Country #106. I boarded a pressurised aluminium cylinder, spent a few hours in the lower stratosphere, and arrived shortly afterwards in the so-called ‘Land of Fire’. So-called by the Azerbaijani government, and by almost no one else. To this day, I literally have no idea why Azerbaijan has coined the term.
Apart from the fact that Azerbaijan is hot, and this could in theory cause fires, I didn’t quite understand the country’s romantic catchphrase. But as I would see over the next few days, the nation is trying to promote a new image for itself on the global stage.
Azerbaijan’s impact on global affairs has been muted since the modern day republic was founded upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Its most famous historical achievement to date has probably been winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, with a great ballad, to be fair. It is fitting that in the glittering capital, Baku, there is a street and stadiums named in honour of this victory. Given Britain’s deserved lack of popularity in Europe at the moment, I would hope we would do the same in the unlikely event that we ever win the competition again.
Even more recently, Azerbaijan has become as famous for hosting fun-filled events such as the Formula One and the 2015 European Games, as it has for allegations of endemic bribery, corruption, and the unjust detention of journalists. Unsurprisingly, these factors are all linked. The 2015 European Games were quite spectacularly unsuccessful. If recalled, by anyone, they will be mainly memorable for not being in Europe and for being boycotted by most major athletes.
Despite these underlying concerns, I tried to keep an open mind. I found Baku extremely interesting. The upside to autocracy is spending money on impossible-to-justify vanity projects, instead of public services. This means Baku is currently doing its best to become the Dubai of the Caucuses, attracting tourists to offset dwindling oil revenues. They are doing their utmost to build the biggest and the best of various things. And to be fair they are succeeding in some respects.
The World’s Best White Elephant
The picture above is of a human man (me) and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. The late Zaha Hadid, my favourite architect, designed it. The fact I just used ‘favourite’ is a clever tool to imply that I know other architects, and am therefore a ‘cultured’ person. She designed the Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympics. Not many of her buildings are in any way financially viable, due to their wavelike structures being prohibitively expensive to build. But in autocratic despotic regimes, cost is no issue. Hooray!
The building is stupendous. The best modern building in the world perhaps. From the outside, it’s like a melting, free-flowing cloud. From the inside, you feel like you have been transported 100 years into the future. Every fitting and fixture contributes to the seamless structure of the building. It is genuinely magnificent. On several occasions, I actually chuckled out loud, in awe of what I was seeing. I then remembered that being fascinated by architecture rarely makes you cool. Making involuntary noises at inanimate buildings… possibly insane.
There is one, fairly large, problem with the centre. Azerbaijan is not even 30 years old and doesn’t have much in the way of cultural artefacts. Any that existed in the past were most likely destroyed under Soviet rule. As a result, the museum is almost completely empty. Save for a ‘classic’ car exhibition. This was comprised of three of ex-president’s Heydar Aliyev’s old Mercedes. The use of the world ‘classic’ was also pretty generous; the oldest car was from the late 1990s.
The rest of Baku is a strange mix of old and new. The old town is genuinely charming. You can spend hours strolling through the meandering alleyways, flanked by crumbling relics from the city’s past. Glittering new skyscrapers tower over shady courtyards. The rest of the city centre has been rebuilt recently. Attempts to make new developments look centuries old have broadly succeeded, even if the Parisian-style architecture looks slightly out of place at times. It is also very important to note that Azerbaijan has the largest flag in the world. So, I guess that means it must be the greatest country on Earth. More about big flags and presidential short-man syndrome in the next post, on Turkmenistan!