Storefront in the Gold Souk, Dubai.

At the water’s edge, the dirt road turned into a decrepit wood platform held up by rotting stilts. The platform skimmed the surface of the water, snaking as far as the eye could see out into the Caspian. Mark had seen roads like it before—they were decaying relics of the Soviet empire and inevitably led to aging offshore oil derricks...




A half hour later, Mark pulled onto a narrow dirt road that intersected the highway to Baku and cut between two shallow salt lakes...

Baku still has a lot of oil. It defines the city. On my first visit to Azerbaijan, I could smell it all around me. (The smell has since improved) And I could see it too—there are big oil rigs just offshore in the Caspian Sea, oil field wastelands that stretch as far as the eye can see just outside the city, and even smaller oil wells that have been drilled in the city itself. 






To the left is a well just outside of town. That's a pool of oil just hanging out on the surface. Many of the wells around Baku are ancient which means there's still a lot of environmental nightmares around.

Even with the breeze, the air remained thick and hot, and it still stank of petroleum... 

Industrial wastelands, pools of oil, on the Absheron Peninsula.​


Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, Esfahan, Iran.

All photos by Dan Mayland
Excerpts from the novel appear in italics

A mansion built during Baku's first oil boom.​

The Burj al Arab Hotel, Dubai.

Burning hill, north of Baku. Marco Polo reported seeing similar perpetual fires around Baku when he passed through in the 1200s. There was a tea shop nearby when I visited, but it had been abandoned because the hoped-for tourists didn't come. In this photo a few cops are taking a break. The actual name of the place is Yanar Dag.

Mark could see patches of white salt crystals, the desert equivalent of a dusting of snow. The rest of the expansive landscape was dotted with dry scrub brush, wild lavender, and black puddles where oil had oozed naturally out of the ground. Gobustan Prison looked like a lifeless island surrounded by a sea of desert...

Salt lake. This one is north of Baku, but similar to the ones in the south.

Sheik Zayed Road, Dubai.


Marytr's Alley, Baku.

“I see this car,” he said, frowning and pointing at Mark’s Niva, “and I think maybe a gypsy, or even a Kurd, has come!”

The Burj Khalifa (Burj means tower in Arabic) is pictured to the left. The building wasn't finished whenThe Colonel's Mistake takes place, although an early version of the book featured a scene set at the construction site. This, however, is what the Burj Khalifa looked like when I visited Dubai in 2013. On the 124th floor there's an observation deck. Mark Sava would never indulge in such a frivolity, but I did--it was great!

Not far from Imam Square is the Khaju Bridge, built in the 1600s and pictured below. When I was there it was a peaceful place to eat lunch and listen to guys sing traditional songs. A few months later it was the site of violent protests. A few Iranians I talked to near the bridge said they're worried that in a war with the US, the bridge will be bombed.


Nizami Street, the main shopping area in downtown Baku.

In The Colonel's Mistake, Daria and Mark don't go inside the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque—I couldn't think of any plausible reason why they would—but I did when I visited. The interior is gorgeousand the intricacy of the hand-painted tiles is stunning.

Beginning of the stilt roads, on the Caspian Sea south of Baku.

Mark followed Orkhan down a series of worn stone steps, into the bottom of a little depression. A white plastic table and three white plastic chairs had been set up a few feet away from a hillside that had been burning ever since an underground reservoir of natural gas had caught fire decades ago...

The Dom Soviet, as seen from the Absheron Hotel in Baku.

Salt plain on the road to Esfahan, Iran


A Niva (it's the 4x4 version of a Russian-made Lada.)

When I first visited Azerbaijan, I spent most of my time in or around Baku, the capital city, and I had a lousy camera—so the resolution of some of these photos is poor. I've since been back, and have traveled all over Azerbaijan with better cameras. The country is changing rapidly—particularly in city centers—due to a massive influx of oil money. When possible, however, I've kept the old photos because they better capture the Azerbaijan readers encounter in The Colonel's Mistake.
 

The architecture of the Baku featured in The Colonel's Mistake is a mix of dismal concrete housing left over from the Soviet era, gleaming new buildings from the current post-Soviet oil boom era, and distinctive European-style mansions left over from the pre-Soviet oil boom era.

In a vast desert south of Baku, Mark lay hidden amid an elevated cluster of mud volcanoes—bizarre little cratered hills that popped out of the desert like acne and burped up gray mud and methane gas...

(Occasionally the mud volcanos erupt/explode, spewing mud everywhere.)

They bought clothes and essentials in Baku and paid cash for two rooms at the Absheron Hotel. A sixteen-story monolith, it had been the place to stay during the Soviet era but was now a wornout has-been...The Absheron overlooked the Caspian Sea and the hulking Dom Soviet, the old communist government building which was now a largely deserted curiosity, still waiting its turn, along with the Absheron itself, to be gentrified with new oil money. In front of the Dom Soviet lay a vast asphalt parade ground where the Red Army used to goosestep behind missile launchers...


She walked straight down Azadlyq Avenue until she came to the Central Bank of Azerbaijan, an angular modern building clad in brilliant copper-colored reflective glass...

