Tourist Stuff: The Carpet Museum

Sunday, October 30, 2016

In Azerbaijan, carpets are what is technically known as "A Big Deal". Classed by UNESCO as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" carpets have been woven here for centuries. Therefore it's no surprise that there's a dedicated carpet museum in a prominent spot on Baku's Caspian seaside walkway. I didn't make it to the carpet museum during my first tenure in Baku, so lacking any more compelling blog topic to beguile you with I took some time on a quiet Sunday to visit the museum and report back.

The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum started life in 1967 and was first housed in a former mosque in the Old City. It then moved to a downtown building in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, that building was originally the site of the Lenin Museum, which makes me kind of proud of the Azeris for booting him out and re-asserting their own cultural heritage. Now, though, the museum is finally in a purpose-designed building that is particularly fun because it looks like a carpet!

Carpet museum
This is a very new building - opened in 2014, and designed by Austrian Architect Franz Janz.

It's a thoroughly modern museum, complete with 10 AZN admission price, though that included the audio guide. Sadly, the translation and narration of the guide was decidedly mediocre. For the most part it was so garbled and heavily accented that the effort of interpreting the audioguide was far greater than the resulting payback in interesting bloggable facts, so I mostly abandoned it and simply read the posted information accompanying the exhibits, which is all presented in both Azeri and English.

However, one quote from the audioguide had a certain poetry to it, and sums up the importance of carpets to Azeri culture and life:
"Where is my carpet, there is my home."
Carpet museum
Predicatbly, there are a lot of carpets in the carpet museum. They're mostly displayed on the inside of the curved walls that make up the building's skin.

It was interesting to read the small displays about the process of weaving the carpets, though since weaving is a kind of universal human skill, it was all pretty familiar. Sheep are sheared. The resulting wool is carded and then spun into yarn. The yarn is dyed. And then it's all strung up on a loom. It seems to be mostly the same everywhere, though I did like the story about how, before shearing the sheep, they'd drive the flock back and forth across a river to clean them. Sheep Laundromat!

Carpet Museum
There are still carpet weaving workshops in Baku that spin and dye wool, seen here drying in the sun in the back streets of Baku's fast-disappearing Sovietsky district.

(It was actually a sheep-ish kind of weekend overall. Back in September during Eid al-Adha I was given a gift of some sacrifical meat. Of course. I mean, who among us hasn't been given two kilos of random cuts of ritually slaughtered sheep by a work colleague? If I had a nickel for every time... Not being overly well-equipped with mutton recipes, I stuffed it in the freezer until the weather turned cool. On the Saturday of Sheep Week I finally thawed it out and spent a lot of time trimming the two kilos into 750 grams of meat and 1250 grams of bones and stuff. The meat turned into a very tasty stew and the trimmings made a small amount of surprisingly rich stock. Check me out - making stock from scratch!

Carpet museum
The stew on the back burner and the stock on the front. That stock ended up as about half a cup once it was strained and reduced. But what a half-cup it is! It's now in the freezer awaiting a suitable moment to shine.

But back to the Carpet Museum. Naturally, there are about eleven zillion carpets displayed, along with other woven household items like bags and curtains and horse blankets and such. It all had a tendency to be a bit same-y, especially the second floor, which was devoted to the imperceptible regional variations in design and production in the different carpet producing areas of Azerbaijan. I say "imperceptible" but of course they were only imperceptible to the untrained eye. I'm sure the preponderance of the buta figure in one areas vs. the use of rhombuses is another is blindingly obvious to some. I am not among them.

Much more compelling was the fact that dotted around the three floors of the museum were five or six working looms with women sitting at each, weaving carpets on the spot. This was absolutely excellent.

Carpet museum
This woman was working at a hugely impressive pace.

