The Burning Hillside

As the summer heat begins to exhaust itself, it is easier to take stock of Baku and Azerbaijan in general. The idea of day trips actually becomes appealing, so I was happy to check things off my sightseeing list when some of our Polish guests suggested a trip to Yanar Daĝ, “the burning hillside.” My flatmate Karolin, a bleach-blond British girl named Claire, a muscular New Zealand girl and I all decided to join them, along with five Pols (three heading north and a separate couple stopping on their way to Georgia). The latter don’t quite own their English (or much else, which we gathered by their daily diet of bread and spreadable cheese and effortless evasion of taxi fares) and consisted of a long-haired, stocky girl who looks like the round-faced, smiling farm girl you’d expect to see on a Polish tourist catalog, accompanied by her happy, lanky boyfriend.The first set of Pols came to us courtesy of the Kazakhstan ferry, which accounts for most of our guests, who are either dropped off in Baku or wait to board this floating logistic knot.

I really want to see this ferry for myself because every week, and with every couchsurfing guest arrive new stories of incompetence and frustration. The ferry travels between Baku, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in no particular order, with a travel time of between two and ten days.

We’ve heard upwards of a dozen versions of travelers asking, begging, yelling, bribing (or at least begging to bribe), and finally laughing with the “tourist” ticket counter, which I have gathered is manned by a woman who only knows the word “tomorrow,” although there is rampant speculation that she thinks it means “go away” in English and Russian.

The Brits were trying to get their car (an 1983 Lada they bought in Georgia because they have a sense of humor and a death wish) onto the ferry. They were told they’d be unable to board because the boat was carrying dangerous cargo “like oil and gas” from Turkmenistan and so would not accept passengers. And in any case, if they wanted to buy tickets it would leave “tomorrow.” It left some five days later but in any case, we were all happy to get out of our stuffy apartment and travel outside the city.

I read in my guidebook that bus #47 would take us nearly all the way to the burning hillside, which is fed by natural gases escaping the otherwise unremarkable rocks. According to my guidebook this was accidentally lit in 1958 and burning ever since. Of course.

So we tried to find #47 where the book said, but it had unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, been rerouted to the other side of the city. So back onto the Baku Metro, which I have managed to constantly get lost on even though it only has two lines.  It also has an extremely satisfying melody – the kind produced by little hammers on old music boxes – before each automated announcement.

Finally we, that is, the nine of us, were approximately where the much longed for #47 bus stopped. It was dark and there isn’t much night transportation in Baku, so we checked in with the driver of an idling #498 or something like that, to see if #47 still ran.

Predictably, the answer was Yök. “No.” Maybe it didn’t run at all or maybe the driver of #498 just couldn’t pass up so many passengers.

After a bit of awkward Russian to Azeri translation with a kind faced, sharp nosed woman sitting near the driver, we were assured to sit down and then get off at some traffic light along his route. Usually I wouldn’t chance it, but we were out of options and #498 seemed full enough to actually leave shortly.

The New Zealander was, once again, cheerfully outraged about how she was always being offered a seat and told to sit down. This sparked an animated English discussion of whether or not this was a patronizing cultural trait. In Baku, almost all buses and metro seats are used by woman, young and old. It’s an automatic, simple gesture that I find thoughtful. The New Zealanders wasn’t having it and I can certainly sympathize with any female travelers in the Caucasus having a short fuse.

The problem was, animated English conversation – especially when it is peppered with internationally resonant cursing (with a New Zealand accent, but still) – attracted even more stares and invitations to sit.

Shortly before our “stop” a man in the back of the bus said something in Azeri, which none of us understood. We didn’t, and still don’t know if it was even directed at us. But our maternal translator responded with some cutting remarks.

We could make out that the conversation was about Azerbaijan, maybe about the impression his comment would give us of the country? But the few words we could pluck out quickly spiraled into a tornado. The woman began to yell with awesome speed and ferocity, her hand held flat in front her face like a cutting block.

It went back and forth until both sides were shrieking in anger, while we stood terrified and curious, our faces fixed in that smile that bubbles up irresistibly when you are baffled and useless. “Can you believe it?” said an old woman in Russian, “Men arguing with woman one the bus – what times we live in.” I still don’t know which side she was referring to.

Finally we began to walk toward our destination in the humid, vaguely starlit night. Running alongside the road was the typical Azeri cinder block fence, with similar cinder block houses places at odd distances from one another on the dusty landscape.

Recently built Azeri houses outside of Baku are basically rectangular blocks themselves, with the focus on interior decorations, leaving the façade of their property rather uninspiring, much like the monotonous architecture of a hasty suburban development in the USA, but without paint or lawns.

The walk was long and it kept getting interrupted by junky cars rolling to a stop beside us. I’m used to it, but the girls were not pleased with the attention. “You ten!” “What’s your name?” By the time we arrived we were joined by maybe ten local guys, all under twenty.

It’s very strange. I almost never feel unsafe in Azerbaijan, even if there’s alcohol on people’s breathe and they move in a crowd, they just don’t seem aggressive. Annoying, but harmless. Of course that didn’t help when the New Zealander threw one of their phones into the bushes when he handed it over to get her number. They laughed at him, he sulked, we walked on. Then Claire started to walk with me because they kept trying to hold her hand.

The fire hill itself was cool. I mean, not really worth the hour walk, but still cool. Actually, the long walk made it cool. I confirmed my theory that Polish people like to make goofy photos more than anyone in the world – with the possible exception of the former Yugoslavian republics.

That night we even got home and the Pols set about cooking. It was a beautiful sight.