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Published: October 7th 2014
Driving gives you so much more freedom - freedom to explore, freedom to discover, and as we quickly discovered this morning, freedom to get completely and utterly lost. Today, the plan was simple - hire a car, drive about 1.5 hours south to see mud volcanoes and prehistoric cave paintings, drive another 1.5 hours to see a mountain that has been on fire for 50 years, and then if time allows it, see some old Zoroastrian fire temple. And do all of that without a map. Simple no?
Luckily the rental car guy recommended getting a GPS. I've never trusted a GPS in my life, preferring good old paper maps and the old nose to direct myself. But our lack of maps of Azerbaijan suggested GPS would be a good idea. Alas, the stupid GPS proved to be idiotic when it came to navigating in Baku. It took me about 1 hour to drive the 5 min trip back from the rental agency to hotel - stupid GPS didn't understand one way roads. Side note - if you are looking to rent a car in Baku, we used http://www.azrent.az/
- paid 100AZD for 2 days including insurance and being dropped
The land of oil derricks
This particular part of Azerbaijan actually starred in one of the Bond movies - the world is not enough.
off at the airport - and considering an airport taxi costs 30AZD, the price was pretty reasonable.
Our first destination was Qobustan (pronounced Gobustan) to see prehistoric cave paintings. And turns out there are two Qobustans in Azerbaijan, in totally different directions. At least according to the GPS. So away went the GPS, out came the eyes, and we followed highway signs and a compass to get us to the vicinity of Qobustan.
A good segue here to talk about the Azerbaijan countryside. If you read our blog from yesterday you would have known we thought Baku was a really impressive looking city with some stunning buildings and great cityscaping. Well the countryside is the complete opposite (at least the part we saw today - apparently other parts are much prettier). Nuclear wasteland. Think Chernobyl meets the Great Depression. There is no greenery - just dirt. And amongst the dirt, mile after mile of abandoned factories, oil derricks or dilapidated towns. Occasionally a partially finished construction project that has been abandoned. You can also see a distinct difference in affluence. Whereas Baku is full of well-dressed Europeanesque Azeri folks, the countryside has darker, weathered workers that probably are
the real Azeri. It feels like a land that time forgot, and a stark contrast to the modern Baku.
Anyway, back to Qobustan, and specifically the cave paintings known as petroglyphs. The place is actually pretty interesting. First up is a museum that introduces you to cave man paintings and the basic symbols used. Its particularly interesting how women vs. men were drawn - all about genitals and body parts, kind of R rated, except in a slightly quasi-alien way because honestly some of the women looked more like pregnant ETs. After that we headed up into the foothills, and with the aid of a onsite guide, viewed cave paintings. Its amazing how well preserved they are, considering that some of them are upwards of 40,000 years old. None have been touched up, but some of them look as fresh as they would have been the day they were carved. We have seen the paintings at Lascaux in France, and these were an order of magnitude more impressive - not only in their level of preservation but also in quantity - there are apparently over 6000 paintings. Diversity is a bit dull though - its all women, men, kids,
horses, bulls and gazelles.
Destination two for the day was the Qobustan mud volcanoes. Now the problem here is there is no map on how to get there. Our trusty GPS had about 10 different locations for it, all of them in the middle of nowhere. I had done some internet searches the day before to get directions and all the articles said 'its really hard to get to, but if you want to try, try this'. The challenge is that there are no roads to the place - its literally in the middle of a vast sprawl of nothingness. We tried asking the museum attendants and they gave us some vague directions - follow this road, turn right at the first bump, turn left after two shadows, etc. Thankfully there was a guide at the Qobustan cave paintings that was willing to show us the way for a fee. I was tempted to try it out myself but given our time limit, decided to cough up the exorbitant $20 for directions.
I'm glad I did - it literally was off road driving for 30 mins along dirt tracks. Along the way there were numerous sharp rocks that
would have punctured our tires, so I took it slow, much to the chagrin of our guide, who at one point commented 'how long have you been driving' - insinuating that I was driving like an amateur. About two minutes before we finally arrived we passed a European backpacker standing in the middle of nowhere asking for directions. Our guide laughed at him, telling him he was a fool for walking around here. Its literally a desolate wasteland. He explained he was saving money and had spent 2 hours walking from a nearby highway using some instructions he had found on the web. And he had found the mud volcanoes and was looking for a quick way back. We felt sorry for him, so we offered to give him a ride, though he would have to first come see the volcanoes with us. I think he was glad he accepted, because when we arrived at the volcanoes he remarked that it was nothing like what he had seen. Apparently he had found a small pit of mud and concluded that those were the mud volcanoes.
Now the mud volcanoes were thoroughly interesting. These are like normal volcanoes except that
they don't spew lava, but rather cold slurry. Basically a fissure in the earth spews out hot gases rather than lava, and those gases mix with mud and hot water on the way up, cool down and eventually escape the earth. That escape point is the mud volcano - which basically looks like a continuously vomiting giant termite hill. Its quite exciting to see the mud build up in a bubble and then pop. Our guide also used his lighter to light some of the gas which caused a small stream of fire. The only disappointing part here was that the volcanoes were more like mounds - I had been expecting to see large hills spewing forth mud-lava. Nevertheless a fun but dirty experience.
It was now mid-afternoon and our busy itinerary was well behind schedule. We decided to cut the fire temple and just see Yanar Dag. Yanar Dag on paper sounds awesome. Basically a hole in the ground next to a mountain that spews natural gas. A shepherd thought it would be fun to see what happens if you light that gas. Turns out it makes a 10m wall of fire and makes it look like the
mountain is on fire. That same fire has been burning for about 50 years. Azerbaijan actually literally means land of fire, and its because of such anomalies. Yanar Dag is not the only such instance, in fact in adjacent Turkmenistan there is a massive pit of fire called something like Hells Pit - a whole pit of natural gas on fire.
Seeing Yanar Dag in person however was not as exciting as it sounded on paper. Yes its indeed a 10m wall of fire, but that wall is 10m long, not 10m high, and only about 40cm tall. So slightly underwhelming and more like a large barbeque pit. Fun for some photos, but given the time required to drive out there, we were slightly disappointed. The saving grace was that along the way we did get to drive through some smaller towns and see lots of scarred nuclear wasteland - kind of scenic and interesting to see more daily Azeri life.
We ended up in Baku late and stumbled upon a Georgian (as in the country, not the US state) restaurant and decided to give it a try. Georgian food is all about garlic and walnuts, and turns
out is very tasty and flavorful. It completely was beyond our expectation as we thought it would just be vanilla European food. Something interesting to try next time you see a Georgian restaurant.
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