Continuing My Mongering Three Country Odyssey Through Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Onwards to Baku Central Asia
Early start, up at 5am and 6am taxi to the airport, far too early for me. Sitting in the airport departures area typing this, typing up some of my notes and I don’t know if it’s a combination of lack of sleep and deep down maybe wanting to have stayed longer in Kiev.
I already have mixed feelings now about flying on to Baku. I seemed far more enthusiastic and I suppose excited about this part of the trip when I booked it on the internet on a rainy and much colder Sunday afternoon many weeks ago. Maybe I will get a quick power sleep on the plane and feel better when I wake up. I just hope the apartment I booked is going to be okay.
Was in the queue to leave the terminal departure area when a more mature member of the Ukraine International Airways ground staff fixed her beady eye’s on my 2 items of walk on hand luggage and weighing my main case with a portable scale told me off for being overweight. Good, better than being charged for it. This time boarding the flight was via the crushed in like sardines airport bus ferrying the passengers airside to the plane, not my favourite way of doing things and I never get it right as to guessing which side the exit doors will open for a quick exit and this morning was no exception leaving me nearly last in the queue to walk up the steps to the aircraft, and man, did Kiev feel hot and humid that morning.
Big World out there
At around 3.5 hours the flight time to Baku was slightly longer than to London. Leaving the Ukraine coast near Odessa and me dozing off intermittently we crossed the whole south eastern length of the Black Sea which seemed to go on for ever before continuing over Georgia. Yes there is a big world out there. After sleeping again for a while I looked out of the window somewhere over central Azerbaijan only to see a lot of disappointing thick cloud below but I am glad to say as we started our descent into Baku and I saw the Caspian Sea coastline for the first time, glistening there below in the sunshine, my spirits lifted.
My first impression of arriving at this oil rich country was the thick luxurious carpet air conditioned walkway leading from the aircraft at Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Before passport control there was a handy ATM machine which I used to draw 200 Manat, the local currency of Azerbaijan which was roughly 2.20 to the GB pound. Unable to get any Azerbaijan currency before I left, I said handy so that I could pay the taxi driver meeting me his 18 Manat fare but as the ATM dispensed only large 50 notes and the driver who could not speak any English claimed he had no change, there was a certain amount of fucking around later on to get some smaller change from a scowling man in a cigarette kiosk.
Losing around 10 places now in the queue in front for using the ATM, I joined the queues for passport control choosing one of the 4 lanes open ahead for foreign passport holders, hoping for the best that I chose the right line. But much quicker than expected, in around 15 to 20 minutes I reached the stand behind the red line bit just before the immigration booth before having my digital picture taken and mildly interrogated as to my reason for visiting Azerbaijan by a very cute soft spoken pretty looking young female immigration officer. Satisfied that I was a tourist and not a terrorist she stamped my passport and with a smile welcomed me to Baku, wishing me a pleasant stay.
Next was the baggage arrival hall which looking more like a Hilton hotel lobby than an airport even had a nice comfortable looking lounge area to sit in if you wanted to and a bank branch of a bureau de change which I should have used for some smaller value notes instead of using the ATM machine.
Only having carry on luggage I walked through the airport customs with no problem to the Public arrivals area where the driver arranged by the apartment was supposed to be meeting me holding a sign with my name on. However, choosing not to stand with the other drivers holding name signs, and me walking up and down the terminal building reading them it took me quite a while to find my driver, or maybe he had been running late and had just arrived at that moment.
As we walked outside to the airport car park I instantly felt the heat of the afternoon sun, yes I had arrived and peaking at around 28°c, hot but not unbearable for most of my stay due to the coast, I had got that part of the weather just about right.
Ahmed, who introduced himself as my driver spoke very little English but seemed friendly enough. Once I was in the car he passed his mobile phone over to me putting me on to the Managing agents of the apartment where a male Arabic sounding voice welcomed me to Baku, wished me a pleasant stay and explained that the driver would take me to the apartment, show me everything and hand over the key.
