The Bibi-Heybat Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan, undergoing renovation in 2006. The original mosque was built in the 13th century and destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s during an anti-religious campaign. This new mosque was built in the same site in the 1990s, following Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union.
It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. In July 2006, we drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.
Despite being born and raised in the Great State of California, I was never a big fan of wine, one of our most popular exports. I always prefer a pint of beer. Barbaric, I know.
So, for this reason, I don’t have a very large collection of wine. In fact, I own only one bottle, as pictured below:
This is a bottle of Baku-Ceyhan wine produced by Tovuz-Baltiya Ltd, an Azeri wine company. I had some leftover manat burning a hole in my pocket and decided to waste a few minutes in the Baku airport duty free store while waiting for my flight back to Tbilisi. The store products consist mainly of caviar, vodka, and more caviar. I was hoping for a few oil-related souvenirs (I mean, seriously, this is Azerbaijan. What’s a girl gotta do to get a mini barrel of authentic Azeri crude with Aliyev’s face plastered on it?) but was thoroughly disappointed until I came across this bottle of Baku-Ceyhan wine. It’s named after (and the label has a map of) the 1,099 mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which begins at the Sangachal Terminal near Baku, runs through Georgia, and terminates at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, where Azeri crude is loaded onto tankers and transported to market. Having completed my master’s degree by writing a dissertation on the BTC pipeline, you could say it’s rather close to my heart. Not a bad souvenir for a few manat.
You don’t hear much about the BTC pipeline these days (which, on second thought, is probably a good thing considering most pipeline news from the former Soviet republics often involves explosions, gas shutoffs, and various other negative incidents), so I was surprised to find this rather positive article in today’s Christian Science Monitor regarding BP’s investment in Azeri villages located along the pipeline’s route. Reaction to BP’s projects, from both village residents and international NGO workers, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Six days a week, Seymur Alizadeh and his chestnut-brown mare patrol the Azerbaijani countryside. Buried a few feet below is the prized Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which delivers nearly 1 million barrels of Caspian Sea crude to Western markets each day.
Mr. Alizadeh, one of many local villagers guarding the oil route, says, “I feel like a very important part in protecting this pipeline.” Hiring local horsemen is part of a larger effort by pipeline builder BP to create a massive neighborhood watch.
BP and other energy companies are under scrutiny for their relations with local communities worldwide for the cost, disruption, and even bloodshed their lucrative pipelines are responsible for. So in recent years they’ve honed a new formula: invest heavily in the affected communities and try to foster goodwill, neutralize controversy, and hopefully safeguard their multibillion-dollar investments.
By the end of 2008, BP says it will have spent close to $100 million in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to build water-purification systems, medical clinics, primary schools, parks, and roads in the 450 communities identified as directly affected by the pipeline.
This expense, however, may be a drop in the barrel compared with the billions of dollars of revenue from Caspian crude. (Although BP won’t reveal its profits in Azerbaijan, the government’s share of its revenue last year was $4.7 billion.)
Still, some of the 125 Azeri communities, mostly impoverished and often neglected by their own governments, say that BP’s efforts are the best they’ve seen. The company and several smaller oil partners work with nongovernmental organizations on community-development efforts that the government has yet to begin.
“I don’t think I have ever worked so closely with the private sector,” says Pamela Flowers, the country director for the International Rescue Committee, which partnered with BP on community projects along the
BTC. “They put a lot of effort into it.”
This strategy, which some view as “enlightened self-interest,” may seem like common sense. But compared with a decade ago, it represents a shift for companies that today face ever more scrutiny. “It’s fundamental, good security practice, in terms of protecting our asset, to make sure that we are good neighbors to the communities we impact,” says BP spokeswoman Clare Bebbington.
Energy companies as good corporate citizens? Yes, believe it or not, it happens quite often.
Poor Baku just can’t get a break. It’s like the Houston of the Caucasus. Forbes magazine recently listed it as the dirtiest city in the world, which is quite a blow to their long shot aspirations of hosting the 2016 summer Olympics:
Unless you’re in the oil business, there’s little reason to brave the choking pollution of Baku, Azerbaijan. Fetid water, oil ponds and life-threatening levels of air pollution emitted from drilling and shipping land the former Soviet manufacturing center at the bottom of this year’s list as the world’s dirtiest city.
On the contrary, I found Baku an interesting city to visit. It’s not all leaking pipelines and fetid pools of oil (but yes, there is plenty of that to see).
