ALONG THE PIPELINE
By Ivan Watson
April 18 2006
NPR.org, April 19, 2006 · This summer, a 1,000-mile pipeline is
expected to begin pumping oil from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coast,
through neighboring Georgia, to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean
Sea. Ivan Watson travels the length of the pipeline and reports on
the people and places along the way.
Uncle Gocha’s House of Culture
Vale, Georgia — April 7, 2006 A dirt road runs through the last
Georgian town before the Turkish border.
If the villages in this country tend to be poor, yet simultaneously
rustic, charming and beautiful, the provincial towns are utterly
destitute — appalling reminders of the complete and utter collapse
of the former Soviet Union.
Cars splash through pond-sized puddles on the main street in front
of the ruined streetlights of the looming House of Culture. We
stopped in front of the massive Soviet structure because I noticed
there was hardly any glass left in its two-story windows. The double
doors seemed to swing back and forth in the breeze. I approached up
deserted steps, and saw a boarded-up box office. But from somewhere
inside the mammoth building, I heard the sound of children singing
and I followed their voices.
The House of Culture’s once-grand foyer and staircase were also
completely deserted and falling to pieces. Amid ornate chandeliers,
the ceiling and walls were hopelessly stained by water that had
leaked in from the roof. The floor had been ripped up, leaving bare,
crumbling concrete. Enormous, wall-sized socialist paintings depicting
local Georgian culture still hung on the wall, ripped in places.
It looked like a war had hit this place. I was standing on the second
floor, gawking at damage, when the door to a nearby room burst open
and a short, gray-haired man with a stubbly beard and glasses stormed
out. He saw me and demanded in Russian: “Can I help you?”
I had barely gotten a word out before the man embarked on a 20-minute
tirade about what my “damned democracy” had done to Vale. He didn’t
stop to take a breath as he led me furiously from room to room, up
and down stairs, through the ruins of what had been a gym. All the
while, this madman cursed at the government in Tbilisi, the governor
of the district and the United States for what happened to what had
once been the cultural heart of the community.
My angry guide disappeared into an unlit room, banged around for a
minute, and suddenly switched on an ancient Soviet movie projector,
using the light to illuminate the projection booth of what had been
Vale’s only movie theater.
The walls here were decorated with Soviet propaganda posters and a
1990 poster/calendar of Sylvester Stallone advertising the movie Over
the Top. Ancient movie reels lay piled in cans on the ground.
Meanwhile, this angry, somewhat campy man described how he had worked
without pay for 15 years to maintain the old movie projectors.
“If it wasn’t for me,” he rasped, “there would be nothing left here.
I lost the best years of my life in this town, thanks to your damned
>>From the projection booth, we looked down at the stage of what
had been the movie theater. There, beautiful Georgian children sang
with varying levels of success into microphones that distorted their
voices. They were rehearsing for a concert, to be performed at five
o’clock this afternoon.
“I may also perform a song,” my guide said, “I’m thinking of singing
a Whitney Houston song. I love her.”
The man turned out to be 48-year-old Gocha Makhtadze, who still lived
at home with his mother and survived off of her pension. Locals called
him Uncle Gocha, because he organized dances at the House of Culture
in the summer, and volunteered at the school, wiring lighting and
sound for concerts.
What had once been a mining town with about 17,000 inhabitants had
now dwindled to barely 3,000 residents. The only salaried jobs in town
went to schoolteachers. Everybody I talked to, including Uncle Gocha,
was planning to move to Russia to find work.
Believe it or not, there is hope for Vale, unlike so many other
similar towns across Georgia and much of the rest of the former Soviet
Union. Georgia and Turkey recently agreed to open their borders,
allowing citizens and cars from both countries to travel back and forth
freely. Vale is bound to eventually benefit from future cross-border
trade and from government embarrassment over its decline.
But Uncle Gocha wasn’t hopeful.
“Georgia begins and ends in Tbilisi. As far as they’re concerned,
everything else can go to hell.”
Before we left, Uncle Gocha turned on a scratched plastic radio,
which piped music through the building’s outdoor speaker system.
Outside, Ozzy Osbourne’s voice echoed mournfully from the House
of Culture, through the crumbling apartment blocks of Vale’s empty
streets, singing, “I’m just a dreamer, dreaming a better day.”
Rockin’ with ‘Uma’
On the Road in Georgia — April 7, 2006 We’ve been listening to a
cool tape as we bounce around potholed, avalanche-battered roads in
Yura’s sturdy green 1983 Zhiguli. It’s by a band from Russia called
One of the tunes swipes the base line from MC Hammer’s most famous
song. When it comes time to say, “can’t touch this,” the singer yells,
“hey fatso” in Russian.
