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...


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

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...


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

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...


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...

The Burj Khalifa (Burj means tower in Arabic) pictured below. The building, now the tallest in the world, wasn't finished when The 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.

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.


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...

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. Exterior and interior picured below.

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...


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. The actual name of the place in Yanar Dag. Pictured below.

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...


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...


Nizami Street and Fountains Square pictured below.

“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.


The Burj al Arab

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


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...

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


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 Grand Imam Mosque, Esfahan, Iran.

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...


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

Sheik Zayed Road and Mall of the Emirates. Dubai.

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...


Storefront in the Gold Souk, Dubai.

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...






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...


Marytr's Alley.

When I first visited Azerbaijan, I spent most of my time in or around Baku, the capital city, and I had a lousy camera (this was pre-digital),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.


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.


Below a view of the city as it appeared in 2005, and an oil rig just offshore.

"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!”


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

PHOTOS

​​of places featured in

The Colonel's Mistake