Not so high-rise

The collapse of sixteen storey building yesterday here in Baku has apparently been mentioned on some international news services.  Mercifully it was an unfinished building with no inhabitants and the construction workers were finishing a shift at the time so casualties while as yet unconfirmed are few.  While I used to live in a building barely one hundred metres away from this one I can assure friends and family who may have heard about the event that I am safe and well.

Reaction is strong amongst those of us who have discussed the event thus far (it is early in the working day at time of writing).  Not just in conversation but in the press there have been numerous comments criticising lapses in standards during Baku’s recent building boom.  This major bust is seen by many as inevitable but whether or not it will precipitate any significant change for the better is debatable.

A new law limiting all new buildings to twelve storeys has been mentioned but how strictly it will be adhered to is anyone’s guess.  Within the large number of new construction projects rush-started in an attempt to beat the introduction date of this law, it is possible that there are several particularly risky buildings that have suffered further from the excessive haste.  This may well have been one of them.  If there is any further significant news on the subject I will let you know.

See for pictures on a local news site (and text in Russian).

Holidays on the Highways

First things first, a belated but very Happy Bank Holiday to all readers in England.  I believe that in London if nowhere else the Isles’ unremitting grey and damp weather of the last goodness-knows-how-long has given way to three glorious days of sunshine in a most un-bank holiday-like manner – hurrah.

While bank holiday Mondays do not exist here I have ‘celebrated’ nonetheless with a much needed haircut.  No more stories to relate involving sadistic chairs and surgeons’ masks; this is the second time I have visited this particular chap since he was recommended to me and he is superb.  True, he is the first barber to attack me with a nose-hair trimmer (perfectionism on his part rather than excessive hirsuteness on mine, I like to think) and his liking for straight-razoring every last millimetre round the back can bring on Reservoir Dogs visions as he nears the ears but the results after half an hour’s cut and wash are most satisfying.  He is also the first hair professional I have met who can use a hairdryer on me without the results looking like the product of an illicit union between a Hardwick sheep and a hedgehog.

One thing I have had the opportunity to share with Bank Holiday England is ridiculous traffic.  The main road between Baku and the north coast of the peninsula is a popular one and during my navigations of it at various hours during this weekend I have seen an impressive range of vehicular displays.

Sunday night on the final straight approaching city limits was a fine example of how you don’t even need the traditional holiday road-works to create mayhem, just a little impatience.  That particular stretch of the road is three lanes in both directions divided by nothing more than a line of white paint.  The roundabout with traffic lights at the edge of town was causing a city-bound tailback in the Sunday night rush hour so numerous impatient drivers decided to execute one of their favourite manoeuvres: cross to the opposite carriageway and try to pass the queues.

This sort of driving does not elicit the sort of outraged hooting and flashing response from other drivers that one might expect; indeed it seems accepted as normal.  For the first time I can recall I was happy to see the presence of the DYP (State Traffic Police) as they soon put a stop to the game by parking several units in the middle of the road with blue lights flashing and shouting at miscreants through their loudly amplified microphones.  Had they not matters might easily have escalated to the level I witnessed on the way home from work a few days previously.

Approaching city limits from the south we hit solid traffic a few hundred yards short of a roundabout and simply stopped moving.  My colleagues and I eventually got out of the car and walked.  On our side of the roundabout was a mass of vehicles across the full width of the tarmac heading into town.  Once we crossed the roundabout we saw a mass of vehicles across the full width of the tarmac heading out of town.  The third road joining the roundabout was invisible through the mass of static metal but probably looked little better.  No police roadblock was visible (indeed police cars sitting in the jam were decidedly not getting involved in the situation) and neither road-works nor accident could be seen as a possible cause.  It looked like the mess had been precipitated simply by a case of mass impatience.  The poor driver we had left with the car was stuck there for a further two hours.

At the time that particular incident was blamed on the presence of a certain Mr. Mahmoud Akhmadinejad.  Earlier that afternoon it had been announced that the following day would see many of the city’s major roads “restricted” (for which read: closed) from 8am until 12pm while the Iranian president paid a visit, that southern trunk road being one of them.  As stated above, the mayhem at the roundabout appeared to bear no relation to any formal intervention but to many people the excuse seemed a good one at the time.

