From Atyrau to Baku

I woke up in my undersized bed in the hotel in Atyrau a whole three hours after I went to sleep.  The state of the room hadn’t improved in that time, and switching on the TV revealed a total of four channels available, none of which had a steady picture.  There was no kettle, no bottle of water, no glass, no pen and paper, no slippers, no laundry bag, no spare pillow or blanket, nothing but a bed, table, chair, TV, and wardrobe.  The bathroom wasn’t much better.  There was no toothmug, and the soap and shampoo was provided using a plastic dispenser of the sort you find in an airport toilet, each with a crude label on telling you which was which.  This was important, as the contents looked identical.  They had a unique form of towel which allowed you to look at yourself in the mirror as you dried your face, and the shower door had the structural integrity of a shower curtain.  These standards continued throughout the hotel down to the restaurant, which was a gaudily decorated, high-ceilinged affair serving a breakfast which was bloody awful.

At 9:00am I was picked up and taken to our local office, and then at 11:00am I got in one of the company cars to get taken to the airport.  Unfortunately, on the way my driver made a minor traffic violation in the form of causing a speeding Audi to use his brakes and his horn simultaneously right in front of a gang of traffic police who were enthusiastically waving their stripey sticks about.  By the reaction of the police and the number of them involved you would have thought my poor driver had run over the president’s daughter.  One policeman pulled him over, another took his documents and handed them to a third, who then went over to a police van containing another policeman.  All of them had massive hats, and nothing spells importance in the former Soviet Union like a massive hat.  Then the policemen all stopped worrying about my driver and went to deal with the three or four other drivers who’d been pulled over, leaving him standing on the side of the road like a bollard.  Then they left all the other drivers standing about while they just wandered about with everybody’s documents in their hands.  After about 10 minutes of standing about and wandering about, another police car turned up and two uniformed men got out, and there were handshakes all round.  Then another policeman turned up from somewhere, and there was another round of handshaking.  Everyone looked at the drivers, and then the documents, then another 10 minutes passed during which nobody did anything.  Had another driver not been summoned to collect me and take me to the airport, I’d probably still be stood there now waiting for the policemen to decide to do something other than stand about and shake hands with each other.

I didn’t see a lot of Atyrau, but it looked to me like the oil towns in west Texas would have looked like in the 1930s.  The surrounding landscape is flat, sandy, and featureless, and made me glad that Sakhalin at least has hills to look at when you’re waiting for your water to come back on.

Atyrau airport was busy processing about 4 passengers when I arrived.  I didn’t even bother going into the Passenger Services office to enquire about my bag, which I had been told had been located in Moscow and would be sent to me on Friday.  I whisked through check-in and security, who had no objection to me bringing aboard a razor and a can of shaving foam, and onto the immigration counter.  The immigration officer was a woman who had misinterpretted her job description to go beyond merely checking and stamping documents to include demanding to know every movement of the person at the counter for the past month.  The poor bloke in front of me was Russian and had come into a different city in Kazakhstan, then travelled overland to Atyrau, and now wanted to go to Baku.  This seemed to present enough of a problem to the immigration officer than he had to explain why and how he is leaving from a different city from that which he came into, and when he is coming back, and where he is going once he has come back, and what he intends to buy his wife for her birthday.  I can understand immigration officers interrogating foreigners who enter their country, but why the hell they care about foreigners leaving I have no idea.  Fortunately, I had no such problems and she just scowled at me, asked me if I was getting a visa upon arrival in Baku, and let me through. 

The departure lounge in Atyrau airport boasts signs every few metres saying “Wireless Internet Zone”, so I hauled out my laptop and waited the 5 minutes for it to fire up and get to operating temperature in expectation of being able to do some surfing for an hour or so.  Sadly, when I attempted to look for available wireless networks, none was found.  I can’t say I was surprised.  The aircraft which flies you between Atyrau and Baku is operated by the well-known international airline SCAT Airways, and the plane is some Russian thing with two noisy propellors and a fuselage made partly from metal plates rivetted together.  However, once aboard I was impressed by the leg room, and even though it was as noisy as hell, it wasn’t too much to put up with for 2 hours or so.  They even served us some food consisting of a chicken that had been found squashed on the runway and some soggy cheese, which I didn’t think was too bad.  Then again, I’ll eat anything.  The service was okay too, and it goes without saying that it was better than that offered by Lufthansa, who pride themselves in not dismissing those who are rude, ignorant, and incompetent from their employ.

Entry to Baku for a Brit requires a visa, which can be bought on arrival for $100 on presentation of a completed application form and two passport photos.  For people like me who are daft enough to arrive without passport photos, there is a bloke there who can take them for you for $15 for four.  Nice work if you can get it.  Anyway, I was whisked through immigration once they were satisfied I’d stumped up the cash, and met by our company driver who took me through Baku to my hotel, which was an awful lot better than the one in Atyrau, excellent in fact.  It was some branch of the Radisson and they gave me a tenth floor view over the Caspian sea, which wasn’t much to look at but it was nice all the same. 

