Welcome to Nakhchivan, the San Francisco of the Caucasus Mountains
As my plane touched down into Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, I half expected to step out into a crumbling landscape ripped from a still of Enemy at the Gates. Admittedly, I’d formed this image based on scant and stale stories, but the modern history of this massive exclave, a 2,000 square mile chunk of Azerbaijan home to upwards of 400,000 people and cut off from the main body of the country by 30 miles (at its narrowest point) of hostile Armenia, doesn’t lend itself to hope and happy thoughts. A friend, well read on the Caucasus region, said he’d always imagined the place as “Afghanistan-esque.” Even my friends in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, told me I’d probably be walking out into a wasteland.
So discovering that’d I’d actually stumbled upon an isolated, bizzaro San Francisco was a bit of a trip. Nakhchivan is a shockingly well-to-do, progressive, and proud (to the point of smugness) corner of the nation obsessed with local, organic produce, alternative medicines, health and spirituality tourism, all things ecological, and universal Wi-Fi access.
Turkic tombstones allegedly relocated here to protect them from theft by Armenians.
It’s all the more impressive given the last time Nakhchivan tried to be bold and ahead of its time, it suffered greatly. In January of 1990, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (formerly the independent Aras Turkish Republic before the Soviets swallowed it up in 1920) took a stand against what it saw as Russia’s progressive disenfranchisement of the Azeris of Nakhchivan and the separate Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in favor of Armenians. They became the first part of the USSR to declare their independence, and were promptly attacked. The violence, which some Nakhchivanis allege involved the Armenian use of chemical weapons (the Armenians allege the same against Azeris, but there’s no definitive proof on either side), was tied to Russo-Armenian claims of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan proper (with which Nakhchivan eventually merged) and lasted from 1990 until a ceasefire in 1994. During that time, Nakhchivan fell under a blockade. Their gas, rail lines, electricity, and radio were cut off, and Soviet policies of economic interdependence left them with weak agriculture and little to no self-sufficient industry. Every year, tens of thousands fled the region. Almost every tree was chopped down for fuel in the harsh winters, and the only things that kept the nation alive were two small bridges, built by Heydar Aliev, a Nakhchivani and former Soviet strongman who led the region until he became the leader of all Azerbaijan in 1993, linking Nakhchivan to Turkey and Iran.
Heydar Aliev, woven into a rug.