18.06.2013 - 22.06.2013
My research positively advised that Azerbaijan was an Islamist country with 95% of the population ticking that box. I made a mental note not to look a Burqa in the eye slot and was quite prepared to undertake a bit of fasting if the calendar called for it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that their 4th most loved meat was pork and they could field a team in the world Vodka drinking championships with a very good chance of winning. The only evidence of Islamic practice were the thousands of Mosques all over the country (we were never out of sight of at least one) and the regular calls of Adhan by the Muezzin five times a day.
Our first night was spent in a magnificent old Caravanserai. These are traditional large square stone fortress type buildings where the travellers on the Silk Road tied up their camels and spent their nights. The rooms surround the perimeter of a garden which in this instance was a lovely place to sit among blooming roses passing time waiting for dinner to be served. The call of the Muezzin simply added to the exotic atmosphere. Not so the next morning around 5.30am. As a lad I used to do the odd days hard labour on a nearby farm – usually weed spraying with deadly 245T or 24D – also known as ‘Agent Orange’. The horse that dragged the sledge around developed an ugly demeanour and a 3rd ear. (I’m frightened to look in a mirror) One day there was a change of task. The farmer performed a delicate procedure on his young pigs with a pocket knife. My job was to hold them steady while he ‘operated’. I only did this once. The pigs obviously felt some extreme discomfort and probable embarrassment, because they squealed with a vigour and intensity that remains with me to this day. When the Muezzin started the Adhan that morning I swear he had put on the wrong recording and was broadcasting the pigs discomfort. Visions of a robed figure with a big pocket knife caused me to leap out of bed, check the door lock and suggest to Flypaper that she be ready to expose something that would repel an Islamic invader.
Our driver guide was a delightful young man whose company we enjoyed as he told us facts, figures and some things that were probably not in the guides’ manual. He is very frustrated on two principal fronts. The first and by far most important was the fact that he had a lovely girlfriend to whom he wished to marry. Apart from natural beauty she had another wonderful quality – a wealthy father. The frustration and significant downside to the relationship was her Islamic faith. He confided that, to marry, a girl must remain a virgin. She may drink with enthusiasm and eat pork twice a day but with regard to chastity and abstinence she was staunch. Naturally, as a gentleman, I was on her side and refused to give him the benefit of my extensive wisdom. The other major issue is the fact that Azerbaijan is an extremely corrupt economy. This trait is ably lead from the very top.
In 2012 ‘Transparency International’ reported that two-thirds of the world's countries may be considered "highly corrupt." Given this, it would surely be difficult to choose the champion corrupt ‘person of the year’. However, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has awarded the crown to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. They say, ‘’There is "well-documented evidence" that "the Aliyev family has been systematically grabbing shares of the most profitable businesses" in Azerbaijan for many years’’.
To progress in any business, our self-employed young guide has to make contributions to every government employee he meets and, in the event he does become quite successful, he will be approached and advised to accept a ‘partner’ if he wishes to continue that success. In fact approaching the right ‘partner’ early in ones career can virtually guarantee a healthy business – but not a large personal income as the first portion of the profit goes to the partner.
We watched as policemen patrolling public car parking areas extorted a small ‘donation’ for their ‘security services’ from every car including ours. It was even possible to go directly to the front of a queue at a tourist attraction if a small donation was made for the priority service. Everyone is doing it and this skims the profits or makes many businesses unviable. For this reason, many of the capable ambitious young men have left the country to make their fortunes abroad.
The country survives on huge oil revenues. This was the place that oil was first discovered. There is evidence of petroleum products being used in trade as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries. By 1901 the capital Baku produced 50% of the world’s oil products. Obviously this wasn’t used to power camel trains but did come in handy for heating, lighting and for medical conditions. Even Marco Polo mentioned Baku oil: "Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil, and in all the neighbourhood no other oil is burnt but this." I was particularly taken by its ability to cure an ‘itch’ and suggested that our guide try it.
The Royal Dutch Shell Company made its fortune here – as did the Rothschild family and Alfred Nobel. With the proceeds of his dynamite patent he invested in Baku oil. 90% of the country’s wealth comes from oil and gas. Up until the early 1990’s most of the oil products were ‘taken’ by Russia. It’s a long sad story that has left enormous areas around Baku totally environmentally ruined.
