Thursday, 6 March 2014


the arrival

It's Monday evening and dark when we arrive in Baku.  Taxi drivers lurk around the bus and try to lure us away with offers of "London taxi".  In the gloom we can see a line of Hackney Carriages lined up nearby.  We load up the bikes and pedal towards the exit.  In the distance we can see the highway into town on a bridge curling up and away.  Taxi drivers helpfully point the way to go - into the fast-flowing traffic.  Fortunately the main rush-hour is over but we both get a big adrenaline jolt as we hit the main road and find ourselves on a big downhill into the city centre.  We are flying along and luckily the big roads give the chunky 4X4s and buses plenty of room to zoom past.  At a big roundabout we have to turn left and Gayle hesitates as an old car trundles into our path.  But it's only a Lada.  We cut it up.  In this town you have to know your Ladas from your Pajero. 

on the waterfront

the english language teachers

with Joe and Pamela
Pamela and Joe live in the centre in a nice old appartment with their shy and retiring cat, Kedi.  It's six years since we last saw them in Istanbul and they haven't changed.  They are extremely welcoming, relaxed and thoughtful.  We feel so at home with them.  Sometimes people ask us whether we ever feel the need to stay in a luxury hotel on our journey for some 5 star comfort, but being with Joe and Pamela trumps this by a mile.  They are teaching 6th form kids in their foundation year at the Diplomatic Academy which has been upgraded to a university.  This is their second year and it's a great chance for us to talk to them and hear about their experiences in TEFL.  They work full-time but we get together in the evenings and have time at the weekends.

the city

gas is cheap here...
Our days are relaxed here and it's lovely to have the comfort of a lounge and kitchen for cooking different meals.  The only problem is that we can't remember the meals we used to cook at home.  Baku is a busy city and the centre is a notch up on the rest of the towns we have seen in Azerbaijan.  Of course, the oil boom is responsible for this.  The old walled city is still in very good condition and showing signs of restoration.  It managed to survive the Mongol Hordes, unlike other Central Asian cities on the old Silk Road.  Surrounding it are wide avenues and streets lined with grand early 19th century mansions and buildings.  The first oil boom here brought entrepeneurs and businessmen from Europe.  One lasting impact on the downtown area was their desire to have trees and parks.  The land here is barren and infertile so earth and plants all had to be imported.  And water had to be piped in from the mountains to keep the trees and grass growing.  

The city has continued to grow and a second oil boom since independence has brought immense wealth to some.  The signs of this are in the designer shops and the showy new buildings going up all over the place.  There are the three towers that each represent a flame, the largest flagpole in the world down on the promenade. Oh, sorry, the second-largest.  Someone else has pipped it.  Aside form brand-new appartment blocks there's also been a bit of a nifty makeover for some of those ugly Soviet appartment blocks - a sandstone facade with columns, arched balconies, decorative rooflines. The city does look well on it.

the filth

There are wide one-way streets criss-crossing the city and we have been warned to watch out for bad driving.  Pamela and Joe were shown a video nasty of pedestrians being mown down by careless drivers in their big cars.  One day, as we walk down one of the main roads, we cross a small side street and walk into the welcoming arms of a polite policeman who speaks a little English.  After greeting us, he points out an underpass to us and tells us we should have used it.  The penalty for non-use is 20 Manat (about 20 Euros). Are you serious? we ask.  It is obvious the underpass is for crossing the five-lane road, not the silly little side street, but this joker has a uniform and the power.  Can he see our identity cards?  Miraculously, we are carrying our passports because we need to get some photocopies.  He looks through them.  We are conscious that we have not registered our stay in Azerbaijan, a new requirement for tourists who stay longer than 3 days.  The first we heard of this was here in Baku - we have already been here longer than that so we are already too late to register.  There is a potential fine of 400 Euros.  So the policeman's next question makes me feel nauseous: When did we arrive in Azerbaijan?  He nods at the answer and taps something into his mobile phone.  He's using a translator: he is letting us go with a warning.  Our guidebook seems to be right - not much sign of crime here. Obviously the police are far too good at their job.

the flames
the consular official

"You want to visit Uzbekistan? What for?" The consul's question throws us for a moment. "Tourism!" we remember.  He looks at us over his glasses. "Not football?" Gayle replies "I don't like football." "Hmm, no visa for you then."  Oh how we laugh.  You never know in a consulate what you're up against.  This man is a cheery chap who introduces us to his Uzbek-born Azeri secretary.  "She's very intelligent.........when she's asleep" There's a drumroll and cymbal off-stage.  We fill out the forms.  "Come back in seven to ten days"  This time he's not joking.

the twelth man

There's a statue beside the national football stadium in honour of a man who took part in England's 1966 World Cup victory against West Germany.  Without him, England might well have lost.  Not only is there a statue, but they've even named the stadium after him.  His name is Tofiq Behramov, but he is better known as The Russian Linesman. He was Azeri. There is an apocryphal story on Wikipedia which tells that Behramov, when asked why he gave the goal, simply replied "Stalingrad".


the students

Joe and Pamela invite us to give a short presentation to their classes.  The university campus is brand spanking new and the facilities are excellent.  The students we meet are in their foundation year and their university courses will all be in English.  Pamela and Joe teach only the speaking and listening aspect whilst local Azeri teachers teach the reading and writing.  As promised, the students are very well-behaved and respectful.  We get an opportunity to sit in on two of Joe's classes and it's fascinating.  I've been reading about how classrooms were arranged in Classical Greek times - in a horseshoe with the teacher at the back and a place at the front for students to present their arguments - and this is how it is here in Joe's class.  The majority of students are confident and eager to speak,and after we show some photos and give a brief introduction of what we are doing they quiz us.

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