Baku, Sunday 6th August 2006
Much of the week just gone is missing from my memory; not due to alcohol-induced loss (for a change) so much as to a combination of work-related fatigue and pressure. The end-date for this project is suddenly looming near and I have a new boss who works in a very different manner from the previous one, on top of which he is imparting a sense of urgency in clear terms. The result has been several late finishes trying to meet tight deadlines and I expect they are to become the norm rather than the exception as the thirtieth of September draws closer. Thankfully the weekend has been a good one…
There was one memorable event during the week that warrants a mention. I have spent much of the last few days working in our Hyatt office where we share a building with a variety of other businesses and a few embassies, one of which is the Israeli embassy. You can’t miss them as they have their national flag flying outside the window; at the time it was about twenty feet above my head as I was sitting at a desk by the glass doors leading onto our small street-front balcony. It had been a pretty hushed morning in the office that day so it came as quite a surprise to hear a loud, rhythmic chant of massed male voices come cutting through the quiet and the double glazing all of a sudden. I looked outside and identified the source of the chants as a group of sixty or so men holding laminated A4 pages above their heads standing in the middle of the road facing the office. Squinting through the reflected sunlight I managed to read “ISRAEL STOP” on some of the pages, at which point the purpose of the group became clear. The men were perfectly calm, stood perfectly still and simply let their voices and their printed matter do the talking but it still took less than ten minutes for the police to arrive and briskly disperse the crowd (without any sign of aggression I might add). The group had obviously done their homework though as there were several television and press cameras in evidence: I’m sure they made the news that evening/next morning. Sure enough, a couple of days later I received a cautionary e-mail from my agency warning expat staff to steer clear of such demonstrations just in case etcetera etcetera.
Saturday evening and the weekend started with a siesta: late home from the office, put an hour on the alarm clock and out like a light; life-saver! Next stop was Rasputin: a restaurant down town specialising in “home-style” Russian cooking. I can’t recall whether or not I’ve mentioned the place previously but I’ve been there once before and while the music was terrible the food was an enjoyable education. On that occasion I learnt that a pickled tomato is actually a pleasant thing to eat. This time around the music was even worse (one singer and his Casio keyboard ‘live’ rather than the recorded stuff) but the dinner was again very good – proper Russian beef stroganoff is a very different beast from the version offered in Britain. As they had apparently run out of Russian beer (don’t ask me how – the place was empty) I elected to have a couple of glasses of decent Russian vodka with dinner instead. There is a ritual to be observed here. The vodka is served very cold and the measure is typically slightly larger than a standard British single shot: around 40ml I’d guess. The traditional method is to order your vodka with pickles – what we know as gherkins in England. You then drink the vodka as a single shot, take a breath and chomp on a slice or two of gherkin. Being a lover of both good vodka and good gherkins I find the combination decidedly pleasant, plus it is far less fiddly (and palate-destroying) than the old tequila-salt-lemon trick. Oh, and the best Russian vodka in the house? “Putinka” – it would appear the President Vladimir has brand named after him. It’s not a bad drop either.
After dinner it was off to The Jazz Club to see a friend from work play a gig. Regular readers may recall my mentioning John a month or so ago as a guitarist/draughtsman who used to gig with David Bowie. During his time here he’s got his hands on an imitation Stratocaster, hooked up with a bass player and a drummer and got himself three Saturdays at the club. As I missed his opening gig last week due to the Lounge’s birthday party I made very sure I was along for the second one and I’m very glad I did. His set was a mixture of originals and covers in a very bluesy vein; his singing was good and his guitar playing was very fine. The man hasn’t read a page of music theory but has picked up all his guitar knowledge by ear and through experimentation. The result is a very fluid and distinctive style which a friend who was sitting with me said sounded much like J J Cale but as I’m not familiar with that artist I can’t offer any comment; I just know I liked what I heard.
At the end of his set John promptly scared the life out of me by inviting me up on stage to play bass. Having not been in a band for the best part of three years now my playing is a little rusty to say the least but I accepted the invitation and managed to busk my way through a couple of minutes of twelve bar blues in a fairly presentable manner and even with the fear I enjoyed myself. It was worth it for the chance to borrow the bass player’s instrument if nothing else. The choice of musical instruments in Baku shops is very limited and mostly Japanese yet this guy had somehow got himself a Marcus Miller signature series five-string Fender Jazz bass. I realise that won’t mean much to a lot of folk but I know at least one reader who will appreciate where I’m coming from – it was great.
This afternoon I accepted Ayla’s invitation to take a drive round the north coast of the Absheron peninsula (it being a body of land jutting eastwards into the Caspian with Baku in its south-west corner). The good news about leaving the main city is that the road surfaces get a great deal better as more money is spent on maintaining them. The bad news is that the reason for that spending is that the nutter drivers are even more carefree and dangerous than they are in the city and they’re doing their thing at much higher speeds on the open roads. I soon lost count of the number of blind overtakes, corner-cuts, swerves, meanders and purely freestyle manoeuvres that I witnessed during the trip; these people are something else.
Our journey took us right into the heart of dacha country. Apparently in the not so distant past you could take an open view across the countryside and see a loose assortment of houses heading down the gentle slope to the sea. Nowadays the view is very different and very obstructed as the new oil money funds the construction of increasingly extravagant palaces with higher and higher walls around them. I obviously don’t have the memories of the earlier views that Ayla has but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the difference: it was a little sad.
Sadder still was a stop we made at an old holiday resort where she used to spend the Summer as a child. It’s a walled area that used to be totally secure and private, not too different from a holiday camp like Butlins in England from the way she described it (albeit without the red-coats). There used to be thick forest, immaculate roads to ride bikes along, a theatre, a little grocery shop where she’d buy ice-cream and a two storey building with a terrace on top and arcade games below. Nowadays the place is a refugee camp. The forests have been almost obliterated, the roads are riddled with potholes, the theatre stage has gone, the grocery store is bricked up and the derelict remains of that two storey building have washing hanging out to dry on the terrace. Old English holiday resorts like Morecombe still possess a certain faded grandeur even though their heyday is nearly a century past. Within less than twenty years this place had gone from vibrant children’s haven to rotted husk.
At one point while we were inside we parked at a junction and got out of the car for five minutes while Ayla pointed out some of the places and described how it all used to be. We stepped out of a black BMW limo and I obviously didn’t look like a local-born man: within a minute or two a couple of young boys had come towards us warily and were giving very curious looks. Other people soon followed. Listening to the story I looked at the place and the people while the growing number of people looked at me. It was not the first time I had felt like a stranger in a strange land but it was certainly one of the most acute. We left soon after. Driving up to the place we had been listening to a Paul Van Dyk mix. On the way out I switched to Cypress Hill’s Temples Of Boom – it seemed far more suitable for my mood.
The vague plan for next week is to visit Mardakan which is the current renowned beach resort of the area. It will be interesting to compare it with the place I saw today.