With Turkey’s prospective EU membership causing controversy in Europe, many have pointed to the fact that Turkey is where Europe meets the Middle East. However, if you thought that was complicated, just look a little further East. Welcome to the lands where Russia meets Persia meets the Middle East meets Europe meets central Asia. Yes it’s the Caucasus, the lands of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Having spent a good week and a half travelling this confusing frontier it’s time to tell you all about Georgia and Arrzebaijan (say Arrzebaijan, with particular emphasis on the arr. See it’s good fun!) Let’s start with the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, as even its name is confusing let alone its place in the world. To some people it is known as Tiflis, which is too similar to a name of an STD for my liking, so we’re going to call it Tbilisi. Now to say it like a local you have to say “bilisi” but first make the shape of a T with your mouth without actually saying it. This is quite challenging to do without giving off the impression that you have a stutter. Either way having seen the written language in Georgia I gave up any chance of learning the language here. Couple their written language with their fascination with the sound ‘Kh’ (spoken in a way that makes it sound like you have emphysema) I decided enough was enough and I gave up on language and became jovial British guy who would greet people with hello and say thank you like I was a colonialist. My brain just couldn’t take another language, it needed a break. Luckily for me Baku provided a little bit of a break from Georgia’s letters. You see Azerbaijan pretty much has the latin alphabet, except for a few upside down e’s here and there. Also anything from the west my English eyes could read, except it would never be spelt correctly as it was Azeri-fied. For example a trip around McDonalds showed you the local favourites like the “Makchiken”, the “Biq Mak” and the “Ciz Berger”, however I’m willing to ignore the funny spelling simply because I could understand it a lot better than Georgia’s shorthand squiggles.
Take away my frazzled brain and Georgia’s ancient but thoroughly confusing alphabet and you get my true feelings about Tbilisi. It is such an amazing place, its lives and breathes its history and does it with a smile despite very hard circumstances. Indeed the architecture here is very much demonstrative of Tbilisi’s history, as the old style buildings from around 1900 would look more at home in a living museum in England than on the streets of a modern capital city. It’s tempting to take a picture of one of these buildings in black and white and spill some coffee on it to see just how much I could sell an authentic photo of Britain in the 1880’s for. Of course old buildings are nothing new, but to someone from Britain and Western Europe it provides a great insight into how your country would have looked 100, or even 200 years ago. In Britain the emphasis post world war two was to erect housing which would be quick and cheap, and the aesthetic concerns and designs of the turn of the 19th and 20th century gave way to a more functional style across much of the country. Tbilisi is the last bastion of European culture that wasn’t razed or taken over by the Nazi’s during the turmoil of the first half of the 20th century. This means you get buildings here looking exactly the same as they were a century ago on the whole.
This leads nicely to the next point about Georgia, yes I’m sure the buildings look nice to me but another reason why they are still standing is because Georgia isn’t a place flush with money. Nowadays Georgia is keen to keep its architectural style, but the reason a lot of the buildings here are still standing, and only just in some cases, is down to the situation Georgia found itself in post the Soviet Union. With the support of the USSR gone, Georgia had little in the way of industry or resources to rebuild with. This is in stark contrast on the coast of the Caspian in Baku, capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan.
When you get off the train at Baku station the first clue that oil dominates Azerbaijan, apart from the massive pipelines and oil rigs you can see out the window before you get off, is the sign. The sign welcoming you to Baku is the name of the city surrounded by big flames, presumably oil-fuelled. If a sign is seemingly powered by oil you know this might well be one of those oil towns. More proof, if it were needed, comes from a look in the Azeri national history museum which proudly displays a small segment of an oil pipeline donated by the state oil company to mark oil’s importance in Azerbaijan. Essentially Baku is a city on steroids, big skyscrapers hovering over a city where big business and poverty run hand in hand. Development in all the wrong areas makes looking at Baku a bit like grimacing watching those body builders who have just gone too far. Walking around the seafront of Baku in the well-to-do area is like walking around any rich place in the world. With a serene, tree lined, sea-front promenade to walk along and shopping malls in modern buildings housing brands like Gucci, Prada and Bulgari you start to wonder how Baku has not drawn in more people, although for a shopping area as it would require a significantly larger wallet than the few backpackers who pass through currently. However, the pleasant walk around this centuries old port town is disrupted somewhat when you get down to the seafront. What welcomes you can only be described as sludge, black sludge at that. Instantly it hits you that this is the price the average Azeri is paying for this extreme wealth on the sea front of Baku. The sea is black. Hell there’s a sea about 1,000km west called the “black sea” but this one seemed to deserve the title! Looking at its horrible colour and viscosity (thank my science teacher for the terminology) it contrasts starkly to the uber rich surroundings. Kind of like if you looked in the mega body builder’s pants. What’s even more hideous is to look at some simple statistics on Azerbaijan, a country where oil money is running rampant in certain areas of Baku. 47% of the population live under the poverty line, the average life expectancy for a man in 62.86 years and it was ranked 134th in the World corruption perception index with countries like Zimbabwe and the Philippines. This in a country where the state oil fund, which apparently donates oil money to the country, made $15.5 billion worth of profit in 2010. Speaking to Azeri’s in Azerbaijan they blame the rampant nepotism and corruption from holding back a country with vast revenue and more population than Georgia and Armenia combined. Everyday life shows this as even simple things like queuing for train tickets required an aggressive push and shove attitude. The ‘who you know’ not ‘what you know’ element was also shown when someone was waved through the mob queue to be first because she knew the ticket lady.
Of course these elements don’t help a country grow much, but then these things are also rampant in India and it’s not exactly growing slowly there is it? One thing that can definitely be seen as a weight around Azerbaijan’s neck is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and its neighbour Armenia. For those that don’t know after the Soviet Union fell Armenia, an orthodox Christian nation and Azerbaijan, a majority Muslim nation, fought a bloody war which, it is claimed by some, descended into outright genocide. The area of Nagorno-Karabakh in-between the two nations, which for centuries had seen both Muslims and Christians co-exist became the centre of some of the most fierce fighting. After the dust settled Armenia controlled the area and almost all of the Muslims of Nagorno-Karabakh were victims of the conflict or became refugees in Azerbaijan or Georgia. Not wanting to settle the refugees however Azerbaijan has had to keep these refugees as refugees. If Azerbaijan re-settled the Nagorno-Karabakh residents elsewhere in Azerbaijan then the issue would eventually simmer away into lesser importance. Obviously the area would still claim importance but there wouldn’t be such urgency attached to the matter. This loss of area and substantial loss of income for a lot of its citizens knocked Azerbaijan for 6. Any country would of experienced the same too if 1/3of your land mass was taken from you. This situation, which also produced an Azeri enclave which had to be supplied by expensive air support and satellite communications, means Azerbaijan is not entirely sure where to go from here. Peace talks continue to stall and no one knows what quite to do.
This however led to a wonderfully biased afternoon walking around the Azeri national history museum. Spurious claims of the Russians ‘fabricating a myth of a greater Armenia’ in the 19th century as a way to Christianize the area made you wonder how Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301AD. After walking round Azeri history chronologically it was interesting to see it stop abruptly at the ’Genocide of Azeri’s by Armenians 1917’ room. How these two nations can come together with such a venomous national history museum is one of the many challenges both sides face. Although I’m sure if Azerbaijan would offer Armenia one of its Gucci handbags maybe it might be a good start. I mean everyone loves gratuitous offers of money right? No? I think maybe I have spent too much time on Baku’s seafront.
Until next time!