Baku To The Future: The Empty Capital Of Azerbaijan Really Wants You To Visit

In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world’s largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.

And that they did. There’s a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.

Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I’d say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an “Azerbai what?” When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: “Now is that in the Paris, France area?”Azerbaijan is in an odd geographical position, wedged between Iran to the south and Russia to the north, it’s a bridge between east and west, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a predominantly Muslim culture but one where its citizens are prone to pounding vodka from time to time. I didn’t bother to tell the woman at my phone company this info. But I could have told her about the rapid changes that are going on here: that in the last year and a half six luxury hotels have opened up. I’m staying at one of them: the Four Seasons. And the only reason I can afford to is because it’s, well, affordable. In fact, the most affordable in the hotel company’s portfolio.

The reason: Baku looks like a place one would want to go. There’s a walled medieval town in the center and block-long Parisian-like buildings outside the walls where the streets are flanked by palm trees and designer shops. There’s a long handsomely designed and landscaped beachside promenade called Bulvar. Yet, no one is really coming to Baku yet. They poured in for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest but that was it. Getting a visa is difficult. And the price of things, save for the hotels where there is a lot of supply but no demand, is high, on par with Western Europe.

Baku is no stranger to sudden surges of wealth. In the second half o the 19th century, black gold was discovered. People rushed in from all over the place, including the London-based Rothschild family as well as the Nobel brothers from Sweden, who made so much money on oil here that said money is still partly funding the annual prizes that are given out under the Nobel name. The oil barons (both foreign and Azeri) built huge palaces just outside the old city walls. In 1920, the Soviets took over the country and the oil barons fled. The oil industry then fell into disrepair.

And then, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was back. After a short skirmish with its neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, the country began selling the rights to suck up its oil. In 2006 it opened up a pipeline that goes through neighboring Georgia to Turkey. As a result, according to a New York Times article, from 2006 to 2008, Azerbaijan had the fastest growing economy in the world, at an astounding 28 percent (For comparison’s sake, the United States’ economy during that time grew about 2.2 percent).

If Paris and Dubai had a lovechild it would certainly be Baku. In addition to the Beaux Arts buildings that were a product of the last oil boom, the Baku skyline is now rife with color and avant-garde design: The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center looks like a spaceship covered with a humungous billowy blanket and is the first building to really wow me in a very long time; then there are the Flame Towers (pictured), a reference to the country’s fire-loving Zoroastrian past: these three tongue-shaped towers dominate the skyline at night by broadcasting through 10,000 L.E.D.s images of flames (starting in June, one of the towers will be a Fairmont hotel). There’s also a Trump building that looks like it was plucked from the Abu Dhabi skyline and a 1,000-foot TV tower, the tallest structure in the country.

But not for long. An Azeri gazillionaire is building a few manmade islands in the Caspian that will apparently be home to the world’s tallest building. That is, until a country like Tajikistan builds one tall a year later.

The leader of this nation is Ilyam Aliyev, who may be president for some time. Voters in a 2009 referendum decided by an apparent 92 percent of the vote to scrap presidential term limits. Photos of President Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who was president before him, are ubiquitous: his face graces large billboards in and around Baku and well as throughout the countryside, giving the impression that “dear leader,” alive or dead, is always on the watch.

During the time I was here I was often asked what I thought of Azerbaijan, in general, and Baku, in particular. I didn’t really know what to think of it, at first. It seemed Baku had changed so much and so rapidly that there were societal and cultural aspects that haven’t caught up. The nightlife, for example, was forgettable, even though Lonely Planet recently proclaimed it to be one of the best spots on the planet to party (note to LP: did any of you actually come here?).

If they let me back in to Azerbaijan (don’t forget that getting a visa is a pain), I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the country has developed in a few years. By that time, the famous flagpole might have dropped to fifth or sixth tallest in the world. And maybe I’ll see a few tourists here. Enough, anyway, that the only place I’ll be able to stay is a hostel.

[Photo by David Farley]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Four

turkmenistan desert camelsRead parts one, two and three of this story.

Day Four

I woke up in a sweat and was told by Marina that we had crossed into Turkmenistan, a country I had no transit visa for. The compartment was a white-hot crucible of heat that was exacerbated by the fact that none of the windows would open.

The train stopped at a dusty little outpost and the conductor, Ermat, already drunk at 10 a.m., came by with a hammer and began smashing out an entire large windowpane. I stepped out onto the platform to take some pictures of the train for posterity and was immediately accosted by a soldier. Marina rushed over and interpreted for me.

