844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Beguiled by Baku (Baku, Azerbaijan)

April 23rd, 2010 - Azerbaijan has a history so complex you almost have to read five or six books to get a handle on the last 30 years, let alone that last few centuries. You won't find many people recommending Azerbaijan in general and Baku in particular as a tourist destination. In fact most will probably tell you to avoid it entirely, often advocating a stop in Georgia instead. I am not one of these people. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the country so far I have found Baku fascinating. Any attempt to come to grips with Azeri people, their history, and culture will lead to both exhilaration and exasperation. Enigmatic, paradoxical, contradictory. Welcome to Azerbaijan.

It is a true crossroads both geographically (Eurasia/Middle East) and culturally. Modernity has found Baku but a five minute walk past extravagant boutiques and froufrou restaurants is like transporting yourself back to the Soviet era. Some of the structures look so forlorn you are certain no one lives there right up until a small elderly woman out of a Russian novel with 'Babuska' for a nickname comes shuffling out of a dark corridor. After she almost gets creamed by some a-hole in a $120,000 Mercedes in front of a mosque you realize you are in a unique place. Oil may have created a large 'boom' but the reverberations only reach so far. There may not be enough natural gas to heat everyone's home but Yamaha Waverunner's can be purchased to circle oil and gas platforms in the Caspian (assuming you have the dough of course). 

Might want to hire a translator

Is it just me or does he appear to be screaming, "Waaazuup, Playaa!!"
Have a spontaneous desire to know your weight while strolling in the park?
Starting a business in Baku (especially for foreigners) is like becoming a prostitute. To make money you have to get screwed. Doing well? Business a success? Don't let it show. Before you know it you will have regulators so far up your ass they'll have to assign your keister a new zip code. I met a gentleman working for the World Bank that told me his office once attempted to acquire a list of safety code regulations in order to ensure compliance. The relevant regulatory ministry told them they do not give out that information. More compliance means fewer bribes. And it is not just Baku. I've heard stories of business owners in the outlying regions coming to their shops in the morning only to find the door padlocked. Apparently, one unfortunate soul was forced to pony up $3000 grand to 'facilitate' the process of removal.

I suppose impressions are not worth a hell of a lot but they can be amusing. I sometimes feel that the Soviet legacy manifests itself on the faces of the populace. Smiling is rare. Long cold stares abound. Customer service is an alien concept. I walked into two travel agencies about the possibility of renting a car and was treated slightly better than a stray dog that wandered in and pissed on the rug. One employee of an agency brought me next door to another agency where I was told, "We don't provide". I found another (STA Travel) that was staffed almost entirely by attractive women. When I walked in I thought I heard a record scratch. Every one wore expressions of quasi-terror and stared at me like I'd walked in wearing only a speedo. I enjoyed staring for a few seconds to see if anyone would say anything at all, preferably, "How may I help you?" No dice. Don't get me wrong. Many folks do not speak English and are not quite sure how to behave so I can empathize. And to be fair more often than not the stoic facade belies an innate friendly curiosity. You simply need to engage to crack the ice. Frankly, I love it. The hardest part is avoiding an uncontrollable giggle fit that might be interpreted negatively (Since writing this paragraph I've received three smiles, two 'thank you's, and an outright laugh. Go figure.)

Speaking of impressions the one I get from the expatriates I've met is that of Azerbaijan being the proverbial anti-Christ of the Caucasus Region. It is safe to say they do not share my fascination. It is not fair to judge too harshly as living here for an extended period and spending a month passing through are two entirely different propositions. Walk a mile as the saying goes. If I had to immerse myself and attempt to get things accomplished on a regular basis it is very likely that I would end up carving doodles on my forehead with a bayonet out of frustration.

Yesterday I made my way to Shahidlar Xiyabany (Martys Alley), formerly Kirov Park. In the 1930s the area was converted to a 'pleasure park and funfair' as the guide book puts it. It included a museum and 20 meter (66 ft) statute of the park's namesake Sergey Kirov. Kirov is the Bolshevik leader that spearheaded the communist takeover of Azerbaijan in 1920. For all of his hard work and dedication he was rewarded by being freed from the earthly realm (Part of the Great Purge of the 1930s). However, he was turned into a national hero by Stalin himself as a useful way of concealing his hand in the plot.

