Three Yawns for Seki

Day in Seki, Azerbaijan

Been a rather uneventful day as Seki is small and probably only worth an afternoon of one’s time. I planned to see a nearby village but was a bit tired after wandering the bazaar this morning and skipped it. Hope to do more in Zaqatala.

Here are a few quick thoughts on Azerbaijan:

Since the fall of the USSR, so much of the world has tried to copy the west since we’re the most successful yet as could be expected, it always turns out to be a poor twisted imitation whether it be in design, fashion, behavior, business etc. It’s like a parallel universe where the cheap and tasteless are elevated to the mainstream. Imagine if the working class ran the country with plastic covered furniture, gaudy jewelry, horrid decoration and more. That’s what Azerbaijan is like. It’s truly bizarre.

Similar to Turkey, almost every male walks around in a cheap suit, even children. They top it with patent leather shoes whose toes are so long they look like clown shoes. It’s the national uniform. Women walk around in tacky high heels with a painful fashion sense. The third world is mind boggling.

One more full day of Azerbaijan tomorrow.

Ancient Soviet bus from Lahic to Ismaili

Palace in Seki

Trash everywhere. All of the country looks like this.

The Seki market. Here people sell lettuce and other produce from their trunks.

The old city of seki

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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12 Responses to Three Yawns for Seki

  1. You read it on Carpetblog first: “Azerbaijan: the oasis between Iran and Chechyna,” or “Azerbaijan: mildly interesting.”

    It doesn’t get any better than than Sheki and Lahic, and there’s far, far worse. Sure Xinaliq is nice, but there’s nicer mtns in Georgia and the food is better. Thank god you missed, for example, Barda or “the center of the love for heydar aliyev”– Yevlax. Ack.

    Once I went to a shoe store in Istanbul, claiming to be looking for shoes for my husband, and asked the salesman “don’t you have anything pointier? he lives in Azerbaijan?” just for giggles.

  2. Rommel says:

    Good God, the picture of the trash filled stream has cemented Azerbaijan’s place near the bottom of countries I’d like to visit now. Although some of the old architecture has been intriguing. Those rooftops and other architecture from the palaces and old town looks very oriental, almost East Asian.

    The Soviet Empire will go down in infamy for a number of reasons, but aside from the misery and death it brought upon so many people, it will be remembered for the most hideous and grim architecure of any empire in history – which is a real shame since Russian architecure used to be some of the world’s most striking and beautiful (orthodox churches, kremlins, palaces, lovely St. Petersburg). Aside from that, wherever the Soviets extended their influence they brought with them a corruption of traditional values, a national malaise (resulting in things like suicidal birth rates), despotic totalitarian systems or oligarchies and a thorough destruction of the environment and many of the things that made nations charming, worth visiting and unique. I imagine Azerbaijan used to be a much more impressive and lovely country.
    Thanks as always for the incredible insight and photography Chirol.
    By the way, it has to be frustrating to have to transit through Georgia (which must be the most beautiful of the Caucasus nations) so many times because of the wack border/bad neighbor situation over there.

  3. ckrisz says:

    Seems a bit odd to blame Communism for low birth rates in Russia. It’s been gone for a generation now.

  4. Rommel says:

    I was thinking of all the Eastern bloc countries in general and also nations like Armenia – not so much Russia proper. I agree though, it was quite a stretch. After all, Japan and the Western European nations have the same problem. That said, do you not believe there is a correlation between national malaise and low birth rates? It seems logical to me to conclude that the despair brought on by wrecked economies and the breakdown of traditional society contributed to a type of national depression, if you will. After all, low birth rates are basically the suicide of a state in slow motion. When people feel their prospects for a happy future are slim, they tend not to reproduce. Who wants to raise children in a city of cold, grey apartment blocks that stretch for miles, with a depressed economy and rising crime and drug addiction rates?

    Of course, much of what I’ve said likely only applies to the Western (including the easternmost extremes of it) world if it applies at all. How much demographic fluctuation relates to religion, culture, education and technology becomes apparent when you take into consideration Latin America, Africa, the Near East and most of the Third World.
    For instance, if I lived on Sumatra or Java I would always have the gut feeling the end was coming soon (earthquakes, volcanos and bird flu oh my), yet that doesn’t seem to slow down the procreation there one bit…

    So I guess what I’m saying is, you’re right?

  5. snow says:

    I’m not sure if we can blame communism for the current low birth rates in Russia, but certainly it can be blamed for plenty of other problems there.

  6. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    Low birthrates are shared by the Western countries, Japan, the former Soviet Union (also to a degree China). While the FSU is very different from the former two groups, what they all do share is a social, economic and cultural shift to “modernity”. Daniel Bell wrote on this phenomenon and it is interesting reading. In the West this was a bloody but drawn-out process. In the FSU and China this process was fast and more recent, and the nastiness was concentrated and better-remembered as meny people who lived through it were able to testify to it. What Stalin and later Mao were trying to do was “kick-start” the process that the Western countries and Japan had started earlier and more gradually. I think that the West was able to achieve better social cohesion by the fact that people had more time to adapt.

