the baku rail life

A freight train passing through a narrow alley in Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan.

Welcome to Shanghai. Not the city in China, but a small neighbourhood in Baku, Azerbaijan that is built right on top freight railroad tracks.

Most of the people who live here are refugees displaced as a result of the  Nagorno-Karabakh war. This territory, inhabited by mostly Armenians, decided it wanted to be free of Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia. The ensuing war over the region led to many deaths and many more displaced. The Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh fled to Azerbaijan, and the Armenians in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia.

All said and done, there are now about one million refugees and/or displaced persons living in Azerbaijan. Many of those (about 175,000) wound up in Baku. And the ones with the least means wound up in neighbourhoods like Shanghai.

And here the residents built their own houses out of tin, brick, wood and myriad materials seemingly held together tangled wires and propped up by rusty pipes. This makeshift construction gives away the fact practically all of the buildings are illegal, built without zoning permissions and safety inspections.

A neighbourhood scene in Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan where railroad tracks form the street.

Throughout the day, trains carrying heavy cargo and chemicals dictate when residents can do the most basic things outdoors that many take for granted. The trains’s metal wheels screech on the tracks, scattering chickens and cats. The gauntlet of shacks hugging the tracks breath people in and out to the rhythm of the trains. It’s very scheduled and constructed chaos.

An elderly woman is waiting for a very large oil tanker train to pass so she can cross the street.

An elderly woman walking down the train tracks running through her neighbourhood: Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan.


Considering just how close these trains get to the houses…

A freight train passes dangerously close.

…accidents have been unavoidable. People, mostly children, have been killed or maimed over the years.

Portrait of a man whose brother lost his leg on the train tracks behind him. Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan.

His brother lost a leg due to a train striking him whilst he was playing too close to the tracks.

Social services and public spending are almost non-existent here.

Elderly woman dumping rubbish on the street Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan.

But just outside Shanghai, heavy investment is occurring.

The luxury SOCAR office tower, the tallest building in the Caucusus, rises above Shanghai.

The luxury SOCAR office tower, the tallest building in the Caucusus, rises above Shanghai.

Despite the peculiarity of the people’s predicament, they do their best to live a normal life. And it has all the trappings of an ordinary neighbourhood.  

A greengrocer stands in front of his shop in Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan.

Centimetres from the railroad tracks, a woman hangs laundry outside her house in Shanghai, Baku, Azerbaijan


Thanks to increased gas and oil exploitation, Azerbaijan is becoming wealthy. Fast. Since entering into an energy development deal in 1994 with a group of major oil companies, and a new pipeline started operating in 2006, the government has raked in billions of extra revenue each year.  As a result, GDP has increased from $3.3bn to $75.2bn in only twenty years.

Much of this wealth is concentrated in Baku, especially . But whilst this money is lavished on ,  and things like the European Games, the refugees and their descendants still live in limbo. So is the government just turning a blind eye? Not necessarily. The USSR collapsed just when the crisis struck, and the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan’s economy was at its worst. The new country absorbed almost a million displaced persons. To put that in perspective, now 1 out of 8 people living in Azerbaijan today are refugees. The government has moved many into old university dorms, constructed villages of residential apartment blocks, and has plans to build homes for 400,000 more people living in conditions like in Shanghai. But when? Those I met were skeptical, as they’ve heard these promises for a long time.

Money from oil has lifted many boats in Baku, but for the time being, that wealth continues to sail straight through Shanghai.
In the distance a man walks down the tracks towards Shanghai

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