Unlike the carpets I saw woven in India where each thread is simply looped through the warp yarns and could actually be pulled out even after the carpet was finished, in Azerbaijan the threads are actually knotted in place. (Which really makes much more sense.) They use a tool that looks like a combination between a crochet hook and a straight razor. A long piece of the right colour of yarn is knotted around the warp thread in the right place with the hooked end of the tool and then trimmed with the razor bit. This all happens at an astonishing pace. Then, every few rows, the woman would stop and trim the knotted yarns so the finished carpet emerged. Again, this is different than in India, where the carpets are trimmed all at once after they're woven by people with very long scissors.

Also along the way, the weavers in the museum used a sort of toothed basher tool to push the knotted threads down into the already woven bits to keep the pile of the carpet dense and even. This quick thump-thump-thump noise of them whacking at the knotted yarn echoed around the otherwise funereally quiet museum in a very pleasing way that brought a bit of life to the place. And while the women that weekend were all making pile carpets on their looms, there were a lot of flat-woven kilim style carpets on display as well. (And in what felt like an oddly coincidental twist, there was a display of kilim from Serbia being shown in a ground floor exhibition space. Sadly, they did not also have an accompanying buffet table groaning with meat and kajmak, which was disorienting and made me wonder if those carpet were REALLY from Serbia at all.)

The top floor of the museum ends with the story of modern carpet making in Azerbaijan. In the 20th century there was a movement to codify a lot of the traditional designs by transferring them to graph paper so they could be recreated accurately in large modern workshops. My notes from the museum say they also established a school of excellence but extensive googling has not revealed any further details. In any case, the upper floor did devote a lot of space to the most famous carpet weaver and designer of that period Letif Karimov, after whom the museum is named.

Carpet museum
I liked a lot of the more modern designs, including this one by a guy whose name I did not record. Sorry, modern carpet guy.

Notably and disappointingly absent from the museum is any mention of Faig Ahmed, who must surely be the most exciting and modern carpet designer working in Azerbaijan today. It’s tragic and inexplicable that his work is not displayed at the museum because it is totally, mind-bendingly awesome. Here are a few pictures to illustrate, and bear in mind these are NOT photoshopped images. These are photos of actual, physical woven carpets.

So, so, so cool.

Are you kidding me?

Like I said - awesome. Check out the whole catalogue on his website. And then write a letter to the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and tell them to smarten up and buy a few original Faig Ahmeds because it's just criminal that he's not represented.

Of course there's a small gift shop in the museum, but I didn't pay much attention there because I've already got a couple very tiny carpets from my last trip. Plus it turns out that boat life and handmade carpets don't really go together so well because those little carpets turned a sad shade of grey dishearteningly quickly when subjected to the normal wear and tear of foot traffic on the boat. Too bad there was no display in the museum on how to clean towpath mud out of your carpet.

And finally, I was pleased to see that the gift shop was also celebrating Sheep Week with a little display that showed that even though they're not hip enough to have any melting Faig Ahmed carpets, they do still have a bit of a sense of humour.

Carpet museum

GRUB!: Serbian Style (Subtitle: Death by Food)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I recently took a few days off for a quick trip to Belgrade (in Serbia, of course). It’s perhaps not the first place you’d think to go from Baku, not least because it’s more than 3,000km away. The flight was about 10 hours long and involved an annoying amount to travel in the wrong direction - to Qatar - before I changed planes and made it to Nikola Tesla Airport. On the plus side Qatar Air gets two thumbs up for serving me a hot breakfast on two consecutive flights and having a lot of cheesey superhero movies on tap. Belgrade, though, was merely the setting, not the purpose of this trip. The real reason for the trip was to meet up with some old friends who were in the middle of a longer trip that involved a four day stop in Belgrade.

Here’s a look at part of Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, which is set in a large, green park in the centre of town at the confluence of the Slava and Danube rivers.

Rob and Wes have been vacationing together for years, so I was honoured to be asked to join them. Though in a way this was simply the extension of the Dinnerus Maximus tradition that started in London in 2011 and was always intended to involve the possibility of more exotic locations. Certainly the agenda for Belgrade was highly food-centric, since Wes had already researched and booked a private food tour that promised to be six hours long. As it turns out, any previous dinners together could be viewed merely as training for the non-stop food fest that was to be Belgrade.

