Thursday, 11 June 2020

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Baku, Azerbaijan | May 2015

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | If you make your way eastwards from Turkey you'll arive in Azerbaijan, its Turkic brother. The countries share many cultural and linguistic characteristics and was described as ‘one country, two nations’ by former president, Heydar Aliyev. I travelled to Azerbajan way back in 2015 to teach in a school for two weeks along with three other teachers; Lewis, Ana-Maria, and John. Given the delay in writing this, memories have now began to fade or become skewed and out of order.

The day before our arrival, we all met for the first time in the departure terminal at Heathrow along with a representative from the company who had our passports holding our visas giving us access to the country. In addition to the passports, he gave us all our teaching materials and a mountain of cookies which were gifts for our Azeri hosts to collectively squeeze into our tiny cases. After some repacking and squeezing, we managed to secure everything inside and zip them closed. I can't guarantee the cookies made it in one piece! As a thank you, and perhaps because he knew what we were about to experience, our company rep gave us £20 to get some drinks in the departure lounge before we boarded.

I was excited as we boarded the aircraft. Not only because I was about to go into a new country, but we were flying on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. An aircraft I had never flown on and I was looking forward to trying out their tinting windows which black out at the press of a button. Sometimes, it's all about relishing in the small pleasures in life! Of course I didn't think about the battery fires which plagued the aircraft shortly after its launch. Another pleasant surprise was we were able to secure whole rows to ourselves as the flight incredibly light on passengers.

We arrived in Azerbaijan early on Sunday morning and were soon off the plane joining the immigratioin queue with the naturally accompanied rise in heart rate. Even though I've not done anything wrong, or intend to do something wrong, these checks always make me feel as though I'm guilty of something. Although we had visas, did we have the right visas, would we be turned away for some reason or singled out for interrogation and strip search. We got through immigration, grabbed our bags and made our way out in the arrival hall. The airport was quiet, a hundful of passengers and staff preparing for arrivals for the European Games which were taking place in just under two weeks.

Our driver met us and took us out through the crowds to his car. We squeezed ourselves and our bags into the car and we were soon on the wide smooth road leading away from the airport towards where we'd call 'home' for the next couple of weeks. My memories of that journey are of construction, large apartment blocks springing up on both sides of the wide highway and although the car we were driving in had clearly seen better days, the driver didn't fear placing his foot to the floor. At one point I seem to remember us nearly hitting a street sweeper.

The New Baku Hotel was one of those spacious places which are fully equiped to hold business conferences. Rooms were sizeable and somewhat grand in nature with a bed and bathroom you could get lost in. Staff were incredibly welcoming and friendly. We had a rest and got our things together whilst holding a brief meeting about the week ahead and orgaanised what we were going to do the following morning at school.

A benefit of this job is you get to spend some time exploring the area in which we were working. As we arrived in the morning, we had a great opportunity to head into the city and do a little bit of exploration. You have to take any opportunity you can to see and experience as much as you can, especially in places where you're unlikely to return. We got a bus into the centre of Baku and found ourselves a restaurant within the fortified walls of the old city of Baku. This is where we got our first taste of the country and the city.

Azerbaijan was founded in 1918 and was the first Muslim majority country to become a secular democratic society. Unfortunately independence didn’t last long as they soon surrendered to the Bolsheviks in 1920 and swiftly incorporated into the USSR in 1922. Since gaining its independence from the former USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan has been working hard to establish itself on the world map using its richness of natural resources found in the Caspian Sea which amounts to 80% of the country’s economy.

Sitting 28 metres below sea level, Baku is the lowest lying national capital in the world and is an example of the country’s ambition. The city sits in two vastly different eras. The UNESCO world heritage site of the old city is peaceful, with a few cafes, shops, people on the streets playing chess, and narrow alleys dominated by the 12th century Maiden Tower from which you  can get some excellent panoramic views of the old city and Baku Bay. Outside of those walls you'll find a modern city which is pushing the boundaries of architecture and the largest KFC in the world.

