Baku, Azerbaijan/Bakı, Azərbaycan to Tbilisi, Georgia/თბილისი, საქართველო – 635 km this section (Total Mileage: 9,426 km/40,075 km)
Tracing the name Azerbaijan back through history, one arrives at the Old Iranian word Āturpātākān, meaning The Land of Fire. In these lands, oil and gas deposits were known to turn earth to flame. Hindu and Zoroastrian worshipers used oil in sacred rites and channeled gas from vents to temple fires.
In more recent years, oil and gas extraction have become a central pillar of Azerbaijani society. During the boom years of 2003-2007, when the country’s annual growth averaged 21 percent, drilling in the Caspian and the coastal regions of the country defined the country’s rise. Last year, the oil industry made up 65.3 percent of GDP.
Just as the Azerbaijan’s fortunes rose with oil, so too have they fallen. As oil and gas prices have repeatedly crashed over the past two years, its currency has halved in value. The country has sought to diversify its productive industries, using oil revenues to invest in agriculture and manufacturing, but the country’s fate will likely remain tied its oil fields for years to come. Some Azerbaijanis seemed optimistic about their country’s ability to move into more creative and less extractive industries, while others expressed frustration at what they saw as their government’s prioritization of flashy events (like the inaugural edition of the European Games in 2015 and this year’s F1 Grand Prix) over the livelihood of its citizens.
I flew into Baku from the Aktau airport, in western Kazakhstan. I had hoped to cross by more earthly means, because traveling by plane is just about the worst thing you can do for your carbon footprint, but the people in charge of Russian and Iranian visas don’t take kindly to Americans, and my Kazakh visa timing didn’t allow for time to take the Caspian Ferry. From Baku, I made my way west and north, along the base of the Caucasus Range to Tbilisi.