. There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere to wait. There are no exotic countesses of mysterious lineage, swathed in furs, stalking through the crowds. One reason for this is that there are no crowds. Come to that, there aren’t many trains. The whole place has a derelict feel. On the platform, I trip over an oddly placed lump of concrete and go down hard on one knee.
They let us board the train half an hour before departure. It’s cosy and shabby. We have a compartment for two with a door that locks, and just enough floor space between the bunks to stash our suitcases. An attendant hands out mismatched flower-patterned sheets and pillow cases, and a tiny square of towel for ablutions in the grim toilet at the end of the corridor. Usually they give you free chai on overnight trains, but sadly the samovar on this one doesn’t seem to be working.
The train leaves Tbilisi at 19.15 and arrives at the border with Azerbaijan at 20.30. A Georgian official comes through the coach collecting passports. Mine is French, Kathy’s is American. After a while, they’re returned with exit stamps. Then we chug off to the Azeri frontier. The journey across no man’s land takes a good ten minutes. It’s too dark to see what they’ve got out there. Mines? Miradors? Barbed wire? The last time I crossed an ex-Soviet land frontier – on a bus between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – things were pretty relaxed. But, as Lonely Planet delicately explains, entering Azerbaijan is “sometimes awkward.” For a start you need a visa, unlike the other Caucasian countries. Azerbaijan has a repressive political regime, and unresolved disputes with its neighbour Armenia. The train shudders to a standstill, and the Azeri officials board.
When the Soviet Union started to fall apart at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions blossomed in the Caucasus. First there was unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh (a predominantly Armenian enclave inside Muslim Azerbaijan), then there were anti-Armenian pogroms in and around Baku, then Moscow sent in Soviet troops and their intervention caused dozens of deaths. Sixteen percent of what used to be the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR is currently occupied by Armenia, and so the first thing everyone wants to know is whether we’ve been sleeping with the Enemy. Fortunately, we have not. Our itinerary on this trip didn’t include Armenia. Just as well: it’s the main thing on everyone’s mind. The immigration officials ask if we’ve been there, so do the customs officials, and later so do our guides in Baku. Land grabs and blood feuds are taken seriously in this part of the world.
The passport officials commandeer an empty compartment further down the coach and the passengers are summoned one by one to give an account of themselves. It’s very Agatha Christie. You start to wonder if you’ve murdered someone. In a modern twist, they take our photos too. Kathy is asked again if she’s been to Armenia. When it’s my turn, since they can see I was born in England, they cunningly inquire if I’ve got another passport (which I might have used to conceal any treasonous detours). Of course not, I say, feigning perplexity. Welcome to Azerbaijan, says the official.
Next along the coach is a lady customs official, who wants to know what we bought in Georgia. Spices, ma’am. What else? Since I’m stupid enough to mention some kilim cushions I bought in Tbilisi, she makes me dig them out of the bottom of the suitcase. Kilims over a certain size require an export licence, and I can’t make her grasp the concept of cushions. By the way, have we been to Armenia?
I first got interested in Baku in the 1990s. Caspian oil reserves were neglected by the Soviets, but when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991 no time was lost in scouting out international investment. The foreign oilmen jetted in, with the Western press hard on their heels. I was fascinated by the tales of Western oil barons doing deals with former stars of the Communist Party in a town where oil rigs stood side by side with Caspian Belle Époque mansions. I put Baku on my list of places to visit – but it’s taken me twenty years to get there.
Right now Baku is in the middle of its second oil boom. The first one began in the 1870s – oil was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century – and by 1905 the sleepy provincial Caspian town had become a modern metropolis supplying half the world’s oil. Its population shot from 14,000 to 206,000. Ethnic Azeris were outnumbered by Russians, Armenians, Jews, and Europeans. Wedged between the desert and the Caspian, Baku became a cosmopolitan city whose inhabitants thought of themselves not as Azeris, but as Bakintsy: sophisticates not shepherds, men and women of the world. (The chess player Garry Kasparov still identifies himself as a Bakanets.) World War I triggered an international scramble to control the Caucasus and its oil wealth. For a while it looked as though the British had won, but then the Bolsheviks pushed them out. Twenty years later, the lure of the oil wells drew the Nazis south towards the Caucasus. Happily, Hitler got sidetracked by the siege of Stalingrad. If the Wehrmacht had made it down to Baku, Caspian oil might have allowed him to win World War II.