Wes and Rob, at the start of the food tour, still blissfully hungry and unaware of the scale of the event to come

First, though, a bit about Belgrade itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. I arrived a few hours before the guys, so I wandered a bit in the central part of town which is pleasingly pedestrian friendly, and got a local SIM card for my phone, and had a really lovely lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and marvelled at the favourable exchange rate with the Serbian Dinar, and sat on a series of benches in the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, all while trying to stay awake after my overnight flight. And I geeked out a bit about the Serbian language, which means you have to sit through that before I tell you about the food.

Serbian is a distinct language in itself, but part of the Slavic family (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc.) and uses it’s own version of Cyrillic which has a few different characters than Russian Cyrillic. I found it very familiar and was only slightly less comfy with it than with Russian, which is to say in Serbian I’m an utter moron whereas in Russian I’m merely an idiot. The really fun thing about Serbian, though, is that is it basically the only European language that displays synchronic digraphia! (Stay with me here because this is actually cool. No really.) Digraphia means that two different alphabets are used by the language. Most often this means that one alphabet was used historically, then replaced with another ("sequential digraphia"). In Serbia though, they use two different alphabets at the same time! There’s the Cyrillic one I mentioned, and a modified Roman one too. You see signs in one, or the other, or both, and the population read and write both interchangeably. Synchronic digraphia! The Go Stay Work Play Live Phrase of the Month.

I was so taken with this concept, which I discovered while noodling around at lunch on that first afternoon, that I bought this little fridge magnet.

And here’s a street sign showing both scripts

But back to the food, er, I mean the city. Wes’s food tour was brought to us by Taste Serbia, who you should all book with right now because they were GREAT. It’s a small operation, but their website is really nice, because the two guys who run it - Djordje (pronounced “George") and Goran - are IT professionals by day (Djordje for a local ice cream company, which will become important later). In their off-hours though, both are dedicated foodies. Djordje and his wife Maia were our guides for the day. They picked us up at our apartment at 1pm and the three of us squeezed into the back seat of Maia’s car for our first stop, a tiny neighbourhood pastry shop selling traditional rolled burek pastries in a variety of flavours. Burek are a favourite breakfast food and especially popular after a night out. The place we went to is open 24 hours a day, and is apparently busiest in the hours after the bars close. Djordje ordered a small mountain of them for each of us, which was our first clue that Djordje’s notion of portion control was going to be a major challenge as the day wore on. The burek were served with mugs thick plain yogurt to drink, which is the usual accompaniment.

Filled with cheese or meat or mushrooms or greens or onion & garlic 
or cabbage or sour cherry or...

Djordje gently suggested that we not eat all of what was presented, and arranged to get the leftovers packed up for us to take away before we hit the next stop on the tour, a traditional kafana. Kafanas exist in most former Yugoslav states, though they take different forms in each. In some countries they’re strictly for coffee and alcohol but in Serbia, happily, they are all about the food. A Serbian kafana is a sort of bistro / pub / family restaurant and usually includes live performances of traditional music along with the food. Sunday lunch at a kafana is a favourite Serbian family activity and the food at our kafana was not in short supply. Witness the buffet table. There's an equal number of dishes on the far end, masked by the enormous bowl of fruit.

Here’s Djordje at the buffet, loading up a sample plate for me, and instructing Rob and Wes to copy his choices. We went at it slowly - visiting the buffet for about five different courses. Or was it seven? It was still early and yet it was already starting to become a calorie-soaked blur.

