‘ello John; got a new motor?

Baku, Tuesday 22nd May 2007

The local weather has parted longingly with cool, calm Winter, flirted fleetingly with temperate Spring and rushed headlong into the burning embrace of Summer.  After weeks of mixing and matching impulsively with an extensive variety of rain, dry, warmth, cold, gales and stillness, we have been treated to calm blue skies and sunshine for several days in a row and temperatures climbing through the high twenties.  Apparently there was a weather forecast today that predicted temperatures in the sixties around July/August time but I think that might be a little far-fetched.

After all the hedging of the last couple of weeks I can finally declare that I am a car owner.  A six month old Niva (old-style, not Chevrolet) now stands parked under the watchful eye of the CCTV cameras and security guards of the BP office next to my building and a certain feeling of achievement has been lifting my smile this last day or so.  The satisfaction is not gleaned from the simple knowledge that I have bought a good vehicle for a good price (though I am told that I have done so) but from the relief to have survived a purchasing process far more lengthy and complicated than I could even have dreamed about after conducting my initial research.  The following account may aid foreigners who consider buying a car in Azerbaijan:

Two Sundays ago I made a morning visit to the Car Bazaar to see what was on offer.  My friend, Riz, accompanied me as speaker and advisor plus we ran across a friend of his while we were there who added further tyre-kicking experience to our endeavours.  A couple of hours and twenty Nivas later we had chosen the car we wanted, made an offer to the seller and exchanged ‘phone numbers.  That same afternoon the seller ‘phoned to accept the offer, a test drive was arranged and after a lengthy question-and-answer session the sale was agreed.  I paid a small deposit, we all drove to a nearby underground car park to store the Niva safely while I spent the following few days obtaining the rest of the money and I parted with the keys in my hand.  Deal done.

With generous help from a friend at work I had the requisite amount of dollars in my hand by Thursday and a meet was arranged to conclude the sale and sign over the car into my name.  While Britain only permits one way of doing this (via the vehicle’s registration document) there are choices to be made in Azerbaijan.  The car comes with a Technical Passport (similar to the British registration document) and you can wholly register the car in your name to get your name put on this passport.  It is also permissible though to have the registered owner sign a General Power of Attorney certificate (GPA) at a notary’s office and surrender all rights to you in that manner.

Being a foreigner it made the most sense for me to take the GPA route and this was all agreed prior to completing the sale.  A detail that had guided my choice of car was that the GPA only lasts for a set period (typically ten or fifteen years) and it can only be passed on three times within that period.  I therefore wanted a car that was either being sold by its registered owner or being passed on by its first GPA owner as this way my purchase would constitute the second pass of the GPA and I would have one pass left for when I sell-on (are you keeping up?).

Fortune was smiling on me that Sunday: I found a car that was on its first GPA owner – a friendly bloke named Rovshan – and the registered owner was a personal friend of his.  When we went to the notary’s office last Thursday to sign over the car, Rovshan arranged for his friend to come along too and as registered owner he was able to authorise a fresh GPA with me as first owner.  A further lucky detail was that the notary agreed to give me a full ten years.  Most foreigners are only granted GPA for the duration of their police registration cards and those have to be renewed annually.  The notary seemed to take the view that while the card will keep changing my details on the central computer will not so I was permitted the full duration; very decent.

One important detail that is missing from a foreigner’s police card though is proof of address and it is a vital detail when registering a car.  Overcoming this hurdle required a call to my agency to obtain an official “spravka” letter from the government to act as proof of address.  I learned about this requirement early enough to make arrangements prior to the Thursday meeting (imagine the embarrassment had I not…) and the agency efficiently sorted things out quick-sharp.  The fee was twenty Manats and for that I received a hand-filled A6 form that was obviously a quarter of an A4 page that had been torn by hand.  The only thing on that piece of paper that I could not have produced in five minutes myself was the ministry’s rubber stamp that made it official.  Some things never change…

Everything was quick, simple and good-humoured at the notary’s on Thursday but when we bid a cheery farewell to Rovshan and his friend the process was not yet complete.  For a GPA to be wholly official it must be stamped at a certain police office fifteen kilometres out of town within ten days of issue.  There is also the question of mandatory ‘insurance’ which must be bought from the same office for ten Manats.  Riz and I visited the police office on Saturday afternoon to find that they shut early on Saturdays and we had just missed last orders.  Usefully there was a specific petrol station back in town where we could sort out the ‘insurance’ and we claimed that as our consolation prize for the afternoon.