As soon as all the officials have left, the attendant moves down the coach, turning off lights. Sleep time, she says as she walks past our door. When we wake up we’re in Azerbaijan. Raising the blinds we peer out at an inhospitable vista of scrubby desert and arid mountains. Gradually the landscape turns into an oilscape. The train chugs past mile after mile of refineries and pipelines. A flame of fire burns brightly in the morning gloom. Half-constructed houses stand sadly amid the oil rigs. After a lengthy stop in a station on the outskirts of town, the train gasps into Baku an hour late.
The Baku rail terminal is a thing of wonder. It ushers you slickly into the country: it gleams, it sparkles. Money talks! Oil money talks loudest of all. It’s cold and rainy and there’s no one to meet us. We find a bench to sit on and start calling and texting, and after a while, the driver from the tourist agency ambles up. He doesn’t apologise for his lateness. He looks a bit like Yul Brynner. His English isn’t great, but he speaks some Russian. We set off for the hotel.
The Shah Palace Hotel is located at the entrance to the Old City, and overflows with Arabian nights charm and Azeri oil bling. The floor of the lift is so ornate it seems a shame to walk on it. The inner courtyard is stunning. We’re too late for the buffet breakfast, but the hotel provides an amazing improvised picnic. Our irritability subsides.
Still, it can’t be said that our stay in Baku is an out-and-out success. The planets are not in the right conjunction. Part of the problem is the weather we encounter, and part is the people we find ourselves dealing with. October in Baku is supposed to be balmy, but we’re out of luck and it rains almost non-stop. Our view of the city is consequently blurry. We perceive it mainly through fogged-up car windows. Baku is said to be choc-a-bloc with fancy cars and up-market boutiques, but we can’t actually see them. It’s too cold to get out and stroll. Baku escapes us. On top of that, the itinerary is a mess, and the guide makes it clear that we’re invading her personal time. The charm and spontaneity of the Georgians is replaced by a warier, more rigid mindset that brings to mind the Soviet past.
Laila, our guide, is a short, frenetic woman who does everything at top speed. She shows up half an hour late, claiming that the streets were blocked because the President was on the move (something she might have considered checking beforehand), and announces right away that she’s changing the programme. Today we’re supposed to be getting a city tour, and a visit to the Old City. Tomorrow we’re meant to head out of town to an archeological reserve in Qobustan, and a winery in Gabala. Wednesday is free, and on Thursday we fly back to Paris. Laila decrees that we’re going to Qobustan today. Since it’s tipping down the kind of rain that impelled Noah to build an Ark, we’re quite thankful to sit in a warm car and be driven round. Qobustan, it turns out, is only 60 km away, down a well-paved six-lane highway. The rain prevents us from seeing much, but Laila entertains us with statistics.
Azerbaijan has a population of ten million, four million of whom live in Baku. Another thirty million Azeris live in Iran. They’re separated by the Arax River. Laila says the northern Azeris, who have lived for a long time in the Russian sphere of influence, are more “modern” than the southern Azeris, who have traditionally been exposed to Persian mores and customs. The mullahs versus the commissars? No doubt she’s right.
Oil was discovered here in 1846, and attracted European investors such as the Rothschilds in 1873, and the Nobel brothers in 1876. The oil barons built themselves mansions in the Parisian style, with the help of Polish and German architects, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Baku attracted physicists, doctors and engineers – “people with good brains” – of varying nationalities, who thought of themselves as Bakintsy, residents of Baku, rather than of Azerbaijan. One of them was the notorious Soviet spy Richard Sorge, who reported to the GRU from Japan while disguised as a German journalist. He warned Moscow of the imminence of a German invasion in June 1941, but his warnings went unheeded. There’s a monument to him, says Laila, in the centre of town. The day after, she makes sure that we see it. Sorge seems to be a hero of hers. He was hanged in Japan in 1944.
Moving right along. From 1993 to 2003, the President was Gaidar Aliyev, who was formerly the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan SSR, and before that the head of the Azerbaijan KGB (actually, she doesn’t mention that). When he died, his son Ilham succeeded him. Until 2012, there were oil rigs right in the centre of Baku, but they have now been replaced with a seaside park. On September 20, 1994, the Contract of the Century was signed with four major oil companies: Lukoil, BP, Aramco, and Unocal. It was a great day for Azerbaijan.
