My first mission to the South Caucasus started the evening of 5 January, 2008 when I caught the overnight flight to Frankfurt with Lufthansa. In Frankfurt I met up with Olivier Le Ber, Jacques Bure, Satoshi Ishihara and Gibet Camos-Daurella. Olivier and Jacques had spent Christmas and New Years in France while Gibet was in Barcelona. Satoshi had caught a different flight from D.C. We flew to Azerbaijan and arrived late in the evening to start my first mission in Europe and Central Asia.
I had dreamed of Baku for many years ever since reading Peter Hopkirk’s excellent books on Central Asian history. I had also recently finished the book ‘The Spy Who Disappeared’ about the British fighting in Azerbaijan against the Bolsheviks in 1919-20. Our close friends Alison and Mike had spent a few years in Baku while Mike worked for BP and although they did not have a lot of nice things to say about the place, that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for a new country filled with history going back thousands of years.
However, as soon as we arrived one problem became apparent: the weather was miserable. They were having the worst winter in 70 years which meant that the streets were covered in snow and ice, as well as it being bitingly cold. Jacques commented that the snow brightened up the drive from the airport. When I asked him to elaborate he said I would find out in spring.
We made our way into town grateful for the four-wheel drive vehicle. Many cars were slip sliding away, often helped by many willing hands pushing them along. I was surprised at the lack of snow clearing equipment but what they had available was out. With snow such a rarity they are unable to respond effectively – just like Washington D.C.!
Our hotel was the Hyatt Park hotel which I was pleased to see had an excellent gym and a huge 25+ metre swimming pool, although the room was a bit on the cold side!
We were there for a week having a series of meetings on the preparation of a new project – additional financing for an existing project. Azerbaijan, as an oil producing country, has a lot of money coming into the Exchequer and was using some of it to improve the infrastructure for the day when it needs to transition to a non-oil economy.
I spent most of the time trailing Olivier as he visited the many government agencies and officials. It was very clear the respect that was held by the Azeris for him. It is always heartening to see when a good rapport can be created between the Bank the clients: Bank staff do not alwazs earn the respect and support of their clients.
The weather meant that it was very difficult to get out around Baku. There was a thick layer of ice everywhere and people were slipping and falling with regularity. The walk from the car to the Bank office in the old quarter was only about 25 metres, but was still frightening nonetheless. So rather than experience the city on foot, I saw glimpses as we travelled to/from meetings. I liked what I saw with the old walled city, the Caspian Sea, and many ornate buildings. Olivier told me how nice it was in summer and I look forward to returning.
One place that we did get to was an old Caravanserai which was now a restaurant. We ate in the vaulted ceiling room where the travellers probably slept, then again, it could have been where the camels were parked. It was quite neat. Afterwards Jacques took us across the road and to an underground extension of the Caravanserai. I know I’m going to enjoy Baku when I back without snow! An interesting city, very nice people to work with, and interesting projects. A good place to work!
We flew from Baku to Tbilisi which is a very common route for Bank staff: the state of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan means that whenever one wants to travel to Armenia one has to go via Tbilisi. The cold in Baku had also hit Georgia so we had another cold arrival and transfer into town.
Unlike Baku, Tbilisi was surrounded by hills. They dominated the skyline and with the snow looked quite attractive. As for the city, it was a polyglot of architecture with many of the Russian style concrete block high-rise buildings, interspersed with very nice older architecture.
Checking in at the Mariott Hotel I was surprised to see that there were many American Soldiers in the lobby, tapping away at their computers. They were here as part of the American support for training Georgian soldiers. While I am not anti-American, I was uncomfortable about staying in a hotel with so many uniformed soldiers about. I recalled the time I was in Sri Lanka and the hotel I stayed at was bombed a week after I checked out because of the presence of American soldiers training the Sri Lankan army to fight the Tamil Tigers.
I went for a walk and was very impressed with the culture that was apparent in Georgia. Near the hotel I came across the Georgia Opera which ran several different shows a day – ballet, music, shows; there was a film school, and several artist studios. The city hub was a huge golden statue of St. George (of the dragon fame) – the patron saint of Georgia and who they are named after. I then realized how similar the Georgian flag was to the English who also have a cross of St. George on it. Funny two countries so far apart with the same patron saint.
As I walked around town, trying to avoid slipping on the ice everywhere, I was impressed with the number of churches. People would not fail to cross themselves as they walked by. The parliament building was lit up and I found several nice places for walking. Come spring it would be fun city to explore.
On the Sunday we went skiing in the South Caucasus which was quite an experience. I’ve written about that elsewhere but this is me at the top of the mountain. As you can see, the South Caucasus are quite dramatic – and it was very cold. Still, we had a fun day and I really appreciated the experience.
When we returned to Tbilisi we found that there had been a major protest over the recent elections. The president was returned by people in Tbilisi were not happy with the result. It is a shame since on one level the president seems to be doing a very effective job, but there is always a cause for dissent so I look forward to learning more about Georgia, its history and its politics. Also the origins of its very unique writing script!
We spent our work days in the usual series of meetings with government officials. As in Azerbaijan it was clear that the Georgians appreciated Olivier’s work. We have several projects which are quite interesting – particularly one dealing with traffic safety. Another country that I will enjoy working in.