“He says you took a picture in a military area – you must give your film,” she said.”But all my pictures of this train trip are on this roll,” I said. “And I just took a shot of the train, not a military area. Tell him I’m keeping it.”

“Dayveed, please give it to him – you will be in trouble!” Marina protested.

Noticing that some kind of brouhaha was taking place, a crowd began to form behind me. After 70-some odd hours on the train I was in a foul mood, and almost didn’t care what happened to me. A small entourage formed behind me as I was asked to follow the soldier into an office in the station.

“Marina, tell him we don’t have time for this, our train could leave,” I protested.

“Just give him the film and we can go,” she pleaded.

“I am NOT giving him my film!” I insisted.

turkmenbashi statueWe were led into a large room where four other soldiers stood around below a framed photo of Turkmenbashi, the country’s mad dictator, who named days of the week and months after he and his mother, and banned opera, ballet and the circus, among other things.

After I refused once more to cough up my film they asked to see my visa for Turkmenistan. I handed them my passport and pointed out my Uzbek visa as well as my ornamental Kazakh one. It seemed logical at the time, but was probably akin to a Guatemalan showing up at Kennedy Airport with Mexican and Canadian visas and demanding to be let in.

“Day-VEED,” Marina said with a greater tone of urgency. “They say you must give them the film or you cannot leave!”

I opened up my camera and pulled out my film, stretching the whole roll in a highly theatrical manner and then spiked it down into a garbage can at one of the soldier’s feet and stormed away leaving the circle of onlookers shocked and speechless.

I stalked out of the office and back towards the train half expecting to be clubbed from behind, or placed into a gulag, but nothing happened. As I sat in my compartment a few witnesses came in and just looked at me as though I were a mental patient, and I began to think that perhaps I would be if we didn’t get to Bukhara soon.

A very well dressed young man who turned out to have been from Tajikistan approached me, and said, in flawless English, “I think you just did a very foolish thing. You have to realize where you are and be more careful. These people will put you in jail – they don’t care if you are American.”

A few hours later, our train passed across the Uzbek border and a couple of moneychangers began working the train. Marina explained that if I changed money at a bank I’d get only 200 Uzbek Som to the dollar, compared to 700 or more with a moneychanger. The rub was that the largest denomination was a 200-som note, so if you wanted to change $100 on the black market, you’d have to be ready to carry a huge bundle of notes. Changing money on the black market was technically illegal, so one needed to be discreet and have a big bag to carry the notes in.

An hour after my neighbors tricked me into believing that we’d arrived in Bukhara, we did in fact pull into the station, but I didn’t believe them until I actually saw Marina alight onto the platform. Aliya and Dima, who seemed like a married couple by this point in the trip, still had several hours to go until Tashkent, but joined us out on the platform to see us off.

I felt utterly exhausted, like some starving, island castaway who’d just been rescued. We had boarded the train on Monday at 11:30 a.m. and it was 3:40 p.m. on Thursday as we arrived in Bukhara. We had spent almost a full workweek on board.

I wasn’t sure whether Marina was going to share a cab with me into town or if she didn’t ever want to see me again. Dima and Aliya hugged me goodbye, and I felt like I’d miss them. I hardly knew them, but I felt as though we’d been through a terrible ordeal together. Aliya, who had the top button of her Al Pacino Couture jeans unbuttoned, Al Bundy style, said, “Dayveed, can you fax me a visa to America?”

“Fax you a visa?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, I want to come to America – Cal-eee-forn-ya.”

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Check back tomorrow for the final part of this story.

Read part one, two and three.

Click here for the final part to this story.

[Photos by peretzp and David Stanley on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Three

nasty dirty toilet on a trainRead part one and two of this story.

Day Three

On my third morning on board an increasingly hellish train ride, I found a fully intact piece of excrement resting on the train’s only toilet seat I could get to. It seemed not to have been an accident; in fact, the feces looked as though it was carefully placed there by some very malicious, or very inaccurate person. I marched down towards car number one to talk to my Western compatriots, Brian and Sherry. Now it was my turn to be outraged. But Brian thought it was hysterical.

“You know they stand on top of the seat,” he said, chuckling. “It’s just not an accurate way to go to the bathroom.”

