The reason for cycling in Central Asia was to see the ancient cities of the Silk Road. Baku was not particularly on my radar, I had read a lot about Turkey, Iran, the ‘stans and China. Even about India. But I had somehow bypassed Georgian and Azeri history.
It makes it all the more ironic that I would choose to cut the trip short here. It felt like I had been running up to the Caspian and suddenly skidded at a halt in front of the water, dithering. That sea/lake mocking me, all calm and flat. Ferries floating along it, carrying others.
Baku was a pleasant surprise. It had been sold as a kind of Dubai. A poster of the skyline that I had seen in Zagatala made it look all glass, sea promenades, and sparkly nightclubs. All that was true, yes, but Baku was much less one-dimensional. There was history on every corner, unusual architectural pairings, protruding (Turkic?) wooden balconies and verandas like in Tbilisi, memories from the Silk Road heydays and of Soviet control.
The skyline itself was defined for eight centuries by the 12th century Maiden Tower and subsequently taken over by the Soviet broadcast tower and now the 21st century Flame Towers.
One of my favourite memories of my first cycling trip was arriving at the sea. That giddy feeling of rushing downhill in Rijeka, fast fast fast and suddenly a glimpse of blue, a top-rounded triangle between by buildings. I had been waiting for days to reach the Caspian, anticipating the feeling… but my head was full of the decision not to continue and that rush was not quite there. Nevertheless, a glimpse of that horizon framed by the peninsula, knowing that the next lands were Turkmenistan ahead, Kazakhstan to the north, Russia northwest and Iran to the south. Baku is at its most gorgeous by the water, at sunset.
Cyril and I left Rhys in Baku, he headed to a hostel and we to a hotel – we had all stopped in a service station before arriving and booked whatever we could find online… so long as there was a shower. I washed three times.
And after, we all met up for the most splendid (heatstroke-curing) beer and meat bbq. Shocking sign at the entrance of the restaurant, though.
I had piles and piles of food the next morning, the hotel was not particularly stunning but it did have a panoramic view of Baku, which was covered by blinds (sunstroke most likely otherwise).
Baku was cooling down after the F1 Grand Prix. Ella was quite cocky, rolling down the streets alongside Pirelli adverts.
It was rather great to visit Baku with my stepdad – we filled our couple of days there with museums and exploring the bazaar. First stop was the Old City. Its roads weave in and out of each other, cobbled, narrow, with some tourists around the main attractions and locals exiting their homes. Eighteenth and twelfth centuries rub shoulders, ramparts gleaming against the blue of the sky, and I hurt at the realisation that I was not getting to see their cousins in Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand… Soon, soon I hope.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs was built as the seat of the Shirvans when the capital was moved to Baku following an earthquake in Shamakhi (towards the west of Baku). The region of Shirvan stretched along part of the Azeri Caspian. Its rulers were of Arab origins, though they were Persianised later on.
The Palace is beautiful, with peaceful rooms that felt perfect in their proportions and geometric layout.
There were residential flats around, even overlooking the Palace baths. It reminded me of Zadar in Croatia where the city lives right on the edge of, and indeed within, historical sites. And history was right there, down to bullet holes and bloodstains on the wall of the main courtyard to remind of an Armenian attack in 1918.
The question about the Caspian’s identity – sea or lake – dates back further in time than Herodotus (who could not quite make his mind up on that one…). It is actually a remnant of Tethys, the ocean that linked the Atlantic and the Pacific. As the landmasses evolved, the Caspian found itself left over, cut off from its siblings. It did preserve its salinity, rendering it a sea, and is prone to sea level changes.
The Palace museum is incredibly proud of one of its friezes, which adorned Bayil Fortress. The fortress once lay by the sea (close to where our hotel was) but is now underwater. Yet, in 1925 the sea level started a sharp decline and parts of the fortress were suddenly revealed. In 1939, archaeologists started excavations and many artefacts were pulled out from the (now shallower) depths of the peninsula. The friezes themselves had actually been discovered back in 1861 and further remnants were brought up during the excavations of the 1930s and 1940s. They had been created in 1234/1235 and the designs include heraldic elements of the Shirvan kingdom, as well as fantastical creatures and even human faces. The inscriptions are Persian but written in Arabic and are descriptions of to the Shah in power and to religion.
