Outside Dubai airport Terminal 1 for my 1:15pm flight to Baku.
I had recently visited the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is technically within Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenian-backed separatists. When applying for my Azerbaijan visa to visit Baku there was a question asking if I had visited Nagorno-Karabakh. Not wanting to get an automatic rejection and be banned from entering Azerbaijan, I lied and simply stated 'No'.
After sending my visa application to Azerbaijan24, and after $100 and 2 weeks later, I received my approved Azerbaijan e-visa.
After checking in and going through immigration and security, I went to catch the train to the new Dubai Airport Terminal 1, Concourse D.
The brand new Concourse D had opened 2 months prior, and the old Terminal 1 Concourse A, which I had used many times in the past 10 years, was now closed for much needed renovation.
I then went to grab a quick bite to eat at the Marhaba Lounge with entry courtesy of my HSBC credit card.
My flight today was a simple direct on Azerbaijan Airlines (J2) from Dubai (DXB) to Baku's Heydar Aliyev International Airport (GYD). The ticket cost $217 so relatively inexpensive for the ~3 hour return flight.
The Azerbaijan Airlines Boeing 767-300ER at the gate.
The view out the window after taking off to the north-west with the creek and downtown Dubai in the distance.
All food and beverages were extra, so I got a coffee, sandwich and chocolate brownie for $6.
And $1 and 20 manat change from my $20. It was interesting to see the map of Azerbaijan on the note, and including the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Flying high above the snow covered mountains in northern Iran.
And above the Absheron Peninsula just before our turn left to line up for finals.
After handing over a printed copy of my e-visa I was stamped into Azerbaijan and my 90th country visited. As well Azeri's, there were a few Emirati's on the flight who were eligible for visa on arrival and who were here for a weekend break also.
I then caught an airport Mercedes taxi for the 20 kilometre ride to the centre of Baku.
And checked into the Bristol Hotel for my three nights in Baku. The hotel was quite new, clean, in a great location just next to the Old City and very reasonable for $54 a night including breakfast.
I then went out for a walk in nearby Fountains Square to see abit of Baku before dusk.
An interesting place to walk about and take in the relaxed atmosphere.
I was starting to get hungry so went to a place called Burger House just on the square. Three tasty sliders with fries and coke really hit the spot!
I then retired to my hotel room for the evening and watched the people of Baku walk past at the end of their day from the balcony.
When I had arrived the previous day, I had set my watch one hour forward as per the local time from the info on the plane IFE. Both my iPad and phone also automatically set themselves one hour forward as well. I got a bit of a surprise when I turned up too early for the hotel breakfast, and found out that the local time was actually the same as Dubai(?!). After waiting another 30 minutes for the hotel restaurant to open, I had a very tasty breakfast including a freshly made cheese and tomato omelette to start the day.
I then went out to do some more exploring of Baku.
My Lonelyplanet guidebook had a good walking tour of Baku, starting at the 12th century Maiden Tower in the Old City.
A perspective mural just below.
I then ventured into the Old City. The three Flame Towers in the background. In December 2000, the Old City, dating from at least the 12th century, became the first location in Azerbaijan to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mohammed Mosque and Minaret, dating from 1079.
A Lada by the Old City walls.
A bullet ridden wall at the Palace of the Shirvanshahs.
A replica medieval catapult by the city walls.
The next stop on the walk, Baku City Hall.
Bow + Tie.
It's a girl.
Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature.
I then stopped for some much needed recaffeination at Café City.
Rashid Behbudov State Song Theatre, and once Baku's main synagogue.
Central Baku Rail Station.
And also home to the world's biggest KFC!
I then headed underground to catch the metro.
And stayed on for two stops until Nariman Narimanov Station.
After a short walk from the metro I arrived at the Heydar Aliyev Center. Named after the late-President, Heydar Aliyev, who handed the Presidency just before his death over to his son, Ilham Aliyev, the current ruler of Azerbaijan.
The very beautiful and beguiling building was designed by the late Iraqi-British architect, Zaha Hadid and was completed in 2012.
Lada. Stretching back to the 1960s Soviet Union era, Azerbaijan has been dominated by the Aliyev family.
It was both striking and fascinating how the building looked very different from almost every angle.
Inside on display were some of limousines of the former President Heydar Aliyev. On the left is the President's ZIL-4104. 6.3 metres long and weighing 3.55 tons, it is powered by a 7.7 litre V8 engine with a 2 speed automatic transmission. The car also has triple-layered windows, supposedly offering protection from radiation in case of nuclear attack.
Wikileaks released a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable that compared the current President Aliyev’s administration with the Corleones, the Mafia family from the “Godfather” movies.
Azeri traditional costumes including that from Karabakh on the right.
A model of the Flame Towers. Baku had constructed many new buildings during the recent oil boom, and there was a display of the various monuments, buildings, stadiums etc. that had been constructed. In 2010, the Washington Post reported that Aliyev’s three children owned $75 million worth of Dubai real estate, including nine waterfront mansions purchased in 2009 in the name of the president’s then 11-year-old son.
A Richard Deacon sculpture on display outside.