If I start getting into a blow-by-blow of all the different things we ate I’ll have to consider renaming the blog Go Eat Eat Eat Eat. Instead I'm going to concentrate on a few key Serbian treats that kept coming up again and again, the first of which is kajmak (pronounced KI-mak, to rhyme with highjack). Kajmak is a sort of butter/cream product that was described to us as “layered milk fat”. It’s used as a condiment or topping for breads but also on top of grilled meat, which Serbia has a lot of. It’s sometimes described as being similar to creme fraiche or clotted cream, but none of the kajmak I ate reminded me of that. I found it much more like a tangy whipped butter. At first I wasn’t sold, despite Djodje’s frequent imprecations of “More kajmak!”. However, by the next day’s lunch we were found ordering extra bread and kajmak so I can begin to understand the fervent Serbian devotion to it.

Here’s our first plate of food at the kafana - mostly cured meats, including some very nice dry local salami and lovely sort of ham like proscuitto. That white ball on the right that looks like a tiny scoop of ice cream is kajmak. And the tobbacco-like stuff at about 7 o'clock was a sort of dry shredded pork fat kind of thing. Oddly tasty. We called it "pork floss". Surely there's a marketing idea in there...

The other ubiquitous Serbian delicacy we kept running into was ajvar (pronouced EYE-var. To rhyme with, er…orange.) Ajvar is savoury sort relish / spread made of roasted sweet red peppers. It’s even more more-ish than kajmak, and a staple on any Serbian table. Traditionally a winter food, homemade ajvar is prepared by families in large batches in the fall and preserved in jars. It’s very labour intensive, what with all that roasting and pepper-peeling, but it's also available commercially, even in Azerbaijan, where I can get it in sweet or hot varieties at my local grocery shop. I’ve been spreading it on all kinds of things, kind of like Serbian salsa. It’s got a distinctive bright orange colour and silky texture and is sometimes even referred to as vegetarian caviar. (Even though it is clearly nothing like caviar expect in that it is a spreadable foodstuff.)

Wes and me at the “more kajmak” lunch. And almost-empty bowl of ajvar can be seen in the bottom right.

So the kafana was our introduction to a lot of traditional Serbian foods - the preserved meats, kajmak, ajvar, and a lot I didn’t mention specifically. We also had chicken soup, lamb soup, many different salads, goulash, potatoes, a few different ground grilled meats, and a nice smattering of desserts. Frankly, we were all well on our way to groaning insensibility by the time we left the kafana and headed to the next stop, where we concentrated on my favourite course: dessert!

Ambar restaurant is on a newly redeveloped strip of former industrial land along the shore of the Slava river.

Ambar has an extensive menu, but we were there to try a medley of favourite Serbian desserts. These included a Serbian version of Floating Island - a cloud of meringue set in a dish of custard, which I’ve seen on Masterchef but never tried. (Verdict: Nice, but unlikely to win out over anything with pastry or chocolate or caramel in it). We also has a very nice sort of mille feuille of sliced peach and creme patissiere and a sour cherry pie, sour cherry being a popular flavour in Serbia.

These were both very very good. Not pictured was a dish of Kokh (pronounced with that throat-clearing sound at the end). It was a piece of plain sponge cake soaked in cold milk and served sitting in a puddle of cold milk. It was not a hit. Because… ewww. Why? Why would you do that to cake? What did that cake ever do to you, Serbia??

By this point, since we were having dessert, I sensed that the end of the tour must be drawing to a close - a seriously rookie mistake. In my defense, my brain was probably not working properly due to extreme ajvar overload (Ajvarloading, perhaps? Ha!) (Ok, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's genetic.) In any case, I was mildly alarmed when I found out we had TWO more stops to hit, including another kafana. Luckily, on the way to the next spot Djordje produced a jar of his grandfather’s homemade rakija, the traditional fruit brandy of Serbia usually made from plums, which loosened the mood somewhat.

Here’s Rob and Wes in the back seat, Rob having just sampled the rakija

The specialty of our second kafana was Serbian sač, (pronounced “saatch”) which I though I’d know all about since saj is a big deal here in Azerbaijan (I have to blog about Azerbaijani saj some time…). Serbian sač is both the physical cooking vessel and the foodstuff it produces. The sač is a large round metal dish that gets stuffed with meat and potatoes and left to roast slowly over coals for a very long time. Serbians don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking (basically it’s salt, black pepper and red pepper). However, despite (or maybe because of) this minimalist approach, the meat that comes out of a sač is beyond succulent.

