Tofiq Bahramov, the ‘Russian linesman’

Last weekend England beat Norway 0 – 1 in a friendly football match at Oslo. Great Britain beat Norway at Eurovision too, although this was hardly cause for celebration as coming 25th, just a few points above 26th-placed Norway at the very bottom, is really nothing to be proud of. Many admire ‘null point’ Norway’s steely determination to achieve dependably low scores in this annual cheesy telefest, but those behind the Great Britain entry probably expected far more. But what what can you expect from a septuagenarian crooner named after an obscure German opera composer?

As we all now know, this year’s Eurovision was held in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. The jury is still out as to whether this ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus geographically belongs to Europe or not but, for the purposes of this competition, Azerbaijan is as much a part of Europe as Norway or France…or even Israel.

I travelled to Baku back in 2000 and returned once more for a brief stay in 2010. In 2000, Baku had seemed quite a threadbare sort of place but by the time of my second visit the Azeri capital had visibly enlarged upwards and outwards to resemble a high-rise building site, with lofty buildings mushrooming near the port like blue glass monoliths. Now there was ferocious traffic too, but I braved this to seek out the Tofiq Bahramov football stadium in the north of the city. The national stadium, which had originally been a contender for the Eurovison 2012 venue, was not easy to reach on foot and necessitated the hazardous crossing of lanes of teeming city traffic. It would seem as if one of the consequences of rapid urban development is to make travel through the city on foot difficult, undesirable and even unwise. Planners seem to assume that, given shopping malls, high-rise offices and a blanket spread of MacDonalds outlets, the hapless pedestrian will happily abandon bipedalism for more appropriate means of locomotion. Clearly, those of us preferring foot power just stand in the way of progress with our unreasonable demands for footpaths, pavements and pedestrian crossings. But I digress.

The England football team’s most glorious moment back in 1966 may well owe a debt to Azerbaijan.  The sympathetic ‘Russian linesman’ at the 1966 world cup was actually an Azeri national named Tofiq Bahramov, although at the time Azerbaijan was an autonomous republic within the USSR. It was Bahramov who decided that Geoff Hurst’s extra time shot that bounced off the crossbar had actually crossed the line – a controversial decision that proved to be a vital turning point in the game in England’s favour. The final 4-2 scoreline clinched it. After the game, Bahramov, along with the referee and the other linesman,  received a golden whistle for his duties from HM the Queen. We can only presume that he would still have been given it even if England  had lost the final.

A statue of Tofiq Bahramov blowing a whistle in refereeing pose stands outside the national stadium that has borne his name since his death in 1993. The statue was unveiled in 2006 when England came to Baku to play Azerbaijan and none less than Geoff Hurst turned up to make a speech at the ceremony; FIFA president Sepp Blatter also attended. Ironically perhaps, the stadium, built in the shape of a ‘C’ to honour Stalin (C = S in the Cyrillic alphabet), was partially constructed by German prisoners during World War II. Bahramov had himself fought against the German army during WWII and on his death bed more or less admitted having a pro-English prejudice at the 1966 final –  an apocryphal story tells that when asked why he allowed the goal to stand he simply said, ‘Stalingrad’.

Ghosts of the Aral Sea

To continue from the earlier post about a hotel that thought itself a ship, here are some more landlocked boats. These, though, are real ones – the rusting remains of what was once a large fishing fleet on the Aral Sea in central Asia. The Aral Sea, which at one time was the world’s third largest inland sea, has shores in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Or rather it did have – it has now almost completely dried up (you might want to check it out on Google Earth).

It is a depressingly familiar story – large scale environmental damage thanks to government incompetence. In this case, the government was that of the Soviet Union, which diverted a vast volume of fresh water from the Aral Sea in order to grow huge expanses of cotton in Uzbekistan – a very thirsty crop in a very hot country. The fishing fleet used to catch several species of fish here, and much of the haul was transported an awful long way by train to the Baltic coast for canning. The main fishing port on the southern shore was Moynaq. Now the boats lie stranded just off the former shoreline. The water, such that remains – saturated with pollutants and virtually devoid of fish – lies hundreds of kilometres to the north.

Given mass employment, isolation, heavy metal pollution and an uncaring post-Soviet government in far off Tashkent, Moynaq is not a happy place.

I visited Moynaq by taxi from Nukus to the south. It was certainly the longest taxi ride I have ever taken – 220 kilometres each way – but even so I managed to bargain a return fare of just $60 (petrol is cheap in Uzbekistan, so is time). The road was surprisingly good, and we speeded north through Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan that translates literally as ‘the land of the black hats’), through a flat landscape of cotton fields, reed beds and poplars yellowing with the arrival of autumn. The driver put his foot down and it took just a little over two hours to arrive at the erstwhile port.

In Moynaq, the scene from the ‘shore’ was both poignant and surreal: scrubby vegetation, sand and rotting boat hulks as far as the eye could see, everything shimmering slightly in a heat haze – the unwordly setting for a Sergio Leone Western that would never be made. My journal records it as ‘a sort of post-apolcayptic Wells-next-the-Sea where the tide never comes in’, and that seems reasonable enough. Away from the absent sea, the town itself, with its depressed air, street corner groups of listless youths and tangible taint of pollution, simply gave the impression that even with full employment, fishing and fresh water it would still be a dump. Now Moynaq was just a neglected and forgotten backwater… without the water.

