Every morning we descend to the port from the Velodrome and seek passage across the Caspian Sea. Every day we are denied. A regular ferry sails to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. But we wish to go to Aktau, the Soviet planned-city of the retro-future on the remote western shore of Kazakhstan. This ferry is still untamed. It goes when the cargo goes, 18 hours across the silver Caspian to Aktau, and no one can tell you when that will be. We follow the steel wall on the south side of the street and turn down the poorly marked alleyway following the railroad to the ferry port. Everyday the first guardhouse waves us in and we follow the tracks for several hundred more meters to the second and final guardhouse before the boats like building are docked and the rotund guard in his starched uniform and costume hat greets us and communicates no boat. He sends us back to the casas, the ticket office where every morning we begin to enter and a man directs us to the unmarked entrance next door which I begin to suspect has something to do with the clean white tile on which they don’t want our boots trampling until we figure out that this marked door is for cargo only while the unmarked door is for passengers, rare as they may be. Without fail every last person to whom we inquire regarding alternate or outmoded forms of transportation such as boats or trains begs us in astonishment, why don’t you simply fly! Of course you know there is a plane! It is faster, and guaranteed! And our answer is simply that we want to take the boat. We want to cross the Caspian. Or that the train is more comfortable, more humane. We want to see! And the kind woman of the casas who by now is acquainted with our odd inquiry can only shrug her shoulders and say no boat. Maybe four days. Maybe ten days. She points to the empty cargo containers sitting on the railroad tracks. When is cargo, is boat. No cargo, no boat. No boat to Aktau. Turkmenbashi, da. Aktau, nyet.
Across from the port, facing the sea, is the front line, the new face of Baku. Like so many re-emerging cities, a promenade of construction sites promising the finest luxuries, conveniences and indulgences a city must offer in order to be a city. For your consideration. The parade of elite boutiques and garishness, the Paris, London, New York, or Rodeo Drive of everywhere that is a city’s ticket to the show. A stroll through the magazine along the wall of glass. The glitterati of an economy, the spoils of oil. At the end of the strip along the serpentine shore is SOCAR, State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, a highly secure vanilla-toned Victorian palace where we are able to arrange a visit to the Caspian Energy Center. Driving south-west out of town, the new gloss of Baku quickly dissolves again into dust and real life. Teeming village outskirts, desert and industry. And then more desert, leading all the way to Iran. In the van, passing mile after mile of pipeline, we meet Rick, a congenial yet cautiously demure productivity analyst from Houston. He is making his daily commute from the BP gated-community to the desert processing plant where oil is transitioned from the off-shore platforms, visible out the van windows, to the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which pumps oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.
So what’s it like working here?
Well it’s a heck of lot different than Houston. But the people are super. Really very, very friendly. And the food is great.
But you live in an apartment, in the city?
Well no, they’ve got us in a compound. They really like to keep us all together.
And what do you do here?
Well, I look at productivity levels, and rate them. Looking for improvement and increased productivity of course. Particularly at the new technician training facility.
BP is training a local labor force to be technicians?
Yes, absolutely, a couple hundred a year.
They speak English?
Well that’s the first thing we teach them.
And are things improving? In productivity, I mean.
Well we hope so. Honestly, no. Not really. But BP has certainly turned things around significantly. There is certainly less waste then there ever has been in the history of the region. This is just more technologically feasible than what was possible under the Soviets. And of course there’s an environmental consideration that was needless to say grossly absent in the past.
This is a research trip. For an art film about extreme combinations. Architectures. Economies. Landscapes. Personalities. And although I don’t know exactly what kind of movie we’re making yet. Rick here is exactly the kind of deceivingly extreme character that I’m interested in, the kind of character that I dream of becoming, precisely because he seems completely uninteresting. He is totally normal in every way. And yet there is something so specific about his utterly banal and congenial American mannerisms that he seems quite odd against the extraordinary backdrop of the Caspian region and the international oil business. Rick is friendly. I notice immediately his possession of a striking and unnerving talent for absolute professional politeness. He answers our questions directly and efficiently. He offers just enough personal information to lead us to believe that he is human. Yet he offers no information without inquiry. And he doesn’t ask us a single question about ourselves. He reminds me of Matt Damon’s uncle. Older, bald, fatter and wearing a synthetic fleece vest. I am therefore convinced that he works for the CIA. Which is the standard explanation for anything remotely odd, or significant in any way, odd or not. He talks with his hands as though he’s baking bread. Indulging our layman’s self-important curiosities with total ease. And then he looks back out at the sea with gentle steel blue eyes.