This is the sač we were served - a large piece of pork that was simply sublime. It was almost sweet, and a bit sticky, having roasted for hours in it’s own piggy goodness. (You may have detected by now that Serbia is not a vegetarian wonderland.) Also, ironically, the kafana where we had this piggy goodness was housed in a former synagogue.

Luckily we were allowed to take a doggy bag of the leftover pork which was very nice for breakfast the next day. And miraculously we were still able to squeeze into the back seat of Maia’s car for the trip to our last stop - more dessert! On the way Djordje produced another round of homemade rakija, this time his uncle’s variety made from quince and after a few sips of that we found our way to a beautiful sort of taverna that jutted out into the Slava river, away from the centre of town. It was a lovely and quiet and Djordje managed to restrain himself and only ordered one type of dessert, a cooked apple served with lashings of whipped cream, along with a cup of very strong coffee served in the Greek / Turkish style with lots of gritty stuff at the bottom.

Wes and Rob waiting for more dessert.

By the time we finished up we were almost in a paralytic food coma, and it was dark, and Djordje and Maia were not just guides but friends. We drove through the darkened city in Maia’s car, laughing and talking, and marvelling at the amount and quality of food we’d enjoyed and listening to Djordje and Maia tell us not just about food but about Belgrade and Serbia and their lives and whatever happened to come up. Then the car was pulled over at a corner shop and Djordje hopped out and returned to deliver the coup-de-grace - ice cream bars. They were the ones he made in his day job at the ice cream company, the Serbian analogue to a Magnum bar. And like the trained eating machines we had become, we ate.

The whole food tour was fantastic, and turned out to be just the beginning of three days of fun and food in Belgrade. The following night we returned to Ambar restaurant (home of the sour cherry pie and the weird milk cake) and had their unlimited Ambar Special - an unending succession of small plates that once again has us on our knees after fourteen individual courses. At one point the waiter came over and asked “Shall we continue?”. When we said yes and managed two or three more courses he eventually conceded, “You are Canadian, but you eat like Serbians!”. High praise indeed. Other things happened in Belgrade too. We walked around, and did a tour of the fortress and went to the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Automobile Museum and had some local craft beer and went into a nice Orthodox Church.

But mostly we ate and talked got caught up with each other, which was really the point all along.

Red Light, Green Light

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I’ve been back in Baku for about a month now and settling in reasonably well. The new hotel room isn’t as cozy as my old apartment, but now that I’ve moved around the furniture and stuck things on the walls and bought a few plants, it’s feeling more like home. And it’s got a basic kitchen with a two-burner hob, which means I can cook for myself. I suspect some sort of toaster oven thing will be necessary when the cold weather hits, so one could possibly roast a chicken or sweet potato (if one could find a sweet potato) but more importantly, I’ve figured out how to get The Great British Bake Off, so it’s all good.

Here's the entrance and kitchen area. Not bad!

And here's the living room. The bed is separated from the lounge area, which helps the whole "not-a-hotel-room" vibe.

This hotel is in a different neighbourhood to the old apartment, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall was near the old city. Now I’m further east next to the main metro station and near a big modern mall. It takes 15 minutes to walk to the office in the morning (mostly pleasant) but this means I’ve got no regular crosswording time (kind of disappointing). It’s also a much busier area, with quite a different vibe. The walk to and from work is, as I’ve said, pleasant, but it does involve crossing some busy streets, which can be disconcerting. You always need to be on your toes as a pedestrian in Baku, but this time around it feels like pedestrian v. car is a central fact of life.

