Brief note from the valley

Kathmandu, Sunday 18th March 2007

It is quarter past one at night and we are rising at seven in the morning to fly to Pokhara and start the trekking part of the trip: I had best be brief.

The journey here was an education: transit in Tashkent was a step back into Soviet times while transit in Delhi was a distinct test of faith and a sturdy introduction to how life might be in India; perhaps.  I will write in further detail later, suffice to say for now that landing in Kathmandu on a sunny Friday afternoon came as a great pleasure after the first two legs of the trip.  We flew in across radiantly green, steep-sided foothills with terraces cut into them that looked centuries old; all against a backdrop of blue skies framing the crisp white peaks of the Himalayas.  I was later told that the view was a lucky bonus due to heavy rain of day before clearing the air: sure enough the dust and pollution from the city was heavy again by the following morning.

Kathmandu appears on first acquaintance to be a city in miniature.  It is genuinely very small (you can drive across it in fifteen minutes on a rare traffic-free moment) but allied to that the streets are narrow, the tight-packed buildings no more than three or four storeys tall and the people equally diminutive.  Even the taxis are tiny: little Suzuki 800cc micro-hatchbacks that I could barely fit into the front of when driving one in Cyprus as a hire car – the back is even more of a challenge.  The surfaced roads are in fair condition with kerbs and raised pavements on major streets but it is easy to turn up a side street and find yourself on a dirt track immediately.  The same contrast applies to the architecture and the people.  Ancient shrines, temples, monasteries and general buildings stand side by side with modern constructions of brick or concrete or both, the former often in sad states of decline.  Almost all are covered in thick layers of dust and grime stirred up by a busy, jostling city full of psychotic motor vehicles and busy people.  The dust can not hide the colourful nature of the city though.  From clusters of advertising hoardings through painted shop shutters and traditional garments to the strings of mantra flags streaming from temples and shrines, Kathmandu is a city of myriad hues that can never be described as grey.  I look forward to writing in more detail about cookery, monkeys, jazz, history and other things that Kathmandu has had to offer.

A.

Now Open – it’s Official

Please find attached what should be the last scribble I transmit via e-mail. This is not because I am going to stop writing (you should be so lucky) but because after a year of trying my dear friend in Chicago has finally succeeded in nudging me a step closer to the twenty-first century and he has got me blogging. Henceforth point your web browsers at www.englishmanabroad.com to read the news, see the odd photo (once I’ve got to grips with the photo loader) and of course post as many comments of praise/abuse/disbelief as you see fit. I will probably still send the odd note round to advise of major updates on the site and I will certainly keep responding to e-mails I receive but the era of Word and Acrobat attachments that people can not open is coming to an end.

The blog is in its infant stages at present and will get prettier (e.g. lose the advertising) as it matures. So far I have loaded all the past scribbles that I still have e-mails for and subject headers. The rest will follow after a bit of archive raiding so that the full set can be browsed.

The change coincides neatly with an episode that should provide lots of material to write about. I am flying to Nepal for two weeks on Thursday and assuming I can find enough internet connections in the Himalayas I plan to post regular updates on the blog while I’m away. Beware endless bad puns about yaks…

Better get back to work. As usual it would appear that I have forty-eight hours to save the planet before I go on leave.

Head for the hills

Baku, Monday 12th March 2007

International Women’s Day: is it one day in the year when the rest of us are supposed to do what we should already be doing the other three hundred and sixty four and show some respect or it just an other occasion for commercial avarice and ostentation?  Judging by the sights I saw last week I fear the latter prevails in this city.  The day itself – Thursday – was a national holiday so it was not difficult to spot early celebrants on Wednesday evening: mostly women carrying small bouquets or single roses who were dressed like they had just left the office and had obviously received the gift from their male colleague(s).  They were fairly unassuming but the same could not be said of the mixed table of eight sitting across from me in a restaurant that evening.  They had blocked an additional table for four with their coats and assorted bags of gifts bought at suitably boutique-ish shops around town.