After the Palace, we visited the 12th century Maiden Tower. It used to dominate the Baku skyline… until the Soviet TV tower and, a couple of decades later, the photogenic Flame Towers. The Maiden Tower is a mystery. The whole experience is immersive. You enter and go up level by level to the top viewing platform. An artwork of the Tower’s maiden alter ego greets you ethereally and teaches you the many myths of the landmark. Perhaps it was built by a foreign knight as a testament of love to a local princess, perhaps it was an astronomical viewpoint, perhaps it acted as a defence against sea-faring invaders, perhaps it was a spiritual centre… whatever the reason, it is a beautiful structure. Incredibly simple but endlessly impressive – how was such a high tower built all these centuries ago?
The Old City also introduced us to the most delicious lokums, covered in saffron or rose petals, filled with hazelnuts and pistachios.
Later on, we met up with Rhys, Action Man Amund and Charlie the Novice Explorer. How lovely to see them all again, to have a coke and kebab, and to hear about the split-personality Uzbek embassy bureaucrat. Their visas and the promise of a ferry to take them to Aktau was nebulous at best and hair-pulling at worst.
Cyril and I also spent a good hour in the National Museum, learning about the Azeris, their wars, prehistory, about oil booms and tycoons (the Nobel brothers made their fortune in petrol here), women’s education (the first women’s college in the region was in Baku)… and eyeing up a whole lotta blinged-up rooms (the museum is in what was Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev‘s palace).
We also paid pilgrimage to a bazaar…
And we went to see Vladimir Tsygal’s sculpture of Richard Sorge. He was a double agent during WWII and was hanged in Japan. It’s an entrancing piece:
The TV tower had been calling out to me and its Soviet glory did not disappoint. The cycle up to it was sweaty, sweaty, sweaty. At the TV tower entrance, they didn’t seem to believe my cycling self was planning on going to the restaurant, probably thinking Cyril and I were smelly hobos and insisting that we’d have to spend a minimum amount. Ridiculous – I was starving and manats weren’t going to stop me. The food wasn’t great but the experience superb… true Soviet luxury, down to the rotating restaurant floor, tacky decoration and serious-looking couple having a candlelit dinner.
The TV tower is at a high spot overlooking Baku, it was selfie-central with the Azeri flag beaming from the Flame Towers:
And on the way back to the hotel, I attempted to photograph Baku’s version of the Spanish Steps…
The next day was dedicated to trying to swim in the Caspian and having a look at Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre. The Caspian was a fail. I thought we would find an oil-free beach (I’d seen photos) but they must be elsewhere. It looked murky and there were countless platforms out offshore:
The oil pipelines zig-zag the country. I mentioned in an earlier post that I would show you a picture of those pipelines that had followed us along the road across Azerbaijan and sometimes even went up over the road. I had not taken any pictures of them, so did not miss the opportunity to do so in Baku:
And we got to visit some poetic oil pumps from Nobel times (they still work, video on my Instagram):
Pictures don’t really portray the heat of that day, but this photo may. It shows the view over the ridge by Baku that leads to the TV tower. There are some villas atop it, defiant of the landscape’s aridity.
Zaha Hadid’s building (the Heyday Aliyev Centre) was impressive from the outside but sadly didn’t get to see it from the inside (it cost a high entrance fee and they wouldn’t let us just walk in to simply look at the interior architecture). Silly guards.
Cyril did enjoy getting his picture taken with wings though (as his daughter rolled her eyes):
We also had a glimpse of the presidential palace:
The final stop in the Baku mini-break was at Velobrend shop. There, a trio of bike whisperers packed up Peg and Ella! It turns out the shop has many cycle tourers visiting them.
That evening, we took a taxi to the airport. Bikes boxed up and me feeling strange at flying back instead of taking on the task of charming the Uzbek embassy official and waiting for the ferry to take passengers. I was hoping to see the Ateshgah of Baku, or Fire Temple, a Hindu and Zoroastrian temple that houses an eternal fire in a suburb of Baku (it did turn off in 1969 for a while following the intense petroleum exploitation in the area). Sadly, it had closed by the time we arrived, so I only got to take this photo of the exterior:
The moon was beautiful, though:
We arrived at the airport at dusk, with Baku scintillating behind us and the airport’s glass cupola ahead. My tummy was still acting up a bit and I was very tired. Still, I felt I would be back sometime soon. Maybe not in Baku, but definitely along the Silk Roads, someday soon.