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.
Tossing Melons in Tajikistan
Back in 2011, documentary travel photographer Celia Topping passed by Tajikistan on her way to Afghanistan. We don’t know if it was some magic melon juice she imbibed or what, but she came back raving about the place:
Fancy a watermelon? Visit Dushanbe’s market in Tajikistan in late July, and you won’t be able to move for melons. Melons, melons, melons: as far as the eye can see. The Tajiks don’t seem to mind though, they relish tossing melons from truck to pile, pile to stall, then stall to truck in a never-ending cycle of melon lobbing.
Melons are not the only commodity in Tajikistan. Since the end of the brutal civil war less than 20 years ago, this former Soviet state has finally begun to enjoy a moderate revival, with cotton and aluminum being key exports. Oh, and if you drive along the Pamir Highway, you get to experience what must be one of the greatest road trips in Asia, in absolute safety. Have fun!
Meet the Last Lykov (Not Many Other People Have)
All photos by Peter Sutherland
There are certain ethical quagmires, grappled over by anthropologists and ethnologists since time immemorial, in attempting to document uncontacted or lost people tucked into the few remaining hidden pockets of this earth. But these issues become moot when the invasive and kudzu-like world inevitably finds its way to them. The Lykovs—a Russian family who lived in the Siberian wilderness without human contact for most of the 20th century—are not an undiscovered tribe like the few that remain hidden from the modern world in South America. Nor did they violently resist outside contact like the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, who continue to do so today. When I asked 70-year-old Agafia, the sole surviving member of the Lykov clan, if she wished that the geologists who discovered her family in 1978 in the completely isolated wilderness of Siberia’s taiga forest had never found them, she shook her head. “I don’t know if we would have survived [without them],” she said. “We were running out of tools and food. I no longer had any scarves.” For once, humanity’s unyielding curiosity to uncloak every remaining secret of this world may have preserved rather than contaminated a singular phenomenon.
It all started in 1936 when Karp Lykov and his wife, Akulina, spurned civilization completely. Fed up with the Communists and city living in general, they journeyed deep into the taiga with their two sons. The impetus for their journey was the murder of Karp’s brother, who was shot by a Bolshevik patrol on the outskirts of their small village near the city of Kursk, in far western Russia. The Lykovs were strict pacifists, members of the Old Believers, an ultra-orthodox sect of Christianity that split off from the Russian church in the 17th century.
After choosing their plot, the Lykovs built a cabin, birthed two more children, and lived the kind of brutal existence that made Little House on the Prairie look like spring break in Daytona, Florida. They relied on a spinning wheel they’d dragged hundreds of miles with them to make clothing and survived on potatoes and wild mushrooms. In 1961, after almost three decades in the woods, a snowstorm wiped out their crop. They survived by eating tree bark and their shoes; Akulina starved herself to death so her kids wouldn’t go hungry.
After Akulina died, the family continued their insular existence until 1978, when the geologists (who were surveying the area for potential oil deposits) happened upon their settlement. Over the next few years, word of the strange, secluded family living in the absolute middle of nowhere slowly but steadily spread throughout Russia, and they became unlikely folk heroes. Much of the attention was due to Vasily Peskov, a Russian journalist who wrote several articles about the family as well as a book, Lost in the Taiga, that was a bestseller in Russia but totally flopped in English markets. (Last we checked, it’s out of print and copies on Amazon were going for $900.) One by one, each of the family members died. Some have speculated that the introduction of foreign germs by the geologists to the Lykovs’ immune systems was ultimately responsible for their deaths; others believe their deaths were natural. Whatever the case, Karp passed away in 1988, outliving all of his children except Agafia, his youngest daughter. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of some geologists who had befriended the family. As my film crew and I were preparing for the trip to visit the last remaining Lykov, we almost called off the story when the Smithsonian published an archive-based article in January that ended with Agafia, then 45 years old, deciding to continue living alone in the Siberian wilderness after her father’s death. But that was 25 years ago, and the author did not have either the means or the fortitude to travel to the taiga to see how life was treating Agafia at 70. So we went.
