Trans Eurasia travel

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Fans of the truly grim might enjoy Sumqayit, Azerbaijan's third-largest city. With a wide sand beach it was once projected as a resorttown. Instead it became a dystopian industrialist nightmare when much of the Soviet chemical industry was plonked here after WWII. Hauntingly awful acres of rusty pipe-workings factory chimneys and are all too visible as you speed past along the Baku-Quba road.

Until 1940, Sumqayit was a village of some 4,000 beach bums, idyllically located on a white sandy spit of beach. Original plans were to develop it into a "Costa Del Sol" type weekend happyland getaway, where scantily dressed Baku-ites could frolic their troubles away. Well, even the best plans change. By the 1980's, Sumqayit was home to 80% of Azerbaijan's heavy industry, a brave new world for chemical factories that belched colourful fumes so toxic that passers-by on the train would find their white clothes stained yellow.

Today, promotional brochures still poetically extol a city 'well known to users of sulphanol, superphosphates and synthetic cleaning substances'. In fact, a perversely positive side effect of the 1990s' economic dislocation was that many of the dirtiest factories ran out of money and the air quality has improved dramatically. Luckily, today only about 20% of the factories are operational to some capacity. Even though they look like they're about to die.

The northern edge of the city looks like a post-nuclear bombed site just after a major head-on collision while having a bad hair day. In other words, AWESOME! The majority of factories are walled off and inaccessible but the odd few still lend a great glimpse into an industrial hell in a land Al Gores environmental crusade has forgotten.

But the people of Sumqayit have persevered. The closing of the majority of factories has seen the air quality immeasurably improve. The boulevard area, next to the seaside, is teeming with life. The wonderfully tree-shaded promenade still lined with quiet little teahouses. The centre has a bustling market with newly added expansions. And a remodelled pedestrian street which could be from any city in Europe.

The neat central area is pleasant enough with a beautifully creeper-draped governmental building facing the columned Vurgun Culture Centre. The waterfront retains its wide, hard-packed sandy beaches and is attractively backed by an expansive park, a dramatic martyr's monument and a stylish modernist 'dove' sculpture at the culmination of Sulh (Peace) avenue.

Reaching Sumqayit is a piece of cake with numerous buses (40-50 qapik) leaving from Baku's main bus station (outside '20th January' metro station) whenever full (every few minutes). Overall, it makes for an easy day trip from Baku. Avoid bus #14 unless you want to meander through Saray and Corat en route.