Welcome to Nakhchivan, the San Francisco of the Caucasus Mountains
Nakhchivan is like San Francisco if the rest of California wanted to kill San Francisco.
Some grandiose Nakhchivani architecture.
As my plane touched down into Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, I half expected to step out into a crumbling landscape ripped from a still of Enemy at the Gates. Admittedly, I’d formed this image based on scant and stale stories, but the modern history of this massive exclave, a 2,000 square mile chunk of Azerbaijan home to upwards of 400,000 people and cut off from the main body of the country by 30 miles (at its narrowest point) of hostile Armenia, doesn’t lend itself to hope and happy thoughts. A friend, well read on the Caucasus region, said he’d always imagined the place as “Afghanistan-esque”. Even my friends in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, told me I’d probably be walking out into a wasteland.
So discovering that’d I’d actually stumbled upon an isolated, bizzaro San Francisco was a bit of a trip. Nakhchivan is a shockingly well-to-do, progressive and proud (to the point of smugness) corner of the nation obsessed with local, organic produce, alternative medicines, health and spirituality tourism, all things ecological and universal Wi-Fi access.
Turkic tombstones allegedly relocated here to protect them from theft by Armenians.
It’s all the more impressive given the last time Nakhchivan tried to be bold and ahead of its time, it suffered greatly. In January of 1990, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (formerly the independent Aras Turkish Republic before the Soviets swallowed it up in 1920) took a stand against what it saw as Russia’s progressive disenfranchisement of the Azeris of Nakhchivan and the separate Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in favor of Armenians. They became the first part of the USSR to declare their independence, and were promptly attacked. The violence, which some Nakhchivanis allege involved the Armenian use of chemical weapons (the Armenians allege the same against Azeris, but there’s no definitive proof on either side), was tied to Russo-Armenian claims of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan proper (with which Nakhchivan eventually merged) and lasted from 1990 until a ceasefire in 1994. During that time, Nakhchivan fell under a blockade. Their gas, rail lines, electricity and radio were cut off, and Soviet policies of economic interdependence left them with weak agriculture and little to no self-sufficient industry. Every year, tens of thousands fled the region. Almost every tree was chopped down for fuel in the harsh winters, and the only things that kept the nation alive were two small bridges, built by Heydar Aliev, a Nakhchivani and former Soviet strongman who led the region until he became the leader of all Azerbaijan in 1993, linking Nakhchivan to Turkey and Iran.
Heydar Aliev, woven into a rug.
As the violence fell from boil to simmer and the journalists and diplomats scampered off, that was the image of Nakhchivan that solidified in the international imagination. Since then, with the aid of Baku’s insane oil wealth, Nakhchivan has undergone massive redevelopment – between 1995 and 2012 the region's GDP rose by a multiple of 48. They have revitalised local spirits, rebuilt their identity and (to some extent) rubbed Armenia’s face in it.
Some of the development, however, is coloured with the legacy of strong, emotionless Soviet policies. Those elements hit home for me as I wandered through the recently rebuilt Nakhchivan State University, a sprawling campus of massive marble temples, which attest to the power and competence of Nakhchivan. But the state economic and social programs, especially those related to agricultural and industrial self-sufficiency, are tinged by the idiosyncratic beliefs of local leaders and the peculiar experiences of living through a mass blockade.
The food issue is especially near and dear to the Nakhchivanis I spoke with. Memories of Soviet agriculture and the scarcity of the early 1990s, alongside the insecurity of an economy largely dependent on two little bridges, has led to an obsession with food security, sustainability and self-sufficiency. They’ve attained that in terms of dairy, meat, wheat, eggs and wool (five of the 334 products – a statistic repeated to me often – produced in the region, of which they’re self-sufficient in 330, 33 of them agricultural). Essentially, it’s an autarky, a somewhat rare economic policy for the modern world associated with hermit kingdoms and eccentric rulers intentionally walling themselves off from the world. Notable autarkies of the recent past include Taliban Afghanistan, Ne Win’s Myanmar, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, North Korea, early Franco Spain and so on.
A showcase of self-sufficient local products.