In February, we flew to Siberia to find Agafia and catch the world up to speed on her life. She lives more than 155 miles from civilization and getting there required navigating seemingly endless, onion-like layers of Putin’s government approval—including getting past various park officials who dubiously claimed jurisdiction over the taiga—to track her down. In the summer, I was told, she could be reached via a seven-day canoe trip. In the winter, the only way to get to her was by helicopter. Considering the hardship of her daily existence, I thought it only proper to visit during the most challenging time of the year.
When we arrived, Agafia was waiting for us outside her cabin like a sweet granny expecting a visit from her grandchildren. The nature reserve where she resides was named the Lykov Territory in honor of her family, and her cabin sits atop a bluff near the swiftly flowing Erinat River. For a 70-year-old woman who once had to eat her shoes to survive, I was surprised by how nimble and healthy she appeared. Her property includes several cabins and smaller buildings for goats, chickens, supplies, and preserved food, as well as a garden on the steep hill behind the main dwelling. (The garden was covered in snow during our visit, as it remains for much of the Siberian winter.) Throughout the years, with the help of friends and admirers, she’s built up her property from the one-room shack the whole family used to live in. Dozens of cats freely roam the property.
After giving her a goat and a chicken I had brought as gifts, I interviewed Agafia at a little table by the banks of the river. I asked what had happened since her father died nearly 20 years ago. “When he died,” she said, “I had nobody left to help me or to rely on. I cut firewood myself.” Like many older folks in Russia, Agafia receives a government subsidy but is still mostly self-sufficient—cooking, foraging, and fishing on her own. She told me the strains of day-to-day life in the taiga have become more difficult as she gets older.
“It’s not easy to cut hay and take care of my goats,” Agafia said and went on to explain how she now owns a shotgun to fight off local wildlife. “Last summer, a bear came and was vandalizing around here while I was hiding inside. He grabbed a bag of my flour and trampled down my carrots. I dug out a hole, and the bear got trapped in it.”
Agafia, however, is not entirely alone. She has a neighbor named Yerofei Sedov. He initially came here to work as an oil prospector and lived about ten miles away from Agafia, with other geologists from his company. Eventually, he was fired from that job for reasons that are unclear and which he wouldn’t comment on. He then returned to the big city, where he somehow ended up with gangrene and lost his leg. When a doctor told him that moving back to the clean waters of the taiga might help his health, he set up shop down the hill from Agafia, on the banks of the river, where he’s lived for the past 16 years.
Far Out: Agafia’s Taiga Life, Part 1
In 1936, a family of Russian Old Believers journeyed deep into Siberia’s vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life. The Lykovs eventually settled in the Sayan Mountains, 160 miles from any other sign of civilization. In 1944, Agafia Lykov was born into this wilderness. Today, she is the last surviving Lykov, remaining steadfast in her seclusion. In this episode of Far Out, the VICE crew travels to the taiga to learn about Agafia’s lifestyle and the encroaching influence of the outside world.
In part one, the VICE crew leaves New York on their long journey to Siberia. After withstanding all the unexpected delays, they finally find themselves in a helicopter flying over the vast taiga to meet Agafia.
The Soviet Ghost Town in the Czech Republic
There’s a little bit of the Soviet empire left in the middle of the Czech Republic, but it’s abandoned, decaying, and almost completely forgotten.
USSR military bases might not be known for their community outreach, but is it really possible that two towns, one Czech and one Russian, could exist just over one mile apart for two decades without the residents knowing anything about each other? If you’ve got enough barbed wire fences and Kalashnikovs, I suppose anything is possible.
After occupying what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet army chose an airfield 28 miles from Prague as the base for its Central Group of Forces. It had been used before by the Austro-Hungarian military, and then the Luftwaffe, but when the Soviets moved in they came for the long haul.
