Three months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at Isaac Schwartz’s, annual VALUEx conference, held this year in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Even more fortuitously, I pounded the table on shipping stocks, right before they inflected dramatically higher. (So far, so good). I had meant to write about my experiences in Azerbaijan, but then life happened. However, I’d be negligent if I didn’t come back and speak about Azerbaijan as the place is so damn fascinating.
To begin with, let’s talk about Baku. If I had to describe the place, it would be the illegitimate child formed if a second-tier Soviet city knocked up Paris. Sure, there are beautiful façades, but go around the back of the building, and the façades facing the courtyards have been left untouched and are decaying. There are beautiful national gardens abutting the sea, but the Caspian is the most polluted sea on earth, complete with oil slicks with dead floating fish. There is a walled historic city core, where they knocked down the wall and built an EPCOT-style replica. The food is phenomenal in a handful of places, but leave the tourist core and god-help-you. In summary, it’s a city of contrasts.
Baku floats on a sea of oil. The first wells were dug by hand in the early 1800s and in 1846, the first mechanical well was drilled. By the early 20th century, roughly half the oil sold on international markets came from the region of Baku. As you can imagine, this created phenomenal wealth attracting all sorts of business pioneers like the Nobel brothers. After the Soviets took control, they did what good Socialists do; murder everyone who disagreed with them and create poverty. However, given the oil wealth and the need for oil during WWII, Baku had a resurgence. Given the Soviet’s indifference to their people, it also became one of the most polluted places on earth. Since Communism ended, the government has used some of the immense oil wealth to undertake numerous public works to beautify the city. However, you can only do so much with what the Soviets left behind.
However, I am not the sort to remain in the capital. If I want to learn about a country, I rent a car and start driving with friends. This is that story…
If Baku is known for its oil, it’s simultaneously known for its toxic environmental contamination. Sumqayit (in the western suburbs of Baku) is frequently mentioned as one of the top 5 most polluted places on earth, right after Chernobyl—which means it is a prime candidate for pollution tourism—if that were such a thing. Unfortunately, in Sumqayit, all that’s left are the rotting shells of former Soviet chemical factories—interesting of course, but not quite what I was looking for.
No trip in Azerbaijan could even start until we went and looked at what may just be the world’s largest superfund site just outside of Baku. When Americans speak of pollution, we complain about a few drops of waste in a river, a bit of steam from a factory. Nothing prepares you for Azerbaijan. As far as the eye can see there are badly rusted 1930-1950 vintage oil derricks, but there are also ponds and rivers and lakes of oil. There’s oil dripping from each pipeline. There are pipelines going anywhere and everywhere in a chaotic fashion with oil spraying into the sky, dousing anyone and everything. There’s literally oil everywhere and it stretches for scores of miles in any direction. There were signs telling me not to take pictures—which reminded me to whip out my iPhone and go crazy. After having been to one of the most polluted places one earth—you never know if you’ll live long enough to go back again.
After that, we headed a bit south of Baku to the jack-up rig graveyard. There are hundreds of rigs rusting away in various stages of scrapping or preservation—depending on your point of view. We had seen the rigs situated on man-made islands from the air while landing, but nothing prepares you to see them in person. It was like a Museum of Soviet environmental contamination.
I am not a petroleum engineer. I don’t even pretend to understand what I looked at. However, I know that there must be a better way to extract oil—both from an environmental standpoint and from a “not losing half the oil in the process” standpoint. I’m absolutely convinced that modern technology could do wonders here. Then again, Azerbaijan is booming, so why change what’s working? On a side note, I’ve visited about a hundred countries now, Azerbaijan is the only one to contact me afterwards for advice on how to improve the country for tourists. (Since my wife was honest in her response, I assume we are no longer welcome—which is unfortunate as I enjoyed the trip).
In any case, the area around Baku is a superfund of comical proportions, but we had heard great things about the mountains in the north, so we started driving up to the border with Dagestan. On one hand, the scenery is beautiful. On the other hand, we may have been the only tourists to ever attempt the trip—even most of the ruling class likely never bothered. The roads rapidly degrade over a period of a few dozen miles, from Dubai-style super-highways with gaudy modernist art, to pockmarked gravel. Food is scarce, accommodation even more rare. No one speaks English, Azeri, or Russian. We rapidly learned that the Caucasus has hundreds of languages and Google Translate doesn’t have any of them. When in doubt, keep trying to say “hi” into google translate until there’s a smile of recognition—then they manhandle your iPhone and shout into it. 20 seconds later, we’re all friends.
It was an adventure of pointing, gesticulating and standing around my iPhone hoping it would translate simple sentence fragments into something intelligible. That said, the scenery really is beautiful. The people are friendly and when in doubt, producing a bottle of cognac is the universal sign of friendship.
Unfortunately, there are no good travel guides for Azerbaijan, Trip Advisor pulled blanks, our travel books knew nothing except Baku. Google maps literally didn’t even have any of these roads in its inventory. No one seems to have ever bothered to go visit northern Azerbaijan—hence we meandered along not sure what we were looking for and with no one to ask for help. We saw more superfund sites, went to an abandoned Soviet seaside resort town and nearly destroyed the car trying to overcome the roads going to the remote mountain town of Khinalug.
The selling point of Khinalug being that nothing had changed in thousands of years and only a few hundred people in just this one village spoke their millennia-old language. We were mesmerized by the potential that we were the only foreigners to bother going in years—first contact—only to realize that our car could never make it over the terrible roads. In any case, along the way, we went and saw the Mountain Jews in Quirmizi Qesebe (my mom approved). Have you ever met Jews who didn’t know what a bagel was? Azerbaijan is odd. Mostly, we just tried to make friends and find someone who spoke enough English to help us understand the chaos we witnessed.
On a Monday night somewhere on the border of Dagestan, we ambled into a local bar sometime well after midnight. After EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN PERSON IN THE BAR (which incidentally was the entire village) did a vodka shot with us, we tried to make small talk with our Google Translate. As with most sorta-Russian drunks, they were friendly until the vodka caught up—then they started a 10 on 10 brawl. Keep in mind, Dagestani women aren’t shy to join in. In any case, the bartender yelled at them (Google Translate missed it), but I assume it was something like, “kill each other away from the foreigners.” These guys, stopped cold, cleaned themselves off, finished their drinks, picked the shards of broken glass out of their hair and then filed out the door, only to start mauling each other outside the bar. Even if we had no idea what was going on, it seemed like a very civilized place—despite the chairs they repeatedly swung at each other. By that time, 2 liters of vodka and whatever they had fed us started catching up with me. It seemed time to go home. Besides, without Google Translate, the only word we could communicate with was “Vodka” and I certainly didn’t want any more of that…
If you were looking for some great financial epiphanies on my trip to Azerbaijan, I apologize. There’s like 12 people there who speak English—I learned nothing. For days on end, we checked into and out of hotels and cabins in the mountains using someone’s cell phone as they repeatedly tried to call English-speaking buddies in some faraway place. I fed myself by pointing at mystery meat chased down with vodka.
Third world travel is always an adventure—sometimes you gain great insight by meeting the locals and sometimes you simply strike out. Over the years, my track record has been amazingly good when it comes to exploring a country. Azerbaijan was one of the rare times where we failed to connect—which is unfortunate as it really is a country of contrasts. For instance, during the week we were there, they were setting up for the Baku Formula 1 race. It was fascinating that in a country with endless poverty and pollution, they were still having a globally televised race.
I went looking for insight—I left mostly with questions and environmental toxins. In any case, I’m not the type to dwell—I was off to a new adventure in Georgia (the country).
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