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Published: April 29th 2019
We're back on the road again for three weeks - Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
Baku, Azerbaijan, first, as seen in recent months on both Joanna Lumley's 'Silk Road' and the 'Race Across The World' series, where it was the second check-point, after Delphi.
Just an aside - #1 On the 2nd part of our flight over, from Kiev to Baku, there were 3 ladies (not, by it looked, together) each sporting an identical over-the-bridge of the nose surgical sticking plaster arrangement. Is Kiev perchance the rhinoplasty capital of Eastern Europe?
Just an aside - #2 Now that I've typed the word 'rhinoplasty ' into the draft of this blog on NotepadFree I'm getting Nose Job and Cosmetic surgery adverts when I go to sites from Google!
Azerbaijan regained independence from Russia, the old USSR, in 1991. It is a predominantly Muslim country though you would barely notice.
Around 97% of the population are Muslims, 85% of these are Shia and 15% Sunni. But a poll showed barely 1/5 stating that religion is an important part of their daily lives. This makes Azerbaijan the least religious Muslim-majority country in the world. And visibly? We have
heard a mosque call to prayer, but only the one mosque, and only a couple of times in our 3 days here so far. And as for ladies in burquas or any sort of 'religious' head covering, from full face cover through to just a head scarf, barely a handful.
Baku is on the shore of the Caspian Sea, sitting at 92 feet below sea level. This makes it both the largest below sea level metropolis and the only capital city so placed too.
Azerbaijan's wealth was built upon oil, and around the turn of the 20th century it was amongst the highest oil producers in the world. It has somewhat slipped back to around 23rd in world output, 2 places below the UK! But output per head of population is around 4x that of the UK. And, like Norway, but unlike the UK, they have set up a multi-billion $ sovereign wealth fund to invest their oil monies into large infrastructure projects.
There is also a lot of investment in modern architecture. Most recognisable are the Flame Towers. Three large, curving skyscrapers, on high ground at the city's edge, that look impressive in their own right.
But at night they become huge programmable 'screens', the most familiar of which being made to look like giant flames burning in the night sky. Will try to post a night photo of these in a later blog.
After an unfeasibly late arrival - 01.20 arrival in the morning on Saturday, plus an hour to get through customs - we had booked a room at the airport hotel so we could get some decent kip, before being picked up mid-morning to be taken into town.
On the eastern side of the city is Icherisheher, the Old City, though Icheri Sheher more strictly translates as Inner City. The walls and layout are confidently thought to date back to the 12th century, and possibly - though without dateable evidence - back to the 7th century. The city walls are pretty extant and impressive. And the interior is a maze of few roads and many footpaths. We love places like that. Icherisheher was put onto World Heritage status in 2000. Our guesthouse is in the Old City.
When we booked these three weeks away last Autumn we expected to soak up the sights, see some historical locations, relax..... What we
weren't expecting back then was a F1 Grand Prix. We only found out less than a month ago that we would be in Baku the same weekend as the Baku Grand Prix. And, that it is a street circuit that, as part of its course, goes around the Old City, effectively putting our guesthouse inside the circuit. So the place is buzzing with race goers. But, on the downside some parts of the city are hard to get around, or even closed off eg the sea side park area.
But we are unlikely to ever get to a GP again so we have splashed out on roaming tickets for race day (Sunday).
So Saturday, after settling into our room we just freely wandered around the Old City and beyond into the main city centre and shopping area. Such a contrast to our last trip - India/Delhi. Peaceful, clean, no hassle.... Eg writing some of this blog whilst in Fountains Square waiting for a Free Walking Tour to start. It's pretty immaculate - nicely patterned with black and white pavers - but one area is being jet washed, another bloke is wet mopping the steps and all the corner
Lots of statuary in Baku
But the Cyrillic script means we don't know who they are
edges (next to walls etc) and there is a ride-on wet cleaner zig-zaging across the square too.
Whilst we were out on Saturday we got interviewed by ATV, which we take to mean Azerbaijan TV. They asked where we were from, how we liked the place etc. Shame is that we will never know whether or not it was shown on the TV here.
By chance we came upon the Miniature Book Museum, a curious collection of over 8500 miniature books. The smallest, barely visible as a book even through a magnifier, was around 2 mm square!
Just an aside - #3 There seems to be a 'thing' about identical twins over here. We saw three adult, female, twin pairings on Saturday. And each time they were in, at least, matching clothes. And one particular couple were IDENTICAL as far as we could tell. Hair, glasses, hats, dresses, shoes, socks, handbag, necklace....... everything. (We saw them on race day too. Different outfits from Saturday but still both identical to each other in every detail ).
On Sunday, race day, we headed first for the Carpet Museum. Azerbaijan's carpet industry is listed on the World Heritage 'intangibles'
listing, so they built a museum to it. One of Baku's pieces of modern architecture, loosely designed to look like an unrolling roll of carpet. Fascinating, but there are limits to how many, predominantly red, carpets you can look at at one time/place. But looking closely at the detail work makes you wonder how they develop a pattern or picture over each line barely a mm at a time.
After a brief interlude whilst Paul tried for Glastonbury ticket in the limited resale - the Free Baku WiFi in the parks here is as good as many links in hotels we've stayed in - but he failed, so no Glasto for the first time since 1998 😢 - we went inside the F1 access. The Baku GP essentially is spread out and back along the waterfront. It has the longest/fastest straight on the GP circuit, especially if looked at as 'straight with a kink'. On the Baku course that comes in at a whopping 1.2 kms! (Though one Website claims with a couple of kinks it comes in at 2.2km).
We were in for around 4 hours before race start. Time to have a look around, relax, and
suss out where best to watch from. Our roaming tickets got us trackside but there were many variations in how close you could actually get. Come race time we had settled on a roamers' raised area near the start of the straight, with a limited distant view of a screen so we could keep an overall eye on what was happening. We would have to say that it is probably another of those sports where seeing it on the TV is better, so you can see what happens anywhere on the track.
But the smells - burning clutch, tyre rubber and exhaust - ear shattering noise, and potential neck whiplash as you try to watch the cars as they speed past, makes for a fun experience.
Roaming tickets, the cheapest way in, still cost $100 each, so was fascinating to see how many people inside weren't watching the race at all, but just strolling around. Took many pictures each, but not necessarily many clear ones. As Paul calculated for Pip, if her phone was taking a picture at 1 / 200th of a second the car probably moved about a foot in that time. And Paul's more fancy
camera often detected 'back lit scene" for which it took 3 or 4 separate pics and combined these, giving distinct ghost cars in some photos.
Just an aside #4 - Our friend Steve Amor pointed out that we should say hello to the Azerbaijani Tofiq Bahramov. He was the linesman who in the 1966 World Cup Final told the ref that Geoff Hurst's shot had gone over the line before bouncing back out. Thanks Tofiq.
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