On the 90 minute drive back to Baku, Azerbaijan from Gobustan National Park in that same country, my driver and partner in honesty abruptly slowed down on the dusty highway. He pointed right and said in Azeri, “oil”. Stopping, I hopped out of the car, doing my best to get all of this freight in a single futile shot; thwarted at every angle I pointed my camera lens. Back to back cargo trains went from one horizon to the other, transporting the petrol fueling Baku’s rapid expansion.
Oil is something Azerbaijan has ample amounts of. Despite being just the 114th biggest country in terms of area, Azerbaijan has the world’s 19th largest oil reserves. (Recently discovered deposits moved the country up from 22nd since I was there 6 months ago.) On top of that Azerbaijan is sitting on 5% of the world’s natural gas. There is so much combustible commodity in the country that many neighborhoods along Azerbaijan’s east coast have oil rigs right in the middle of them. Large pipes form oil veins across the langscape in a sight so bizarre I didn’t even think to take pictures – something I regret as I can only now describe what I saw. There is so much gas one mountain has been ablaze for 50 years and it makes you just slightly uncomfortable whenever someone tosses a lit cigarette butt on Azeri soil.
The consensus of what the oil is doing to Azeri life seems somewhat divided based on age. The older, pre-Soviet generation, are generally positive about the wealth and government-proposed changes ahead. A national healthcare system, public universities, and oil stipends (similar to those found in several Gulf states like Bahrain) have all been talked about. On the other side are the estimated 25% of under 25s, who argue not enough is being spent outside of Baku, and much more money goes unaccounted for.
Despite all the opinions though one thing was evident to me – Baku is transforming into a place much like the concrete jungle of Dubai. Where it goes from there isn’t quite clear but no matter the destination, it undoubtedly will be riding the back of oil freight trains.