In 2010 I travelled overland from China to Britain, hitchhiking and camping, in an attempt to experience and capture the cultural shift that takes place as one moves from Asia to Europe. On the way I found the Caspian, the worlds largest inland sea, languishing quietly between two great continents. It represents the kernel of my journey and is the place where Asia begins to dissolve into Europe.
Over the centuries, nearby Empires have ebbed and flowed, each leaving its mark; first the Ottomans, then Persians, Mongols and finally, the Russians had influence here. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, exposing places that are continuing to define themselves, twenty years on. The economy of the Caspian basin floundered when industries such as salt mining were abandoned and Kolkhoz collective farms disbanded.
The oil boom of the late 90’s brought a new prosperity to the area. Ports like Aktau sprang up along the coast; where I camped alongside Uzbek mausoleum builders, in a cemetery once designated for wealthy Kazakh land owners. Distribution of money is skewed here. Migrant labourers wear makeshift masks and sunglasses to protect themselves from the sun’s glare, while constructing elaborate tombs for the oil-rich middle class. And as the oil industry booms, so the grave builders are given increasingly extravagant commissions.
On a nearby beach, young people have barbeques and amuse themselves among the crumbling concrete debris of the fallen regime. The turquoise water is littered with oil platforms and paraphernalia from the dwindling fishing industry. Throughout the day, locals are drawn to the water’s edge, to perform their daily rituals.
Across the water in the semi-desert of Azerbaijan, I spent time at a sanatorium town called Naftalan. Here people gather to bathe in chocolate-brown oil, purported to have therapeutic properties. It was startling to see a substance normally associated with heavy industry, as well as international politics, power and wealth, being used for health and relaxation. This ‘miracle oil’ has been bathed in for centuries.
The stories that I have told were influenced by the way I travelled: hitchhiking and camping made me more aware of the elements and raw materials which give the place it’s character. Long hours were spent staring down dusty roads, waiting for a ride and each day the layer of dust on my skin was washed away by a different stream. The work that I created responds to both the people and the land, because they are bound up with one another. And every ecological scar left on the land, by powers of the past, is a wound to the people.