The transformation of oil-rich Baku: Azerbaijan's gateway to the Caucasus

Baku's Flame Towers are visible from many parts of the city. 

Anthony Bourdain has traveled the world for his television show “Parts Unknown,” so it’s a shame he will never make it to Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, boarded by Iran, Russia and Armenia in the South Caucuses.

From land-locked Uzbekistan, we flew across the Caspian Sea to experience one of the ex-Soviet Union’s most prosperous cities situated along the old Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe. Baku’s old city, hidden behind iron gates and medieval walls, evokes a colorful past. Representing a modern society of creative young designers are one-of-a-kind new office towers, museums, fountains and parks. 

Fountains Square

The government has banned Bourdain from coming here because he spent time and filmed a TV show in the break-away state of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory Azerbaijan claims as its own, but has been controlled by Armenia since 1988 (a situation similar to the Russian take-over of Crimea in the Ukraine). After the Soviet Union collapsed, war broke out. Thousands of Azeris and Armenians were killed and displaced. 

Despite a cease-fire, the countries are still technically at war, and the Azerbaijan government prohibits anyone who visits Nagono-Karabakh from entering the country. It’s the first question the government asks on its visa application. Lie and they find out, you’ll be denied entry, even if your visa was approved.

Although we have never been to Nagorno-Karabakh, we were in Armenia during a previous trip to the region. We would have liked to visit Baku then, but couldn’t because the land borders between the two countries are sealed. Getting here this time was easier because we flew from Central Asia. 

The Old City

After prospering as a Silk Road stopover for traders carrying carpets and silk to the west, Baku’s fortunes rose again during an oil boom in the late 1800s. Wealthy merchants from Europe, Russia and the Middle East created a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed an even inter-married. The country enjoyed just two precious years of independence between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of the Russian empire and before the rise of the Soviet Union. During that time, Azerbaijan established a parliament, and became the first majority-Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. 

Preserved behind fortress walls is the old city, while just outside the walls are European-styled buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries and futuristic skyscrapers from the 21st. Arriving in the rain, we took refuge in a cafe while we figured out how to navigate the cobbled streets of the old town with rolling suitcases. Had streets not been blocked off in preparation for the Formula 1 Grand Prix later in the week (No, we didn’t know about it when we booked), it might have been easier to find the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel in a century-old building a few minutes walk from the the Caspian Sea. Grand Prix planners constructed temporary concrete barriers and fencing to prevent racers from crashing into onlookers lining the route. The barriers blocked entrances to many businesses including a string of designer shops on the waterfront and the Four Seasons Hotel. 

Dinner at Dolma

Baku is surprisingly affordable for being an oil-rich city that attracts international business. Public transport was a bargain. Our hotel with all the mod-cons and a heated bathroom floor in a rennovated historlcial building was $100 a night. A half-hour ride on the new airport Express Bus to town was $1.60. A subway ride cost 15 cents. Dinner for two - olives, bread fresh from the clay oven, soup, salad, a platter of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken and wine -averaged around $17. Many restaurants and cafes are underground, entered down a flight of steps from the street. Our favorite was Dolma on Fountains Square, a lively pedestrian area just outside the walls. Diners relax underground in cozy nooks, eating from platters of grilled vegetables, chicken or lamb warmed over hot coals.

Icherisheher subway station 

Some call Baku the Dubai of the Caucasus, but I think it’s a far more interesting city, given its history and combination of Soviet-style, European and modern architecture. We took an excellent two-hour free walking tour with a volunteer from Baku Explorer. The majority of  people are Muslim, but most practice a version our guide called “Islam Lite.” Almost no one wears a head scarf, and cafes and restaurants serve alcohol. 

Above is the Icherisheher station in the old city. Underground, the station preserves the original Soviet architectural style, similar to what we saw in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, although customers use reloadable plastic cards instead of plastic tokens to pay for fares. Above ground, the design in more in sync with modern times.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

The carpet museum 

Museums showcase Azerbaijan’s history as a center for literature, art and textiles. There’s a national museum of literature, named for it’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi; a Museum of Miniature Books filled with 3,000 titles displayed in glass cases; and my favorites, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like a rolled-up carpet; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, an art museum and exhibition center, known for its flowing, white curves, and excellent permanent exhibit on the history of art, music and crafts in Azerbaijan.