We’re driving down the coast of the Caspian Sea through a vast industrial zone which stretches for miles. There’s gas as well as oil in the Caspian. We pass the Baku Shipyards, which opened in 2013 to make cargo tankers for use on the inland sea. Laila points out the limestone quarries which provided the stone for the oil barons’ mansions in central Baku. There’s a cement factory, and a solar energy plant. (Demand for oil is likely to decrease worldwide in the next few years. Solar energy must be Plan B.) Meanwhile Azeri oil is being piped to the West through the BTC pipeline, which has made the country extremely rich. BTC stands for Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and the pipeline is 1747 km long. Ceyhan is on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the route of the pipeline neatly bypasses the Enemies in Yerevan and the unreliable Neighbours in Russia and Iran.
In between bouts of spouting facts, Laila talks on the phone. She talks to her husband, who is looking after their daughters this afternoon, her mother-in-law (sorry, but she really has to take this!), and several unidentified others. Azeri is a Turkic language and its sound is harsh. After Independence, Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and the road signs are written in Latin script. The transition was difficult for older people, says Laila, and her parents had a lot of trouble adapting. English is mandatory in schools, and her daughters, aged 10 and 11, both have English classes. It’s not clear if Russian is obligatory too. Most of the Azeris we deal with seem more at ease in Russian, which was of course the Soviet lingua franca.
Qobustan is a sea of rocks decorated with petroglyphs 12,000 years old. The rain has not let up, and it’s blowing a gale. It’s flat along the Caspian, and Baku is always windy. We bundle up as best we can, and set off up the hill. Laila leaps athletically ahead of us from rock to rock, not bothering to check if we’re keeping up, disbursing information to whoever catches up first. Qobustan is a strange other-worldly landscape, with the decorated rocks and the grey Caspian sea in the distance, but it’s too cold to linger. We polish off the visit in double quick time and retire to the shelter of the museum. Claiming she’s sick, Laila sends us off on our own, and settles comfortably in the lobby with her phone.
Azerbaijan has an authoritarian regime nurtured by the Aliyevs père et fils. A lot of police cars can be seen on the road, and one or two more are parked prominently beside the museum. Compensating for the absence of democracy are the very clean toilets we encounter everywhere. After two weeks of rather nerve-racking Georgian facilities, it’s a welcome surprise.
Next on the itinerary, we’re happy to hear, is lunch. Laila takes us to a restaurant on the outskirts of town tucked away beside a “naphtaline” clinic, whose purpose is not quite clear. The restaurant is impossible to find if you don’t know it’s there. Laila says you can tell it’s good food because “there are men in there.” (In France they say you know a place is good if you see truck drivers eating there. Men must be the same everywhere.) Several tables at Chez Naphtaline are occupied by groups of men. Judging by the way they’re dressed, they aren’t truck drivers. Lunch consists of three different salads with a purée of red berries (odd but tasty), followed by soup, and then some kind of meat stew. It’s all very good. Just what you need on a cold wet autumn day. Wine is not on offer, but there’s some fruit stuff they call kompot. Like the Georgians with their sweet lemonade, the Azeris like sugary drinks with their food. Happily there’s mineral water too.
Warmed, fortified and bathroomed, we head back into town. Laila points out the Ministry of this and that, the Presidential offices, and a few other things. It’s still pouring with rain. The driver doesn’t slow down to let us admire the prestigious buildings, in fact I think he accelerates. He speaks Azeri only, and is not especially friendly. We stop in a vast marble park with a fabulous view over the city and the Caspian. The rain lets up a bit. The city stretches along the water’s edge for miles, and the sea is sullen and grey. Laila explains that a train used to run along the sea front to service the derricks and oil rigs, but it’s been removed, the area has been cleaned up, and the business end of the Caspian has been transformed into the Bulvar, a long sweep of parkland along the edge of the bay, home to some very nice hotels – the biggest in the Caucasus, she says. Of course they are. Lonely Planet claims the Bulvar is a great place to take a stroll on summer evenings, but at the end of the season, with the air full of rain, it’s frankly not appealing.