Return to the police office was set for Monday morning.  I got permission to be late into work and as Leyla had the day off she saved my life by agreeing to come along as interpreter.  The process of course is not as simple as turning up, queuing for a counter and having your documents attended to; this is Baku after all.

Step One: drive your car into a drive-through building, within which a uniformed official will give your car a cursory visual inspection (thirty seconds is the long version) and mark your GPA as pass or fail.  As the previous owner had decided to stick a black film inside the rear screen for that ‘tinted’ effect I was an instant fail and I was told to come back after removing it (Rovshan had said it would be alright so curses were uttered, I can assure you).  I parked and spent a few minutes scraping with a screwdriver, after which a friendly onlooker took pity on me pointed me towards a nearby garage where I could get the film removed properly.  The mechanic did indeed find the edge of the film that I had failed to locate earlier and peeled it off in ten seconds – superb.  Back into the drive-through and the uniformed official gave a pass mark.

Step Two: park your car and walk into a claustrophobic little box office with a small hatch, on the other side of which is a uniformed man with a computer (linked to “the” computer I must assume) who will check to make sure that your car is not on the stolen vehicles list.  Queuing doesn’t really happen much in Baku at the best of times and making progress to get into this office required a level of assertiveness not usually associated with queue-trained Englishmen.  Once I had got in though I was most grateful (and not a little surprised) to have the men in front me step aside and usher me forward to the hatch; thoroughly decent chaps.  My GPA gained the requisite stamps to prove that my car was straight and I moved on to the final stage.

Step Three: walk to an other office and hand over GPA plus vehicle Technical Passport plus police card plus copy of spravka letter plus ten Manats to a plain-clothes official who will process the paperwork and get the sacred stamp put on the GPA.  After a quick interview (hats off to Leyla) and the document handover it was a ten-minute wait outside the office until my name was called over a speaker and I could go back in to reclaim my stamped GPA – hurrah.  From that point forward my car was one hundred percent legally mine.

Getting from agreement of sale to that point took eight days, sixty Manats in documentation fees and extensive support from Riz and Leyla above and beyond the call of duty.  Admittedly three days could have notionally been saved if I had not needed time and a saviour to sort out the money but the process remains a long one.  In comparison some of my vehicle acquisitions in England have taken as little as half an hour to complete once the sale has been agreed; without doubt this is a new record.

The story isn’t over yet.  The world of actual insurance cover for vehicle, passengers, third parties and so on is only just being revealed to me and looks sure to provide further education and ‘amusement’.  There is also the matter of gaining a resident’s permit for the Old City.  I located and visited that office this afternoon thinking that all my paperwork would see me right but no.  This time the senior gentleman behind the desk (as translated by the good-natured young carpet seller from down the road who I had only just met) told me that the office address on my spravka was not good enough and that I would need a letter from the agency confirming my home address.  I now have the required letter – in both English and Azerbaijani – and hope to conclude the business tomorrow.

Let it be said that the effort required to legally obtain this car has not dented my enthusiasm one jot.  The joys of the open road await and the driving I have done so far has been a lot of fun.  I must admit though: compared to the process of car ownership here in Azerbaijan, answering letters from the DVLA back in Britain will never seem like a chore again.


There’s a whole world out there…

Baku, Tuesday 15th May 2007

Firstly an update on last week’s closing item.  It looks I might have bought myself a Niva but as the process is not yet complete I will refrain from describing a ‘done deal’ in rapturous detail for fear of jinxing the whole show.  Suffice to say that should all conclude in a positive manner I am very much looking forward to new-found off-road mobility and potential for exploration as my appetite has been very much whetted.

Now that the weather is improving (it is still not reliably good yet but it is getting there) I have been getting involved in grand plans to travel the length and breadth of Azerbaijan during summer and see the beauty that is denied those who do not stray far beyond the capital.  One must walk before one can run though, so two weekends ago I went on a little warm-up drive into the suburbs to seek out a couple of sights highlighted in “the book.”

“The book” is Mark Elliott’s guide to Azerbaijan.  The ‘big’ players like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide et al appear to have overlooked this part of the world and amongst a pitifully small selection of alternative publications Mr. Elliott’s volume stands head and shoulders above the rest thanks to its comprehensive coverage and its appealing balance of fact and opinion.  For some reason I did not buy a copy of this book on my way over here and I still do not own one (this fault will soon be rectified).  Instead I listened to numerous expat friends telling me that trying to find anything interesting outside Baku would take at least a four hour drive and I would need to plan a long weekend or more to do it; and I believed them.  More fool me.  Now that I have proper two-day weekends to enjoy rather than just a fleeting Sunday I am finding I have time to both catch up on my sleep and think outside the city centre.  A copy of Elliott’s 1999 first edition landed in my hands a wee while ago and it has proven to be a revelation: the brief foray into the ‘burbs was very satisfying start to what I hope will be a series of excursions.