I had been eating Chips Ahoy, a box of cereal and some noodles I brought on board with me but decided I should probably fast for the rest of the trip to avoid having to move my bowels in the appalling bathroom.

Aside from the fecally ornamented bathroom, the train was becoming even more nasty and unbearable. Ermat, the conductor, dropped by to chat, brandishing a bottle of cheap vodka, around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. He was already piss drunk and sweating profusely. We were passing through the massive Kyzyl Kum Desert and the train was sweltering. He was a diminutive, balding man with too many buttons undone on his short-sleeved uniform shirt.I did a few shots with him and the rest of the gang in my compartment just to be sociable and Ermat began to recall his days as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan in the ’80s.

“He wants to tell you about some battle but I don’t understand him very well because he’s too drunk,” Marina complained.

Undeterred, Ermat took matters into his own hands, drawing a map on the bunk’s tattered blanket with his finger and repeatedly pointing to a spot and emphatically declaring “Jalalabad” over and over again.

soldier in afghanistan“He says that out of 500 men at this place, over 300 were lost and for nothing,” Marina said, grudgingly playing the role of interpreter.

Ermat started crying like a baby and half-keeled over onto Aliya’s lap. She looked disgusted initially but eventually took pity on him by stroking his head. I tried to change the subject by asking him when we’d arrive in Bukhara, but he had no clue.

“It could be tomorrow,” he said.

“It could be?” I asked. “But it might not be?”

I never got a straight answer and eventually Ermat left for a nap. The conversation turned to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I opined that the Russians shouldn’t have invaded to begin with and Dima immediately pounced.

“Why did the Americans invade Vietnam?” he said, springing to attention from his top bunk.

“That was different,” was the only response I could muster in my increasingly inebriated state of mind.

Outside the train was an endless vista of flat desert boredom; think of the Indiana toll road without the radar toting Gestapo or unlimited breadsticks at Fazoli’s. After determining that the piece of excrement was still safely perched on the toilet seat, I hopped up onto my bunk and dove back into the book I’d been reading – Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which seemed to fit the occasion.

Dostoevsky had been forced to endure five years of military service (after five years in a convict prison in Siberia) in Semey, Kazakhstan, for his revolutionary activities and judging from what I could see out the window, his punishment definitely did not fit the crime. It’s fascinating to note the grave frame of mind Dostoevsky was in at the time he wrote what was to become his most acclaimed novel. A lifelong roulette addict, he was always in debt, looking for a way out.

According to Bruce Lincoln’s “Between Heaven and Hell- The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia,” Dostoyevsky managed to gamble away most of his wife’s jewelry, her fur coat and her wedding ring.

My fortunes didn’t seem to be much brighter. The heat had sapped all my energy; I was starving and was beginning to hate the sound of Aliya’s voice. Just as a cockroach scurried up my thigh and right into my shorts, two hefty women who were perched on sacks of rice on the floor outside knocked and asked to see my passport.

The older of the two women who had a thick moustache and dazzling electric blue eyes took it from me reverentially with two hands as though she were receiving a diploma.

“Day- veed- Sem- ee- Nar- Ah,” she said, reading aloud, and doing a better job of pronouncing my surname than 95% of American telemarketers.

camels in the desertAs night fell on the third day aboard the Bedbug-n-Cockroach, Hookers-n-Drunken Afghan War Veteran Conductor Express to Tashkent I asked my compartment neighbors about Uzbekistan’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic leader, Islam Karimov; I was curious to know how three young people felt about him.

Marina was characteristically tight-lipped.

“Karimov is good,” she said.

“Good in what way?” I asked.

“He’s good,” she said. “Will you give me a massage?”

I didn’t want to give her a massage, or succumb to her flirtation, so I asked Dima and Aliya about Karimov but neither was ready to offer an opinion.

“Aliya likes him and Dima says he doesn’t care, his parents live in Tashkent but he’s Russian, so he doesn’t care about Uzbekistan,” Marina said, interpreting for the others.

“Why do you want us to say something bad about him?” Marina asked. “Karimov – he’s a good man.”

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week.
Read part one here. Read part two here.
Click here for part four of this story.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, Steve Phillips, and the US Army on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Two

pretty girl on a trainRead Part One of this story here.

Day Two

We reached the Kazakh border before lunchtime and there was an unbelievable commotion as scores of merchants boarded the train while others threw big boxes through open windows. Two men barged into our compartment carrying boxes of produce and a vicious argument ensued as my travel companions tried to prevent the men from stacking their crates in our compartment.

