Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #55: Baku, Azerbaijan: Short Foray in Boom Town – Baku, Azerbaijan

#54: Baku, Azerbaijan: Short Foray in Boom Town

25 August 2002
Baku – capital of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that lies north of Iran, west of the Caspian Sea and the south-eastern end of the Caucasus Mountains. This used to be an ancient crossroads, one of the early centers of Zoroastrianism, the worship of fire. Today, an eternal flame still burns in an ancient fire temple in the outskirts of Baku – they claim it has been burning for more than a millennia, though one needs a little caution: it’s fired by a gas pipe these days.

Today, Baku is more well-known as an oil boom town. Azerbaijan is a major producer of oil. At the beginning of the 20th century, it produced more than 50% of the world’s oil. Alfred Nobel made his fortunes here, and many oil barons built great palaces in Baku. Its fortunes declined after the Bolshevik Revolution, but things have since changed after the collapse of the USSR. Independent Azerbaijan was overwhelmed by an invasion of international oil companies and suitors of all kinds. Lucrative contracts were signed and Baku turned into a party town with expats and oilmen. The fever has since lessened a little (after fluctuations of oil prices and disappointing digs at some places) but Baku has changed beyond recognition. Restaurants, bars, a modern airport, hotels, ATMs and all the conveniences international businessmen and expats desire, plus the appearance of a large pool of English-speakers. At least, there seems to be more English speakers than in Moscow.

I arrived in Baku after my short stay at home in Singapore, to summer heat of between 35�C and 40�C (little did I knew that in a few days’ time I would be experiencing 45�C in Turkmenistan).

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t my first visit to Azerbaijan. In September 2000, I entered internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory from Armenia. It was the breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh I visited then – this is a part of Azerbaijan where most of the population is ethnic Armenian, and the Armenians defeated Azerbaijan after a bitter war that also led to 1 million Azeris made refugees and about 20% (actual % differ, depending on who you speak to) of Azerbaijan’s territory occupied by Armenian forces.

The stalemate, which has prevailed since, remains a source of bitterness here. The Armenians are not very happy with status quo – they have control of land without international recognition, which means little foreign investment, as well as economic boycott by powerful neighbours like Turkey and Azerbaijan. Azeris claim that the Armenians were successful initially because of Russian support, and many Azeris I spoke to are confident of victory in a new conflict, now that they have new wealth from oil and have since built up their army. Let’s see how the problem gets resolved in the future.

Friendly Azerbaijan! Once again, I was reminded of the amazing hospitality so prevalent across the Caucasus and Central Asia. The friendly people – even the police here, who some say were more corrupt than their Moscovite counterparts – were so friendly to me. A walk around town, and I found people smiling at me and asking where I came from. I visited the Maiden’s Tower, the most famous Baku landmark, and was promptly invited to share lunch with the curators. Across the walled Old Town, carpet merchants invited me for chai, or tea. It was no different from an Istanbul experience, but here there are definitely fewer tourists; perhaps one hardly sees any obvious travellers at all.

Azerbaijan is in referendum-fever now. President Aliev, whose portrait and sayings appear all over the country, is seeking approval for a new constitution, one that he argues the country needs in new circumstances, and which critics say would allow him to make his son his legal successor. (Well, is this different from what I have seen closer to home?)

I met my local contact, Antonio, a Filipino who works for an NGO. We had beer in Fishermen’s Wharf, a costly (by Azerbaijani standards) expats setup in the middle of town, surrounded by an artificial pond and shady trees, amongst local oil barons, mafia chiefs, businessmen and local officials (what’s the difference between them?); as well as visiting international bankers, consultants, lawyers and other assorted parasites of whom I used to be (and probably will be) one. This is a small world – I was amazed to meet a fellow ex-PwC guy, and guess what, he had actually worked in PwC Singapore before, although just after I left the firm. After years in audit, he left the organisation to join the UN, and has since worked in Kosovo and East Timor. In addition, he actually knows some of the people I met or had gotten in touch independently in Macedonia and the USA. The world is smaller and more linked than we imagine. The next time you meet someone new, that person could well know someone you know on the other side of the world!

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Baku. Unfortunately, flight schedules to Russia seem to be fully booked till mid-September, and I had little choice but to take what was available, i.e., meaning a shorter stay in Baku. Even my Turkmenistan plans are messed up, and I spent much time trying to sort travel admin stuff out.

After a mad visa chase, I suddenly found myself booking a flight that was departing for Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan) within a few hours. And so, that’s the end of my short, 2-day visit to Baku, but I hope to be back some time in the future.