Cold front and a face-lift: Winter and construction in Azerbaijan

Flowering Trees in Zaqatala Rayon, Azerbaijan.
Flowering Trees in Zaqatala Rayon, Azerbaijan.

Arriving back at my humble home-stay, it was (violently) obvious that spring had arrived in Azerbaijan. The Baku winds and travel fatigue blinded me to the not-so-subtle changes of season. The blossoming trees in the backyard, the bright green overtaking the browns of the chestnut trees, and an abundance of bird-song made a convincing argument that yaz (spring) sneaked up on me. It was a pleasant surprise.

Don't get me wrong, I am an active supporter of winter (and yes, primarily because I fancy myself a mountaineer). Whenever it begins snowing my subconscious sends encouraging thoughts to the universe.  Watching it snow, walking in snow, playing in snow, even driving in snow - of all the above I am fond. It's enjoyable to feel cold biting at my skin and my lungs warming the frozen air (and don't get me started on the feeling of snot-crystals forming as winter wind pierces my nostrils. Delightful).


And if it is going to be cold, it should be really cold. A nice, frigid winter carries with it a comforting essence of purity. All the moister solidifies and parts from the aether, the leaves die, mud hardens and all are covered by pure, white cleanliness. Montana usually has a few weeks of -10 to -20 degrees F and this year, I missed for these weeks. Being on the southern side of the great wall that is the Greater Caucasus Mountains, my Azerbaijani community is shielded from the harsh northern winds.

Experiencing my first Caucasian snow in November, but seeing none of it stick and all of it turn to slush was a bit disheartening. I like the cold a great deal, not so much being cold and wet (not to mention, in Azerbaijan, it is important to have clean shoes, a difficult task at times). When I arrived at my community in December I was very pleased to see that the mountains were much like I had pictured them: snow-capped. At first, the great, white goodness kept itself safely at a distance. Then, a cold front swept through Europe. It began with a big graupel that dumped a couple feet of winter on my town, but then it dwindled on for three weeks - petering out. Bits of conversation here-and-there concluded that this was the most snow the region had seen in a long while.

The temperature always hovered around freezing rising enough to melt the snow, and packing into slick, wet concrete. The youth living in the mountain villages took advantage of the roads-turned-to-ice by skillfully steering old-enough-to-be-their-great-grandpa wood and metal sleds barely big enough for one buttocks (and often stacked with two people). Veering away from meandering cows and running into snowbanks to avoid the occasional Lada. In the higher elevations, it was deep enough to justify strapping on my mountaineering boots and slugging up the mountainside. At one point, we fashioned snowshoes out of material from the local hardware store (plastic pipe and nylon cord), for a jaunt up some thick, solemn snow.

My love for winter is rooted in its contrast with other seasons (and, of course, because I love to play in snow). This transposes to most areas of life, as the "meaning" of one thing would not exist without something with which to compare - on both a philosophical level, and mostly a cognitive level. We begin to learn what something "is" by also learning what it "is not." For a somewhat related book on this idea, I'd suggest Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition.

When I returned from my travels, the crisp white lacquered mountains above my community were on the retreat to the Russian border. The delicate pale blue nut trees that coated the hillsides on my departure, had shaken off the frost and were now sprouting lush leaves.

Trying out our homemade snowshoes. Zaqatala Rayon, Azerbaijan
Trying out our homemade snowshoes. Zaqatala Rayon, Azerbaijan

Like so many spring holidays, Novruz is an ancient celebration of the end of the cold months and the renewal and rejuvenation of warmer air. The holiday literally translates from Persian as "The New Day" and is sometimes referred to as the "Persian New Year," it originates in Zoroastrianism and has spread from the Balkans all the way to East Asia. It is the main holiday in Azerbaijan and celebrated over the course of four weeks, each of which symbolize one of the four elements. Spring arrived on cue, and Novruz broke the ice.

Two Azerbaijani symbols of Novruz are the "spring spirits" of Kosa (meaning "Beardless") and Kechel (keçəl, meaning "Bald"). The former representing the playfulness and youth of spring, while the latter is the old, tired trickery of winter. Each banters and jokes with each other as well as spectators in celebration of the holiday. In many ways this jovial dialectic is symbolic of the very state of Azerbaijan. With the rising temperatures, construction workers picked up their tools and continued the country-wide face-lift.

In Azerbaijan, the metaphor of "contrast" is invoked on a regular basis - both while Peace Corps volunteers were in "Pre-service Training" and in the popular media, national and international. Azerbaijan is caught between "east and west," between "modern and traditional," "underdeveloped and developed," and so on. Slowly, much of the past is being erased in an effort to occupy one side of those dichotomies, and thus much of the contrast that we bear witness to is being, literally, covered up. In Baku the generations linking the ancient "Old City" and the new "White City" are slowly stricken from the family genealogy and replaced with tan, brushed stone - or completely demolished. "Development" in Baku seems insatiable as it slowly spreads, and devours what many Westerners would call "Soviet-era" abodes, and "modern" sterility is left in its wake.

Of course, perhaps all ancient, man-made marvels began with this same overwhelming aseptic aura. Perhaps the Romans felt Rome to be bleak, at first. The buildings of the Baku skyline, as just newborns, have no stories to tell, but that of decadence and newly acquired wealth - the tale of a 20 year old, nouveau riche government, trying to make it's name in this big, blue world. One Bakuvian waiter commenting on the construction noted that Azerbaijan was a young country, it was necessary to focus on building their capital, and then the wealth would flow to the regions; all in good time. Meanwhile, in the countryside, "development" takes its time, and people are more-or-less okay with this. With many of the people juggling several sources of income or struggling to find one, what happens a few hundred miles away in Baku lacks urgency. After all, the world's tallest building and the world's biggest flagpole is mostly inconsequential to the everyday lives of my community. However, while some tell me they feel as foreigners when visiting their own nation's capital, others break smiles and speak of national pride.