This is a view of Old Town Baku from the top of the Maiden Tower. Besides a large population of carpet salesmen, the Old Town consists of the aforementioned Maiden Tower (12th century), the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (15th century), and beautiful, narrow streets that would rival those in Dubrovnik. In 2000, the Walled City of Baku, the Maiden Tower, and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If this doesn’t quite win you over, you could always visit the gigantic Dubai like “Death Star” hotel they are building on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The beach, as shown in the artistic rendering of the hotel (complete with tiki torches and beachside dining), sure does look tempting.
The Blacksmith Institute recently published its list of the world’s most polluted places, with four of the top ten located in the former Soviet Union:
Never made it to Sumgayit when I was in Azerbaijan, but the area outside of Baku was the most polluted place I’d ever seen…huge pools of crude oil, rusting equipment, broken pipelines…the place was just a damn mess. Chernobyl, of course, is also extremely polluted, but you could easily mistake it for a nature preserve if not for the “Warning! Radiation!” signs planted throughout the exclusion zone.
In other Chernobyl related news, the Ukrainian government signed a $600 million contract with the French company Novarka for the construction of a new shield to cover reactor four and the current dilapidated sarcophagus. Work is expected to start in October, with a targeted completion date of 2012. The EBRD is picking up most of the tab.
So my tour guide in Azerbaijan wasn’t kidding when he said that crude oil was “good for your skin.” According to the NYTimes article “Bathing in Black Gold for Health and Profit in Azerbaijan“, there is a full on PETROLEUM SPA in Naftalan, Azerbaijan:
Oil spas have returned to Naftalan, a Soviet-era vacation spot.
Inside, Ramil Mutukhov, a lanky 25-year-old, prepares to be pampered and preened, scrubbed and peeled — in a bath of pure crude oil.
He undresses, hangs his trousers and sweatshirt on a peg, pulls off socks and underwear and folds a wad of brown paper towels. He will need them later. Then he steps into a mess of what looks, smells and flows like used engine oil. “It’s wonderful,” he says, up to his neck in oil in a sort of human lube job.
Bathing in Azeri crude? Jesus, it’s like a dream come true.
The petroleum spas of Naftalan in central Azerbaijan, one of the little-known but once popular vacation spots of the Soviet Union, are making an unlikely return in a country so awash in oil these days that people are swimming in it.
Here in Naftalan, visitors can bathe once a day in the local crude. They and doctors here say it relieves joint pain, cures psoriasis, calms nerves and beautifies skin — never mind that Western experts say it may cause cancer.
Eh, when have those Western experts ever been right about anything? Oh, right…
Each bath uses about a barrel of crude, which is recycled into a communal tank for future bathers, given the cost of oil these days. Mr. Mirzeyev also uses paper towels to wipe bathers clean, a long, hard process that involves several showers.
Unlike the oil from Azerbaijan’s offshore deposits, sold internationally under the brand Azeri Light crude, Naftalan’s oil is too heavy to have much commercial value. Luckily, because most of the bath attendants and patients seemed to smoke, it is not particularly flammable, either.
The resort has 80 rooms and 10 tubs, 5 for women, 5 for men. The tubs are not scoured between baths and, as might be expected, have perhaps the world’s worst bathtub rings — greasy and greenish brown.
Dude, WTF? I don’t want to bathe in communal, low-grade oil. No, sir! I demand a barrel of your country’s finest export. Fill my tub with my own personal barrel of Azeri light crude, straight from the Caspian!
So how about it? Anyone willing to take a dip in crude oil on our next trip to Azerbaijan? If not, there’s always the beer spa in the Czech Republic. Mmmmm…beer spa.
And finally, continuing part whatever of our trip to the South Caucasus…which took place in July…
It was our last day in Baku, but our plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon so we had some time to kill. The day before, we found a travel agency that offered a tour of sights outside the city, so we signed up for a morning tour of the Abşeron peninsula. What better way to spend your last day in Baku than by gallivanting around an industrial wasteland? Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything better, either.
Our first stop was the Ateşgah Fire Temple, located in the village of Surakhany.
Entrance to the temple
This temple was built in the 17th century by Indian fire-worshippers who were attracted to this particular site due to the multitude of natural gas seeps in the area. Pilgrims would travel for thousands of miles to worship at the altar of the gas fed flames, and, if the bizarre wax figures on display were any indication, engage in incredibly painful self-mutilation.
Cells where pilgrims slept and mutilated themselves
By the late 19th century, however, the gas vents were exhausted (oops!) so the flames you currently see at Ateşgah are actually fed by Baku’s local gas lines.