Heading half an hour east-by-north-east out of the city the first destination was Surakhany.  To the casual observer this little town has little of note in it save for its railway station but if you know where to look you can also find a unique Zoroastrian fire temple.  I have mentioned in the past that Azerbaijan loosely translates as ‘land of fire’ and this temple (constructed in the sixth or the thirteenth century depending on who you believe) is living proof of how the territory earned that name: it is built on a site where natural gas was venting from the ground and set aflame (the pocket of gas has since run out and been replaced by a piped supply but after so many centuries who is complaining?).  The outer perimeter of the stone-brick walls is probably around fifty metres square and as those walls are built to incorporate rooms the inner courtyard is around forty metres square.  The centrepiece of this is another stone-brick edifice – about five metres square this time – housing the principal flame in a hearth with a ten metre high roof supported by corner pillars (there is what looks like a well just to one side where a second flame burns).  The rooms were obviously used to house priests, pilgrims, their stores and their beasts of burden and now they contain model figures and furnishings to depict this in a vaguely museum style.  Both the centrepiece and the surrounding courtyard walls bear numerous pieces of allegedly Sanskrit inscription.  In addition the centrepiece bears a stone with an assortment of symbols including a swastika.  My limited knowledge of religious history attributes the ‘original’ swastika to the Hindu faith (I believe the Nazis drew their version to ‘rotate’ in the opposite direction) and I came across a few in Nepal so perhaps I my recollection is correct.  This might therefore date the carving I was looking at to the nineteenth century when – according to “the book” – some Hindi-speaking Parsees came to build a Zoroastrian monastery on the site of what was at that time a virtually collapsed temple.  In turn in might follow that the ‘Sanskrit’ script is far more recent too.  A fascinating place to visit.

Second stop was a couple of miles down the road: the town of Amirajan.  In olden times the town is reputed to have produced some very fine carpets, some of which survive on display in the city’s Carpet Museum.  Arguably more impressive is the mosque built there by Muxtarov – a wealthy resident during the first oil boom – and it was the mosque that drew my attention.  Its exterior appears curiously bluff and flat; almost like it was built within the buildings that crowd around it rather than vice versa – but its interior is a marvellous labour of love: a huge domed room with ornate relief patterns stretching across virtually every stone.  I noted with interest that the upper rose windows carried a six-pointed star-of-David design rather than the more traditionally Muslim eight-pointed star that adorned the lower windows.  The man who as far as I could tell performed the equivalent role of verger opined that the upper windows might have been fitted by Jewish workmen during some restoration work.  Curious humour if so; who knows…?

It was an illuminating afternoon’s exploring that most definitely put the lie to the claim that nothing interesting could be found close to Baku.  The rough roads of Amirajan also came close to putting a dent in the underside of the Vectra I was driving so I am feeling increasingly like I am making the right choice in my efforts to obtain a Niva.  With luck I will write again soon with good news about the vehicle and then with joyful tales of travels in the far-flung countryside.


Gadding about

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.


A catch-up and a knees-up

Baku, Monday 30th April 2007

If time does indeed fly then I would imagine it has recently turned its back on scheduled services and invested in a very fast private jet with long range fuel tanks.  The month is about to end and I have yet to write a jot about it; time to catch up a bit methinks…

Luckily there is not a great deal to write about for the first half of the month as much of my non-working time after returning from Nepal was divided between catching up on sleep and attempting to capture the fabulous trip in words and phrases that would give it suitable justification.  Approaching mid-month we come to a most enjoyable night out occasioned by the visit of Gunel: a London-based friend of my friend-cum-line-manager, Farah, who had come back to Azerbaijan for a few days to visit family and friends (readers who were with me during last New Year’s Eve may recall both women visiting the party during the latter part of the proceedings).  Obviously it was a joy to catch up with Gunel and others but there was the additional pleasure of meeting her friend, Asad, who turned out to be passionately keen on electronic dance music.  We chatted all night and have started exchanging music; judging by what I have listened to so far I think we are in for a fruitful friendship.

