Monday, May 2, 2011

Visit to Azerbaijan

It was a fairly arduous journey to Baku, mainly due to a long and uncomfortable layover in Dubai Airport Terminal 1 (see photo), which was largely populated by migrant workers--various nationalities in waves over the wee hours of the night: lines of workers bound for Bangladesh, Kabul, Lucknow, Baghdad. Fascinating, really. What a strange world we live in where people venture to what might as well be another planet to make enough money to feed their children, whom they rarely get to see.

The plane from Dubai to Baku was surprisingly full. Dubai is THE hot shopping mecca, apparently. We were delayed taking off because it took a long time to load up all the TVs--this was announced over the PA. Such interesting looking people, Azeris. Strong cheekbones, long noses, brown eyes mostly but also green, and blue. The flight path crossed Iran, some large hills, some flat plains, more brown than I would have imagined. We have our first glimpse of the Caspian as we descend in to Baku, water as far as you can see. Landing in a strong wind and there is applause. There are lot of stone houses that look Ottoman style, with red or green roofs.

General chaos in the airport arrival line made it feel like home :-). The luggage carousel does indeed hold a conspicuous number of large TVs. We miss an opportunity to take a photo of a suitcase handle with attached baggage tag, unattached to anything else--a classic. Stepping outside the airport door the first car we see is a white Bentley, the second an old (?) black Lada. We travel a modern highway, with painted lines. Traffic is civil. There is even a sign in the BP-provided car advising us to use our seatbelts. Lots of construction. Old bullding next to dramatic large new ones. How can there be two million people in this city? A large footprint, far less dense than Beirut.

Later, walking, and at times, being blown down, the street, T points out that we have seen almost no headscarves in this 95% Shia country. Fascinating. I may end up going scarved myself as I find the wind blowing my hair in my face to the point where I really can't see. I find myself evaluating the few hats I see for their staying power in wind. The wind will take some getting used to, but they say it isn't constant, thank God. "Baku" means windy city.

People do smile here, contrary to what the guidebook says.

The school is in a large, gated, upscale residential community that looks a lot like the US. The teachers don't live here, thankfully, but in or near downtown in various apartments. If we are really lucky we will have a place with a view of the Caspian Sea. The school is in a pleasant prefab building with lots of light and ample space. 500 students. I met the ESL staff and said I would be happy to sub and tey seemed interested. And private tutoring opportunities look good.

The learning curve is steep. At a restaurant with a set lunch menu drink choices included Pepsi and water. We chose water, and they opened a liter bottle with bubbles for us, poured one small glass, and set it aside. During the meal we poured more. On the bill appeared a 5 manat ($6.50) charge for water. We complained, and were told that only the one small glass was included in the set menu.

Water is dearer than oil, I think, but later we learn that oil is expensive here too. They are major producers and exporters, but there are no refineries here. I suspect that may be true in many resource rich countries.

What can oil wealth do for your country? Public parks, loads of them, nearly every one with a working and clean fountain, plenty of imaginatively designed benches (good because it is strictly forbidden to walk on or sit on the grass), and lots of public art. Massive new construction, sandblast-clean old buildings, a modern shopping center along wide seaside walkway. Cheap and efficient public transport (drool, America).

Prices are significantly higher than in Beirut, for most food including fruits and vegetables, the choice of which seems more limited than Lebanon :-(. And we have already gained five pounds here, on a diet heavy in meat (oddly, lots of pork!), cheese, cream, pastries, and beer, which is everywhere, along with vodka. There is worse to be had by drinking bottled water, though. Our Baku hosts reported they had suffered from blood in the urine, which a physician attributed to bottled water. They now filter the bottled water through a Britta pitcher. The water from the tap smells of sulphur...

There is fabulous bread, white and brown. Cheap.

We took the overnight train to Seki, a picturesque town at the foot of the Caucasus, on the Silk Road. The train was comfortable enough, ancient but with a spacious compartment for two (1st class--2nd has 4 berths), with clean linens and foam pads laid over old seats, and even a carpet on the floor. No food service. At Seki we stayed in the Karavanseray--old resting place for caravans passing through. Marvelous old stone place, with a room thankfully well heated--it is chilly here and I bundle in my winter jacket, scarf and gloves, two pairs of socks. We bus and walk to the village of Kish, and a restored Albanian Caucasus church, whose site was first used for worship in the 1st century. The Norwegian government sponsored restoration of the church, as there is some belief that Norwegians originally came from this area. There are photos of Thor Heyerdal visiting. He is the chief theorist on the Azeri-Norwegian connection.

Back in Beirut, I am finding a change of this magnitude exhilarating. It colors, favorably, my remaining time in Lebanon. I feel more attuned to what each place has to offer. I will certainly be stuffing myself with the incomparable Lebanese mezze meals every chance I get here, and am already planning to return for a visit next Spring to see friends (and stuff with mezze anew J ). Just two months left.

Hardly anyone speaks English in Azerbaijan. It is going to be a real challenge, and I will need to get in to a language school ASAP. The only English-speaking people we ran into outside of school were waiters at a pub catering to foreigners and some Indian shopkeepers. Learning Russian would be very practical, as everyone over 20 speaks it speaks it and it is useful regionally. But I will study Azeri, the PC choice that makes people delighted and may have some use in Turkey, at least.

Similarities to Beirut

  • Fashion channel on TV

  • Lots of street cats

  • High heels

  • Security presence, though not as much, and no visible guns


  • Smooth sidewalks

  • Parks!

  • Few motor bikes

  • No honking taxis

Baku scene

T on metro escalator

One of the Baku parks

And another

Billboard In Sheki, featuring the president

Tom exiting the Karavansaray Hotel in Sheki