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Adventures Along the Caspian Pipeline

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through three countries between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.
Doug Beach for NPR
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs through three countries between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.

This summer, a 1,000-mile pipeline is expected to begin pumping oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea coast, through neighboring Georgia, to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean Sea. Ivan Watson travels the length of the pipeline and reports on the people and places along the way.

White Milk, Black Diamonds

Oltu, Turkey -- April 7, 2006 The difference between Turks and residents of the former Soviet Union is enormous.

Just a few miles from the Georgian border, we stopped next to a small village called Sogutveren, where a young man in an orange jumpsuit and his middle-aged uncle and aunt warmly greeted us outside their simple, one-room farmhouse.

"Would you like to come inside for some milk?" asked the woman, named Gulperi (Rose Fairy) Alsan.

There was no furniture inside the room, aside from two hard beds and a table. The men chatted with us, and the woman entered a few minutes later with a small bucket of milk fresh from one of the family cows. She heated it in a saucepan for a few minutes, mixed in a little sugar and served it up in coffee mugs. Delicious.

The room was decorated with a few hanging carpets, one depicting Mecca, and photos of the couple's children, who lived and worked with their families in Istanbul. Several photos showed their sons in camouflage uniforms, performing the military service required of all Turkish men.

Later, the Alsans showed us their barn, which was the next room over, where seven cows nursed a number of calves, including one that was born just two days earlier. The family supported themselves by selling milk, as well as butter and cheese.

Their 26-year-old nephew, Olcay, had spent a month doing construction for the oil pipeline which ran through the neighboring valley. He still used the orange jumpsuit and boots he'd been given for pipeline work to do his farm work. These people were as poor as anyone I had met in Georgia, but they showed no sign of anger, bitterness or resentment at their lot in life.

Neither did the men I interviewed at a gas station, or the traders who treated my driver, Burcak, and me to a glass of bitter tea in the town of Oltu, across the street from two huge Turkish flags, which decorated town hall. Downtown stood a statue of the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, riding horseback and waving a saber.

Turkish soldiers marched at a small base next to a gas station, while women in headscarves walked through the streets with their children.

The town was jammed with shops, stores, and a small bazaar devoted to crafting jewelry made out of oltu, a locally mined semiprecious stone that is translated in a Turkish-English dictionary as "black diamond." Craftsmen said the stone has been carved into jewelry and prayer beads here for centuries. Today, you can get a "black diamond" key chain for less then five bucks.

At a local restaurant, families sat in a separate section, segregated from men-only tables. When we asked around about the pipeline that ran nearby, nobody seemed to know about it.

Border Crossing

Turkish-Georgian Border -- April 7, 2006 From Vale, a beaten dirt road leads less then five miles to the Turkish border. Old Soviet-era guard towers still stand -- empty from what I could see -- on the Georgian side of the border.

The border crossing, though, is about as relaxing as can be. I asked a Georgian customs guard, "You don't have a bathroom around here by any chance."

"Bathroom?" he answered in heavily accented Russian. "Of course we have a bathroom! How could we not have a bathroom?! Follow me."

Aside from guards and customs workers, the border crossing was mostly deserted. But as the Georgians were stamping my passport, guards ushered three women from Kyrgyzstan through the Turkish side. "Ivan, look," my driver, Yura, said. "Prostitutes."

The Turks did a cursory search of my luggage and let me pass. A well-maintained, paved road began on the Turkish side of the border, and it's been paved highway ever since.

Uncle Gocha's House of Culture

Vale, Georgia -- April 7, 2006 A dirt road runs through the last Georgian town before the Turkish border.

If the villages in this country tend to be poor, yet simultaneously rustic, charming and beautiful, the provincial towns are utterly destitute -- appalling reminders of the complete and utter collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Cars splash through pond-sized puddles on the main street in front of the ruined streetlights of the looming House of Culture. We stopped in front of the massive Soviet structure because I noticed there was hardly any glass left in its two-story windows. The double doors seemed to swing back and forth in the breeze. I approached up deserted steps, and saw a boarded-up box office. But from somewhere inside the mammoth building, I heard the sound of children singing and I followed their voices.