Other notable moments include the evening during which a group of us were introduced to Baku’s brand new, one and only pole dancing club (the performers did not get stripped but when the bill arrived we most certainly did) and the night where I saw a group of visiting French musicians perform a set of ‘famous’ French songs followed by a set of Greek ones (slightly bizarre) before being taken to my second karaoke experience in Baku (brighter than the last one but with an even crazier selection of songs in English to choose from – I refrained from warbling).  By this stage we have reached last week, after which I can report a second and successful jam with David (we might actually have to form a band if we’re not careful) and a brief re-enactment of “The Great Egg Race” that involved four teams each trying to construct an edifice from spaghetti and marshmallows that would support a hard-boiled egg for one minute; highest structure wins (we emphatically did not but a jolly good time was had by all).

All of which brings us to last weekend: a fine, mother’s-best cake of a time if ever there was one and with a most marvellous cherry on the top of it too.  It was my birthday on Saturday and being a person who considers such occasions to be well worth celebrating I had spent some time trying make some plans.  I did not feel I had done a particularly good job but seeing as everything went smoothly in spite of the mild shock to the system I experienced on Friday afternoon I guess I had done well enough.  The shock was provided by my brother, Neil, who telephoned me out of the blue to blithely announce that he had arrived unannounced at Baku airport and was due to arrive in the city centre very soon.  Touched, astonished, flabbergasted – it is difficult to fully describe my feelings at that moment in time.  I was extremely happy though, that’s for sure.

Having directed Neil to a suitable landmark in the city I was less happy with the results of my attempts to get immediate transport from the Terminal to central Baku but I made it eventually and was greeted with a shower of kisses on behalf of friends and family in England (thank you all, you know who you are).  After a quick visit to my apartment to drop off bags we then set off to join colleagues of mine for a leaving-do that encompassed some surprisingly authentic German cuisine and a rather large volume of beer (I am told that the leaving colleague managed to miss his flight the following morning).

After a late rise and a late breakfast on Saturday we struck out into the countryside (I am most fortunate to have legal papers to enable a car-share now) and I enjoyed a sunny afternoon drive taking Neil to the mud volcanoes (see posting of 16/04/07 for details of the route and environs).  I had arranged pre-dinner drinks at City Lights Bar for six in the evening and managed to walk in (alongside two of my guests) well after half past the hour: not an impressive display of punctuality but thankfully excusable.  A table was reserved at Trattoria Olivo for seven o’clock and our full party met there for a what in terms of company was a great meal while in terms of food it was a mildly odd one for me (I had never tasted a curry-flavoured lasagne in my life until that evening).  The majority of us then adjourned to Vespucci – the new bar/restaurant/club run by friends who have recently departed The Philarmonic (sic – see posting of 12/03/07 for details) – and chatted our way into the wee hours over drinks, pool and pistachio nuts.  By the time I finally closed my eyes to the light of dawn and caught a few hours’ sleep I had spent a marvellous day in excellent company and enjoyed myself thoroughly.  To all who sent cards, sent e-mails, sent best wishes, gave presents and joined in the celebrations: a heart-felt thank you.

Spot the siblings… (picture courtesy of Leyla Alakbarova)

Late breakfast at Mozart’s Café provided the mixed experience of a good meal tinged with that fascinating-like-a-car-crash feeling as we ate our omelettes and toast to a sound-track including such songs as Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” being covered in a pseudo Turkish traditional style; imagine Mike Flowers Pops from Ankara.  Next was a brisk drive to the airport and an all-to-early farewell to Neil as he had to get back to London for Monday.  From there a sun-bathed drive to Mardakan beach and on round the coast back to Baku helped revive the spirits as I reflected upon a highly engaging forty-eight hours.  On such occasions the passage of time does not look quite as bad and I actually enjoy the process of becoming older.  Is it because I still have a way to go before I grow up…?  “Time waits for no man” as they say.


Business as usual (sort of)

Back to writing about dear old Baku from this point forward: the Nepal chapters are now sporting a few photographs and the archive is fully loaded.  Apologies to subscribers who apparently will have received an e-mail for each of the archive postings despite their being historically dated – that will have been a fair number of e-mails.

It looks like Spring might finally have arrived in Baku (and about time too).  The warmth and sunshine of the weekend has not been instantly replaced by gale-force winds and rain on Monday this week as it was the last few.  At time of writing it is a clear, still Tuesday morning with blue skies and sunshine; long may it continue.

The next “BakuUpdate” is going to be the first one to include a photograph from its moment of publication.  I would like to think that the picture will be included in the email to subscribers and would be grateful if you could drop a note back to let me know.  On with the posting…