Ultimately, my companions succeeded, but the corridors became impassable as wild looking women with entire rows of stainless steel teeth began to set up makeshift beds on top of the piles of luggage and cargo. Feeling trapped, I stepped over all the bodies and cargo en route to see my friends, Brian and Sherry. I bumped into them in between cars, nearly tripping over a gaggle of pitiful looking women who had laid claim to a cold, grimy little bit of floor space.

Brian had clearly lost his composure.

“The Kazakh border guards are right outside and Natasha is screwing some guy in the room!” he exclaimed.”What guy?” I asked.

“Some skinny guy; she invited him in for a drink then the next thing we know she’s running her hand up his leg and resting it on his knee,” Sherry said. “We were up on our top bunks but she must have known we would be able to see.”

babushka “She didn’t care, cause they just started going at it,” Brian said. “Maybe they thought we were asleep up top, but we weren’t.”

“At least she has a guy now,” Sherry said. “Before she kept flirting with Brian. She flashed her boobs at him once and motioned for him to like, you know, pull his pants down.”

“Where is she going?” I asked.

“She said she was going home to Turkmenistan,” Brian said.

Turkmenistan? Prior to the trip, I attempted to ascertain what countries I’d need a transit visa for while in Moscow and had been told I only needed a Kazakh transit visa, so the news that we were going to pass through Turkmenistan was an unwelcome development to say the least. Only a decade had passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the train routes dipped in and out of newly independent countries that some Muscovites barely acknowledged.

Brian and Sherry were paranoid that Kazakh border police would bounce them off the train, as they had no Kazakh transit visas, but the police took one look at the impassable train corridor and decided not to bother boarding the train, rendering my Kazakh transit visa an expensive passport decoration that took me half a day to get.

As we entered Kazakhstan, we left the greenery of Russia behind and entered a more or less barren landscape. Marina and Aliya brought nothing to read save a single celebrity gossip magazine, which featured an article on Britney Spears’ alleged nail-biting addiction, and Dima brought nothing at all.

We passed the time with small talk, card games and gawking at the occasional camel out the window. Before retreating to my top bunk for some rest, I popped into Brian and Sherry’s compartment to meet Natasha, their randy middle-aged drunken neighbor. She had the physique of a middle linebacker and dwarfed the skinny little man she’d been fooling around with. He still had a big smile plastered on his face and he asked to see my passport, claiming he’d never met an American before.

I handed it over and he and the others began to study each page carefully. I turned away to talk to Brian and before I knew it, my passport was being passed around amongst the gold-toothed women huddled in the corridor. On a four-day train ride, any form of entertainment will do in a pinch.

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Click here for part three of this story.

Read part one here.

[Photos by Illusive Photography and Adam Baker on Flickr]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part One

moscow train stationRead parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this story.

After spending four sweltering, monotonous days on a dirty, cargo-laden train from Moscow to Bukhara, sharing a compartment with two Uzbek prostitutes, a Russian soldier and a capricious, alcoholic conductor prone to flashbacks from his days as a soldier in Afghanistan, I was more than ready to get off the damn train.

But there was no timetable and no one on board seemed to have a clue when we’d arrive in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, one of the Silk Road’s most evocative outposts. Some said it would be a matter of hours, but one man – a trader who sat on top of crates of fruit he was transporting – claimed we wouldn’t arrive for yet another day.

As I sulked in the crowded train corridor, gasping for the breeze next to a windowpane the drunken conductor punched out the night before, Aliya, one of the Uzbek prostitutes in my compartment, hustled up to me in a panic.

“David, it’s your stop, it’s Bukhara, quick, come get your suitcase!” she screamed.

I dashed back to the corridor, stepping over Tajik and Uzbek women in neon colored floral print dresses, and jumped up onto the top bunk to gather my belongings, when all of the sudden, Aliya, her friend Marina, and Dima, a Russian solider who had been traveling in the compartment with us, burst out laughing.

It was a joke. We weren’t in Bukhara, but rather some nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, an undetermined, unknowable distance from my destination. I had no map, no Internet access, and no clue. Why the hell hadn’t I booked a flight to Bukhara?

