All We Need Is Tumbleweed

Baku, Sunday 1st October 2006

Went to bed early last night and still managed to have an exceedingly long lie-in this morning; in spite of this I think I am surviving the transfer to the Terminal quite well.  First thing to bear in mind is that the Terminal is an hour’s drive out of town so a pre-dawn rise for a seven o’clock rendezvous with a car outside the apartment is mandatory.  Sunrise is actually a very pleasant thing to witness here as the building density is minimal outside downtown Baku and you can watch the dawn paint across large expanses of sky, sea and barren land as its canvas.  At the moment sunrise coincides with our driving out of town along the top of a ridge that overlooks “Bond Street”: the hideous old oil field just outside central Baku that I wrote about many months ago.  Looking down from the ridge it looks like that oilfield is about the same size as Richmond Park (not a nice thought) but with much of the ground between the old derricks and pumps being covered in still pools of water the area somehow manages to look peaceful and poetic, the pools perfectly reflecting the contrasting multi-hued sky and black silhouettes of the aged machinery.  A Dutch painter and a German photographer were exhibiting some of their local work this weekend under the title of “Caspian Moods.”  While both men took much inspiration from the built landscape of the oil industry neither came close to capturing anything like the power of that sunrise view.

Somehow I don’t think either artist took many steps beyond the edges of the city centre judging by the limited and repetitive range of subject matter they depicted.  It’s a shame because there’s a wealth of inspiration out there and it doesn’t take much looking for.  I have already described some of the sights on offer between town and the Zykh yard: all that is within a half-hour drive.  On the road out to Sangachal Terminal there’s more that fits the theme but on a bigger scale.

The road descends from the ridge overlooking “Bond Street” towards the coast and heads south out of town.  Soon after the road reaches sea level you come to the Crescent Beach Hotel and a series of beach ‘resorts’ for day trippers with inspiring names such as Dolphin and Eldorado.  You need to be very inspired to see anything attractive about such places though.  Even assuming you are happy to forego playing in the water you can not say that there are beautiful views to compensate.  Along this stretch of coast there are at least four clearly visible oil rigs installed offshore; all rusting, ugly old Soviet-era creations.  A strong swimmer could reach the nearest one from the beach without much difficulty.  Just a couple of miles along the beach by the city limits there’s a derelict yard where an other half a dozen or so rigs are standing rusting by the shore having never been put into use; final output of a production line that suddenly stopped once Russia relinquished power over the country.

An Engineering Team meeting and dinner took place while Rachel was here visiting me and it was held at the Crescent Beach Hotel where the beach terrace has clear views of all that I have just described.  I had been concerned that Rachel might get bored by herself while I got the meeting part out of the way but as a photographer she found plenty of material to work with during that afternoon.  If Azerbaijan ever starts pushing forward as a tourist destination I wonder how such places will be described in the holiday brochures.  “Exclusive beach resort with commanding views of historical artefacts” or similar…?

Once city limits have passed behind you the space opens up and the road soon develops into a full dual carriageway.  This is a relative term though as there are no lane markings, no form of barrier either in the central reservation or along the sides and no apparent restriction to what sort of traffic uses the road.  Take for example our drive home on Saturday afternoon when we were overtaken by a Lada driver who then came perilously close to hitting a cow that had suddenly decided to cross the road in front of us.  I’m not sure who would have come off the worst of that one.  A couple of days earlier I saw a forklift truck reversing against the flow of traffic on the other side of the road.  How far that particular journey was intended to go I do not know.

As Baku recedes in the rear-view the route becomes characterised by pipelines criss-crossing the plain and numerous industrial sites standing in various states of repair.  These range from decaying forms of abandoned oil processing plants to the imposing spread of the SPS construction yard.  This yard has been the birthplace of all the BP oil platforms in the Caspian and is still running near full capacity now.  The huge jackets – the four legs of the rig linked with cross-bracing – are assembled lying on their sides and even at this reduced elevation are visible from many miles away.  Seeing these giant, white-painted structures only minutes after passing those rusting lumps nearer the city makes for a strong contrast.

The Terminal has a similar effect.  It is set back a mile from the main road and at that range you can see storage tanks, parts of pipe-rack and a couple of the flare towers spread across a wide area – again painted white.  It looks far larger and more purposeful than the small, bare-metal assemblies of parts back along the highway.  The drive inland eventually brings you to the site wall and it looks never-ending.  Pass through the main gate and the first thing that strikes you is that there is very little to see.  Standing on the corner of 1st Street and “A” Avenue the only signs of life are an admin building and one of the flare towers way behind it.  This place is so huge the main action is not even visible.  The second thing that strikes you is the quiet.  When the flare tower isn’t burning with the whoosh of a giant gas cooker the only other thing you’ll hear is the wind.  One of the largest oil and gas processing plants in the world and on entrance it feels as lively as a ghost town.

