Sunday, April 3, 2016

Greetings from Baku!

Greetings from Baku!  Photo taken on the promenade alongside the Caspian Sea.  The Flame Towers in the background.
Pat came out a bit fuzzy in the photo but she was happy to be where she was!

Pand I arrived into Baku Heydar Aliyev airport with no issue. We cleared through immigration in a breeze- our evisas were all in order.   As we exited the arrival hall, I scanned the room looking for someone holding up a sign with my name - I had arranged for our local guide to come pick us up at the airport.

Then I saw a man approaching. I heard him ask "Julee?" I nodded and replied, "Yes". It was our guide, Yalchin. I was relieved to see him!  I greeted him with a huge smile and while he did not exactly smile back, there was a kind look to his face.

Before we left the terminal, we had to get some local currency.  So, Pat and I each exchanged $100 USD at the exchange counter. In return, we each got 145 manat. I made a mental note to see how good or bad that rate is when we get to our hotel.

We followed Yalchin to his car. The wind hit us hard. Yalchin warned it was a very windy day and he wasn't kidding! Temperature wise, it was in the low 40's but with the wind, it felt much,much colder.  Yalchin told us that Baku's nickname is the City of Winds because it's very windy for much of the year.  Why didn't I know this before coming?  :-)

Before we got in the car, I took some photos of the airport.   I was expecting to see a run down Soviet era airport and instead we were greeted by a very modern glass and steel structure.


They are currently in the process of building the domestic terminal which is also very modern in design.  I was pleasantly surprised to see the architecture.  

New domestic terminal under construction.

My initial impression of Yalchin was that he was very nice man and a bit chatty which is fine with me. His English is excellent - turns out he had lived in Vacaville, CA for a few years. I'm sure that's where he honed his English language skills.

As we headed towards town, Yalchin pointed out the occasional landmark. My first impressions of Baku were very positive. We were driving on a very well paved highway with very good signage.....which look to be modeled after US highway signs. Large, late model cars....very often expensive makes like BMW and Mercedes passed us by on the road. The buildings are modern - lots of steel and glass here. This is obviously a well off economy in Azerbaijan.

As we drove towards the old city, formally known as Icherisheher, the iconic Flame Towers could be seen in the distance.

Our drive took us to the city center. We crossed over a bridge that Yalchin said was the dividing line. You can tell when you're in the city center simply by the cost of parking. Yep, true pretty much everywhere around the world.

Yalchin pointed out the old city walls as we passed by them. Our hotel was in the old city which is  formally known as Icherisheher. At an arched entryway, Yalchin had to stop the car to pay the entry fee. Then he proceed up a cobblestone street. He made his up and down a few streets, eventually arriving back at the gates. Even with Google maps showing him the way, it was hard finding our hotel. Just as he was about to stop the car and call the hotel, Pat spotted a directional sign posted up on the side of a building. It was for our hotel, the Buta Hotel, located down a narrow alley. We decided to just take our bags and walk. Again, the wind hit us hard. I will definitely need to bulk up on clothing before I head out again.

It was barely 8a when we rang the doorbell outside the front door. A few seconds later, a young man appeared and let us in. He was the receptionist. As we were getting checked in, we agreed with Yalchin to meet back up with him at 8pm to go over our itinerary. He would bring along Rafael, our driver so we could meet him. We said goodbye to Yalchin and made our way up to our room on the top floor. The hotel is pretty much empty so the receptionist gave us what I think is the best room in the place - room #8, a corner room with views of the Caspian Sea (we just have a peek), the old city and the Flame Towers which I recognize from my pre-trip planning. Can't wait to get out and explore the old city.

View of the old city and beyond from our hotel room.

Pat and I relaxed a bit and took care of some simple matters (e.g., setting the time on our clocks, plugging in some of our devices to charge up, etc.) before heading out.  We walked out of the hotel, back to the overcast sky and rough wind.

The alleyway on the left lead to our hotel.  The *stairs to nowhere* were our navigational reference point.