Readers with an interest in international politics might be interested to know why Mr. Akhmadinejad was visiting his northerly neighbours.  Something I have read in the Baku Post (a slim English language weekly paper) but have not seen or heard elsewhere is that Iran’s nuclear program is due to be discussed at a forthcoming UN General Assembly and that Mr. Akhmadinejad is touring nearby countries to drum up support.

The Baku Post quotes an “Azerbaijani independent politician” (name supplied) as saying that “Azerbaijan will back Iran”.  My limited knowledge of the local political arena raises some queries in reaction to this report.  Firstly, I remember reading reports during Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections of 2005 stating that both George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin had written letters to Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, showing their support at the time (a seemingly contrary moment of agreement between old enemies in itself).  Bearing in mind the American premier’s current relationship with his Iranian counterpart (at least the version reported by most ‘western’ news outlets), is this not a slight conflict of interests?

Secondly, the reaction to that traffic jam – insignificant as it may appear on the global political map – exemplifies what I have seen to be a degree of friction between Azerbaijan and the neighbours down south (to no small extent due in part, I would imagine, to the drastic re-drawing of national borders that saw Azerbaijan’s land mass shrink to Iran’s gain not so long ago).  How readily would these two states genuinely see eye to eye?

There is of course much to read between the lines of a news report.  This is neither the time nor the place for me to be doing so at any length but your comments are most welcome as always.

Street- and Night- Life Snippet

The brief stroll from the bus drop-off point to my apartment has just been punctuated by an encounter with an old acquaintance.  Regular readers with particularly sharp memories may recall my writing last September about Rob: an expat beggar who accosted me near the Hyatt buildings and lightened me by a couple of Manats with his sob-story about an unfortunate night in a sauna with a couple of women who robbed him.  It seems that Rob has moved down to the Maiden’s Tower end of town and changed his story a little.

Our second meeting was actually early in the morning several weeks ago.  I was in a hurry to get to work, he was using a tired variation of the same hook line and I managed to make a polite but firm getaway, pockets untouched.  This time around I was moving slower in the other direction and Rob must have felt he had the measure of his quarry.  We stood there talking for quite some time; I parted with some more money; I allegedly will never be asked to do so again.  Am I a good person or just a dumb fool?  The latter and his money are soon parted.

It would appear that the street life of Baku is evolving just as fast as the streets themselves.  Last Saturday night I had the occasion to step out by myself for the first time in many moons.  After dinner I had stopped at the Shark Bar (named after an energy drink, not the slang English verb) to enjoy a leisurely pint while their band played rather well and I was about to leave when two old colleagues from the offshore project walked in.  We became a triumvirate and left after an other drink.

Stepping out onto the street a few paces behind the other two I was surprised to see a young woman had joined them, seemingly from out of nowhere.  As I caught up and came within earshot of the conversation it became clear that the she was a professional woman tendering business: not something that I had ever seen done on the city’s streets before and certainly not while walking alongside a fast-moving ‘client’.  After a couple of hundred yards she accepted the repeated refusals and dissolved into the shadows as immediately as she had appeared.

Our next stop was the Corner Bar – a bustling place with a lively atmosphere but a far less accomplished band – and before I knew it I had been accosted by a woman with a very intent look in her eyes.  Politely neutral small talk seemed to keep her at bay while we three chaps supped up and chipped off but again to my surprise, she chose to follow us out.

The destination was Finnegan’s – a bar I have written about on more than one occasion – and I was further surprised when she walked right in there with us.  According to the old rules she was walking into other women’s controlled territory and was inviting a serious rebuke; apparently no longer.

My companions had spent much of the inter-bar walk trying to persuade her that I was homosexual but she appeared to be having none of it.  As we walked into the bar I noticed that the band’s bass player was not present for some reason so I walked up, grabbed his instrument and played two numbers.  She sat very close and stared in a mildly disconcerting manner for the first song but had disappeared into thin air by the end of the second.  Peace reigned and our night continued and concluded without further drama.

