What a busy three days since Sunday's Grand Prix.
To start, on Monday, as is often our want when visiting the bigger touristy cities we took a 'Free Walking Tour'. A bit of a misnomer as the expectation is that at the end of the tour you 'tip' the guide according to how good a job you felt they did.
Our guide for Baku, Gani, was an early 20s Masters student of Social and European History. And he certainly knew his stuff. The tour's focus was mostly about the Old City which meant that we were walking a lot of the streets we had already walked along, but now with some guidance as to what was what.
Firstly, contrary to what we said in our previous blog, most of Baku's city walls are missing.... in so much as there used to be a double line of wall around the city, plus a water moat outside and an oil filled moat in between. So if marauders managed to scale or breach the outer wall they were then confronted with the oil, which could also be set alight if the defenders felt necessary. There is one stretch of wall where
Statues of writers from 6 successive centuries
there are downward pointing slits through which the oil moat could be refilled from inside.
The Maiden Tower - lots of theories on this - observatory, temple, purely defensive.... but no one knows for sure. Some even think that it may have been built in two distinct parts.
Other sights of interest included
Muhammad Mosque or Siniggala Mosque built in the 11th century. The mosque is also known as Siniggala, for the name of its minaret – Siniggala (“damaged tower”). The mosque acquired its second name in 1723, when a military squadron of Russian Army, consisting of 15 warships approached the city from seaside and demanded its surrender during the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723). Russian warships began to bomb the city after the refusal to surrender. One of the Russian shells hit the minaret of Muhammad Mosque and damaged it. A stormy wind then blew the Russian ships further out to sea. The population of the city interpreted the wind as a divine scourge sent to the occupants. From that time until the middle of the 19th century, the minaret of the mosque wasn’t reconstructed. It remained a symbol of the persistence and courage of the defendants of the
tower. Now, however, you can see different stonework where a repair has been made.
And the Palace of the Shirvanshahs which dates back to the origins of the Old City. (See later in this blog).
Outside the Old City Gani highlighted oil barons' residences, and buildings that had history - like a late 1800s school for Muslim girls, very daring and controversial for its time - but which were repurposed and sometimes re-adorned by the Soviets when they took over in the early 1900s.
This was interspersed with more geopolitical, ethnic and religious information and history, admittedly some of which we have been unable to reverify with Google.
Eg - 1 - the population of Azerbaijan is around 10,000,000, but there are apparently 25,000,000 'Azerbaijani' over the border in Iran.
Eg -2 - Even though Azerbaijan is separated from 'Europe ', on the whole Azerbaijanis like to consider themselves as European. Their language is basically the same as Turkish but with some dialect differences.
Eg -3- Azerbaijani preferred drink is tea, much more than coffee, and they are the 2nd highest tea drinkers in the world, after Kenya ( a Google search doesn't support
Down there is Turn 8 where Leclerc lost it in qualifying
this. But, the drink of choice in cafes and after meals in restaurants has clearly been tea).
Eg - 4 - Gani confirmed the 'non-religious Muslim society' aspect, giving as an example the lack of 'call to prayer' blasting from minarets, and the ability to drink alcohol even openly on the streets.
Gani also told us of how technologically advanced Azerbaijan was in the 1800s. Two examples being a movie being shot in Baku barely 2 years after it was invented by Lumiere, and one of the first electricity generating plants anywhere in the world.
The tour was a full 2 1/2 hours with a refreshing drink at the end of it in his 'office' - tea, of course, in a cinema themed cafe.
Afternoon, and plan was to take a leisurely trip up the hillside, towards the Flame Towers using the funicular to take the strain.
NO! Although the parks and memorials that we wanted to see at the top were open (unlike many museums and sites which close on a Monday ) the funicular was CLOSED on a Monday. Bugger, but oh well up we climbed the steps alongside through the blazing sun
- did we say we have had temps in the mid 20s+ here, though a cooling wind sometimes; Baku means 'the place with the cool wind'.