The House of Culture's once-grand foyer and staircase were also completely deserted and falling to pieces. Amid ornate chandeliers, the ceiling and walls were hopelessly stained by water that had leaked in from the roof. The floor had been ripped up, leaving bare, crumbling concrete. Enormous, wall-sized socialist paintings depicting local Georgian culture still hung on the wall, ripped in places.

It looked like a war had hit this place. I was standing on the second floor, gawking at damage, when the door to a nearby room burst open and a short, gray-haired man with a stubbly beard and glasses stormed out. He saw me and demanded in Russian: "Can I help you?"

I had barely gotten a word out before the man embarked on a 20-minute tirade about what my "damned democracy" had done to Vale. He didn't stop to take a breath as he led me furiously from room to room, up and down stairs, through the ruins of what had been a gym. All the while, this madman cursed at the government in Tbilisi, the governor of the district and the United States for what happened to what had once been the cultural heart of the community.

My angry guide disappeared into an unlit room, banged around for a minute, and suddenly switched on an ancient Soviet movie projector, using the light to illuminate the projection booth of what had been Vale's only movie theater.

The walls here were decorated with Soviet propaganda posters and a 1990 poster/calendar of Sylvester Stallone advertising the movie Over the Top. Ancient movie reels lay piled in cans on the ground. Meanwhile, this angry, somewhat campy man described how he had worked without pay for 15 years to maintain the old movie projectors.

"If it wasn't for me," he rasped, "there would be nothing left here. I lost the best years of my life in this town, thanks to your damned democracy."

From the projection booth, we looked down at the stage of what had been the movie theater. There, beautiful Georgian children sang with varying levels of success into microphones that distorted their voices. They were rehearsing for a concert, to be performed at five o'clock this afternoon.

"I may also perform a song," my guide said, "I'm thinking of singing a Whitney Houston song. I love her."

The man turned out to be 48-year-old Gocha Makhtadze, who still lived at home with his mother and survived off of her pension. Locals called him Uncle Gocha, because he organized dances at the House of Culture in the summer, and volunteered at the school, wiring lighting and sound for concerts.

What had once been a mining town with about 17,000 inhabitants had now dwindled to barely 3,000 residents. The only salaried jobs in town went to schoolteachers. Everybody I talked to, including Uncle Gocha, was planning to move to Russia to find work.

Believe it or not, there is hope for Vale, unlike so many other similar towns across Georgia and much of the rest of the former Soviet Union. Georgia and Turkey recently agreed to open their borders, allowing citizens and cars from both countries to travel back and forth freely. Vale is bound to eventually benefit from future cross-border trade and from government embarrassment over its decline.

But Uncle Gocha wasn't hopeful.

"Georgia begins and ends in Tbilisi. As far as they're concerned, everything else can go to hell."

Before we left, Uncle Gocha turned on a scratched plastic radio, which piped music through the building's outdoor speaker system. Outside, Ozzy Osbourne's voice echoed mournfully from the House of Culture, through the crumbling apartment blocks of Vale's empty streets, singing, "I'm just a dreamer, dreaming a better day."

Rockin' with 'Uma'

On the Road in Georgia -- April 7, 2006 We've been listening to a cool tape as we bounce around potholed, avalanche-battered roads in Yura's sturdy green 1983 Zhiguli. It's by a band from Russia called Uma Thurman.

One of the tunes swipes the base line from MC Hammer's most famous song. When it comes time to say, "can't touch this," the singer yells, "hey fatso" in Russian.

The catchiest song is devoted to the band's namesake, Uma Thurman. The singer, Vova, makes up for his lack of vocal skills with hilarious lyrics. Singing in the first person, he describes hanging out on his couch on a rainy day, dreaming of seeing Uma Thurman.