The "cocoon" area inside Baku's airport

Sleeping pods for quiet time 

Forward-thinking design also influenced amenities at Baku’s Heydar Aleyev airport. The airport commissioned an Istanbul-based studio to design wood-clad “cocoons” throughout the upper level of the international terminal. The 16 little huts house cafes, a champagne and caviar bar, a kid’s play area, spa and a bookstore. There also are several sleeping pods with pull-down lids for privacy. The designers compared the airport to “a huge playground” for a human-centered approach to hospitality design. Wouldn’t it be nice if U.S. airport designers thought the same way? 

Tea by the Caspian Sea

Anthony Bourdain I’m not, happy to say. He gets around, but he’ll never get the chance to visit a museum in a rolled up carpet; have coffee in a cocoon or sip tea by the Caspian Sea. 

On the road to Samarkand: Camels, yurts and a village homestay

Morning camel ride

The Uzbek cities of Tashkent, Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand are famous for their ancient Islamic architecture. Most of the rest of the country is desert and mountains. We took two days out to explore a bit of rural Uzbekistan on a tour with a company called Responsible Travel, aimed at promoting eco tourism in rural areas. The company arranged a driver for two days, lunch in a family home, an overnight stay in a yurt camp, a camel ride through the sand dunes and a second night in a family guesthouse in a mountain village.

Yurt with wood stove

Nomads used collapsible yurts covered with camel hair, blankets and carpets to keep warm, cool and dry as they moved around the desert.  Our yurts were covered in camel hair, but also strong canvas, and furnished with real beds. Not exactly glamming, but better than camping, given some wet and windy weather. 
Like most yurt camps in Uzbekistan, the Golden Safari yurt camp is a commercial operating in the Kyzyl Kim desert, 165 miles from Bukhara. Twenty yurts were arranged in a circle, each designed to sleep four to six. We were lucky in that groups sometime book the whole camp, bringing in 100 or more for corporate events. The camp had 17 guests the night before we arrived, but the next night it was just us and three women from Singapore, so we all had a yurt to ourselves. What neither we nor the yurt owners counted on was the cold, wet weather. They had just removed the wood-burning heaters for the season, so we had to wait until they could reinstall them along with vent pipes to let the smoke out.

Sunrise in the desert

Village musician and his kids

This lovely man from a nearby village provided entertainment after dinner around a bon fire while we debated if we really wanted to climb to the shower room at the top of the hill. We skipped the showers, and crawled into bed under two layers of comforters. Tom kept the fire going most of the night, Needless to say, we were happy when sunrise came and the weather changed. It turned out to be a beautiful day for a ride through the dunes on some very fury camels which the owners raise for milk and wool. 

Our next stop was Sentyab village set in a valley carved out by a river in the Nuratau mountains. Caravans traveling between Bukhara and Tashkent once passed through here, but once newer, direct routes were established, the villages became isolated. Our driver, Sher, deftly navigated rocky, dirt roads, dodging cows, waiting for sheep to cross, and sometimes going no faster than 15-20 miles per hour. The villagers are Tajik, even though they live in Uzbekistan. Their ancestors took refuge here when Alexander the Great’s army marched through Tajikistan. Most are subsistence farmers, meaning they grow most of what they eat, and earn money by selling the sheep and cows they raise. There are few cars. Most people get around by walking, riding a donkey or hitching a ride on the back of a motorbike.

Village men in the morning

Our homestay

Our hosts were one of three families in the village who operate guesthouses for travelers as part of an ecotourism program started in 2007. “Rakhima’s” house, named for the woman who runs it, was a compound of several stone buildings built above a river that flows through the village. We were expecting more of a one-on-one experience, but that was not to be. A German tour group showed up shortly after we arrived. We were surprised to find out the family had enough rooms to sleep 20 people! I think most of the Germans doubled up, but we had our own room with a a double bed and an electric light. There was a flush toilet and shower next door, and a sink outside the room. 

