Baku is lush, verdant, green — and surrounded by desert.
Home to 4 million people and a forest of giant trees set amid manicured lawns, the Azerbaijani capital is an urban oasis in an otherwise arid land. How can this be?
We sign up for a city walking tour and get the answer from our knowledgeable guide. Homesick Europeans, here for the oil boom of the 1860/70s, came up with a creative idea. Tankers exporting oil to the West would be taxed unless they brought back soil or tree saplings when returning to the East.
But what about water? Baku is on the shores of the Caspian Sea, but its salty waters offer no respite to dessert flora. The answer came from the Russian border and the Samur River, 178 kilometers away from Baku at the time. A remarkable canal was cut to carry the water from the Samur River to a giant reservoir outside the city and in a few years Azerbaijan’s capital began to bloom.
By the beginning of the 20th century, half the world's oil supply was coming from this Central Asian republic and Baku’s streets are still slick with oil money today. Mercedes, Audis and BMWs cruise down the broad, tree-lined boulevards, (gas is $.70 per litre) flanked by a plethora of high-end stores, from Armani to Fendi. Baku Boulevard, a picturesque parkway, runs several kilometres along the Caspian seafront. The city looks and feels European.
Architecturally brilliant buildings — old and new — bejewel the city. Late 19th century and early 20th century buildings mingle with contemporary, if not futuristic, designs surround a medieval Islamic core. The skyline is spectacular.
The National Carpet Museum, designed to look like a rolled carpet, pays tribute to Azerbaijan’s long tradition of carpet weaving.
The Heydar Aliyev Center, (named after the first post-Soviet president) glimmers against the bright blue sky, its undulating white curves strive to connect the past and the present in flowing waves.
Baku is a city where the past meets the future. Once an important stop on the Silk Road, many ancient cultures came together in in Azerbaijan and their distinct legacies can still be seen today.
The Flame Towers, a trio of skyscrapers representing flames pay homage to the Zoroastrian, (fire worshippers), and their Azerbaijani born leader Zoroaster.
Shirvanshah's Palace built from the 13th to the 16th century stands in Icherisheher, or old city, protected by fortress walls built in the 12th century. Although, due to many bombardments, only a few rooms of the Palace's original 52 remain, but it’s enough to give us a glimpse into its former grandeur. The Maiden Tower looks out to the sea from the edge of the old city, its origins shrouded in mystery.
Despite the plethora of souvenir shops and sales people trying to sell tours, the old city retains its alluring historical aura. We spend hours wandering the ancient cobblestoned streets. It’s quiet during the week, but weekends bring out the Bakuvians to enjoy the charms of their city.
Although e-visas are now available for a growing list of countries, it is mainly visitors from neighbouring countries, Russia, Georgia, Iran and Turkey in our hostel. Few Westerners visit and English speaking Bakuvians often ask us our impressions of their city. A local television news crew even interviews Noel asking the same question.
For now Baku remains off the beaten path and we spend several days discovering the surprising treasures of this beautiful city.