Twenty-four hours later the city centre was a zoo.  As I walked home up Nizami Street and across Fountain Square (the two main pedestrian areas of the city) at half past six I was confronted by growing numbers of morose looking men with ever larger bouquets in hand, passing a never before seen quantity of flower-selling street hawkers all the while.  In the square the human traffic became more families on parade with mother, father and offspring all strolling in their finest garb.

Meanwhile the motorised traffic on the road next to the square was bedlam as rush-hour volumes of cars tried to pass along streets that were even more heavily double-, triple- and quadruple parked than I thought even Baku drivers were capable of.  It is almost superfluous to mention that all the restaurants in the city were booked solid.  If I’d seen a few smiles on a few faces during that walk I would probably have thought it was a great celebratory occasion and doffed my figurative hat to the good people of Baku for being such jolly folk.  As it was I got the distinct impression that everyone was miserably going through the motions to put on the show for the ‘public’ and “keep up with the Jones’s” as the English saying goes; rather like the behaviour I witnessed at the Opera Ballet last year but on a very large scale.  Once I had got home I stayed indoors.

The weekend was a much brighter affair, starting with dinner on Friday night at a restaurant I had not visited before.  The Sheki Restaurant shares its name with a town about seven hours train journey away from Baku and includes suitable regional specialities on its menu.  The entire interior is a warren of rough lumber corridors, stairways and little dining rooms that may or may not be typical of Sheki but certainly does give a rustic feel and a definite sense of privacy during your meal.  We had placed the necessary advanced order to eat Piti: a particular soup of that area.  Although vodka is apparently recommended to accompany Piti it is not nearly as extreme a dish as the other pre-order soup I tried recently, xaş.  There is a large piece of fat in the bowl when it arrives (considered a delicacy by many around here I believe) but this time around the beef broth actually has some lean beef in it, along with a piece of fruit like a small plum, a chestnut and an awful lot of chickpeas.  We eschewed vodka in favour of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and enjoyed a very pleasant meal.

Sunday saw a farewell party but to make change it was not a departing colleague but a closing restaurant that occasioned the get-together.  I have recently been introduced to the owners of the Philarmonic (sic): an Italian restaurant beneath the concert hall of the same name.  They invited a group of people to dine at their premises one last time before they pack their bags and move to a new address in the city and I was fortunate enough to be one of those guests.  The food was very fresh and cooked with as many ingredients as could be imported from Italy to give as authentic a flavour and texture as possible.

Particularly fresh were the two carp that were served: they had been swimming around in a tank by the front door until that morning (attempts made to explain this to the three year-old boy who wanted to know where the fish had gone were numerous and inventive).  During the consumption of said carp the lady of the house introduced me to the finer points of fish dissection and demonstrated how some of the best flavours and textures were to be found in the fish’s head.  I was surprised to discover how much meat is actually available in that area that it is indeed most tender and tasty.  Never thought I’d voluntarily eat a fish brain either let alone enjoy it; one learns something every day.  I also discovered that a Cuban member of the waiting staff is keen on his cigars and imports them from home specially.  He matched me a cigar (a Romeo y Julieta of Clinton-humbling proportions) and a fine “cherry Port” from Andalusia that rounded off the meal together very nicely.  One of the best six-hour lunches I’ve had for a long time.

A.

If the Innuit can do it with snow…?

Blustery isn’t word to describe this morning’s weather. The trouble is, I feel I have been using terms based around “gale” too frequently already. As my language lessons progress I will have to remember to ask my teacher if there are any extra words in Azerbaijani to describe differing shades of extremely strong wind.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. It is observed as a national holiday in Azerbaijan and we are all being sent home an hour early this afternoon just for good measure. As Saint Valentine’s Day has not attracted much attention here until very recently you can imagine some of what will be going on tomorrow. Last year I walked into the office completely unaware and had to ask a colleague why every available horizontal surface was covered in bouquets of flowers, truck-loads of chocolate and soft toys of varying size and tastelessness. In this regard the men of Azerbaijan appear little different from their counterparts in England… May I pre-emptively wish the compliments of the day to my female readers.

