Baku: The tourist's-eye view of an oil-boom city

Azerbaijan wants to see as many British visitors photographing its monuments as working on its offshore rigs. Mark Leftly takes to the streets

Chin balanced awkwardly in his hands, the pre-adolescent, mop-haired boy in a turquoise pullover glances up at his opponent. His eyes dart back to the chess board, legs shaking vigorously beneath the table. The other boy, dressed in red, has moved a rook one space to the left, e3 to d3, but why?

In maybe three seconds, the riddle is solved and Mop-Hair swiftly moves his bishop diagonally up the board to a threatening position. Another glance at his opponent, this time accompanied by a grin. At the back of the chess centre are many trophies, one of which the children here are competing to win. At the front, by the wide, covered-up window, middle-aged women are reading books and considering their Sudoku puzzles.

Hidden away behind rickety wooden doors on one of the main streets in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is this down-at-heel centre where the great Grandmaster Garry Kasparov learnt his trade. In 1990, Kasparov fled this extraordinary city of contradictions, bleak yet spectacular: Unesco-protected fortress walls struggling for prominence with ugly, Dubai-style glass buildings; late 19th and early 20th century oil tycoon mansions alongside Soviet brutalism.

Though born in Baku, Kasparov is Armenian on his mother's side. Since 1988, Azerbaijan and its land-locked westerly neighbour have been at war, as least technically, over the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region.

I am in this small country on the western edge of the Caspian Sea because in November I wrote a travel article about Yerevan, the incredibly well-planned capital of Armenia. The introductory paragraphs described Yerablur, a cemetery on the city's outskirts that is the last resting place for hundreds of Armenians who died in the conflict during the six years to 1994, when a ceasefire of sorts was reached.

A few days later, I was contacted by The European Azerbaijan Society (Teas), to point out that Armenia illegally occupies Azeri land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The society added that the people of this pro-Western country feel that Russia-friendly Armenia is treated more warmly than Azerbaijan in the US and UK press.

Azerbaijan's image in the West is important to the government because it is desperate to beat both Armenia and Georgia to the tourist dollar as foreign interest in the Caucasus region grows. The state has launched a tourism drive so that 30,000 hotel guests can be accommodated at any one time within five years, while 1.3m people visited the country in the first nine months of last year.

Baku is the centrepiece of these plans, an oil boom city that wants to see as many Brits photographing its monuments as there are working for the likes of BP on its offshore rigs. I wondered if the city was worth the six-hour flight just for tourism.

As I pass the grim, futuristic glass pyramid of the old town metro station, which jars with the backdrop of the old city's medieval walls, I figure that I am in for a disappointment. But entering Icheri Shahar, or the inner city, I soon realise that I have been too quick to judge. I am greeted by an enormous stone head, the bust of the poet Aliagha Vahid. Although fairly modern – he died only 45 years ago – this is the first of many examples of outstanding statues I encounter.

On close inspection, Vahid's hair is, in fact, a collection of simple scenes, such as men drinking, while his neck is covered not by wrinkles but the roots of a tree. Nearby, three boys use the gap between two sets of steps as a makeshift goal for a game of football, a sport all locals seem to love, while a friendly down-and-out comes over simply to practice his English and say hello.

Forget using a map in this corner of town, the disorganised tiny cobbled streets would flummox the most gifted cartographer. There are lots of little discoveries to be made – although at first it seems that there are only cats and washing lines – the best of which is a free-of-charge museum of miniature books.

The owner, a lady in her fifties who cannot speak any English, insists on showing me around, and is even able to convey that there are 4,800 books in the museum but more in her total collection. She points out a series of fingernail-sized works by Alexander Pushkin, and a photograph of Boris Yeltsin, who visited the museum in 2005.

The major attractions in the old town are Maiden's Tower and Shirvanshah's Palace, one as interesting as I have been informed, the other as soulless as can be. The tower is a mysterious 29.5m structure, of which no one really knows the origins, bar that it was rebuilt in the 12th century.