Armenia was the final stop on this mission and to get there we drove instead of flying. This allowed us the opportunity to see some of the roads which the Armenians were proposing to have the Bank finance the upgrades. It was a relatively short drive to the border where we were met by the Armenian road agency staff. Jacques had not organized a visa before he left the USA so he had to cross into Armenia, go to the local bank to get some local currency, then come back out and buy the visa. While we waited I noticed that the trees were covered in ice from a storm and reflecting light in a magical way. However, one learns to be discrete when taking photos near airports and border crossings so none of us were brave or crazy enough to take a photo. Pity, as it was one of those seldom repeated scenes.
We had a very interesting drive through the country side on the way to the capital Yerevan. I was very impressed with the capabilities of the Armenian road agency. They were able to provide us with up-to-date data on road conditions and traffic volumes, and unlike in many countries, the data were believable. Too often, they inflate the numbers to silly levels in order to make the projects seem more attractive but not in this case. I have stood on roads where I’ve been told there are 5,000 vehicles per day and seen probably 500. “It’s a holiday” or “It’s a market day” or “You should come back tomorrow, something strange is going on” are the usual response. But by counting the traffic you pass and measuring the time one can get a good guesstimate and the Armenians were not faking things.
The road took us through rural Armenia, a very rugged and mountainous area. What really struck me was how poor the country was. I had not anticipated this since statistically, Armenia is wealthier than many of the countries in Asia that I have worked in. As we drove we passed many towns and villages where there were abandoned factories, the remnants of what were once thriving industries.
Olivier explained that under the planned Soviet economy the far flung countries around the empire had received a great deal of investment and subsidies. They had also concentrated industries in certain places, even if it was not economically of financially efficient to do so. When the Soviet system crashed, these stopped with the result that the countries were economically devastated. Many had to resort to barter – for example the tractor factory in the Ukraine had to swap tractors for engines that were produced in Belarus. Today, some one-third of Armenia’s GDP comes in the form of overseas remittances. Many of the towns were often empty shells, with people just standing around, even though it was winter.
I should say that this is not a new phenomena. We passed a railway bridge built by the Russian’s about 1880. It was an interesting design insofar as the arch instead of being above the bridge was below it. I would like to have taken a photo but the AK47 toting guard made it clear that pictures were not allowed. As a testament to the quality of the Czar’s railway engineers, after 128 years it was receiving its first major rehabilitation, and that is in spite of all of Armenia’s earthquakes.
The capital Yerevan was the complete contrast: lots of lights and wealth on display everywhere. This is one of the development challenges that countries face, ensuring equitable development for everyone. We stayed at the Mariott Hotel, near the centre of town. It was at an ornate square which was beautifully lit. No pool, but at least the gym was open 24 h so I was able to do some running and cycling, as well as join a spin class (which was tough!). While running I met an American woman from Oregon who was in town as part of the OSCE team monitoring the upcoming election. This was the one that would cause me grief when my March mission was cancelled due to riots in protest at the results.
We went on a longer field trip towards the south where we were looking at improving a road link to Iran. This was well maintained in the Soviet time, but had fallen into disrepair and so required major rehabilitation. This took us through more mountains, and in the distance I could see Mr. Ararat of Noah’s Ark fame which you can see in the photo to the left.
It will be nice to make a return trip in the spring when there is more to look at than rocks and snow. The road itself was fascinating as it passed an abandoned shoe factory and wound its way through the mountains. Off in the distance I could see an old Armenian monastery dating back centuries – there are many, many of them in Armenia.
The road took us far into the hinterland and suddenly we came upon a valley with a very large sanitarium at the bottom! Off in the distance the road snaked its way up the hill and onwards towards Iran. When we got to the bottom we learned that this was called “Devil’s Bridge” and was a World Wild Life Fund Natural Monument. The deepest part of the Vorotan gorge, it was a 30 metre long, 50-60 metre wide natural bridge which for centuries had formed a vital part of the road between Goris and Tatev. The mineral springs explained the existence of the sanitarium, and the tables near by suggested that in summer there must be tourists who come to the area. It is good to know this so we can ensure that our road improvements do not compromise this important historic/natural site.
The work in Armenia, while different to that in Azerbaijan and Georgia, is also interesting. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work on three such interesting countries, with a good team – both from a technical and a social point of view.
Our departure from Armenia was one for the books. Olivier had left the previous day so there was Jacques, Gibet and myself. The flights leave about 05:00 so we left the hotel at 03:00 for the airport. When we arrived it transpired that the flight was cancelled so we were going to try and get on the Austrian Airlines flight. After joining the long queue we managed to secure tickets. The problem was the connection time in Vienna. Jacques had only a very short time to make the connection to Frankfurt and then get his flight to the USA. Gibet who was off to Paris wasn’t worried, and I had an overnight in Munich so it didn’t matter.
Jacques was off like a flash and ran through the airport, past customs while Gibet and I had a more leisurely stroll. After clearing customs we were shocked to see Jacques running back again – he had left his camera bag on the plane! I saw him later without it, having reported it to the aircrew he couldn’t retrieve it. I said not to worry, that I would sort it out for him. I arranged to have it taken to the lost and found, which was outside the customs control. So I entered Austria, retrieved his camera bag, and then had to exit again. Good thing I had lots of time to spare! If Gibet had left 15 minutes later I could have given it to her but instead I took the bag to Bangkok where I left it with the local office to get someone to carry back to the USA. About a month later it made its way home to Jacques. Hopefully future trips will go smoother!