5 particular points of interest at the top:-
#1 Parliament building, modern.
#2 Alley of Honour - a public cemetery for around 300 famed Azerbaijanis - scientists, authors, poets, philosophers. ..... - some of which have the most amazing sculptures on them. A few of our favourites are in the photos, though we can't give you names for any of them but 2.
The main memorial for Haydar Aliyev, the original president post independence, is here. Aliyev was the 1st Secretary of Soviet Azerbaijan 1969 - 1982 and President of Azerbaijan Republic from October 1993 to October 2003. There are many references to him around the city so we think he was highly regarded. Though that may not be totally so. On MapsMep, which often works better for us on our travels than Google Maps, MapsMe allows user editing and he/his tomb on there is described as 'Mafia Boss'.
Whilst we stood looking at this monument we became aware that an army uniformed 'guard' had appeared close by
- from nowhere - and was closely watching us as we moved around 😊.
Also the place was being kept spotlessly clean and tidy by a small coterie of cleaners, mopping down the monuments, and gardeners. The nearest to dirt or rubbish we saw was a noticeable dusting of yellow pine tree pollen.
#3 The Flame Towers - one is commercial, one residential and one houses a Fairmont Hotel. We treated ourselves to a coffee and a very nice indeed, very 'professional' cake there. We felt we deserved it after the climb up.
#4 Avenue of Honour - established in honour of those killed during Black January, 1990, war with the Soviet Army, and later expanded with memorials to people - armed forces, civilians and a couple of journalists - killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war (late 1980s to 1994) with Armenia. That area is still 'under dispute' and is marked as a no-go zone on maps and official UK travel advice. You can't cross from Azerbaijan to Armenia and visa-versa, you need a 'visa' to enter the area and a passport stamp showing you have been there can bugger up your ability to get into either country.
As we have seen before with other Soviet gravestones they tend to use black granite with a photo engraving of the deceased. This alley is bookended by a very Soviet style memorial, and an 'Eternal Flame'.
#5 And just over from the Avenue of Honour is another public walking boulevard that they seem to like in Baku, with a wonderful view down and over Baku and the Caspian Sea.
To get out and about to some sights outside the city we had booked, before coming, a private guide for Tuesday. As it turned out we could have bought a better than 50% cheaper place on a group tour to the same sights from any number of businesses touting on the streets in Old Baku but these hadn't particularly appeared in a pre-visit search.
Our guide, Marad, was somewhat hyper, and we could have done with him having both his hands, or even A hand!, on the steering wheel whilst driving rather than on his phone (mostly - or the radio controls, or his after shave, or......) but we did get to main surrounding highlights.
First off were some mud volcanoes. Apparently (thank you Google) Azerbaijan has
35% of the world's mud volcanoes - who counts these things!? They are not 'volcanoes' as such. No lava, not even any ground heat is involved. Rather it is petroleum gases bubbling through mud and gradually building up mud cones. The ones we saw were small, mere metres high, but they have been known to grow to 700 metres. Every 20 years or so one will ignite deep below the surface amd create a massive explosion, though they are usually out of town so not a threat to anyone, except maybe a wandering shepherd and his flock.
A lot of the 'fun' also came from the actual final jaunt to the volcanoes. At a road junction Marad handed us over to a local taxi driver and his well beaten up, decrepit Lada. There were several such parked at this main road junction. He proceeded to hare off at a spine shaking speed over an unpaved dirt track. The mud volcanoes are around 10 km away from the paved road, and we think the driver wanted to impress us with how fast he could drive on a dirt track 😯
Next stop was the Gobustan Rock Art Landscape, an
international standard and World Heritage Status site of over 6000 petroglyphs carved into rock, dating back between 5 to 20,000 years ago. These depict primitive people, animals, ritual dances, boats with oarsmen, etc. And you can get quite close to them. In fact touching many of them would be perfectly feasible, quite easy in fact, though to be fair we saw no one so doing. They have opened a nearby interpretive museum which we visited first though regrettably Marad somewhat rushed us through that.