The park contains memorials to victims slain by the Soviet Army in 1990, as well as a memorial to Turkish soldiers from World War I. The Turks helped us to fight the Armenians, Laila explains. Farther off we can see the Flame Towers: three huge glass skyscrapers in weird flame shapes that were completed in 2012. Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire, and these are its emblems. The buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to the towers of Batumi on the other side of the Caucasus, and it occurs to me that one might have inspired the other. Baku also boasts a Trump Tower, and Kathy asks where it is. Laila points it out. Then she asks why we don’t like Trump. We’re perplexed. Where to start? In the end, Kathy says the family is very corrupt. Oh really? says Laila coolly, and chivvies us down vast flights of slippery marble steps back to the car.
It’s getting dark by now, and the rain is still falling, but we aren’t done yet. Laila sweeps us off on a snappy walking tour of the Old City – “to get it out of the way,” she announces blithely: just a quick orientation tour, so we can find our way around. The Old City was the heart of Baku before the oil barons’ builders moved in. It’s small and charming with narrow streets, mosques, galleries, and carpet shops. We’re too busy watching our feet on the slippery cobbles to take much in. Laila marches ahead. When we’re thoroughly disoriented, she points out the restaurant where we’re to have dinner, asks what time we want to eat, and leaves us to it. It’s a relief to see her go.
The restaurant is round the corner from the hotel, down a flight of steps in a cosy little room. Laila has ordered us salads and pancakes, which is plenty. Kathy adds in a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which slides down very nicely. On one side of the room is a live singer, and on the other side is a muted television screen showing a movie that looks as though it might be Turkish. But then some of the characters board an Aeroflot plane. It must be home-grown Azeri (definitely not Bakintsy). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. Everyone has a good time.
So in just half a day Laila has ripped through pretty much everything on our two-day itinerary – except for the winery in Gabala, which she has made up her mind not to go to. On the face of it, her objections are perfectly reasonable. For one thing, it’s a 200 km drive from Baku. It turns out to be in the opposite direction from Qobustan, which we were supposed to see on the same day. (In Georgia the itinerary suffered from a certain amount of unrealistic planning, and this looks like more of the same. Plainly the lady who sold us the tour has never been east of Boston.) Gabala is nice in summer, says Laila, but much too far to go in weather like this. We don’t need convincing. Having spent two weeks driving the length and breadth of Georgia, we’re more than willing to pass up another long drive, but she comes back to the subject so often, and harps so much on how unrewarding it would be, that we start to suspect that she’s pulling a fast one. But by now we’re as anxious to get shot of her as she is to get rid of us. She talks too fast, she moves too fast, and she despises senior citizens. But she has to occupy us a few hours longer to forestall any complaints, so on Tuesday morning she takes us out to the Absheron Peninsula, which lies east of Baku, jutting out into the Caspian Sea.
Ab means water, and sheron means salty. The main attractions here are the unquenchable flames of gas spurting out of the earth. Marco Polo saw them in the thirteenth century, though the landscape might not have looked as weird back then as it does now. The peninsula is covered with rigs and derricks and, mixed in with all the oil industry bric-à-brac, is a dazzling array of petrohotels, petrovillas and petrobeach resorts. Baku is a really strange place. There’s a stadium which housed the 2015 European Games, something else that housed the Eurovision Song Contest, and an Olympic Village built in a sort of Oriental-Haussman style. There are Soviet housing blocks whose façades have been redone in the Caspian Belle Époque style of the city centre (with the authentic Soviet plumbing presumably untouched behind them), and refugee housing for people driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh. By the way, asks Laila, have we been to Armenia?
We stop to see a house owned by the Nobel brothers called the Villa Petrolea, and continue on to the Suraxani Fire Temple, a flaming fire temple originally used by Zoroastrians, and rebuilt by Indian devotees of Shiva in the eighteenth century. Inside the walled courtyard are cells for worshippers, now ornamented with wax figures of devotees and donkeys.
On to Yanar Dag, the Fire Mountain. It’s a long stretch of hillside with flames flickering out of the earth. At least it warms us up. I’m disappointed to learn that they aren’t the same flames that Marco Polo saw. These were lit accidentally in the 1950s by someone’s cigarette.