Prior to that little evening of education I made an altogether different and more pleasant discovery.  Friday night saw me DJ-ing at a colleague’s house party celebrating her birthday.  My aural performance was far from scintillating as I have left my pop-party selection in London but visually I certainly entertained as Sister Bliss (no offence intended to the proper DJ of the same name) once the birthday girl’s cousins had squeezed me into a pukka sister’s tunic and trimmings to fit the fancy dress theme.

Two of the guests that evening were a new colleague, Rachel and her husband, Andrew who arrived in Baku a few days ago.  Rachel and I met through sharing a car to and from the Terminal for a couple of weeks and we had soon got chatting about various aspects of city life.  She mentioned during one conversation that Andrew was planning to buy a car once he had arrived in Baku and while researching the subject in England he had read a story on some website about the experience.  Strangely enough, it soon transpired that the website was – who would have thought?  Andrew is such a fine fellow too.  According to the statistics tool, the site has an understandably small number of hits per week but to actually meet one of those few readers who are outside my circle of family and friends: what an unexpected pleasure – and to find that my scribblings have been of some use too…  Hats off once more to my man in Chicago for making me go online in the first place.

Meanwhile: Mountains, Meals and Meanders

More musings on the last few weeks’ events in an attempt to capture the highlights once and for all.  Starting chronologically takes us to Sheki – the second ‘big trip’ out of the city.

When a public holiday fell on a Friday, a group of us decided to head north-west into the mountains for the long weekend and ‘get away from it all.’  Our three-car convoy left Baku mid-morning and three hours later we were happily settled into late breakfast at a shaded terrace table high up a hillside, overlooking the plains we had just crossed.  The meal portended as well as the scenery: bread, butter, honey, cheese and gaymar (similar to yoghurt but less tangy) all vitally fresh and flavoursome.

By mid-afternoon we had arrived at our lodgings: capacious and well-appointed pine wood cabins nestling in a tree-filled valley at the foot of the first snow-capped mountain I had seen in Azerbaijan.  The cabins formed part of a large resort comprising several dozen buildings spread out widely amongst the trunks of a coniferous plantation.  As we were travelling well before high season we virtually had the place to ourselves but even with a fuller guest list I imagine the atmosphere can maintain a good balance between party and private.

There is a green hill far away…

Being the one non-Azeri in the group I had happily followed my friends’ choice of accommodation as the local grapevine is far more up to date and reliable than any book or website I would ever find and boy did they do well.  The idyllic setting was complemented by an atmospheric change in traffic (mostly farmers on horseback and soldiers on border patrol, lest we forget what was over the mountains) and some superb catering.  Nothing fancy, just some of the best raw produce never tasted in modern England: indescribable butter, tomatoes so red and sweet they would humble a Sambuca-dipped Ferrari, breakfast eggs with yolks gold enough to rival the rising sun, the list could go on…  …and of course we did not disappear into the wilderness without packing a certain few supplies of our own: the evenings under the trees were most convivial…

While we were staying just beyond the outskirts of Sheki-proper, the city itself is a place rich in history with some notable sights to see and I was not about to ignore all that.  Very close to where we were staying is an Albanian church with roots going back many centuries.  I have not read enough to say with certainty whether or not these Albanians bear any relations to the Albania currently existing a bit further west into Europe but one thing is for sure, these people were tall.  Part of the exhibition at the church is a selection of excavated tombs surrounding it.  Pride of place is reserved for a skeleton named Lucy: a woman who is calculated to have died at the age of thirty-five and a height of seven foot two.

The Albanian Church at Sheki – a treasure hiding in the hills

Those tombs are preserved within an immaculately kept walled garden containing some beautiful rose bushes and a particularly ancient-looking tree.  Set within the wall’s inner surface are deep hollows which have been glassed as display cases and show models of the church as it developed over the years.  The woman who gave us a quick guided tour of the display was clearly passionate about her subject but became doubly so when we reached cases depicting a certain period.  For a while the church was claimed as Armenian by Armenia and modifications were made.  Later research proved this to be an error and further modification work took place.  Our guide’s tone of voice and body language spoke as much as her words if not more so during this part of the tour.

