Sleep deprivation and the sci-fi effect of Heydar Aliyev airport gave me a psychedelic welcome to Baku at half past three in the morning on my birthday. The lady at the information kiosk tells me that a ride to the city by taxi is 25 to 30 manat but only 2 manat (about RM5.00) if I catch the modern bus that departs in front of the terminal.
I decide to lie down first at the quiet upstairs departure lounge to wait for my phone to charge, the sky to get brighter and the rain to stop.
Outside, the wet weather and dark pseudo-London cabs make Baku look slightly more continental and serious than it actually is.
Baku is a bizarrely beautiful place. At 28 meters below sea level it is the lowest lying city on earth. Baku is perfectly located on a bay along the southern shore of a peninsula shaped like a falcon’s beak called Absheron ( Persian for Salty Water) that juts out to the Caspian Sea – the world’s largest lake.
The area around Baku is rich in fossil fuel. Oil has been extracted here as far back as the sixth century BC and by 1900 it became a major industrial export helping Baku become the world’s first petroleum metropolis.
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is one of those cities that reminds you of somewhere you know but nowhere you can quite put your finger on. It is neither west nor east, European nor Middle Eastern, not fully Caucasian nor truly Central Asian despite its deep Turkic roots but something of a geopolitical galapagos. It has not been easy for experts to decide which known continent or region to place Baku that they bundle it with Transcaucasia, Caspian and lately Eurasia.
The one description of Baku that is accurate by any account is that it is a rare, refreshing and religion-neutral muslim city. At the time of writing no city in the world where muslims make up the majority of inhabitants is as secular and modern as Baku. Not even Istanbul, Jakarta and lamentably, Kuala Lumpur come close.
Nearly all of Azerbaijan’s 10 million population (97%) profess the Islamic faith – not the Sunni version as in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Afghanistan, but Shi’a like its neighbour to the south Iran. However, religion here is not strict and plays no part in public life. Maybe the situation is different in the rural areas of the country (notably in the north near Dagestan in Russia ) but in Baku you can walk easily into a wine bar, women do not wear head scarf and call from mosques by the muezzin is rare.
It is hard to say now but as oil price continues to fall for this heavily petroleum-reliant country Islamic fundamentalism may set to rise.
All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2016