Sunday 28 April 2019

Azerbaijan journey

I just remembered that I was in Hungary when the Russian army left. People from Victor Orban's Fidesz held up a placard saying
'Farewell! Sunny Azerbajan awaits you!'
He and they and I have been on a long journey since then. 

We are none of us the same and nor is Azerbaijan, which is rich beyond imagining thanks to selling oil on the free market and concluding a so called 'deal of the century' with Western oil companies shortly after independence. 

As usual, oil money is a curse and keeps in power a despotic, corrupt government. It might
be a benign despotism. I really have no information about that. 

Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams are playing in Cafeteria in Baku's old city. A daughter of the nomenklatura three months ago opened Cafeteria in her beautiful eighteenth century childhood home which looks as if it belongs in a nineteenth century lithograph. I recommend the capuccinos and cakes and the 'national breakfast' . 

The end of communism when it finally came was a management buyout.

And what is Azerbaijan like? 

Azerbaijan is really Persia, which is where most Azeris live, but Azeris are really Turks. But Turks who are Shia. 

If I don't make it to Persia I feel I have already done so, even though what is now called Azerbaijan was ceded by Persia to Russia 190 years ago. 

In the same way what is now called Armenia is the portion that Russia took from Turkey in 1878. Unhappily the Armenians in Turkey died. But this is a subject not to be discussed in Azerbaijan. The Azeris talk of their genocide at the hands of the Armenians in 1918.

The night train from Tbilisi to Baku sounds like a scene in a novel by Eric Ambler, whom I just discovered. One of the pleasures of Ambler, who begat Greene and Le Carre, is the references to things that happened in the 1920s in places I've been to like Adrianople, Constantinople, Sofia and Belgrade, though Ambler got all his local colour from research in the public library and never visited the Balkans. At least Greene knew Liberia and (the bordellos of) Cuba.

In fact the night train is a bit Ambleresque but an Englishman does not travel abroad to meet Englishmen and I met two, both alone, one in his mid 50s and the other in his late 60s, both making long railway journeys. This reignited my resolve to go to Persia by train from Bucharest as I have two days' start on my compatriots. 

But I feel suddenly that there is something slightly sad about long train journeys, that they might go not with Eric Ambler but with lonely men and train spotting.

Grand Prix or Formula One made reaching my hotel in the old city like something from the legend of the Minotaur, who belongs in Georgian not Azeri myth. It was clear I had entered a police state. 

The old city itself is charming and spruce. A bit too spruce. The paranoid regime makes getting a visa complicated and this saves Azerbaijan, which does not need the money, from much tourism.

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Good food. At least at the excellent Qaynana which several people recommended. Pomegranates, the national fruit, in unlikely but tasty contexts.

Much more interesting to me were the ornate late 19th century buildings in the old town, with their wooden covered balconies, and in the Russian city which surrounds it. 

People twenty years ago said that Moscow resembled Paris by day and New York by night, or was it the other way around? Baku has a smidgen of both places as they were in 1900.

The journey to Sheki can be done in four hours but we dawdled. Mountains. Broad, pebbly riverbanks, all empty of water. 

Mushfig, my pleasant guide, explained that they would fill when the snows melted but the snow on some of the mountain tops had melted. 

Very little traffic. Pipes carry gas above the roads because if they were buried they would break in earthquakes. The road passes villages rather than go through them, so you don't see much of rural life. The country feels empty.

Mushfig apologised repeatedly for the state of the roads. I told him the ones in Armenia are ten times worse, hoping this would please him. Meanwhile, a Formula One driver came to grief on a manhole cover in the Baku Grand Prix. 

The mountains in April are beautiful, as are the empty riverbeds. The two or three towns along the way are not, nor the rebuilt mosques. Earthquakes and invasions destroyed most things here excepts for tombs. 

The mausoleum built into rock in 1402 for Diri Baba, a Shia holy man, is poetic for a moment but I didn't bother to climb up the steep steps to the tomb itself. The surrounding country is scattered with tombs of dervishes and pilgrims.

Sheki itself is worth seeing and rather than stay at the beautiful old Caravanserai I was well advised to put up at a very comfortable five star hotel, the Sheki Palace.  

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Country lanes. Old men drink tea in the courtyard of a mosque. Children play on swings. Country smells. A Muslim Clochemerle. In the morning the real palace, decorated with absolutely wonderful, rather naïve eighteenth century geometric frescoes and very naive scenes of famous victories. The latter reminded me of Ethiopian paintings. 

Mushfig spoke scathingly of a friend whose father bought him out of national service, who lives in the USA and is a fervent patriot and anti -Armenian, on Facebook. What does he do for his country living in America asked Mushfig. I felt ashamed of my twenty years in Romania. 

He married at 23 which is the right age, I now see, and has two sons and a wife who keeps her own money. He wants to move so that his children grow up in a country without corruption and where women are well treated.

Mushfig an Azerbaijani and a Muslim atheist much prefers Georgia to Azerbaijan because it is Christian and has churches. He says that churches are far more beautiful than mosques and is right about that. My next Azerbaijani guide, Edi, dislikes Iran because it is Muslim. Both said that Azerbaijan isn't very Muslim. 

I was told in Uzbekistan that vodka did more than Communism to destroy Islam. Each played a big role and I'd like to know more. Why is Islam so sturdy a plant everywhere except in post-Communist countries?

Christianity came here first of course and the church of Kish, three miles from Sheki, is first century. My father's hero Thor Hayerdhal came here and thought there was a connection between Azeris and Azer, the land from which Odin came in Norse mythology.

Historians scoffed but the Norwegian state restored the little church. It was built by the Albanians, the ones you vaguely remember in the Caucasus who have no connection with the ones in the Balkans.

Piti a lump of lamb fat floating in a broth sounds so disgusting, but oddly enough is delicious. First you drink the broth, which tastes wonderful, then you mash the lamb and fat into the consistency of mashed potatoes and it tastes equally good. I know. I know. You drink either tea or vodka with it. I took vodka.

I have to write about genocides but sunny Tbilisi calls me.


  1. An informative and entertaining travel blog. Why no photos?

    1. Thank you. No photos because I do not know how to paste on the Apple computer in the Mercure. In theory words should do better than pictures. In practice I don't have time for long descriptions.

    2. David I was at last able to post a couple that I took.

  2. Thanks Paul.
    I like both the above.

  3. I am still at least as curious about Granada as I hear you were of Baku & what might come next; still, the city is much smaller than a village I lived in until last year requiring to be kown one neighbour at a time...

  4. Thor Heyerdahl's Search for Odin in Azerbaijan."The_Search_for_Odin"_in_Azerbaijan_and_Russia

  5. @Paul
    On the subject of long train journeys, Saturdays' Times contained an article about the Wigan-Pyongyang Express. A 9000km train journey departing from Wigan for Pyongyang via London, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Ikutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The guided tour includes visits to the graves of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and both of the deceased North Korean dictators. It sounds a snip at GBP 3,195/ticket.

    The article writer wryly remarks "Some would say, however, that visiting such places comes at a moral cost". :)

    But I wonder if one would meet some interesting fellow travelers? ;)