The Khan’s Palace at Sheki

Like Baku, Sheki has an ancient, walled city at its heart and where Baku has the Shirvanshah’s palace, Sheki has the Khan’s palace.  As the name suggests, it was the seat of the local ruler during the khanate period of Azerbaijan’s history and it is a magnificent structure.  In this instance size truly does not matter as much as what you do with it: the building being of two storeys and no larger than a pair of generously sized terraced houses in London suburbia.  What you don’t get in your average London ‘burbs pad is the mosaic exterior plus two balconies with multi-faceted reflective ceilings, the interior more paint-adorned than that of the Sistine Chapel and wall-sized stained glass windows throughout, some of which double as sliding doors through to the balconies.  On this occasion being the one non-Azeri in the group was a mild handicap as I did not understand a word of the guide’s speeches but I was more than happy to just walk round, look and wonder.

Of course I can not relate a visit to Sheki without mentioning the famous Sheki paklava, so there it is mentioned (for those who don’t already know: fine pastry, crushed nuts, vermicelli topping and all doused in so much honey/sugar syrup (usually the latter these days) it is sweet enough to probably carry a health warning in the EU – an acquired taste but gorgeous).


A closer look at one of those balconies. The Beauty of the Gardens

During the drive back to Baku we slowed for a roundabout and smelled the unmistakable aroma of fresh-baked bread.  Turning back we sniffed out a bakery with a dough batch six feet across and a fired oven as deep as a long-wheelbase Transit van.  We bought a bread the size of a dustbin lid (they make them flat here) and so fresh it was too hot to carry comfortably in its newspaper wrapper.  It sustained us happily for the rest of the journey.  There would be photographs to accompany this particular tale if it wasn’t for the battery in my camera deciding to give up at the moment the bakers said yes to having their picture taken.  I will go back.

Not long after the Sheki trip I paid a flying visit to England: almost literally flying as it included 1400 miles of driving in ten days and a lot more gadding about besides.  As always I was frustrated not to be able to meet as many people as I wished to but most happy to see those who I did.  Two and a half years into expatriotism (why doesn’t the spell-checker like that one?) I am also discovering that while parts of me will remain forever England, other parts are happy to place as much distance between me and the sceptred isle – in its current BBC-reported condition – as possible.  I plan to cover fewer miles during my next visit and take stock.

In the meantime, summer rolls on.  Courtesy of Nigar and Dima (most excellent hosts in Moscow) I have been introduced to a couple of nights of dacha life.  They have come down to the family dacha in Mardakan (a beach town and retreat on the north side of the peninsula) to chill out for a while and guests are invited.  As I wrote last year, dacha season annually turns the well-to-do of Baku into serious commuters as they go to live outside town for the summer while continuing to go to work in the city each morning.  This may sound like hell to anybody living on the outskirts of a major western European or American city but in Baku it can work.  Traffic here has not yet reached artery-clogging proportions in the mornings and the difference in comfort between the hot, sticky city nights and those of dachas kissed by the sea breezes is substantial.  An experience to enjoy while it is still possible to do so.

This summer I have also managed to partake of the beach season and finally go for a dip in the Caspian.  While there probably are secluded little bays that no one knows about in hidden, far-flung nooks along the coast, beach-lovers within a decent drive of Baku have to be ready to pay for something by the sea: either free access and fees for sun-beds, tables, chairs and parasols or a flat fee at the car park followed by everything laid on.  Some dubious experiences of the former have lead to shrugging acceptance of the latter and even though some might belittle the Caspian as a briny lake, there is still no substitute for playing in the breakers or being on the shores listening to the wind-whipped rollers tumbling in.

Meanwhile: Motoring

Ah, the joys of the open road.  Having bought a car with the express intention of using it to explore the country this summer I am pleased to report that two thousand kilometres into the season, things are looking good.  The Niva and I are getting very well acquainted and between us we make a far happier picture of Anglo-Russian relations than that offered by the countries’ respective premiers at present, even if not necessarily a prettier one.

It probably helps that we tested each other’s limits early on.  Contrary to the many tales I was told prior to purchase, there definitely are places a Niva can not go; I know because I managed to find one during my first major trip out of the city.

