A traveler’s diary from Baku

A Georgian business traveler’s impressions of Baku, who visited the city shortly before the European Games. “At first glance, it’s clear that Azerbaijan is a country that has been run by one family for most of the last 30 years,” the author writes.

On the eve of the European Games held in June in Azerbaijan, a Georgian business traveler recorded these impressions of the capital city of Baku. The author chooses not to be named because of those business interests.

At first glance, it’s clear  that Azerbaijan is a country that has been run by one family for most of the last 30 years. Heydar Aliyev was first secretary for the Communist Party of Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan and later president of an independent Azerbaijan from 1993-2003. Then his son Ilham took over.

The airport in Baku is named after Heydar Aliyev. The highway that takes you into the city from the airport is also named after Heydar Aliyev. In the heart of the city you see Heydar Aliyev Center, Heydar Aliyev Library, Heydar Aliyev Square.  At first it seems like all Baku revolves around one person, until you figure out Heydar isn’t the only Aliyev being honored. The street parallel to the seaside, which is the most crowded with tourists, is named after Heydar Aliyev’s wife Zarifa.

If you’re lucky, you will get to your hotel or destination in the city without crossing paths with an Aliyev family motorcade. If you aren’t, then you’ll have to wait maybe 45 minutes, because the streets are closed about 30 minutes before they pass and don’t reopen any earlier than 15 minutes after they pass. In other post-Soviet countries, societies have fought these tendencies and many of them have succeeded.

When you enter the country, there are several  questions that you have to answer, some of them pretty common and some not so common. You might be asked what are your parents’ names, where  they live, and whether they rent a house or have private property. If you’re Georgian, don’t be surprised if you get these questions: “do you have a homemade bottle of wine with you?” or “does your family have a wine business?” Also, don’t be surprised if a customs officer isn’t satisfied with your answer about the reasons for your visit, because tourist destinations aren’t a strong enough argument with them. You’re also very unlucky if you have a professional camera with you and explain that you want to have memorable photos of the trip. You’ll have to answer what exactly it is you’d like to shoot.

When you’re finally done with the interrogation, you go out into the terminal and you see a fancy huge airport with three floors. You see many people wandering around and taxi drivers offering their service. Drivers often don’t bother to talk in English. You won’t meet that many English-speaking people. Most of the road signs are only in Azerbaijan language, and people generally speak Russian.

There’s an information stand at the exit door of the airport, but the table is mostly empty and nobody is there. But there was advertising for the European Games on every wall and every pillar in the airport. The only people speaking English and at least responding to your questions about directions are the volunteers for the Games.

When you get out of the airport building, you see a huge parking lot for buses. Nearby you can find some fashionable microbuses with European Games advertising. But on the 16-18 km ride into the city you also see the old buses that are almost extinct in other post-Soviet countries. In the buses you won’t find any mechanism for transport cards, only an ordinary box where a driver puts the coins he collects from passengers while driving.

The Metro is more modern. For the past year, passengers can buy a metro card which costs approximately $US 2  and then put more money on it. For each trip you’ll need about $US 0.20.

Along the trendy seaside Boulevard, you’ll see a lot of brand name shops and trendy fashionable stores, but inside you won’t find many customers. If you’re lucky and meet someone there besides the salespeople, they are tourists or the richest Azerbaijan citizens whose appearance just shouts out money.

At first glance, you imagine you have entered a rich country, and have no idea of what average living conditions might look like. But look closer, and you see that the people walking on the streets seem not to be rich at all. Their clothes look old-fashioned, not like those in the top-brand shops. They carry heavy bags and use public transport. They eat at the cheapest bakeries where the food doesn’t look at all appetizing.

Where am I?

You can’t find maps for the city of Baku in ordinary hotels or at the airport. There are some very high-quality handouts that provide information about the city, its cultural monuments, restaurants, cafes and newly built centers and museums, but there are only street names and phone numbers printed, not maps.  Many young people haven’t been to their cultural monuments and can’t even recognize them in photos. Older people recognize places better, but don’t speak any foreign language besides Russian.

The Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century, has more than 10 very different legends about how it was built, but local people might know 2-3 of these stories maximum. They don’t know exactly which is Shirvanshah’s Palace and which is Maiden Tower, not to mention the other cultural monuments which are also located in the Old City, separated from the main city by an ancient, newly refurbished wall.

Some filmmakers decided to make a video one evening. Even though Maiden Tower is open for tourists and entering there costs a minimum 2 AZM ($US 2.10) without a guide, the filmmakers ordered security to stop people so as not to interrupt their shooting. Tourists and locals, some of whom paid as much as 50 AZM ($US 54) for guided tours, were forced to wait in 3-4 square meter cylindrical rooms without windows. Weirdly, none of the people who paid money to get in protested, as if it’s normal.

Old City isn’t a place for poor people. Prices are much higher than in cultural centers in many other cities. Some of the refurbished old buildings look good from the outside, but inside there’s nothing to look at. The best repaired houses are the embassies of European countries.

You don’t see many people during working days. Evenings and weekends there are bigger crowds in the streets, but you won’t meet many tourists. Mostly there are local people going home from work or just wandering around looking at new or refurbished building projects. If you ask locals what a tourist should see in Baku, the first things that comes into their mind is the huge flag and Crystal Hall where Eurovision 2012 was held. They suggest you go to the platform near the Parliament building, from where you can see the whole newly refurbished area of the city.

