Baku.

So that’s Baku I thought. 

Looking down from a slowly descending airplane making its final approach in April 2003, I saw below a moderately sized city built around a wide bay. 

From where I was, the water of the Caspian Sea appeared gray, I had expected an azure blue like the Persian Gulf, but this was more Aberdeen than Abu Dhabi, even the bright early summer sunshine and brilliantly blue sky could not hide the fact that the city looked uniformly dun coloured, almost perfectly camouflaged against the featureless plain upon which it sat. It was a less than attractive vista, even given the exotic images that fabled Baku, once one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road, conjured up. 

As we dropped lower I began to make out detail. Close to the sea the city seemed to have a pattern, blocks of buildings with roads separating them, but further out, no such pattern was discernible, buildings jumbled together as if in a mad crush, vying with each other to join the neatly arranged structures on the coast. 

The plane landed at a small shabby Soviet era airport where a few parked Aerflot planes sat desultorily in the sun. 

I was one of a growing army of offshore workers, with the necessary skills to facilitate Azerbaijan’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, being brought there, ultimately by BP, to kick off the modernisation of their offshore industry.

It was a heavy responsibility.

Since the early twentieth century when the Nobel and the Rothschild families made vast fortunes from the Baku oil industry, the country had become one of the greatest exporters of oil in the world, through a rickety infrastructure, threatening to fall down at any moment, but delivering the crude to Nobel’s tankers, tanker trains and away, into the burgeoning petroleum products market.

Over time pipelines and drilling rigs, improved and were updated as necessary.

The result being the hodgepodge that was in existence right up to 2000.

Fugro, the Dutch survey company had employed me through my agency, so they arranged for a car and driver to meet me and take me to an hotel, until the following day.

By the time I had organised my entrance visa, through the most bizarre system that I have ever seen, even in Africa, and collected my bag, the sun was down and it was becoming dark.

The exit from airside was through the duty-free, which was it seemed to me poorly stocked, but it had cigarettes for ten dollars a carton, who could resist?

The drive to the hotel was through the higgledy-piggledy part of the city that I had seen from the air. It categorically did not predispose itself.  The Red Roof hotel was not five, four or even three star. It was a dump in fact.

There were a lot of drunken Scotsman with whores in tow falling around the room that passed as the lounge and dining room.

I was very hungry so I paid my driver ten dollars to bring me to McDonald’s and back.

I had no idea at that time, that I had probably given him the equivalent of a month’s salary, to drive a short distance.

The following morning I found that the vessel the DSV Academic Tofiq Ismayilov, to which I was going was tied up alongside, and would be so for a month or maybe longer.

My job was to mobilise the Fugro ROV on board.

It all seemed very much in hand, but I was to do two six-week trips on board with two six-week periods at home, before the ROV even arrived.

Every night we went to town, paying the equivalent of a US dollar for a taxi, and five US dollars was a great deal of money to spend on beer in the city over the evening.

Nothing seemed to cost anything.

That was when Baku was the Wild West of the oil industry.

BP paid millions to bring the expertise out from Europe, even when the infrastructure wasn’t there for them.

That was the entropy, when money was poured in to Azerbaijan to build a cohesive system, and incredibly in the fourteen years between 2003 and 2017, it worked.

The chaos of expertise and infrastructure, thrown together in the early years, was shaken up by vast amounts of money poured in, and the Wild West became Aberdeen.

By 2010, everything was strictly controlled, even down to the amount of wine that one had on the flight from London. If more than two, there was a danger of breathalysation at the airport, and immediate turnaround if over the limit set by BP, which ended up at zero.

Everything that we did in the early days, by 2014 resulted in immediate termination.

It was more fun in the early days.

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