They built an entire town next to the airfield and called it Boží Dar, meaning “God’s Gift,” and then fenced it off from the outside world. Oh, that dark Soviet humor! Or maybe they really did think it was nice, since it did have a pool, a movie theater, and wasn’t Nizhny Novgorod.
Just down the (heavily guarded) road was the nondescript Czech town of Milovice and its 8,000 or so inhabitants, none of whom knew about the hundreds of families living under armed guard in cramped concrete tower blocks just up the road.
Boží Dar existed in complete isolation. This closed town within a closed state was about as inaccessible as it gets, and it’s entirely possible that most of the residents never left the town. No one but the highest-ranking officials would have had that kind of freedom. Operations at the base were kept top-secret, and such was the extent of Soviet paranoia that they even closed down Milovice’s sewage treatment plant at one point, fearing that the additional waste would give away too much information about the size of Boží Dar’s population.
There was just as much secrecy surrounding what was going into the base as what was coming out of it, so most supplies were probably brought in from Russia by air or rail. It looks like the base was partly self-sufficient, with its own coal power plant, underground reservoir, and farmland.
Most of the locals we asked thought the whole barbed-wire-and-armed-patrol thing was less about stopping the Soviet residents from getting jealous of living standards in communist Czechoslovakia, and more to do with stopping the Czechs from finding out about the possible secret stockpile of nuclear warheads being kept at Boží Dar.
It’s widely believed that the Soviet army kept at least some nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia, most likely at the base of the Central Group of Forces, but no one has ever been able to prove it. The Russian embassy in Prague still refuses to confirm or deny anything, although the former Central Group of Forces commander, General Vorobyov, was pretty open about the whole thing in a 2008 interview with Radio Prague. On the phone from Moscow, he said “We did indeed have nuclear weapons in the rocket brigades as part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces that I commanded.”
Any nukes must have been transported back to Russia soon after 1989, when the Soviet Army started packing its bags following the Velvet Revolution. In their haste, soldiers dumped out entire tanks of diesel and buried their leftover ammunition in the ground.
After the last Mig-29 took off back to Russia in 1991 the military base was left open and unguarded, and was quickly looted of anything even remotely valuable. Thieves ripped out everything from copper wiring to door handles and plastic movie theater seats, tearing up floorboards and pulling down walls in the process.
In 1992, Russia generously gave the already-crumbling buildings and polluted, explosive-riddled land to the Czech government, claiming that the value of this piece of real estate would make up for the cost of cleaning it. It seems the Czechs had little choice but to accept.
Despite it being state property, no one has ever bothered to guard it or fence it off, so we went to have a look around.
Since this was February in the Czech Republic, it was snowing. A lot. First, we found some aircraft hangars.
There wasn’t much inside.
We had to walk about another mile before we got into town. The snow was a few inches deep, so we had no idea what we were walking on. Once we got close to the buildings there were a lot of big holes in the ground, which we discovered by nearly falling into them, covered as they were with trash and snow.
The holes were probably made when the environment ministry swept the ground for all that buried live ammunition. Most of it was dug up and disposed of back in the early 90s, but the occasional mine or grenade still turns up. In January this year, someone walking their dog in the area stumbled across a live artillery shell and three landmines.
Far Out: Agafia’s Taiga Life (Trailer)
Photo: Peter Sutherland
In 1936, a family of Russian Old Believers journeyed deep into Siberia’s vast taiga to escape persecution and protect their way of life. The Lykovs eventually settled in the Sayan Mountains, 160 miles from any other sign of civilization. In 1943, Agafia Lykov was born into this wilderness. Today, she is the last surviving Lykov, remaining steadfast in her seclusion. In this episode of Far Out, the VICE crew travels to Agafia to learn about her taiga lifestyle and the encroaching influence of the outside world.
Agafia’s Taiga Life will air on VICE.com Monday, April 1.