Some things have improved in the year I’ve been away. For instance, a lot of the street lights now have countdown timers that show how long before a red light will turn green, and then count down again to when the green light will turn red. This is highly useful for pedestrians attempting to cross four lanes of Bakuvian traffic. And they’ve also painted zebra crossings (crosswalks) at a lot of places too. Even more surprisingly, cars will generally stop when you venture out into a zebra crossing. True, there is still a gut-churning moment when you need to poke yourself far enough out into the street that it becomes clear to oncoming traffic that you intend to cross. And then you have to wait for each lane to stop, which happens in a sort of wave ahead of you. Helpfully, cars will often turn on their hazard lights (4-way flashers) to let you know they’re going to stop. (Presumably because slowing down gradually and thus telegraphing your intentions to the waiting pedestrian is, er, not A Thing here.)

So that’s all good, right? Well, not entirely. Yes, there are zebra crossing that mostly work when they exist in isolation. Where the system falls down is when a zebra crossing appears along with traffice lights - in a controlled intersection. It feels like the Bakuvian pedestrian is slightly confused on the topic of zebra crossings. True, when there are no traffic lights governing the junction, a zebra crossing is a great way to get people safely across the road. However, there seems to be a general feeling that a zebra crossing trumps all other forms of traffic control, including red lights. This means that you sometimes see pedestrians blithely diving out into oncoming traffic against a red light, forcing traffic to stop for them. Sometime this includes mothers pushing children in strollers (push-chairs). It’s terrifying. Honestly Baku, where are you going that it’s so important you need to get there 37 seconds sooner? You don't appear to be bleeding or in labour, so what's the rush? In fact, further observations reveals that zebra crossing or not, Baku pedestrians are quite used to fending for themselves and simply cross whenever and wherever they want.

But let’s not assume cars are innocent in this equation either. Yes, they mostly obey the red and green lights, but Bakuvian traffic control has not achieved the dizzying heights of the Left Turn Arrow yet so as a pedestrian, even if you’re crossing with the light, you still have to dodge cars that are turning across your path. They will generally stop but it’s clearly done begrudgingly, and always at the last moment. There have been a few times when I’ve involuntarily produced alarmed noises and gestures at a driver who’s stopped about 8 inches from my path while trying to turn through a pack of crossing pedestrians.

A view from the ninth floor of the hotel. This is a “controlled” intersection. I don’t even know what to say about this.

But topping all this is another bit of traffic mayhem on the way to the office. I like to call it The Triangle of Doom, for reasons that I hope will become clear. (And apologies in advance because this is a bit hard to explain without charts and maps and a laser pointer.) It's all about the intersection of Uzeyir Hajibeyov* Street and Azadliq** Prospect… yikes. Uzeyir Hajibeyov is six lanes of fast-moving west-bound traffic. Azadliq is three lanes, one way, moving south. Most of the traffic on the big westbound street wants to continue moving west but needs to jog a bit south on Azadliq before it goes west again one block later. This means that most of the cars in those six lanes of fast moving traffic have to squeeze into the three left-hand lanes that turn onto Azadliq. Naturally, this squeeze happens at the last minute, which means there’s quite a lot of high-speed lane-changing and cutting in that happens right at the intersection. An accident waiting to happen.

This is bad enough, but add pedestrians into the mix and it becomes gut-churning. If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross through this intersection, you might think you were in luck because there are zebra crossings and countdown timers in both directions. Sort of. There is a normal zebra crossing on the north side across Azadliq, but there is no zebra crossing on the west side across Uzeyir Hajibeyov. To get across the larger street you have to negotiate a two-stage right-angled zebra crossing. Rather than spanning the entire width of the road, the crossing includes an intermediate island in the middle of the intersection. And when I say “island” what I mean is “triangle painted on the road”. We're not talking about a raised concrete area with, say, big cement bollards or iron fences between pedestrians and the oncoming traffic. It’s just a spot in the middle of the road where you wait while six lanes of crazed traffic whiz past and squeeze together while aiming directly at you. It’s The Triangle of Doom.

