When Claudius Bombarnac, Jules VerneÂ´s imaginary hero in The Adventures of a Special Correspondent, arrives at the Apsheron peninsula on the shores of the Caspian he is appalled by the pollution, but thrilled at the same time by the naphtha that seeped out of the ground.
“A marvellous phenomenon indeed! Do you want a light or a fire? Nothing can be simpler; make a hole in the ground, the gas escapes, and you apply a match. That is a natural gasometer within reach of all purses”
Map courtesy of ICG.org
Despite Verne’s concern, nobody has ever paid much attention to ecology in this part of the world. Sumgayit, Baku’s neighbouring town 40kms north of the Apsheron peninsula bears brutal witness to this. Sophisticated Bakunians occasionally laugh at Sumgayit locals; “they dry wool in the middle of the street!” some say. But textile handicraft is doubtless the least to worry about in the city once designed to be one of the biggest petrochemical complexes in the whole Soviet Union. Housing was easy to get here, so this village of 4000 souls in 1940 turned into todayâ€™s concrete-tower city of 270.000 people.
The main goal of “Azerbaijanâ€™s pride” was to maximize low-cost production, so the nomenklatura cared very little about the wastes being dumped into the air, into the sea and onto garbage heaps. Despite the regionâ€™s “generous” government providing milk, cheese and meat to those workers in factories where toxicity was extreme, the environmental disaster had direct consequences in cancer mortality rates and premature-born babies, many of them with genetic defects as well. Itâ€™s not by chance that the city that once held the world record for infant mortality has got a separate section of its cemetery for children, many of them with severe malformations, according to the portraits engraved on their tombstones.
Travellers still eager to pay the visit will find marsrutkas aplenty leaving for Sumgayit outside BakuÂ´s 20th January metro station. Itâ€™s just an hourâ€™s drive northwards across the Apsheron peninsula during which the collective taxi stops whenever and wherever the passengers wish.
The greens provided by Baku city centreâ€™s trees are substituted by the greyish thicket once in the outskirts. Verne had already pointed out that only the wormwood, the plant from which absinthe is made, survived in this barren land beaten by the winds, so Bakunians had to wait until the Nobel brothers started pumping oil here to get to enjoy the trees and the parks that cool down the city still nowadays. The story tells how the first Swedish oil tankers were filled with tons of fertile soil on their way back to Baku after cruising the Volga; a remarkable example of sustainable development, which unfortunately Exxon, BP and the rest of their heirs are not willing to follow in any way.
The feeling of movement comes from the continuous interchange of people in and out the mini-bus, as BakuÂ´s outskirts couldnâ€™t be more monotonous under the grey concrete towers called “Stalinska”, “Kruschevska” or “Breznevska”, named after the man ruling the Empire at the time. Actually, post-Soviet citiesâ€™ outskirts look exactly the same, from the Caspian shores to those of the Pacific coast.
The view from the hill before Sumgayit couldnâ€™t be more appalling: The familiar mass of concrete, but this time surrounded by rusty pipes, rusty chimneys and rusty oil derricks here and there, many of them standing alone in the middle of a black puddle. Anyhow, Sumgayitans probably get used to it from an early age as rust also covers the swings for the children downtown.
But the city has some pleasant areas too, like the open air-market at the city centre, whose colourful display of fruits and vegetables helps to break the monochromy of the place. From there, the waterfront can easily be reached through the Sulh (peace) Avenue, which leads to Sumgayitâ€™s two sole pieces of art just before the beach: the “Dove” sculpture, and the Nagorno Karabagh martyrsÂ´ monument. Both made of concrete, the first still has a certain modernist charm, but the latter looks more like a rocket launched by resentful Armenians from the very heart of Nagorno Karabagh, willing to avenge the pogroms the local Armenians suffered here back in 1988. Armenians would also stick to the ethnic cleansing of Azeris and Kurds during the Karabagh conflict, hence the thousands of refugees from the war-torn region spread out all over the country, including Sumgayit.
Two rows of stairs help us leave the war memorials behind and make our way to the beach, beaten by the Jazri, the onshore wind. Looking towards the sea, one cannot help think of the strategic place this country has on the world map: Turkmenistan and Central Asia to the east, Russia to the north and Iran to the south. Some may say it is part of Europe; some others consider it the gate to Central Asia. President Ilham Aliyev, the last of the Aliyev dynasty, in power since time immemorial, goes even further and promises his people a “New Kuwait” for the near future. But plain Azeris hardly get to see any benefits of their “black gold”, most of which runs across British Petroleumâ€™s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipe – almost 2000 Kms long, running across the Caucasus and Eastern Turkey to reach the Mediterranean.
The long beach also gets its dose of rust, present on football goals and kiddiesâ€™ swings; on a big wheel that could be a replica of that one in the ghost town of Pripiat, near Chernobyl; and also in a wrecked ship that marks the end of the stroll.
Even if ecology has dramatically improved after the breakdown of the most poisonous factories during the economical discord of the early nineties, the majority of sewage here is still dumped into the sea unprocessed, turning the Caspian shoreline into a biological “dead zone”. Oblivious of this fact (or maybe not) Azeri tourists, longing for the sea, flock to the Caspian beach resorts during the summer season; something that the famous visionary French writer would never have been able to predict.
Author – Karlos Zurutuza