The drivers lack of English was good in away, it saved me from answering any prying questions and being a first time visitor in his eyes I wasn’t going to get the hard sell bit to use his taxi for private tours etc. Not knowing the country and not knowing him, or his connection with the apartment, my extra activities both in and out of the apartment were to be my business and no one else’s, so when the driver did hand over his business card for me to call him when ever I needed a car I thanked him anyway making no commitment.
The 15.5 mile journey to the centre where I would be staying started with us driving through a boring desert landscape scattered here and there with working oil rig derricks.
Then as we started to get closer to Baku I caught a quick glimpse of some modern high rise buildings in the distance but at that stage it still did not cut it with me what they say about Baku being where Dubai meets Monte Carlo, all I was getting was a sleepy dusty one horse town feeling when we turned off into what seemed like Baku’s very own backside consisting of dusty back roads and narrow lanes and mostly bumper to bumper traffic. But miraculously through the usual beeping of horns the traffic flowed, sort of, and we finally arrived right on the edge of Fountains Square, the main central tourist area of Baku around 45 minutes later.
Baku Apartment, first impression
With both of us carrying my luggage between us I stopped at the first kiosk I saw to try and break down the large 50 Manat note but the scowling person did not understand until I pointed to a can of coke to buy only to be then asked, I presumed, if I had anything smaller to pay for it so I then pointed to what I thought looked liked the cheapest pack of cigarettes which prompted him to show me a selection of lighters to purchase with the cigarettes before still reluctantly accepting the note and I think overcharging me.
No Fucking Way
Then walking through the main square with the sun beating down on us and then into a side road I could not believe the entrance I followed the driver into, basically as well as dark and dodgy looking it looked in parts like part of an unfinished building site.
From Belarus to Baku this is the scourge of many of the former Soviet Union and some eastern European countries old apartment tenement blocks, basically the shared communal entrances look like shit holes. I even experienced this in Sofia once and almost refused to take the flat for a week although once I passed the heavy steel front door and once inside, the flat itself was quite modern and smart.
But here in Baku it got worse, there was no lift and lugging the bags up the dark stairs with a light of some description coming on randomly my unit was way up on the 5th floor, quite a gym workout in fact, every time I returned after going out. At least the poor driver was going to get a tip.
Once inside the apartment my heart sank even more, that premonition I had earlier that morning in Kiev airport was proving right; what faced me was neither modern or smart, this was not the one bedroom apartment I was made to believe but one big room with a small kitchenette in the corner and a separate dark dingy bathroom with leaking shower.
Leading outside was a small balcony where I could just about see the Square if I leaned forward enough. Although the balcony door was open there was no breeze and inside felt like an oven but above all it had an unpleasant musty smell to it. Basically like the bathroom the room was dark and dingy, had had no work done to it and had not been decorated for what was probably for many years and now looked so grubby that even if a team of cleaners had given it a good scrub and a good clean it still would have felt dirty. Decision time do I stay or do I go? Trying to weigh up everything in seconds from having no local SIM card to make any local calls to just the hassle probably of finding somewhere at such short notice and within my budget, reluctantly I took the front door key and paid the driver his fare giving him also a nice tip, but after he had left I was still wondering whether or not to even bother to unpack my neatly folded shirts etc and even bother to hang them up at all. I really did not like this place and wondered if I could last just one night there never mind the seven nights I had already committed myself for by booking it and paying for it in advance.
But for the stairs and all it did though have three very good main redeeming features the first being its excellent location just perfect for mongering in Baku and the room also had a very efficient almost silent air conditioning unit and just as essential for my mental state of mind, constant very fast Wi-fi for the internet the best I’ve probably experienced anywhere I’ve stayed and good job too as there was no TV in the room so all my Television, music and entertainment was streamed to me mostly courtesy of YouTube.
You Get What You Pay For
And also in away the cheap price at around £36 a day was also a redeeming feature. They do say though You get what you pay for.
Coming up in the next instalment All Roads Lead to Fountains Square – My first evening in Baku and a (little) flat warming party.
By Monger Matt.