We ate our meals at this little stone table. Dinner was an array of Uzbek salads made with various mixtures of mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, cheese etc., followed by a dish of tiny dumplings filled with meat. Breakfast was the most interesting meal. We awoke to find our table set with a dozen little dishes including a fried egg, sausage link, bread, homemade preserves, several kinds of cookies, peanuts, walnuts, apricot seeds, candied peanuts, cheese and miniature chocolate bars. 

Homestay breakfast

No business geared towards travelers could survive in Uzbekistan without tour groups. There are not enough independent travelers to keep a yurt camp, homestay or a nice restaurant in business. So while both of these experiences felt more commercial than I had hoped, I  realized that without the tour groups, they probably wouldn’t exist.

Walking paths with stone walls

Well-maintained walking paths marked by stone walls wend through pastures and forest land. We spent the afternoon taking walks, and meeting people. As usual, we ran into lots of kids anxious to practice their English and have their pictures taken. School children either  wear uniforms or dress up, skirts and leggings for the girls, suits for the boys. They walk to school, either by themselves or with friends, with no concerns about any danger. The forest and pastures are their playgrounds; sticks and water buckets their toys. 

After-school play

These two cute little tykes instinctively put their arms around each other when I asked to take their picture. It’s a pose most everyone seems to strikes. Moving on to Samarkand, the most visited tourist destination in Central Asia, we didn’t find the people all that much different than those whom we met in the village. Friendliness just seems to come naturally to Uzbeks. Samarkand is filled with amazing Islamic mosques and monuments. We spent two and a half days exploring, but meeting and talking with people here, as it was everywhere, was the highlight of our visit.

Samarkand's Registan or public square

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Uzbek tourists in Samarkand

Next stop: Baku in Azerbaijan 

Bukhara: Old and new treasures along an ancient Asian trade route

Sunday afternoon in Bukhara: An Uzbek band plays on the steps of a blue-tiled mosque where Sufi dervishes once slept. In the park next door, a young boy walks on a tightrope strung between two trees, while his father performs a strongman act, picking up iron cannon balls in his teeth. When I ask these Uzbek women if I can take their picture in their colorful outfits, they insist on taking mine. Bukhara has many treasures, but none as precious as its people.

Once a major stop on the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe, Bukhara draws bus loads of tourists from around the world who come to see its wealth of well-preserved mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), covered bazaars and caravanserais (hotels), dating from the 9th to the 17th centuries. But for some reason, apart from the souvenir sellers, Bukhara feels more like a place where local Uzbeks come to enjoy themselves, rather than a town built for tourists. 

Minzifa Hotel courtyard

We arrived after a three-hour ride on one of the new highs-speed trains linking Bukhara with the capital of Tashkent. In a country where many hotels still serve Nescafé, it was a surprise to find the train offering lattes - not in paper cups but in tall glasses - for $2! Bukhara, like all of Uzbekistan, is a great value. Our hotel, the Minzifa Boutique Hotel ($60 with breakfast), is a beautiful inn with spacious rooms, decorated with wood carvings, traditional artwork and textiles; new bathrooms; and excellent Wi-Fi. We generally enjoy eating the local food, but when we were ready for a break from pilaf and kabobs, we found Bella Italia, an Italian restaurant with an Uzbek twist. The waiter showed us to a table on the terrace under a tent-like canopy. The bill for two salads, two chicken entrees, vegetables, wine, bread and a steaming pot of cardamom tea came to $15. 

The town is filled with hundreds of restored mosques, covered markets, former and present-day madrassas and other libraries, many of which now house craft workshops, shops and museums. Minarets of all sizes sprout everywhere along with monuments topped with turquoise - tiled domes. The tallest is the Kalyan Minaret or Great Minaret, a tapering, mud-brick tower built in12th century. It was called the "Tower of Death," because criminals were led up its 105 steps, then tied in a sack and thrown off the top. Legend has it that Genghis Kahn saw the minaret from miles away as he road towards Bukhara, and was so impressed, he spared it while destroying  almost everything else.

