Azerbaijan 1: The Caspian Sea


I’ve gotten way ahead of myself: between Albania and Baku, I was reunited with Heather (my wife, if you should happen to be reading this and somehow not know me); we spent time in Greece, traveling all the way across its northern stretch, and then Istanbul, where we met up with a couple of her best friends, big-time jet-setters. From there we flew to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For now, my travelogue is flying over Greece and Turkey. This is mainly because there has been no time to write until now—Heather and I were first telling stories to each other of our independent experiences (she was in Ireland while I was in Albania), and then we were on the move from Paxos to Ioannina to Meteora to Thessaloniki to Istanbul to Azerbaijan. In fact, we’re not even in Azerbaijan anymore but actually Georgia, so I’m both ahead and behind.

It’s a significant change from Albania, where I was mostly involved in the keep-moving present, the here-now-and-next. This new feeling of being in-between, trying to catch up with myself in both directions, past and present, is perhaps appropriate to the experience of travel. These days I seldom know what day it is, or even what week. The end of June snuck up on me. My time overseas is about halfway done, and I can’t decide if I feel I’ve been at it a long time or a short one; whether, for example, the hike from Theth to Valbona seems like a long time ago or just the other day. If you keep moving, avoiding fixed points, the calendar and clock play tricks of depth and duration, some perceptual, some literal: After we landed in Baku, it was not clear to our phones for quite a while exactly what time it was. And about 120 hours later, on the day before we left Azerbaijan, in a mountain town called Sheki (forgive me for not spelling it with its customary S-with-cedilla and upside-down e, which my version of Word can’t seem to even find), it was just past 5:00 pm when we arrived at a shop that closed at 6:00. The door was locked, but there was someone still inside. We knocked politely. She came to the door and told us opening hours were over. But weren’t opening hours until 6:00, we asked her? Yes, but it’s after 6:00, she said. Heather and I looked at our phones, both of which said it was an hour earlier than that. The proprietress’s phone—an old flip phone, one of many types of frequently-sighted relics on these travels—was an hour ahead of ours. Had we been going around Azerbaijan in the wrong time zone during our entire stay? And what did that mean about the bus we’d caught two days earlier, on schedule at 12:20, from Baku to Sheki? I was disturbed by the notion that we had been traveling only in mind, moving through an invented world that conformed to our dream-clock.

While I was engaged in this unnerving deliberation, the proprietress phoned a friend to find out the correct time. Moments later, with an air similarly disturbed, she let us in, and her demeanor drew briefly but deeply inward, as if she was interrogating the recent past for clues as to how long she’d been living in her time-mistake. How far would she have to rewind? To what date would she have to set her backup in order to proceed again correctly? And how much could no longer be undone? (We made sure to buy a couple of souvenirs from her.)

Photo: Heather Mallory

Another reason to recommence this travelogue from the banks of the Caspian Sea is that it is, or was, our farthest destination. Once there, we began our rubber-band rebound westward-ho(me), more or less: Across Azerbaijan, Georgia and down into Armenia; Romania and Ukraine; then through points undecided in Western Europe; and finally to London and the USA. From the beginning, Baku was always the fixed eastern star in the unfinished constellation of our plans, from which we would work our way back, just as this blog now finds itself in the position of working its way back into the past from an already-receding present.

The particular point where Baku was fixed seemed crucial, too. I guess there are probably plenty of debates about exactly where Europe ends and Asia begins, but Baku has a strong case. It sits on the west bank of the Caspian Sea. If you cross the Caspian, you enter the realm of the Stans, where my hiking companion Lee left a long ink trail on his cycling line across western Asia: Tajiki-, Uzbeki-, Turkmeni-, etc. That is clearly Asia. Baku is clearly not. That is not to say it is without Asiatic qualities, but by way of at least suggesting what continent it belongs to, Baku hosted the Cup Final of UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) just a few weeks before our visit. (It so happens that my former-baseball-playing-friend covered that match for national television, a sunny coincidence I am too blinded by to do other than leave here for the record.)

A brief digression: Lee emailed me the other day! He was in Bosnia, having met up with another Korean cyclist whom he referred to as his “friend.” Whether this was a friend he already had or one he made in the Balkans, he didn’t say. And about the very pretty girl with him in one of the pictures he sent me, he made no comment at all. He reported only that Mostar was great and that he was trying to work himself up to a successful jump off its famous 24-meter bridge, a local rite of passage that seemed appropriate to the quality of Lee’s general adventure. One performs this death-defying stunt under the supervision of a local dive-training outfit, and receives a certificate afterward and so on. Apparently, not very many people have actually earned the certificate. No word from Lee so far on whether he did or not.

To make an attempt at a segue, Baku is at least one very prominent bridge off which to leap from Europe into Asia. To be clear, Heather and I had set no specific prohibition against visiting Asia on this trip, but you have to set boundaries of some kind or you’ll get lost in your travels, overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities, and might end up corkscrewing your way nowhere. A few posts ago, I mentioned the parting words Heather’s writer friend delivered warmly to us a couple of years ago in London: “The world is not very big.” He is in some ways absolutely right; but over and over again since leaving Albania, from perceiving the great distances between places in just the one small part of the world we’ve just traveled, to immersing myself in vastnesses both remote and cosmopolitan, I’ve been thinking of just how incredibly big the world can actually seem.

