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  • Jerome Kocher

71. From Green to Greener

In transit from Baku on the Caspian Sea we leave behind the arid semi-desert of Azerbaijan and head to the source of their water, westward in the foothills of the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains. Baku has no water of its own, just as Los Angeles must use the Sierras of Northern California for its source.

We are leaving behind those Islamic flags with their signature green colors, a reminder of an oasis in the desert or in the soul of man.

Azerbaijan Turkmenistan Uzbekistan

Instead, driving westward, the landscape itself becomes refreshingly green. Birdsong more apparent. Trees. Forests. And for the first time on the Silk Road, fields with freshly cut bales of hay. We pass through the mountain village of Shekti, once the cultural crossroad of the Silk Road influenced by Persian, Islamic, then the Russian Empire.

We stop at its sprawling outdoor market under tarps and plastic cover. No Soviet planning here. Just organized disorder. The small alley ways meander and join up again like mountian streams converging in a river. The economy is agricultural, not oil based. Local cherries and pomegranates are most dominant along with vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. Even a makeshift barber shop stands next to a potato vendor. I buy a banana to help the local economy . . . . of Ecuador.

Shekti village is mostly known for its shops of overly sweet halva. A dentist office is prominently displayed. I wonder who is supporting whom? This is hazelnut and walnut country. About 11% of nutella’s source comes from this region.

Leaving Azerbaijan, we arrive at the Georgia border and are greeted by white flags with red crosses against a background of green landscape. We are entering a Christian orthodox country, a candidate for the EU, where pork is not a four letter word. Here I see a German Shepherd on a porch. Another sign. Muslims don’t have dogs as pets, they're considered dirty. Georgia has Christian medieval history and is most famous for it vineyards and viticulture, so another four letter word - wine! 

But the border is another no-man’s land of a quarter mile that you need to walk while dragging your luggage. It looks more like the death zone of the Berlin Wall. But you know something Good is on the other side. Trucks are lined up, mostly bringing autos from Germany and Europe into the green flag zone of the desert. 

We have lunch, Soviet style with minced pork and beef, cabbage wrapped dolmas, and pureed potatoes. It was tasty, and not a kebob! Variety is the spice of life.

In the garden two truck drivers were playing backgammon. I invited my self over to watch. Their routes take them through Turkey, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany up to Poland. One of them got a phone call from his brother in Belgium with whom I spoke. He invited me to come to Brussels. I didn’t want to say that after five weeks on the Silk Road I was looking forward to returning to Mexico and sleep. So here we are: two Azerbaijani truck drivers, talking with someone in Belgium, having lunch in Georgia and I’m American. After watching them play, one of them offered to play me. Why not? He coached me at first and was a good teacher because shockingly I won. My first backgammon victory in decades. Even though it's the roll of the dice, a “W” is a “W.” No high fives. Just a handshake and “Salam Alaykum."

Driving through the next village there is a red ribbon bow tied to the front gate of a house. This indicates the family has a young girl of marriage age and ready for negotiations, between fathers of course. It is an Azerbaijani Muslim community where arranged marriages are still practiced. Here a man can have up to four wives . . . that is if he can care for all of them. Responsibility and security once again reign supreme. On the other hand the Georgian Orthodox can have only one wive, forever, even unto heaven. But culturally the men are allowed to have several mistresses. They may become part of the family structure, even known to the wife. The only rule is that the man must also responsibly take care of them. These are not affairs, but societally codified relationships. 

And then there is “bride kidnapping.” In the past if a man did not want to leave negotiations to the parents, he could forcibly abduct a woman in public and declare a marriage without any recourse by the woman. But fifteen years ago the rules changed that now make this a criminal offense if the woman doesn't consent and presses charges. This still puts a huge burden on women, since in a rural community where everyone knows each other the woman’s honor can be suspect regardless of what the law says.

Food isn’t the only thing with Soviet memories. Russian military tunnels dug deep into the side of a mountain have now been repurposed as wine caves for fermenting and storage. Perfect location. You’d never guess the connection. We drive further towards our first overnight at a vineyard.

No truck drivers. No red ribbons. Just more green, more vineyards. And of course a spa with massages using wine baths, grape seed scrubbing, hot stones and more. I’m booked at 2pm . . . for two hours. A Georgian siesta! Green never looked so good!

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Jack Greenspun
Jack Greenspun
03. Juni

A long way to go for a massage. Hey you could marry a few…if you can take care of them. What a world.

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