    When we look at another aspect, for example architecture, we are struck by the ugliness of some of the modern architecture in the FSU. But we in the West were building similar ugly buildings. The problem in the FSU is that they are more concentrated, and built somewhat on the cheap, and after the phenomenal economic crash of the 90′s they went into serious disrepair – so they look even uglier now. But a lot of neighbourhoods in North American cities would not look pretty after such a crash, and many do not now. Thankfully for those of us living in North America, the system we had was better at creating wealth, and many of the modern buildings that you see on the skylines spared no expense in architecture, planning and so on. So indeed the “modern” parts of American cities are often prettier – and of course better-maintained – than those you see in FSU cities.

    Also, regarding ugliness – in addition to modernism one can also blame central planning and low budgets added to the mix, which is, of course, endemic to the FSU. We see it too in North America and W. Europe in some of the soul-crushing projects that were built.

    At the same time, I know that for people who used to live in sub-standard traditional housing in the FSU 40 or more years ago, the new concrete houses were greeted as a modern, more comfortable alternative. They weren’t exactly pretty when they were new, but they were _new_ and that meant a lot to people.

    So I think it’s modernity that we have to look at. That’s why I don’t exactly agree with Chirol when he calls Azerbaidjan a 3rd World country (although I haven’t been there and he has so I will demur if he disagrees on this point) since Azerbaijan has been through the wringer of “modernity” – in addition to Communism. I have typically reserved the idea of “third world” to those parts of the world that were not fully industrialized at all (some leap directly to post-industrialism, where agrarian, some industry, and post-modern forms are all coexisting – I am thinking of India which is truly fascinating).

    So can we blame communism? I think yes, but keeping in mind that for its architects, it was a means to an end; and perhaps that end was more geopolitical after all. In order to achieve a geopolitical end, communism was adopted to achieve Modernity.

  7. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    Quick question for Chirol: I thought I read that you speak a bit of Turkish, and I wondered how you were able to get along in Azerbaijan. Also, did Azeris express any opinions on Turkey?

  8. chirol says:

    von K-T: I dont read any Turkish, or at least no more than dozen random words or so. Everyone here insists on speaking Russian when they realize I’m foreign, even though I make clear that I dont speak Russian. The language barrier is a real problem here unlike Turkey were you at least meet some people you can communicate with. Here it’s near impossible. I met one shop owner who spoke German but that was it. Thus, haven’t heard any opinions about Turkey!

    It’s a real shame that I dont speak Russian. People here just haven’t learned other languages (and I haven’t learned theirs) so I feel like I’m missing a lot.

  9. Jake Jones says:

    I’m an American NGO worker currently with a USAID project in Azerbaijan. I usually travel to Sheki and Zaqatala once a month to check on our community projects. I’ve been in Azerbaijan for four years, originally coming as a Peace Corps volunteer for 2 and a half years.

    I’ll take issue concerning Azerbaijan being a third world country. Actually, not to be pedantic, but Azerbaijan was always part of the Soviet “second world”Â? and its still a part of it. The Caucuses and Central Asia are stuck in this odd limbo between the First and Third Worlds and Azerbaijan’s case is more unusual and extravagent because of the oil money. However, living here it is hard to say this is anywhere close to the Third World. The Soviet feeling comes through too often.

    True, it takes about an afternoon to see all of Sheki’s tourist sites. The Sheki Khan’s palace is ridicoulously neglected and not developed for tourism promotion at all. If you’ve seen the tourism commercials Azerbaijan puts on BBC and Euronews and then visit the reality, you’ll see an enormous gap between what they say they want and what they’ll pay for. For the country though, it’s a very vital historic and culture center.

    A friend and I were sitting in an Indian restaurant, listsening to a Filipino band, watching an Azeri belly dancer. The place was full of expats drinking incredibly overpriced beers. Looking at the rich expat crowd, the Azeri imitation of the West, and the incredibly inequality of rich Baku from the regions we asked ourselves, “Is Baku different than at the beginning of the 20th century? What has changed since the Nobels were here?”Â? The immediate spending of received funds on facaeds and imitations of Western styles. The kowtowing to expat tastes, te complete corruption in many sectors of life. What do you think?

    I also want to take issue with the idea that Heyday Aliyev’s personality cult is on the level of Ataturk. From my impressions of Turks and Turkey, Ataturk is widely respected and his personality cult is an institution in Turkish social culure as well as political life. Here, Heydar’s worship is strictly a party matter. Party loyalists and public sycophants praise his name to win rewards from the regime. While there are billborads and posters of him everywhere (there frequency is much worse in the regions) he is not so popular among the hoi polloi. This is one reason why when the New Manats were issued, Heydar’s picture appeared nowhere on them. His cult is imposed. I can’t argue about Ataturk’s position. However, if another party wins power here, the Heydar worship will begin to wane.

    True, Sumgait truly is a hellhole. Baku has beautiful aspects and I’ve had a lot of fun living here, but it also has been rated lowest in the world for health and sanitation according to Mercer Human Resources Consulting.

  10. von Kaufman-Turkestansky says:

    JJ: Interesting! Perhaps you can share your observations on Azeri impressions of Turkey? And what about their take on the Iranian Azerbaijan provinces?

  11. Rommel says:

    Good stuff JJ,
    Another reason this blog is great. A magnet for informed travelers, expats, professionals and regional experts.

  12. azeri local says:

    none of u know how hard people got to this point from 90s….. that many are gone through hell, and are happy for the day they have now….

    so, of course it’s easy for foreigners to look at us and get their noses high…if they don’t like trash here or pointy shoes, can go home.