The road more travelled (review)

Baku, Sunday 13th August 2006

Might well have been the hottest day of the year today.  No thermometers available to check with unfortunately but it felt (un)comfortably into the mid-forties out there this afternoon.  Reports in the morning should confirm the official figures; in the meantime I can say that I got my laundry dry in record time.

Partly due to the heat and partly due to Ayla having sustained a back injury we decided to postpone the trip to Mardakan beach so this will not be the comparative piece I was threatening to write.  I feel instead prompted to look back upon my old commute to the yard; not the most thrilling subject when taken at face value I admit but then this isn’t London…

Now that work is a sub-ten minute walk to a relatively ordinary office it provided a moment for reflection to take the half-hour drive to the yard a couple of afternoons ago.  For the first few months I was here the driver’s route used to include a pick-up from the edge of the Old City.  That meant every morning we would drive from my apartment along the top of the ridge that forms the western side of Baku bay before heading steeply downhill towards the sea.  Just before the downhill section there is a break in the buildings that allows a clear view across the whole of the city and the bay for a moment.  Once Winter had started turning into Spring and the days had lengthened sufficiently I could take that moment to look out across a city and a sea glowing amber as the sun rose on the other side of the bay.  Our run would then take us down the full length of Boulevard with the grand old buildings to the left and a gleaming sea to the right.

The route was changed eventually and latterly we would start by taking a more direct route round the other side of the city.  It’s not nearly as scenic a drive as the previous route but it is much better for people-spotting as it takes in other differing parts of the city.  As we always set out at about the time the city was starting to wake up (there is no morning rush-hour as such) it has been intriguing to observe certain morning rituals take place.

Take butchers for example.  We pass at least three butchers’ shops on the route to Zykh and watching them start their day has been an education to say the least.  At 07:30 in the morning the day’s wares are either standing outside the shop chewing the cud or are about to be separated from their freshly despatched whole as it hangs draining.  None of your pre-packed-from-the-abattoir cuts here: Baku butchers do it the old fashioned halal way with their bare hands.  Countless little vignettes viewed from the window of a passing car have given me a pretty a detailed view into the whole process and I have to hand it to them: these men can probably transform a cow into over-the-counter produce quicker that most English folk could roast one of the joints for Sunday lunch.  I think they will also cut to order if you ask them: I was standing at the kerb waiting to cross the street one morning last week and a guy drove past with the entire right side of a freshly butchered cow filling the back seat of his Lada.  He must have been planning one very big dinner party.

The roadside fruit and vegetable sellers are a little less dramatic, if only because they don’t seem to have a morning ritual or if they do they start so much earlier than everybody else that it is never seen.  It appears to the casual observer that they offer a round-the-clock service and never shut.  You will find them in all sorts of places ranging from main thoroughfares through to streets that are so out of the way you wonder how they ever sell anything to anybody.  Some just put their crates on the ground, some have small kiosks, some operate out of an old car or truck.  With the latter it took me a little while to realise that these people aren’t driving to their plot every morning, selling for the day and then driving home again: these vehicles are permanent fixtures.  They will never move again and constitute business premises for trading and storage.  Perhaps they will even be handed down through the family as such.

Roadside cigarette sellers are a common site around Baku and there is a particular street on the route that several colleagues nick-named Fag Alley because there were so many sellers there: about ten in the space of two hundred yards.  The set-up is simple enough: each man has a board with one packet of every type of cigarette he sells strapped to it and he sits next to the board by the roadside to catch the passing trade; stock is kept secure nearby.  Driving down Fag Alley used to be particularly atmospheric on a dark Winter’s morning as the men each had a single electric light bulb hung over their boards and the short line of glowing pools of light looked part comforting, part desolate in the pre-dawn chill.  Alas, it would appear that Fag Alley is no more.  Perhaps the sellers kept their wares in the nearby building that seems to have been demolished or in the old car at the end of the street that has been moved.  Now when you drive down that street you still see men sitting motionless on chairs by the roadside facing the traffic but there isn’t a single cigarette on offer.  It’s slightly eerie.

Regardless of how the journey winds through the city centre all routes to Zykh yard pass through the state oil refinery.  This came as quite a surprise when I first visited as while I do not have a great deal of experience in this industry I nevertheless think it unlikely that many people would choose you have a main road running through the middle of a potentially dangerous industrial complex such as this.  Not only is there the road though; right next to it is the railway that even now in times of far greater road traffic and much reduced oil production is still used daily to take oil to Georgia and possibly elsewhere.  This railway is separated from the main road by little more than a six foot breath of pavement or dirt in many places and is frequently crossed by side roads leading to parts of the refinery or other premises.  I have yet to see evidence of any accidents on the rails but I have seen a car crash that came very close near one of the level crossings.

A ‘jobsworth’ from the British government’s HSE department would no doubt go into polemic overdrive at the sight of such apparent disregard for human safety but to some extent (s)he would be missing the point.  The refinery was built during the Soviet era and to my recollection it was a part of the Soviet way to celebrate and promote industry, glamorise it almost.  In such a context I imagine it would seem quite reasonable to have all the giant distillation columns, storage tanks and pipe racks well within sight and reach.  It would perhaps be desirable to have great railway trains running next to the then lightly trafficked roads so that people could see the ‘fruits’ of their labour travelling forth (though some might dare to question the destination).  For it is only within the context of such a mindset that I can explain there being a children’s amusement park sitting in the midst of it all.  On the inland side of the road (the non-railway side thankfully) is the Luna Park.  I have not been in there but driving past I can see a swing boat, a ferris wheel, a waltzer and several other rides all nestling together next to a collection of refinery storage tanks.  It seldom looks busy but it appears to be open for business.  On my way back to town after that visit to the yard the other day I saw a wedding party parked by the gates for photographs and possibly a spin on the rides and they were not the first I had seen.  I suppose to draw any sort of comparison in England one would have to look back to the industrial revolution and I expect there were some vaguely similar juxtapositions at the time.  It still seems rather odd in this day and age though…


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