Posted: 10/3/2009


     Three-thirty in the morning and I wake up to the noise of 17 Dutch tourists arriving in the middle of the night. Why must they wear clogs and have a herd of elephants with them?   7.00am and I catch the airport bus, only US 20 cents. On board are boxes of grapes, tomatoes, pears and 36" Osrama fluerescent strip lights, plus passengers on the way to work, packed like sardines getting on and off the whole 30 minute journey.

     Not much action at the airport. I look at the departures board and only 6 flights daily in a space age building. I take the Air Azerbaijan prop plane 70 minutes to Baku, Azerbaijan the oil boom town on the Caspian Sea. No airline magazine, so I try and read Isvestia, the Moscow newspaper, a day old. On the left are the High Caucasus mountains bordering Russia and snow capped. Across from me is Faye from La Jolla, who lives down the same street from Mary and Derek Armstrong, my friends.

      Next to me is a talkative Azer businessman for Anglo-American Tobacco educated at Univ of Maine and Yale Business school. VERY helpful. After I pay $100.00 for a visa at the Heyda Aliyen International Airport he bargains for a taxi to town for the 3 of us and the driver finds a nice 8 room family run hotel in the walled Old City, Guest House Inn, 200 metres from the Caspian Sea and 100 metres from the Maiden Tower, the centre of old town, and near the Hungarian Embassy.  We are welcomed with a pot of tea, which is a nice thought. The Azer language is very similar to Turkish and is in the Latin script, and easier to read after the flowery Georgian script.

     We stroll along the promenade which is about 100 metres wide with gardens, photographers, kids on plastic mini cars, cafes, souvenir sellars and fishermen on the piers. There is the giant wedding cake style Dom Soviet or Government House with a huge parade square that can be lit up by the 4 giant floodlights.  Everywhere huge new gleaming buildings, convention centres, western hotels, apartment blocks, and on the streets, exchange shops and cell phone stores.

     One side street of less then 100 metres I count 24 stores and 22 of them are different cell phone companies and the other exchange places.  The local money, manat, has been changed 4 years ago by a factor of 5,000 so you don't need a wheel barrow to carry cash for a cup of tea. 100 manats divided into 100 qapiqs. Now you know.

     In 1905, 50% of world oil was from Baku and the Germans tried to take the city during WW II. No chance, but they do have a German, Bertie Vogts, as national soccer coach. I call Orkhan at the AFFA soccer federation but the team is training in Germany for the big home match on Oct 14 v  Andriy Arshevin and Russia, and all top league matches for the weekend are cancelled.

     In the shade of plane trees old guys are playing NARD, an Azeri form of backgammon, and hanging on walls are silk scarves and carpets for sale, and those bushy Caucasian white or brown long fur hats.  Everywhere there are statues and buildings commemorating the great leader, Heydar Alyev although he died 5 years ago. He rose from running the local KGB in Soviet times and was the first and only Azeri to serve in The Politburo.  He became an autocratic President of a new, independent country, and after passing along to 'The Great Kremlin in the Sky', his son Ilham is in charge, plus his gorgeous wife Mehriba, a sort of Eva Peron with money from her foundation to hand out across the land.

    I take the No 20 bus for 30 cents, half an hour south along the coast road, on the way to Iran, and stop to take photos of theoff shore oil wells, which featured in the opening scenes of 'THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH', the James Bond movie of 1999 with Pierce Brosman, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane etc.  Further off the coast 15 minutes by helicopter and 6 hours by sea is a whole city of oil platforms, elevated roads and a semi-permanent population of about 3,500, also featured in the same movie.