He fantasizes about crossing the world just to meet her. Upon arrival, they have an imaginary conversation that's so casual and funny, it had Yura and me both laughing out loud.

"When I meet her," the chorus goes, "I'll say hi! And she'll say 'man, Vova, I've been waiting for you!'"

Listen to 'Uma Thurman.'

Toasting with Local Spirits

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia, -- April 6, 2006 "It is certainly purely political, illegal, nonfair and nonfriendly," said Georgia's prime minister, Zurab Nogaideli.

It was the first flash of anger he exhibited during what was otherwise a very dry and businesslike interview.

Nogaideli was talking about Moscow's recent decision to ban the import of Georgian wine into Russia, part of a game of tit-for-tat diplomacy between the two governments.

So much of Georgia's culture revolves around food and, in particular, wine. Many Georgians make their own at home. Several days later, I walked into a restaurant in the southern town of Akhaltsikhe, where about six guys were sitting around a table, drinking small glasses of this slightly sweet, fortified, homemade stuff. In the middle of the table stood a simple glass pitcher filled with red wine that almost looked like cranberry juice.

I didn't make it to our table before one of the men grabbed me, sat me down in a chair and then pulled me very, very close to him. Holding his arm around me, he raised a glass and proceeded to declare heartfelt, drunken things in incomprehensible Georgian to the rest of the table. One of the younger men at the table tried to translate periodically into Russian, but my new friend rarely gave him the chance. The wine, however, was delicious. We drank several glasses. At one point, one of the men asked me not to hold my glass with my left hand. It's bad luck, I was told.

Yesterday I made a similar drinking faux pas. After a tour of the creepy Stalin museum, in Joseph's hometown of Gori (where the man is still worshipped by the locals), I raised a glass of beer at lunch to toast the killer of millions. My Georgian companions told me not to do that. You can toast people with wine and vodka here, they said, but to do so with beer is an insult. In that case, I will continue toasting Stalin with beer whenever I come to Georgia.

Local Hospitality

Borjomi, Georgia -- April 5, 2006 There seems to be a crumbling castle on a hilltop overlooking every Georgian valley.

After rolling through the Borjomi Gorge, home to the famous Borjomi water-bottling factory and Soviet-era health spas that now house refugees from Abkhazia, we came across a particularly picturesque hilltop castle, which stood guard over several small villages.

One of the villages, Tkemlana, was named after a famous Georgian sauce that, locals told me, tastes excellent with roast pork. Tkemlana's population: 350. Average annual salary: $450.

A dirt road wound between sagging wooden houses. In a small, muddy square in front of a general store, several men sat against a fence on makeshift wooden benches playing cards.

I joined them and asked about the pipeline that ran through their fields, just a few hundred yards away. Though the men said they'd received some compensation, they said it wasn't enough for the fields that were destroyed by the project.

They added that several times during the pipeline's construction, heavy trucks made the dirt road impassable for the locals' battered Soviet-made cars. Several times, they said, the entire village blockaded the road in protest, holding the $4 billion construction project hostage until the company fixed the Tkemlana's only access road.

Everybody here seemed to have the same last name -- Kapanadze -- and they had a fun sense of humor. One man, a grizzled, gray-haired Kapanadze named Sergei, wore yellow rubber boots and held a long, wooden cane between his huge, worn fingers. He asked if I wanted to have a drink.

I thought he was offering homemade Georgian wine. Instead, villagers rushed up with shot glasses, a bottle of vodka, bread and some of the homemade sauce the village was named after.

I found out that for two years, Tkemlana hosted an American woman from Nebraska named Marci, who taught English in the local school. The men called her "the volunteer." I assume she was Peace Corps. Clearly, Marci made an impression -- especially on the local women, who fondly described how Marci's mother once visited the village.

Sergei and I drank one shot for friendship. Later, as shepherds began herding cows home through the muddy square, we emptied another glass in honor of our next visit. After many handshakes I got up to leave, whereupon Sergei suggested we drink another one "for the road."