Stray paint drops from these buildings are still drying on the sidewalk or the street. The Metro stations near the Boulevard and the shopping malls are also newly refurbished and fashionable, while other stations are very old-fashioned with architecture from Soviet times. They do not seem to have been repaired for many years. The Metro is the most crowded transport in Baku. People often ride it until the final stop on the line, then catch a bus out of the city to where they actually live.

While nobody suggests it, if you want to see what the real Baku looks like, you should check out the Soviet part of the city. The buildings aren’t as fashionable as you’ve seen on the central highway and downtown streets, and these streets aren’t as clean and smooth. Here you can find the real Soviet Union in the architecture and the paintings on the walls. A rusting iron ball that is meant to be a detail of old architecture has fallen and landed in the middle of a street. Here you’ll  find the old cars, looking terrible. You can even find Soviet cars, like Lada.

Your first impression about the cleanliness of the city totally disappears when you walk on these damaged streets. Not only is there a huge layer of dust, but mountains of garbage are scattered about the sidewalks. Here you see abandoned factories that are half destroyed, and  there’s no sign that someone is going to finish the job or build something new in their place.

Here the buses and microbuses are  old. From some of their yards you can see the Boulevard. It’s the best angle to see the difference between what tourists see and what people’s lives are like. From their Soviet narrow windows or while hanging their wet laundry on their narrow balcony (if they have one), they see fancy glass hotels and buildings.

I went to Bilgah, which is on the Caspian coast and about a 50-minute trip northeast from Baku. This is a seaside city where tourists and Azeri citizens also often go for vacations. Buildings are old and infrastructure is far from what we see in the Baku suburbs. There aren’t any fashionable houses or shops; everywhere there are grocery shops and Turkish clothes. People rarely can speak even Russian.

Some people say the government has a plan to refurbish the whole city, but not all are optimistic. Mostly they believe any refurbishment is for foreigner’s eyes and that local people won’t profit from it. Moreover, they see risks in rushed construction and are concerned about the quality. While some people are worrying, other are already living in half-ruined buildings.

Quiet Time

Much of Baku came to a halt for the European Games. All construction projects stopped. Cars without Baku registrations weren’t allowed in the city. Sidewalk vendors weren’t allowed to work during the day. Residents had to show a special ID card to police officers to get to their homes.

Consumer prices increased, a big problem when there seems to be only rich and poor people and the middle class doesn’t seem to exist. People say salaries are low and prices are high, so many live in debt and owe money to banks. Many youth have been inside cafes and restaurants only because they work in them. The average salary isn’t enough to afford an evening meal with friends in restaurants.

People say every time there’s some huge event in Baku, all the government members are invited and they take up the front row seats of the halls which host the events. So if you want to go to some event in Baku, don’t expect to get good seats even if you try to buy tickets way before the event.

People claim that  sometimes you should pay a bribe even when trying to get a job. Universities are also filled with corruption; I was told it has been estimated that about 70% of  students pay at least some money to get admitted.

Locals say the President and his family own almost everything in the country, but that it’s quite normal and that influential people should own it all. If you suggest that such ideas are not quite normal,  they say it’s not their business, and that they appreciate what government does for them, mentioning new infrastructure and roads all the time.

People can’t hold back their emotions when they talk about banks. They say taking credit from a bank means dedicating your life to repayment. One local man claims a mortgage credit bank asked him for 50% interest in addition to the credit amount.

One more totalitarian sign, which was really common in Soviet times, is censure. Journalists are censored and it’s not big news. But there is also censoring people in social media and making them live in fear.

The only news on Baku national TV is the news that government wants people to see.  Even If something happens and television stations have the materials, it doesn’t mean that it will get on the air, unless it’s approved by producers who are responsible for blocking every negative or unpleasant or story about government or the Aliyev clan. People here say they don’t watch TV because they’re tired of listening to the same lies every day.

Shooting photos is also risky. If you’re in an area where the buildings are rundown, it’s absolutely possible that a policeman will come over and ask you to show him the photos, or ask you for an explanation on why are you shooting “unattractive” views when there are so many beautiful places to shoot. It’s more risky if you decide to take photos of officials as the drive by on a road that has been closed. You might have to give police your memory chip or let them erase everything.

In general, curiosity isn’t welcome in Azerbaijan. If you put your nose in their business, don’t expect sober reactions from intelligence and police forces.

Why do people swallow this and why is opposition passive? The opposition doesn’t have any power. They aren’t welcome on TV stations, even during pre-election periods when all political powers taking part in elections should be given equal time for advertising. So nothing has changed in elections in the past decade; the opposition is ignored by most of the media, their sponsors are sometimes arrested for ridiculous reasons, and their protests after elections are stopped by more policeman than the number of protesters themselves.

Ordinary people are scared to talk about some issues with strangers, even with foreigners that will leave a country and might never come back. They’re scared of saying what they think is wrong. People are scared to post on social media what they think. All of them say the same things, as if someone plays a tape every time you ask them how is life in Azerbaijan.

This article was originally published on the


 Caucasus website

Ana səhifəNewsA traveler’s diary from Baku