Azerbaican Havayollari

May 28, 2023

Dr Ajaz Anwar shares memories of his journey by Azerbaijan Airlines

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— Image: Supplied


Not many know that back in the day the most efficient and cost-effective travel — Karachi-London-Karachi — though not quite favoured, used to be by Azerbaijan Airlines.

I was supposed to be in London to attend a meeting with HP Tollinton’s descendant family members. Having failed to secure seats in our national airline that claimed to have Great People To Fly With, an aspiring new travel agent confirmed return tickets for me and my wife — to my utter amazement. This had been facilitated by Martin Hathaway, who had come from York (UK) and commissioned me to paint Kim’s Gun. (Incidentally, Hathaway was also interested in saving the heritage icon of Lahore which the original Lahore Conservation Society founding members had been vehemently campaigning for.)

When we came to know about the Tollinton family’s annual gathering over lunch at the Church of Holy Innocents in Hammersmith, we decided to travel on our own meagre resources. The visa posed no problem; the once most efficient airline in the world, however, was no longer interested in flying full capacity. The hefty visa processing fee was an irritant. Having got the various NOCs from different ministries and the permission to leave the country did help.

It was a post-9/11 world in which everyone was a suspect. Before boarding, we had to place our shoes in a plastic tray and walk through the constantly blinking metal gate. It was after we had been frisked anatomically for any body mass that we were allowed to collect our shoes.

My strange, accompanying luggage that included a foldable easel, a not-easy-to-open paint box, and some sketches and prints of my paintings, while a large watercolour of Tollinton Market was being repaired, folded and placed in a big tube, added to the anguish of the customs officials. As we got our boarding passes and marched towards Wright Brothers’ flying machine, there were welcoming smiles and familiar etymological sounds that greeted us. Lo and behold! They were speaking Turkish — Hos geldiniz was repeated by all.

Hos bulduk was our prompt response. I was more than thrilled to converse with them in their mother tongue. All signboards and instructions were written in Turkish (Roman script). Beautiful girls in their teens, or early twenties, courteously led us to our allotted seats and helped fasten and adjust our seat belts.

As the taxiing plane suddenly gained height, it was time to enjoy their hospitality. Lavish hi-tea was followed by mildly hard drinks; though they didn’t have the word icki in their vocabulary. Supplements were on offer too.

Soon we were asked to fasten our seat belts again. The plane was descending. After it came to a halt and we were allowed to beeline towards the exit, it transpired that this was not London’s Heathrow Airport; we had a layover in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.

Three hours later, boarding began. The only inconvenience we had was to have to go through the entire body screening and taking off our shoes and collecting them after they had been scanned.

There was more to come. (Though, I must confess that I was solely responsible for my misery.) I happened to leave the plastic tube that contained my big watercolour painting, on the other side of the frisking zone. After a lot of cajoling and convincing, I was allowed to grab my item on the condition that I’d come through the entire scanning and screening process all over again.

Now I knew that the secret behind the airline’s affordable ticket prices was the fact that it would combine passengers from two planes. There was still more to it: the tickets were non-refundable.

Our recess time was spent exploring the duty-free shop with elegant sales girls. Soon an Azerbaijani on the security/ steward, upon learning that I could speak their language, requested me to mediate a dispute with a Pakistani passenger who had dropped his finger ring in the previous plane. The kind steward sneaked into the abandoned plane and located the lost ring and returned it to its rightful owner. He now wanted to be rewarded for it. But the owner was adamant that Allah would reward him in the Hereafter. It was disappointing to see that the Azerbaijani who had risked breaching the security of the emptied plane, was denied any monetary concession.

Soon it was time to be frisked again, and to drop and then collect our shoes. But it was pleasant to be greeted by the same fistik-like hostesses serving culinary delights that included lokum, bulbul yuvasi (which literally means the nightingale’s nest, with two green pistachios sitting in it like the bird’s droppings), and Imam bayildi (meaning ‘even the imam wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation’).


Fly time is different from the sun-dial time. Soon we were ready to fasten our seat belts, as our airplane touched down at Heathrow.

Upon exiting the aerodrome domain, we hailed the notoriously expensive Black Cab and headed towards IBIS Hotel where we had always stayed. Though they offered ‘loyalty’ rewards, they weren’t economical; in fact, they always charged the guests hefty amounts in advance.

The following day, Hathaway was scheduled to meet us at the Tollintons’ gathering. Though we had day passes for the Tube, it was advised that we study the travel stations’ guide chart on the wall. The minute our desired tube arrived, we rushed in. After about three stops, we realised that the tube that carried the Tollinton painting had been missed because we were busy reading the tube guide.

Anyway, we did not panic because we knew that this wasn’t the Lahore Railway Station. After boarding another tube, we returned. To our horror, the packet had gone missing. We checked with the duty guard who tried to spell my name, which meant that he had read it written in bold letters on a parcel. Soon he brought it with him. The parcel had been opened for inspection of its contents. The guard advised us to be very careful in post-9/11 world.


Hammersmith was a long way to go. Hathaway’s cell phone too was not responding (it was later that I learnt that his device had been disabled).

Nobody could successfully explain to our cab driver as to where the church was located. Luckily, a cleric saw us and was courteous enough to guide the driver.

As we arrived at the venue, the meeting was in full swing. We presented some greeting cards that depicted the Old Lahore, and displayed the Tollinton painting. It did not seem to interest them. Hathaway, too, was dismayed at their passivity.

We returned to Lahore and got the great news that the icon of Lahore was being restored. The painting that we had hoped somebody from Tollinton family would buy, thus mitigating some travel expenses, was acquired in Lahore by Burhanuddin Khan.

After 1864, Tollinton was re-opened to public and my exhibition was the inaugural exhibition on January 19, 2006. It was facilitated by Mrs Naheed Rizvi.

p.s.: It has recently appeared in the press that the airline is to start flights to and from Baku.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the anonymous airhostess)

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at

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