A Town Stuck in Time

Tetritsqaro, Georgia, and Pump Station No. 2 -- April 3, 2006

British Petroleum took me on a trip in a Land Cruiser to Pump Station Georgia No. 2. We drove out of Tbilisi, up into the green hills on pot-holed, rutted dirt roads through impoverished villages where young men stood on the side of the road, drinking bottles of beer at 10 o'clock in the morning.

The town of Tetritsqaro, once the center of the province, looked like it hadn't seen a new piece of construction or even any maintenance in 15 years. The whole town had frozen to a standstill. It was, in fact, rotting. Again, men on the roadside, drinking beer in the morning.

We passed through the town, and drove just a few more miles up god-awful roads, past the "spring line," where the flowering trees and budding leaves gave way to bare brown branches. Then around a bend stood the gleaming smoke stacks, bright lights and barbed-wire fences of a multimillion-dollar BP-run pumping station. This was the only post-Soviet construction I had seen in more than an hour of driving. It straddled an 80-foot-wide ribbon of recently overturned earth, part of the more than 1,700-kilomter pipeline of oil and soon-to-be natural gas that ran from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

A Dark Dream

On the Road to Azerbaijan-Georgian Border -- April 2, 2006 Not far from the Georgian border, we came across something the like of which I've never seen before in all my travels.

We were speeding down an open road, through green farmland and Azeri villages. Suddenly, up ahead, the road was blocked by a crowd of hundreds of men in dark suits, slowly walking toward us.

Javid, the driver, slowed the car down as we approached. Khadija, the Azeri journalist traveling with me, said, "I think it's a political protest."

She was wrong. It was a funeral.

We stopped, and the crowd slowly walked around and past our car. Several men carried flowers. Others walked holding a black casket above their heads. From somewhere within the crowd, came the mournful drone of a traditional Azeri reed instrument.

The mob of men passed us to reveal a second, smaller group of crying women who followed 20 yards behind the men.

And then, open road again. We slowly started driving again. The somber scene came and went so quickly, I was left wondering if I had imagined it.

Pretty in Pink

Gence, Azerbaijan -- April 2, 2006 Azerbaijan's second city is famous for its pink brick. Sure enough, all throughout the city center there are two- and three-story, 19th-century buildings made of freshly painted pink brick, some with enormous, Middle Eastern-style bay windows.

Natives here fiercely resisted Russian invaders in the 1820s. Locals told me stories about the Russian soldiers' brutal repression of the local population after they captured the city.

I spent last night sitting in a video game parlor off of a pedestrian boulevard lined with old, pink-brick buildings. Azerbaijani teenagers sat in front of several large TV's, playing pirated copies of Fifa World Cup Soccer and Resident Evil 4 on Playstations. I was mesmerized, watching an 11-year-old kid blow away ghouls with a shotgun.

Holding Her Ground

Nagorno-Kharabakh -- April 2, 2006 The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over this contested region is one of several bloody conflicts to rip apart the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Though a cease-fire has been in place since 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia are still technically at war, and that became clear when we visited the front-line village of Mirasharli, on Azerbaijani-controlled territory. Please note, I can't pretend to offer a balanced picture of the conflict, since I have yet to visit Armenia.

On the Azerbaijani side, the front lines are demarcated by trenches and land mines, with Azeri conscripts separated from their Armenian counterparts by distances of just a few hundred yards.

Gun battles break out along these front lines on a daily basis, with reports coming in each week of both military and civilian fatalities.

A villager took me on a brief tour of the front lines. I was immediately drawn toward a two-story farmhouse surrounded on one side by a trench. We walked in from the safe side, and an old Azeri woman in galoshes and a colorful headscarf greeted us. She immediately showed me the bullet holes peppering her front gate. It faced Armenian positions less then a hundred yards away. Concrete barriers had been erected in front of the gate. Because of the frequent gunfire, the woman, named Nushaba Shukurova, had evacuated the second floor of the farmhouse. It's now used for the storage of hundreds of onions picked up from Shukurova's fields.

