The New York Times Travels to Baku
If the Baku White City project wasn’t enough, it looks like The New York Times is giving Baku some ink. The profile does a decent job of capturing the nuances that attend the pace of development here in Azerbaijan:
Still, change requires more than construction cranes. The government, led by the president, Ilham Aliyev, is often criticized as repressive, and there is virtually no free press in Baku. Conservative social norms give women a limited role in the city’s public life. And every year, the gap between the wealthy and the poor in Baku widens.
…Indeed, the country’s oil-fueled culture of new money means that budget travelers will find that Baku already rivals European cities in at least one way: price. A strong currency (the manat) and soaring real estate costs make a hotel room under $200 a night (about 157 Azerbaijan new manat, at .79 manat to the dollar) a bargain.
…Moreover, corruption can add a premium to many transactions in Baku. Visitors most often can encounter it in the police traffic stops that can make a cross-city trip an hour longer than necessary.
That sounds about right. The part to watch out for is in the first two paragraphs, where the author paints a picture of Baku as charming. Perhaps it’s my own jaded view edging in here, but choruses of “Hello” and “Where are you from?”, mansions magnificent yet housing elite luxury brand stores, and Bentley cars are only part of the picture of Baku. And nothing against Javad Marandi, but since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen any Azeri “shouting for new and better.” Most Azeris I know shout when calling their neighbor’s name at the gate (during which they seem to have an inexhaustible patience). From my basic knowledge, I would estimate that most of the updates to tourist-targeted areas are driven not by demands by the Azeri people, but instead are directed from high seats in government. It’s probably still positive on the whole, but let’s not kid ourselves about who’s pulling the strings here.
The other part that confused me a bit were the quotes from Professor Bruce Grant. I’m curious about the hours-long conversations he’s had at çayxanas (teahouses) in Baku:
Conversation can last for hours. Talk — for men, anyway — continues at the city’s bustling cayxanas. Off limits to women (by custom, not law), these teahouses can be elaborately furnished rooms, but are often nothing more than a collection of plastic tables and chairs set up outdoors…The cayxanas, Professor Grant said, “are among the central breathing mechanisms of the city, giving husbands a place to go when apartments are taken over by extended families and other guests.”
I would like to go to the çayxanas the professor speaks about. In my experience, talks with a lot of these men aren’t that enlightening. And the way he says that it’s an escape for Azeri husbands would mean that the apartments are never free of extended families and guests, which I’m sure is not the case.
All in all, however, I can’t say that my recent trips to Baku haven’t included nice strolls on the Boulevard (Bulvar), stops at decent restaurants, or a walk through the Old City. The new updates to Fountain Square, Targova, and the boardwalk along the sea (not to mention the giant flag) are somewhat relaxing after coming from lesser-developed areas in the regions. While there exists an entire Baku that is hidden behind this profile, changes are being made and the result ain’t that bad.
Also be sure to click through the NYT slide show featuring the wide range of livelihoods happening in Baku.