THE WORLD: A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
As with all of the unregarded little countries we’ve visited so far, Azerbaijan has a few Well I never! moments crouching in the shadows, waiting to vault out and smack you in the face. So pay attention…
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It might be wise to get the basic nuts-and-bolts of this surprising little country out of the way first - specially for those, like me, who are not entirely 100% absolutely and indubitably sure and certain as to its precise and exact whereabouts.
The name Azerbaijan is the much-corrupted descendant of Ancient Persian words that mean ‘guardians of fire’ - a singularly appropriate description for the 10 million or so people who live here, as we’ll find out later.
Its unit of currency is the manat, its web addresses end in .az and its international dialling code is +994.
Azerbaijan finished second in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, thus provoking a diplomatic incident with Russia, to whom it had steadfastly refused to give the maximum 12 points.
The winning song was called Hold Me and was sung by Farid Mammadov - sadly, in English. You can watch his breathtaking performance by clicking here - http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/year/participant-profile/?song=30343 - or by cutting and pasting that link into the Search box of your web browser.
As for Azerbaijan’s whereabouts...
It’s the largest country in the Caucasus region and is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south.
Beyond those simple facts, Azeri life gets a bit complicated. This is because the country has two ‘exclaves’ - detached bits. The first is Nakhchivan, which has borders with Armenia, Iran and Turkey.
The second is Nagorno-Karabakh, which was invaded by Armenia in 1991 and remains disputed territory to this day.
But let’s not sully our visit with that; let’s sully it with something else entirely...
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The capital of Azerbaijan is Baku, unarguably the most polluted city on Earth. The International Health Index of 2007 said it had ‘life-threatening levels of air pollution’; 10% of its population have lung diseases of one kind or another.
Interestingly, its satellite town of Sumqayit is worse - much, much worse. The Index ranked it alongside Chernobyl as one of the world’s worst foul-air blackspots. It has cancer rates fully 50% above the national average (which is already pretty high) and astronomical rates of birth defects and stillbirths. One of its main ‘sights’ is the cemetery set aside for child burials.
(For the record, the other four of the world’s five most polluted cities are Dhaka, in Bangladesh (‘extreme pollution in the rivers’); Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar (‘the city basically stinks’), Port au Prince, in Haiti (‘choking on smog and filth’) and Mexico City (‘the air contains particles of dried shit’)).
You have been warned.
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Azerbaijan’s most famous son is Garry Kasparov, who was born and brought up in Baku - and managed to survive its perils to become the highest-ranked chess player who ever lived.
To illustrate this achievement, it’s worth bearing a few chess-based statistics in mind.
After only one move, there are 400 possible next moves.
After two moves, there are 72,000.
After three, there are 9,000,000.
After four, there are 318,000,000,000.
After five, there are 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000.
So perhaps there’s something else in Baku’s air.
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The national language is Azeri, which is very closely related to Turkish. ‘Hello’ is salam (as you might expect) and ‘Goodbye’ is sağol (which you might not).
Petroglyphs in the Gobustan National Park.
These rock carvings are thought to be over 12,000 years old
and are a World Heritage Site of 'outstanding universal value'.
Here are the numbers from one to ten in Azeri. Learn them by heart - the language has over 11m speakers so you never know when you might need them.
bir iki üç dört bäş alty yedi sekiz dokuyz on
Here are some other phrases that may help you…
Could you help me? Mene kömek ede bilersiniz?
I would like to invite you to dinner Mən sizi şam yeməyinə dəvət etmək istəyərdim
Are you married? Siz evlisiniz?
Can I have your telephone number? Mənə telefon nömrənizi verə bilərsiniz?
Will you marry me? Mənimlə evlənərsiniz?
What’s this food called? Bu yeməyin adı nədir?
I feel sick Ürəyim bulanır
Where is the toilet? Tualet haradadır?
Call the police! Polis çağırın!
My hovercraft is full of eels Hoverkraftimin içi ilan balıǧı ilə doludur
You could be forgiven for thinking that Azeri is too distant - both geographically and linguistically - to have bequeathed any words to English. But you’d be wrong. The Azeri speakers of Iran, who are seasonal nomads and mostly keepers of horses, camels and cattle, are called Qāshqāy - a name mysteriously abducted by Nissan for the name of a car.
The national emblem of Azerbaijan - though not featured on its flag - is a dramatic burning shot of flame. This is not really surprising; the country is so soaked in hydrocarbons that oil oozes from the ground and venting gas feeds natural jets of flame.
When Alexander the Great’s army passed through, local tribesmen harried it by hurling flaming pots of oil that ignited their tents.
More recently, Azerbaijan gave the world its first oil well, its first oil tanker and its first oil pipeline. By the 1870s, over half the world’s oil supply came from little Azerbaijan.
Thirty or so miles off the country’s shoreline, in the open waters of the Caspian Sea, lies the unique township of Oil Rocks. 6,000 people live there; there are 120 miles of streets, with a school, a park, a shopping centre and several apartment blocks. And all of it supported on an elaborate maze of rusting trestles.
Lack of maintenance is causing Oil Rocks to gradually subside into the sea - but it still produces over 50% of the country’s oil.
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One final feather in Azerbaijan’s cap…
It was the first Muslim country to give women the vote. Moreover, this was in 1917 - before women were allowed to vote in either the UK or the USA.
The 12th-century 'Maiden Tower' in Old Baku - another UNESCO World Heritage Site.* * *
We’ve come a long way since we started our Truckshunter World Geography by stepping carefully into the troubled landscape of Afghanistan. And, as we wave Goodbye to the oil-derricks and nomadic horsemen of Azerbaijan, our journey of a lifetime enters a new phase - countries beginning with the letter B.
So now we’re on our way to Bahamas and then, via lands as diverse as Belgium, Botswana and Brazil, we’ll end up in Burundi…
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