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As Baku emerged through the train window out of a polluted, post-apocalyptic wasteland bordered by a mud-coloured sea, it didn’t seem the most welcoming of places. Falling apart flats and factories neighbouring on brand new luxury hotels for the oil barons gave the impression of a dog-eat-dog, Wild East town. Yet it was in the abandoned docks of Baku that we received the warmest welcome during our journey so far, and discovered Azerbaijan’s DIY version of sustainable urban regeneration.
In Baku after two weeks of trains, the oil-boom city reveals its dirty secrets to us.
Oil made the city of Baku what it is today – a sprawling capital city and an important Caspian port. Oil is also responsible for the lethal pollution of water, land and air in the area. The city’s latest role as the centre of Soviet petro-chemical industry is behind the high incidence of birth defects and illnesses. Since the fall of communism, oil companies (notably BP) have cashed in on the black gold flowing from the Caspian Sea, high-rises have gone up like mushrooms to house executives, while petro-chemical factories went into disuse and the time-worn communist-era flats slowly transformed into slums. Since a 1994 deal with oil companies, profits are channeled into a closely guarded circle (currently president Ilham Aliyev and his cronies), funding brand-new 4x4s and luxury villas. The polluted environment stays as it was, with no money to clean up the swathes of contaminated land, and the poor continue to subsist in disintegrating housing amid disused factories on a coastline burnt out with noxious chemicals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of Baku’s poorer inhabitants who gave us the warmest welcome yet. Vekil, a truck driver living in a disused cement store in the docks, shared his home and food with us, thus rescuing us from a stinking and expensive soviet hotel. By taking us in, he let us discover Azerbaijan’s fast-changing capital from the inside.
Slowly, the city is transforming into a vision straight out of Soviet anti-capitalist propaganda. The rich get richer and the poor struggle to survive – but as often happens when things get tough, they do so with great ingenuity, re-using and recycling all available materials. Nothing is wasted. Our host Vekil’s one-room abode is housed in a disused cement factory where at least 30 other people live.
Abandoned store-rooms are easily converted into living space using materials freely available onsite such as waste cardboard and corrugated iron. Electricity and water are “borrowed” from the mains with a few DIY tubes and wires. Add an electric hob, some old furniture, a TV, a side mirror from a truck and a fully recycled, post-industrial-style studio flat is ready and functional. In the cement factory “complex” there is even an improvised restaurant serving shashlik (grilled meat), bread, salad and beer on a terrace overlooking greenery that has grown up around broken cement and rusting iron. Like in many other places in Azerbaijan, the locals have made this piece of industrial wasteland into a surprisingly pleasant area. Westerners could do with a lesson in no-cost DIY urban regeneration from these people.
Factories abandoned after the collapse of Soviet industry are an obvious place for those who once worked there to go, having found themselves even poorer in capitalism than they were in communism. Housing in Baku is incredibly expensive – even a flat well out of the centre can cost $120,000, an impossible sum for most locals. The old factories of Baku and nearby Sumquait are also occupied by scores of refugees from the war in Nagorno Karabakh.
Vekil is lucky because the cement factory is not his only home – he also has a flat in Sumquait, a post-industrial nightmare of a seaside town, where his wife and six children live, and where he goes back when there is no work for him in Baku. Many others have no-where else to go. But the blocks of flats of Sumquait are not much better than the factory – most have shared bathrooms and toilets, and their general state of disrepair is clearly visible from the outside. Living in Sumquait also carries serious health risks – the high incidence of birth defects and still births in the area is testified by the town’s “baby cemetery” where many graves carry portraits of deformed children.
What is most surprising is the pride with which the locals tell us of their factories, now mostly disused or working at reduced capacity. “It all worked like clockwork in soviet times, the aluminium factory, the gum factory, the chemical factory…” – another truck driver in Sumquait tells us proudly. “Now, there is no order to things.” In Baku, lovers walk down the promenade with a view of oil platforms hovering over a stinking sea of a strange greenish colour on which patches of petrol glisten in multi-coloured reflections. It’s as if pollution is a part of everyday life that no-one questions.
“Pollution is part of Azerbaijan’s tradition,” a young man working for the state tourism office tells us over dinner one night. It’s no wonder things don’t change, he says, as environmental protection isn’t taught at school. And yet the Azeri appreciate a pleasant environment – the restaurant we are sitting in, for example, is a little oasis of tables among green trees and flowers in a courtyard hidden away among horrid concrete blocks near the city’s bus station. Local people are very skilled at transforming small spaces like this, while public space is left polluted and dirty in true communist style. It could take a generation to bridge the gap between the Azeri attitudes to private and public space – given the educational system catches up with the idea of protecting the environment for everyone.