Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Idaho meets Eurasia

My assignment as an election observer in Azerbaijan took me to the district – called a Rayon – of Gadabay, located on the far side of the country on the border of Armenia.

Traveling there required a cross-country bus trip of about seven hours to the city of Shamkir, where my partner and I would meet our driver and translator and proceed for another hour into the mountainous border area.

The drive across Azerbaijan took us through a bleak and featureless landscape. I’d heard that Azerbaijan included some very picturesque regions, but I certainly didn’t encounter any as our bus bumped along the rough main highway that links Baku, on the Absheron Peninsula jutting into the Caspian, to the interior of the country and onward to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Map of Azerbaijan, with Gadabay in red in the west. The Armenian-occuppied area of Nagorno-Karabakh is in green. Baku, the capitol, is located on the Absheron Pinensula in the east, sticking out into the Caspian Sea.

The landscape of Gadabay was not what I was expecting, either.

It’s been described as mountainous, and most of it is at an altitude of over 6,000 feet - but it consisted mostly of rolling hills where flocks of sheep and goats were grazing on the dried brown grass, which I’m sure was a more pastoral scene in the springtime when the fields were green and full of flowers.

Even though it was October, the temperature was in the mid 60 degree range, and I can only imagine how warm it was at the height of summer, even this high up.

An Azeri cemetary, with the town of Gadabay in the background

The town of Gadabay has about 9,000 people, mostly living in plastered cinderblock homes topped by corrugated metal roofs sporting satellite dishes – although we were occasionally surprised to see a building capped with very ornate polished metalwork.

Ornate Metal Roofing in Gadabay, Azerbaijan

Although a very simple place, Gadabay does have two claims to fame.

One is the local gold mine – started in the early 20th century by the German manufacturing firm Siemens under the guise of a less profitable copper mine, and recently revived by a Canadian company. Amazingly, none of the wealth extracted from the ground seems to have stayed in the local economy, though there’s certainly an abundance of mine tailings to be used for building.

Gadabay has, however, managed to extract something else from the ground to put a bit of money in their pockets – potatoes!

Gadabay Potatoes

That’s right – Gadabay is the Idaho of the Caucasus, growing spuds that are world-famous in Azerbaijan, and served at almost every meal.

They’re roughly the same as our Yukon Gold potatoes, and always prepared pealed, salted and roasted directly on hot coals – and very tasty with the local lamb and sweet red wine!

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