Wearing battered old shoes with no discernable grip, I nearly slip on several jagged stone steps on my way to the top, but once there I am rewarded with a tremendous view over the Caspian. Baku isn't known as the "City of Winds" for nothing: at this height I am nearly blown over by fierce, icy gusts.

The palace wasn't worth the four manat – roughly £3.30 – that I paid for entry and the right to take photographs. There's little of interest to take a snap of here, the buildings empty, the reconstructions of parts of this 15th century complex simply not that impressive.

This might have been a better structure to demolish than the south-western corner of the walls, which have made way for a Four Seasons hotel. Sadly, there seem to be more construction firms on their way to the old city, their mission to smooth out the irregular, cobbled pathways.

I move on to Fountain Square, the hub of Baku's thriving shopping district. Again, the builders have got there first, the square fenced off for reconstruction. The famous little Passaj souvenir street to the east of the square presently has only a handful of stalls, having made way for painters who are redecorating the mansion arches that cover this area.

A teenage boy running one of the few remaining stands dishes out a lesson in the art of haggling. I ask the price of a gaudy, gold picture of Azerbaijan, to which he replies "10 manat".

He runs off to get a less battered version and when he returns says: "Thirteen, my boss tell me." I point out the increase in price to which he responds "15". I eventually get the picture and some coasters for 18 manat, though the boy suggests that I don't need the change from my 20 manat note.

In need of a drink to contemplate the genius of the boy's sales strategy, I pass the Carpet Museum, a massive Soviet structure that looks like something from ancient Greece. I head for the tree-lined promenade by the seafront. I go to Bar Xazor, a circular venue with good views of the heavily overcast Caspian. Enclosed, I cough at the smoke that wafts over from nearby tables, where patrons sip jam-sweetened tea, gossip, and puff on high-tar cigarettes. I ask for a Russian vodka. It turns out that there are 15 to choose from and that measures are far from small despite the paltry three manat price tag.

After that and a bottle of the Xirdalan, the light but refreshing domestic lager, I stagger past two yellow Noddy Trains that wouldn't look out of place at Bournemouth beach. I attempt to walk on to the pier, but it is roped off due to the piercing winds, thwarting my attempts to look like a male, slightly tipsy version of The French Lieutenant's Woman.

After a two manat trip on the promenade's incredibly slow, Soviet-era Ferris wheel, I head for dinner. I order a delicious plov, lamb with rice that, in this case, is heavy on dill. On my table there is what appears to be a small tub of grass, which I conclude must be a condiment. I eat a couple of the blades and, sure enough, it's grass. What I didn't realise was that it is the Novruz holiday, the first day of spring, and that the grass bundle is a symbol of the event.

Grass aside, the food in Baku is filling and heavy on meat. At the Fayton Club, for example, I order some dolma, those vine leaves stuffed with minced lamb and rice. Inside each one there are only two or three grains of rice, the rest is meat.

Fayton is near Heydar Aliyev Park. Aliyev was the president of Azerbaijan from 1993 until his death in 2003 and was either the country's saviour from post-Soviet poverty or an authoritarian human rights violator, depending on whom you talk to. His image is everywhere, and the statue of Aliyev waving in the park is, by night, lit up by two sets of massive spotlights. Aliyev appears to be waving at the hideous central bank building across the street.

My guide, Samed, tells me that the builders used several kilos of gold to help create a distinctive colour for the glass of that building. Unfortunately for the architect, that distinctive colour turned out to be copper.

I visit Shahidlar Xiyabani, or the Alley of Martyrs, the Baku equivalent of Yerevan's Yerablur cemetery. To get to the centrepiece eternal flame you have to pass by a row of black marble rectangles with images of people murdered during Black January, back in 1990, when the totalitarian Soviet regime left its final mark on Baku, and their graves.

It is a staggeringly moving memorial and a testament to the subtlety of which this big, brash city can be capable. And if almost wilful eclecticism is your cup of fig jam-sweetened tea, Baku is definitely worth a visit.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Mark Leftly travelled to Azerbaijan as a guest of the European Azerbaijan Society (www.t-e-a-s.eu).

Further information

Azerbaijan Tourism (azerbaijan.tourism.az).

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