It has nearly always seemed so to me. I can’t remember the name of my middle school geography class; it was something more colorful than plain “Geography.” Maybe it was “Around the World.” Something like that. We students formed little teams of three or four and “raced” our classmates’ teams from place to place, earning the right to push on from, say, Tegucigalpa, by learning facts about Honduras and its associated culture/people/etc. and presenting our findings to our teachers. I was part of a team that called itself the Intercontinental Flyers—I remember this name quite clearly, and who was on my team, and also that we didn’t win. Maybe my occasional bouts of wanderlust since then come from some chronic competitive drive to finish first in a rematch.

In Around the World class, one of the places we had to get to and then onward from was the Caspian Sea. What you learn in middle school about the Caspian Sea is that it’s the largest inland body of water in the world. I remember gazing at the Caspian on the map in unutterable wonder at the implications not only of the largest inland body of water in the world but also of a landlocked sea. Saltwater fed by no ocean! I must have seen photos of the Caspian in the World Book encyclopedia, but my visual imprint was nothing more or less than its shape and size on the map: that tall craggy blue hook, drawing its huge intercontinental power from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, its sense of breathless adventure from the sound of its very name, Caspian, and its mystique from its shores shared with Russia, SSRs, the Stans, Iran. An American child of the Cold War and the Iran Hostage Crisis could scarcely dream of ever seeing these places or the sea that connected them. And now we were going there, now we were going to see it.

Heather had her own magnetic attraction to the Caspian, and here I must digress again (and issue an apology at a moment when you would probably rather hear about Baku and the Caspian themselves than how we felt about visiting them). Once Heather joined me in Saranda, Albania—a cheering reunion I’ll probably have more to say about in due time—my experience of these travels changed; perhaps the delay in resuming my blog had something to do with adapting to this change. To say it was for “better” or “worse” (not to mention richer or poorer, sickness and health, etc.) would be to miss the point entirely: there is no such thing as relative value here. Traveling alone and traveling in company are simply and completely different. And writing about traveling with someone, especially with a spouse, is completely different, too. I can’t and don’t speak for Heather, but her presence in some way speaks for me. Perhaps it’s best to say that the Nabokovian “nerves of the novel,” which I was citing a few posts ago, have accepted a graft.

There are at least two ways to apprehend what this means for my little travelogue. One is to reassess what I perceived shortly before I left Durham for Albania: “I’m just one person in the world, in temporary possession of a tiny sliver of its shared consciousness, a person about to go from this place and encounter that place and its people. That’s all this is, and that’s all I am, nothing more and nothing less.” Rejoined with Heather at the end of Albania, that line has to be adjusted: we’re two people in the world, and the consciousnesses we possess individually form a third consciousness between us, also shared in and with the world, alloyed and allied yet in some way slightly mysterious to both of us, and almost unquestionably the source that keeps us together, the inkwell we replenish through our experience.

Photo: Heather Mallory

The other way to apprehend it is to remember a line from the poem Heather recited to me in our wedding as part of her vow, Frank O’Hara’s marvelous “Having a Coke with You.” The poem reaches its narrative height—a sort of Baku-like point of farthest reach and return—at the moment O’Hara perceives himself and his beloved, finally, after a lot of travel, “drifting back and forth between each other.” Think of all the words I will write henceforward as drifting back and forth along the life and the travel we share with each other and with you, the reader.

With that in mind, let me close the current post—more than 2,000 words and I haven’t even gotten to the Caspian yet, which puts my blog behind by yet another day!—let me close by simply reporting on our arrival in Baku. We took an express bus into central Baku from Heydar Aliyev International Airport (I give the full name because Heydar Aliyev will reappear throughout Azerbaijan), and from there another bus to Old Town where our hotel was. We checked in and dropped our bags, and then we walked in the direction of the Caspian Sea—THE CASPIAN SEA! It was just a few hundred meters away, but it took longer to reach than its distance suggested: a dilation of time quite appropriate to the circumstances of getting here, which began in middle school for me, and who knows when for Heather, passed through a thicket of plans in winter and spring, and took on weight and energy in the days of Albania, Greece and Turkey, when Baku loomed closer and closer yet ever unthinkable.

We had to walk along an outer boulevard for several blocks until we found a pedestrian underpass that brought us up to the broad city promenade that runs alongside the water, thronging with people out for an early-evening stroll. Had we not known where we were, it could have been Lake Michigan or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or any one of a hundred, a thousand lakes around the world known or unknown to us. But we did know where we were, and how we came to be here, and why. We were at the Caspian Sea.

At a few points along the promenade, it’s possible to descend over some rocks to the water itself. I did this and dipped my hand in: it was warm and viscous, and I was not about to taste it, because the water of the Caspian is badly polluted with who knows what and certainly laden with oil, which is the source of Azerbaijan’s considerable wealth. (And health? Apparently it is possible in Azerbaijan to take therapeutic “crude oil baths.”)

I walked back up to Heather. We sat on a bench looking over the water and I said, Here we are, at the Caspian Sea. And then we looked at each other and from our eyes fell oily, salty tears of some unfathomable feeling that can’t be called happiness or fulfillment or called by any name or word. It is a feeling of sheer aliveness, and it surely partook of that powerful O’Haran drifting back and forth: between each other; between now and the past and all that has been spanned by them; between what’s imagined and what’s real; between what you don’t have and what you do, what you will never see and what you finally saw. Between Europe and Asia. Between youth and age. Heather turns fifty this weekend. No one believes her when she tells them. They think she is much younger, and perhaps coming all this way did reverse time for us a little, returning us to the origins of dreams we had when we were children. But believe it. Believe we went to the Caspian Sea. Even believe unbelievable Baku, a real-unreal place, which I’ll tell you about as I soon as I can catch up with myself again.

Photo: Heather Mallory

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