The Caspian region is speculated to be the most important emerging reserve of oil and gas on the planet. The Absheron Peninsula itself is the historical center of the global oil industry, dating back to the 3rdcentury, and most significantly exploited by the Soviet Union which managed operations here until the 1960’s. Then for lack of deep off-shore drilling technology they directed their attention elsewhere but continued to utilize the region for petrochemical processing. When the USSR collapsed and Azerbaijan gained independence, it’s production dwindled even more, but has steadily and significantly increased since the early 90’s with foreign stakes and management. The region is predicted to eventually surpass the Middle East in productivity. At the Caspian Energy Center, an educational center at the BP plant, we learn about the diverse kinds of oil, locating methods and methods of extraction. The incredible pressure-physics of a drill hole; the ironically simple Newtonian physics of guided drilling. The insectoid labor-force of drill heads themselves. Slurry. The concrete industry. The layers of gas, oil and water. Turning natural gas into a liquid so that it may be pressurized enough in order to pipe it. Or hydrogen sulfide, that familiar gaseous emission which smells of rotten eggs and which at over 300ppm will induce pulmonary edema and at over 1000ppm will induce death in but a single breath and which we may see from the sky or from the interstate burning in flames in the night from our narrow towers. And from a layperson’s perspective, as with most industry, the technology required to extract oil from deep within the earth, retrieve it, and put it to good use, is so impressive and extraordinary that it seems an incredibly bewildering and stunning circumstance that nearly every last instance of our contemporary lives relies on this hellishly complex integration of science and labor. I stood before these children’s educational demonstrations with my jaw-dropped, nauseated with vertigo before the interdependent black-hole of it, understanding that nothing as we know it happens without this drilling. Without this opaque magical substance as powerful in our arcane ways as any substance that we could ever wildly imagine. Bear with me, but I cannot exaggerate the boggling experience of simultaneous enlightenment and profoundly naïve superstition with which I laid eyes on this coveted substance and the mega-industry surrounding it. Like peering into some cosmic cauldron. It sounds pretentiously poetic to wax: that looking into the crude felt like looking deep into our common civilization, and into our bargain. But it is so. The oil, the hydrocarbon, like coal, like methane gas, is comprised of dead organic matter, highly pressurized dead stuff. It is true that we are what we eat. Oil is us; prehistoric plankton and algae, earthly organic matter reconstituted as potential energy. It is not outlandishly literary to infer that we are engaged in the most massive recycling in the history of the earth. But it is to engage in the primeval cycle itself and the psychology of the affair would not be without its shamanic implications. For what would be primeval would be to engage in the deepest of sacrifices, for what in the round would not require it, for what in Heaven would not come without cost on Earth, and who would so ignore Lucifer in the pantheon of archetypes would be to deny that very Leonardo whom brought us to the view of this precipice. And this is written in the black lava that is become our currency. And to see it is to see into it. And were it not also for what we saw next, in the north, it would be somehow to live blind and not awakened to these pillars of fire.
Pausing, staring out the window at the desert, with remote erasure, like Rick the productivity analyst and his sea-foam eyes, just outside the center, a community of tortoises hulk inside a concrete pen, salvaged from construction in the local dirt. The Caspian nations are developing at a visibly astounding rate with delirious aesthetic effect. But the still-present history of Soviet negligence, or perhaps even the standard sacrifice of horrendous industry in any nation is still very much visible on the hinterlands of Baku City. So we drive to the north.
by Jeff Wood