Baku at night is a city bathed in light. No matter that many residents have their electricity cut off at some stage during the day or night, there is plenty available to light up the museums and buildings in the city centre. It’s also a city of water – fountains everywhere. And again, how do you marry this apparent plenty with stories of locals having to do without for days on end. Baku is indeed a city of contrasts.
Practically every man I’ve seen (and I’ve seen lots of them) smokes. And yet it is frowned upon for a woman to smoke in public. I know when I lit up my first night here, it drew some strange looks from the waiters and yet Mr S quite happily puffed away without a bother. I’d ordered a beer, to see what the local brew was like, and again, this, too, is something women tend not to do in public. It’s not that it’s forbidden – little is – it’s more that it’s frowned upon.
Leaving a shop one night, I made to walk on the pavement. It was under construction, as most of the city is. Instead of pointing me towards the road, this chap literally shooed me away – like my granny would shoo the hens from the kitchen in the summer. The look he gave me spoke volumes and a rough translation was probably somewhere along the lines of ‘stupid woman’. It rankled. But at least he saw me!
On the edge of the old town sits the Qiz Qalasi, Maiden Tower, which has become the symbol of Baku. It is to Baku what the Eifel Tower is to Paris or the Charles Bridge is to Prague. It’s beautifully situated looking out over the Caspian Sea. Apparently built in two phases in the 6th and 12th centuries, it’s an odd-shaped tower standing about 28 metres high. It has a solid stone flange attached to the eastern face of the tower, the function of which is not quite clear. Not much is known about it and legends abound. One legend has it that a maiden threw herself from the top when her father (the Khan of Baku) wouldn’t let her marry the man she loved. Another story tells of a man who fell in love with his own daughter. She was so horrified at the incestuous prospect that she put a halt to his gallop by asking him to build her a tower. Once he’d done so, she threw herself off it. There’s a stone at the bottom – the virgin’s stone – where brides-to-be sometimes lay flowers on the morning of their wedding day. A less interesting translation of Qiz Qalasi is ‘virgin tower’ referring to its military impenetrability.
Taking the bus out to the Binә market, I was again reminded of the vast divide between rich and poor. Settlements dotted the roads – rocks weighing down the tin roofs on breezeblock houses. We were in Lada country now – with few fancy cars to be seen; just Lada after Lada after Lada. (And no wonder – gas/petrol is a mere €0.55!) I’ve become quite fond of these nifty little cars and take a ridiculous amount of pleasure when I see one winning a territory fight with an SUV. Were I to live in Baku and fancied taking my life in my hands every time I got behind the wheel, I’d go for dark green or mulberry and spend my Saturday afternoons washing it and then polishing it to within an inch of its life. The market itself is massive – acres and acres of warehouses full to the brim of some of the naffest stuff I’ve ever seen. The clothes come in two sizes – small and XXL. You can buy everything from a sink plug to an ankle-length fur coat. One-stop-shopping at its most extreme.
BKV could take a lesson or two from the public transport authority in Baku. You cannot buy single tickets or daily or weekly passes for the metro (which looks like a replica of what we have in Budapest). Instead, you buy a prepaid card that you can top up. Each journey is just €0.15 which is deducted from your balance every time you swipe your card. On the buses, you can’t buy a ticket or a pass of any sort. Instead, as you leave, you pay the driver – again, it’s about €0.18 per journey. Same price no matter where you go inside the city limits. And although the doors open and close regularly and it might appear easy to slip away without paying, no-one does. Everyone pays. How novel is that Budapest?