After a 15-hour train ride (which was all fun and games and midnight train car dance parties until they turned off the AC at 2am and I fainted), our group finally arrived at the inspiration for this entire trip: Baku, Azerbaijan.
This once cosmopolitan capital on the Caspian is today a bizarre combination of old Azeri culture, early 20th century Italian architecture, Soviet Union utilitarianism, and Dubai-esque super-modernism.
We're here in a large part because my friends all read a book called Absurdistan, based in a fictional post-Soviet country inspired by Azerbaijan's capital city. (I read the book too; it was definitely absurd, though to be honest I wouldn't recommend it.)
Overall, however, this strange outpost of Baku is far nicer than expected! The aforementioned Kyle has lived here for a year studying language, so we stayed at his apartment. He showed us around the city center, which, with its fountains and walkways and parks, appears totally normal (seriously, it could be LA).
However, despite "normal" appearances, things are not quite what they seem. For example, the government subsidizes luxury stores that no one shops in (Tiffany, Hermes, etc.) for appearances sake. The romantic and exotic-sounding Caspian Sea, rimmed by a beautiful boardwalk-type park, is a brown disgusting almost lifeless oil-stained still mess. The seaside park itself is FULL of policemen patrolling in groups (don't try to nap on the grass). Usually billboards everywhere depict the president's face, but were recently taken down because of the upcoming European Games (which Baku is hosting...even though it's not really Europe...hrmmm). And relatively recently the intelligencia has fled due to an influx of refugees, thus no one quite knows what the population of Baku is.
So it's weird here. But I kind of like it. And overall I can't believe I'm in Azerbaijan, a country most Americans have never heard of and of which I knew nothing about until a couple months ago.
After showering off the dirt and grease of the train, we ventured out into the city. Our first stop was the Cultural Center, which is by far the coolest building I've ever been in. It's designed based on the former president's signature, a structure of swoops and curves both inside and out. We saw an exhibit called Mini Azerbaijan, which was a series of models of the city's major sites, as well as an exhibit of Azerbaijan's traditional culture.
Outside the city center and beyond, the countryside is a desert. The earth is torn up in chunks, dotted by the accoutrements of an oil-dependent nation: metal towers, cranes, and oil wells upon oil wells upon oil wells scattered across the land and sea. The palate is grayish blues brownish (sky), tan (sand), and grayish bluish brownish (sea).
I know this because on our one full day in Azerbaijan we drove an hour outside the city to experience the country's mud volcanos. (Readers of this blog may recall that mud volcanoes and I have a history, starting in Colombia last spring break.)
It's just a series of pools of mud out in the middle of nowhere. You drive up, look, play in/on them, get mud all over yourself, and drive home. The mud is cold and bubbles up in blurping burps. Totally bizarre, but weirdly fun.
We leave this great metropolis at 2am tonight. It's been a bit absurd, but also totally enjoyable. Bye bye Azerbaijan! Next stop Budapest (via a brief stop in Riga)!