Nabran is a peaceful coastal retreat far in the north of the country, not too many miles from the Russian border.  Its beaches while clean and usable are essentially rather grey and disappointing considering the reputation attached to the place.  Far better to stay in a cabin in the nearby stream-laced woodland and enjoy dinner at a secluded restaurant table under the branches accompanied by a muted frog-choir serenade.

Getting there involves a lengthy but enjoyable drive through scenery ranging from the demonic to the divine, in that order.  The next major settlement signposted north of Baku is Sumgayit.  It was an industrial town during Soviet times, built primarily around huge chemical plants.  Many of those plants have closed since independence (and the infant mortality has simultaneously plummeted) but they have not been dismantled.  Even just bypassing the town – I have yet to actually enter it – brings you into contact with the rusting, dilapidating remains of an other world.  Mile upon mile of crumbling pipe-racks run alongside, over and around you, punctuated sporadically by equally aged and decomposing vessels.  I may be too young to have seen Parry’s “dark satanic mills” in all their glory but it is not difficult to imagine how this brown, unpleasant land could be a contemporary comparison.

Fortunately the sights improve significantly with the continuation northward.  The horizon shortens as barren plains are replaced by gentle hills clothed in ever more amounts of greenery.  Open country and agricultural land blend neatly as fields, woodland and orchards pass by.  Traffic starts to be carts pulled by horse, donkey or rotavator as much as it is other cars.  For many miles north of Guba the road is lined on either side by ranks of trees (reminiscent of old France) and in their shade are numerous little stands with people selling strawberries, cherries and other seasonal fruits.  In ‘the book’ Mark Elliott captions a photograph of such an area as “bucolic” – need I say more?

As the mountains draw closer the road crosses rivers with increasing frequency.  At this time of year many of them are wide beds of rock and gravel with water running along in a much narrower channel.  Filled with melt-water from a good winter’s snow they must be wide and tempestuous but in summer they look innocuous.

Three quarters of the way into the journey we came to a road-block.  The bridge ahead had been closed.  There were no signs for a diversion or any information at all except an arrow sign inviting people to descend to the river bank.  Our simple map showed no sign of any alternative roads within the area so we followed the dirt track down to the river and looked for a fording point.  I found a place with numerous tyre tracks on both banks, walked out half way across the water to check the route (it was only three inches deep most of the way) and decided to give it a go.  All was going swimmingly until we were inches from the opposite bank, at which point one front wheel dropped into a hidden pot-hole, the car grounded and we were stuck motionless with a spinning wheel spraying water everywhere.

Several attempts to regain traction – forwards, backwards, high range, low range, with and without diff. lock – made zero progress; help was required.  We had passed a police checkpoint just before the bridge and walked there to seek assistance.  A rough, tough vehicle and tow-rope combo was not forthcoming but a passing man with a calm, have-a-go attitude was.  He walked back to the Niva with us, got behind the wheel, engaged reverse and promptly dropped the clutch at maximum revs.  I cringed at the painful flailing noises coming from the engine but had to rejoice moments later when the spinning wheel miraculously found purchase and the Niva jumped back onto high ground.

Once we had regained the track atop the bank (a small exercise in itself) the man drove us half a mile further down the river to a more reliable fording point he knew of, crossed successfully and swapped back into the passenger seat for the trip back up the river to rejoin the road.   At the bridge he accepted our thanks, asked for nothing and disappeared on his way before I could even offer anything.  The kindness of strangers…

After that impromptu swimming lesson it took several days for the water to fully stop trickling out of the drainage holes in the chassis; at which point the driver’s side electric window decided to stop working (understandable: that side did spend most of an hour under a foot of water).  That was fixed in half an hour with an air hose and some grease, as was the increasingly irritable nature of the alarm that turned out to be due to door switch connections (also submerged); all for a fee of eight Manats at the garage – less than a fiver.

In the days following the trip to Nabran, I have promised to avoid deep water navigation and the Niva has gained electrical calm.  Trips to the far-flung mountains or even just across town are completed with a sense of friendly cooperation; long may it stay that way.