Baku, Sunday 16th April 2006
Here I am back in the City of Wind (as Baku roughly translates) and it’s gusting up a small gale outside; popping out to get the groceries was quite an exercise! Hopefully this will be but a temporary disruption as up until a few hours ago the weather has been calm, sunny and very warm; the sort of weather I rather like.
Thoughts so far on returning to Baku are positive. My two weeks’ leave already feel like they were a very long time ago but such feelings no longer surprise me, especially after a busy week like this one. Things got off to a flying start when the ‘plane touched down early (no pun intended) and I used my multi-entry visa for the first time to whisk through passport control and out of the airport rather than playing the queuing game for the single entry version. The young man with the BMW who drove me to the airport for my departure was there to meet my arrival and took the “short route” to Zykh yard when I told that was where I needed to be. This involved driving along a series of unmarked, broken and weathered roads through a landscape of oil fields and clusters of residential buildings that looked similarly neglected and hard-worn. Driving through a semi-desert at daybreak surrounded by such sights provided an effective reminder that England was now many many miles away; “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more…”
As the route was unknown to me I didn’t have a clue where we were until all of a sudden we crested a hill and I saw the three legs of the platform pointing towards the sky about half a mile ahead of us. A check of the watch revealed that it was quarter past seven: the platform had been due to sail at seven but was evidently running a little late. Good: I’d made it in time.
It turned out there was an unexpected crosswind blowing and as the platform was due to follow a narrow dredged channel to leave the quayside the Transport and Installation (T&I) Team were waiting for conditions to soften before they cast off. By late morning the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the wind had abated so cast off they did and away she sailed: thirty-six thousand tonnes of platform with two tug boats ahead for towing power and two tug boats aft to provide steering trim as required. After all the trials and tribulations the project had been through during the previous four years it was quite a proud (and some cynics would have said unbelievable) sight to see. Well done everybody.
The day’s work ended early so that we could all relocate to the City Lights Bar in town and enjoy a couple of drinks courtesy of BP while watching the platform cross the bay. The venue was perfect: a bar with an open terrace at the top of a seventeen storey tower about half a mile back from the coast. Unfortunately the weather was less perfect: this was apparently the first proper hot, sunny day of the year which might go most of the way to explaining the impenetrable mist that shrouded the entire bay: we couldn’t see a thing. It mattered not: the bar was still open and the buffet was offering a good selection of Thai cuisine from the restaurant across the hall so we had a good afternoon’s party. City Lights was only booked from four ‘til seven so once the allotted time was up my colleague John and I adjourned to our ‘local’, The Lounge.
The Lounge is not one of the cheapest bars in town but so far it has proven to be one of the best. It’s low-lit, high ceiling interior of dark wood, local rugs and ‘velvet’ soft furnishings is complemented by walls covered in a variety of old art and music ranging from jazz and blues through soul to half-decent house depending on the night and the time. The owner has a strict music schedule but Ziba who runs the place manages to make tasteful alterations here and there. Efficient, courteous and friendly staff complete the warm ambience and once you become known there you soon become ‘one of them’ in that everybody shares a sharp and occasionally dark sense of humour that you automatically become party to. Banter and small wind-ups are the order of the day but always with a smile rather than with malevolence. The head barman, Ali, is undoubtedly the leader in this area and he has got dead-pan one-liners down to a fine art. He also fashions very impressive model dogs from Champagne corks (one of which now lives in my apartment) and mixes some of the best cocktails in Baku. I have a weakness for Long Island Ice Tea and have been frequently disappointed by short-shooting bandits mixing them in various parts of London. Ali – bless ‘im – takes a pint glass full of ice, starts with the five full shots and gets the flavour spot-on. They’re lethal but they’re marvellous; as it was my first night back you can imagine what John and I ordered.
The rest of the working week has mostly been a big catch-up exercise as you might imagine. Away from the office it has been great fun meeting friends from England and learning more about Azerbaijan. Sam, her partner Jon and her mum have come to Baku to visit Sam’s sister Vicki who’s partner, Dean, is working on one of the BP oil projects (clear as…?). The six of us met for dinner last night at a traditional Azeri restaurant in the heart of the old city named Karavanserai (spelling may vary), so called because that is the type of building in which it is situated. They were the equivalent of motels for the camel trains that plied the Silk Route a thousand or so years ago and one or two such buildings still survive in Baku today.
