Day 15 – Baku, Azerbaijan

21 May

What a busy day.

Started off with a last minute rush from breakfast to bus. Don’t want to waste any valuable sleeping time. Toast again.
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Our new bus captain took us uphill to the new symbol of Baku – the three Flame Towers. These are glass covered skyscrapers in the shape of flames. Window cleaners were busy working on trolleys and one unlucky chap had abseiled from the very top. Not on your nelly.

Our guide, Balash, took us past the new parliament building to Martyr’s Lane where he told us of the Azeri Major General who led the Soviet troops to victory in the Battle of Stalingrad (WW2). Azerbaijan seems to have been the subject of many takeovers, from the Persians to the Russians and has only recently reasserted itself as an independent country.

More recent headstones with pictures commemorated the 19 year olds who lost their lives in the 1991/92 struggle for independence.

Balash told the story of the capture of an important German general and the suggestion to swap him for Stalin’s own son. This was refused by Stalin as he would not swap a low ranking soldier for a general – “all his soldiers were his children!”

He also told the story of Hitler’s 1940 birthday cake in the shape of Europe. Hitler cut himself a piece containing Baku, as it was all he wanted – access to the oil of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan was providing 80% of the Soviet oil during WW2. Hitler ordered his bomber pilots to avoid Baku as he wanted it intact.

Also in this area was a stone to commemorate the British soldiers who died 1918-19, including two Scots from the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders.

I managed to snap a cuckoo thanks to the keen eyesight of the birders. Bit bigger than a pigeon – who knew?
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Up on top of the hill provided great views of Baku and we then started our descent down a long flight of stairs. These were being used by young wrestlers in training. Up and down and up and down. Apparently it’s called exercise.
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Moving on to the Old City, we had a demonstration from Balash of archery through the narrow slits of the city walls and how to pour boiling oil on your enemies. If there was further resistance, a full size catapult was also present. This may cause a few problems if used during the forthcoming F1 Grand Prix. The city walls have been recently restored to their almond coloured limestone brilliance.

Nearby was the chess school attended by Gary Kasparov and several other chess grand masters.

We headed into the Shirvanshah’s Palace Complex. The walls were marked with gun shot holes from the Armenian genocide carried out in 1918.

We strolled around the various parts of the complex – Tomb of the Shah, residential building & throne room. They made good use of modern technology to recreate the missing bits. The ceramic tiles were stripped from the walls and transported to St Petersburg. In their place a projected image gave a feel for what it would have looked like.

One of the more interesting exhibits were the mustache trainer and keeper which were used to keep a mustache in shape during sleeping.

We also stopped off at tombs of the chief scientist, a mosque, a bath house and the family tomb. The pistachio tree in a courtyard was also of interest.
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We found the studio and workshop of Ali Shamsi, a famous artist with a show in London next week. Wouldn’t rush to buy any of his stuff but it was interesting to see the bare foot artist in person. He was happy to do autographs.

Lunch was open air and consisted of a new dish – khingal – which was pasta, oil and minced lamb with yoghurt and pourable “cow” cheese. Much more delicious than it sounds. Also tried Qutabs – thin pancakes with meat filling.
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Had to try on a few hats as we moved through the old city. The sign next to the wooden pomegranate ornaments apparently said “don’t touch”. Ah well. Passed many souvenir shops, including one selling flying carpets!
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We arrived at the Maiden Tower – no agreement on why it’s called this, how old it is, or even what it was used for. However the 8 floors had some interesting exhibits, even if the top had disappointing views and a large crowd of young school children. When the building was restored they had to move out swifts that were nesting there. By all accounts more effort was put into this than strictly necessary with international ornithologists drafted in to sing sweetly at them in a new area, and shout loudly at the tower. Or something like that.

After a quick visit to the bank by Max on our behalf, we drove to the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, in the shape of Marilyn Munro’s dress. Only slightly spoiled by the multicoloured teletubby animals on the lawn outside.

Inside was worryingly how I imagine the new Dundee V&A to be. Lots of space, few exhibits. More hats, carpets, musical instruments and national dress are joined by models of all the new buildings in Azerbaijan.
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The last tourist stop was to Atashgah Temple for Zoroastrianism fire worship. Several dodgy mannekins stared back at me. Need to do some more reading, although Balash did a great job with his tablet photos, presenting the important information. And video of Hitler cutting his birthday cake.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the fire photos and stopped off at the railway station to show Carolyn where she would be catching her 13 hour train to Georgia tomorrow.

After a brief clean up in the hotel, we headed back to Fountain Square, this time with fountains, for our final group meal.
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Managed to take my signature flag photo with all three flags, although Max has a definite photo phobia.

The menu consisted of a 135 page menu, with each page featuring an exact photo of one dish. The Khan kebab seemed to consist of liver kebabs, with a pomegranate sauce and chips. Max even splashed out on desert and coffee for the first time. Chocolate tea was available, to a mixed reception.

George did his very best to sum up the trip and remind us of all we have done, whilst thanking Max for his hard work and passing on his tip. I was officially upgraded to apprentice farmer and offered a summer placement in Dorset. I suspect that may involve some back breaking work.

On the way back we stopped off at a local supermarket for some pomegranate sauce and emptied the place of it all. Baxter’s soup also available for £4.30 a can!

Fantastic day. Fantastic country. Fantastic trip. Fantastic group!

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