The Land of the Holy Fire

The Land of the Holy Fire

Since Saudi national day fell on a weekend, we received a deferred holiday. This meant that I had weekend to travel somewhere, but it had to be a shorter trip. I fired up Google Flights and searched for anything possible. Then I noticed Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, just sitting there in the Caspian sea, begging to be researched. According to Lonely Planet, Baku was a hot party destination. My friend and I started looking into this as a spot for the weekend.

As I inquired more from my friends, I researched the visa. I had to use a third party agency to acquire the visa, and it took 10 business day, but the process was straight forward and easy. Then I looked at hotels. The JW Marriott Absheron cost less the $100 per night… Sign me up.

JW Marriott Absheron
JW Marriott Absheron

It’s a Small World After All

This seems to be a growing trend in my travels: The world is smaller than I ever imagined. After I posted about my upcoming trip, one of my friends from college, a fellow traveller, emailed me informing me that one of his good friends worked in Baku. I then heard from my father than my cousin and her husband worked in Azerbaijan. In addition, it turned out that one of my coworkers was actually in the same hotel on the first night as I was, although I was unaware of this.

Arrival

The flight was quick, and the layover was minuscule. I made it in the morning and got through passport control quickly. The e-visa process made walking through a breeze. I grabbed the first taxi driver I saw, since I was tired. He overcharged me, but I just wanted a nap. He 1970’s Mercedes sliced through traffic as he explained the different buildings in broken English. Looking around as we drove, I was impressed already. There was a Ferrari dealer next to a Maserati dealer, Prada, Escada, Gucci, Fendi, and any other high-end brand. They even have a Lamborghini dealer. The Olympic village and stadium are beautiful. As I prepared for this trip, I had seen a lot of old buildings and castles and architecture. This blew me away.

The hotel was state-of-the-art. The staff was friendly. The room was comfortable with a solid view of the beach walk (Bulvar).

View from the room
View from the room

Walking Around

The weather was perfect, so I went for a walk around the city. Every place I travel to, I try to find local beer. Every other block had at least one pub. I was amazed that I was in a Muslim country. This city also loves fountains. It seemed like every 4 or 5 blocks had a small park with at least one fountain. I decided I would grab some local Azeri food from Firuze. After this meal, I was hooked. The food was savory with pieces of fruit mixed in. The waiters were friendly. The decorations were fun. I decided I needed to take that nap before the night started.

First Night

When I woke up, I was treated with a panoramic view of the city. It was just perfect. For being an ancient city, the oil boom has really helped Baku flourish. I decided to first check out the Old City. I saw the Maiden’s Tower and then went to eat dinner at Merci Baku. The food was very good, and I had the cutest dinner guest. She was so sweet.

The sweetest little dinner date
The sweetest little dinner date
Flame Tower from the Old City
Flame Tower from the Old City
Maiden Tower
Maiden Tower

Next I headed to check out the only craft beer in the city, The Brewery. They had three types of beer: Dark, Medium, and you guessed it… Light. My next stop was to meet up with Scott’s friend Brandon. He had picked the 360 Bar at the top of the Hilton. He warned me that the drinks weren’t the best, but the view made up for it all. He was correct. The restaurant spins slowly, offering a full view of the city.

The Brewery storefront
The Brewery storefront

It was fun to talk with him: he knew so much about the city and country. It felt like he and I  had been friends before, which is always a good feeling in such an exotic place.

Hanging out with Brandon at 360 Bar.
Hanging out with Brandon at 360 Bar.
City at night from 360
City at night from 360

After drinks, I went back out to keep exploring. First stop, Finnegan’s Irish Pub. Sadly, this place was pretty empty. I spoke with the bartender about American politics (oh joy). Apparently, a lot of Azeris love Trump. It was quite weird to hear it. Strangely enough, this Irish pub was out of Guinness for the last 5 months or so. Next up was Shakespeare Pub. I was drawn in by the live music. I met a couple Americans who took me to Hard Rock Cafe to end the night, because “That’s where all the chicks end up.” I think they were mistaken. Walking in, I saw two ladies sitting around waiting for a friend and a bunch of bar staff.

Wake Up Time

Waking up without an alarm is a magical thing. My day was instantly better. Breakfast was served at the juice spot in the hotel, Zest. The juice was the absolute bomb… The breakfast left me a little underwhelmed. But it was included, so I am not complaining. As I looked outside, of course, it was raining. I am glad that I got to walk around the Old City the day before. Because Saturday was a wash. Ha get it?