Today the park serves as a memorial to the victims of what is known as the Black January Massacre resulting from Moscow's crackdown on Azerbaijan's independence movement on January 19-20, 1990 in Baku. By most accounts, including a non-governmental organization (Shield) based in Moscow, Russian soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians, sparking deep-seated anti-Soviet sentiment. Gorbachev later lamented that his declaration of a state of emergency in Baku was one of his biggest political blunders.

In addition to victims of the massacre the area is also the resting place for those that perished in Nagorno-Karabkh War (1988-1994) with Armenia. The story behind this conflict is extremely complex and has more twists and turns than a Robert Ludlem novel but suffice it to say Armenia still controls the Karabkh region of what was once (and to the international community still is) Azerbaijan. No international organization or country has formerly recognized the Nagorno-Karabkh Republic (NKR).

Even uttering the word 'Armenia' is a little risky in Azerbaijan. Some of the expats I met use 'Kansas' as code for Armenia. I was sitting in a restaurant surfing the net when my waiter came up along side of me and began fingering through my guidebook. Although he spoke no English I got the message when he began pointing to the area of a map marked 'Armenian Occupied Territory' and said 'No' while wagging his finger. I almost felt like I was being accused of a crime. I have been told that if you have an Armenian visa stamp in your passport you will not be allowed into the country. The situation remains tense and the possibility of another war is not altogether far-fetched.

The park also contains a memorial to 1130 Turkish troops that helped expel Russian forces in the Battle of Baku in 1918. This led to a short-lived period of independence for Azerbaijan from 1918 – 1920 until Kirov showed up to piss on everyone's parade. The Bolshevik Regime recognized the importance of Azer's oil reserves for fueling Russia's economy. Annexation was inevitable.

There is even a small memorial wall for British troops that died in the same conflict fighting on the side of the Bolsheviks!! WTF!! Needless to say the existence of such a memorial is a bit controversial. Yet there it sits. Go figure. 

Eventually the Kirov statute was dismantled and the museum beneath it allowed to decay to its present dilapidated state. Wandering through the interior felt a bit like I was wandering through a movie set. Vandals have done a number on the carved murals decorating the centerpiece wall but you can still make out figures (most notably Lenin) and dates. It is a shame more has not survived although I am surprised the museum is still there at all, especially so close to the highly revered Martyrs Alley. Maybe allowing everyone and their mother an opportunity to pay their disrespects is no accident.

Lenin has looked better

Almost all the gravestones in and around Martyr's Alley contain pictures of the deceased printed on the marble. Many are adorned with flowers and patriotic ribbons. At the end of the main walkway lies the Eternal Flame Memorial.

An alternative and unmistakably apt, although markedly less dignified name for the area could be Smoochie Grab Ass Patty Cake Park as this is a popular place for folks of all ages to kiss and fondle each other. It seems a bit strange that this would be the location of choice for naughty time given the sacrosanct nature of the park but, then again, who the hell am I, really?

Down the street from Martyr's Alley lies Fakhri Xiyaban or Avenue of the Honored Ones, a cemetery dedicated to Azerbaijan's most famous academics, musicians, artists, writers, dignitaries, military heroes, and politicians. I know little of the history of this cemetery but I believe Avenue of the Megalomaniacs would also be a fitting appellation. I have never seen such elaborate gravestones. And the crème de la crème is the area reserved for the deceased ex-president, Heydar Aliyev. Talk about your personality cult. Although he passed in 2003 there are pictures and statutes of the man throughout Baku commissioned, not surprisingly, by his son Ilham who happens to be the current president (appointed by daddy just before his death). He is still an immensely popular figure with a burial site fit for a monarch. 


  1. A great read-thanks for posting. I am planning a visit to Baku in May for Eurovision (don't judge me too harshly!). It sounds like an interesting place to visit. Any travel tips? Good restaurants, hotels?

    1. Bring money. It ain't cheap (can you say Nouveau Riche a la Caspian oil?) . It will probably be much, much worse with Eurovison in town, especially for hotels. I utilized Couchsurfing for most of my stay although I did spend a few nights at the Soviet area hotel in the LP (I forget the name). It is/was sitting on prime real estate so I would not be surprised if it was torn down by now. Street food is pretty cheap. If you like doner you will be in heaven. I ate a truckload of them while I was there. If you go to the top of the right sidebar and search 'Baku' or 'Azerbaijan' you will find a few more posts from my stay in Azer. I can't think of anything else off the top of my head. If you have more questions feel free to let me know. I would also be curious to know how Eurovision went down. I asked a Croatian man what exactly Eurovison was and he instantly lost all respect for me. Damn Americans.


'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim