Three things about the Baku Metro

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It's cheap!

There are a few fun things about the Baku Metro system.  The first is the price - a mere 20 qepik per ride, no matter how far you go.  (The currency in Azerbaijan is the manat, which is pretty much at par with the euro.  One manat is divided into 100 qepik.)  As a comparison, for those of you currently living under the yoke of Transport for London, that's 17 pence per ride, as compared to a bare minimum of £1.50 in London (and that's not even addressing the absolutely usurious single ticket price of £4.70, which is NOT a typo).  Sure, the London tube system is far far more extensive than the Baku system, but still...

(Aside: Recreational googling reveals this may indeed be the cheapest metro system in the world.  Many websites claim Mexico City is cheaper, but at the equivalent of 28 qepik, it still loses out to Baku.  Delhi may actually be the winner, with the cheapest fare clocking in at a mere 10 qepik, but they charge more for greater distances.  And there’s always the chance that someone will steal your phone.)

Some manat and some qepik.  Interestingly, qepik come in coin denominations of 50, 20, 10, 1 and... 3.  Weird.

And here's the whole map of the system. Two lines, 23 stations in total. About 35 km of tracks.  (London has 270 stations and 402km of track.  But then again London's population is between 8 and 13 million, depending on where you draw the lines, whereas Baku is a comfy 2-4 million and there are only 9 million people in the whole country.)

It's tuneful!

This is just utterly charming.  As in pretty much every metro system everywhere, there are announcements made at each stop along the line.  "This is Blah Blah Station."  "The doors are closing." "The next station is Blar-de-Blar."  "Mind the gap."  You know the drill.  The same is true here in Baku.  When the train arrives at a station, the station name is announced and before leaving the station a woman comes on and says "The doors are closing." and announces the next station.  Nothing new there.

Construction of the system was a started in 1967 under Soviet rule, so it's very very very much like the Moscow Metro.  Very deep stations, very long escalators, and very nice decor.

So the look and feel of the system is not new to me.  What is new is the other thing that happens as the train arrives at a station.  Along with a verbal announcement, they play a little tune!  Usually it's a few bars of a simple piano piece, but the charming thing is that it's different for every station.  So if you pay attention, you could sit with your eyes closed and know when your stop came up by the music that's played.  The station at the office - Köroğlu - departs from the usual piano formula with a particularly notable (if horribly distorted) fanfare, which is nice because it's hard to miss.  My home station - İçəri Şəhər (EE-chair-ee SHAY-her) - is the last station at the western end of the red line, and its tune is quite mournful.  It’s as if the woman playing the piano is heartbroken that the ride is over.  This week Gerald set lyrics to the İçəri Şəhər tune that go:
I'm so sad,
You're so sad,
Now it's done,
Go a-way.  
True, it's not exactly Sondheim, but I will never again arrive at the station again without hearing those words in my head.

(Incidentally, as further evidence that the Azeri people seem to be generally happier than the Russians, when Gerald and I arrived at the end of the line of Friday and listened to the sad little song, jokingly making sad faces along with it, a young Azeri guy watched us with bemusement, and you could tell he TOTALLY got it.  The İçəri Şəhər Sad Song.  Nice.)

It's bedevilling!

In my not-inconsiderable experience with underground transport systems of the world, there are a few immutable rules and one of them is this: you can look at a map, figure out which line you’re on (The Green Line, the Victoria Line, Line #2, whatever) and you can be confident that whatever happens, if you stay in your seat, you will remain on the line where you started.

Not so in Baku, though it actually took quite a while for me to figure this out.  As you can see from the map above, there is only one interchange station in the system, called 28th May (Named after Republic Day, the national holiday commemorating the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918.)  Since two lines cross there, I naively assumed that there would be two sets of platforms, one for the red line and one for the green line.  And several times I trudged wearily through the marble clad halls of 28th May seeking out the right platform only to find myself directed back to where I started again and again, with increasing consternation.  There are large scrolling LED signs at each end of every platform that show the terminus station for trains on that platform, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find a platform showing the correct terminus for the direction I was heading.  Even when I asked local people for help, they kept sending me the wrong way.  It seemed almost random when I managed to find a platform displaying the right sign.

Then one day on the way home from work on the red line, I glanced up at the board to see that the sign was displaying the western terminus station for THE GREEN LINE.  Whaaaa? There I was, standing in what was indisputably a RED LINE station and yet the next train was going to a GREEN LINE terminus?  How could that be?

And then it dawned on me and all became clear, though the realisation was profoundly disturbing.  28th May is an interchange station, but it’s not necessarily the passengers that change there, it’s the TRAINS.  Sometimes a train travelling into the station on the red line will leave on the green line.  That’s why I couldn’t find any more platforms at 28th May, because I suspect there are only two platforms.  That’s also why I had trouble finding the right platform, because when I checked the west-bound platform it had been displaying the green line terminus station, so I assumed I was in the wrong place.  Nope.  Not the wrong place, just the wrong time.  If I’d stuck around, I’d have seen the sign change to show the red line terminus after the green line train passed through.

It was, as I said, profoundly disturbing.  Imagine getting on a Victoria Line train in Brixton and ending up in, say, Mile End, because the Victoria Line train changed into a Central Line train as it passed through Oxford Circus.  It’s just unnatural.  Then again, it’s also sort of diabolically clever because it does eliminate the need to change trains.  I suppose when the whole system is complete that sort of thing will become impractical since the myriad combinations of start and end points will get a bit too much to manage.

You see this map a lot in the train cars themselves.  It's sort of an aspirational version of the metro map showing what I presume is the intended expansion of the current system.  By the time they finish all this maybe they'll jack the price up to 25 qepik.

In any case, I’ve now cracked the mysteries of 28th May Station and the chameleon trains. And while part of me still feels like Baku is breaking a cardinal metro rule, I suppose for 20 qepik I really can’t complain.  In any case, it’s a lovely sunny Sunday and the old men are out playing backgammon in Triangle Square (which is what I call the public square outside my apartment because, of course, it’s shaped like a triangle).  And there’s just enough time for a quick coffee and a pastry downstairs before the hash.  Happy Sunday.

Triangle Square on a sunny Sunday

First thoughts on Baku

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Amazingly, it's already been two weeks since I arrived in Baku, yet at the same time, it’s only been two weeks since I arrived in Baku.  The time flies past, but I think I've accomplished quite a bit.  Things at work feel pretty good.  The office is filled almost entirely with former colleagues from the London and Sochi games, so much so that it feels like we all went on an extended summer holiday and now we're back to whip up another ceremony or two.  People have shuffled around among departments, but the faces are familiar which is comforting.

I moved into my apartment this week and have been happily settling in for several days now, wandering from room to room, moving furniture back and forth to get it just right, happily unpacking and banishing suitcases, opening cupboards and putting things in drawers.

Here's a look at my new place.

The building is nice, with a very wabi-sabi aesthetic in places.  I'm in the top right hand corner, and no, the screened balcony is not mine.

Pointy stairs
It's four floors and 112 steps up a pleasingly pointy staircase.  I should have buns of steel by the time I've spent eight months going up and down those stairs several times a day.

I really like the apartment.  It's a short walk to the Metro station and the commute to work takes about 45 minutes, which is a nice amount of time with the crossword in the mornings. Perhaps best (and potentially most dangerous) of all - there is an absolutely excellent cafe and bakery on the ground floor of the building which is where I'm sitting now having just polished off a passable cappuccino and a transcendent almond croissant.  They also do a quite lavish breakfast in the mornings, which I enjoyed yesterday.

And Baku itself is great.  Visually, it reminds me a lot of all the parts of Russia I lived in - Moscow, Krasnodar, Sochi.  The mix of modern and traditional architecture and dilapidated back streets feel very familiar, but there's also an Islamic influence, since Azerbaijan is very much an Islamic place.  The look is familiar, but in some important ways it's very different. Without slagging off Russia too much, I think it's fair to say that the Azeri people have, err, a greater gerenosity of spirit than was the norm in Russia.  The people just seem happier and friendlier here.

I walked around the Old City a bit this morning and it was quiet and lovely.  The more I walked around the more it felt like I’d expected it to feel - a bit like the Diocletian's Palace in Split, and bit like Venice, and a bit like anywhere old and walled and mostly pedestrianised.

A bit of the Old City.  (Called İçəri Şəhər in Azeri.  Pronounced EE-chair-ee SHAY-her.)

And it’s not just a tourist attraction.  Like those other places I listed, people actually live in the Old City.  In fact, several of my colleagues on the ceremonies have apartments there.  I suppose I could have too, if I’d expressed an interest.  And come to think of it, I wonder why I didn’t? (Oh wait, perhaps it was the reports that some people who started in the Old City have since moved out due to the somewhat intermittent nature of the power supply.)  Still, my experience with these kind of places is that the local inhabitants can be a bit brusque with tourists.  Naturally it’s not surprising that you’d get a bit tetchy after the one thousandth person stops right in front of you to take a picture when you’re in a hurry to get to the Metro. I was purposely trying to be discreet, but I saw an Australian woman who was a few steps ahead of me chatting happily with some local men who even posed for a picture.   And a bit later on I passed an old man in an open doorway and gave him a little “Salam” (Hello) and he smiled and returned the greeting.  So… friendly.  Happy.  Nice.

