I spent my first thirty minutes in Baku, Azerbaijan absolutely hating it.
As I got off a stuffy bus after the seven hour ride from Sheki, taxi drivers swarmed around me, the only obvious foreigner in sight. I pushed my way past them with several “nyets,” wanting instead to find the main bus station building to check out bus schedules for later in the week.
But after blowing off the cab drivers, I wandered in circles, struggling to find the entrance. Once inside, I puzzled over what appeared to be more of a shopping mall than a bus station. After finally spotting a sign to the kassa, I was disappointed to find that only two booths were open, neither of which could give me the information I needed. No schedules were anywhere in sight. I gave up and headed back outside into the 90 degree heat and even higher humidity.
Feeling increasingly grumpy, I managed to find a bus to the January 20 Metro stop closer to the center of Baku and entered the underground station only to face mass confusion. I saw absolutely no English anywhere. They didn’t even have nice signs with numbers and pictures showing how to buy a Metro card and charge it. I stood in front of the hectic cashier’s booth for a good five minutes trying to break through to ask someone for help.
Then suddenly everything changed.
Just as I was mumbling to myself how much I hated Baku, one kind gesture started to brighten my mood.
As I stood looking like the hopelessly lost blond American that I was, a man in a military uniform motioned for me to go through the turnstiles. I shook my head, saying in English (duh!) that I needed to buy a card. He waved me over again and this time another man held up a card, swiped it and motioned for me to walk through as they light turned green.
Once on the crowded train, I tried to best position myself with my large backpack sitting on the floor and my smaller one on my back so as not to tick anyone off. To my surprise, a young man saw my struggles and stood up, offering me his seat. Wow, I thought, I wasn’t expecting that. My mood and overall impression of Baku went up another notch.
Finally, I exited the Metro not far from the apartment where I was staying (thank you Linda!) but could not get my bearings based on the hand-drawn map that I created from GoogleMaps. I hesitantly approached a group of three police officers (unfortunately, dealing with the police always seems to be a questionable move in former Soviet countries) to ask for directions. Immediately, they started examining my map as I repeated the name of the street I needed. Soon, a crowd of about six or seven men had gathered, each offering his opinion about which way I needed to go.
By the time I finally reached Linda’s apartment, my feelings about Baku had improved dramatically.
Over the next week, they continued to rise, both due to the people (see my adventure in trying to find the Tajik and Uzbek embassies and the overall feel of the city.
While I could do without the heat, humidity and minor air pollution, almost everything else about Baku won me over. Azerbaijan is rolling in oil money and it is clear where they have spent it (I’m not saying this is a good thing, just an observation). Everything about the center of Baku impressed me – and it didn’t hurt that I visited right after Eurovision ended so the city was likely still on its best behavior for possibly the most prominent event it has ever hosted.
The tourist office (my first stop) was staffed with friendly, English speaking staff who offered me not one, but two maps of the city, the second laying out multiple themed walking tours around town. After my trips to the embassies, I spent a morning exploring the attractive Old Town area, still enclosed within the old city walls.
Another day I took the funicular up to Martyr’s Lane, Baku’s extensive memorial to its fallen war heroes. Rows of headstones remember those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia in the early 1990s and an eternal flame burns below a monument overlooking the Caspian Sea.
More than anything, I just wandered around, enjoying the mix of old and new, the well landscaped parks and the plethora of fountains throughout the center. In a city that sizzles in the summer like Baku does, the slight mist blowing off the fountains provided just a little bit of relief.
My favorite thing? Baku’s version of the famous “Bean” in Chicago, of course.
Sure, not everything about Baku agreed with me.
I never did figure out the quirky Metro system and why sometimes I needed to change trains at the May 28 station and sometimes I didn’t.
The ATM machines in Baku (and elsewhere in Azerbaijan) didn’t seem to like my bank cards or vice versa. While they never ate them, they denied my transactions more times than I can count.
And the high prices shocked me in comparison to neighboring Georgia and Armenia. Prices for many items in Baku (especially accommodations) were nearing European standards. Other items were just absurd: I almost bought a pint of Baskin Robbins ice cream one scorching day before discovering it cost nearly $25. For a pint of ice cream!
But in the end, I think I loved Baku more than I hated it.