Unfortunately the next major two sights on the trip are out to the opposite side of Baku - East, rather than West. So we had to drive back to - via a photo-opportunity stop at the Bibi-Heybat Mosque - Baku and beyond.
Regarding the mosque, the current one is a crisp rebuilt 1990s recreation of the original 13th century one which was completely destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. It includes the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum, a descendant of Muhammad.
On both the out-to-the-west part of the trip, and then easterly too, we passed many areas of operating nodding donkey oil well heads. The first mechanised extraction of oil in the world was
in Azerbaijan in the 1800s, and around the turn of 1800s into 1900s 50% of the world's oil came from here. According to TripAdvisor, around 10 km outside town is an original well head/derrick which is claimed to be the world's first mechanically dug oil well.
So, sort of related, our first stop to the east was Ateshgah, the Fire Temple. Atash = Persian word for fire. This site was used as a Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian place of worship. Built during the 17th and 18th centuries the centre piece was a natural flame, fuelled by petroleum deposits under the site. Regrettably in the early 1900s they extracted the oil from beneath the site. There are photos that show wooden oil derricks within the temple walls! The natural flame went out in 1969 after nearly a century of petroleum and gas exploitation in the area, and the three flames within the temple are now fuelled by piped-in gas. So sad.
Still natural though, was the next site Yanar Dag = Fire Mountain. This is an area of natural fire which burns out of a hillside. Flames up to 10m jet into the air from a thin, porous, sandstone
No one knows how long they have been continuously burning for. Maybe thousands of years. But we wondered whether, in really wet weather with water possibly running down the slope from above, the flames go out and have to be restarted with the judicious use of a match rather than waiting for the next lightening strike ♨
Final photo opportunity stop on the way back in was the Heydar Aliyev Centre. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, it is noted for its flowing, curved style with no sharp angles. It is said to represent the former president's signature.
Today, Wednesday, we checked out of our guesthouse, made our way to the rail station via Baku's metro, deposited our luggage and spent the day back in town.
A curious statue close by the station celebrates Nikola Tesla - strange as no one seems to be able to find a link between him and Baku / Azerbaijan, but the statue is impressive.
After a pleasant stroll along the Caspian Sea boulevard we climbed towards the Sirvansahlar Sarayi = Palace of the Shirvanshahs. 15th century, another World Heritage site in its own right, and described by UNESCO
as "one of the pearls of Azerbaijan's architecture ". The complex contains the palace, burial vaults, the Shah's mosque, the "mausoleum of the dervish", remnants of a bath house........ and many primary age school parties blocking the displays and the captions with their need to have a photo taken in front of everything!
In one stretch of wall are a cluster of bullet holes from the 'March Days' in 1918, part of the Russian Civil War between the Bolsheviks +Armenian Revolutionary Federation vs Azerbaijani Musavat Party. Around 14,000 died, many of the locals being just summarily shot.
This evening we catch the overnight train, Baku to Tbilisi. 1st class cabin = our own rather than shared. 550 km, around £50 total for the two of us.
Wonder how much an overnight London to Penzance sleeper costs?
Some final observations about Baku and Azerbaijan
Smoking - the tobacco companies have got a good hook into the population here (far, far more so than we saw in India a few weeks ago). But there are also a lot of Shisha pipe locations. One restaurant that we wanted to use (TripAdvisor recommended ) we just couldn't because every
other table was either smoking or shisha-ing.
Clean, clean, clean - oh so very clean, at least in Baku. In addition to the cleaning in Fountains Square that we remarked on in the last blog, whilst waiting at Baku rail station for a couple of hours the marble floor around our feet was polish mopped at least 4 times.
This place is probably on the far edge of a weekend 'city break' and deserves full 4 days or so, but an interesting place to visit.
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