Watch the trailer
Penetrating Jordan’s Illegal Porn Cinemas
Muttering quietly and nervously to himself, an elderly man squeezes his eyes shut and aims them at the floor while clamping his hands to his ears. His forehead rests against the wooden chair in front of him, and the blue light of the film projector from the cubby behind him illuminates his worn, wrinkled face and white beard.
The film projected on the screen in front of him that he’s trying desperately to avoid depicts a naked, pudgy, sweaty, artificially tan man with a mullet having sex with a cream-skinned, shorthaired brunette on top of a kitchen counter. She has a tattoo on her ass and wears an oversized silver crucifix that swings back and forth between her cleavage as he thrusts into her from behind. The audio is lousy, the camera shaky, and the scant dialogue reveals the movie is probably Italian: “Ahh, fuck me! Sì! Sì! Sì!”
The old man ignores all this, just as he’s ignoring the guy three seats to his right masturbating beneath a tan jacket spread on his lap. In the front row, another man has moved on to his fourth cigarette of the last ten minutes. The smoke mixes with the rays of the projector, partially obscuring the lower right corner of the screen. As the onscreen couple moves on to anal, the mutterer finally gets himself together and stands.
“Pepsi, folks?” he calls in Arabic. “Anyone want a Pepsi?”
Ignoring the self-lovers who surround him, he moves up and down the aisle hawking soda and doing his best to keep his eyes off the screen. This activity draws ire from the 15 or so working-class men in the theater and jeers follow. They’ve come to spend their Saturday afternoon watching grainy, poorly-produced big-screen smut at the Kawakib Cinema, one of just a handful of quasi-public but nonetheless illegal pornography theaters in Amman, Jordan. They don’t want their view or attention obstructed—especially not during the anal, and especially not by a man who doesn’t even enjoy the action. The soda vendor sits back down and resumes his attempt to pretend the movie isn’t happening. Dripping with sweat and wheezing, the mullet-man pulls out and finishes on the brunette’s back. The camera pans left before fading into a new scene with a new couple.
A hole-in-the-wall in Amman’s old souk—an area called the Balad—the Kawakib occupies a highly visible location on King Talal Street in the city’s historical center. It’s just down the street from the Grand Husseini Mosque, one of Amman’s spiritual centers and a regular rallying location for Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the right time of day, attendees of the Kawakib’s porn matinees have their fornication viewing interrupted by the call of the mosque’s muezzin penetrating the theater’s thin walls.
KILLERS OF SERPENTS – THE PYTHON CHALLENGE IS THE ONLY THING KEEPING THE EVERGLADES FROM BECOMING A TWO-MILLION-ACRE SNAKE PIT
On July 1, 2009, a pet Burmese python in Oxford, Florida, escaped from its terrarium, slithered into the crib of a two-year-old girl, and strangled her to death. The snake, named Gypsy, was eight and a half feet long, weighed 13 pounds, and had not been fed in a month. The child’s mother and her boyfriend—who had six prior felonies—were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.
The incident was Florida’s first known case of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child, and it set off a media frenzy. In stepped a tattooed Florida wildlife rescue expert named Justin Matthews. About a month after the girl’s death, Justin made national news when he captured a 14-foot Burmese python in a culvert outside a Sweetbay Supermarket near his Manatee County home. He identified the snake as an escaped pet and scolded its owner for not having a radio-transmission device implanted in the animal, as required by law. He named the snake Sweetie, after the Sweetbay chain. Local news outlets declared him a hero.
But later that summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered that Justin had actually purchased the animal at a reptile supply store and staged the capture. He made a public apology, insisting that he had simply been trying to demonstrate the dangers of keeping pythons as pets. “I did it for wildlife education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But Justin was quickly written off as a loose-cannon redneck seeking personal glory and publicity for his rescue business and faded from public view.
