Exploring Azerbaijan

Exploring Azerbaijan

Oberto Gili Two people stand in front of a Soviet-era World War II memorial in Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews. Oberto Gili
Oberto Gili Two people stand in front of a Soviet-era World War II memorial in Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews.
Oberto Gili
Azerbaijan has a rich multi-ethnic history, decrepit Soviet-Era architecture, great food, and enormous quantities of oil. Gary Shteyngart takes in the surreal contrasts of the wild east.

Azerbaijan is democratic and lawful is one of the billboard sayings attributed to the country's recently deceased dictator, Heydar Aliyev, which for many of its citizens would be true enough if "democratic" were changed to "kleptocratic" and the first l dropped from "lawful." The onetime Soviet republic, whose outline resembles a fierce bird dipping its beak into the Caspian Sea, is stuck between Russia to the north and Iran to the south—hardly a place where you would want to open up a lemonade stand, much less a modern free-market democracy. And yet, for all its troubles, Azerbaijan carries on. Its people, hypereducated in Soviet times, are kind, friendly, and decent, though often driven by tough economic circumstances to ­record-breaking levels of patronage and graft. The oil industry keeps pumping money into the pockets of local politicos as well as the vast coffers of concerns like British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. And the country's rich, bloody history astride the tectonic plate at the conjunction of Russia, Persia, and Turkey makes it one of the most fascinating and—­every once in a while—beautiful places in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan offers more than just the usual litany of crumbling palaces and grilled meats. The country is a true reality tour, a catalogue of everything that is wrong with the world at the beginning of the 21st century and a vibrant portrait of how life is lived by the majority of humankind—which is to say with difficulty, ingenuity, piety, and unshakable pride.

The first thing one should do, after getting ripped off by the taxi drivers at the airport, is head to the Mirvari Café by the Baku waterfront. The capital city is often compared to an amphitheater built around the polluted green stage of the Caspian Sea, and the open-air Mirvari, whose roof resembles a series of overturned mussel shells, provides the visitor with an orchestra seat. I order a plate of sturgeon kebabs and unfurl the Russian-language newspaper, the Echo. The front page has an article titled "The Black Economy of Azerbaijan is Equal to That of Nigeria," explaining that 60 percent of the Azerbaijani gross national product is off the books. I pour a tart pomegranate sauce over the grilled sturgeon, which, while not the best in town, still manages to be both crisp and mealy, a combination that goes down well with a bottle of Khirdalan, the heavy local lager. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but the influence of religion here is moderate enough for women to promenade down the waterfront in tank tops and Daisy Duke shorts, although men, oddly enough, are confined to heavy-collared shirts and sweltering gray trousers usually held up by stiff cardboard-like belts. The harbor rocks to the sound of Turkish disco music, and oil derricks, shimmering beneath the afternoon sun, crowd one end of the bay. A nearby billboard shows the deceased Aliyev standing in front of the Baku skyline next to his son, Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliyev, in a pose that seems to suggest the caption: "Son, do you want to take over a small oil-rich country when I'm gone?" I swallow my last fish kebab and look around. Sea, oil, nepotism, sturgeon, the black economy, women showing off their barely clad hips—I have Azerbaijan before me on a platter.

Like most cities of the former U.S.S.R., Baku has a solid inventory of dogmatic Soviet-style museums (State Museum of Carpets and Applied Art, anyone?), but the capital's true cultural draw is its eclectic architecture. After lunch, I visit the compact Old Town. The Maiden's Tower, which guards the waterfront, is perhaps the most famous of Baku's tourist sights. The ancient eight-story fortress, whose true purpose has never been ascertained (good guesses include a fire beacon, an astronomic observatory, and a Zoroastrian temple), is an unduplicated architectural wonder: a round structure with a single buttress pillar projecting from its eastern side. Estimates for when the original tOWER was built range from 600 b.c. to the 12th century, but the ribbed wedge of the buttress gives it an almost futuristic feel, as if it were an enormous piece of postmodern furniture. A hike up to the tower's top reveals a vista of the carpet shops and minarets of the Old Town in one direction, the sea dotted with oil tankers in another, and, facing away from the bay, the higgledy-piggledy onslaught of new residential skyscrapers that make parts of the city look like a miniature São Paulo.