A short walk brought him to a 125-year-old limestone mansion. Covered in gnarled grapevines and topped with gargoyles, it was a relic of Baku’s first oil-boom years, when rich Europeans like the Nobels and the Rothschilds had developed the oil fields in and around the city...

Near the Balaxani oil fields—a purgatorial wasteland of oil sludge and rusting nodding-donkey oil pumps—he pulled over and bought pistachios from a guy who was selling them out of the back of his battered truck...

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai.

Baku, Azerbaijan. 

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai. (Tallest building in the world.)

He headed north toward the center of the Absheron Peninsula, a scarred and grossly polluted spit of land fifty miles long that jutted out into the Caspian Sea...

Adidas, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Sony…hundreds of Western shops, intermixed with nightclubs and restaurants, lined Nizami Street in downtown Baku. High above, colorful advertising banners fluttered slowly in the waning breeze...

“It’s not his Rolls,” said Bowlan dismissively.
“How can you tell?”
“Just by looking at it. It’s a white Phantom. Belongs to the Burj.”
“What’s the Burj?”
“The Burj al Arab. It’s a hotel, you’ve seen it.”
“I don’t think I have.”
“Yeah, you have. Just drive to the coast. It’s huge, shaped like a sail.”
“Oh, that thing.”

Mark hadn’t known what it was called, but he’d seen pictures of it everywhere: on postcards, on advertising posters at the airport, even on the room service menu Bowlan had just ordered from. It was an enormous structure, shaped like the billowing spinnaker of an Arab dhow blowing in from the Persian Gulf. Dubai’s version of the Eiffel Tower.

Martyr’s Alley, a long open-air memorial to all the Azeris protestors killed by the Soviets in 1990, was perched on a ridge high above the old walled city of Baku. A limestone tower, under which burned an eternal flame, anchored one end of the memorial. Orkhan walked purposefully toward the flame and placed a red carnation inside an eight-pointed Azeri star at its base. After a moment of feigned reverence—he thought the protestors who’d died had been stupid not to just wait for the Soviet Union to collapse— he strolled to a point a few feet away from Mark...

The Gold Souk Hotel stood adjacent to the gold souk itself—a massive shopping bazaar crammed with shops where people from all over the Middle East came to buy and sell gold jewelry...


To the right, across an expanse of calm sea, massive offshore oil rigs appeared to float above the water in the serene orange light of dawn...
A beach south of Baku, offshore oil rig visible in the distance.​


Gobustan Prison was a strict regime prison that housed many of Azerbaijan’s criminals and political prisoners...
Below is the prison, located in the desert south of Baku.​

The domed entrance leading into the mall resembled that of a nineteenth-century European train station. He walked through it and toward the shops beyond. Daria would be watching from one of the upper levels, wearing a sequined green Muslim robe, a green veil, and shoes with twoinch heels. In her purse would be a red veil, a light black silk robe, a spare pair of flat-heeled shoes, and a digital camera...

Before the latest oil boom, Fountains Square had been where the prostitutes hung out, but now it was just an extension of the Nizami Street shopping bonanza...

At over half a kilometer in length, Imam Square in downtown Esfahan was a vast space. The Grand Imam Mosque, with its enormous four-hundred-year-old dome and millions of hand-painted blue tiles, anchored the southern end. To the west stood an ancient palace; to the east, the Sheik Lotfollah Mosque, a delicate masterpiece built for a king’s harem. In between, hundreds of little shops were nested into an arcade that ringed most of the square... When Daria and Mark arrived, it was near dusk. Several middle-aged men were rolling up red carpets in front of the Grand mam Mosque—loading them into the back of a pickup truck while
old women scurried around mouselike beneath their black chador robes, helping to clean up after the massive Friday prayer gathering. Farther away, clusters of young men and women in jeans sat talking by a fountain...

The sidewalk sweepers were out, mostly old women pushing oversized brooms that resembled bundles of kindling...​

They pulled onto Sheikh Zayed Road and soon were speeding past gleaming new buildings and bleak plots of undeveloped land where foundations for even more new buildings had been laid but where construction had come to a halt. In between were a few construction sites teeming with Indian and Pakistani and Iranian workers, all covered in cement dust. The taxi driver played Arabic techno music and the air conditioner was going full blast. The cloudless sky was an angry gray-blue...



Mud volcanos, south of Baku near Gobustan.

Oil oozing out of the ground, desert south of Baku.

PHOTOS

​​of places featured in

The Colonel's Mistake


The Central Bank of Azerbaijan, downtown Baku.

As he stared out across a dry desert salt marsh, Mark was reminded of the desert south of Baku, which in turn led him to start thinking about Nika and her son...


Fountains Square, Baku.

The bridge had two levels, each with multiple tiled alcoves. Yellow light from inside the alcoves spilled onto the river below. In the center of the bridge, a man was singing a plaintive song, his voice echoing across the water. Couples were out on the river in yellow duck-shaped paddleboats...

The Grand Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran.