See http://day.az/news/society/90279.html for pictures on a local news site (and text in Russian).
See http://day.az/news/society/90279.html for pictures on a local news site (and text in Russian).
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 www.englishmanabroad.com – 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.
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.