The Old Town itself is remarkably devoid of tourists: its many carpet sellers call after the rare foreign visitor with a profound glottal cry. In the daytime, it is a child's wonderland, filled almost exclusively with happy little post-Soviet tykes kicking soccer balls past the low domes of the hammam . The Old Town's gem is the 15th-century palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, complete with a harem, mosque, family mausoleum, and the shah's supreme court. The latter features a delicate eight-sided pagoda where the shah sat and communicated with the condemned through a hole in the ground (only the poor fellow's head was visible). Elegant Kufic calligraphy graces the walls of the compound. The crescent of the Old Town is ringed by an assortment of fin de siècle mansions built during Baku's first oil boom, which brought prospectors with surnames like Nobel and Rothschild to the dusty shores of the Caspian , and provided Lev Nussimbaum (a.k.a. Kurban Said) with the cosmopolitan setting of his celebrated novel Ali and Nino. Like newly rich immigrants everywhere, the oil magnates went crazy with the money and the ornamentation, ending up with a mélange of styles, from Moorish to Persian to Italian Renaissance. The overall results, however, are impressive. In the course of a five-minute walk I encountered a city hall that could hold its own against the Hôtel de Ville in Paris; a colorful local take on Venice's Palazzo Contarini; and a wedding hall that would not be out of place amid the neo-Gothic quads of the University of Chicago.

When the merciless sun sets, or at least laggardly tips toward the horizon, it is time to experience Azerbaijan's other treasure: dinner. This requires disabusing oneself of any preconceptions one may have about mutton. The Azerbaijani kitchen cooks up a fearsome shashlik, or "mutton kebab," the meat usually taken from the loin or hind leg, seasoned with spring onions, put on a spit, and roasted over a charcoal fire. While the best shashlik is usually found outside the capital, the Karvansaray restaurant in the Old Town has a light touch with the grill and also comes up with delicious mutton plov (pilaf) and dolma. Substandard versions of dolma can be found in many Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in the States, but the Azerbaijani kind are the real deal: vine leaves, peppers, and tomatoes stuffed to bursting with rice and large juicy chunks of mutton. The plov is mutton and rice tossed with onions, dried grapes, apricots, and chestnuts. The combination of sweet fruit and flavorful salty meat is delectable.


Stuffed full of mutton, I head back home to the Hyatt hotel, one of the few business-class lodgings in town. Since the oil boom of the late 1990's, Baku's nightlife has been top-heavy with expensive options aimed squarely at multi­national oil workers and the women who love them. The city accommodates a surprising number of bars with names like Finne gan's and O'Malley's, where a beer can cost far more than the equivalent of a day's pay for the average Azerbaijani. I spend an evening decompressing from the heat at the Hyatt's Britannia Pub, surrounded mostly by employees of the notorious Halliburton company and trashy local hookers of a certain age. I drink a few Khirdalans with a diplomat from the British Embassy in nearby Ankara, Turkey, making bets on which oilman will blow his hard currency on which prostitute . An older American, pink from sun and vodka, comes back after an eight-minute jaunt with a heavily permed older woman , complaining that for all her loving she wouldn't kiss him. Later, I visit 1033 Izmir Street, another part of the huge Hyatt complex, where the prostitutes are younger and more dynamic, dancing away to their favorite Black Eyed Peas song, checking each other's stomachs for flab, and nervously brushing the hair away from their dimpled half-moon faces. Most have a dark, Turkic complexion but try to look blond and Russian—the gold standard of international prostitution. "Do you want a girl?" a towering beauty with neon lips asks me. "I'm married," I lie. "Where is your wife?" "In New York." "Maybe you need another wife here?" "What am I, the shah?" I Say.

Prostitutes aside, Azerbaijan is one of the friendliest places you will visit. Put differently, even if you're lacking friends back home, you will make friends in Azerbaijan . Someone will most likely come up to you, start chatting about the weather or the price of mutton, invite you to his home, and then effortlessly make you a part of his life. When I meet a 26-year-old fellow named Aydin, I like him immediately—he speaks cultured Russian, doesn't dress like a label-hungry post-Soviet mutant, and has enough wild business plans to rival a character out of a Dos ­Passos novel. Just two days later, I'm helping him carry a refrigerator up a flight of stairs to an apartment he has renovated to snare a rich foreign tenant ( rents for renovated flats in Baku are approaching New York levels, courtesy of the oil boom). While we drove through a maze-like, abandoned industrial depot to pick up the refrigerator, my new friend joked about kidnapping me and trying to get a ransom out of Travel + Leisure.

In Azerbaijan you are the car you drive, literally. Most people are Soviet Ladas—overheated, unreliable, struggling to make it up the next hill. Aydin is a Hyundai Sonata, not as slick as the BMW's or Mercedeses that signify the truly connected elites, but with enough cachet for children to chase after his ride shouting "Hyundai! Hyundai!" while other kids line up on the shoulder of the road, saluting smartly. "Does this look like the poorest American province?" Aydin asks, naively, as we tear down the half-paved road at 105 mph, the Godfather sound track blasting on the stereo and five ounces of vodka gurgling in our stomachs. I don't have the heart to tell him that the landscape before us—dehydrated patches of grass, primitive shacks from which locals sell warm bottles of Pepsi, cows sprawled across the median—looks more like Mississippi after a hydrogen bomb blast.