The catchiest song is devoted to the band’s namesake, Uma Thurman.
The singer, Vova, makes up for his lack of vocal skills with hilarious
lyrics. Singing in the first person, he describes hanging out on his
couch on a rainy day, dreaming of seeing Uma Thurman.
He fantasizes about crossing the world just to meet her. Upon arrival,
they have an imaginary conversation that’s so casual and funny,
it had Yura and me both laughing out loud.
“When I meet her,” the chorus goes, “I’ll say hi! And she’ll say
‘man, Vova, I’ve been waiting for you!'”
Listen to ‘Uma Thurman.’
Toasting with Local Spirits
Akhaltsikhe, Georgia, — April 6, 2006 “It is certainly purely
political, illegal, nonfair and nonfriendly,” said Georgia’s prime
minister, Zurab Nogaideli.
It was the first flash of anger he exhibited during what was otherwise
a very dry and businesslike interview.
Nogaideli was talking about Moscow’s recent decision to ban the import
of Georgian wine into Russia, part of a game of tit-for-tat diplomacy
between the two governments.
So much of Georgia’s culture revolves around food and, in particular,
wine. Many Georgians make their own at home. Several days later, I
walked into a restaurant in the southern town of Akhaltsikhe, where
about six guys were sitting around a table, drinking small glasses of
this slightly sweet, fortified, homemade stuff. In the middle of the
table stood a simple glass pitcher filled with red wine that almost
looked like cranberry juice.
I didn’t make it to our table before one of the men grabbed me,
sat me down in a chair and then pulled me very, very close to him.
Holding his arm around me, he raised a glass and proceeded to declare
heartfelt, drunken things in incomprehensible Georgian to the rest
of the table. One of the younger men at the table tried to translate
periodically into Russian, but my new friend rarely gave him the
chance. The wine, however, was delicious. We drank several glasses.
At one point, one of the men asked me not to hold my glass with my
left hand. It’s bad luck, I was told.
Yesterday I made a similar drinking faux pas. After a tour of the
creepy Stalin museum, in Joseph’s hometown of Gori (where the man is
still worshipped by the locals), I raised a glass of beer at lunch to
toast the killer of millions. My Georgian companions told me not to
do that. You can toast people with wine and vodka here, they said,
but to do so with beer is an insult. In that case, I will continue
toasting Stalin with beer whenever I come to Georgia.
Borjomi, Georgia — April 5, 2006 There seems to be a crumbling castle
on a hilltop overlooking every Georgian valley.
After rolling through the Borjomi Gorge, home to the famous Borjomi
water-bottling factory and Soviet-era health spas that now house
refugees from Abkhazia, we came across a particularly picturesque
hilltop castle, which stood guard over several small villages.
One of the villages, Tkemlana, was named after a famous Georgian
sauce that, locals told me, tastes excellent with roast pork.
Tkemlana’s population: 350. Average annual salary: $450.
A dirt road wound between sagging wooden houses. In a small, muddy
square in front of a general store, several men sat against a fence
on makeshift wooden benches playing cards.
I joined them and asked about the pipeline that ran through their
fields, just a few hundred yards away. Though the men said they’d
received some compensation, they said it wasn’t enough for the fields
that were destroyed by the project.
They added that several times during the pipeline’s construction,
heavy trucks made the dirt road impassable for the locals’ battered
Soviet-made cars. Several times, they said, the entire village
blockaded the road in protest, holding the $4 billion construction
project hostage until the company fixed the Tkemlana’s only access
Everybody here seemed to have the same last name — Kapanadze —
and they had a fun sense of humor. One man, a grizzled, gray-haired
Kapanadze named Sergei, wore yellow rubber boots and held a long,
wooden cane between his huge, worn fingers. He asked if I wanted to
have a drink.
I thought he was offering homemade Georgian wine. Instead, villagers
rushed up with shot glasses, a bottle of vodka, bread and some of
the homemade sauce the village was named after.
I found out that for two years, Tkemlana hosted an American woman
from Nebraska named Marcy, who taught English in the local school.
The men called her “the volunteer.” I assume she was Peace Corps.
Clearly, Marcy made an impression — especially on the local women,
who fondly described how Marcy’s mother once visited the village.
Sergei and I drank one shot for friendship. Later, as shepherds began
herding cows home through the muddy square, we emptied another glass
in honor of our next visit. After many handshakes I got up to leave,
whereupon Sergei suggested we drink another one “for the road.”
