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Baku to the future 6 juin 2007

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Energy / Energie.
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The Gazette (Canada), June 2, 2007 Saturday, Pg. K3

Kristian Gravenor

Petrodollars are setting fire to Azerbaijan’s economy as the country opens up after decades under Soviet repression

On a glorious afternoon in the heart Baku’s old city, there are no tour buses, no camera-toting tourists, no T-shirts stamped with Azerbaijan’s natural wonders. Away from the tourist sites, you could more easily buy a carpet than a soft drink.

And yet this ancient walled city of 2 million offers lots of the unexpected: a thriving homegrown jazz scene, impeccably maintained classical mansions, pubs packed with British oil workers, basement discotheques on almost every corner, and many broom closet-sized stores with inexpensive vodka stacked to the ceiling.

Its residents are predominantly Shiite Muslims, but in the post-Soviet hangover after its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, a young generation that never knew Moscow’s rule has benefited from the country’s oil wealth and has embraced the West and its proximity to Turkey, both geographic and cultural. (Azerbaijanis consider themselves part of a larger Turkic family, which stretches from Turkey to Turkmenistan and western China.) Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has had close ties to Turkey; leading Azerbaijani actors and singers tend to move to places like Istanbul.

The country’s fast-changing nature has created a chasm between the younger generation and the old one that lived under the repressive Soviet regime, when all the country did was pump oil, play chess and build air conditioners.

In Baku, old women mingle in front of concrete apartment buildings, makeshift balconies, Soviet-era worker murals and tiny stores selling individually wrapped candy. They remain firmly rooted fixtures.

Yet a massive and sudden injection of petrodollars from the booming Caspian Sea oil industry is revolutionizing the city. This once-sleepy town, previously dismissed as corrupt and polluted, has been dubbed by the Financial Times a « European city of the future. »

Fountain Square is the jumping-off point for the urban Baku prowler. It’s a monument-laden leafy spot where young Azerbaijani women show off their midriffs, while boys prefer baseball caps to the blazers of their elders.

Between the square and the waterfront are pubs and boutiques, including one selling surplus curios from the Soviet era. Restaurants serve the ubiquitous fatty mutton kebab, dished up with a variety of fresh vegetables and spices.

The nearby Maiden Tower is Baku’s best-known monument and a great mystery, as well. Some speculate that it was started as early as the 7th century BC; others say its last additions were not completed until the 12th century AD. Climb to the top and enjoy the view from a platform where Zoroastrians hauled corpses to be devoured by birds.

During Baku’s first oil boom a century ago – in 1901 the country reportedly produced half the world’s oil – Azerbaijan’s wealthy went on an architectural spree of one-upmanship that left a legacy of gaudy downtown mansions. The boom came to a sudden halt when a young Georgian oil-hand named Joseph Stalin organized a workers’ uprising.

Today, the recently completed BTC pipeline carries oil from the Caspian Sea through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan and the world beyond, and money back to Baku, setting the city’s economy on fire.

The city is also literally on fire; flames have jumped from Azerbaijani soil since the dawn of time, inspiring Azerbaijan’s nickname as the Land of Fire and leading a Persian prophet named Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) to create a fire-worshipping religion.

Today one of the world’s most sacred Zoroastrian temples sits near Baku. The Surkhany Temple at Ateshgah is impressive – even if the sacred flame now burns piped-in gas.

For genuine Azerbaijani burning earth, visit Yanar Dag (also known as Yanardagh – the switch from the Cyrillic to a Latin-based alphabet has led to much interpretative spelling). Sip chai at a cafe while pondering the flames that launched a world faith.

If that’s too hot, at places like the Firuz Crater, west of Baku, small pyramids spit out cold mud. Aficionados claim to enjoy the alleged medicinal benefits at the country’s estimated 300 mud volcanoes. Visitors frequently get so close that they leave caked in earthy mess, a fine sight in a country that values natty dressing.

Azerbaijan is investing its petrodollars in nature tourism in rural areas of the country, where villages have distinct histories and languages, a product of centuries of life under different empires.

Everybody from hikers to mountain-goat hunters is being actively courted, and even skiers will be invited to the party once a ski hill is built in the Caucasus mountains.

After several days in Baku, we head north toward Nabran. We dodge donkeys and sheep on the highway, passing clay-coloured hills, shiny service stations that sell gas for 40 cents a litre and billboards featuring late President Heydar Aliyev and his successor, son Ilham.

Soon we’re thick in forests, packed with newly built cottages by swimming pools where a traveller can rent a cabin for $25 a night.

At a picnic table laden with lamb kebabs and sturgeon steaks, an older tourist official with a mouth full of gold raises a toast. Azerbaijani vodka toasts tend to be half-hour monologues. We drink to Canada, and Phil Esposito in particular. (It seems that a lot of Azerbaijanis cheered as the Esposito-led Canadians defeated the Soviet Union in the 1972 hockey summit.)

If you go

Getting there

Major European airlines fly from Montreal to Baku: Lufthansa via Frankfurt, British Airways via London, Air France via Paris. Prices start at $1,600 but add $500 for high season mid-June to mid-September.


U.S.-based Impressa Tours (718-645-8578) organizes tours starting from $150 per day; including hotel, as well as a pricier version that includes caviar tasting and luxury hotels priced around $3,000 for two weeks. Improtex offers similar deals (improlcc@intrans.az).

Where to stay

Hotel Velotrek, +994-12-431-5189, a little-known 35-room hotel built inside Baku’s velodrome boasts the city’s best hotel deal, with rooms for reportedly as little as $20 a night.

Baku is loaded with pricey hotels geared for oil companies, but Rena Salmanova (+994-50-314-2439, www.travelazerbaijan.land.ru) can find you an apartment downtown for a few days at a cost ranging from $40 to $60 a night.

Atlant Hotel (994-12-418-6647) in Nabran. One of many brash new developments in the woody seaside towns north of Baku, cottages built around waterpark cost $30 per night.

More information: Azerb.com.


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