We had eaten a lot on the plane - 3 meals in 9 hours so weren't hungry but decided we would start our first day in Baku with a cup of tea in a local restaurant.

The streets of the old city were empty.  Maybe because it's too early on a Sunday morning??  Hopefully, it would liven up as the day progressed.

The walls of the old city.  The old city is spotlessly clean!!

We found a place open near our hotel called Qala Divari. We ordered tea and a cheese filled blini to share. Thought I had ordered a pot but instead we got a Turkish style cup each. Request lost in translation. Oh well. Blini was good. Reminds me of the ones I get from Costco which come frozen and I crisp up in a pan.

Ordering up our first breakfast in the Caucasus!

After breakfast, it was time for some sightseeing.  Our first destination was the promenade along the water as we decided we had to see the Caspian Sea.  The hotel receptionist had photocopied a street map for us and with that in hand, I navigated us towards the water.The restaurant was located part way up a hill so I figured as long as we head downhill and in the direction of the water, we would be okay.

It was still incredibly windy as we set out. I had four layers on and while I was comfortably warm, the wind was blowing so hard, it make it difficult to walk at times!  Baku most certainly lives up to its nickname!

First impressions of the part of the city we're in. It's spotlessly clean! Lots of building renovation work taking place.

Shops were closed, streets were quite....little traffic, few people around. It's Sunday. We walked down Aziz Aliyev Kücesi and before reaching Neftçiler Prospekti which fronts the promenade, we crossed over to take a closer look at a pretty water fountain.  Seeing the street names reminded me of the fact that the Azeri language is very similar to Turkish.  Some of the printed words look very familiar!


Neftçiler Prospekti was too broad a street to safely cross above ground.  Soon enough, we spotted the underpass.  Just as we were about to descend I spotted the Dalloyao shop there! Dalloyao - a branch of the famous patisserie in Paris....where I bought a small piece of the Exchiquer cake for Z and I to taste!


I had to step inside and see if was indeed the same place and one look at the small piece of cake under the glass counter confirmed it was. At 8 AZN for the piece of cake, it was about the same price as I what I paid in Paris. I think it's true what they say about Baku - that it can be as expensive as any Western European city and that would be expected as long as the standards are the same.

Next, we headed to the underpass.  I thought the streets were clean but even the underpass is spotlessly clean!!


On the other side of the street was a very nice park area. The grounds were very tended grounds and there was lots of bench seating.  It was dead quiet though, not a soul around.  Probably cause it's too early on a Sunday or else it's too cold and windy!


Neftçiler Prospekti on the left side; Caspian Sea on the right.

The clock is about 2 hours off!

Getting my shoes shined :-)

A view of the Flame Towers from the promenade.

The one thing you quickly notice about Baku is just how much construction is taking place here.  There are cranes everywhere!


Everything is very neat and tidy here.  I thought these kiosks were porta potties but they're actually vendor stalls.

This part of Baku has a very Western European feel to it.  Even though the buildings are newly constructed, they are built with a bit of old world charm.  Many of the buildings are home to very high end European retail businesses.  There is definitely money here.


The Flame Towers definitely dominate the skyline and their modern architecture is a stark contrast to the old world European buildings that surrounded us.


Spring is here and there are flowers to brighten up the park.


Here's how you water a planter....

After promenade, we decided to head back to our room.  We were tired.  It had been a very long travel day and jet lag had finally set in. We retraced our steps and re-entered the old city via the Double Gates that Yalchin had driven us through on the way in.

The old city walls on the left.

The arched entries are the Double Gates, one of the main entrances into Icherisheher.

The old city walls on the left; a small city park on the right.

The quirky facade of the workshop of Ali Shamsi, a local artist, caught our attention. 


Boys + soccer ball + any surface that you can kick a ball across = soccer match!

Back in the room, I decided it was time for a two hour nap. I set the alarm for 2 hours. 4 hours later, we finally woke up feeling a bit more refreshed.

It was nearly 3p when we arrived at our next sightseeing destination - Shirvanshahs' Palace which is located about a 2 minute walk from our hotel.