A Town Stuck in Time
Tetritsqaro, Georgia, and Pump Station No. 2 — April 3, 2006
British Petroleum took me on a trip in a Land Cruiser to Pump Station
Georgia No. 2. We drove out of Tbilisi, up into the green hills on
pot-holed, rutted dirt roads through impoverished villages where
young men stood on the side of the road, drinking bottles of beer at
10 o’clock in the morning.
The town of Tetritsqaro, once the center of the province, looked like
it hadn’t seen a new piece of construction or even any maintenance in
15 years. The whole town had frozen to a standstill. It was, in fact,
rotting. Again, men on the roadside, drinking beer in the morning.
We passed through the town, and drove just a few more miles up
god-awful roads, past the “spring line,” where the flowering trees
and budding leaves gave way to bare brown branches. Then around a bend
stood the gleaming smoke stacks, bright lights and barbed-wire fences
of a multimillion-dollar BP-run pumping station. This was the only
post-Soviet construction I had seen in more than an hour of driving. It
straddled an 80-foot-wide ribbon of recently overturned earth, part
of the more than 1,700-kilomter pipeline of oil and soon-to-be natural
gas that ran from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
A Dark Dream
On the Road to Azerbaijan-Georgian Border — April 2, 2006 Not far
from the Georgian border, we came across something the like of which
I’ve never seen before in all my travels.
We were speeding down an open road, through green farmland and Azeri
villages. Suddenly, up ahead, the road was blocked by a crowd of
hundreds of men in dark suits, slowly walking toward us.
Javid, the driver, slowed the car down as we approached. Khadija, the
Azeri journalist traveling with me, said, “I think it’s a political
She was wrong. It was a funeral.
We stopped, and the crowd slowly walked around and past our car.
Several men carried flowers. Others walked holding a black casket
above their heads. From somewhere within the crowd, came the mournful
drone of a traditional Azeri reed instrument.
The mob of men passed us to reveal a second, smaller group of crying
women who followed 20 yards behind the men.
And then, open road again. We slowly started driving again. The
somber scene came and went so quickly, I was left wondering if I had
Pretty in Pink
Gence, Azerbaijan — April 2, 2006 Azerbaijan’s second city is famous
for its pink brick. Sure enough, all throughout the city center there
are two- and three-story, 19th-century buildings made of freshly
painted pink brick, some with enormous, Middle Eastern-style bay
Natives here fiercely resisted Russian invaders in the 1820s. Locals
told me stories about the Russian soldiers’ brutal repression of the
local population after they captured the city.
I spent last night sitting in a video game parlor off of a pedestrian
boulevard lined with old, pink-brick buildings. Azerbaijani teenagers
sat in front of several large TV’s, playing pirated copies of Fifa
World Cup Soccer and Resident Evil 4 on Playstations. I was mesmerized,
watching an 11-year-old kid blow away ghouls with a shotgun.
Holding Her Ground
Nagorno-Kharabakh — April 2, 2006 The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over
this contested region is one of several bloody conflicts to rip apart
the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Though a cease-fire has been in place since 1994, Azerbaijan and
Armenia are still technically at war, and that became clear when we
visited the front-line village of Mirasharli, on Azerbaijani-controlled
territory. Please note, I can’t pretend to offer a balanced picture
of the conflict, since I have yet to visit Armenia.
On the Azerbaijani side, the front lines are demarcated by trenches
and land mines, with Azeri conscripts separated from their Armenian
counterparts by distances of just a few hundred yards.
Gun battles break out along these front lines on a daily basis, with
reports coming in each week of both military and civilian fatalities.
A villager took me on a brief tour of the front lines. I was
immediately drawn toward a two-story farmhouse surrounded on one
side by a trench. We walked in from the safe side, and an old Azeri
woman in galoshes and a colorful headscarf greeted us. She immediately
showed me the bullet holes peppering her front gate. It faced Armenian
positions less then a hundred yards away. Concrete barriers had been
erected in front of the gate. Because of the frequent gunfire, the
woman, named Nushaba Shukurova, had evacuated the second floor of
the farmhouse. It’s now used for the storage of hundreds of onions
picked up from Shukurova’s fields.
“Every night, we sleep in our clothes,” she said, “because we are
afraid the Armenians could invade the village.”
Why did she and her husband insist on living in this dangerous house?
“If we go,” she answered, “the rest of the villagers here will leave,
too.” She didn’t want to surrender to the enemy.
Next door, a squad of Azeri soldiers marched in formation around a
muddy field and chanted a patriotic anthem. The commander told me
that in March of last year, five soldiers and an officer were killed
over a span of several weeks during clashes with the Armenians.
