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9–12 May 2019 (Thu–Sun)
The Alat port had no taxis, no ATM machine and no WIFI. Kindly a Customs Officer gave me a hotspot for 10 minutes so I could txt Miwa - I had safely arrived from my Caspi adventure. How grand to cross the Caspian Sea by cargo ship !
I learned that there was a worker’s bus departing from the port for Baku in a couple of hours. It did not actually leave until midnight but it did dropped me off near my hotel. Navigating the old city for the first time was slightly challenging. Maps.me saved my life. I was in bed by 2.00am
I awoke early on Thursday, as sunshine entered an East window, to find grand views from my third-floor corner room - all around me building are two-floors. I can clearly see the Caspian Sea, including Baku harbor, and the neu-city built with oil money. Baka Hotel - which means fire or strength in the Azeri language - is strategically located and charming. Such a contrast to my Samarkand Guest House.
Baku and Aktau are connected and separated by Caspi and could not be more different although each are very attractive. Aktau is charming and still developing, while Baku is highly-developed and stunningly-ostentatious. So much on a grand scale in Baku - sometimes tastefully presented and other times a bit of an overreach. But overall, very impressive. Baku reminds me of Singapore but more audacious with an old city with a thousand years of history.
Miwa emailed me and said that our good friends from Brisbane, Aly and Trevor, are visiting Tbilisi Georgia. I email them and learned that they will still be in Tbilisi when I arrive on Monday. We will meet.
Spent the morning responding to a bunch of emails - I had been out of contact for over 48 hours - working on my onward travel arrangements and exploring a bit of the old city.
Eventually, the hotel clerk helped me buy a ticket online for my Sunday, 20.40pm departure. A first class train compartment with two beds for a 12 hour journey for less than US$50. Sounds like a good deal to me and a refreshing change from those Russian trains and second-class sleepers in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
The email I received from the train company was not a ticket - it was a voucher to be presented at the train station - and so I used the underground metro to travel two stops to the Baku central train station. It is good to practiced one’s exit plan before departing a foreign location. Spent the late afternoon and evening walking around that part of the city surrounding the train station. All modern and civilized. Seemed safe.
Friday began sunny and peaceful but by afternoon it became cold and windy. Those eastern gusts across Caspi deliver a real punch.
Visited the Maiden Tower, which is a set of three large stone monolith that many believe was constructed in the 12th Century (see picture). Its actual purpose is unknown and a matter of academic debate, as it would appear to be a defensive structure but many features of a 12th Century defensive structure are not present. There are five or six floors now but these floors were added much later. The original structure was tall and empty with floors at the top only. The locals consider the Maiden Tower the heart of Baku and so it must be visited. 360 degree views on the rooftop.
Baku harbor is similar to Mumbai harbor - which, if memory serves, is known as the Queens Neckless because of the night view. Baku harbor also has a half-moon shape that is devoted to parkland - called The Bulvar. The harbor walkway is one of the widest I have ever seen and it goes on and on and on. Seemed like a perfect place for a bike ride.
Stopped for a cold drink - the cold wind had not yet begun - and met Yasmin at the table next to mine. A young, pretty Turkish girl who was visiting Baku because she had to renew her 2-year visa for Oman. She worked as a hotel receptionist and expected to be in Baku about three weeks - she had pretty good English but said her Arabic was much better. In Oman she did not have to cover her face but she was required to dress in all-black including the headset or Habib. I asked her how she felt about that and she explained that in Turkey she normal wore a Habib but it was colourful. She showed me a picture with her father in Turkey and then at work in Oman on her smartphone. At that moment she was dressed in a very Western way - she said she was enjoying the freedom that came while visiting Baku. Wow. Anyway, she pointed me toward the rental bikes, but by the time I got back out the wind was starting to pick-up. Maybe another day.
Thinking that it may be calmer away from the harbor, I located the funicular that links The Bulvar to an upper-area called the Flame Towers. Three magnificent building high on a hill that are not far from the eternal flame - a war memorial. Very impressive views of the city and harbor but the wind was pretty robust up there also. One of the three buildings housed the Fairmount Hotel and so I took refuge in a lobby with magnificent chandeliers. This city has money and everything built is built to excite.
The wind and cold was exhausting and so I returned to my hotel for a nap. It became calm that evening and I went out for Friday night dinner - had a kabab at a real local place outside the old city. When I returned it was late but the lights of the old city were still on and so I walked the entire circular wall taking pictures of anything interesting or curious. Yellow light on cold stone creates beautiful images.
The weather was just fine on Saturday and so I followed Yasmin advice and found the bike rental shop after several km along the Northern part of The Bulvar. On my bike, I passed old broken-down piers and locals fishing in Caspi, and enjoyed lunch in a five-star hotel, as that was all I could find. A delightful chicken dish stuffed with mushrooms.
Not far from the bike rental shop was the Modern Art Museum. Got to go. Large building, two level, very few people but some very interesting work. I took a bunch of pictures and kept 17. Some real talent in this city.
So much excitement required a nap, but I made myself get up at 8.00pm to visit the Moon Blue Jazz Club in the old city - less than 10 minutes from my hotel down a winding path. It is a great venue and the musicians were not that bad but surprising one of the speakers had a buzzing sound. I've never seen anything like that at a serious jazz venue. The buzz was an irritation the whole night.
Walked around, left the old city and found the Phoenix Pub that had a real good rock band. Played all the great songs from the 70's to the present. They were hot ! A couple of older ladies - British and Russian expats - told me the pub used be owned by the Hells Angels but got sold although the name has not change. I remained till 1.30am - well past my bedtime.
Sunday morning. Time to pack. But I had not yet visited the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which is a stone's throw from my hotel. This was the seat of government for a ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages. So many interesting artefacts. One rooms was full of children that had been dressed up in traditional clothing. It made a great picture. Had lunch in a wonderful Indian/Pakistanis restaurant followed by a bit of digestion at Fountain Square.
Packed-up and left only to find that no one had purchased the second seat in my two-seat compartment. How nice to have such privacy. This train made more noise than any other train I have been on in the past month. A lot of noise. It is as if the tracks were not correctly aligned to the wheels. Curious...
Not a big fan of night trains - want to see the terrain - but there is only one train linking Baku to Tbilisi. No choice.
Route: Baku Azerbaijan – Tbilisi Georgia – Kutaisi Georgia – Batumi Georgia