Spring not bouncing just yet

Welcome to the merry month of March.  On the first day of the month I had more than one person wish me good tidings on what was apparently the first official day of Spring.  Five days later I am sitting here writing while listening to the sound of rainwater dropping loudly into the courtyard.  Prior to this I spent the afternoon at the Terminal leaning heavily into a stiff gale whenever I took a step outside the buildings, occasionally in genuine fear of being blown over.  England’s ‘April Showers’ have got some way to go before they match this little lot.

Weather apart it has been a good evening though.  I have just entertained my first group of guests at this apartment; indeed my first group of house guests at any time since my becoming a full time resident of this city; and it appears to have been a successful night.  The plan was simple enough which helped: four of us plus pizza plus a few drinks plus a DVD.  Spice was added by the cultural mix: me the Brit, my friends all Azeri and the film “The 51st State” – a fine linguistic cocktail of British and American slang and Liverpudlian accents topped off with the curious phenomenon of watching Samuel L. Jackson walking around in a kilt for the duration.  It was a good laugh and I think we all benefited from having the English subtitles switched on: for me it was the first time I have seen a film where not only are song lyrics subtitled during the singing but a quick caption goes up at the beginning of the piece identifying title and artist – a dream cheat for train-spotters.

My original plan for this week’s scribble (in so far as I ever plan it) was to send a selection of photographs I have taken of assorted Soviet-era art as observed on the highways and byways of Baku.  Unfortunately having left my camera at a friend’s house for safe keeping on Sunday night I have thus far failed to complete plans for its return so I think we had best leave that little offering for later.

My reason for parting with the camera was so that I would not have to entrust it to a cloakroom attendant during my visit to Infiniti – the nightclub I wrote about last week – for the electro, breaks and trance night that I had seen advertised for the evening.  While the previous drum and bass event was good but strayed from what was promised, this time around the music was both high quality and played as billed.  The crowd of maybe forty people was unfairly small but if word spreads as well as I hope it will it is good to think that the venue will eventually fill.  After several nights spent in London clubs packed wall to wall with cynical, po-faced punters I found it refreshing to be part of even a tiny group of people who were clearly getting a lift from dancing to the music.  During the evening I made a point of chatting to one of the DJ’s and discussing the chance of playing a slot myself.  The good news is that we got on well and exchanged numbers; the bad news is that my ‘phone skipped a digit and I didn’t see it until today so I have to find an other way of contacting the guy.  It’s a small town and I have leads – he will be found and I will play.

Other news during the week has mostly been straightforward stuff: skirmishes at work and so on.  A glimmer of light in that regard is that the obstructive fellow who has been making my life so difficult appears to be on holiday for a while and I am finding his very pleasant colleague to be far more amenable to progressive decision-making in his absence; very refreshing.  While talking shop I will also note in passing that I attended my first regional business unit Engineering Quarterly Performance Review (QPR) on Friday.  The presentation skills of all but the last of the speakers were mediocre at best and the use of the space was appalling but I walked away with a transparent, three-inch-tall oil drum with a wee globule of Azeri crude in the heart of it so I can now consider myself truly initiated into the Azerbaijan Business Unit Engineering fraternity; hurrah…

Certain readers might be interested to know that I have finally played a bass guitar again for the first time in many moons.   A chap I have met at the Terminal is a guitarist with a Fender Jazz bass on the side and one of each amp and he wants to get a band together.  We had our first jam a few nights ago and it went encouragingly enough for both of us to think we should be doing it again; if a drummer can be found too then so much the better.  Watch this space and watch out Baku – an other dodgy covers band could be coming soon.