Great job covering up those pipes, guys
Oh natural gas, you are so good to meeeeee, you are the reason I was able to come to Baku!
Our next stop was a beautiful Shi’a mosque in Ramana. I had never visited a mosque before, so the tour was extremely interesting. At the same time, however, I was unsure of the proper etiquette. Are we really supposed to be in here? Well, our guide talked to the caretaker and he welcomed us inside…even told us we could take photos, but on that point we demurred, as I just didn’t feel comfortable photographing inside the mosque. Odd, considering I ran around St. Peter’s in Rome taking as many photos as possible of the dead Popes.
After visiting the mosque, we made a quick stop at a small castle built in the 14th-century.
The castle was closed for “renovations”, but there were some great views of the oil fields below.
It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. We drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.
We eventually made our way to our final stop, Yanar Dağ, or “Fire Mountain.” According to local legend, the mountain is “on fire” because a young shepherd accidentally lit a natural gas seep when he carelessly tossed his cigarette (or something like that) and the steady flow of natural gas has kept the mountain burning ever since. It was a pretty cool sight…not something you see everyday, for sure, but all I could think of was, wow, look at all that natural gas just going to waste.
Perfect for smores?
Across from “Fire Mountain” was this billboard of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. As you can see, a Soviet-esque cult of personality is alive and well in this country. Billboards and posters of the Aliyevs adorn buildings throughout Baku and line the streets of even the smallest villages. More than once our driver would point out the window and remark that the particular sight was “named after our former president.” Of course, because name one thing in this city that isn’t?!
We climbed to the top of a small hill in order to take in the surrounding area. Off in the distance you could see the glimmering Caspian. It looked clean from afar. Our guide asked us if we went swimming in the Caspian. “Er…well, no.” He seemed taken aback. “Well, next time you must. You know, the oil is good for your skin.” Right, if I remember correctly, the latest craze to hit the skincare world was the inclusion of Azeri light crude in Estée Lauder’s “Intense Hydration” moisturizer. “Now, with 25% more crude oil!” Or not.
Our tour of Abşeron complete, we headed back to the airport. After experiencing the clusterfucks that were Tbilisi International Airport and Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, I was amazed at the efficiency and cleanliness of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport (told ya they named everything after him!). After the ticket agent handed us our boarding passes, he placed two pens on the counter. Laura and I stood there like idiots. “Uh, are we supposed to sign something?” No, he replied, they were a gift. Sweet, I got a Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Glad to see those petrodollars being put to good use.
As to be expected, our plane was an hour and a half late taking off, so we had a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. A lady sitting across from us asked if we were in the Peace Corps. Much like the Peace Corps volunteers we ran into earlier in our trip, she did not believe that someone would visit Baku for fun. If you were a foreigner in Baku, you were either working for the Peace Corps or an oil company. It turned out that she was a contractor working on the BTC Pipeline, so we talked for awhile. Having written by master’s dissertation on that very pipeline, you could say I was a bit familiar with her employer.
Our plane finally got off the ground, and we were on our way to Tbilisi. Goodbye Baku! I’ll be back when I’m running BP Azerbaijan! I highly recommend visiting Baku if you find yourself in the South Caucasus. My particular reason for visiting was to finally see the damn place after spending god knows how many hours in the LSE library attempting to write a coherent dissertation about the BTC Pipeline and Russian energy policy. For the average visitor who may not have a slight obsession with Caspian oil production, you will still find that there is much to do in Baku and the surrounding region. And if you run out of things to do, well, there’s always caviar and vodka, right?
After a short flight, we soon found ourselves fighting our way through the tremendously long lines at passport control in Tbilisi. In between pushing and shoving some testy Eastern Europeans trying to cut in line, I was silently praying that our ride to Armenia was waiting outside…because if he wasn’t, we would be totally screwed. Before leaving Baku, I contacted a Tbilisi-based travel agency and arranged, via e-mail, to have a taxi take us back to Yerevan. Taking a taxi from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia? Lindsay, you outta your mind? Well, the trains don’t run too regularly between the two cities, and several people advised me that a taxi was the way to go. Besides, Crystal and I had taken a taxi from Bosnia to Montenegro to Croatia and weren’t killed or seriously injured (and Christ, that trip involved landmines, so what’s a five hour drive between two friendly nations, right?).
