Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 6

Schwangau-Horn (Germany) - Munich (Germany) - Baku (Azerbaijan)

Where in the world is Azerbaijan? That depends on your perspective.

Some of the teams on “The Amazing Race 20” thought they were going to Africa when they read the clue sending them from Germany to Baku. But even if you know better than that, and can find Azerbaijan on a map or a globe, it’s not easy to characterize its location the way you can say that, for example, Germany is in “Central Europe” or Senegal is in “West Africa”.

The International Air Transport Association defines Azerbaijan as part of “IATA Europe”, an entity that also includes Turkey and parts of North Africa. That’s potentially relevant because it’s the IATA definition that applies by default, if no other definition is specified, when the rules of an airfare or frequent flyer program provide that a common price or number of mileage points applies to a ticket to anywhere in “Europe”. (Read the fine print carefully, though: There’s a narrower IATA definition of “geographical Europe” that excludes North Africa and most of Turkey, although it does still include Azerbaijan.)

There’s a certain logic to this definition, and to grouping Azerbaijan with the countries to its west, if one takes the Caspian Sea as the continental divide. But while Azerbaijanis, like Turks, may aspire to “European” status, that’s not generally how they are perceived by the rest of the world.

If one thinks of the Caspian as the center of its own region rather than as a border between regions, one is more likely to group Azerbaijan with the countries across that sea to its east (and where related Turkic languages are spoken) as part of “Central Asia”. Baku is probably more like Almaty, Kazakhstan than anywhere else that The Amazing Race has visited. Both Baku and Almaty are oil boomtowns. The big cultural difference is that Kazakhstan has retained a much larger ethnic-Russian minority, while contemporary Azerbaijan is almost entirely Azeri in ethnicity and first language.

Coming at it from another direction, one could look at Azerbaijan in relation to its larger neighbor to the south: “It’s just north of Iran,” said one of the Amazing Race contestants who had recently returned from a “tour” (how different the meaning of that word is when used in relation to soldiers in foreign wars!) in Iraq with the Army.

Or one could group Azerbaijan with its immediate neighbors as part of “Transcaucasia” or “the trans-Caucasus”, i.e. “the places across the Caucasus”. But that only leads one to ask, “On the other side of the Caucasus Mountains from where?”

The answer to that question, of course, is “Russia”, the great power on Azerbaijan’s northern border to which the the last 200 years of the country’s history has been most closely connected.

What I found most remarkable about this week’s episode of The Amazing Race, in fact, was how rarely the words “Russian” or Soviet” were used to describe anything about contemporary Azerbaijan other than a Lada car.

Have more than a century of Russian rule, followed by more than 70 years still dominated by Russia as part of the Soviet Union, become irrelevant in the 30 years since Azerbaijani independence? I haven’t been to Azerbaijan (yet), but I don’t think so.

The racers went to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, which developed as the center of the Czarist and later the Soviet oil industry. Since independence, Azerbaijan has put a priority on finding ways to export oil and gas without its having to go through Russia. But Russia remains Azerbaijan’s largest source of imports, from food and consumer goods to infrastructure.

Airline routes, as I’ve often written, tend to follow trade routes, and Azerbaijan is no exception. Nobody likes to change planes in Moscow if there’s an alternative, especially with a short scheduled time to make a connection, but if all went well the teams on the race could probably have gotten from Munich to Baku sooner via Moscow than the way they all went via Istanbul.

According to an old Aeroflot Soviet Airlines timetable on my bookshelf, the only flight between Baku and anywhere outside the USSR at the time of Azerbaijani independence in 1991 was a single weekly flight to Istanbul, a route that now has seven nonstops a day. It’s an indication of how much external perceptions of the country have changed that, so far as was depicted on the TV show, none of the racers or the airline staff or travel agents they talked to even considered routings via Moscow or anywhere else in the ex-USSR. One reason may have been that the fastest connections through Moscow would all have involved “interline” connections between different airlines, which would lead them to be ranked lower than “online” connections in the default displays of most computerized reservation systems.