Now, more than three years later, Justin, a rangy 50-year-old with a beard and a Pall Mall-induced rasp, is walking through Big Cypress National Preserve—a 720,000-acre patch of cypress marsh in the northern part of the Florida Everglades. His mission is to kill Burmese pythons, which can grow as long as 20 feet. He is one of 1,400 people who have signed up to hunt, shoot, and decapitate as many of the snakes as they can in a month as part of Florida’s first-ever Python Challenge.
Many media outlets have described the 2013 Python Challenge as a “bounty hunt.” But the contest’s chief organizer, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida, prefers to call it an “incentive-based market solution.” Participants compete in two separate divisions: one for general competitors, another for year-round permit holders. The winners receive cash prizes for kills—$1,000 for the longest, $1,500 for the most.
Facedown in Chitral: Where Pakistani Muslims Go to Secretly Party
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a 19th-century tale of empire, madness, and idolatry centered around two roguish British soldiers who take a perilous journey into Kafiristan, a hostile mountain region populated by pagans who kill and rob anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Kafiristan took its name from the Arabic word kafir, which translates as “nonbeliever” or “infidel.” The region stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
For nearly 70 years, up until 1896, the emir of Afghanistan offered bribes to the people of Kafiristan to discourage them from robbing outsiders and slinging their bodies off of mountains. The Kafirs took the money but refused to give up their marauding ways. Abdur Rahman Khan, nicknamed “The Iron Emir,” grew so incensed by this flagrant disrespect of his power that he sent troops into the Afghan-controlled portion of Kafiristan to discipline the local population. Kafirs were rounded up and given a stark choice: Islam or death. Naturally, most chose Islam, and the Afghan side of Kafiristan was soon known by the euphemism Nuristan, or “land of light.” These forced conversions and the change of moniker, however, did little to alter the nature of its people. In his 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby cataloged some common phrases in the Nuristani language at that time: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning”; “I have nine fingers; you have ten”; and “I have an intention to kill you.”
In the end, the Iron Emir was only sucessful in converting the population on the Afghan side. Across the Hindu Kush mountains, in Pakistan, a raucous pagan animism persisted. Today the descendents of these pagans live in what are known as the Kalash valleys: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. They are the last animist tribe of Central Asia—a nature-worshipping island in a sea of Islam spreading out in all directions.
The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. For decades, pleasure-seeking Muslims have ventured to these valleys to get drunk on Kalash wine (which tastes like sherry) and the local moonshine known as tara (which tastes like schnapps). The drug of choice is opium brought in from Afghanistan or, more commonly, nazar, an opiate-based chewing tobacco, which oftentimes makes users sick and dizzy. Just like American kids who travel to Florida or Vegas to blow off some steam, devout Pakistanis periodically head up into the mountains for a taste of the debauched pagan life.
How a Remote Laotian Village Became Asia’s Cancun
Vang Vieng is a small town of 25,000 nestled in the jungles of northwestern Laos, on the banks of the Nam Song River. It’s home to caves, lagoons, and lush green hills—a landscape that up until recently had me believing that Laos, my mother’s native land, was mostly free from crass Western concepts like “partying.”
Since the early 2000s, however, the bucolic hamlet has become a destination for drunk Europeans backpacking through Southeast Asia. And today Vang Vieng is near the top of the list of tourist destinations in Laos. It has provided a much-needed boost to the nation’s tourism industry, but in the process altered itself to cater to out-of-towners.
The town’s main street, for instance, is full of bars screening reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Bars offer whiskey-taurine cocktails served in beach buckets. It’s also easy to score opium, magic mushrooms, methamphetamines, and other substances that could get you thrown into a Laotian prison. There are also a handful of underground clubs run by Vietnamese gangs. Curiously, when my sister Florence went to visit Vang Vieng for the first time in 2005, after she returned she told me there were no police in sight. “At any time,” she said, “tourists can buy hard drugs freely, although it’s recommended to avoid heroin or cocaine.” The restaurants sell cannabis and opium at 80,000 kip per gram (about $10), as well as tourist-oriented foods like pasta or pancakes “even if Laotians don’t know how to cook them.”