Laura spotted a guy holding a sign with my name on it, so we said hello to him, threw our luggage into his tiny SUV, and started on our way to Yerevan. I once again spotted the billboard of Bush waving and grinning like a goddamn idiot, announcing that we were travelling into the city via “George W. Bush Street” (Sorry, I still can’t get over the absurdity of it all). Our driver was a quiet fellow, so I decided the best way to strike up a conversation was by asking him, in Russian, “So, this is George Bush street, eh?” It was one of the few times I saw our driver smile. “Yes, our President Saakashvili looooooooves George Bush.” The way he said it in Russian, though, was quite amusing. The “love”, in this case, was not the kind of “love” that English speakers interject so carelessly into their sentences. It wasn’t like “Oh man, I loooove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” but rather more like “I looove George Clooney and wouldn’t kick him outta my bed, ya know what I’m sayin’?” According to our driver, it was that kind of love between our respective leaders. Uh, thanks but I’d rather not have that mental picture.
Our driver drove like a bat out of hell, cigarette dangling from his mouth, swerving to avoid the corpses of dead livestock, speeding through villages laden with idle men in 1980s Adidas tracksuits, and past the vast fields of sunflowers. It was 8pm by the time we arrived at the border crossing, and hence not very busy. We were stuck in Georgia for a few minutes while our driver argued with a malnourished teenage soldier manning the gates. The soldier finally relented and opened the gate after a Mafioso type sitting in a plastic chair (most likely stolen from an outdoor café) ordered him to let us through. We drove between the no-man’s land separating Georgia and Armenia and sat in the car for 45 minutes while our driver spoke with the Armenian guards and attempted to find the driver who would take us the rest of the way to Yerevan (the company told me that we would have to switch drivers once we arrived in Armenia). This was definitely a lot easier when Liz and her diplomatic passport were accompanying us.
No man’s land between Georgia and Armenia. Photography strictly forbidden, what?
Waiting for Armenia to let us in
Our driver finally came back for us so that we could start the process of acquiring an Armenian visa.
Compared to the Georgians, the Armenians make it such a complete pain in the ass to get into their country. I hadn’t a clue why it was taking so damn long to get our visa, considering we were the only people there waiting in the visa line. While the gruff border officer attended to his oh-so-important business out there in the middle of nowhere, I entertained the two Armenian soldiers with my horrible Russian. One of them kept asking me if I had a kartochka (small photo for the visa), but I thought he said kartoshka so I was wondering why the hell he was asking me for a potato. These dudes that hungry out here? The officer finally gave us our applications, and while Laura was filling hers out one of the soldiers continually remarked that Laura had a “pretty” pen. I was like, Dude, what pen are you using that this guy thinks is so pretty? “Well, you know…the only pen I have.” Ah yes, she completed her application for an Armenian visa with her official Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Classic. These guys are never gonna let us in the country now.
Well, the Armenians did eventually place a shiny new Armenian visa in our passport, so we were finally allowed to enter the country. We bid farewell to the soldiers, who were by then wholly neglecting their guard duties in favour of talking to us, much to the chagrin of their senior officer and the family in the Trabant waiting to be let through. We said a brief hello to our driver, but that was about it. My Russian had regressed to the point where I sounded like a three year old peasant girl with a limited vocabulary, (only, the peasant girl would have had a far better accent) and I just didn’t feel like attempting any discussion with my brain in a state of incoherent mush. I much preferred to sit back in the creaking 1980s era BMW and watch the sun set behind the mountains. The road we started out on was windy and treacherous, but our driver was great (something you don’t come across very often in this part of the world). Obviously, this was not the same road that we had taken to Tbilisi, as I didn’t recognize anything. And then I saw the sign for Noyemberyan. Ah yes, I suddenly remembered….this is the road the State Department told us we weren’t supposed to take due to random sniper fire:
Travelers should avoid the old highway between the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberyan in the Tavush region, as well as the main highway between the towns of Kirants and Baghanis/Voskevan. The U.S. Embassy has designated this portion of the road off-limits to all U.S. government personnel because of its proximity to the cease fire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, a line which has seen numerous cease fire violations over the years.
Yes, twelve years after the cease-fire was announced, the Azeris and Armenians are still taking the occasional shot at each other. We drove past a few military bases and the ruins of several homes…relics from the war, I guess…courtesy of Azeri artillery shells. Remember, it’s not a true Lindsay vacation if it doesn’t involve landmines or massive displays of firepower.
