Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Land of Fire

For everyone except Alex - concentrate on your work instead! (and thanks for the crepes) :)

"Land of fire". So called because, in ancient times, there were plumes of fire escaping from the ground. These days, the plumes have been capped with oil or gas wells to harness the hydrocarbons instead of just causing wonder to passing explorers and inspiration to the Zoroastrians (more on them later).

The trip across the Caspian lasted almost 20 hours, but the difference between the underdeveloped Turkmen coastline around Turkmenbashi and the over-industrialised black-smoke chimneys of Baku in Azerbaijan could hardly have been more pronounced. Well, I guess I'm exaggerating a little - both sides were polluted, Azerbaijan is just an order of magnitude more developed.

So, into Baku after a brief stop at Azeri customs. And the differences continued - Baku is an almost normal, almost european-style, city (albeit situated in the middle of one of the most polluted coastlines in the world). They have nightclubs, bars, taxis that have meters and that don't drive faster and faster until the tyres squeal (nor do they try to overtake on blind corners), McDonalds (the first I'd seen since Tashkent), sensible internet (and a CD writer to offload my photos onto), and shops with normal things inside. All quite a come-down compared to Central ASia, in a way.

However, there were some notably non-European things. Like the price of vodka; the large number of pros in all the bars; and the fact that only one floor of the hotel we stayed in was open to tourists. The other 14 floors all house refugees from the conflict with Armenia.

(Quick history bit: When Stalin carved up the south of the USSR into republics he was a little random about where he drew the borders. As such there are numerous exclaves (bits of one country in the middle of a different country) and areas within one country's borders which ethnically belong to a different one. Stalin did all this to minimise nationalistic tendencies in the Soviet Republics but, come independence, it's caused a number of headaches and heartaches. Headaches like the impossibility of visiting some parts of Uzbekistan unless you have a Tajik visa (there are blobs of Uzbekistan in the middle of Tajikistan). And heartaches like the current Armenian occupation of the south-west of Azerbaijan, making somewhere between 1-in-10 and 1-in-5 Azeris into refugees. It gets better, of course - there is also an Azeri exclave (Nagorno-Karabakh) to the South-West of Armenia, now totally cut off from Azerbaijan. (I think all traffic has to go from Nagorno-Karabakh west into Turkey, then north into Georgia and around into Azerbaijan, because the borders with Iran and Armenia are closed.))

Anyway, after a Turkish dinner (because international restaurants were suddenly an option again) and a quick bounce around some of the seediest bars in Baku with two of my fellow travellers (we visited every 3rd bar we saw - a highly recommended way to explore parts of town you don't know) we went to bed merry and they fought off their hangovers the next morning as we explored the city's history.

A Palace built by a 6 foot 7 king (allegedly some viking connection there, but I didn't fully understand the guide) complete with giant-sized flights of stairs;

a mausoleum with the architect's name sneaked into the tile-pattern (but written in reverse so that nobody spotted it for hundreds of years);

the tall and curiously shaped maiden's tower, symbol of Baku (apparently). Nobody's sure why it was originally built but the best guess it that it started out as a Zoroastrian 'tower of silence' where they gave their dead an 'air burial' - ie. put their dead out on platforms so that the birds could pick the flesh off the carcasses.)

the heroes alley - a park full of graves to fallen soldiers from the conflicts with the Soviets and Armenians in various conflicts in the 1990s. Most of the grave headstones have a haunting portrait etched into them, but some are blank (unidentified bodies) and some head stones have no tomb (body never found). And they are not all soldiers - they include journalists and women who stood up to the invaders but did not live to tell the tale.

plus caravansarais, carpet shops, carpet shops in caravanserais, a big rickety wheel (the Baku eye?), and views across from the white city (the nice bit in the middle) to the black city (the industrial bits along the coast).

After a day in Baku there was a day exploring the Qobustan peninsula - mud volcanoes (Andrew fell in to one and got covered in grey liquid mud - it was all very funny until we realised how close he came to dying. But he was still alive, and covered in mud, so we laughed some more.); stone age cave paintings (oldest about 13000 BCE I think we were told); musical rocks; fields and fields of oil and gas wells - as far as the eye could see in some parts; a man changing his pants right next to the road and a Zoroastrian fire temple.

(Quick religious bit: Zoroastrians. Ancient (really ancient) religion based on fire-worship. Inspired by the flames coming out of the ground in Azerbaijan. Said to have influenced Christianity and Islam in some way (perhaps something to do with monotheism? I don't remember exactly). The temple we saw used to have an eternal flame in the middle and flames burning in every cell around the central courtyard (it was built on top of a natural gas field) but the Soviets built a big gas mine behind the temple, so all the eternal flames have gone out. In the cells there were models depicting the different methods of ablution employed by the Zoroastrian monks - like holding their limbs in the air until they were paralysed through lack of blood, lying on hot gravel, wearing 30kg of manacles and chains 24h a day for life, and so on. Interesting to note that mankind has been worshipping hydrocarbons since (before) the year dot - and there was me thinking that it was a post-industrial obsession!)

From the Qobustan peninsula, a quick stop back in Baku then north towards the Georgian border. Stopping off for the night at Sheki, staying in a converted caravanserai. Then on towards GEORGIA

but, that's another country and another email!


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