Similar to Dubai, the government have been building a city for the future. Although not striving for the tallest structures, the architectural marvels found within the city are inspiring. Including the iconic flame towers which jet 182 metres skywards above the city symbolising the element of fire. The three towers are fully covered in LED screens and can be seen from around the city. Examples of innovative architecture can be found all around the city including the rolled up carpet of the Carpet Museum, a mini Venice, a small version of London’s Gherkin, and the astonishingly beautiful Heydar Aliyev Center which I only managed to see as out taxi zoomed passed on the way back to the airport.

The Sunday evening began to push the sun beneath the horizon as we sat on the promenade looking out over the Caspian Sea thinking about the lands over the horizon. Along with Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia all share a coastline of this largest body of inland water in the world. The prominade is one of those peaceful places where locals wander, sit, and chat with their friends or play with their children. The Flame Towers illuminate the sky at the far end of the city almost casting its protective gaze over the city, or perhaps its there to remind the Azeris of where this country is heading.

Teaching was hot work in Azerbaijan. Our driver would collect us from the hotel each morning and drive us to the school via the maze of back alleys. I certainly wouldn't have been able to get myself back to the hotel. It was pushing above 30 degrees in the classrooms and the days were long. We had no airconditioning and the open windows barely welcomed a breeze. By the end of each day we were drained both physically and mentally. It was one of those tough contracts with endless alterations constantly being communicated from the school and our office in the UK. With changes being sent to me at 11pm at night expected for the next day. On top of that, one of my team members became ill and needed an ambulance called one night. We ended up a team member short for a few days and bigger classes as a result. Contracts like this require you to find opportunities for respite and escape, whether that be locking ourselves in our hotel rooms, or heading out to sample Azeri food. We were lucky to have had an excellent bar across the road serving refreshing beer and delicious sadj.

The first week was a six day week followed by a four day week due to the school having the Friday off due to the opening day of the inaugral 2015 European Games. Baku has progressively opened itself up to the world stage by hosting world events to boost its standing with the international community including the annual F1 Grand Prix, 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, and now the European Games. That Friday was a day I'll remember fondly. Having completed our work in the school, we were now free to explore the city before heading off to our next destinations. We found a park on the outside of the old city with a fountain and just sat in the sun. Words were not spoken. It felt as though the weight of the past couple of weeks had been burnt away leaving behind peace and satisfaction we had survived. We spent the afternoon wandering around Baku and exploring places was hadn't yet seen.

That evening was the opening ceremy of the 2015 European Games and we headed to the promenade where local crowds were gathered to collectively watch it on a big screen. The atmosphere was exciting, vibrant, full of the ambition and pride, and being interviewed by the Azeri TV was certainly a moment to cherish. It was an ideal way to finish our tour of Baku.

There were a couple of hours on our final day before we had to check out and get to the airport for our onward flights. Lewis and I were heading for a week in Istanbul. As I try to make use of all the time I have, I hoped aboard a bus and went back into the city to soak up a little bit more of the city. The streets were being closed off to welcome the cycle race. There were a lot of people standing and watching the street. It was strange because the race wasn't exactly happening at the time, but then I saw it. A flat bed truck drove past with bicycles in the back. These were not being used in the race and were piled ontop of eachother without care. Further down the road a cyclist had been stopped by some police officers, apparently they have closed the road to all traffic including bicycles. The cyclist was removed from his bike whilst one of the police officers grabbed it and through it ontop of the growing pile upon the truck. The cyclist was protesting but it didn't make a difference. It was as though he was talking to a brick wall. Some of the people around me were taking photos of what was happening which pulled the attention of a nearby police officer who marched over to us barking orders to not take photos, threatening to take cameras from people. It appears the government still have a slightly authoritarian control over its citizens. It came as a small shock to the system as our experience of the city so far had been of a relaxed liberal city with people wandering peacefully through the streets. I wouldn't say it tainted my overall opinion of Baku, but it gave me a deeper and more honest understanding of it.

Our two weeks in the country were hugely stressful workwise but the city offered us the food, the views and the magnificent people for respite and is certainly a place I would like to revisit and explore more fully.

On our last day after two weeks swealtering, the school received airconditioning units for their classrooms.... WHYYYY!!!!

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