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Published: August 12th 2004
Upon entering Azerbaijan we visited an old temple in the foot hills of The Caucasus that had been creating some controversy after the Norwegian government paid for an extensive exploration and renovation; based on Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the Scandinavians were originally from Azerbaijan… Norwegian mythology tells that the Scandinavian god Odin moved with his people to Norway from a land called Aser. Heyerdahl reckons the original Caucasians fled the invading Romans in around 90AD. Sailing from the Caspian, they moved through the Black Sea, out through the Dardanelles into the open sea and north. The timing of this exodus coincides with Norse tales of tribes from the south bearing detailed knowledge of the seas and advanced boat building capabilities. From Odin it took 31 generations to reach the first historic king around 800AD, which apparently all ties in with Norse history as written by some bloke called Snorre… convinced?
Two sisters held the key to the Temple. After an informative look around they invited us to stay the night. Over dinner they showed us a stack of business cards from some of the other people who had passed through…unknown names working for familiar companies: BP Amoco, ExxonMobil,
Haliburton and TotalElfFina. There were representatives from top Law and Accounting firms, Swiss banks and the ever compassionate US govt. (these people weren’t in Azerbaijan for the trekking!).
The Caspian is a huge land-locked lake, filled with approx.100 billion barrels of oil. However, this oil is useless unless it can reach the International market via the open sea. For the west, the Caucasus is the cork in the bottle. The only way to remove the riches of the Caspian and Central Asia without the Russians, Chinese and Iranians laying their thieving hands on it, is to transport it through the Southern Caucasus. At present BP Amoco are building the Baku to Ceyhan pipeline through newly friendly Georgia and the ever malleable (NATO member) Turkey.
The Russians are using their influence in the region to destabilise it; giving military support to the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and to Armenia’s successful war in Karabagh against Azerbaijan ten years ago. Hoping to scare investors and scupper the pipeline dream. But they are also fighting a ‘little’ war in Chechnya to protect their own pipeline, and ultimately hope that a new pipeline currently being built
around Chechnya will become the regions favoured option. The most logical and cost affective route would have passed through Iran to the Persian Gulf. But Iran of course “supports terror and is determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction”. The Iranians in turn are garnering ideological influence by building schools and mosques throughout Azerbaijan - hoping to educate and influence the masses spiritually. In an effort to ferment discontent that would lead to an Islamic revolution against the ‘infidel-backed’ puppet regime (as in Iran 1979).
One guy told us “we can’t talk openly…its like Saudi Arabia here...” telling us that last year the ex-KGB President Asiyev died two weeks before the elections, but the state media kept it quite until afterwards. In elections that failed to meet international standards, the people voted for a party led by a dead man! Now his son (the ex-head of Azerbaijan oil) is President - there is no opposition, but that’s Ok because he is friends with Americans (Another country that enjoys dynastic democracy).
Travelling east we stayed in Sheki where we checked into one of the most atmospheric hotels ever: an old Caravanserai, with large stone cavernous
rooms, and a beautiful courtyard. We stayed for three days and did…well nothing. On the five hour bus trip down to Baku the landscape gradually changed from evergreen sub tropical to semi arid dessert; the architecture complementing the landscape in perfect synchronization. Stepping off the bus in Baku, the cacophony of noises and commotion sent a rush of anticipation through the senses - after weeks of travel we were finally in the east!
Like Batumi in Georgia, the oil barons were here once before. Half the oil in the world used to come through Baku - with the Nobles, Rockefeller and Rothschild’s all adding a few zeros to their wealth. This paid for Europe’s best architects to come and create a city of palatial civilization in the barren dessert. This backdrop in addition to the new oil boom gives the city an upmarket European feel, with shopping streets that wouldn’t look out of place in Zurich (I was almost tempted by one of those diamond studded Faberge eggs). Inhabiting this inner European core are the elite of Azerbaijani society; the most scantily clad Muslim women I have ever seen. Maybe it’s that old ex-communist
rebellion thing again, but at about the age the women in most Muslim countries start wearing headscarf’s, the ladies around here wriggle into mini skirts. However their possession of ‘Islamic innocence’ plus a fair bit to spend on lipstick, allow them to pull it off with a certain amount of class. If this is all too much for the senses you can always slip into one of the umpteen English pubs and have a pint of bitter and one of ‘Dave pies’ with some of the 3,000 British ‘drillers’ who hang out when on leave from the rigs.
Just outside the centre is a very different story. A vast lifeless wasteland of stinking oil spills, garbage and ruin - an environmental-apocalyptic-nightmare if ever there was one. (see pic)
The city also has some nice beaches. That is, if you like swimming in oil, or lying back and looking out at the massive virus-like parasitic oil wells a few hundred metres from the shore, sucking the devils excrement from the seabed (I loved it!).
On the surface the future is bright for Baku - but its all based on speculation - the house of cards could
all come crashing down if investors get cold feet. In five years this city could well be the next Brunei or the next Baghdad. Outside of the Capital, Azerbaijan is a very different place. Seemingly ignored by the Central govt. - the roads and housing left to rot since the Soviet collapse; power cuts and water shortages are daily occurrences. It is in these areas that Islamic fundamentalism will grow if forgotten once the oil starts flowing.
Escaping the sweltering Baku heat we headed back on the trail of the Vikings - up into the Caucasus for one last time to visit what was purportedly the most isolated village in Azerbaijan. Here we could find people who had been isolated for millennia, and therefore the least affected by centuries of foreign invaders. Xinaliq is a very picturesque collection of stone houses built on the top of a hill (in the Chechen defensive style) 2000 meters above sea level. The people are all loosely Islamic, but as in the Georgia Caucasus they also had certain pagan beliefs (I got pretty excited when we saw some ‘Scandinavia’ people with blonde hair and blue eyes). We walked for three days
from valley to valley; every one different from the last, and each with a differing language (The ancient Greeks counted 300 different languages in the Caucasus). It seemed that every time we asked what language was spoken, we were told the name of the village with the suffix ‘ski’ added to the end.
Trekking up there is a real treat. Azerbaijan is undiscovered by trekkers, and yet your never alone - the valleys are filled with shepherds and high pasture semi-nomadic settlements, offering Caucasian hospitality as you pass on by. The only down side is the fucking sheep dogs! Bush walking in Africa is nothing compared to this! These things literally hunt you down in packs - your only salvation is to spot them in good time, cross a river or climb up onto a strategic position and wait for all their rabid barking to attract a shepherd - even then he’ll have trouble keeping all the dogs at bay, frantically waving his jacket and cane, whilst screaming obscenities at them in some undiscovered language!
Before leaving Azerbaijan we visited Qubostan, the home of some of the world’s oldest rock carvings. This is where Heyerdahl’s theory
gathers more credibility - with rock carvings of large wooden boats almost identical to carvings they have in Norway. (See pic. .
I’m usually an absolute cynic - but from what we’ve seen in Azerbaijan; I’ve been totally seduced by the idea. Unfortunately if proven, the Scandinavian ‘Diaspora’ could be down here claiming some of that oil and we’ll be in all sorts of trouble!
P.S. The bombing in Istanbul 2 days ago was claimed by the Kurds, and the new pipeline runs straight through their backyard.
Watch this space!
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