Baku is an odd place.  It looks and feels much more like Turkey than Russia, and a few buildings aside, it doesn’t even look as though the Russians were ever there.  The Azeri national pasttime for males seems to be the same as that in Turkey: for over 40s, buy a cheap grey suit and nasty jumper, grow a moustache, and stand about in groups outside a shop; for under 40s, buy a leather jacket, don’t shave, and talk incessantly into a mobile phone.  Almost all the signs were in the Azeri script, which is very similar to Turkish, and almost none in the Russian Cyrillic.  But everyone spoke Russian, which gave the place a strange feel.  The first thing I did was go to buy some new clothes, as the ones I had on I’d been wearing since Sakhalin, and people were starting to prod me and tell me I reeked.  I quickly found out that Baku is an incredibly expensive place to buy clothes: a t-shirt, shirt, and two pairs of boxer shorts cost me $223 from Camel Activewear.  It was better than Sakhalin though, where you’d end up paying that for a pair of pointy snakeskin shoes.  The weather in Baku was pretty good, well into the twenties during the day, and a lot warmer than it is in Russia.  Baku is full of policemen all in the same uniform (as opposed to in Russia, where every policeman seemingly designs his own), and despite the hundreds of shifty-looking blokes standing about and the narrow, dark streets, the place feels safe enough.  The policemen don’t seem to put much effort into traffic control though, and people park anywhere they feel like leading to terrible traffic jams in the city.

In the evening I decided to head out to the area of the city where the expat bars are located, and after wandering around hopelessly for a while I finally stumbled on one.  Having seen one, it later turned out that I’d seen them all.  The average age of the expat patrons was about 58, a number equal to the number of tattoos the average person had on his hands, wrists, and forearms.  These bars are like retirement homes for the oil and gas industry, and it isn’t a pretty sight.  The major players in the oil and gas industry have been bleating for years that the average age of the workers is way too high and that in a few years most of them will retire with nobody to replace them, a complaint towards which I show no sympathy whatsoever.  However, Baku was proof enough that their complaint is a real one.  I saw about three or four expats under 35 years old, and I was the youngest in most bars by about 20 years.  With all the bald heads, white hair, fading tattoos, and poor teeth, it was pretty depressing. 

Sakhalin is a lot different.  Part of the problem with the oil and gas industry is that once someone has found a nice cosy position in a nice warm place such as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, KL, or to a lesser extent Baku, they are going to make sure they hang onto it.  The warmer, sunnier oil towns are full of expats who have been there far too long and should have been turfed out years ago, but find themselves in the position of either being able to renew their own contracts or being drinking partners with those who can.  There is no way these incumbents are going to open the door to somebody of 32 years old who is prepared to work the same job at half the price and question the status quo of the four-pint lunch and the girlfriend driving the company car.  What saves Sakhalin from this fate is that it is not a place you can settle into a comfortable, cosy life very easily.  Some manage it, but I’m sure from my writings on the place you’ll get the picture that it is not like living in Dubai or Singapore.  Wading through snow to buy some rotten vegetables probably loses its appeal once you reach a certain age.  The result is that relatively few older people come to Sakhalin, and those that do tend not to stick around too long.  As a consequence, Sakhalin has become a Mecca for young people in the oil and gas industry to get themselves into a senior position which would be unthinkable in most other oil towns.  I know project managers in Sakhalin who are in their early 30s, general directors in their late 30s, senior engineers who are in their late 20s, and a well-paid piping engineer who is all of 22.  I got a general manager’s job here when I was 29, three months after I was told in my last appraisal in Dubai that I would need to do at least another 5 years before I could be relied upon to manage the writing of proposals on my own.  What I love so much about Sakhalin is that there is youth in abundance, most of whom are smart, competent, and highly ambitious.  The reason for this is because Sakhalin does not serve the wishes of those in the industry who are looking to protect their own positions, and the doors open up for the younger generation.  Captains of the oil and gas industry need to take note of this, preferably by way of reading this blog and inviting me to whizz around on a private jet giving lectures on the subject.

Baku is not so fortunate, and I found it rather depressing.  Sakhalin has by and large manage to avoid the expat bars becoming cliched sports bars full of gaudy football memorabilia, without a local or female in sight who isn’t an out-and-out prostitute.  Sakhalin bars have a good mix of locals and expats, and all but one stays well clear of putting sports memorabilia on its walls (and the one that does makes a reasonably tasteful job of it).  Baku bars, by contrast, are covered in St. George crosses, Union flags, Scottish saltires, and penants saying “Born in England, Live in England, Die in England”, which is an odd thing to put up in a Baku pub.  There is the obligatory Irish theme pub containing various paraphenalia such as authentic Irish, erm, brass diving helmets.  The only women appeared to be either the odd expat wife of an expat man, or local girls in their twenties who probably didn’t come in for the conversation.  I did have bags of fun chatting in Russian to the bar staff in each place though, and it threw them a bit to find a Brit sitting at their bar who understood most of what was being said (most bars had at least one ethnic Russian working behind it, and they all seemed to speak in Russian).  It appears Brits speaking Russian are pretty unusual in Baku, despite the huge number of expats who come through there.

So that was Baku.  This afternoon I am climbing aboard my rickety old propellor plane with the service which outshines Lufthansa’s and heading back to Atyrau, where I will be spending the next few days.  If I see anything interesting, I’ll write about it.