Baku is centered in the dusty, highly polluted Abs heron Peninsula. After 72 hours or so you' lL be ready to head for the mountains. Particularly recommended is the northwestern hamlet of Shaki. After a hellish six-hour bus ride during which the little girl next to you may or may not throw up on your luggage, you arrive at the most distinctive hotel in all of the former Soviet Union. True to its name, the Karvansaray Hotel is set in an 18th-century caravansary, a fine example of the motel of yore that once gave respite to the itinerant merchant and his camel. The brick-vaulted rooms are spartan but spacious, and my room, No. 30, opens up to a beautiful view of what the manager optimistically calls "the city": a haphazard collection of houses jostling each other over a peaceable stream. The hotel rooms are built around an arched inner courtyard, beyond which distant mountain ridges form a fan shape, as if they were opening up before you. In addition to the superlative hotel, Shaki also has the best mutton kebab I've tasted in Azerbaijan. The nearby Shahin Kafesi restaurant has meat so juicy and tender that one can gently nudge it off the bone, instead of engaging in any beastly struggles with gristle and fat. A side dish of tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh tarragon can help you fill up on your vegetable quotient. Beer goes nicely with everything.

Other than taking in the mountain air or checking out an 18th-century khan's understated and beautifully ornamented palace, there is very little to do here—a blessing after the overstimulation of Baku. Walk down the road that flanks the stream, past the men playing nard (a relative of backgammon), drinking tea, and looking generally dissatisfied, past the younger people shouting a Friday night salam aleykum to each other, past the shops advertising Shaki's famous extra-syrupy halvah (handle with care), past the taxi drivers eyeing you glumly as you cross the central square, then turn around and see the tall, silver-capped minaret of the Central Mosque silhouetted against the distant green of the mountains. All around you is stillness, the untrammeled light-black sky, the undulating call to prayer: the last believable TOURIST DESTINATION left on earth.

A few days later , my friend Aydin and I strike out for the northern town of Quba. An impoverished place notable only for a few mosques and an overgrown, delightfully ruined beehive hammam, Quba looks out over a muddy river toward the unique village of Krasnaya Sloboda, home to Azerbaijan's Mountain Jews. In Krasnaya, we talk to a group of smartly dressed, middle-aged men by the doors of a swank new restaurant; one tells us they are Babylonian Jews, descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and another claims they are the remnants of a 17th-century Jewish immigration from Persia. Whichever the case, the locals speak Tat, a northern Persian dialect with some Hebrew words mixed in. Whether in Tat or not, I know the first questions they will ask me—questions asked of visiting Jews the world over: "Are you married?Is she Jewish?" Despite my unsatisfactory answers, the Mountain Jews graciously treat me and Aydin to some cold Russian beers and an actual non-mutton, vegetarian dish called a qutab, an oily pancake stuffed with onion, spinach, and parsley. When Aydin mentions his preference for expensive American cigarettes, a car is quickly dispatched for his favorite brand, on the house. "We get along well with the Azerbaijanis," the chubby ringleader of the group tells me, pointing to the minarets of Quba across the river, "but this village is all Jewish. Where else do you have that?"

"We've got ourselves a little heaven," another tells me through his golden teeth. "Is it true," asks the ringleader, "that Madonna has changed her name to Esther and studies the kabbalah?"

According to the villagers, Krasnaya Sloboda has recently been scandalized by a Russian television report insinuating that the town's wealth comes from the narcotics trade. "Jews don't use narcotics," the ringleader tells me. "We make money from our brains." Walking through the eerily quiet village, past the recently restored synagogue and the wedding palace with its giant color photograph of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, past the far-fetched nouveau riche mansions bristling with silver spires, overgrown porticoes, and other tasteless flourishes, one does notice the incredible prosperity of the place, especially compared to bankrupt Quba across the river, where the only decorations seem to be billboards of former president Heydar Aliyev and his son ushering the country into a happy future.


