So the next day, I was up quite early and headed for the metro, which I now knew the location of. Getting a ticket was a minor hassle. This, it turned out, was about the one place where people did nearly all wear masks. But it still seemed frustratingly so unnecessary. Actually quite a nice Metro system – much nicer than New York’s I would say, which is horrible, old, dirty, and complicated. I went three stops on the red line as advised by Natig. I was then more or less in the city centre area, but near to the sea, which I walked towards. This area was a bit like Cardiff Bay (although not many people about), with no beach. I wandered around, bought another, this time quite expensive, ice cream from a friendly vendor.
At some stage I checked and saw that the museum was closed on a Monday, so I was going to have to make that tomorrow’s trip. I thought I’d venture into the old town. For old town, read: tourist trap. As with many cities that have an older area, there are some quite attractive old buildings, but lots of shops selling all kinds of stuff, and here was about the only place where people were quite happy taking money from you – and don’t even think about haggling. One shop near the main entrance to this area was selling Wales/Turkey scarves, and I contemplated buying one after having got a Wales/Switzerland scarf at that game. The guy said 15 manat, and he was not going down to 10 manat. By the time I returned about an hour later, instead of him being desperate to sell, he must have sensed my urgency to buy, as I’m sure he now said it was 50 manat, certainly not less than 20.
I did however meet an old guy who claimed to have opened the first shop in this area, perhaps a bit like Richard Booth in Haye on Wye. We chatted for a while. I decided I quite liked an old watch he had for sale which was red and white, so I showed him how it matched my Lucky Strike tattoo. I did buy this, and a badge, for around 40 manat, so not that much. He showed me more of his wares inside.
I wandered back to get a metro back to base and just could not find one again. I asked a couple of people. I stopped a woman in a floral dress who actually spoke quite good English. She walked on a little way, and then told me I’d need a mask…if I’d had any sense, especially with time on my hands, this could have been someone I might have asked to lunch, given her language skills, but something stopped me. I might have seen the flash of a ring on her finger.
I think that afternoon (perhaps it was the day before) I watched a bit of the Holland v Ukraine game. I’d been told by someone that you’re not supposed to call the Netherlands Holland any more, and I googled about this and supposedly it’s because Holland is only a region of the Netherlands. But Holland is so much easier to say. Older people like me will probably still keep calling it Holland. Seemed like the game of the tournament so far.
I thought I’d try one last gasp attempt with the girl in the phone shop. I strolled back there, and as luck would have it, the guy was not in the office. I left her my number. It seemed now though that she might not be so keen to push me after all. I did get a text about ten minutes later, but whatever I might have thought she’d meant before, after a couple of messages exchanged – I at least learned her name – some translated, some left to be translated, it was definitely not happening now. Sod this, I thought, and I got in touch with Rich to meet up and watch the Scotland game.
The Scotland game was a bit of a letdown, with Marshall, the hero in getting them to the tournament, straying off his line further than I think I’d ever seen a keeper stray to allow the second Czech goal.
We went to a couple more bars. We met a guy who fancied himself as an impersonator. At one point I was certain I saw the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen – beautiful dark hair. Quite a few stunners in this part of the world (I should point out I’ve been unattached for too long, in case you hadn’t guessed). I think Richard must have been starting to think I was a right loony as I got pretty pissed yet again.
Fortunately though, I did manage to get up reasonably early, and without a hangover as the next day I wanted to first make it to the museum before on to a pool party that had been arranged for Welsh fans.
The Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, who I’m sure I’ve seen a TV programme about, is an absolutely stunning building, surrounded by large grassy walkways. Inside, it is a real delight to walk around, with spectacular views from just about every angle of the building. The actual content you might say is a tiny bit lacking in quantity, but it beats being bored to tears by monotonous portrait after portrait in tedious rectangular rooms. I loved the art on the ground floor. On floors two and three are some more traditional relics. And then you think you might have seen everything when you look round, and there is more on each floor that you hadn’t discovered. So I went back and saw puppets on one floor, which were good fun, some other older stuff. The fourth floor housed donations from various important people. I don’t know if it was the most expensive item, but there was a gold watch donated by President Putin. As I walked around this area, I was followed quietly by a guard. I really, really loved this place, and enjoyed a coffee on the ground floor before heading off for some fun by the sea.
I got a Bolt for a few manat to a beach hotel where they were charging 30 manat for the pool party, which included one free beer. I’d have had no reluctance to pay it, but the taxi driver dropped me off nearer to the back. I got in through the back way and quite quickly realised I probably was not going to have to pay. Good to see all the Welsh lads and lasses again enjoying a beer, stomachs out now, as a DJ played our favourite tunes, Zombie Nation, etc. I had a couple of beers, then strolled down to the sea just as a couple of others had, and had my first dip in the Caspian Sea. There were oil rigs not far off the coast, and the water did not look particularly clean. Not the best idea to light a fag here the one guy joked! To be honest, after this, I felt, particularly as I hadn’t paid and had come alone, that I’d kind of seen enough. It was only the following day I was told I’d missed out on everyone actually getting into the pool and having a dance. But then again, I hadn’t brought my bathers!
Today was also going to be the day that we were going to have to get yet another test in Baku. Really seemed ridiculous to me the number of times we were going to have to reassure whoever that we were perfectly healthy, paying large sums in order to do so. It was a bit early for the test, but near the testing centre, here I got talking to a guy called Steve, also known as Merlin, he told me. Yet another Englishman supporting Wales. It was a bit uncanny.
But Steve and I went for a couple of pints and some food nearby. Steve was the first person I spoke to who had a similar attitude with regards to the lockdowns, restrictions, etc. He had an almost identical viewpoint in fact which was that he didn’t know or care why what was going on was going on, he was not particularly interested in any conspiracy theories, etc. but he was just sure, as I am, that there are a lot of people making money from the situation and that all the rules and regulations need to stop. For me, the pettiness in pubs for example, where you can have a pint, but are expected to then wear a mask to make the short walk outside for a cigarette. It is all now just ritualistic and tokenism.
I had respect for him being someone in his late fifties who does have a spot of asthma but was not incentivised to get the vaccine. I was surprised though that in spite of his viewpoint, he had not even heard of Event 201 (which is not a conspiracy theory, but a Corona virus simulation event that took place in October 2019, funded by Bill Gates), did not know that Chris Whitty was given £30 million in funding by Bill Gates, etc. Merlin recommended that I re-read 1984 when I got home (interesting that he assumed I’d already read it), which I since have done. I’m actually certain if I had read it before, but what a phenomenal and very telling book.
He did say one of the reasons he’d made this trip was just to prove to himself mainly that it was possible in spite of everything, and Merlin was of the opinion that all of us who’d made it deserved a medal!
We had a good long chat about all sorts, mainly football I suppose. Coventry was his club team, and I told him I’d been up there a number of times for poker tournaments at the Ricoh and had also mentioned I’d seen Cardiff play Coventry in a Cup game when they were playing at Northampton’s stadium. This was the first game I covered for my book, The Blues Are Back in Town, which along with reminiscing about my life as a Cardiff fan, reflects on the season Cardiff went back to blue having been forced to change to red.
Well, then it was about time for the test, which just struck me as a pointless obligation, but it was over in no time, and I then headed back for an earlyish night, watching some of the games in this year’s Group of Death, ie. Hungary v Portugal (Hungary being very unlucky after having a goal disallowed fairly late on before then conceding three) and France v Germany.