Monday, July 26, 2010

The Lada Legend: Besh Barmagh and Sumqayit – Part One

Five fingers. Not an answer to the question “How many fingers am I holding up?” but rather a rock formation north of Baku. Why is it named as such? From a specific angle, it looks like there are five rocks jutting up that form a “hand.” Historically, the formation is a religious site. People make their way up the hill to kiss a stone, give alms to beggars, and take in the stunning vistas.

The Lada brain trust wasn’t as interesting in kissing stones as it was taking the Colonel up the steep dirt road. Five hundred metres up, in fact. It was also Dorje’s last major trip, so we had to do something interesting.

Sunday morning. We were all excited to get on the road. I made my way downstairs to the parking lot only to find that the back right tire was completely flat. So flat that when we took the tire off, it was no longer circular…permanently. Great. Time to get into Lada problem solving mode—something we have done a lot of over the last five months.

First problem: no jack. Second problem: our spare is in worse shape than the flat tire. We briefly considered trying to lift the car, but then figured we might actually cause more damage that way. Our saviour arrived in a 1976 Lada 1300. His name was Sergo. A Georgian, he came to Azerbaijan in 1976 on a business trip with the military. Thirty-four years later he is still in Azerbaijan. When I explained what I did for a living, he asked if we needed any diesel generator work done at our company.

I made sure to compliment his car (it was a fine piece of Soviet machinery after all) and allude to the fact that we had a flat tire and needed a jack. Needless to say, Sergo is a man prepared. We jacked up the Colonel, took off the tire, and then took off on foot in search of someone that could remove the tire and someone that could sell us a new tire.

A group of foreigners walking around with a Lada wheel is something you can definitely add to the list of “things that turn heads in Azerbaijan.” One group of guys asked us what on earth we were doing carrying a tire around. Our answer provided much amusement, but they ended up pointing us in the direction of a tire store.

Thirty minutes later, we had the wheel with the new tire back on the Colonel. Time to hit the road.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Lada Legend: Out on the Town

One of the things you have to do when you own a Lada is show it off around town. Let’s be honest, the Colonel turns heads. Whether it’s because of its dashing good looks or excruciatingly loud engine, sadly we will never know. What is for sure is that the Colonel was made to be on the scene. So we decided to take it to the newest and fanciest restaurant in town.

The original plan was to pull up in front of the restaurant, have photographers staged out front that would document the pomp and circumstance of us getting out of the car, then flip the keys to the valet so he could park it. Unfortunately the restaurant has not yet implemented a valet system. Worse yet, the entire street in front of the place was closed because none other than President Lukashenka of Belarus graced the restaurant with his presence.

Instead, we ended up parked under a tree next a Range Rover. Not exactly the grand entrance we had planned. Alas, I’m pretty sure I saw the Prez give his nod of approval as we drove by. He knows a quality Soviet automobile when he sees one.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Lada Legend: Our First Great Voyage – Part 2

The Colonel may look a lot more at home in the regions, but it was most certainly built for city driving. In Baku, no grade is steeper than probably 4%. Compare that to the regions where you’ll find grades pushing 14%. If only the Colonel could talk….

The road from the cafe winds its way up, switchback style, for about fifteen kilometres. Poor Colonel Mustard. We passed cafe after cafe promising “the best view of the valley below” and succulent “lule kebab”. Or was it kebab lule? I can never remember. There were even a few dubious “rest zones” and “rest centres” near the top. I always wonder how much rest you can really get at places like that.

Eventually we made it to the top of the ridge and began are descent into Shamaxi. It was here that the guy from the other car we were travelling with requested that he take some pictures of the Colonel from his car because “it looks ridiculous.” We never did see those pictures.

Shamaxi is famous for one thing: a caged bear. It sits right on the edge of town outside two hotel/restaurants. Passersby can stop and marvel at the king of the forest or even feed it the remainder of a Snickers bar or bottle of Coca-Cola. Anyone that has ever seen a bear in the wilderness will tell you this bear is among the most decrepit you will ever see. It’s quite sad, really. I wonder if this bear will one day suffer the same fate as the mythical “Gebele” bear.

The next day we headed back to Baku. It was a largely uneventful voyage save for being stopped by the cops at a checkpoint. I happened to pass a truck inside the no pass zone (oops). This was witnessed by one of the cops inside the checkpoint office. As I approached, he came running out of the office with his orange wand and directed me over to the side of the road. I obeyed and pulled over. My strategy again: pretend not to speak Russian or Azerbaijani. It worked last time, so chances are it would work again.

The cop came up to the window and greeted me in Azerbaijani. I shrugged my shoulders. He then tried Russian. That elicited the same response. Perplexed, he took a look at each person in the car (a Nepalese guy, a white girl, and a black girl), realized that none of them could speak his language, wrinkled his face in disgust at a wasted opportunity to levy a fine on some unsuspecting foreigners, and waved us on our way.

Twenty kilometres later, the Colonel was safely parked in its usual spot. All in all, we travelled five hundred kilometres. A good test, indeed.