Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Mysterious Caspian Sea stirs the imagination

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The Caspian Sea, as viewed from Baku in Azerbaijan. Photo / David Chamberlain
The Caspian Sea, as viewed from Baku in Azerbaijan. Photo / David Chamberlain

It was churned brown by the wind and under a lowering sky of rain clouds but somehow the Caspian Sea still breathed an air of romance.

Not the hearts and flowers kind, although for Iranians the Caspian is a favoured honeymoon destination and summer holiday spot. I'm talking about geographical romance.

In reality the immediate view from the shore beside my hotel is of a rock-strewn breakwater littered with plastic bottles and other detritus.

But I'm looking beyond that and imagining I'm in a small boat, pushing off from the coast and heading into the waves (which would be a totally foolhardy exercise on a day like this, of course).

If I sailed due north I'd reach the Russian coastline, and maybe find the mouth of the Volga River and become a Volga boatwoman; if I veered east I could strike land in that weirdest of Central Asian nations, Turkmenistan. Its late ruler even renamed its Caspian Sea port after himself - Turkmenbashi; if the wind blew me far to the west I'd be threading my way through the off-shore rigs into the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, where Humvees guzzle their way along the streets.

I like, too, the geographical conundrum that is the Caspian. It's called a sea but is in fact the world's largest lake; but it's salty and not fresh water.

This might merely fascinate me, but it causes international lawmakers and negotiators needless headaches.

There are vast oil reserves under the Caspian and swimming in its waters are giant caviar-bearing beluga sturgeon. Both riches have been the subject of disputes between the nations that claim a share of the Caspian and some of these disagreements centre on just how one defines these waters - as international ocean waters or inland sea or lake?

Meanwhile the sturgeon continue to be overfished and politicians both near and far debate the best routes for oil and gas pipelines.

If the sturgeon do disappear they will not be the first unique form of wildlife to vanish from the Caspian region.

Once the damp forest-clad hills around the sea's shores were the realm of the Caspian tiger (whose range also stretched far to the east to Mongolia).

The last of this third largest sub-species of tiger was spotted in Iran in 1947 and it is officially regarded as extinct through its former range.

The Caspian tiger was once the favoured tiger for use in gladiatorial combat in Roman arenas, presumably because they were the most easily obtainable.

As we descended through the oak and maple forest to the sea earlier in the day I peered into the mist-wreathed trees, half hoping for a glimpse (I like to think that the Caspian tiger, like the yeti and the Loch Ness monster, do exist despite all scientific evidence to the contrary).

At a roadside stall selling honey a stripy tabby kitten wraps itself around my legs - a relative perhaps? And in the seaside port city of Anzali, red and white-striped inflatable tigers bob in the wind outside shops.

They are intended to lure Iranian holidaymakers into the premises. The tigers jostle for attention with giraffes, jumbo jets, giant orange lobsters and Shrek.

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