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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tinky Treated as Trash, De Gaulle Like Royalty

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- If one more person tells me that spring is just around the corner, I think I'll go mad. In Georgia, the trees are in blossom and no one is wearing fur coats and woolly hats any more. But in Baku, it's still as gray and miserable as it was in November.

I'm even starting to envy the men dressed as Teletubbies who stand in Fountain Square trying to persuade children to have their photographs taken with them. At least they're warm inside their grubby padded suits.

When it does get warmer it won't be much fun, but then the heat is the least of their worries. Last summer I watched two policemen chase a man dressed as Tinky Winky across the square and down an alley, where they took off his head and beat him with their truncheons. The last I saw, Tinky Winky was being bundled into the back of a police car.

"No license," the policemen told me when I asked what was going on. Tinky Winky made the sort of gesture not usually associated with Teletubbies and then he was driven away. I haven't seen him since.

Still, the cold weather gave me an excuse to join Fuad Akhundov, scholar, historian and devotee of his homeland, on his walking tour of Baku's old town.

We began at the statue of Sabir, an early 20th-century Azeri poet favored by the communists because he made gentle fun of the mullahs. The pensive Sabir still looks across Istiglaliyat Street at where Baku's only Islamic bookshop now stands.

We walked on past caravanserais on the shore of the Caspian Sea, where merchants on their way from Persia once docked their boats before continuing north by camel toward the Black Sea.

"And this," said Fuad, pointing to a gothic building with spooky turrets, "is where General Charles de Gaulle stayed on his way to see Stalin in Moscow at the end of World War II. Not many people know that."

It was too dangerous to travel across continental Europe, so de Gaulle set off for Cairo, made his way overland to Iran and then traveled north toward Stalingrad and Moscow.

"He was treated like a king in Baku," Fuad said. "Of course everything was in short supply because of the war, and there was great alarm when the military band couldn't find any white silk gloves."

Luckily, a group of white-gloved naval officers had been evacuated to Baku from St. Petersburg and de Gaulle was given a royal welcome when he stepped off the train.

If you do one thing next time you are in Baku, take one of Fuad's fascinating tours. I'm going back next week for more.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.