Bountiful Baku/ Samia Tamrin Ahmed
It was an amusing experience- being a traveler in my magenta kameez-being very out of place with my dark skin, my curious dress attracting strange glances from strangers, as I walked alone.
I was making my lonely walk to enter the walled city for the second time. I followed a street and after five minutes of walking uphill, met with the olden brick walls and eventually one of its gates. Cars were in a queue to enter and I walked right in. I was about to enter the walled enclosure created in the 12th century in Baku, Azarbaijan, the gem of the Caucasus. It is one of the most random places to have a vacation, but here I was. The opportunist in me stayed back an extra day after my event, to give ample traveling pleasure to my soul. I was in a plaza area which I recognized from the day before. There were vendors selling souvenirs such as the Russian dolls, carpets, key rings, fridge magnets and haggling is necessary. I followed the labyrinth of narrow streets-looking for where they end up. There were suspicious winding alleys with congested buildings all around and I felt like I would be lost. Then I reminded myself-“I am here to get lost-I have the whole day!” Travel is fun when these almost anxious moments lead on to hidden treasures in every nook and cranny of a strange city.
That is the interesting thing about Baku-the ancient treasures can be explored on foot in a short period of time. Most of it is clustered along the Caspian Sea side. And all roads seemed to lead to the Shirvanshah’s Palace built in atop a hill, built sometime in the fifteenth century. The ruling dynasty of the Shirvan, ie moden day Azarbaijan moved their capital from Shamakha in northern Azerbaijan to Baku in the twelfth century following an earthquake The complex contains the main building of the palace, the burial-vaults, the shah’s mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi’s (the dervish) mausoleum, a portal in the east – Murad’s gate, a reservoir and the remnants of the bath-house; the complex giving an enthralling view over the Caspian Sea. The complex was built over three levels. I think the hammam and its ancient walls on the lowest level captivated me most. I sat on the platform where the stairs begin- running into the underground chambers below-with two (men’s and women’s) sections with small square rooms organized around octagonal halls. I am glad I was embracing a UNESCO World Heritage site in this short visit.
The inner walled city of Baku is such a living, thriving place. There are buildings, offices alongside the ancient monuments, vendors, palace, mosques, etc. There are embassies situated inside, and I found homes of embassy attaches as I walked in the narrow, cobbled alleys. If only I was a diplomat in the midst of heritage like this!
Art in the form of sculptures and fountains adorn the historic roads of Baku. The huge bust of Aliaga Vahid, the Azeri poet is stunning with natural and human forms on the head and neck. There is the Seven Beauties- seven armudu tea glasses piled on top of each other. These traditional glasses are shaped in the way to keep the tea warm in the lower portion. Apparently a prospective groom who gets sugar in his tea in the armudu glasses has gained approval for marriage from the in laws. There is a sculpture of a girl with an umbrella with her cell phone on her ear-right in front of the McDonalds. In fact, young people love hanging out in the Fountain Square area and Torgovaya Street-lined with shops, eateries and whatnot, situated near the old city. Dozens of beautiful fountains are seen throughout the public square first constructed during Soviet rule of Azerbaijan. The Bulvar area is beautifully kept-a popular haunt for families to walk and picnic beside the blue waters of the Caspian.
Azarbaijan was such an important stopover in the silk route trade era. It was evident from the caravanserais we had seen inside the walled city, Iceri Seher being an important aspect in the olden days of trade and commerce. Funnily, the caravanserai for the Indian origin (Multani) traders faces the one meant for the Christians and Muslims (Bukhara). These were places of rest for the traders and their camels. The country is in a strategic position, with oil resources, providing one fifth of the oil used in the world. One can see many fine buildings from the 19th century “oil boom “period. The oil barons used their wealth to start institutions of academia, hospitals, etc. The Maiden Tower can be passed while riding on the main street-this is another icon of Baku-a tower built in 8-7 BC, adjacent to the walls. Baku has the world’s tallest flagpole-situated in the Boulevard beside the Caspian Sea, the blue-red and green colours flapping in the wind. Our guide during the city tour explained that red relates to the Turkish identity of the Azeri people, green for Islam as their religion and Blue for the European inclusiveness. It is one of the most liberal Muslim countries, with its Soviet past, Turkish brotherhood and thriving economic growth. Lucky for me, I knew some Turkish words, and I could communicate with strangers with the very few necessities I know.
I found the Azeri cuisine similar to the Turkish homes, especially in their consumption of the dolma-mince meat wrapped in grape leaves. I grew sleepy from the multiple courses we were fed in the conference, beginning with the bread, vegetables, salads, cheese, topped up by the cherry drink that is commonly drunk there. My favourite was a simple roll of kabab inside. There was the steamed dumpling type of food stuffed with greens. A different sort has meat as well. Their biryani has specks of meat and dried fruits, garnished with bread on the sides. I had to overfeed myself to take in all the culinary experience of the Caucasus.
The dances that we had seen, the cuisine, famous mugham music all reflect the colourful spirit of the Azeri people and culture. I may have underestimated the weather of Baku. Baku is known as the “Windy City and the winds did blow us away. It was nice weather at the end of April but the winds made us cover well to avoid the chills. Old and the new are in perfect harmony in this city. The western branded stores are all lined up on the road that leads to the medieval city. Emerging landmark constructions and historic buildings share the space. The beautiful flame towers is the icon of today’s Baku-the red colours look like shimmering fire in the night sky. At other times, the lights on those buildings show the Azarbaijani flag in its tri-colour glory. I was lucky to have ridden the Baku metro with its underground carriages, and had opened in the late 1950s. Getting to Azarbaijan from Bangladesh can be tricky-one has to either get visa from a country with their consulate, or get visa on arrival by coming on an official visit. My gratitude remains to the event organizers and the kindness of the immigrations officers at the entry port. There was intense drama at the Immigrations in Dhaka- I almost got offloaded- now that’s another story!