Back into town past the oil rigs and the petrovillas. In the car we start asking questions about daily life and how ordinary people survive. Laila has to think a bit about questions that aren’t in her prepared script, but in the end she admits that there’s a lot of corruption – the envelope system, she calls it – and everyone gets by as best they can. And then she announces that she could have told us something very interesting if only I wasn’t writing it all down. (Yesterday she asked why I was taking notes, so I told her I was a writer. What did I write? Novels. What kind? Contemporary history. Was I researching a novel now? Not sure.) So I ostentatiously close my notebook and put my pen away and wait for the revelations. She hums and haws a bit, and then informs us that we are in very good hands here in Baku because her husband works for the Ministry of National Security (that’s the successor organization to the KGB) and that he’s responsible for the safety of foreigners. Oh really?
I wait till lunch to follow up. (Back to Chez Naphtaline: she’s out of ideas.) It’s hard to do because she spends the whole meal on the damn phone. In the end I manage to drop in a question about what kind of foreigners her husband deals with. Is he responsible for all foreigners or just some of them? She says the husband specializes in Saudis and Middle Easterners, and adds that he’s on his way to Moscow even as we speak to confer with colleagues. Is he indeed? So why is she telling us this? To impress us? to intimidate us? to warn us against writing disrespectful novels? Hard to say. I’ve changed her name in this account: maybe that’s what she wanted. Our last stop is at the market, at our request. She’s a bit surprised by this – I suspect she can’t cook – but the market is fun. A slice of real Azeri life. We stock up on loukoum and walnuts and sumac, and then the driver drops Laila at her home, and takes us back to the hotel.
We spend the afternoon wandering round the Old City at our own leisurely pace, investigating kilim shops, looking at towers and fortifications, drinking tea. In one of the shops, I ask the vendor where a kilim comes from. South Azerbaijan, he says. Do you mean Iran? Yes, but we don’t like to call it that, he says with a sad smile. All of the Caucasus seems to be haunted by lost lands and lost peoples.
The main attraction in the Old City is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the seat of the ruling dynasty in the Middle Ages. We’re shown round on Wednesday morning by a young English-speaking guide who explains things at normal speed, waits when we lag behind, and seems to enjoy her work. There isn’t an iPhone in sight. It only gets weird when I ask her about the significance of the Azeri national flag. The flag consists of three horizontal stripes: blue, red, and green, with a crescent and a star on the red stripe. The green, she says, symbolizes Islam, the turquoise blue is the blue of the Turks, and the red stands for blood. Blood? What does that mean? Don’t tread on Azeri toes, or woe betide you? Double-checking with Wikipedia later on, I see that the red stripe is meant to symbolize modern European democracy. So what was that about?
In the afternoon we take a taxi to the Carpet Museum, a futuristic space in the shape of a rolled-up carpet on the edge of the Caspian. The taxi driver talks about his daughter, a junior chess champion, who is scheduled to meet the President, and play in an international competition. The Carpet Museum is a cylindrical treasure trove with some fabulous pieces on show. The rain has stopped and it’s a damp gloomy day. We take a quick peek at the Caspian, but there’s nothing to see. Then we ask the driver to take us to the Ali and Nino Café, which is just off Fountains Square. Leaving us in the car, he goes off to find it, then returns and says it’s closed. (For more on Ali and Nino, see The Kitchen On Top of the Caucasus. The statue below is in Batumi.)
Our last evening in Azerbaijan is spent at a tourist restaurant off Fountains Square. Amalia, the tour coordinator, escorts us there, settles us at a table, and orders the food. The waiters start to bring the dishes. Amalia flutters in the background. The food is mediocre. We’ve had some good meals in Baku, but this isn’t one of them. We order wine. Amalia informs us that it’s not included in the price. We tell her we’ll pay for it separately. For a while after that, the dishes keep on coming, and then the service breaks off. The waiters ignore us. No one brings a bill for the wine, but there’s no more food. Amalia has disappeared. Once again, Baku has evaded us. In the end we get up and go.
A few hours later Yul Brynner appears to take us to the airport to catch the one direct flight to Paris of the week. It’s four in the morning, but he’s exhaustingly full of useful facts and historical commentary. The airport glitters even more than the railway station. By the way, have we been to Armenia?