And when I was running yesterday, I was stopped because a car was partially turned into a driveway in front of me but could go no further because it was blocked by a swinging gate.  I went around the front of the car and opened the gate for the driver and he was genuinely thankful.  He did that thing where you put your hand on your heart when you say thank you, like he was thanking me with his whole being.  Again, just nice.  I can’t help but think that in Russia that driver would have been honking and yelling at whoever was supposed to be opening the gate for him.

But here’s an anecdote that simply blew my mind.  There is no big grocery store near my apartment, but there are tiny shops a short walk away - a few different ones for fruit and veg, a fishmonger, a bakery, and so on.  There’s also a small market that’s more like a grocery store with a reasonable selection of packaged stuff and meat and dairy and such.  After I’d unpacked a bit on Wednesday night I went out to gather a few staples so I’d be able to have breakfast the next day and wandered among these shops collecting stuff as I went. Included among these was a bag with a few small pastries I intended as a treat for my first night in the apartment.  I finished up at the little grocery store and went back to the apartment.  After unpacking my purchases, I couldn’t find the bag from the bakery.  I searched up and down for it, and finally figured that I’d absentmindedly put it somewhere very odd (in the closet, behind the boiler, under the couch...) and would find it months from now, transformed into a swelling bag of green fuzz.  The next night I went back to the market again. This was only the second time I’d been in the place, but when I came to pay the guy at the till looked at me, reached behind him, and handed me my bag of goodies from the night before.  I’d obviously left it behind and he had saved it and remembered who it belonged to and gave it back.  Seriously? How charming is that?

So that’s Baku so far.  Naturally there’s a lot more to say, and while work is still at a dull roar I hope to find the time to say it.  Funny, but when you’re not spending every spare minute bailing out a narrowboat, there’s a lot more time for life.

So far, so good.

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First of all... I'm in Azerbaijan!  So far it's good.  The office is pleasant and filled almost entirely with former colleagues from the Sochi and London games.  The work is not crazy (yet).  And Baku turns out to be a lovely city.  Or at least the westernised, sanitised, 5-star hotel version that I'm currently cosseted in is lovely.  I've even found an apartment just a few minutes walk from the old walled city, and hope to move in next week some time.  I'll certainly write more about Baku and Azerbaijan in the weeks to come, but for now there's one last London thing you should hear about.

Despite the fact that it was all a bit much in the last few weeks - finishing lingering bits of London work, packing up everything in Brixton, dealing with the boat - I did manage to find time on my last day in London to do something entirely unrelated to work or packing or boats. There’s been a remarkable and moving art installation going on at the Tower of London this summer and I was determined not to let slip my last chance to see it.

Because 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War there have been a lot of different remembrance events throughout the year, but "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” must surely be the most arresting.  The installation consists of thousands upon thousands of handmade ceramic poppies planted in waves in the moat of the Tower of London.  Each of the 888,246 poppies represents a British or Commonwealth soldier killed in World War One, and they spill across the lawn and cascade over parapets in a stunning display.  As the project’s own website says: "The scale of the installation intends to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary creating a powerful visual commemoration."

A panoramic shot of the northwest corner of the Tower.  Powerful indeed.

The poppies are the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper. Cummins crafted the poppies themselves, which consist of two layers of thin clay cut-outs joined together and then individually shaped by hand by a team of artists and ceramic workers in Cummins’ workshop in Derby, using many techniques from the First World War era.  Tom Piper designed the layout of the poppies in the moat - where they’re placed, how they flow around the moat and how they interact with the Tower itself.  The title of the work comes from a Derbyshire man who joined up early in the war and died in Flanders.  Knowing that everyone was dead and he was surrounded by blood, the man wrote in his will: "The Blood Swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread."

They’re beautiful - each about the size of your hand, and each one unique.

Here’s a video about how the poppies were made.

As you can imagine, the installation of such a - literally - monumental artwork is a massive undertaking.  The job started in July when a senior Yeoman Warder of the Tower, Crawford Butler, knelt and planted the first poppy in the grass.  Since that time, teams of volunteers have been working to assemble and plant the hundreds of thousands of poppies that now fill the moat, with the aim to finish the work on Remembrance Day, November 11.  After that time the poppies will be removed and mailed out to the thousands of people who’ve paid £25 each to purchase one.  Proceeds from the sale of the poppies will be split among six different charities that support servicemen and women, including Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion.  Unsurprisingly, despite the huge number available, the poppies sold out.  I missed the chance to buy one, but am gratified that none will go homeless.