Triangle of Doom
A low angle picture of the intersection, with helpful annotations

I can’t tell you how awful this is. I did it a few times but it was so terrifying that I have instituted a personal policy of never ever ever waiting in the Triangle of Doom. This means that I cross Azadliq on the normal zebra crossing. Then you’d think it would be a simple matter of crossing Uzeyir Hajibeyov from north to south on another zebra crossing. Ha! Of course there IS NO zebra crossing marked there! Don’t ask me why. Perhaps the Venerable Brotherhood Of Bakuvian Funeral Directors lobbied hard during the planning stages. Instead I cross where there should be a zebra crossing when the oncoming mayhem of the westbound traffic is stopped for the red light. Unfortunately this means that technically, I’m jaywalking. Also unfortunately, there are often police stationed at this intersection in the morning who issue tickets to pedestrians, which I suppose is a good thing and should be encouraged. However, what would be an EVEN BETTER thing would be if they didn’t require pedestrians to risk their lives in order to NOT incur a 20 manat fine. On days when the police are hanging about, I walk further down the block and cross. And if I have to, I’ll walk around the whole damned block. Because the Triangle of Doom is (bad language warning) FUCKING INSANE.

Having said that, I do actually go through the ToD on my morning run, but that’s when my path (north east corner to south east corner) means the lights allow me to cross completely without having to wait in the ToD, so that’s an entirely different thing. And on the way home in the evening it's possible to time things just right that you arrive in the Triangle of Doom just as the oncoming traffic stops for the red light, eliminating the wait. But honestly, the fact that I have to devote this much time and energy to negotiating a single intersection safely is indicative of the fact that on many levels, Azerbainjan just isn't quite there yet.

Ranting aside, it is encouraging to see these improvements in Baku traffic management. The countdown timers and the zebra crossing are genuinely better than what was here before (which was nothing). Last week I actually saw police pulling over a car that had run a red light! And while I might complain, issuing tickets to pedestrians as well as drivers should eventually teach people not to plunge into oncoming traffic. I do find it frustrating though, because a solution for the bigger, more dangerous intersections is so blindingly obvious. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will probably already have realised that without any added infrastructure costs, they could simply re-sequence the traffic lights to allow a pedestrians-only phase. As follows:
  1. Cars going one way. 
  2. Cars going the other way. 
  3. People only, going every way. 
  4. Repeat. 
This would solve the problem and completely eliminate the deadly wait in the Triangle of Doom and also let all those left-turning people at other intersections proceed without pesky pedestrians getting in the way. However, I suspect Bakuvian drivers would find it hard to cede those precious seconds of spittle-flecked, lead-footed forward motion. For now, I’ll continue to allow and extra five minutes for my morning commute to the office.

And in other news, by the time this post is published I'll be in Serbia! I'm taking a few days of holiday time to meet up with friends from home Rob and Wes, who are on a longer trip that includes a four day stay in Belgrade. They'd already booked an Airbnb that sleeps seven, so they figured they could probably squeeze me in, especially since I'm vaguely in the area these days. AGSWPLRs will recall Rob and Wes from a particularly memorable dinner in London. This time around Wes has booked a 6 hour private food tour of the city, whose guide has instructed us to arrive hungry, which is very promising. And there's the Nikola Tesla Museum and a tour of underground Cold War bunkers and, most importantly, a few days of really good company and catching up that are long overdue. Who knows, maybe there will even be a Belgrade blog...

(*Uzeyir Hajibeyov, after whom the street is named, is one of Azerbaijan's most famous composers. He wrote the national anthem, is seen as the father of classical music in Azerbaijan and was the first composer of an opera in the Islamic world. He’s also the inspiration for the Uzeyir Hajibeyov Annual Music Festival. I went to a concert that was part of the festival a while back, and it was great. A visiting orchestra from Germany performed Beethoven in Baku’s Philharmonic Hall, which is a tiny but amazingly lovely venue near the old city.)

Here's the outside of the hall. Very picturesque.

And here’s the orchestra rehearsing in the space.

(** And Azadliq is the name of a major newspaper in Baku. I have no idea why they named a street after it. Or perhaps the newspaper is named after the street?)