Oil-Boom Town in Tsarist, Soviet and Benetton Style: Baku, Azerbaıjan. April 2007.

This is the yacht club in Baku, capital of a nation with about 7.0 billion barrels worth of proven oil reserves, almost as much as Norway. Azerbaijan's fanciest street is a short walk away from the yacht club. Women in impossibly high narrow stiletto heels glide down this street named for the Azeri poet, Nizami. They pass and sometimes stop in the neighborhood's many gold and perfume shops and U.S and European stores such as Benetton.
A short train ride away from the gates of the yacht club are oil rigs. Baku was one of the first oil-boom towns in the world, and continues to be one.

(This map is from www.caucasus.ge, via Google images.)

Management Changes

Baku had the good fortune to boom around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when buildings were grand. Baku's oil industry ranked first in the world for oil extraction in the years 1899-1901, with a total of 11.5 million tons annually, according to the Azer.com web site. The U.S. was producing about 9.1 million tons a year. Azerbaijan then was under the control of the Russian tsars.

When that Russian empire collapsed during World War I, Azerbaijan has a few years of independence that lasted until the Red Army marched in in the 1920s. The Soviets rewarded Baku, the gateway to key oil reserves, with some lovely buildings.

Baku may never become a favorite seaside holiday spot, but its buildings make it a pleasure for strolling for a day or two. Its Metro is cheap, fast and well decorated. with mosaics in some stations.

Sundays seems an especially good time to visit, as the boulevard along the Caspian is filled with families, couples and groups of friends out for strolls. There's a Ferris wheel and all kinds of ice cream stands, making it feel like a carnival by the sea.

Below are pictures that my husband David took of downtown Baku:

Bloodiest Battle in History

Baku's oil helped spark what historians say in the bloodiest fight in history, the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. As many as 2 million people were killed in this fight that involved German attempts to seize Russia's rich source of oil, according to Wikipedia.

The Soviet's own decision on where to set boundaries spurred a more recent conflict for Azerbaijan. The Soviet had given Azerbaijan a chunk of land largely populated by Armenians. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Armenia supported the efforts in that region to break free of Azerbaijan. That triggered the closing of the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia and Turkey.

This makes planning travel through the Caucasus like the puzzles that appeared in the children's magazine Cricket. Here's the map again to keep track.

(This map is from www.caucasus.ge, via Google images.)

If you want to go from Azerbaijan to Armenia, you must go from Azerbaijan to Georgia and then to Armenia. To get from Armenia to Turkey, you have to again go through Georgia en route.

And don't think Georgia is immune to squabbles. It got into a spat with Russia over spying in recent years, leading to a border closing. Worse, Russia stopped buying wine from Georgia, depriving the nation of one of the biggest markets for one of its biggest exports.

Rings of Fire

Azerbaijan keeps its military at the ready for ...something.
``You have to see this, David,'' I called to David one morning as he showered.
David threw on a towel and ran out into our hotel room, but it was too late. He'd missed the best part of the video on the Azeri military.

It showed soldiers doing military exercises with a soundtrack reminiscent of 1970s cop dramas such as Starsky and Hutch. Two military trucks drove into what looked like a parking lot, each with a soldier standing on the side. The soldiers then did synchronized back flips off their trucks, landing on the ground at the same time. That's when I had started yelling for David.

In the few seconds it took David to get out of the shower, the soldiers ran in tandem and then leaped at the same time through separate rings of fire. What kind of combat requires this skill? Maybe the Soviet Union with its fondness for circuses had left behind a tradition of acrobatic attacks?

The video continued with a frequent refrain of the country's name sung in clipped syllables. Ah-zer-buy-zjahn.Ah-zer-buy-zjahn. Ah-zer-buy-zjn.
Azerbaijan. It is like no place else I've seen.

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