I inquired of rainy day activities, but the hotel concierge was nearly worthless. One of the front desk did suggest I go to the Azerbaijani history museum. Perfect. I grabbed a cab (Side note, the taxi drivers here are not the brightest. They don’t understand maps at all. Just expect that. But they are cheap). The museum was basically empty. The down side of that was I pretty much had to walk around myself. None of the guides spoke English very well. There must have been 10 Azeri girls posted all around the exhibit floor. They are a beautiful people. Similarly to Turkish people, they have a wonderful blend of cultures that come together very well. The exhibit started with prehistoric times and progressed through the current time. I discovered the recent history of Azerbaijan is not that pleasant. It ended the tour on a very somber note.

After that, I was emotionally drained and needed a nap to catch back up. So I headed back to the hotel.

Night Life

I had booked a Pub Crawl through Baku Tours, and Luke (cousin’s husband) was going to meet me and join on that. I didn’t know what to expect. But after another terrible taxi ride, I made it to the starting point. It was pouring rain. BIG LEAGUE. We waited for Elnur to meet us. Apparently, we were going to be a group of 5. Our first stop was back to The Brewery. I am glad I only tried two of the three beers.

Afiyæt oslun!
Afiyæt oslun!

The other crew was from Philippines, China, and Hungary. They had met in the hostel. After this, the rain picked up, and we headed out to stop #2. Fifteen minutes later, we were drenched and walking into Old School. The next stop was Phoenix Pub. We were going to stop somewhere in between, but the rain prevented that. Phoenix was pretty cool. Good beer and a thriving pulse about it. By now, we had all gotten closer. Finally the band played a song I could get into: Zombie by The Cranberries. As I looked around the room, it reminded me of an off campus college party at a Junior College. Guys and Girls, sweaty and drenched with rain, dancing around a pool table drinking lager beer listening to a local band play a little off-key. But I loved every minute of it. After several rounds of Mexican courage, we got the bright idea to check out the Famous Club Scene. Turns out that Face Control is a real thing there. None of the three clubs allowed sneakers, even though we all looked amazing… for soaking wet tourists. It was time to say goodbye for the evening.

#FaceControl
#FaceControl

Last Day… Tourist Mode

I had also signed up with Baku Tours to see the Ateshgah Temple and Yanar Dag. I felt like these two helped explain the Fire History of Azerbaijan. It turned out that I lucked out and had Elnur as my guide again. The temple was beautiful and the mountain was pretty cool. It is funny how plate tectonics and years of erosion can create fire.

Cool shadow work
Cool shadow work
Ateshgah Fire Temple
Ateshgah Fire Temple
Hanging out at Yanar Dag
Hanging out at Yanar Dag

I still had some time to kill so Elnur took me to Martyr’s Lane for a view of the Flame Towers up close.

Elnur and I at the Flame Towers
Elnur and I at the Flame Towers
Flame Towers
Flame Towers
The other side of the Bulvar
The other side of the Bulvar

After all this, I was hungry, so I went to this steakhouse, but apparently, they were closed. They were hosting dinner that night for all the government officials. So they directed me next door to the National Restaurant. I received my own room and waiter. There were no menus, so I told the waiter I wanted a full blown Azeri meal. First course… Vodka, followed by some local red wine. This was going to be a great meal. I enjoyed qotabs and kebabs and some Georgian lemonade. If we are friends on SnapChat, you might have caught that story.

The world's (second) largest flag
The world’s (second) largest flag
Local Azeri Meal
Local Azeri Meal

John from the pub crawl texted me letting me know that he and Roxi were meeting for a last meal, so I told them I would join for a beer before I head out. It was really great to hang out one last time. I felt like they had become good friends. I look forward to visiting them all in their home countries.

Overall

I did not know what to fully expect with Baku, but what I got, blew anything I had imagined away. I am glad I went. I met amazing people, saw beautiful sights, ate delicious foods, caught up with family, and more. I would recommend visiting Azerbaijan if you get the chance. Hopefully it doesn’t rain, because I definitely missed some great pictures. If you do visit, make sure to travel around to the other Caucasus mountain countries while you’re in the area.

One thought on “The Land of the Holy Fire

  1. John, Philippines Reply

    I am about to end my trans-Caucasian trip and you just had to drive it home. Lovely meeting you guys. Another friend I made in Georgia shared a German quote with me, “You always meet twice in a lifetime.” So, until then! Cheers!

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