Why Beautiful Baku?
When I say Beautiful Baku, I mean it’s beautiful in every possible way. It could be described as a little bit of Europe, a little bit of Asia and a whole lot of love. After travelling in Central Asia for 2 months, Baku presented a totally different aesthetic to what I had become accustomed to. While Central Asian cities are fairly low rise and spread out, Baku was definitely rocking a lot more high-rises, but it was also fairly spread out. Even though it’s a huge city, it’s still had a very homely feel to it.
Baku is definitely impressive from the first time you lay eyes on it, even if that time happens to be 2am. That’s when the coach transporting us from the port of Alat arrived. Even at that time, there were middle-aged taxi drivers ready to hassle us to get into their taxi. But in a friendlier way than most around the world.
Myself and my new friends, who had crossed the Caspian Sea with me, decided that we would walk to our hostel. It was only a 10 minute walk away. We were surprised when we arrived at the address and the hostel didn’t seem to be there. We saw a small convenience shop that was opened and asked if they knew where the place was. They didn’t, but they let us use their internet to see if we could find the correct address. We had no luck there, but a local found a phone number and called the place, then gave us a lift there!
Where is it?
When we moved the next day, we encountered another hostel that wasn’t at the location that the map indicated. I also came across this anomaly when I’d booked a hostel across town. A wonderful local saw that I was looking a bit lost and asked if I needed help. He and his friend ended up finding a phone number for the owner and called him for directions.
The helpful locals also had difficulties finding the place when following the numbers on the street. After speaking with the owner, they explained that the street numbers had recently been changed in some areas of the city. They weren’t sure what the reason for this change was but agreed that it was kind of weird. In essence, the numbers found on the buildings, as well as maps, are the old numbers. The new numbers, which for some strange reason were not sequential, were nowhere to be seen. I’m glad to say that this was really the only quirk of Baku that could be a tad annoying.
Beautiful Baku – City of Wind, Fountains and Parks
I met the owner of my hostel, Farid, and he was only too happy to give me information on the city’s history and the best places to go. He informed me that the word Baku, or Баку́ in Russian, came from the old Persian word Bad-kube, which when roughly translated means windy. This probably gave rise to the city’s modern nickname, City of Wind.
I was lucky to not be subjected to the city’s infamous strong winds during my stay, but I did notice there were fountains everywhere.
Fountains of Baku
Most were found in parks that are scattered around the city. They were nocturnal and slept during the day.
Then woke up in the evening.
Some were huge.
And some had pretty lights.
Parks of Baku
Baku is blessed with many parks. It’s hard to walk more than 5 minutes in the city without stumbling upon one. One of the major parks in the city, located on the shore of the Caspian Sea is Denizkenari Milli Park. It is also known as Baku Boulevard and is a popular hangout for locals. You’ll see many people sitting by the sea, or eating ice cream from one of the many vendors there.
There are many things to do in the park. Like visit the carpet museum there, which locals will tell you is a must see. They really do love their carpets.
Or you could take a train
Or play chess under the Azerbaijan flag
Beautiful Baku – Old and New
Apparently, when developing the city, a Parisian-style aesthetic was envisioned. To achieve this coveted look, European architects were brought in to design the city’s buildings. This is why the old city could easily be mistaken for a quaint European town.
The old town, or Icherisheher, while lovely, has become a bit of a tourist destination these days. This means that some areas in it have been overrun by expensive hotels, cafes and restaurants aiming for the tourist dollar. It is however, still free to walk around the town’s narrow walkways and cobbled streets.
There are also many souvenir shops selling local arts and crafts. Some of these still seem to have reasonable prices and very friendly shopkeepers that are eager to have you in their shop. The old town is also home to the Maiden Tower. This tower has a viewing area at the top which is said to offer a fantastic view of the city. Unfortunately, they charge a ridiculous entry fee.
Baku is unique in that it’s the only metropolis in Azerbaijan, as well as being the largest city below sea level. It is also a city where old and new have blended together seamlessly. If you walk just outside of the old city walls, you’re standing in a 21st century metropolis surrounded by mountains and hills. I guess everything’s a hill when your city is 30 metres below sea level. One of these hills has a viewpoint that offers a panoramic view of beautiful Baku.
Beautiful Baku from Above
The mysterious hill with a view doesn’t seem to have a name. All the locals refer to it as ‘the hill’. It’s about a 700m climb up a decent amount of stairs from near Denizkenari Milli Park/Baku Boulevard.
