MINGECHEVIR, Azerbaijan – As I took my window seat on a plane for Baku, I noticed that my neighbor, a middle-aged Azeri guy, had way too many plastic bags. He didn’t even think about putting them in overhead bins where they belonged. Instead, the fellow began to stuff the bags virtually everywhere he could squeeze them, which was rather irritating.
It felt that only my angry look prevented him to put one of the mysterious packs in front of my seat, which would virtually deprive me of any leg room. Instead, the guy put the bag in front of his own seat and then began to invade the leg space of his aisle seat neighbor, a timid Azeri woman about his age.
As she would not even utter a minor objection, I felt it was my duty to interfere, and I started rebuking the guy of bothering everyone with his bags, which he, instead, should have put overhead. In response, the Azeri gave me such offended look that it almost hurt and said “but I have bottles there – they will break.”
All throughout our neighborly exchange, a flight attendant of Azal, a state-owned Azerbaijani carrier, was nearby, checking if everything in the cabin was okay before the takeoff. To my surprise he looked at the bags in question for a few seconds and didn’t say anything. Obviously, the bottles’ excuse was good enough for him.
All of this was in a stark contrast with the plane itself, a brand new Airbus 320. Despite having a very strange design, obviously inspired by blue-red livery of Soviet aviation monster Aeroflot, getting into its shiny cabin was a welcome change after flying with Ukrainian carriers.
But in some way my plane experience was similar to what modern Azerbaijan is like: an authoritarian country experiencing the oil boom that does its best to look posh, modern and European. But, upon closer examination, it is just smoke and mirrors.
And it’s not just that the rulers of Azerbaijan – including its president, Ilham Aliev, who inherited power from his father Heydar – don’t really want real change. Once you get out of Baku, one of the poshest and gaudiest places I’ve ever visited, you come to see people who don’t care for any modernization or European values. And after spending several days there you get to understand them.
To say that my trip to Azerbaijan was an unconventional one would be an understatement. After spending one of the hottest (Celsius-wise) nights in Baku in the Riggs Hotel, where all the water suddenly disappeared in the middle of the night, I headed to the city of Mingechevir.
Geograpically, this city with 100,000 people is in the middle of the country, near a huge water reservoir and the country’s only hydroelectric power station. With this, the list of the town’s attractions ends. Staying there for one week, there was plenty of time to feel what it’s like literally being in the middle of nowhere and getting to know its daily routine.
It’s funny, but my first really Mingechevir experience was the food, specifically the local delicacy served at the hotel as a special welcome treat. The unpleasant smelling dish turned out to be a bowl full of boiled fish heads – totally inedible to my taste. When guests started complaining about this, the restaurant manager looked genuinely offended – not unlike my bottle-loving flight companion – as he said: “But this is what we love to eat here.”
It’s not a rebuke to the great Riverside Hotel, as there were always plenty of traditional and non-traditional dishes to choose from, but sometime around the third day, the entire place – a chic hotel with enormous rooms overlooking the mountains and the Kura River – began to look way too fancy, given the general poverty of Mingechevir.
This only triggered the urge to explore. As it usually happens, together with a Romanian friend, we started the cultural adventure with going to the local restaurant which seemed the most authentic. It was right across the river from our hotel and despite its shabby looks, its owner was proud of it enough to name it Elite. What was supposed to become a fun night out of our chic reservation, turned out to be cultural shock, as we weren’t let in.
“It’s only for the families,” explained the waiter. Was it the fact that we wore shorts (which no one in Azerbaijan seemed to do, despite the scorching heat), or our blatantly bachelor look, which, in their opinion, could cause harm to the families dining in Elite, we’ll never know. But our planned adventure ended with a sour retreat to the hotel.
The fact that Mingechevir was built near the huge artificial reservoir supplying water to the power station, also meant great swimming opportunities. It remained a mystery how the water could be so cold and refreshing in such heat, but this was hardly something to complain about. And the surrounding mountains made the beach look somewhat Martian.
We went to the beach along with our Azeri friend, an attractive woman in her 30s and her kid. Yet, as we went into the water, it was clear she wasn’t going with us. “Women are not supposed to swim in this part of the country,” she explained. “They could do it in the Baku area, but definitely not here.”
This sudden revelation and, perhaps, the heat brought to imagination the blurry wire pictures of executions of women for infidelity by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The question of what would happen to our friend if she did swim with us, or after we came out of the water, was in the air, with none of us daring to talk about it. “Oh, local people will make fun of me and post the video of me in a bikini on the YouTube,” she smiled, sensing the question. “It won’t be the best thing for my reputation.”
Soon our friend left, while we stayed in a beach restaurant for some beer and grilled mutton. As we ate, a group of the locals, mostly mid-aged and elderly men, were looking at us, discussing something. At some point, it was obvious that they wanted to talk, but could not decide which one of them would be their messenger.
Finally, one of them, a burly man with grey hair came up, asking, “Are you from the circus?”
After our silent pause, we were told that there is a travelling circus from somewhere in Eastern Europe stationed nearby, hence their confusion. But it was a welcome one.
After an exhausting week of teaching a group of journalists the ins and outs of investigating offshore crime and the skills of talking to the victims of abuse, being mistaken for just someone chilling out before the night circus performance wasn’t such a bad thing.
Then another, much older guy joined, this time speaking directly to me in an angry voice, seeming ready for a fight, “But you were here three months ago and spoke perfect Azeri, so why now you are pretending you don’t understand us???” he said.
It wasn’t easy to persuade the old fellow that he made a mistake, so soon I just gave up trying. Instead, I promised that next time I’m in Mingechevir, I will speak the Azeri language, as we bid the guy and his friends goodbye.
It was time to go back to the circus.
Kyiv Post staff writer Vlad Lavrov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org