The next morning, back in Baku, I head to the City Lights B ar on the 17th floor of the Radisson Hotel. There, I order a portion of caviar: $36 worth, enough to feed at least four. The caviar is a mixture of beluga and osetra, hence not as pure as the highly prized beluga alone, but it hits all the right briny, buttery notes. I stand there looking out over the harbor, where a small contingent of warships has anchored, shoving caviar in my mouth, remembering that the last time I ate Caspian caviar with a spoon was during my childhood in Leningrad. After carefully licking the empty jar , I decide to go for a swim in the same waters as the fish that produced these eggs. Shikhov Beach, slightly south of the city, is a popular place for overcooked Azerbaijanis in the summertime. On this day, the waters seem clearer than on my last visit to Azerbaijan; the wind has blown some of the oily residue out to sea and is now tickling my bare back. Three oil rigs the size of skyscrapers squat in the distance, while children play volleyball next to me, albeit with a soccer ball and no net. I try not to swallow the thick, green water, but after my brief dip, my bathing suit, my towel, and my sunburned shoulders all smell vaguely of petroleum.

On one of my last days in Azerbaijan, Aydin and I head up along the Sumgayit highway to a roadside restaurant called Ruslan. We are traveling through the Absheron Peninsula . Polluted even in Soviet times, Absh eron is a spent wasteland of salt beds, slurry, oil derricks, and various other examples of man's inhumanity to nature. Despite smelling, for the most part, like the warm armpit of an orangutan, the peninsula is home to a good portion of Azerbaijan's citizens. Surrounded by the industrial cacophony, Ruslan is an oasis, tucked away in a grove of trees beneath a mighty railroad overpass. The owners are Kurdish, refugees from Azerbaijan's conflict with neighboring Armenia. With typical local ingenuity, they have turned a group of ­construction ­workers' cabins, once used to house fellow immigrants, into the restaurant and a series of gaily painted love shacks. I am told by Aydin and his older associate, who is nicknamed Ali Baba, that for 20 dollars one can have sex in the cabins (bring your own lover), eat like a king, and then leave. Thankfully, we are here only to eat. We chase vodka with sour plums, then dig into a meal of lula kebab, a skewer of flaky mutton meatballs. "See the pools of juice on your plate," says Ali Baba, who is twice as old and four times as experienced as either Aydin or myself. "That's because the mutton was minced by hand over a tree stump. They don't use meat grinders here."

Aydin, who has a master's degree in oil production and the thin wrists of an educated Soviet city boy, complains that the foreigners get preferential treatment in the oil industry, leaving him (and me) to lug refrigerators up flights of stairs. "They come here," he says of the expatriates, "and they think they're in Africa. They don't realize how educated we are, how we were once part of a great superpower."

We drink to his success, to our friendship, to our families ("the holiest of all," according to Ali Baba). After many vodka shots, Ali Baba raises his final toast. "May I drive you home safely," he says. I walk past the samovar and the smoking grill pit to admire the façade of one of Ruslan's tidy love shacks—a bright painting of lush blue-green mountains, a ­ bubbling silver brook, and a precisely rendered little village hanging onto a cliff. It takes me a while to realize that this scene, painted upon a cabin once meant for Soviet construction workers, then for Kurdish refugees, then for local lovers, is of the land from which the restaurant's owners were evicted. Here, amidst the refineries and oil derricks of modern Azerbaijan, is a melancholy, but hopeful, interpretation of home.


The best times to visit Azerbaijan are late spring and early fall. Lufthansa, British Airways, and Azerbaijani Airlines offer flights to Baku; Geographic Expeditions (www.geoex.com) or SI Travel (www.si-travel.com) can help organize your trip.

Tourist visas may be obtained from the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington, D.C.; they require confirmed hotel reservations. See www.azembassy.com for details.


WHERE TO STAY

Park Hyatt Baku
A luxury hotel that's part of the Hyatt International Centre—a beacon of the country's booming oil industry.
DOUBLES FROM $250
1033 IZMIR ST., BAKU; 800/233-1234 OR 994-12/490-1234;
baku.park.hyatt.com/

Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel
High-end accommodations with views of Fountain Square and the Caspian Sea.
DOUBLES FROM $220
340 NIZAMI ST., BAKU; 800/333-3333 OR 994-12/498-2402;
www.radisson.com

Karvansaray Hotel
A far cry from Baku's towering properties, this restored 18th-century caravansary has brick-vaulted rooms and a garden courtyard.
DOUBLES FROM $30 (OR $75 WITH HOT WATER)
MF AXUNDOV ST., SHAKI; 994-177/44814

WHERE TO EAT

Karvansaray Restaurant
DINNER FOR TWO $30
11 BOYUK GALA KUCESI, BAKU 994-12/492-6668

Mirvari Café
DINNER FOR TWO $20
NEFTCHILER AVE., BOULEVARD, BAKU 994-12/492-6288

Shahin Kafesi
DINNER FOR $20
OFF MF AXUNDOV ST., SHAKI; NO PHONE

WHAT TO SEE

Maiden's Tower
An eight-story fortress in Baku's Old Town.

Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs
This 15th-century complex in Baku includes a mosque.

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More