Out here features of natural beauty are few and far between but behind the Terminal is a small range of rugged, rocky hills, at least one of which looks like it might have been a mud volcano with some signs of ancient flows in its topography.  Early in the morning the hills glow pink in the rising sun and sharp shadows etch their weathered forms.  It’s a welcome sight as you cross 1st and “A” towards the admin building.


New day, new job

Baku, Sunday 24th September 2006

The mild pessimism I expressed last week regarding the weather appears to have been unfounded and we’ve had sunshine with temperatures back up into the high twenties during the last couple of days.  Long may it continue as it occurred to me soon after my return here that I don’t have much by way of a Winter wardrobe with me.  As things stand I may yet be home by Winter but in spite of recent developments the full extent of my time here remains uncertain.

Main news of the week is that I have a new job to start in the morning.  My work on the Shah Deniz (SD) Offshore project data will finish on the thirtieth of September as per schedule.  Tomorrow will be the start of an overlap week as I finish the offshore work while starting a new role at the Sangachal Terminal onshore.  The exact scope of the role is unclear but I have been hired for an initial period of six weeks to analyse the engineering data at the Terminal and devise some plans with which to improve the quality of the data and the ways in which it used.

The task is likely to be a large one.  With the SD offshore job I have been working with one database within one project.  The terminal is one of the largest of its kind in the world and within its perimeter fence are three or four established oil projects that are likely to all have different data set-ups plus the SD onshore project that is nearing completion.  After a recent reshuffle in BP’s management thinking all of those projects have changed from being run by separate teams to being run by one team; I am about to join that team.  At this stage it’s hard to tell whether or not I should be daunted by the scale of the situation.  The only thing I am sure about is how to take that initial six week period with a large pinch of salt.  I originally stepped onto this merry-go-round as a six week temporary clerk and that was in May 2004…

As there haven’t been any major social events this week, other news is snippets and sketches.  I paid what is likely to be my final visit the Zykh yard on Friday afternoon and discovered that a mile of brand new multi-lane one-way street had suddenly appeared on the route to speed things up.  Considering there are building projects around this city that have lain dormant for years I found it mildly astounding to see how fast this road had appeared.  Of course there is a huge new shopping centre being completed at the end of the road that is allegedly owned by the President’s brother and popular rumour says that the road has been created to help bring trade to that shopping centre but we all know that sort of thing doesn’t happen don’t we…?

Seconds after passing said shopping centre we encountered a queue of several hundred taxi cabs almost blocking the road.  It looked like it might be a rally or a demonstration but there was no sign of any organisation.  I asked my driver what was going on and he explained that they were all queuing for gas at a petrol station.  That is gas as in liquid petroleum gas rather than gasoline.  The petrol station we had just driven past apparently started selling LPG very recently and had become one of a very small number of stations doing so, hence the huge queue.  It’s a farce though.  Petrol costs the equivalent of around forty US cents per litre and while I did not see the LPG price I know that it is less but surely not by enough.  If you could start using LPG straight away there would be an instant saving to make but you need to convert your car first and the minimum conversion price here is apparently three to four hundred US dollars.  The average taxi driver here runs an old Lada or Tofas that is worth a similar amount of money and is not likely to last more than a few more years if he is lucky.  Even if LPG costs as little as ten US cents per litre is it really going to be possible to recoup the cost of the conversion before the car dies of natural causes?  Crazy logic…

It would appear that the street beggars of Baku might now be faced by some imported competition.  There were some official e-mails circulated over Summer warning expats to beware of an alleged Azeri man who did a very good job of impersonating a Brit who had had a stroke of misfortune and needed some cash to sort himself out.  A couple of mornings ago I either met the man and he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen or I met an expat who’s got himself a good little scam going.  Rob is a skinny, weathered looking five foot eight near fifty with fading tattoos on both arms and slicked back greying hair receding at the front.  His speech sounds entirely British and his facial features suggest British more than anything else.  He approached me asking directions to the Landmark Building (home of the British Embassy amongst other things) and as it is quite a way away it took a minute or two to discuss.  He then told me a tale of woe concerning two women he met at the Coral club who he had spent the night with and then woken up to find he had been robbed bare.  He asked for a couple of Manats to help him on his way and as two Manats was literally all I had on me at the time I gave them to him.  He said if I was in the Lounge that night he’d buy me a beer.  I had other plans so didn’t get to test the offer.

While writing this I have received a ‘phone call from my friend Ian to whom I told the story once I’d got into the office that morning.  Ian has just met a man called Rob just up the street from where I met Rob.  On this occasion he has had some misfortune involving a woman or two and a sauna and he is asking for ten or twenty Manats to help sort himself out.  Ian parted with five Manats and has been told that the money will be returned to the office in the morning.  Ian is not holding his breath.


