Thursday, October 29, 2009
Azerbaijan...the definitive guide...
Azerbaijan - not a ‘stan’ but could be if it wanted to…
I have never set out to produce the definitive guide of anything. It’s an impossible task if you were visiting holiday paradises like Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan. But, I was not. I was visiting Azerbaijan and I had it on good authority that you could see everything that is to be seen in a week and, upon flying in over the Absheron peninsula, it seemed plausible to me. Now, you would not be wrong if you referred to my version of travel tales as ‘skewed’. Coming from Sudan, it is difficult to arrive anywhere else in the world without a sense of euphoric celebration over things like tarmacked roads, running water and electricity. So, when I declared that Azerbaijan was ‘just like heaven.’ My friend couldn't help but agree while dryly pointing out and swerving to avoid (or hit?) a pedestrian and another car simultaneously, ‘but it’s not. It’s Azerbaijan.’
Absheron Peninsula – where pollution goes to die…
When you visit – and oh, you’re going to want to visit - starting with the Absheron peninsula is a spectacularly good idea. Mostly because as soon as you discover the rest of the country you will be able to identify the peninsula for the boring, polluted, monochrome desert wasteland that it is. And, having seen a few desert wastelands in my time, I don’t use the term ‘wasteland’ lightly. Not far outside Baku, there are miles and miles of charred, industrial stew left as a testament to the damage the Soviets can do when they really put their minds to it. It’s like being in a day-after movie if the day before was the nuclear holocaust. The not-to-miss highlight being ‘Shamrock Lake’ a depressing mile-long, chemical-spewed puddle the same colour as Chicago’s rivers on Saint Paddy’s day.
It is impossible to come to Azerbaijan without discussing oil. There are behemoth oil platforms and pumps just about everywhere. With the oil table higher than the water table in places people, literally, have them in their backyards. The oil platforms jutting out of the Caspian ruin the view but no one seems to notice given that it’s making the elite very, very rich and because it gives them more free time to focus on their national pastime: driving very, very badly.
Once you leave behind the cataclysmic, environmental disaster zone, drive on until you reach a nondescript dirt track leading over a railroad track, an oil pipeline, through a herd of sheep and up a mountain where you’ll reach the mud volcanoes which burble along nicely only intruded on by foreigners who come to take pictures of, well, the mud. They’re mesmerizing for about five and half minutes but then you’ll want to head toward the Qobustan maximum security prison. Outside of which you will find “a roman ruin”.
I put that in quotes to express my incredulity. The handwriting that marks how far east the Romans made it looks suspiciously like the handwriting used to identify petroglyphs on the rocks above. No one can convince me otherwise. A word on petroglyphs. You might not know what they are. You might not care. (They’re cave drawings – essentially) but if you’re into museums you have not lived until you’ve seen the petroglyph museum. These pictures do it little justice.
Dagestan…not as far away as you might think
The beauty of Azerbaijan is that it’s conveniently located so close to the rest of the Caucus’ and, while mostly peaceful, it does give a sense of what all the trouble in the region is all about. Ethnic groups are piled one on top of the other and we all know how well that usually turns out. Visiting Qubo gives you a good sense of this where there is a small Jewish community plonked down smack dab in the middle of this – albeit secular – Muslim country.
Krasnaya Slobada, the Jewish enclave, promised a headless Lenin. Having no small interest in disfigured post-Soviet relics I was disappointed to find that, while still sitting on the mayor’s lawn, it has been disfigured beyond recognition – probably to keep the tourists at bay. Qubo also boasts an exceptionally good lunch and the road to Khiniliq.
(You know, Khiniliq…prounounced exactly as it’s spelled) and Dagestan. I understand that there are ‘hill-people’ in Khiniliq and Russians in Dagestan. I didn’t see either because some people in the car – who shall remain nameless – were afraid of plunging to their deaths and being arrested by the FSB…in that order. I’ll say no more. You know who you are.