I dozed off for a bit and woke up just as we were coming out of the mountain tunnel that leads to Lake Sevan. Our driver turned to me, with a toothy grin and said, in his thick accent “Good morning!” I just started laughing, it was so surreal. He offered a cigarette (No thanks, I’m from California. Christ, why do these people smoke so goddamn much?), and we started talking in a mixture of Russian and English. His name was Stefan. Cool guy. He has two sisters in….where else? Los Angeles – North Hollywood to be exact. Like I said before, you’d be hard pressed to find an Armenian who doesn’t have a family member or two in LA. We finally got into Yerevan around 1:30am.
THREE COUNTRIES IN ONE DAY…AGAIN! And the hardest part of the trip? Trying to unlock the door to Liz’s apartment. Sorry we woke ya up, dude. Those Eastern Euro locks confuse the hell outta me.
(Wow, that was a long post and it took me entirely too long to write it. I blame it on my laziness. I would write three sentences, say “Whatever, I’ll finish it later” and then find something more entertaining to do. My next posts won’t be as long…I think I still have three days to cover, but they’ll be short…except for perhaps the post on London. It may turn into some long-winded diatribe about how great of a city London is and how much DC sucks. Also, some people have asked me how I can remember everything even though I took this trip in July. It’s simple…whenever I travel, I carry a small notebook along and write a short sketch at the end of each day so that when I get home I can write a somewhat semi-coherent account of the trip. Secondly, some friends have asked what’s up with the Californian wearing the Texas shirts. I like that burnt orange color, alright? And, I dunno, maybe a bit of irony?)
The South Caucasus: Old Town Baku, the polluted Caspian, and conversations with an Azeri carpet salesman
Don’t you love how my “New Baku post will be up in a few days” turned into a few weeks? Anyways…When I last left you, Laura and I had just arrived in Baku, the lovely capital city of Azerbaijan, situated on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea.
We woke up early and took advantage of our awesome hotel’s free breakfast. Fresh fruit, French toast, white linen, and the Gypsy King’s cover of “Hotel California” playing over the speakers. Where the hell am I again? I sized up the other hotel guests, and if their wardrobes were any indication, Laura and I were definitely the only people visiting Baku who weren’t there to sign multi-million dollar contracts regarding the extraction of Azerbaijan’s plethora of hydrocarbons. When we checked into our hotel the evening prior, the clerk asked us what company we were with. “Uhhh…we’re not here on business. We’re tourists.” (Although if I had actually answered with where I worked, I would have fit in quite well with the other guests). Yep, doesn’t seem to be many tourists in good ol’ Baku.
Our first stop was the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, located in Baku’s old city. Much of the Palace was built in the mid-1400s by the Shirvanshah dynasty (hence the name). The Palace is currently undergoing a major restoration project, so everything looks quite new. The place was devoid of tourists, so we basically had the place to ourselves.
Our next stop was Maiden Tower, built in the 12th century. No one is exactly sure why it’s called Maiden Tower, but there are several local legends you can choose from. Did a young Maiden throw herself off because her father wanted to marry her? Was it built as a fire-worshipper’s temple? The more pressing question, though, is why the hell did these guys not install an elevator when they built this thing? It was a long, winding walk to the top, but the view was well worth it. At the top, two Azeri guys started talking to us, asking us if we liked Baku, where we were from, etc. They said that someday they hoped to visit the U.S., but they were planning on avoiding California because there were too many Armenians there, and they hated Armenians. Avoiding the Great State of California because of its Armenian population? Are you guys out of your minds? We’ve got Disneyland, and beaches, and In-N-Out! Nothing could sway them, however. I was immediately reminded of a seminar at LSE that I attended…was forced to attend, I should add, but the promise of several pints afterwards was indeed tempting. This particular seminar was on the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno Karabakh (click here for the Wikipedia entry, because I’m too lazy to write about the conflict). Entire cities were razed, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the area, and over 35,000 people were killed. Needless to say, there is still a lot of resentment on both sides, and at this particular seminar I was convinced a fistfight was going to break out amongst the Armenians, Turks, and Azeris. Here were some of the most educated members of their respective countries, sitting in a classroom at the London School of Economics, and almost coming to blows over a war that “ended” in 1994. If these students were going back to their countries to work for the government, then I’ve just about lost hope that the region will ever find peace.
View from the top
We bid farewell to our new Azeri “friends” and told them to look us up if they ever come to D.C. I should also mention that we never told them that we were actually using Armenia as our base of operations and merely stopping over in Baku for a few days. “Uh yeah, we came from Tbilisi…and then we are going back to Tbilisi. But we love your city, it’s beautiful.” There were no lies in that sentence, so it’s all good.