The small palace complex contains several structures including the main building of the palace, Divankhane, and the shah's mosque.

The sandstone palace complex was the seat of the northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling Shirvanshah dynasty. It was constructed between the 12th and the 15 centuries with much of the work taking palce in the 15th century, during the reign of Ibrahim I of Shirvan.

Although the cluster of structures is referred to as a *palace* complex, there is debate among historians as to its actual function. Some believe it was indeed a royal palace while others believe it was memorial complex built around the sacred place of worship (pir) and tomb of Seyyid Yaxya Bakuvi who was a Helwati Sufi saint. The Shirvanshahs were patrons of the Helwati Sufiye order, and Shirvanshah Khalilullah I was buried with his family in the grounds of the palace. Unfortunate there is not evidence to fully support either belief.

After the Safavid conquest of Baku in 1501, the Sufi order was expelled. Over centuries the complex fell into ruin; it was heavily restored in 2003 and the palace building is now a small museum.

The main building, the palace which is now a museum.

The minaret of the Shah's mosque and the Flame Towers in the distance.

Looking down at the shah's mosque.

View of part of the palace complex and the new city beyond.

One section of the palace walls is riddled with bullets.  Between March 31st and April 2nd, 1918, conflict erupted between the Azeris and Armenians.  In Baku, nearly 12,000 civilians lost their lives.  The bullets are the silent reminder of that sad moment in Azeri history. 


Pat got us our tickets which allowed us entry into all parts of the complex.  Each of our two tickets cost 4 manat each.  Pat handed over a 20 manat bill and the woman didn't have change so would have to come back later to get it.  The woman made a note on the receipt that we were owed the change which was a good idea in case someone else was working in her place when we returned.

We started our visit with Building A - the original palace which is now a museum.  We entered into a very medieval looking entry hall.  Small doorways led to the exhibit halls which presumably were once rooms in the palace.

The museum collection houses both official and personal items from the Shirvanshah dynasty as well as priceless historic Azeri items.  I have to say that everything was very well presented and described in Azeri, Russian, and English.  There were plenty of woman patrolling each room, presumably some were guides for hire.

As blustery as it was outside, it was toasty warm inside the museum.  Both Pat and I welcomed the warmth!

Standing in the entry hall, looking at an exhibit room.

There was a beautiful Azeri rug hanging in the entry hall.


Looking up at the painted dome ceiling.


I'm not much of a museum goer so I basically walked through the rooms, occasionally taking a closer look at something that caught my eye from afar.




I got a chuckle looking at the display of mustache trainers :-)

A beautiful stained glass window pane.  The grill is actually a single piece of carved wood.  Each glass
is masterfully inserted into each section so no glue is needed to hold it in place.

Pat peering through a grate to look at the Bayil Stone, a remnant from the fortress of the same name.

Not easy to take a photo with autofocus enabled on my Nikon :-(

The engraving on the Bayil Stone reads, *Shah*.

The museum has quite a few multimedia and interactive displays.  The one that captivated us was the one that had a lighted display of a model of the old city.  Various sections would light up to highlight the landmarks.  Of course, the domes and minaret pinpointed the palace.  Being so new to the old city, we really didn't know any of the other highlights so for us, it was more about trying to pinpoint our hotel rather than locating a historic site!  Later I realized I can see the tops of the structures of Shirvanshahs' Palace from the window in our room.



After our short visit to the museum, we headed over to Building B with was Divankhane.  The exact function of Divankhane - I keep wanting to put the word, *the* in front of it....as in *the Divankhane*.  I digress.  Back to its debated purpose.

Some historians believe it was a court house where justice was rendered. This belief is based on the presence of a large hole in the center of the stone floor. They believe it was the place where the executioner put the criminal's head and then cut it off. Afterwards the body was carried along certain underground canals to the sea.

