Read "Ali and Nino" by Kurban Sa'id
If you are at all interested in the culture and history of Azerbaijan and Georgia, then I can recommend a good book..."Ali and Nino" tells the tale of Muslim Ali Khan Shirvanshir who falls head over heels in love with Christain Nino Kipiani. The story takes place in the early years of the 20th century, a time of great upheaval in the region...and throughout this, Ali, the narrator, struggles to understand his love for Nino the European while preserving his own cultural identity. Romance, adventure, history, murder, humour, intrigue, an insight into Islamic thought and a dramatic setting...all the ingredients for a fantastic read.
Set primarily in Baku, the two lovers visit relatives in Tbilisi, flee to Teheran during the Russian invasion of Baku, and spend time in exile in a Daghestani mountain aoul...so if you are travelling in the region, Kurban Sa'id's extraordinary novel should make the perfect travel companion.
I first read this book in Tbilisi, after my trip to Baku, and found it interesting to see which places I recognised from the story, like the Shirvanshir's palace in Baku and the old baths in Tbilisi. Since then, I've read the novel several times, and even ended up teaching it to a very advanced group of English students in Khartoum! I think this may be my favourite book ;@P
Alyiev family & the cult of personality
Although less present in Baku, huge billboards and pictures of the ruling Alyiev dynasty can be found in Baku as well. What is remarkable is that some of the posters are advertisements, probably paid by private businesses in order either to attract favours or to manifest their loyalty to the regime. Or maybe such expenses are deductible….
I arrived in and left Baki by...
I arrived in and left Baki by rail. There are nightly trains to Tbilisi in Georgia, taking about 18 hours, depending on the mood of the border guards. Trains are excruciatingly slow, but comfortable and cheap, and because the border is crossed either mid-morning (going to Tbilisi) or early-evening (heading to Baki), you can get a very good nights sleep. Of course, this depends on how much vodka your fellow passengers have drunk! Border guards take a special interest in foreigners, not always in a good sense...they will be after bribes, and failing money, they might ask for 'presents'...be wary of 'official fees' and demand a receipt for any payment. Don't pay anything if the guard lowers the price 'just for you'...obviously this is NOT an official fee, and will most likely go towards cigarettes and alcohol. A good way to get away without paying a bribe is to show them a credit card or some travellers' cheques...don't let on that you have dollars. It is better to make sure that you are not in a compartment all to yourself, as local passengers often stick up for foreigners where bribes are involved...of course it could also work the other way around! If you are alone in a compartment, like I was, don't let the guard close the door on you...my guard made it quite clear that he wanted money or a suitable gift from me, and when I refused, he closed the door...I made a fuss and enough noise to alert the provodnik (train attendant) who came along to see what was going on...the border guard almost immediately gave up on me, shook my hand and left! Another good tactic is to speak at them in a language they don't understand, until they get bored and leave, or to offer them things that won't be useful to them...I offered a bag of dirty underwear, which did not go down well!!! The Azeri guards were rather half-hearted about asking for bribes...one 'No!' was enough. But the Georgian side was much worse. A local passenger told me that the trains are only obliged to stop for two hours at the most, after which time the drivers are free to decide when the train leaves. If you have a difficult guard, try to hold out until the train starts moving, then they will have no choice but to leave, bribe-less. This only applies to those who do have their paperwork in order...don't expect to get away with not paying anything if you don't have the correct visa, but if you are sure your visa is valid, don't be afraid to stand up for yourself.
For getting around Baki, my favourite method was walking...I walked everywhere, despite the heat and the hazardous driving skills. It is a flat city, so it is a city made to be walked in! However, taxis are cheap, and there is a network of minibuses with their destinations listed on the side...you can stop them and get off them at any point on their route by shouting 'Sakhla burada!'. As for getting to other towns in Azerbaijan, the fastest way is by bus. There are two bus stations, the main one for international buses and destinations around Azerbaijan, and a second, more chaotic bus station for towns on the Aspheron Peninsula. Some of the nearer towns are served by the city minibuses as well. Distances in Azerbaijan aren't huge, but some of the buses are so clapped-out (I swear some of them run on vodka!!) that it can take hours to cross the country...for example, Baki-Zaqatala is an overnight journey (don't expect to sleep though...you will have no leg-room, and just as you drop off, the bus driver will decide to take a cigarette break, and everyone will make a lot of noise getting off to join him!), and Baki-Quba is four hours.
This small market is located in the heart of Baku, in a street leading to the fountain square. You can buy there a lot of handicraft and relicts of the soviet times. In the buildings on both sides of the street there are some interesting little shops.
Trade Street of Baku
After walking on the Fountain Square, pass the little alley and find yourself looking at the long street of shops and shops ;-) You will immediately recognize the Torgovaya! It's actually Nizami street but everyone calls is Torgovaya, which means "trade" in Russian. So that's our famous trade street... also a pedestrian area, this street is full of shops selling anything from souvenirs to expensive clothes. Even if you are not planning to do any shopping, just walk down the Torgovaya and check out the fashionable youth, well also the expats sitting in outdoor Shaurma cafe and also checking out the fashionable youth, especially the female ones ;-)