In addition to the historical and psychological push toward self-sufficiency, Nakhchivan’s autarky takes on a unique organic, slow-food aspect. The Nakhchivanis stringently refuse to use GMOs, despite the boost they’d give to agricultural production. They use automated and large-scale farming, but refuse to step over the edge to factory farms and insist on making all animal feed out of locally produced organic foodstuffs.
They like to brag about how good this makes their produce and cuisine – how one Ordabad lemon costs ten Azerbaijani manat, for which you can get seven to ten Turkish lemons, but people (including Turks) still prefer the Ordabad lemons. About how their walnut jam is the most complex and delicious jam known to mankind. About how, once you eat Ordabad eggs (a giant mess of honey omelet cooked without oil) you’ll never eat an egg any other way again. About how their local salt passes through the body easily and thus prevents arthritis. And about how people insist on taking Nakhchivani water, fruit, even whole sheep back to Baku when they visit. Every meal is locally sourced and served with organic juice, water, meat and fruit. In fact, the only thing that’s not local is subtropical fruit and vegetables.
It’s all part of a regional obsession with the idea that food is your culture. As my guide told me, “Without food, your culture is incomplete. To understand the identity of a nation, understand its cuisine.”
A selection of fancy vodkas made from mountain herbs.
Part and parcel with that belief in the cultural power of food is a belief in alternative medicines. The Nakhchivanis grow 300 mountain herbs which do not really translate into English, and from which they make a staggering array of vodkas. But they also hold that eating them will basically make you immortal. My guide told me a story of a friend who got stomach cancer, went home to Nakhchivan, and spent a week eating mountain herbs from the ground like a sheep. He lived another 45 years. I also heard a story about mineral water baths, which cured a Turkish man’s nerve-damaged and paralysed hand, and about the deep, old Duzdag salt caves into which little wooden huts are built and where people camp out for days to months to cure their asthma, or any other number of ailments.
Inside a Nakhchivani salt cave.
The Nakhchivanis are promoting these sites as a potential source of ecological tourism. They’re also promoting religious tourism centered around Ashab al-Kaf, associated with Qur’anic lore and the Tomb of Noah, who they claim, in contrast to the Armenian story, crashed his ark into the Ilandagh Mountain, then set anchor and founded Nakhchivan. This interest in eco and faith tourism, and village and charity tourism as well, stand in stark contrast to the five-star hotel and luxury resort focus of the main country.
A Nakhchivan University official talking about how great planting trees is.
A close second to the obsession with food, though, is the obsession with trees. Every Saturday, members of the government and many citizens pick a new green patch to develop by planting trees to replace those lost in the blockade. My guide occasionally stopped to point out the window and mention, “That one’s mine… and that one’s mine… and that one’s mine.” They’re skinny little saplings, which can make the entire nation feel like a popup suburban shopping-mall development. But it’s all part of the cleanliness and restoration obsession – the government put a halt to the construction of a major job-creating cement factory for ten years because they were afraid of the ecological damage, grime and health issues it could bring to the country. They installed it only when they found a high-tech ventilation system to eliminate the guck associated with the process.
A popup development in downtown Nakhchivan City.
What really set off the San Francisco bells and whistles in my head, however, was the massive tech focus. Once more, the communications and transit reform in the nation seems like a reasonable reaction to the memory of isolation in the early 1990s. They are currently developing local cell phone and internet companies, and aiming to modernise and repair all the region’s roads by 2015. But just as with agriculture and ecology, the Nakhchivanis have taken things a step further. A few of the ministers of the local government are self-avowed techies, and as such have pushed hard to get internet usage up to 72 percent of the population (one of them grumbled to me that the stubborn old folk, resistant to using computers, stand between them and 100 percent internet usage). They’ve brought Wi-Fi to eight districts and 200 villages – it even runs along the Armenian border. They’re starting up an ambitious project to run fiber optic cables throughout the entire region as well, which is just… San Francisco.