‘Gotta see a guy…about a carpet’
Driving back to Baku you realise it is built on several hills – one of which is dominated by a television tower which, in a nod toward that brilliant Turkmeni tradition, is lit up neon colours at night (but disappointingly goes off at 1am). Baku has the faint whiff of Barcelona to it what with the hills, and harbour, and all. On my first day I was introduced to Samir, who sells carpets out of a small shop at the foot of the old city. Samir speaks English as I speak Russian – unhindered by grammatical conjugations and tense. Later in the trip he would declare:
“Cheki is known as the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, until today.”
“Maybe you mean, ‘it remains the cultural capital to this day,” we corrected him. “Not, ‘it was the cultural capital until today – when the Americans showed up – thus ruining the culture for all time’ which is what it sounds like.”
Oh, we had a good laugh over that one but I’m still not sure he didn't say what he meant the first time. Interestingly, less than 10% of Azerbaijani carpets are exported. This is unfortunate because the oil will eventually be siphoned off and the country will probably begin a decline into subsistence-living out of which tourism and silk exports could pull it. However, this would take some interest and investment on the part of the Azerbaijani elite and detract from siphoning off all the oil, driving badly, and letting their children dart out into traffic. Samir is a great carpet salesman – he sold me three, two of which are made of silk and one of goat’s wool – but he’s and even better tour guide. Having seen everything in his country probably a hundred times and attention span of a five year old we wasted no time on trivialities.
“We could go see this museum with some art but I do not think it is interesting. It is boring. Do you want to see the museum?”
“Good, we will go see something interesting.”
Samir’s uncle is the Director of the Xan Tseri – or Khan’s Palace – in Sheki and so we went to visit for a couple of days. Getting to Sheki is the best part of the trip. The town sits in the foothills of the Caucus Mountains and the drive is gorgeous.
Villages sit off the beaten trail where people still live, as they probably have, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Apples, nuts and pickled just-about-everything for sale along the road seem to be the height of commercialism in most places. The palace itself is a masterpiece – built without glue or nails – its interior covered with intricate murals.
The pit of antiquities
I should know how old the Xan Tseri is just as I should know how old the Caravantserai (now a hotel but previously…well, a hotel…but one where you could also keep your camels) pictured below is.
But I don’t. They’re very, very old. Like ‘moments after AD’ old. I only know this because we went to visit Kish – a village just outside of Cheki to see the Albanian church. The Albanians built the place in around 78 AD and they are not at all related to the Albanians as we now know them. These Albanians were Christians, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and lived in the Caucus’. They were also spectacularly tall. A couple of the skeletons they’ve unearthed in the crypts show them to have been easily over 7 feet tall. We were treated like celebrities at the Albanian church because Mustafa, Samir’s son, once fell down, three meters, through a hole in the floor into the crypt below unhurt. The hole is covered now with plexi-glass and you can see the antiquities upon which he landed.
“But wasn’t the skeleton damaged?” we asked Samir.
He shrugged, “just a little”.
There is a laisse-fair attitude toward antiquities throughout the entire country. We followed Samir’s manic-white-lada driving nephew into the countryside to find a ‘labryinth’ where they had unearthed some more really old relics but the place was locked up. No worries! One villager pawned us off on another who showed us where they had been dug out of his backyard. Lifting a blue tarp were ancient pottery shards and the remains of a horse skeleton.
“Got any carpets?” Samir asked, probably bored.
No carpets. Just primeval pottery baking under the blue tarp in the Azerbaijani sun.
There are other things that I’m forgetting about and, for those of you using this as your definitive guide to Azerbaijan, I apologise. Would I visit again? Most definitely. Probably in the spring when it’s warmer and you can go hiking in the hills. (I hear June’s a good month for that.) It’s also only a short drive to Georgia, and Iran, and a very short swim to Russia. Come prepared to drink a lot of tea and eat sweets that rot your teeth just by looking at them. Avoid anything deemed by the locals to be ‘good for your health.’ If you have to eat Pitti remember to smash the giant chunks of jiggly-beef-fat with your spoon and mix it with the chick peas before eating it. That’s all I’m going to say definitively.