Fire mountain

Saturday night in Baku. Very cold, too cold for snow but a definite hint of rain in the air. We’re going to see Yanar dağ, fire mountain. It’s about a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre and thanks to Ms M’s impressive command of Azeri, we negotiate a return fare of 30 manat – about €28. For this, our man in his lada will take us to the mountain, wait for us to warm ourselves by the flames, and then drop us back to town.

The journey out amidst the Saturday evening commute (and yes, Saturday is a working day for most people) could have been filmed for TV. Weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding potholes, and snaking around buses and trucks, our nifty lada ploughs ahead at bone-rattling speed. It’s quite the journey. We drive for what seems like ages into the hinterland, passing settlements and villages that are a far cry from the flash new apartment buildings in downtown Baku. Earlier that day I’d seen the new Hilton (not quite finished but nearly there) which is practically next door to the new Marriott and within walking distance of the new Four Seasons. Add to this concoction of starred accommodation, the Fairmont, the Park Inn, and many others and you can’t but ask yourself who’s coming to stay. Is it a question of ‘build and they will come’ or does the Azerbaijani government know more than they’re letting on? It seems like an inordinate number of beds for a city that has yet to produce a commercial-grade postcard. But hey, what do I know?

Back to the fire… and the mountain.

As far back as the thirteenth century, Marco Polo mentions fire spouting from the Abşeron Peninsula. When the drilling of oil wells reduced the pressure underground, most of them burned out. According to folklore, the fire at Yanar Dağ was started by a shepherd in the 1950s, who carelessly tossed aside a cigarette butt in the vicinity of a natural gas vent. The ten-metre stretch of ground has been on fire ever since.

It’s quite surreal. Picnic tables have been set up alongside it and a little çayxana (tea house) perches close by (it was closed the night we went but I am sure that in ten years’ time, this will be quite the tourist attraction; some entrepreneurial mind might even supply marshmallows!)  The heat is intense. Tiny blue flames flicker on the edge of the path working up to full flame as they slowly climb the hillock. We’d actually passed it in a the taxi thinking that it looked as if someone was burning rubbish in their back yard. Its grandiose pretensions to mountaindom are reminiscent of the movies starring Hugh Grant – The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain. But it has a certain charm and the fact that it has burned through rain and hail and snow for nigh on 60 years is a miracle in itself. Definitely worth the journey.

Baku beckons

I am awake when I wake up. My usual sleepy headedness is noticeably absent. I check my watch – 9 am. I’d slept in later than usual. And then I remember where I am. Baku. Azerbaijan. Three hours ahead of Budapest. I am still on schedule. I decide to get up but as I move, I feel the force of some invisible hand pushing me back onto the bed. And then I remember that I’m on my holidays. I don’t have to be anywhere until 3pm later this afternoon when I am to visit the Diplomatic Academy. Anyway, the lovely Ms Meddaugh doesn’t have Internet connection in her flat. And it’s raining. So what’s my hurry?

The drive in from the airport last night had reminded me a little of Bangalore and its chaotic driving. Battered Ladas complete with shiny new designer-brand SUVs for roadspace, in an amusing East meets West fight to the finish. They make Budapest’s rush-hour drivers look like pensioners on a Sunday drive. I counted three separate accidents and held my breath for minutes on end as the driver fast-forwarded through the mêlée. What struck me was the complete lack of any apparent order or system and yet, as in Bangalore, everyone seemed to know his place.

I lie still, listening to the noise outside. My room faces out onto a narrow, one-way street into which cars and trucks are released at traffic-light intervals. Somewhere down the road, they bide their time, waiting for the green light’s permission to move. And then, as if released from a starting box, they roar into Başir Safaroğlu Küg, pounding aggressively on their horns hoping the noise will somehow clear the road in front of them.  I time the intervals of quiet, strangely reminded of labor contractions. I am soon lulled back to sleep by their regularity.

I awake a second time to loud voices having an argument. I remember that there’s a market on the corner and imagine a delivery truck blocking the traffic and everyone in the vicinity adding their two cents worth. The language is strange. I know that people speak Azeri, Russian or English with those over 30 more likely to speak Russian and a little Azeri while the younger ones are more likely to have Azeri and English but little Russian. Such are the generations divided. The chap who drove me in from the airport last night has seen more than 60 Azeri winters and yet he speaks only Russian. As the voices drift through my window, I think its Azeri. Not that I know enough to tell the difference – it just doesn’t sound like Russian. They eventually sort it out and the blessed quiet resumes.

I awake a third time to the sound of music – a strange type of music. The muezzin is issuing the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. It is both pervasive and haunting. I finally get out of bed and venture out on to the balcony expecting to see a series of mosques dotting the skyline and crowds heading in their direction answering the call. I look up and down and can’t see anything that remotely resembles a church of any sort. The tannoyed music seems to be seeping from the walls. And then, in the distance, I catch a glint of gold. It’s dark and dreary outside, overcast. But to my right, way in the distance, I see what might just be a minaret. Baku beckons.