But while the West Coast liberal establishment (which I grew up on the fringes of) roots its techno-progressivism in morality and utopianism, there’s something more defensive and fierce in the restructuring and rebranding of Nakhchivan. Hidden somewhere in almost every conversation is a mention of Armenia and their campaign to either appropriate or degrade every element of Nakhchivani culture (the Armenians have accused Azerbaijanis of the same). After one more lecture on the merits of Nakhchivani food, my hosts pulled out a giant tome, a state-sponsored encyclopedia of Nakhchivani cuisine (there are five volumes of encyclopedias on Nakhchivani culture) created with the express purpose of preserving what belongs to Azerbaijan and protecting it from Armenia. I was told that the Armenians have, in recent years, tried to appropriate an entire breed of sheep as Armenian.
It’s not an irrational concern. We often forget the profound power the USSR once had to create new histories and identities, to rewrite ethnicity and reshape the earth itself, and we’d do well to imagine the psychological power of that experience when walking through Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains. But that same legacy, and the absolute isolation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, has created somewhat dubious perceptions of reality. One Nakhchivani claimed that there are only one million desperate people left in Armenia – international audits put the population at around 3.1 million. Likewise, pumping the heritage and power of the Azeri people, I heard it said that there are 35 million Azeris in Iran – 5 million in Tehran alone. That would make Azeris about 45 percent of the population of Iran and 40 percent of Tehran, while most surveys agree that Azeris make up around 16 percent of the population.
But these and other fun facts are believed wholeheartedly – they are reality there. It all comes down to Nakhchivani pride. A quick survey of Nakhchivani patriotism encountered on a regular basis: Nakhchivan is known as the most hospitable and intellectual part of Azerbaijan. It’s known for its salt, its girls and its melons (in that order, it seems). It’s the home of the national leader, Heydar Aliev, and was where the Azerbaijani flag was created, as well as the Azeri national epic. In fact, it’s home to the most ancient of civilisations. It’s the center of the world. It’s the home of Noah, and thus the home of all mankind.
Also, everything good in Baku comes from Nakhchivan. If they do something right, they learned it from the Nakhchivanis. My friends from Baku find this highly arrogant, but they’re impressed with the chutzpah nonetheless.
For all their guts, though, and their willful cognitive dissonance – simultaneously remembering the presence of the Armenian snipers at the border and forcing forgetfulness to focus on development and rebranding – something of the militarised memory of the early 1990s haunts the place. I stopped in at the local military lyceum, where a few hundred young boys live Spartan lives and prepare for potential (but not mandatory) careers as military officers. Casually, the head of the school mentioned to me that three days prior they lost a former student to sniper fire on the border – one of thousands who’ve died in skirmishes since the ceasefire and one of three from this elite school. The local car factory also produces subsidised vehicles for those paralysed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (part of the broader war with Armenia), whose presence is a constant reminder of even greater violence and instability in the near past.
Nakhchivanis are ever mindful of how precarious all of this is. Nakhchivan only managed to pull itself out of the image of 1990s desolation by reestablishing communications with and access to the energy resources and attendant wealth of the central government (up to two percent of the national budget goes to Nakhchivani development, along with grants of natural gas and tax breaks). Much of this depends upon the situation with Armenia remaining stable, although sword rattling as of late has led to fears of the resumption of total war. But it also depends upon the cooperation of Iran, over whose airspace civilian and cargo airlines fly and upon whose roads gas and goods are trucked into Nakhchivan. And the Iranians as well are stepping up unsettling rhetoric, with some prominent politicians threatening to annex parts of Azerbaijan (including the capital of Baku).
If the ties to Baku are severed, or if war resumes, then all the central support that undergirds Nakhchivan falls away. But even if peace comes, with Nakhchivan depending so heavily on its price controls, autarky, low-wage labour and subsidisation schemes, who knows what will become of the tiny bastion of ultraprogressive, slow-food techies entering a new political and economic world. Bizzaro San Francisco’s a pleasant surprise and a total undermining of all one’s expectations for a once-besieged and blockaded enclave – even if a little arrogant about it – but whether it’s a passing accident of history or an unexpected new Caucasian Silicon Valley, well, we’ll see.
More reports from weird places we've been: