Azerbaijan I

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Arriving in Baku, the dynamic boom town capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan was certainly a bit of a shock to the system after spending two days (including a day at the airport due to a cancelled flight) in Nukus, a somewhat depressing and tatty town in Uzbekistan. The shock also came in the form of taxi fares when the unofficial taxi driver at Baku airport wanted 30 manats (about 30 euro) for a ride into town.

Baku is a city of about 2 million and lies on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is definitely affluent, at least compared to its neighbours, and full of contrasts and the blending of old and new. Centuries-old buildings sit next to ultra-modern skyscrapers, battered Ladas next to shiny Maseratis. Some say Baku is a Dubai wannabe, and I think that is not far from the truth. For the time being, it is not yet garish and in-your-face, but who knows when that might change.

The elegant centre of Baku with its tree-lined streets and exclusive boutiques is where you will find trendy Bakuvians sipping fancy coffees for 5 euro a pop and some might go around getting retail therapy in imported London cabs. However, venture further out and you will find definitely less rich and less well-connected Bakuvians who enjoy ice creams in the park, take the subway or the bus for next to nothing. The average yearly per head income ten years ago were similar in all three countries in the Caucasus, but today, Azerbaijan’s yearly income has doubled that of Georgia’s and almost 40% higher than Armenia’s.

Outside of Baku life is a lot simpler, and in some areas, a lot poorer. Unsurprisingly, the business of selling oil and natural gas has made some Azeris very rich, but the less educated, less well-connected, and the ones in the country are often the ones who get left out, ensuring the widening of the gap between rich and poor.

As a tourist, I have found the pricing to be bizarre, usually dirt cheap or ridiculous, nothing really in between. A lot of businesses don’t seem to understand the concept of value or customer service. Infrastructure is still poor for the average visitor and of course, the painful visa procedure will ensure tourism remain a much less-developed industry for a some time to come.