I arrive in the old city, Icharishahar, in downtown Baku and check into my hostel. I share a room full of bunk beds with several other people, but it’s clean and the price is far cheaper than anywhere else in the city: 16 manat (just over $20) per night.
I stay in Baku for five nights. The first couple days the weather is pleasantly warm during the day and manageably chilly at night. On the third night, a cold front moves in, making the last couple days gray, cloudy, rainy, and quite chilly.
The city is undeniably lovely. It possesses a waterfront park that seems to stretch on forever; strolling along the Caspian coast conjures many romantic notions of old Baku. Icharishahar is similarly attractive, a true Old Town with faded brick walls still standing proudly after centuries upon centuries, and cobblestone streets that now accommodate the screeching tires of Mercedes’ rather than the pounding of horses hooves.
For all its charm, the city does seem to have a dearth of restaurants. I spend much time looking for decent cafes, but end up subsisting mostly on doner kebab.
The Baku metro is a decent, obviously Soviet construction, which reminds me immediately of the Tashkent metro. On first riding it I am informed that new metro cards are not available, so each time I want to use the metro I have to wait by the top-up machine and ask someone if I can slip 20 qapiks onto his or her card. Apparently many other people are also without metro cards, and sometimes a guy trying to add money to his card will get five or six people slipping coins onto his card. Down on the metro platforms, there are women in smart blue uniforms and Soviet-esque caps who stand on the warning strip. They hold little white paddles, one side with a red circle and the opposite side green. They signal the driver when all passengers have boarded the train and he can drive on. I decide this must be one of the most boring, thankless jobs on the planet.
I had read that Baku is a surprisingly good city for jazz, but I am unable to find any jazz music during my time in the city. I circle the supposed location of the city’s most famous jazz cafe like a shark. Finally a cabbie informs me that a few months ago the jazz cafe was replaced by the giant Dolce and Gabana store standing in front of me. This strikes me as some sort of analogy for the modernization of Baku and Azerbaijan, but I can’t seem to formulate it correctly.
Baku’s nightlife otherwise reminds me very much of that of its smaller, oil boom town sister city across the Caspian: Aktau, Kazakhstan. That is, foreign white-collar oil workers and prostitutes. I sip a four-manat beer and watch 60-year-old British middle managers make stupid jokes to dolled up Russian and Azeri hookers, wondering why they don’t just skip the whole pretext and head to the hotel for their transaction.
After four days, I feel that I could continue this lackadaisical meandering in Baku for some time. Yet given the trouble of obtaining the visa, I decide I should get out and try to see more of the country.