I didn’t really have a next destination in mind, so I dragged Laura on an incredibly long walk that took us along the side of a highway and into the slums of Baku. If you’re ever going to travel with me, you better be prepared to walk A LOT because I will drag your ass all over whatever city we are visiting. No joke. Katerina nicknamed my penchant for walking everywhere the “Lindsay Fincher diet” because you will probably drop a few pounds, no matter how many crepes you eat.
I suggested we grab a taxi and check out a Caspian beach. My trusty Lonely Planet said the Crescent Beach hotel had a decent beach so we hopped in a taxi and were soon speeding down the freeway towards suburban Baku, which is NOTHING like suburban D.C. Instead of TGIFriday’s and California Pizza Kitchen, suburban Baku mainly consists of ramshackle houses and rusty nodding donkeys.
Once we arrived at the Crescent Beach Hotel, we headed straight for the restaurant because we were ridiculously hungry. I had a rather decent pad thai and a great view of the Caspian. After lunch we made our way down to the beach and stuck our feet in the Caspian while bewildered hotel guests watched. Perhaps they, too, read the Lonely Planet entry that stated “The beach may look clean, but the water is heavily polluted both by oil extraction and one of Baku’s main sewage outlets.” And yes, I did read that warning, and yes, I totally ignored it and still stepped foot in the Caspian. I’m still alive aren’t I?
After semi-frolicking in the cesspool that is the Caspian, we decided to go back to Baku proper. We grabbed a taxi, and in my horrible Russian I asked him to take us back to the city, but to first stop near the mosque on the side of the freeway, not because I wanted to take photos of the mosque, but rather wanted a few of the oil fields nearby. Yes, he thought I was crazy, but understood my request and that’s all that really matters. He was a cool guy, trying his best to narrate the drive in the few English words he knew.
Our next destination was the carpet museum, which on the surface sounds incredibly boring but actually turned out to be very interesting. So while I was on this “OMG look at all these beautiful Azeri carpets” high, I did what any respectable tourist would do and bought one.
As we were exiting the carpet shop, we were accosted by two Peace Corps volunteers who were spending the weekend “in the big city.” They were a bit surprised to run into some fellow Americans and asked “Uh, are you guys…tourists?” Yeah, why? “Well, you don’t see many people who come to Baku as tourists.” Damn, really? It was just dawning on me that Baku wasn’t considered a vacation hotspot.
We ended up having dinner at a restaurant near Maiden’s Tower. The food was stellar, and the restaurant itself was located in a courtyard dotted with trees and fountains. There were several small shops on the second floor, and after dinner we headed up there to see if there was anything we wanted to waste our manat on.
The salesmen were, of course, interested in showing us more carpets even though I explained that I had just purchased one. My protests were futile, though, as they kept throwing the carpets on top of each other, turning them over to show you the high-quality materials and craftsmanship. The stack became so high, and my eyes grew so large, that I had to restrain myself from purchasing another. They were so incredibly beautiful that I wanted them all. Wood floors be damned, I was ready to cover the entire area of my room back in D.C.! Instead of buying another carpet, though, we opted to purchase a few tablecloths. The salesman invited us to have tea with him, sat us down on the balcony overlooking the restaurant, and ran downstairs. He returned with scalding hot chai, which turned sickingly sweet as we dumped large sugar cubes into our glasses.
We ended up talking to this guy for an hour or so, listening to stories of his time in the Soviet Army, and answering questions about life back in the States (again, all this done through my paltry Russian skills). He showed us a hand woven map that displayed Nagorno-Karabakh as firmly a part of Azerbaijan. Unlike the younger Azeris we had encountered earlier in the day, though, there was no hatred or anger in his voice, just sadness at this loss of “their” territory. He wanted to know what we thought of his country, his fellow citizens, and more importantly, his hometown, Baku. “I love it!” I told him. Really? “Oh yeah, I think I’d like to work here someday…for BP!” I partially joked. “Ah,” he grinned, “like David Voodvard!” I was a bit amazed he knew the name of the President of BP Azerbaijan. “Yes, like David Woodward!” When it finally came time to bid him farewell, I promised that I would stop in to purchase some carpets when I started working in Baku, whenever that may be. It could happen, right?
On our way back to the hotel, I was almost killed by several children driving recklessly around the boulevard in their rental Power Wheels cars. Where are the traffic cops when you really need them?
(Next up: We visit a fire worshipper’s temple, mosque, and “fire mountain” on the outskirts of Baku, hop a plane back to Tbilisi, and drive back to Yerevan on a road that the U.S. Government, like, totally told us to avoid…yeah, all in one day!)