Twelve years ago, I took an epic, budget overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai that inspired me to join the Foreign Service, the only gainful employment I could think of that wouldn’t view such an experience as an unsightly gap on my resume. All these years later, I still think about that trip – the border shakedowns in Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia; having my passport seized by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang Province; and nearly losing the woman who would later become my wife – and recall how, in spite of the hardships, quitting my job to take that trip was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.But the trip seemed more like a tribulation than a vacation when I boarded a dilapidated, Uzbekistan-bound train in Moscow one brisk Monday morning in May, in the year 2000. There were massive women with gold teeth and blindingly colorful flowery dresses, hungry looking unshaven men who seemed to be in need of a drink, and scores of traders with cargo.

My compartment was equipped with four bunks, each replete with a set of mildewy sheets and stained pillows that clearly had not been replaced since the end of the Soviet era. Already settled into the compartment were three passengers including a non-uniformed Russian soldier named Dima along with two pretty young women, a brunette named Marina and a heavily made up blonde named Aliya. All three were in their 20s and heading home to Uzbekistan the long, cheap way.

Just as our ragged train pulled out, the provodnik (conductor) came in to check tickets; he paused for an eternity staring alternately at my ticket and me. Marina spoke English and interpreted for us.

“He wants to know why you not fly to Bukhara?” she said.

“Tell him I like taking the train,” I replied. “And besides, the 4,000-kilometer trip only costs $75. Who knows how much a flight is?”

After conferring with the provodnik, who introduced himself as Ermat, she interpreted his concerns.

“He thinks that this train maybe is not so good for you,” she said.

Within an hour of departure, I was beginning to think Ermat was right, as scores more traders boarded the train, stacking crates of cargo in every conceivable crevice of space. The pungent stench of body odor and rancid, decaying produce seemed to have seeped into my pores. I felt like a prisoner confined to a filthy sty for an unknowable period of time.

Once our battered old Soviet cast-off train was a few hours outside of Moscow’s grimly polluted outskirts, the lush greenery of the Russian countryside began to make a pleasant backdrop for the mob scene inside our train car.

Near the end of the first day, I bumped into a married couple in the jam-packed corridor that I’d shared a dormitory room with at a Moscow hostel over the weekend. Brian met his bride Sherry while teaching English in Taipei, and they were the only other Westerners on the train.

“A babushka in our compartment pissed herself!” he exclaimed, as a sort of greeting. “She’d been going at a big bottle of vodka and now she’s passed out, and has a big wet spot on her pants. Our whole compartment smells like piss.”

“So does mine,” I replied. “And we aren’t even drinking yet.”

The two young women in my four-bunk compartment were friends; Marina was heading home to Bukhara and Aliya back to Tashkent. Marina had large round chestnut colored eyes set against a beautiful dark olive complexion. Her eyelashes were about a foot long and were enhanced with lines of makeup pointing out towards her temples, giving her an exotic Asiatic beauty that seemed at odds with her full lips.

Aliya was also attractive, if a bit trashy. She had on a pair of tight black “Al Pacino Couture” Jeans and a halter-top that exposed a pasty white stomach. She spoke some English yet carried herself as though she were fluent. I was curious what the girls’ stories were; yet they gave me few clues.

“Were you two traveling together?” I asked.

“We were in the Middle East for two months,” Marina replied vaguely.

“Where? I asked.

“Bahrain,” she said.

“Two months in Bahrain? For work or vacation?” I asked.

The girls answered simultaneously yet with different replies; Marina said, “work,” while Aliya chirped “vacation.” But they were as curious about me as I was about them and they couldn’t understand why an American would take the train to Uzbekistan. For them, Americans were rich, and rich people could afford to fly.

cute girl on a trainThe women were flirtatious, especially Aliya, and became more so after Dima, the Russian solider, showed them a photo album from a recent tour of duty in Chechnya. For some reason, seeing him and his buddies in uniform really impressed them and, before I knew it, Aliya and Dima were up on his top bunk together, whispering and giggling.

“Dima’s got a big one,” she squealed, in English at one point, laughing hysterically.

I took that comment as a cue to go for a walk, but later that evening my suspicion regarding their occupation was confirmed when Marina, her hands full, asked me to grab a lighter out of her purse. I couldn’t help but notice that there were several condoms and a massive wad of U.S. dollars in there. I went to sleep wondering how my girlfriend back in Chicago would feel knowing I was sharing a sleeping compartment with a pair of flirtatious Uzbek hookers.

This is a five part series. Read parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this story.

[Photos by Vokabre and www.courtneycarmody.com on Flickr]