Like most of these countries, the principal wealth is in the capital city with the politicians’ and their useful mates. There are some architecturally stunning buildings and large industry around Baku but the remainder of the country looks quite impoverished. The West end of the country is very poor and relies totally on agriculture. It is in these poorer regions that the police are most active to earn a little extra from motorists. The most common offence is ‘crossing the solid centre line’. Often there is no solid line but if the policeman says there was you cannot argue. They also have radar which, according to our lad, shows some extraordinary speed readings – just like the radar at home. Also, as at home, the real and insidious pressure comes from demerit points. 10 points in one year loses your licence. Crossing the line is 2 points, speeding is variable but the policeman may ask how many points you already have and accuse you of a speed that will immediately lose your licence. Our lad was once accused of 195kph in a car that would have struggled to make 160 downhill with a tailwind and an irate father chasing him. The standard response is to tell the policemen that you would rather pay an instant fine of 50 Manat (NZ$80) than receive the demerit points. No receipts are issued.
The population is 9 million – 4 million in the capital Baku. Apart from being the corruption capital of the world and having the most polluted land, it is most famous for hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Believe me when I say the abysmal standard of their song that won the 2011 event for Azerbaijan makes one certain money changed hands. A quote from Wikipedia says enough … Azerbaijan's large investment in hosting the Eurovision contest was widely discussed in Western media as an attempt to "mitigate misgivings about its poor democracy and human rights record". Elnur Majidli, an activist imprisoned during the Arab Spring-inspired 2011 Azerbaijani protests, was released in an apparent effort to soften Azerbaijan's image ahead of the contest, but many political prisoners remained.
On our way East from Georgia we saw 2 enormous buildings on a high hill. They are the Gabala Radar Station. The radar station built and operated by Russia until recently had a range of up to 6,000 kilometres (3,728 miles), and was designed to detect missile launches as far away as the Indian Ocean. The radar's surveillance covered Iran, Turkey, India, Iraq and the entire Middle East. They don’t mention the ‘western’ countries also within range – much of Europe. Azerbaijan certainly provided some surprises. The Russian legacy will take some to disappear.
One has to admire a country that selects its ‘Miss Azerbaijan’ in a different way to most. Choosing the dopiest girl interviewed while wearing a bikini is hardly a challenge or one that is worthy of a title. Here, girls are given hooks and different coloured threads. The girls must crochet stockings and the winner is the girl who crochets the best quality stockings in the shortest time. Now that IS having fun. A couple of other things worth knowing … Do not lend money or bread at night. -Leaving scissors with opened blades brings misfortune and even death. - If you meet a person with empty buckets, you are bound for misfortune. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
At home I continue to hear bleating that it is too difficult for 1st home buyers to purchase. As if it was ever easy. Compare with an Azerbaijani. Our boy wanted a reasonable 2 bedroom apartment in a good quality block. They are not all good quality, in fact, some are an unmitigated disaster that will unlikely survive the next earthquake. It will cost him around US$150,000 (NZ$190K). The bank may lend 1/3rd at 8% for 25 years – if he has a good enough guaranteed salary from a substantial employer willing to provide good references. (As a self-employed person he can’t provide this) Plus, personal and family guarantees are required. The bank will look more favourably if a ‘patron’ of notorious repute will also put in a good word – for which he will have made a payment. The apartment will still come with the obligatory leaky pipes and suspect wiring. There will be no fixtures, fittings or furniture. I do hope you tell the bleaters about this.
We were intrigued by the fact that before a house is constructed they build the high solid boundary wall. This is to stop nosy neighbours knowing the size of your pantry or how many bathrooms you have – actually it’s probably one. Privacy is a big deal. Popular restaurants are ones that have private rooms or at least big spaces between tables. Our lads dream apartment to encourage his bride to be must consider many things. One of the factors is the privacy that includes how many apartments on the same floor and can his door be seen from another. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. In a country known for corruption perhaps people are putting up subtle defences.
As with both of the other Caucus countries (and indeed, much of this whole geographical region) the administrations and the people have no concept of maintenance. I’m not talking here about the amount you pay your various ex-wives. I refer to the fact that once something is built, it ceases to be an asset of interest worthy of repair. They can build architecturally astonishing buildings – along with some equally astonishing impractical stuff – and yet cannot fix a water leak or repair anything. I have glue, sealant and tools with me and find myself repairing things in our hotel room or guides car all the time. It seems that the concept of ‘repair’ or ‘maintain’ is not in their psyche. The ‘best’ buildings are the ancient ones that were built to withstand a siege by an obnoxious enemy that threw things at you … but did not suffer water and electricity reticulation or had anything more than a carpet on the wall or floor to add to comfort. It’s very easy to find maintenance fault with everything – but that’s what travel is all about. They live differently to us. I’m starting to think we may have our priorities wrong. Each morning at home Flypaper presents me with a list of things that need attention. I would rather be sitting in a comfy chair, reading something edifying and sipping a mint chi. However, I’m not certain I can handle the wailing 5 times each day – so I’ll probably return to civilisation where my tool box creates domestic bliss. Well, maybe not bliss – but it is the most well-loved asset I have. Perhaps I should have told my new Azerbaijani friend to buy a screwdriver.