x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Money is a problem in a land of oil wealth

On the road Even with return fares on flydubai from Dubai to Baku, one of its new routes, costing as little as US$123 including taxes, a trip to Azerbaijan is not cheap anymore.

Even with return fares on flydubai from Dubai to Baku, one of its new routes, costing as little as US$123 (Dh451) including taxes, a trip to Azerbaijan is not cheap anymore. The nation's wealth of oil and gas resources have brought not only riches but also rampant inflation, and when I began contacting hotels listed in the 2004 Lonely Planet guidebook I had borrowed from a friend, I found that places once offering double rooms for about $30 (Dh150) per night were now asking more than $100 (Dh367).

As soon as I landed in Azerbaijan I faced a taxi ride from the airport that cost a steep $20 (Dh74). The Guest House Inn where I'd chosen to stay after clicking through hotel reviews on www.lonelyplanet.com, was simple, clean and family-run, and, at $60 (Dh220) per night for a double room in the Old Town, not unreasonably priced. The attendant spoke excellent English and soon proved valuable as he gave me his mobile number and offered to translate for me should the need arise. If you don't speak Azeri, Turkish or Russian here you'll generally have a tough time getting across what you want, and I rang him more than once.

In addition to inflation, visitors to Azerbaijan will likely contend with another factor gobbling up their money - widespread corruption. When I negotiated with a taxi driver to take me to Naftalan to visit one of its spas (See "Unrefined therapy", December 5) he refused to make the 250km journey each way for less than $200 (Dh735) on the grounds that he would have to pay bribes to the police on the road out of the capital. And so it proved. On our way we were stopped by a highway patrolman who pocketed 15 manat ($18.50; Dh68) from the driver. At the end of the ride, the driver tried to extract yet more money from me to cover the bribe, even though we had already struck a deal. The argument - not to mention the bribe - left a bad taste in my mouth.

Extortion does seem to be widespread; when I complained to the hotel attendant, he said that during Soviet times there was no corruption but if a policeman found a man on the street at 2pm then he would question why he wasn't at work. Since communism's end in the early 1990s, the void left by the dissolution of a police state has been filled by graft, he explained, with bribery and beating back unscrupulous businesspeople a fact of everyday life. "We have a saying in Russian," he said. "When you live in the woods you must be a wolf."

The phrase lingered in my mind as I headed the next day to a Zoroastrian temple on the capital's outskirts. I gritted my teeth and hired another taxi for $37 (Dh136) and as we drove through Baku itself I noticed how pretty it is. The Unesco-recognised Old Town is a warren of narrow, cobblestone lanes flanked by ageing flat-fronted stone buildings. Outside its walls is another handsome area with buildings dating back to the turn of the century, when new money - oil money - created a modern city combining architectural styles from western capitals such as Vienna, London and Moscow with Ottoman-influenced masonry featuring keyhole-shaped windows and intricate fretwork. The streets here are filled with expensive cars and well-dressed people. Beyond Baku, however, things change dramatically: the roads become poor and some people look ragged.

We arrived at the Atashgah fire temple near sundown. Within imposing stone ramparts is a brick house with an arched entryway on each of its four sides. In the middle there's a pit where burns an eternal flame. Until recent times the fire burned naturally. As Azerbaijan's natural gas deposits have been tapped over the years, however, many of the flames died out, including this one, which is now fuelled by an underground pipeline.

While not awe-inspiring, the complex is considered to be one of the most important sites associated with Zoroastrianism. Some scholars have speculated that the naturally burning hillsides of Azerbaijan were what imbued the Zoroastrians with the central tenet of their religion - fire worship. After the temple visit and a ride through seemingly endless oilfields where nodding donkey wells bob on the horizon, I asked the driver to stop at a restaurant called Chanak Gala on Tebriz Street that a local had recommended for its traditional Azeri food at decent prices. For $39 (Dh145) the driver and I feasted on soup, salad, pickles, cheese and shashlik, or splayed lamb ribs, while men and women young and old danced wildly in the centre of the ballroom to an Azeri band. For some reason there was also a midget with a cane, moustache and bowler hat who greeted each table. My view of Azerbaijan brightened.

These good vibes, however, were not to continue back in town, where the taxi driver again tried to raise the fare and I decided to test out one of the city's many subterranean hideaways, down the street, called Chill-out Karaoke Bar and Lounge. A burly bouncer turned me away when I arrived at the bottom of the steps but a man wearing a dark suit behind him waved me inside, perhaps because it was freezing and I had no jacket. From there I was shown to a bar around which there were no people and no tables. I did see a red velvet curtain hanging over a doorway, however, and something seemed to be going on behind it. I entered and nonchalantly sat down at one of the tables among a crowd who looked like they were trying out for the next Godfather film. Soon after, a woman clad in lace and an albino python around her neck leapt onto a pedestal. It was around then that the bouncer tapped my shoulder and escorted me out the door, which was OK by me as I couldn't afford to be there anyway.

That's the thing with good and evil - as any Zoroastrian knows - they come in equal measure. And in Azerbaijan these days there's plenty of both, and both cost plenty. lkummer@thenational.ae

To book a room at the Guest House Inn, situated near the World Bank building at Harbi Street 17 in Baku's Old Town, call 00 99 412 437 1262 or e-mail guesthouseinn@mail.ru