Kalon Mosque

Kalon Minaret, the "Tower of Death"

Chor Minor (Four Minarets), gatehouse to a madrassah built in 1807

Uzbek women of all ages are always put-together. Head coverings are optional, but most older women wear them turban-style, usually in bright colors that match or contrast with long or mid-calf skirts and pants printed in traditional designs. Younger women wear updated versions of the same outfit, with our without a head scarf. If they do decide to cover their hair, there are lots of creative options.

Head scarves for sale in the market

The clothing has a practical side. Desert surrounds Bukhara. Few streets are paved. Cars and construction crews working on road and hotel construction constantly kick up dust. Head coverings help. 

Uzbeks have long been known for their embroidery (suzani), weaving (ikat), woodcarving and metal-smithing, crafts which the Soviets suppressed, and Bukhara artisans revived after independence.  

Ikat cotton scares for sale

Most women wear traditional designs printed onto cotton or synthetic materials instead of more expensive silk. I’ve seen ikat weavings in Southeast Asia, but the weavings from Uzbekistan blend many different colors, using a resist dye process.Vertical threads are bound and dyed by hand before being woven with horizontal threads. The scarves above were likely machine-made. They sell for around $4.

Blacksmith master Sayfullo Ikramov, above, runs a small shop in one of the covered markets. He makes all sorts of knives and scissors shaped Iike birds, female and male. He  keeps a wood fire burning in his shop to heat up his steel. 

House museum

We had an extra day to build into our trip due to an onward flight to Baku that leaves only on Mondays and Thursdays. We decided to spend it here, giving us more time to poke around the backstreets with no particular destination in mind. This man motioned to us while we were walking through his neighborhood. We followed a sign that said “House Museum,” apparently his house, a ramshackle but authentic old house built in the 1800s. He greeted us with a sprig of mint from his garden, then showed us around, pointing out traditional carved wooden ceilings and arched wall niches similar to the ones in our hotel displaying little pots and figurines. 

Lyabi Hauz complex

Having extra time meant we could become regulars at a cafe on the main square, the Lyabi Hauz complex, overlooking a reservoir fed by an ancient canal system. The Soviets drained, restored and refilled the pool in the 1960s, getting rid of stagnant water that was a breeding ground for diseases. The square is where everyone goes in the afternoon and evening to drink tea, have an ice cream, and let their kids play on inflatable bouncy toys or drive little electric cars.

New friends

Our favorite activity is to find a table in the shade, order ice tea, and people-watch. Before long, we’re swarmed by students trying to practice their English. They usually start by saying “Hello,” and then asking our names and ages and where we are from. Most people come here to get their picture taken next to a wooden camel, but these kids begged to get a picture of us posing with them. 
They took turns getting in the photos, then left and returned a few minutes later with prints. Everyone wanted us to sign their pictures. Suddenly, we were celebrities in Bukhara.

Autographing our photos

Along the Silk Road: A slice of Uzbek life in the capital city of Tashkent

Conjure up images of the ‘Stans, the five countries along the former Silk Route connecting Europe to China, and turquoise-tiled domes atop mosques and minarets are what most of us visualize. Best known in Uzbekistan for their Islamic architecture are Bukhara and Samarkand, but before moving on to those cities, we decided to spend a few days in the capital city of Tashkent, a 2,000-year-old city known more for its massive Soviet-era buildings and post-1966 earthquake reconstruction. Still, it’s hard even here to look around and not see a blue dome -either on an ancient mosque like the one above, or atop new mosques, museums, shopping bazaars, even the circus arena.

The Sirk

We like starting out a trip in the capital city to get a feel for real life (and prices!) outside the tourist areas. Most tour groups give Tashkent a day at the most, but we spent four nights and three days here in the delightful, family-run Jahongir bed and breakfast in an older residential neighborhood, ten minutes or so by subway from newer parts of the city. The family converted their huge home into a nine-room inn, adding a bathroom in each room. We paid $40 a night, including a breakfast of of sweet and savory pastries, fruit, eggs, cheeses, and a big round of bread, an Uzbek staple.

