Baku, Monday 7th May 2007
Time for a travel update as today I have collected my official BP Driving Permit. This marvellous piece of folded pink A5 card is unfortunately not as priceless as it may sound as it is limited to “Cat B pickup” only. Furthermore it is accompanied by a two page letter written in Azerbaijani listing by registration and chassis number the individual pickup trucks I can drive and stating that said trucks can only be driven within the confines of the Sangachal Terminal perimeter fence. The letter is printed specifically for the purpose that I can hand it to any Traffic Police Officer who might happen to ask for it; quite how many of those fellows I am expected to meet within Terminal confines I have yet to be told. Just to top it all off, my permission to drive on private ground was only granted after successfully passing a full two-part driving test (theory and practical) with the practical part being conducted on public roads. Disappointed? Maybe just a little bit…
The initial impetus and justification for my gaining this permit was provided by my line manager, Farah. Getting to the other side of the Terminal for our weekly meeting with a few chaps in an other office is a ten minute drive and the Dispatch Team has frequently been found lacking when asked to provide transport. We thought that driving ourselves might be a far more sensible solution. My thoughts soon spread wider.
Since arriving in Baku full-time I have been driven to Zykh yard and to the Terminal in cars shared with two or three other people; such is the good fortune of expat workers. My travel arrangements to and from the Terminal have been in a state of flux ever since my change of apartment over Christmas, to the point that I arrived back from Nepal to be told that I was no longer in a car but in a bus. Leaving aside “BP Challengers” (fresh university students) I think this makes me unique amongst expats but in principal I do not mind a bit. It might be slower than a car but it is a great way to meet a few more people and at the same time attempt to tune my ear to the languages and accents of the area while people around me chat in Azerbaijani and Russian. The part that annoys me is when the bus leaves the Terminal in the afternoon before I get on it and I am expected to make alternative plans for the hour-long drive home. The first time it happened I was fortunate to discover a colleague of mine had driven his wife to the airport that morning and had brought his own car to the Terminal and he offered me a lift. The second time around I was stranded for nearly half an hour while Dispatch halted an other bus at the highway and found me a connecting vehicle to reach it, after which it transpired that the bus was one I had already spoken to that was not going in the right direction. Having to cancel the meeting that was scheduled to take place in the right direction was annoying; continuing in the ‘wrong’ direction with my colleague, Guvener and then chatting about different aspects of life abroad over a couple of beers in the bar was suitable recompense. I am not prepared to be stranded beyond a third time though.
It would appear that the only solution to the impending bus route disaster (call me pessimistic if you wish) is to drive myself and I have been considering buying my own car for a while now. As the BP Driving Permit has not granted me any useful access to company vehicles my plans for personal vehicle ownership are growing all the stronger. My wheels of choice will undoubtedly be off-road capable as you do not have to go further than the suburbs of Baku to find roads that will humble most ‘ordinary’ cars and I have a distinct desire to explore the countryside this Summer. Having briefly considered either buying a ‘nice’ (i.e. non-Russian) car here to take home later or buying one in England to bring here I soon discarded the idea on the basis of maintenance costs and; more significantly; the unpredictable but reportedly extortionately high payments involved in getting a vehicle across international borders round here. My conclusion is to buy a used Russian car as it will be cheapest to buy and maintain and should sell on easily enough without depreciating too far in the interim. Car of choice is the Niva: a diminutive four-by-four that is small and simple like a Fiat Panda (and not too distant a relation thereof) but tough like a tank and will go virtually anywhere.
It was with the Niva in mind that I arranged with a friend of mine to visit the Car Bazaar last Saturday afternoon. English readers will be familiar with small ads in the local papers, trawling through Loot and perhaps reading Auto Trader or Exchange and Mart in the search for a reasonably priced car. Forget all that; the Baku Car Bazaar is a couple of acres of cars with their soon-to-be-ex-owners all up for grabs and the surrounding buildings are garages and stalls selling all manner of motor-related services and products. There are prestigious imports aplenty to choose from (mostly BMW’s and Mercs) but the ‘local’ metal gets a fair representation too. The main disadvantage with my quest is that Nivas are so good most people buy them brand new and keep running them forever so there are not many around as used sales. Consequently it was not a huge surprise to walk around the Car Bazaar at four o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon and find not a single Niva on offer but it was still a highly worthwhile trip for the learning experience. Next stop will be a couple of recommended local websites; then perhaps an other visit to the Car Bazaar on an early morning. More news will follow.