Other historian maintain that Divankhane was a place where ambassadors and guests of honor were received, as well as where viziers and advisers held their meetings.  Ergo its name.  Divan-khane (Persian: دیوان‌خانه‎‎) is a Persian phrase from {divan = court} + {khane = house} to describe a guest house usually for prominent people in the Middle Eastern society.  In fact, almost all palaces of the Middle East used to have rooms for greeting special guests.

There are also other historians who believe that Divankhane was a mausoleum version because of the fact that there is a two-chamber vault in the basement and a verse from a surah (chapter) from the Koran carved on the Divankhane portal that reads, "the Allah calls for abode of peace and leads those who will wish to the direct path... This is the paradise that shall be their dwelling place eternally".

We passed through the entrance to a small, walled courtyard that was surrounded on three sides by columned galleries.  In the center was a pavilion.  Unfortunately, there were no descriptive plaques telling us what was what so we really had no idea what we were looking at.



The doorways inside the pavilion are framed with carved intertwined fig and grape leaves.

An entry portal.
We barely spent 10 minutes inside Divankhane.  I'm sure we missed seeing something.

Next, we wandered around to the back of the palace building.  There, we saw remnants of the frieze of Bayil xFortress.

A view from behind the palace building.  The structure on the left leads down to an ancient water reservoir.

The fortress and the castles that were situated inside its walls was built from 1232–1233, during the Shirvanshah dynasty. In 1306, a major earthquake hit Baku and the entire island that the fortress was situated on submerged and remained under water for several centuries. It was not until the early 18th century, when the Caspian Sea receded, that the structure resurfaced and historians could begin their studies.

From 1939-1969, an archaeological project organized by the Institute of History of the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences and led by Prof Y. Pakhomov and archaeologists I. Jafarzade and O. Isimzade, discovered relics and more than 700 inscribed stone panels. The panels which are remnants of the fortress wall frieze are decorated with inscriptions in Arabic and Persian, chain-shaped ornamentation and images of people, animals, birds and mythical animals.  They have provided historians with invaluable information about the Shirvanshah dynasty, including names of 15 of the rulers.  Unfortunately, time and the elements time have taken their toll. Up to 30 percent of the stones recovered from the sea had been damaged by the centuries long work of the waves and their inscriptions and images had been effaced.  That and not all of the stones have been recovered.

Some of the recovered stone panels are currently on display in the courtyard of the palace and some inside the small Bayil Fortress museum.





Inside the small museum, a map of the fortress details where each panel was originally located on the frieze.



The same Bayil Stone that we were looking at from the 2nd floor.

Before we left the palace grounds, we went back to the ticket kiosk to get the change that Pat was owed.  Then, we went back to the room for just a few minutes to use the facilities. Then it was on to our next destination - Maiden Tower. After looking at the map, I knew exactly how to get there - basically, heading out towards the promenade and instead of crossing the street to the park, we continued along Neftçiler Prospekti, walking in the direction of the Flame Towers.

On our way, we popped inside a very chic looking pharmacy. Pat thought she had left her hearing aid batteries at home and wanted to see if she could get them here.  No luck of course.

Very swanky pharmacy.  Not like any CVS or Walgreens I've ever been in!
Neftçiler Prospekti is lined with very high end retail establishments.  Not a single shopper insight!

Sure enough, a couple blocks later and there it stood, the Maiden Tower.  You  can't miss it - it's a very unique looking structure.  From a bird's eye view, the structure resembles a buta - a common motif in Azeri design that represents fire and sun.



The Maiden Tower (Azerbaijani: Qız Qalası) was built in the 12th century as part of the walled city. Together with the Shirvanshahs' Palace, it forms an ensemble of historic monuments that was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.

Legend has it that the name of the towe recalls the story of a maiden, said to be the daughter of the Khan of Baku. To escape from the shame of being incarcerated by her brother, she jumped to her death from the top of the tower.  Other stories have it that she is said to be the sister of the Khan, rather than the daughter.  One story or the other, she was woman who supposedly jumped to her death from the top of the tower.  Another explanation for the name is testament to the fact that the tower has never been taken by force (hence a metaphorical reference to *virginity*).