To be honest, the walk up to the hill could be a little overwhelming during the day in the summer if you’re not used to the Baku heat. But there are plenty of places to stop, rest and admire the view on the way up.
There is a road that intersects the path just before the last section of stairs. Many people choose to take a taxi to that point.
On the last sections of stairs, I came across some locals selling fresh fruits. I also noticed some rest points on the way up, for anyone that needs a bit of a break from climbing.
There were incredible views from a few levels going up the stairs, I made sure I checked them all out!
Of course the money shots were at the top. From there you get a panoramic view of the city and the Caspian.
It’s almost enough to make you forget for a moment that you aren’t anywhere near an actual sea. You are in fact probably the furthest inland you could be on almost the entire earth.
While it was lovely during the day, I had a thought that it would be even cooler to see at night when the city is lit up. So I walked back up just before sunset.
It is much busier at this time, but watching night descend upon the city was pretty awesome.
Then just after sunset, at about 21:30 during the summer, you’ll get to watch a light show for free!
There’s Something Quirky in Qobustan
Farid had advised me that if I do only one thing in Baku, it should be a trip to Qobustan, pronounced Gobustan. When I looked on the map, I realised it wasn’t far from Alat, where I had entered Azerbaijan. I decided to hop on one of Baku’s very modern looking buses to get to Bina Ticaret Merkezi, which is an interchange station about 30 minutes from the city centre. From there, I hopped on the 195 bus which stops in Qobustan. Both buses cost only 0.30 Azerbaijani Manat/US$0.18 each.
The bus dropped me off on the side of the road, where there was of course a taxi driver waiting. This taxi driver initially wanted to charge me 20 Manat/US$10 to take me on the 10km round trip to Qobustan’s main attraction. I was firmly against that and said I would pay no more than 10 Manat/US$5. That was a bit of a fail on my part, because I was tired and confused about the exchange rate. It should’ve cost less.
He said his fuel would cost 10 Manat/US$5, which I totally didn’t believe. I knew Azerbaijan had a lot of oil reserves under the Caspian Sea. I’d seen the oil rigs on the way in! He wasn’t budging and neither was I, so he took me to an area where some other taxis had gathered and one of them agreed to take me.
So what’s the main attraction of Qobustan? Mud Volcanoes! I kid you not. I told you there was something quirky in Qobustan!
Okay, so they’re not really volcanoes in the true sense of the word, but the mud ‘erupting’ from them has shaped them into volcano-like structures. The mud being expelled from the mounds is actually being pushed to the surface by bubbles of natural gas trying to escape from the earth. Perhaps the most surprising thing was about them was that despite the ambient temperature being above 30 degrees, the mud was pretty cold to touch.
When I was done taking a million pictures, the taxi took me back to a road. The first driver, Fazid was waiting there to take me back to the road where I could catch the bus. He took me to his barber shop first, which is situated in front of his house. He said I could wait inside for the bus, but as there was a wall between us and the main road, I wondered how we would see when the bus was coming.
Back to Beautiful Baku
After making sure he got a photo with me, which I was clearly not into, Fazid and I went out to the road. Another guy on the side of the road flagged down a car and was also going to Bina Ticaret, so Fazid said I should get in. The driver wanted 1 Manat for the ride, which is about double what the bus would cost. It was more comfortable though. When we arrived, he didn’t have change for a 20 Manat note, so he said not to worry about it.
From Bina Ticaret, I hopped on the 125 bus heading back to the city. I had one more stop I wanted to make before I went back to the city.
The Bibi-Heybat Mosque is still a little bit outside of the city, but it’s absolutely amazing. I was in awe from the moment I stepped off the bus.
The first thing that caught my eye, was the graveyard across the road that had been built into a hill. Some of the graves looked better than my house!
Once I walked into the grounds of the mosque, I was captivated not only by architecture and stature of the mosque, but also by the view.
As if the building itself isn’t impressive enough, it’s perched right above one of the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Bye Bye Beautiful Baku
As always happens when travelling, it has to come to an end at some point. Although I’m not usually a big fan of cities, Baku and its people had left an impression on me. From the people that helped me find my accommodation, to the airport bus driver who left his bus to show me how to use the ticket machine that had no English display. But you know what I’m going to miss most of all? The purple taxis. A city has reached next-level coolness when most of their taxi fleet is purple.