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Phespirit goes to Azerbaijan
Baku     June 2008

When Phespirit arrived in Georgia from Armenia, having travelled overland by bus from Yerevan to Tbilisi, it was late afternoon and there was little time left to explore the city before nightfall. In sharp contrast when he arrived in Azerbaijan, having travelled overland by train from Tbilisi to Baku, the sun was out and the day was still young. He could have rushed off sightseeing immediately, but his first priority was to get some food. Luckily when he checked into the Hotel Absheron their restaurant was still open for breakfast. They were happy for him to use it if he forfeited breakfast on his last morning ..... not a problem at all as he would be checking out very early.

Hotel Absheron is huge and, whilst not the last word in luxury, has clearly benefited from significant renovations since its Soviet Union days. Phespirit's room was on the twelfth floor and the restaurant was on the top, the sixteenth, with encouraging views out to the Caspian Sea. By the time Phespirit had checked in, unpacked, showered, breakfasted, and worked out his plans, it was already about midday and he was ready to hit the streets. He first headed to the money changers near Vurğun Gardens to get a fistful of Azeri manats, and then perversely spent most of the afternoon looking around the city's free sights: the seafront, the Martyr's Lane memorial, Faxri Xiyәbani cemetery (for the grave of 'National Leader' Heydar Əliyev), a couple of mosques and a Russian church. This was not a sign of reluctance to part with his newly acquired currency; rather it was a Monday and everywhere is closed on Mondays.

Towards the end of his debut walk around Baku, Phespirit returned to the seafront to take a half hour boat trip out into the bay of the Caspian Sea. There were no sights to see on the trip, it was just a quarter of an hour heading out and a quarter of an hour heading back in again. The sea itself, though, was the most foul, stinking, wretchedly polluted body of water Phespirit that could ever imagine. Swimming was definitely off the agenda, which was a pity as the temperatures were high. A large electronic sign on the seafront reported it to be 29°C, getting down to 16°C at night.

The next day the weather turned, and stayed turned for the remained of his stay. The sun had clouded over and, although there was no rain, it was staggeringly windy. And Phespirit means seriously very windy. On the plus side, the wind had changed direction and blown the muck away from Baku's bay so the Caspian Sea suddenly seemed a lot less polluted than it had done. On the minus side, it came close to having Phespirit over a few times. On his second day around Baku he concentrated on the city's premier tourist attractions, all centred around the old city and Fountain Square. These included Maiden's Tower, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the Historical Museum and the State Art Museum.

The Palace of the Shirvanshahs and, to a lesser extent, Maiden's Tower have been so extensively rebuilt ("restored") that sadly there is no longer any sense that these are original ancient buildings. In places they seem more like soulless new edifices that have been built along the lines of old plans. That's what Phespirit felt, anyway. For his final day he completed his touring further afield. He admired stone-age petroglyphs, Roman graffiti and mud volcanoes at Qobustan; he visited a Zoroastrian fire temple and a 'fire mountain' on the Abşeron Peninsula; he saw more nodding-donkey oil wells in one day than he had previously seen in his entire life; and he even had time to fit in a tasty lunch of lamb kebabs with assorted starter dishes and sweets.

When Phespirit took to his bed on his last night in Baku he set his alarm for 3:30am. This would give him an hour to get up, shower, pack and be ready for a 4:30am taxi to the airport. A half hour journey through deserted streets and out into the blackness beyond got him there in time to check-in for the 6:40am flight to Latvia. Why Latvia? Well, the end of Phespirit's Caucasus tour had coincided with the annual Caspian Oil and Gas Conference in Baku, which meant direct flights back to the U.K. were at a premium. For the same cost as a flight to London Heathrow, Phespirit had worked out he could book a no-frills flight to Latvia, spend two nights at a hotel in Riga's old town, and get another no-frills flight on to London Stansted. So that is exactly what he did .....

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