As for the purpose of the tower.  That is still being debated.  Some historians believe it was used  originally during the Sasanid era as a Zoroastrian temple.  There are also historians who believe the tower was used as an astronomical observatory after it was reconstructed in the 12th century



Pat bought our tickets - again 4 manat each and we entered through a small door.  Like Kiek in de Kök in Tallinn which we visited when we were in Tallinn, which had been turned into a museum which exhibits on various floors of the tower, such was the case with the Maiden Tower.

Inside the museum, a metal spiral staircase led us from the 1st to the 2nd floors.


After that, stone steps that circled up the outer wall of the tower led us up to several floors that were dedicated to exhibits and multimedia displays presenting the historic evolution of Baku as well as  the various purposes the tower is believed to have served - temple, observatory....etc.


View of traffic zipping by on Neftçiler Prospekti and the water beyond.

We headed all the way up to the rooftop observation area where we enjoyed a panoramic view of Icherisheher, the new city, and the Caspian Sea.


Back down and outside, I took a quick look at the map and decided we would take another, shorter route back to our hotel. At least I thought it would be shorter but in hindsight, it was probably the same distance as had we walked back to the Double Gates and then up the hill to our hotel.  At least, it gave us opportunity to see another part of Icherisheher.

On the rooftop of the Maiden Tower.  About to follow Pat down the steps to head out.

We walked past a few souvenir vendors (surprisingly few),  former caravanserai that is now part restaurant and part art gallery and Juma (Friday) mosque.  We eventually ended up back at Shirvanshahs' Palace.



Entrace to Juma Mosque.
They have pretty doors here.

Later, we headed out for dinner. Earlier in the day, we had spotted a woman making fresh bread in a tandir just inside the front door at a restaurant called Sehirli Tandir.

Fresh bread being baked up inside the tandir at Sehirli Tandir.

We tried to get in but the ever so grumpy waitress indicated no seats. We tried to get into a place called Manqal, located right next door.  We were drawn in by sight and smell of meat grilling in the open kitchen. They were fully booked as well. Not looking good.  The waiter at Manqal pointed us to the restaurant across the street which he said had the same menu. So we went there. A very disinterested waitress pointed us to a table but didn't bother handing us a menu. I realized why after I got us two menus. The menu was entirely in Azeri - we couldn't understand even one word. With no chance of a menu, we had no choice but go elsewhere. We peeked inside Sehirli Tandir once again and this time, the grumpy waitress nodded us in. We took two seats at a table for six - it was the only table available.  We could have just waited for a table to begin with.  Sigh.

Looking over the menu.   Thank God, it was in English.....with pictures :-)

A man came by to take our order. We settled for a simple cucumber tomato salad (I suspect I will be eating a lot of these on this month long trip!) and something called saj kabab.  We had a choice of meat aka beef or chicken. We took the beef.

As we waited for our meal, our bread came - piping hot, fresh from the oven. It was delicious! Good crust, soft, slightly chewy interior.




Saj turned out to be thick slices of beef that had been cooked in an oil concoction that I think had some butter mixed into it. The meat was tough but flavorful. The oil was perfect for dipping the bread into. The meat was served in a large wok like metal dish. Around the sides were slices of grilled eggplant, tomato, potato and chilies. It was a lot of food and we weren't all that hungry but we managed to polish all but a bite or two!


After dinner, we had a few minutes to relax before meeting back up with Yalchin. He had brought along Rafael as he said he would. We went over the itinerary and after reviewing it, realized we had an extra tour day to fit in. The two guys chatted and soon came up with an answer. We'll be splitting up one of the longer days into two which means less hectic touring for us and less driving for Rafael. We agreed to pay Yalchin for the extra day and to cover Rafael's meals. Per earlier agreement, we will also pay for our accommodation which will be in modest guest houses as well as all our admission fees.

Per our intineary, we a have tomorrow on our own to explore the city - our time with Rafael will begin at 9a on April 5. I've been pinching myself all day. I'm finally in Azerbaijan and we're off to a great start!

Goodnight from Baku!