David Rich 1000 Words
1 Azerbaijan Manat=US $1.23
Azerbaijan: Paint It Black and Muddy
Black may not be the color of my true love’s hair but it’s the dominant color for Azerbaijan, by far the world’s most thumping producer of its most precious resource at the turn of the 20th century: black oil. The planet’s most densely packed donkey-pumpers, on the south edge of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital on the Caspian Sea, were featured as a cogent example of environmental disaster in the opening slam-bang extravaganza of an obscure James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. The world’s most extensive oil-related disaster continues unabated, which I experienced firsthand on a short soiree south and west of Baku, to explore what the world’s most popular, and often misguided guidebook called the fabulous mud volcanoes of Qobustan. Wrong.
The dusty pall over Baku changed abruptly to a landscape out of the nightmares of a Mad Max director. The James Bond Oil Field, so-named by locals, was crammed with rusting pumpers, accentuated by above-ground pipelines extending like Charlotte’s Web for miles, seemingly reproducing like a Pipes’ Screensaver. Scabrous tubes vied with asphalted highways for visual satisfaction against the stiff competition of the heavy metal Caspian Sea embellished with skeletal oil platforms and bizarre sculptures known only to oil aficionados. Here and yon gleamed pools of oil and slurry while construction whizzed unabated on luxury Soviet-style condos cascading down the hillside with a panoramic view of the whole mess. Put a deposit down early to reserve a premier perspective of a sprawling Caspian Sea oil platform, snaking pipelines and pools of glistening iridescent slop. What beach?
The countryside visuals should have prepared me for the trek from hell, to what the guidebook imagined to be visually-stunning mud volcanoes. It omitted a mention of that fact that if it’s rained in Azerbaijan during the last six months then walking the countryside is a flirt with ten-pound boots larded by viscous glutinous mud. The soil is clay leaving rain to molder above-ground in perpetuity. But check out the accompanying photos of the fabulous burbling mud volcanoes and vote yea or nay whether an hour carving clay off the bottoms, sides and tops of shoes was worth the ordeal. My vote was cast ten steps into the two mile hike off the scenic asphalt.
Azerbaijan’s black mood was exacerbated by the fact it lost a horrific war to Armenia in 1992, misplacing a sixth of its territory and finding another sixth completely isolated, accessible only by Baku flights or land entry from Iran, whoopee. The war created over 100,000 refugees who cannot be resettled; otherwise Azerbaijan would tacitly concede defeat, which no country can do in war. Thus immigration officials, upon a tourist’s entry into Azerbaijan are fond of tearing the Armenia third out of the world’s most popular guidebook. I was pointedly asked whether I was planning to go to Armenia. Mea culpa, I pled, surreptitiously brushing the guidebook specially concealed in the nether parts of my britches to make sure it was safely hidden from avaricious Azerbaijani miscreants labeled immigration.
Black is not only the color of oil but the color of the Azerbaijani’s favorite clothing, which I was patiently instructed is haute couture simply because an obscure French clothier started an unlikely trend; generally see The Devil Wears Prada. The fact this strange color fad began a few decades ago appears irrelevant; black remains all the thing in Azerbaijan. Naturally, when traipsing down the boulevard the eye is inevitably attracted to the odd female wearing a dab of red. But when dining with Baku’s beautiful people at their most popular eatery I encountered an unending sea of black leather, rather reminiscent of a Goth S & M convention, off downtown’s trendy Fountain Square at the ultimately typical McDonald’s Restaurant.
O.K., I admittedly had a bit of fun with the shortcomings of Azerbaijan but there were highlights, though I spied not a solitary other tourist during a whirlwind week there. Baku’s old town was imminently worthy of World Heritage designation though it’s casually degenerated into a tourist trap with inevitably accompanying claptrap.
The first highlight, always a highlight for me, were the mountains, the Great Caucacus, which on the Russian side of the border harbors Europe’s highest peak, Mt. Elbrus. The Azerbaijani side, opposite Dagestan and Chechnya, conceals tiny exquisite villages, the most accessible of which is Lahic, reached along a cliff-side highway of scarifying verticality. This small town was founded a millennia ago by a Persian Shah, devotee of coppersmiths and weavers of exotic carpets who continue to thrive today. Stupendous views, waterfalls, high grassy meadows strewn with exotic mushrooms and snow-capped peaks towering over a broad river valley await the intrepid traveler.
Azerbaijan’s cultural highlight is the Khan’s Palace in Seki, six Brobdingnagian galleries grandly decorated in every square inch (centimeter) to form an art gallery of magnificent proportions from 360 degree battle scenes to masterpieces of the imagination, embellished by stained glass fronts. The display is reminiscent of Whistler’s fabulous room in Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum, a blue leather extravaganza etched in gold, but the Khan’s Palace is a dozen times larger. And there’s not a speck of black or mud offered anywhere in the Khan’s fabulous palace.
When You’re Compelled to Go to Azerbaijan: Baku is a hub of the Caspian Sea, easily reachable from Europe for a pittance from $400 roundtrip by such as Air Baltic hubbed in Riga, Latvia. Also see Air Arabia and www.whichbudget.com for come-lately airlines. Baku’s accommodations are outrageously expensive (e.g., a doctor’s consultation is $115) from $50 for a hovel and up. But outside the capital sleeping is easier on the pocketbook. In Lahic stay at the Garden of Paradise offering free apples and humongous pears with a chilly room but warm Ismailov family; the bath is a 300-year old Hammam; rooms from $30 a person. In Seki stay at the 18th Century Karavansaray with large rooms from $40; with 100 channels of cable TV $60. Eat in Seki at the Karavan, full meal for two with a bottle of dry red for $12.