The latest round of peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan
failed. The rhetoric has been heating up on both sides even as the
skirmishes along the front line have intensified. Azerbaijan recently
announced it was increasing its defense spending by more then 100
percent. Many Azeris say they are ready to go to war again, to win
back land they claim was stolen from them by Armenia.
Shepherds with Cell Phones
Countryside — April 2, 2006 Yesterday, we drove out of Baku, through
the blighted, oil-polluted fields that surround the city, and barreled
down an often bumpy highway through hours of open, green farmland.
The rusting remnants of the Soviet Union are still scattered around the
countryside: battered pipes, crumbling concrete aqueducts, dilapidated
factories. And yet, this socialist hangover is clearly being overtaken
by Azerbaijan’s growing prosperity — either it’s the proceeds from
the coming oil boom or remittances from more than a million Azeri
merchants scattered across Russia and the former Soviet Union.
At one point, one of the many shepherds herding flocks of sheep along
the roadside turned to take a picture of our passing car with his
The countryside is full of new stone houses, topped by ornate aluminum
roves. Modern green and white Azpetrol gas stations line the highway
manned by troops of employees in bright green jumpsuits. This gas
station chain was owned by Azerbaijan’s economy minister. The man was
recently thrown in jail for allegedly planning a coup to overthrow
Baku, Azerbaijan — April 1, 2006 Last night, I went to the Azerbaijan
State Philharmonic to see a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.
For about 12 bucks, I watched from the fourth row of a grand concert
hall as violinists — most of them women in black evening gowns
–sawed away at their instruments. The choir gave a full-throated
performance, accompanied by the delightful thunder of timpani drums,
hidden somewhere behind the violas. The tenor soloist was from
neighboring Iran, an immigrant to Azerbaijan.
This recently renovated concert hall is a product of Baku’s first
oil boom. It was built at the turn of the century by oil barons who
struck black gold, after the Russian empire offered concessions for
the exploitation of the city’s abundant oil fields in the 1870s.
For a while, Baku supplied more then half of the world’s oil.
The most famous foreigners to make fortunes here then were the Nobel
brothers, as well as a Rothschild. But, as a colorful local historian
explained, it was the local Azerbaijanis who left a lasting mark on
this city — those who were lucky enough to “tap a gusher” and become
Baku’s streets are lined with stunning buildings made out of
intricately carved limestone. The oil barons competed with each other,
importing European architects to build scores of flamboyant mansions,
which mixed imitations of Venetian palaces with Moorish arches and
The end result: Baku became a cosmopolitan business center that looks
like no other city in the former Soviet Union.
Today, Azerbaijan is on the verge of another oil boom. A new $4 billion
pipeline is about to begin pumping more then a million barrels of
oil a day from the shores of the Caspian Sea, through neighboring
Georgia down to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. With
oil selling at a record high of more then $70 a barrel — do the
math. One local analyst says Azerbaijan is about to get hit by a
“tsunami” of money.
But the story of oil in Azerbaijan includes a cautionary tale. Today,
more then one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
Not far from the 19th century mansions and brand-new 21st century
high rises, impoverished Azerbaijanis live in horribly polluted oil
fields. Shirts dry on clotheslines beside concrete hovels, just yards
from pools of black slime and lopsided, rusting oil derricks.
When it comes to oil, this small country has experienced its share
of boom and bust. One wonders what will happen when the next oil
Photo “Uncle Gocha” Makhatadze stands outside his beloved, crumbling
House of Culture in Vale, Georgia. He has been volunteering to try to
maintain the building, which he says was abandoned by the government
ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Photo Ivan Watson, NPR Ripped and water-stained Soviet art still
decorates a once-grand hallway inside the House of Culture. Town
residents continue to hold dances and concerts in the crumbling
building, which they fear could one day collapse.
Photo Diana Petriashvili A crumbling medieval castle sits on a hilltop
at the southern end of the Borjomi Gorge in Georgia. Borjomi is home
to one of the largest national parks in Europe.
Photo Ivan Watson, NPR The death cast of Joseph Stalin is on display in
the Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia. Stalin, born Joseph Dzhugashvili,
is still revered in the town of his birth.
Photos by Ivan Watson, NPR The Azerbaijan State Philharmonic performs
Mozart’s Requiem at Baku’s concert hall, which was constructed by
oil barons during the city’s first oil boom, which began in the 1870s.
Photo Poor Azerbaijanis live in houses amid the pollution of the
Balakhami oil fields just outside Baku.
Photo Nushaba Shukurova points to the bullet-riddled front gate and
garage beside her front-line farm house in the disputed territory of
Nagorno-Karabakh. Her gate faces an Armenian army position less then
100 yards away.
Photo Azerbaijani conscripts gather water along the Nagorno-Karrabakh