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]