There are places on a map that feel distant, no matter how close they may be. The Caspian Sea is one of them.
I remember the first time I ever really thought about this salty place. Some years ago, I awoke in the groggy middle of a fourteen hour flight from New York to Delhi - this was my first trip to a land more foreign than France or England - and looked at the flight map screen. Our small, digital plane was hovering over a strange disc of blue pixels. Somewhere below, a real body of water lay in the darkness, hemmed in by strange and terrifying names. Iran and Turkmenistan, vast Kazakhstan and mountainous middle Russia. The thought made the journey seem huge: "I'm flying over the Caspian Sea. This is so, so far away from home!"
Even right by its waters the Caspian seems distant and foreign, as though this grey, polluted surface was something other than the reality. A promenade, almost featureless, sweeps along Baku's seafront. At one end, the world's tallest flagpole stands. At the other end, a grid of new towers. Between, men and women walk in groups, taking pictures of the quiet water and the winter-wrapped trees. A "new dock," for strolling instead of boats, juts out over the ripples.
Oil dominates the Azeri stretch of coastline, and has for centuries. The wells here are the reason for Baku's boom - for as long as the city has existed, there has been oil. Before modern extraction, it literally seeped out of the ground. Much of the on-shore deposits have been drained, but rigs and derricks continue to be built far out into the water. If you believe reports, there's an entire offshore town, built by Socar Oil thirty miles from the coast. This watery metropolis is called Neft Dashlari; its population is over five thousand, it has a public park.
Just south of Baku, a rig-servicing station sits some distance from the highway, near vast cement plants. The long support legs jut hundreds of feet into the sky.
If this place feels exotic, it's because of the nightmare imagery of desecration and machinery. In the world, I've never been to a place that encapsulates the factory wasteland like Azerbaijan. Before we ventured up away, into the interior, I thought that the entire country must be like this. Luckily, it isn't. The waterside has brought out the worst.
The Caspian's water level fluctuates a great deal, rising and falling with drought and periods of rain. Once, it was much lower, and, before the mid twentieth century, Azerbaijan had some very nice beaches. Most of these have been lost as the sea rises.
What is left is a trash and rock strip, with occasional pebbly coves and a few, man-made sandy bays. In Lankarin, like most coastal towns, there is hardly any sense of the sea, the houses and people face inland.
Of course, this sea is known for its caviar - ninety percent of the world's real caviar comes from the Caspian; the sturgeon in her waters were once so plentiful that the eggs were considered peasant food. Today, the larger Beluga and Osetra sturgeon are endangered, though fishing still goes on. In Baku's Təzə Bazar, we saw big, gutted fish for sale and lots of tins of eggs.
These are less sought after, more common mackerel (we think), which are caught and sold for Azerbaijan's frying pans.
I still wish that I could really go to the Caspian Sea, or at least, to the idea of the place that I once had. Maybe on the other shore it's different, or in Iran or the north. Here, there is so little: sinking buildings and nodding oil wells, drooping power lines, trash, bulldozers, half-built "resorts," concrete, oil scum.