Saturday, June 21, 2008

Post-Soviet running: Baku, Moscow, St. Petersburg

Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, a new oil rich Caspian state. The city is being reborn. Everywhere you look there is construction staring you in the eyes. Azerbaijan is part of the European Neighborhood, and Baku in some ways, is the new east gates of Europe. It is the new energy center of the region and an alternative supplier for Europe.

Running in Baku is best if done in the morning, before the traffic picks up. 8AM is the cut off point. The drivers are ruthless and many of the cars are still the old Soviet types. The fumes they emit will give you a high – I don’t even want to think about what that means for the lungs.

I took off at 5.45AM from the Park Hyatt hotel for my 10 miles mid-week run. It was a quiet morning, like every morning in Baku. I went straight up Inshaatchilar Ave. (which is the street that goes slightly uphill from the hotel). From there I passed the Huseyn Javid Square and took Zahid Khalilov Str. to Matruat Ave. By now I was on the top of a hill, passing the AZTV headquarters. The view of the city underneath is fantastic. The day was just beginning, which made Baku seem quite innocent and soft, a major contrast to its daytime buzz. At some point I stumbled upon the Turkish Square, which is a nice park overlooking the Caspian Sea and Baku bay. A long set of stairs lead to Mehdi Huseyn St. From there you can connect with any of the perpendicular streets to end up at the Old City. I ran around it to Neftchilar Ave. This is Baku’s ocean beach drive. The sun was rising now. It was a perfect sunrise and I felt great. Basking in the sun, I thought about Europe and Azerbaijan. Integrating this strategic country into the EU makes so much sense on the one hand, but the prospect of this ever happening is so far away. Forgetting Azerbaijan would be a huge strategic blunder.

I made a u-turn at the Government House and tried to retrace my steps. It wasn’t a perfect go-back plan, but I managed to get to the hotel somehow – 11 miles later with a decent pace of 7.23 / mile. The next day I did the treadmill at the hotel gym and found out that my pedometer is off by half a K for every 10K. Frustrating.

Two days later we were in incredible Moscow. The city is flooded with glitter, hot cars, chicks in high-heels, and people generally looking good and feeling good. I set off running from my hotel on Tverskaya Street. I was looking for a comfortable 5 mile run; I returned 20 miles later, exhausted and dehydrated. At points I was so lost, I began to wonder whether I’d left Moscow city-center. I had no money on me to take a taxi and those that I asked for directions kept sending me in opposite ways. “Kuda Kremlin?” I would ask. People looked at me like I was crazy – maybe because I was running and sweaty and dirty; maybe because I was asking for directions to something that everyone knows where to find; or maybe because I was using Borut’s Russian speak, which really is more Croatian than Russian.

The fact that people were waiting for me to go to the Kremlin’s Armory museum kept me moving fast. In the end I did 19.80 miles in a little over 2h24min, with an average pace of 7.29m/h.

Making it through the museum was a nightmare after the run. My legs felt like they would explode, but I felt I owed it to Paola who was waiting for me at the hotel for over two hours. Anyhow, I ended up enjoying inspecting some of the treasures of the last Russian Czar and his family. The museum has an excellent armory room, with a collection from the Ottomans, Russians and Europeans armies. There is also a section displaying the famous Faberge eggs, which in their own right are impressive.

We met up with the Slovenian Ambassador that evening and his lovely wife, and together went to watch La Bayadere, a ballet performed by the Bolshoi. A masterpiece, and a must see, I think. The theater itself is less of a treat right now given that they are still renovating the main theater. After the performance we treated ourselves to a cocktail on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton hotel. The view of the Kremlin is breathtaking. Well worth the experience (and the expense!). Standing there looking at the Red Square, on my second day in Moscow, I felt this was a country on the rise. The raw capitalism on display in Moscow is something I’ve never seen, anywhere. The country is getting richer and Russians are putting it on display. It’s a different Russia than I imagined.

The next day we found ourselves in St. Petersburg, a city of eternal sunshine during its month of summer. I set off for my Sunday 13 miles at 9.30PM. The sun was still high up, and had I not been on the running, I’d still be chilling in one of the street bars, drinking a cold beer and wearing my sunglasses. I took off from my hotel next to the Kazan Cathedral towards the river, passing St. Isaac’s cathedral. Once at the river, I turned left and crossed the last bridge over. The run on the other side was less inspiring. It was mostly through residential parts of St. Petersburg. On the way back I passed the fortress of Peter the Great, the Hermitage museum, and the Palace Square. I made it back to the hotel just after passing the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. I managed an average speed of 7.11 minutes/mile.

The energy of St. Petersburg seems eternal, and so do the tourists that crowd the streets. The last part can be a bit annoying, frankly. The food is excellent at Terrassa, a rooftop restaurant above Vanity store – everything with salmon and caviar was delicious. For a true Petersburg experience you must treat yourself to a beer from one of the street vendors. The locals sip it 24/7- I guess it’s a way of getting through the insomnia inducing white nights.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

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