Morning bread market

One of the best parts about staying in the neighborhood was visiting the morning bread bazaar. Dozens of women show up each day with fresh rounds tucked snuggly inside baby carriages covered with blankets. The women “sign” their bread, using a pronged stamp to make perforated designs in the dough. This woman was selling raisin and nut loaves for around 80 cents. 

The bread is cooked in wood-fired clay ovens like this. It’s a unique way of baking that involves sticking the dough to the sides of the oven to cook. 
We’ve had fun learning our away around on the Soviet-built subway system. Artwork and decorative tiles decorate the stations, but taking pictures is forbidden. Uniformed guards with metal-detecting wands patrol each entrance. Attendants in ticket booths sell blue, plastic tokens. On the platforms are more attendants (mostly women) dressed in spiffy blue and gold uniforms, ties, red hats and heels. Their job is to raise and lower a paddle, indicating it’s OK to enter the train. Jobs like these provide near full-employment, although the pay is low, prompting many to leave for Russia, the U.S. and other countries where they can make three or four times the amount for similar jobs, especially in construction.

Baggage claim

The Uzbek economy is still transitioning from a Soviet-influenced system even through the country became an independent democracy in 1991. People give the former hard-line president credit for taking Uzbekistan to where it is today, but it’s been only in the past two years, under a new leader, that many rules changed, and entrepreneurship began to flourish. Until recently, the government required every able-bodied Uzbek was to take time out from school or a job to pick cotton for a month. 
Stores aren’t well-stocked, mainly because it takes hard currency (U.S. dollars, euros, Russian rubles etc.) to buy goods made elsewhere, and the Uzbek currency (the Som) is non-convertible, meaning it can’t be spent or exchanged for another currency outside the country. Tourists are a source of valuable hard currency, the reason  hotels demand payment in U.S. dollars or euros, and bank machines spit out U.S. dollars which travelers then have to take to a bank and exchange for soms (The government raised the official rate recently, eliminating the black market). Arriving on a flight from Seoul, South Korea, we encountered a free-for-all at the airport baggage claim. Uzbeks with hard currency make frequent trips, bringing back huge boxes and bags stuffed cheap goods for resale.

10,000 som notes, worth a little more than $1 each

At an exchange rate of 8,000 soms to one U.S. dollar, it takes a big wallet or plastic bag to carry around money. Above are 90, 10,000 som bills, the equivalent of $100. Bills in 50,000 som denominations are available, but few people want them because they are hard to cash. The upside is that the som buys a lot. A subway ride is 15 cents; an ice cream cone, 30 cents; a long cab ride, $1.50; dinner for two $6-$20, depending on the restaurant. 

Most Uzbeks speak Russian as well as Uzbek, so it helps to know a few words, but English-speaking Uzbeks like to practice on foreigners. People often stop us for an informal chat and a photo. We met these military men as they were marching through one of the main squares. They shouted out “Hello” and “Hi” as they marched by, then turned around and crowded around us for a selfie.

Uzbek women are walking works of art. They dress in all sorts of ways, from Western-style jeans, skirts etc. to creative takes on traditional Muslim dress, usually a colorful turban paired with a bright, printed long skirt, often decorated with sequins or sparkles. The best people-watching is at the Chorsu Bazaar, a covered shopping and market complex housed in several domed buildings.

Radishes for sale at Chorsu Bazaar

Dome of the Chorsu Bazaar

Baskets for sale

Bazaar bakers offer samples

Various sections are devoted to different products, such as nuts and spices, fresh vegetables, fruits, spices, meats, bread, baskets, cheeses etc. Vendors hand out samples, to curious visitors who can’t always identify what the products are. Strangest find: counters filled with little white balls the size of jaw breakers. We thought they were candy. Turns out they were cheese. All the bread for sale at the bazaar is baked on site in the clay ovens. The bakers are friendly and invite tourists back to look inside the ovens, and sample the fresh bread. 

Next stop: Bukhara on one of Uzbekistan’s new high-speed trains.