What does it matter to foreign visitors that Azerbaijan (or Kazakhstan) used to be part of the USSR? As I say in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World:

The term “Second World” originated during the Cold War when the United States divided all the world into “our” side and “their” side. The “Second World” now refers to “developed,” centrally planned (or formerly so) economies, mainly Russia and the former Soviet Union — now referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — and to a lesser extent the rest of Eastern and Central Europe. Despite Westernization, these countries retain a certain commonality in the nature of their tourist and other infrastructures, the appropriate and feasible modes of budget travel and types of budget accommodations, and the costs of travel relative to the other main world regions.

The key Soviet legacy that foreign tourists to Azerbaijan have to deal with is the requirement that visitors — including tourists — from most countries outside the former USSR have an invitation from a local “sponsor” before they can be issued with a visa.

Hotels of a certain quality (and expensiveness) can serve as sponsors to provide the requisite “visa support”, but that means that tourists must pre-book and, typically, pre-pay for hotels for every night they want their visa to be valid. Independent travel by foreigners who want to decide only after they get to the country where they will go, or how long they will stay in each place, is technically illegal.

Many illegal things are possible for a price, and there’s a gray market in sponsorships for sale for “business visits” by foreigners whose real business role is as tourists. Unfortunately, independent travellers in such countries are constantly at risk of being shaken down by officials who presume, usually correctly, that independent travellers are probably breaking or bending the rules.

I remember vividly how disappointed the police who showed up shortly after we checked into a hotel in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) were when they discovered that our visas, unlike those of most independent tourists they had encountered, appeared to be in order.

Azerbaijan in general and Baku in particular don’t get good reviews in most guidebooks, and there’s really no chance that foreign tourism could bring in enough foreign exchange to make much difference to the economy of a major oil-exporting country. Besides, foreigners wandering around the country unescorted might become inadvertent witnesses to human rights abuses, and further embarrass local governments.

Last week in New York, I got to watch an apparatchik from neighboring Turkmenistan tell the skeptical members of the United Nations Human Rights Committee that no laws or government action are needed to protect the rights of women in Turkmenistan, since there has never been a single complaint of domestic violence reported to the Turkmenistan government or police! The last thing a country like that wants is tourist cellphone videos of police brutality or political demonstrations showing up on Youtube or Al Jazeera.

Whatever the reasons for these visa policies requiring pre-booking or other sponsorship, they also keep the numbers of foreign visitors small enough to severely inhibit the development of commercial services — hostels, guide services, etc. — targetted at foreign backpackers. That’s a decidedly mixed blessing, with consequences some travellers love, some hate, and some love and hate.

You aren’t likely to find yourself trapped in a tourist ghetto or on a “backpacker bus” along the “Lonely Planet trail”, interacting only with other foreign visitors and not with local people except as servants. But neither will you find many people familiar with what backpackers might want or need or find hard to cope with if they haven’t booked a tour in advance, or services set up to serve your particular tourist needs. Travel in such a place can be logistically difficult, but highly rewarding, if and only if you can accept the hassles and uncertainty.

Have you been to Baku lately? What was it like? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 March 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Baku is going to get a lot of European exposure this spring as host of Eurovision 2012:

It's hosting because this lame song won Eurovision 2011:

That's a travesty considering the more deserving entries from Ireland:

And Sweden:

Not to mention Azerbaijan's far superior effort from 2008:

Posted by: Matt, 30 March 2012, 19:48 ( 7:48 PM)

I recently changed planes in Moscow and experienced an inkling of what it must be like for travelers from the developing world.

While waiting for a delayed Aeroflot connection at Sheremetyevo, I realized that, lacking a visa or visa waiver privileges to enter Russia, I would be stuck in the terminal if the flight were cancelled or seriously delayed.

It would have been extremely uncomfortable to spend the night camped out in the terminal. I've always taken a blase attitude toward flight delays, thinking that, in a worst case situation, I'd just stay at a local hotel. But that's not an option if you can't legally leave the transit area.

Posted by: Paul Karl Lukacs, 3 April 2012, 07:24 ( 7:24 AM)
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