I arrived in Baku early last week after a long flight via Moscow. My driver, a friendly older man who was pleased that we could speak in Russian, proudly pointed out the many brand new buildings that have been built in and around Baku even just in the two years since I'd last been here. Baku is truly a city of "new money." Of course, the oil that has brought that money has been here for centuries, yet Baku's fortunes have waxed and waned. At the start of the 20th century, Baku was much what it is right now -- a bustling business city which at that time provided the majority of the world's oil. After WWII, Stalin shifted most of the USSR's oil production to Siberia and elsewhere, to parts of Russia less vulnerable to invasion. But in the 1990's, Baku became an oil boom-town once again, and the city planners have rapidly been plowing over old working class shacks and replacing them with gleaming silver skyscrapers. The center of the city is gorgeous, even more so than I remember it. A promenade along the water is lined with palm trees and sophisticated coffee shops. There are stores for every expensive brand name I can think of: Dior, La Coste, Tiffany, D & G. Apartment prices in the center have gone through the roof, easily reaching or surpassing American prices, yet in a country where the average yearly income is $660.
Outside of the city the landscape is both impressive and disturbing. On my third day in town I took a bus down to Gobustan to visit the "mud volcanoes," pits of mud out in the desert actively bubbling with methane gas, a truly strange but exciting thing to see. Oil and gas run under most of the land around Baku. Even walking along the shores of the sea, the air and water smell like oil. On the bus ride, we passed thousands of oil wells, many of them rusted and abandoned, just left to rot as the oil men moved on to more profitable sites. In some areas, gas seeping out of the ground has caught on fire, resulting in hilltops and rivers that have been burning for decades. It's really very impressive, and hopefully the wealth that this brings to the city will help Azerbaijan overall. This is Azerbaijan's greatest resource, and it has certainly made a great difference here.