(For another tale about another former Soviet fishing port now fallen on hard times you can read this about Balykchy, a threadbare port on Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul.)

Nukus, where I had based myself for the dash to the rusting Aral fleet, was marginally better, although it had none of the Silk Road allure of other cities in Uzbekistan like Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva, which despite heavy-handed reconstruction still hold  romantic appeal. Oddly enough, what Nukus does have is an incredible art collection. The Karakalpak Museum of Arts has a fantastic display of modernist work from the 1920s and 1930s that was collected by the artist Igor Savitsky (1915-84) and safely squirrelled away here in this distant corner of the former USSR. Here, far from Moscow, supposedly counter-revolutionary work such as that of the Russian avant garde managed not only to survive but also to go on display alongside ‘approved’ works of Soviet realism. There are even some who say that, in terms of Russian and Soviet art, the Nukus gallery is second only to the far more famous collection in St Petersburg’s Hermitage.

The Tarka Trail

There’s a walk through Norwich’s western edgeland that Jackie and I must have done a hundred times. It begins close to a supermarket at Eaton, Norwich’s wealthy southern suburb, and follows the bank of the meandering River Yare upstream towards the broad at the University of East Anglia before the river veers west towards its central Norfolk source. A peaceful walk, frequented by just the odd suburban dog-walker and jogger, it is the epitome of the countryside in the city or, rather, its leafy urban fringe. Drooping willows frame the water, small fish swim, birds tweet in the bushes and reedbeds; herons and kingfishers are regularly sighted along the river. The houses on the opposite bank, with their expansive back gardens and private river frontage, give rise to occasional bouts of envy but on the whole we are simply happy to have the opportunity to walk somewhere like this so close to home.

From the car park where the walk begins, a path leads to the river next to the medieval bridge that once marked the principal route into Norwich from the south. There is an attractive white wooden mill house here, a gushing weir and a NO FISHING sign. The path follows the river under a flyover that carries the bulk of traffic into the city these days – at weekends, a constant buzz of cars speeding into Norwich for retail therapy. Compared to the fine curves and warm sandstone of the nearby bridge, this has all the charm of a multi-storey car park: quotidian concrete and murky, permanently shaded water sheltering that ubiquitous creature of the urban waterway – a supermarket shopping trolley. A Ballardian microcosm, this edgeland non-place provokes an interruption in the pastoral flow of the walk; a frontier to be crossed (or underpassed) before continuing along the riverbank beyond. The smooth round pillars that hold up the flyover are splattered with spray-can ciphers – warnings and portents perhaps? A couple spell out ANARCHY, or words to that effect. Another graffito, more considered, pronounces HAPPINESS DOES NOT HAVE A BAR-CODE.

On Monday, our walk took an unexpected and delightful turn when we spotted a solitary otter at the mill pond near the bridge. Oblivious to the sign prohibiting fishing, the animal was busy hunting – diving and then resurfacing with just its head showing above the water like a small sleek Labrador. We knew that otters were frequently seen in the area by early-worm fishermen but we had never seen one here ourselves. This time, we were privileged. We watched in silence as the animal worked its way along the water’s edge, shaking the reeds at their base and leaving tell-tale trails of bubbles as it swam underwater. It eventually disappeared somewhere near the weir, just before the flyover, and we remarked on how lucky we had been to have had such a good view.

Five minutes later, I was just about to say something sagacious like, ‘It could be a year before we see one again’, when another otter –  probably the same, earlier one displaced further upstream – surfaced beneath a drooping willow. The animal progressed through the reeds at the river’s edge for some time before swimming to the opposite bank, foraging there awhile before returning midstream to dive once more with an effortless flex of its back. We followed it upstream for a full half hour, the otter hyperactive for most of the time – diving for fish, snuffling through vegetation, occasionally sneaking a look back at the two humans and one small dog that were politely in pursuit. We drew so close that we could hear teeth crunching bone as the animal munched the fish it had caught, the otter’s noisy chewing just one aural ingredient in a soundscape that included other familiar echos of the urban fringe in May: small birds chirruping, an overenthusiastic cuckoo (the first heard of the year), chiffchaffs chiff-chaffing, a background thrum of cars on the flyover and the distant eye-ore of the Cambridge train’s air-horn.

We lost track of the otter somewhere in the wider stretch of the river that leads to UEA Broad. It did not matter: our unexpected encounter had been far in excess of anything than we might have hoped for. It didn’t even matter that I did not have my camera with me: if anything, it was liberating to simply observe without the nagging distraction of having to keep a digital record.

Walking back to the car park, I made a short diversion back to the bridge on the off chance that the animal had returned there. No sign. Turning to leave, a metallic blue bullet flashed close to the water and darted beneath the arch of the medieval bridge: a kingfisher, often spotted here but hitherto unseen on this red letter day for wildlife. Happiness does not have a bar-code. True enough.

Lake Baikal

Listvankya on the northern shore of Lake Baikal in east Siberia is a small fishing village and port that also serves as a holiday destination for Russians in the short Siberian summer. By late September summer is definitely over and there was a melancholy end-of-season feel about the place when I visited in 2010. It was also surprisingly cold and the fact that Lake Baikal freezes so solidly in winter that you can drive trucks over it seemed perfectly believable.

This was the furthest east I got on that trip, having arrived in the nearby city of Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow. The Russian tourists had all left Listvyanka by the time I arrived and apart from a few fishermen, a handful of locals and a large population of ravens I had the place very much to myself.