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Or me inside the Mercedes, looking equally baffled for the same reason: that Azerbaijan's share of Caspian Sea oil reserves is reckoned to be at least £50 billion, but none will find its way into the country until the companies pay off their development costs in a year's time, and even then much of it may well end up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians and businessmen. "I am sorry, sir, but the emu is only served at evening time," said the waiter carefully.

When I returned to town in the afternoon, the rain was still falling.

Along the shore stretched the gloriously lunatic mansions of the 19th-century oil barons.

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In carpet shops, negotiations began, faltered and continued over endless cups of tea, until tourists emerged blinking into the drizzle, clutching rolls of wool and silk on which pearls of rain were already beginning to form. To the south of Baku it fell on the abandoned Soviet oilfields, a scene out of Mad Max by way of the Kremlin.

Amid the rusting oil derricks, baffled cows pottered about in pools of oil and ruined water, calling out softly to each other.

Today, foreigners are still so rare that as you walk past the people blink in amazement. I arrived in Baku, the capital, in the middle of the night, driving through streets where only the flower shops were open, selling lilies to romantic insomniacs.

I rose next morning as dawn broke over the medieval quarter to reveal a scene which, apart from the presence of Mc Donald's, Mothercare and a mobile phone shop, had not changed in 400 years.

Farther south, it fell on a barbed-wire encampment where for the price of a bottle of vodka the guards would let you in to gaze on row upon row of abandoned Soviet tanks glistening dourly in the moonlight.

It fell on Fisherman's Wharf, an expat restaurant, where from a waiter with an accent halfway between Baku and Boston I found myself ordering a chip butty.

Azerbaijan is fascinating because of the influences that have shaped it in the past, and because at the moment it is going through the turmoil that Marx called dialectic, when one political system becomes another.

It is the drama of which epic narratives are made: great to write about, grim to live through.

In the northern suburbs, vast Soviet apartment blocks stood apparently derelict.

Until I saw hanging from a balcony a row of white shirts, growing grey in the rain.

A few miles on, in the shadow of a rusting factory, a shepherd sat by a guillotine, waiting for someone who could afford a headless sheep for supper.

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