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Published: June 26th 2017
Geo: 40.3834, 49.8932
Time check: 0750 local but 3:50am UK. Dawn broke at around 0700hrs. The sky is blue and tinged with a golden hue. A haze is already gathering over the Caspian Sea just visible from our room on the 8th floor of the Central Park Hotel.
The surrounding buildings are an eclectic mix of rather ornate white high rise Middle Eastern style apartments interspersed with older Russian style colonial properties sporting little domes and pointy spires. First impressions of the City are one of an oil boom fuelled benevolent oligarchy. The President's name is festooned on every concert hall, sports stadium and cultural centre. Last night we passed along magnificent boulevards lined with fountains and topiary. The state run petrol station are works of art in themselves........not a Wild Bean Cafe in sight!
A quick glance at the atlas shows that we are about 100 miles north of Iran and not far from Syria! We are about 1000 miles east of Istanbul and Mother Russia is to our North.......in fact Azerbaijan was an outpost of the Soviet Empire until 1992. During WW2 Nazi Germany were desperate to control this area due to to abundance of oil...but failed due to a slight
hold up at Stalingrad which in fact heralded the downfall of Mr H........
We were met last night by Gurban our chirpy guide. He about 5' 5" is in his early 60's and "bursting" with interesting facts and figures. Clearly proud of his country, he was at pains to point out that although 80% Muslim, Azerbaijan has embraced a secular way of liberal life. Good news! He was at pains to explain that he was a research historian and also qualified lawyer......so why was he up all night meeting and greeting semi retired Brits intent on blowing their Pension Pots on quasi educational holidays to places they cannot even pronounce.......?..
10:30hrs After a decent breakfast consisting of Halal Spam, egg Pizza washed down bright with flourescent green apple juice , we set off into deepest and darkest Baku! We had packed beads and mirrors for the locals and were even prepared to show them how matches could transform their lives.....wrong.......no seriously folks.........we knew that Baku has been a major City since the oil boom in the 1860's but we were not ready for the amazing architecture and sheer splendour that awaited us. We strolled down boulevards lined with magnificent buildings and trees
and eventually found our way to the waterfront and The Caspian Sea. Baku and indeed Azerbaijan is reclaiming it's identity after centuries of being stamped on by neighbours and of course Russia. Gone are the ubiquitous statues of Lenin and Kirov only to replaced by ones of obscure poets.
Oil is the economic driver and so long as this lasts, so will this beacon of civilisation which is worryingly surrounded by less benevolent forces.
THE GROUP......over the last 18 or so years we have travelled on many group trips. Candace our good friend in Boston has what she calls the "2 week rule". The first few days are spent chatting away merrily.....sharing the odd life storey and perhaps confiding our innermost secrets with someone you barely know. By week two, the novelty is wearing off and you are getting fed up with half of them......this turns into abject hatred and total loathing during the last two days.......culminating in law suits and death threats by day 14. So far so good..........
Sunday was spent on a really great City Tour half of which consisted eating a slap up Azerbaijani lunch consisting of cheese, beef stew and flat bread. Some of the more mature
folk were already dozing off by the time we arrived at the Panoramic view point......a quick tour of the "palace" followed where we were crammed with useful facts non of which I can accurately recall............
After an interesting discussion with one of the group about the merits of Dr Scholl shoe inserts when walking on cobbles we descended back through the UNESCO Old Town full of little streets lined with little nick nack shops and buildings with little wooden balconies. It was then back to our hotel for a well earned "Ballantines" and ginger ale. We normally judge the foreignness of a destination on the ease or difficulty in finding Schweppes ginger ale.....today it was discovered lurking in a chiller unit 200m from our hotel within 10 minutes.......
A great day!
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