Wheel keeps on turning…

Baku, Sunday 17th September 2006

Two weekends away from my laptop and so much has happened; where to begin?  I suppose it would be suitably English to start with the weather: Summer appears to be over in Baku.  When I landed bleary eyed last Monday morning there was warmth in the air and sun in the sky but the latter part of the week has been characterised by heavy rainfall and temperatures that have halved into the teens.  If this is a delayed occurrence of the traditional late August dip –after which the warmth should return for a month – then all is not lost but seeing that so much other traditional, seasonal weather has gone out of the window recently I am not holding my breath.  Observers of global warming take note.,.

My truncated time away from Baku was even more of a blur than usual.  Catching up on lost sleep and recovering from mild illness kept me in bed far more than planned and made the time I enjoyed meeting friends and family feel exceedingly fleeting.  Thankfully the event that provided my primary impetus for getting away; a wedding of friends in Venice; appears to have been a great success.  I say appears because the happy couple are currently on honeymoon and are not in a position to comment but from my point of view it was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion and some of the photos I have produced as ‘wedding photographer’ look pretty good.  It was my third visit to Venice but the first to include some overnight time rather than being a day trip and the first for which I travelled alone.

Booking the London/Venice return flights many weeks ago I had told myself that flying out of Gatwick at the crack of dawn on a Sunday would be easy.  Insert one small security alert between booking date and flying date and I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Thousands (and I mean thousands) of people in seemingly aimless queues with no staff on hand to answer questions made missing my flight a palpable fear.  Indeed had I not managed to grab the attention of a passing BA person I would have been stranded but as it was I made it through final security with twenty minutes to spare.  My flight back to Baku from Heathrow was marginally better but only because my experience from the week before had prepared me.  Something needs to be done to redress the balance or there is likely to be a popular mutiny within “Fortress Britain.”

Once landed in Venice and installed in my hotel room I relaxed and got on with enjoying the beauties of the city and of the occasion.  It transpired that I had landed on the day of the annual Historic Regatta that essentially involves the closing of the Grand Canal (virtually) for a procession of majestic antique barges followed by some closely and vigorously fought ‘rowing’ races between various establishments and families.  The inverted commas are there because the rowing is not of the sit-facing-backwards variety that I used to race in but involves standing and facing forwards – seemingly a far more unstable and daunting prospect!  My hat goes off to all the participants of such a venerated and skilled exercise.

Monday was wedding day and a great joy.  The timings ran without a hitch, the meal was superb (melon soup with basil ice cream is a dessert to cherish!) and the group of us who had assembled for the celebration got on very well indeed throughout the whole event.   Piazza San Marco is well worth a visit at midnight as it is virtually deserted, tastefully lit and completely bereft of those wretched pigeons!  Walking back from there to the hotel around midnight it was a route of narrow streets, dim lighting and graffiti.  Walking along such streets in most other cites in western Europe or the USA might well raise fears of robbery, rape or similar but somehow the atmosphere in Venice remains neutral and unthreatening.  Perhaps the fact that the tourist trade is virtually the only trade left in the city helps keep things so tranquil.  Reportedly the average age of the inhabitants in rising and the total population is falling as increasing numbers of young Venetians leave the city for perceived bigger and brighter destinations.  The whole of Venice may soon be emptied of actual citizens and declared a museum.  I for one would prefer such a declaration not to be made but I may be too late in thinking so.  During the afternoon I had to myself before flying back to London I took a stroll round the north side of the city, away from the designated tourist routes.  I found residential streets as you might find in any other city.  I found doors with plaques next to them identifying various different businesses.  I came to the end of a narrow street leading to the ‘coast’ to find a lively area of petrol stations and ‘garages’ designed to service the water-borne vehicles of the city.  Such a shame that the same ‘coastal’ street – ironically named New Street – was also undergoing heavy road-works to stop it collapsing into the sea.  I back-tracked to a tiny osteria I had seen with some canal-side tables in a residential area and enjoyed a leisurely two hour lunch by the water during which I did not see a single tourist walk by; the waiter even opened our conversation by asking if I was Italian or not.  I fear such moments may be becoming ever rarer in the city; I am glad to have shared them.

In Baku I feel I am almost in a state of limbo.  My ‘official’ finish date is less than a fortnight hence but I have not received my thirty days notice so I am guessing that the unconfirmed one month extension to my contract might apply.  Having spent two years not being told anything in good time on this job I have got used to the idea of keeping on with my work and seeing what might occur the following day.

In the meantime, away from work it would appear that the Baku nights are getting a bit more lively again now that Summer is finishing.  Last night I went to the official re-opening of Chillout’s main dance floor now that they’ve finished re-arranging it for a month.  The space is much better but the DJ’s unfortunately appear to be as terrible as the city average.  I never thought I’d ever hear a dance remix of Status Quo but it would appear that “You’re In The Army Now” has received such attentions from some strange soul within contact distance of here.  Not one to seek out in any rare pressings shelves I can assure you, regardless of how popular it appears to be in this town!  Tonight I have kept things more simple and joined Ayla to watch a couple of football matches.  Chelsea versus Liverpool barely warrants a mention but Arsenal’s defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford might well be fondly remembered by those who care about such things.  Well done The Gooners (did I say that?!).