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The Caviar Diaries – Chapter 5: Azerbaijan

Next stop, Azerbaijan! On with the Caviar Diaries adventure!

Azerbaijan was really important for my trip. Its capital, Baku, lies right on the shore of the Caspian Sea, which is also home to most of the sturgeons. The 371,000 km2 of water make it the biggest land-locked sea in the world. It was created by tectonic movement 5.5 million years ago, from the prehistoric Paratethys Ocean, which once stretched all the way from the Alps to today’s Aral Lake. The Caspian Sea only has a third of the salinity of other oceans – with just 1.2%. This is very important, because the sturgeons need exactly this to feel good and to produce the roe that’s used to make caviar. As a result, 90% of the world’s caviar is produced here! I had been there once before, roughly 6 years ago and I have some good Azeri friends. I even know some lobbyists working in Berlin. Oil production makes the republic one of the most prosperous countries of the former CCCP due to its oil resources; both on land and in the sea. It was founded in 1918 as the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world – amidst the turmoil of the First World War, but soon lost its independence when it was integrated into the young Soviet Union in 1920.

I was always fascinated by the mix of communism and Islam, which has obviously created a unique melange over the centuries. The majority of the population have a Turkish background and they have kept their traditions; even when this means adding some new Soviet habits along the way. Azerbaijan is a very liberal Muslim country. Drinking alcohol and other worldly pleasures are not foreign to its population. Even if there is a strong patriarchy, women still have their say and can have a career – but this demands great dedication and will.

The second president of the independent Azerbaijan state, Heydar Aliyev, led his country to stability and economic growth at the cost of a rather autocratic style of governing. When he died, the whole country was in mourning and now he is a unifying icon. The main street that leads to the airport carries his name, as does the airport itself, many buildings, squares and so on. There are billboards everywhere with his face on and even statues of him. It seems like Lenin has found a worthy successor in terms of public presence.
Although I am travelling a lot, I haven’t done so much backpacking for a while and I have to admit that it’s something I’ve missed. There are so many interesting people on the road, especially in such remote countries such as Azerbaijan. Actually there was only one hostel listed online, and so the six travellers in my Caspian hostel were all backpackers travelling through Baku. The place was in the centre of the old town, which has now been skilfully renovated (one might even say too skilfully). I arrived early in the morning and when I woke up I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw a young man in a wheelchair. The chair itself didn’t surprise me, but Peter did. This young Englishman was travelling from Bangladesh in Asia to his hometown of Liverpool in Europe using only his customized vehicle and completely by himself. You have to understand that you barely see disabled people in public when you’re in the former Soviet Union countries. The reason is that there is simply no real infrastructure for them. Even the pavements in Baku are so high, that there is no way of passing them. Getting on and off a train is an act of incredible strength and we are not even going to talk about making yourself understood in a foreign language. Anyway, taking this journey was sheer madness and I loved it. Peter Donnelly was in his mid-twenties and had been paralysed at the age of 19 after a motorcycle accident. He’s now volunteering to help others with similar disabilities and his current challenge was to prove that everything and anything is possible – as long as you want it enough. I spent the day with him and it was very enlightening. We take so many things for granted in life, those of us who can move our feet. But when Peter is challenged by a steep stairway, he basically has to drag himself up it and then needs someone to lift the chair. For us this is unimaginable but for him it is just something that he has to do. We went to buy him a train ticket to Georgia and then departed on the train. Thank you for sharing these moments with me Peter!

But I hadn’t forgotten my assignment. Before I started my trip, I approached friends of mine who were involved with political lobbying; quite an interesting field of work and they were certainly influential enough to maybe make some connections with a caviar producer in Baku. The problem is that some of the world’s caviar production is not very popular when it comes to European regulations. This includes the black caviar which mainly comes from the fishing of wild sturgeon. There was a self-issued ban on production, but now, especially in Russia and Iran, black caviar is being harvested again. There are two ways to take roe from the sturgeon. You can either milk it or you can cut the fish open. The former is more complicated but the sturgeon survives, the latter is quicker and definitely more lethal for the fish. In the end, I couldn’t get any help from the lobbyists because they were afraid about bad publicity. I was never one to judge. I am only an observer with a cute and harmless plastic camera.

So there I was. Not a trace of caviar and some films to shoot. I had another contact, though. Aysel was a business partner of another friend and together with Konul she runs the advertising agency, “SS Production”, in Baku. We met in her office and I couldn’t have been more surprised. On the first floor you had the technicians, all men, and on the next floor the leader of the pack, all women. This was really astonishing in such a male-dominated environment. Aysel had a sharp mind and an engineered rocket-engine underneath her office chair. I explained my task and I know that it is hard to comprehend if you are not familiar with it. First you kind of have to explain Lomography, its story and its success, and then you take out a tiny plastic camera. Sometimes size does matter or you have to be bold. I am brave enough to be a Lomographer. To my surprise Aysel instantly got the whole idea and made some calls. Within a few minutes I was taken by the hand by her talented assistant Ellina and we took a cab to a big fish-store in the city. There I got some shots of all kinds of fish-cans and some fresh fish. The owner of the fish-store and some of his workers had served their military service in the GDR (The German Democratic Republic) and so he was kind of happy to see me. In fact there were plenty of former Red Army soldiers from Azerbaijan who had been stationed in Germany. When I was finished with my kinky business we both got a farewell present: a fish!

Caviar Diaries was written by Willie Schumann. Visit his LomoHome here

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written by jeanmendoza

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This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: Italiano & Deutsch.