After an interesting visit to the Heydar Aliyev Center, I then started walking back into the city. Trump Tower Baku, seemingly completed and supposed to be open in 2015, was still unoccupied and had overgrown gardens and a few broken windows. It was reported that construction stopped when the country’s oil-driven economy crashed amid plummeting oil prices, and the local owner is scrambling to renegotiate contracts and get the building open.
Getting another dose of culture for the day at the Baku Museum of Modern Art.
The museum featured work by Azeri artists as well as works by Picasso and Dali.
Caspian beach. The museum was built in 2009 on the initative of Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan.
Some of the work was crazy colourful and quite a delight to observe, admire and soak in.
It was about 2:30pm and I was quite hungry, so after resuming my walk back into the city I stopped at a simple kebab shop for a late lunch.
And after a bit of finger-pointing and a few hand gestures, I enjoyed half a chicken, bread and ayran for 5.5 manat.
After walking back to the city I went to a local café and relaxed my feet and had some chocolate cake.
After resting at my hotel for a bit, I then walked to the Baku Funicular for the free ride up the hill to Martyrs' Lane.
A grave at Martyrs' Lane of someone killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
There are ~15,000 people buried in the cemetery. As well as from the Nagorno-Karabakh War, there are also victims buried from the Black January events of 1990 when Soviet forces invaded Baku.
I then walked down the hill and back through the Old City and stopped at Restoran Qazmaq, an Azeri restaurant, for some çay and bakhlava.
And for the main I had some local cuisine with the Plov turşu qovurma. Made with rice, lamb, onions, raisins, dried apricots, chestnuts, saffron, tumeric and butter, it was quite filling and not too bad.
I then went for an evening stroll around Fountains Square.
And back to my hotel again after a great first day in Baku.
After a morning run along the corniche and another decent breakfast at the hotel, I caught the 120 bus to 20-Ci Saha bus stop.
The plan for today was to catch the 195 bus to Qobustan to see the petroglyphs amd mud volcanoes.
Heading south for the ~60 kilometre trip. My bus driver asked if I was going to the 'muzey' and said he could organise a taxi for me. After reading up beforehand this seemed to be the best way to go to see the sights of Qobustan, I quickly accepted his offer.
After the bus driver dropped me off and I negotiated a price for the day with my taxi driver, we headed to the Qobustan Petroglyph Museum.
My driver, Murat, posing with one of the cave ladies.
Qobustan National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has more than 6,000 rock engravings dating back between 5,000 - 40,000 years.
We then headed for the short drive to the reserve to see the petroglyphs.
A couple of wild bulls. The petroglyphs were discovered in 1930 when a group of men went in to mine for gravel.
We then drove out to see the mud volcanoes. Murat revving up his little Lada to get up the hill.
And the mountain of mud at the top.
The bubbling mud reminded me of the geothermal active areas I had seen as a kid in Rotorua back in New Zealand. The bubbles being emitted here were mostly methane though, not steam.
Azerbaijan is home to about 400 mud volcanoes, or over half of them in the world.
One of the local kids marvelling at one of the bigger and more active cauldrons of bubbling mud.
After being satisfied with my fix of petroglyphs and mud volcanoes, I negotiated a ride with Murat in his Lada back into Baku.
We arrived back in Baku at about 2pm, where Murat dropped me off at the National Flag Square. Completed in 2010, and at 162 m tall, it was for a time the worlds tallest flag pole.
I then walked along Baku Boulevard back to the city centre.
Baku Eye on the sea front.
By the time I made it back to the city it was 3pm and I was very hungry, so stopped for a late lunch at Mado, a Turkish Café.
Some çay to start.
Followed by a simple but very tasty and enjoyable meal.
The city streets were filled with plenty of locals enjoying their weekend afternoon.
I then took a stroll along the corniche to enjoy the warm spring sun.
And retreated again to a local café to enjoy a super-sized maccaron and an Illy cappuccino.
After crashing back at my hotel for a while I then went out for one last evening stroll through Baku.
German sausage (alman sosislәri).
Oğlan və qız (boy and girl).
Dinner for my last night in Baku was at Firuze, a top-rated restaurant in Baku. The restaurant seemed to be the place to be for expats, with quite a few American and Canadians oil workers also enjoying a drink and meal. I decided to start with the salmon salad and a glass of Azeri beer.
Followed by the very tasty and succulent Firuze Lamb medallions for the main.
And accompanied by some local Azeri red wine to wash it down. A very tasty meal and for a very reasonable price too with the recent fall of the manat.
My flight home today was at 9am, so after getting up at a not too unreasonable hour, caught a taxi at 7am back to Heydar Aliyev International Airport for the journey home.
And inside the stylish new Terminal 1 which opened in 2014.
Air-side with my boarding pass and a cup of hot coffee. Security had some fancy gadget I had never seen before in all my travels. You had to step on a raised platform until some green lights started flashing. Presumably this is to check for anything untoward in your shoes.
About to board the AZAL Boeing 767-300.
And enjoying a documentary on the Karabakh conflict on the in-flight IFE after a pleasant and relaxing weekend in Baku!