The light was fading to dusk as we walked through the short, arched corridor into the central courtyard where the camels would once have been tethered for the night by the stone water trough. The perimeter of the courtyard consisted of small alcoves (within one of which a live band with traditional instruments was playing) and entrances to the small rooms that were the sleeping places for the weary travelling traders. We had one of these rooms set aside for us for our meal. It must have been approximately ten feet by ten feet but with a ceiling of about fifteen feet – cosy but airy at the same time. The walls and the seats were festooned with traditional rugs and cushions and the only glaring modern additions to the space – aside from electricity – were an air-conditioning unit and a television (we couldn’t explain the latter, perhaps the motel role lives on…?).
As the English translations in the menu were not especially well executed we placed ourselves at the mercy of our waiter who supplied us with a some very enjoyable mixed starters, some mixed kebabs (served on a superb miniature brazier) and some very drinkable Azeri red and white wine (you would not believe the number of people I’ve heard denigrating the local wine). Once the bill arrived it transpired that our waiter had not simply decided to give us all the most expensive items on the menu (thankfully) and even with some curious extra charges on the bottom (one of which was for the live music – a first) we walked away feeling we’d had a good meal in a good place and not been taken for a ride (which, let’s be honest, can not always be said for a fair few hapless tourists in London).
This morning I crawled out of bed at an unfeasibly early hour for a Sunday so that I could join my colleagues Rod and Steve for a drive out to the mud volcanoes. These curious phenomena are apparently caused by the simple settling of the land mass forcing methane gas to the surface rather than anything as high-pressure and volatile as the forces that produce fire volcanoes.
We drove along the coast an hour south of Baku to reach the site. The first half of the journey was along the highway and took us past several desolate-looking, Soviet-built towns as well as numerous decaying industrial sights and sites from the era such as rusting old oil platforms that will never be taken out to sea and crumbling old factories that ceased work many years ago. This sort of landscape is home for thousands of people who have seen no different. For a Londoner it’s an other potent reminder that life can be very different away from Stella Artois and “Eastenders”.
The second half of the journey was along a rough dirt causeway into the semi-desert (luckily we were in a 4×4) and took us right into the heart of nowhere. After the final steep ascent to the volcano plateau we stepped out of the car and heard nothing but the wind, some birdsong and the irregular rhythm of bubbling mud. If a civilisation from the dark side of the moon came to visit Earth and landed here they’d feel right at home. The mud plateau is a cracked, pale grey with a fine dust covering and the pools of liquid mud are mostly circular and edged just like the images we’ve been offered of the moon’s craters. There isn’t an obvious smell (somehow we half-expected an odour from the methane) and the liquid mud is cold not hot. The liquid varies in viscosity: the lighter vents fizz like fresh-opened soda while the heavier ones belch (and occasionally explode) with greater percussion and drama. Most of the vents were between a few inches and a couple of feet across and had built themselves into small cones. The largest by far was a light viscosity vent that was about fifty feet in diameter and looked like a fizzing pond. Being there was an almost otherworldly experience.
Not far from the mud volcanoes is the alleged most easterly example of Roman stone inscription (we went, we saw, we think the weather has virtually eroded it) and some far older cave pictures carved into the limestone that abounds further inland. The vast empty plain that currently constitutes this part of the Caspian coast used to be part of the Caspian seabed in days of yore. Once we’d got up the hill to the cave art site we looked out across the plain, looked at the obvious signs of water action on the limestone around us and tried to imagine how thousands of years ago the waves might have been breaking just beneath the rock shelf we were standing on.
Lurching from the past back to the present, it sounds like the wind may be moderating outside and I am now able to hear the familiar groan of the concrete mixer down below. The baby building on the corner continues to mature at a rate of knots and may now be of school age: it managed to gain two storeys above street level while I was away. I guess the third is being added now.