Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sleepless in Baku

My travelling throught the Caucasus countries started with a trainjourney from the Netherlands to Brussels. When I arrived in Brussels, it was 01.30am allready and with an airplane leaving for Riga at 09.00am, there was no point for me to search for accomodation in Belgium capital. So I decided to drop my luggage in the trainstation and stay up all night, waiting for a suitable time to go to Zaventem airport. I spended that night drinking a couple of beers in a bar in downtown Brussels with some Romanian guys who I met overthere.
At about seven o'clock I went back to the trainstation and on to Zaventem for my flight to Riga. As I haven't slept in the plane that much, I was desperately looking for coffee and energy drinks by the time I got to the centre of Riga. I walked I bit around in the Latvian capital, stopping many times in cafes for more coffee, before I went back to the airport again for my connectionflight to Baku.
At 03.15am the next day, I woke up in the airplane from a sea of shining lights which is called Baku. Sleepdrunken, I stepped out of my plane, making my way to customs. It took me over an hour to get the Azeri visa and I got a bit irritated by a guy who ripped me off by asking $10 for a bunch of photographes, which I needed to optain the visa. Finally, I went to the main hall of the airport, where I drunk lots of coffee, waiting for the first bus going to the city centre. After a while, a policeman came to me and offered me a ride to the city as soon as he finished his nightshift. Allthought I was a bit suspicious (rule no.1 in the former Soviet Union: never trust the police) I met two French people and together we decided to go with the policeman. At 07.30 we left in the policeman's Lada and drove towards the centre of Baku. The ride throught the immense oil-fields and rusty suburbs or Baku was quite impressive and after a while the police guy brought us to a hotel called the Velotrek (named after a cyclingtrack next door). I was being told that this place is the cheapest hotel in Baku, allthought I had to pay 20 manat (little less than 20 euro) for a room with no shower and sometimes not even running water at all.
Quite logically, the first thing I did in Baku was sleeping. I slept allmost the whole day and in the evening I went to the real centre of the city for diner (breakfast) and to look a bit around. My first impressions of Baku were quite mixed, it is a bustling, chaotic and exotic city. But on the other hand, the Azeri capital is quite depressing and dirty. The next day I went to another place to stay, as I didn't want to stay another night at the terrible Velotrek-hotel. I found a hostel in the old-town of Baku, called the 1000camels hostel. This place is run by an Australian guy and it is perfect to meet other travellers. I met three English travellers and a Dutch guy. The rest of the day I spended walking around the city, making pictures of Soviet monster buildings (like in the pic above). As my new hostel was right in the centre of Baku, I stayed in a location with much more atmosphere and I really started to feel the vibe of Baku. The city is seriously extraordinary, it really is one of the most strange places I ever visited. Baku is famous for the oil, which they dig out of the Caspian sea and the earned oil-dollars are spend here on pictures of the president and construction of buildings which they dont need. Azerbaijan is an extremely corrupt country and this you can feel everywhere. The whole system of the country is based on corruption and power. The city itself is very hectic and chaotic, but also has its charms. Particularly the old part of the city is very pretty and I could feel the different influences that have passed the area: Turkish, Persian, Russian, Arabic and Central Asian. The mix of this all is very unique in Azerbaijan, which makes the country really special and odd.
The next day I did some more exploration of the city and I walked around in the old town. Later that afternoon I have met a man who writes travelbooks. For the travellers who are reading this: Mark Elliott, the writer of the Trailblaizer guidebooks, also he contributed for the LP Iran. This man told me lots of information and facts about Azerbaijan and its culture. It really was a pleasure of meeting him and sharing information and experiences.
Later that afternoon I ate some doner with Marko, the Australian guy from the hostel and a Turkish traveller. It was really nice to talk to much people who know the country and it gave me more inside perspectives on Azerbaijan. That evening I met an Azeri construction worker, who was working at a building side nextdoor to the hostel. The man was really amazing, he kept on buying beers for us (the foreigners in the hostel) and he was actually the first one who brought me in contact with Caucasian hospitality.
The main negative aspect of Baku, is that it is an extremely expensive city. This forms the main reason that I am leaving for northern Azerbaijan. More about this in my next post.