Living in Baku – a Caucasian Adventure

Three years on from my last blog, I find myself living in Baku, Azerbaijan. Azer where? I hear you ask. Or perhaps you remember the Eurovision Song Contest which took place here in the impressive Chrystal Hall a while ago. Or the thought of Borat might just flit through your mind? Well, first off, Borat was all about Kazakhstan, so you have the right neck of the woods but the wrong country. I believe the Kazakhs are none too happy about the association! Azerbaijan in a small eagle shaped country on the Caspian Sea. It’s bordered by Iran to the south, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest and Armenia to the west. It is a very wealthy country with substantial oil and gas resources. Baku is its capital with a population of about 2 million, mostly of Turkic and Iranian origin, some of Russian extraction, and it has an expat community of around 10,000 people of many different nationalities, many associated with the oil industries. The main religion here is Islam but these are vodka drinking Muslims and in Baku you rarely see headscarves or even hear calls to prayer. It’s all very relaxed! So there you have your brief geography lesson! We, my husband and I, have relocated here from our leafy London suburb for two reasons: a) my husband was offered a very rewarding work opportunity as a medical consultant in Baku and b) at this point in our lives, with our children grown, we fancied an adventure and an all new environment, at least for a while. We’ve kept our home in London and return regularly.

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So, what’s it like living in Baku? Well, for a start, it’s a most attractive city with quite stunning architecture, a mix of old (think Prague)  and brand spanking modern (think Dubai), much of it developed over the last five years or so with more in progress.There are many well designed large open public spaces with some interesting street art scattered about, and the city’s position right on the Caspian Sea makes for some beautiful vistas. A long seaside promenade, the ‘Bulvar’, is home to many, many International top drawer designer clothes shops, some super smart International five star hotels, some very impressive museums and art galleries and plenty of eateries, cafes and restaurants. Expats and visitors with discerning tastes and very deep pockets are well catered for! Icheri Sheher is the ancient part of town surrounded by the old city walls, with cobbled streets, small souvenir shops, old caravanserais, and dominated by one of Baku’s emblems, the Maiden Tower, shrouded in legend and dating from the 12th century. Lit up at night and reflected in the sea, it makes for a very pretty sight indeed.  Behind the old town is the commercial centre around Fountain Square and Nizami Street where you will find the majority of offices and shops, including familiar names such as Next, Mothercare, McDonald’s, KFC et al.

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The three magnificent Flame Towers, another emblem of Baku, light up the skyline at night. The streets are clean, the underpasses gleam with marble and Baku overall is incredibly safe, especially compared to a metropolis like London. The traffic here is something else, though! It takes a brave soul to drive here and most expats have local drivers.  And while the sidewalks have (very high!) marble curb stones, they are also very uneven! There are few expats who can’t tell a story about tripping over face first! Baku is also gobsmackingly expensive, even by London standards and that’s saying something! Expect to pay around Euros 5 for a cup of coffee, imported items often come with a 30% premium and property rental rates can bring tears to your eyes. Petrol, however, and cigarettes are cheap, and everyone seems to smoke anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps that accounts for the low life expectancy in Azerbaijan.

Baku is all about a glossy appearance but often the substance is missing. It’s ‘all fur coat, no knickers’ as we say in the UK. Peer behind the façade and you will find that often it doesn’t live up to expectation. Stunning looking buildings may have old-fashioned, rather tired interiors. The provocatively dressed designer clad young women with their sky high heels and monogrammed handbags have to be back home by 8pm. The young men in their top of the range cars may rev the engines, burn the rubber and blast out the music but they can’t parallel park to save their lives. Your impressive looking super modern kitchen may not have an oven, your fabulous Jacuzzi bath not enough hot water capacity to actually be used. Medication and cosmetics may not always be as branded on the packaging. Most apparent of all, is the almost complete lack of service. No matter how smart and exclusive the restaurant or hotel you might be lucky enough to frequent, it is highly unlikely that you will be served your meals at the same time or exactly as you ordered and it’s always worth checking the bill. Taxis may look like purple versions of the typical London cab (and these are the only metered taxis) but you cannot expect them to know where you want to go, even if it’s to a well-known tourist landmark or an International hotel. There is a running joke in Baku: ‘New to the city? Don’t know your way around? Become a taxi driver!’

Many of these small annoyances are down to the language barrier. 30% of Azeris speak Russian and far fewer speak English or any other language, so to those of us who are used to communicating in English wherever we travel, this is a welcome challenge to get off our backsides, exercise our language skills and learn Azerbaijani! It’s not necessarily an easy language to learn but the rewards of just being able to exchange a few basic words are so worth the effort. My local greengrocer is so delighted at my pathetic little utterances along the lines of ‘Beans! Green!’ or ‘Cucumber, I need!’ that he often treats me to an extra couple of lemons or a bunch of basil. In fact, while smiling doesn’t seem to be part of cultural behaviour here and, apparently, can be misconstrued as flirting, the Azerbaijani people are very warm-hearted and welcoming once you crack that rather dour exterior.

So, seven months down the line from our arrival in Baku in late September ’13, I can say that  we’re happy with our life in Baku. We’ve met some really lovely people here and made good friends, we’re loving the almost permanently blue sky (the weather is UK cold in winter and scorching in summer), we seem to have come to grips with the differences and challenges. It’s all good! And there is still so much more to see and explore and learn. Join me on my journey!

Sağol!

You might also be interested in ‘Tales of the Bakunese Bath Pod‘ and Welcome to Baku!

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