The project has definitely captured the public’s interest.  Besides all those who pre-paid to buy a poppy, hundreds of people volunteered to plant poppies in the moat.  Such is the popularity of the project that so many people volunteered that, despite the scale of the undertaking, they actually ran out of places.  The whole thing reminded me very much of working on a ceremony - the mind-bending scale of the thing, the teams of volunteers, and the stunning effect of the combined efforts of so many people.  My brain could’t help but start whirring about the planning and logistics that must have gone into the project.  And while a few years ago I would have been stumped about how one would even start to tackle such a thing, now I can picture how it must all have been achieved, which was a gratifying realisation given that I’m about to embark on another one of those massive ventures myself.

Here’s the team of volunteers that was working on the Sunday morning I went.

Each poppy is supported on a metal spike that’s hammered into the grass before the actual ceramic piece is fitted on top.

Late in the week when I visited, there was a news report suggesting that people who wanted to visit the Tower to view the poppies should delay until after the weekend.  Crowds had been especially heavy that week because of the half-term school break, and the weekend was expected to be particularly rammed.  I had no option but to visit on that Sunday - my last day in London - so I decided to go early in the day to try and beat the worst of the crowds.  Of course this turned out to be complete folly.  Every sidewalk was filled with people by the time I arrived, though in fairness it was already about 10am by the time I got there, even though I’d skipped breakfast and headed out as soon as I woke up.  I wonder how soon those crowds start to assemble in the mornings?  Dawn, probably.  Apparently the display is quite dramatic at night as well, when the waves of poppies are floodlit against the Tower.

You can also really see the crowds in the panorama shot above.

Just this week there have been calls for the poppies to remain at the Tower past the original Remembrance Day closing date.  At first the organisers at Historic Royal Palaces demurred, saying that the operation to remove, pack and mail the poppies was to massive to be delayed. But the clamour from the public and political leaders, including the Prime Minister and representatives from all four political parties, was such that just a few days ago it was announced that two sections of poppies would remain in the moat until the end of November. At the end of the month they'll then tour towns and cities in the UK before being installed permanently at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester.  Which is, frankly, just excellent. (Though if the poppies are sold out what happens to the people who bought flowers that will now be stuck in the museum forever?  Online sources are suspiciously silent on this subject.)  And in another heartwarming twist, the Chancellor has waived VAT on the sale of poppies.  Even better, the costs of touring and permanently installing the smaller displays of poppies will be partially offset by fines assessed against banks involved in the LIBOR scandal. Ha!

During my visit I saw lots of families with children, and even a few old men in uniform, some in wheelchairs being pushed by helpers, which was gratifying.  And despite the fact that it started raining when I was about half way around the Tower, there was very little grumbling to be heard.  Most people were polite and though there was hardly room to move, the crowds shifted and flowed in a way that meant if you were a bit patient, spots would open up along the railings surrounding the moat and you could slip in for a few photos almost anywhere. Still, the sheer number of people meant that the sort of quiet reflection one might be inclined to when faced with an installation of this sort really wasn’t possible.  However, there were a few moments when the personal tragedies were brought home.

Like this family memorial taped to the railings near the main entrance.

Because I was alone, unburdened by small children, elderly relatives, prams, dogs, or other encumbrances, I managed to move around fairly well.  And though it was busy, there were moments when you couldn’t help but be struck by the tragedy of the thing, contemplating the number of lives lost simply because it was so graphically displayed before you.  But by the time I’d circumnavigated the site the rain had picked up considerably and I was very very ready for a dry spot and a hearty breakfast.  I made my way back across Tower Bridge and squelched along to the tube, discovering along the way that my shoes were no longer nearly as water-resistant as they once were, and making me reconsider my shoe-packing options for later that evening.  One full English breakfast later, I was fortified enough to tackle the last of the packing and get things sorted out for the early flight the next day.

And now I’m in Baku, Azerbaijan, which is such a complete departure from my life of the last few months that it’s a bit like decompressing too quickly and getting the bends (Or so I imagine, never having had the bends, but nonetheless being fond of a good metaphor.)  I’ll write about life in Azerbaijan as I’m able, but for now know that I’m fine, settling in, dusting off my Russian and making tentative stabs at Azeri (whose alphabet includes such charming characters as this: Ə). Stay tuned.