"Every night, we sleep in our clothes," she said, "because we are afraid the Armenians could invade the village."

Why did she and her husband insist on living in this dangerous house?

"If we go," she answered, "the rest of the villagers here will leave, too." She didn't want to surrender to the enemy.

Next door, a squad of Azeri soldiers marched in formation around a muddy field and chanted a patriotic anthem. The commander told me that in March of last year, five soldiers and an officer were killed over a span of several weeks during clashes with the Armenians.

The latest round of peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan failed. The rhetoric has been heating up on both sides even as the skirmishes along the front line have intensified. Azerbaijan recently announced it was increasing its defense spending by more then 100 percent. Many Azeris say they are ready to go to war again, to win back land they claim was stolen from them by Armenia.

Shepherds with Cell Phones

Countryside -- April 2, 2006 Yesterday, we drove out of Baku, through the blighted, oil-polluted fields that surround the city, and barreled down an often bumpy highway through hours of open, green farmland.

The rusting remnants of the Soviet Union are still scattered around the countryside: battered pipes, crumbling concrete aqueducts, dilapidated factories. And yet, this socialist hangover is clearly being overtaken by Azerbaijan's growing prosperity -- either it's the proceeds from the coming oil boom or remittances from more than a million Azeri merchants scattered across Russia and the former Soviet Union.

At one point, one of the many shepherds herding flocks of sheep along the roadside turned to take a picture of our passing car with his cell phone.

The countryside is full of new stone houses, topped by ornate aluminum roves. Modern green and white Azpetrol gas stations line the highway manned by troops of employees in bright green jumpsuits. This gas station chain was owned by Azerbaijan's economy minister. The man was recently thrown in jail for allegedly planning a coup to overthrow the government.

Oil Tsunami

Baku, Azerbaijan -- April 1, 2006 Last night, I went to the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic to see a performance of Mozart's Requiem.

For about 12 bucks, I watched from the fourth row of a grand concert hall as violinists -- most of them women in black evening gowns --sawed away at their instruments. The choir gave a full-throated performance, accompanied by the delightful thunder of timpani drums, hidden somewhere behind the violas. The tenor soloist was from neighboring Iran, an immigrant to Azerbaijan.

This recently renovated concert hall is a product of Baku's first oil boom. It was built at the turn of the century by oil barons who struck black gold, after the Russian empire offered concessions for the exploitation of the city's abundant oil fields in the 1870s.

For a while, Baku supplied more then half of the world's oil.

The most famous foreigners to make fortunes here then were the Nobel brothers, as well as a Rothschild. But, as a colorful local historian explained, it was the local Azerbaijanis who left a lasting mark on this city -- those who were lucky enough to "tap a gusher" and become overnight millionaires.

Baku's streets are lined with stunning buildings made out of intricately carved limestone. The oil barons competed with each other, importing European architects to build scores of flamboyant mansions, which mixed imitations of Venetian palaces with Moorish arches and Persian latticework.

The end result: Baku became a cosmopolitan business center that looks like no other city in the former Soviet Union.

Today, Azerbaijan is on the verge of another oil boom. A new $4 billion pipeline is about to begin pumping more then a million barrels of oil a day from the shores of the Caspian Sea, through neighboring Georgia down to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. With oil selling at a record high of more then $70 a barrel -- do the math. One local analyst says Azerbaijan is about to get hit by a "tsunami" of money.

But the story of oil in Azerbaijan includes a cautionary tale. Today, more then one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Not far from the 19th century mansions and brand-new 21st century high rises, impoverished Azerbaijanis live in horribly polluted oil fields. Shirts dry on clotheslines beside concrete hovels, just yards from pools of black slime and lopsided, rusting oil derricks.

When it comes to oil, this small country has experienced its share of boom and bust. One wonders what will happen when the next oil tsunami hits.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.