Cruising through Azerbaijan, known as the ‘Land of Fire’

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Asia » Azerbaijan
June 7th 2018
Published: June 26th 2018
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The three hour flight from Istanbul to Baku was much smoother than the chaotic three hours in Istanbul that preceded the flight! Immigration was efficient and we were soon met outside by another superb day and our guide for the next five days, Farman, to be escorted to our hotel, Central Park Hotel, conveniently situated near the centre of the city.

Azerbaijan has been described in Lonely Planet as ‘a tangle of contradictions and contrasts’ and as a ‘new’ nation which is ‘transforming itself with a super-charged gust of petro-spending’. I couldn’t have put it better myself! While the capital Baku seems to be modelling itself on Dubai, or the poor man’s Ashgabat, once out of the metropolitan area there are countless rural villages and lush orchards, backed up by the soaring Caucasus Mountains or the wide Caspian Sea. Apparently not everyone is totally enthusiastic about this rate of progress however with some of the older folk longing for the Soviet days when everyone had work and relatively equal incomes.

As mentioned, Baku is modernising very quickly, with modern towers rapidly replacing tatty old Soviet apartment blocks and some of the new commercial buildings are absolute attention-grabbers, but it has still retained much of its original character in the Old City, hidden behind the arc of a fortress wall, and they haven’t totally sold out to the developers with a number of wide pedestrianised tree-lined streets scattered throughout the city. Two of the absolute standouts in terms of modern architecture include the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre and the three Flame Towers. The former is a majestic statement of fluid architecture forming 'totally white abstract waves and peaks that seem to melt together', but which actually contains exhibition spaces and hosts concerts. The latter are a trio of blue-glass skyscrapers which forms Baku’s architectural signature. They are each around 30 storeys, so stand out above the city skyline, and at night form a light show which interchanges between fire effect, pouring water and waving the national flag (see my pics). In the Old City, we visited a number of different attractions, the standouts being the Maiden’s Tower, a tapering 12th century 30 metre stone tower with an internal spiral staircase of 120 steps (yeah, I counted them!) offering a great view of the Old City and the Caspian from the rooftop; the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a 15th century sandstone palace complex which was the seat of the ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages, but which has now been completely restored; and several stone caravanserais, which have now been converted into atmospheric restaurants and/or carpet shops. One thing that was noticeable was that although Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it does not seem to be nearly as strict as many other countries visited in terms of strict adherence to female clothing requirements.

After Baku, we took off into the countryside, final destination Georgia. The first hour’s drive out of Baku was through amazingly barren hilly terrain, not unlike that in Tibet as you approach Everest. Then within a very short period of time we moved into lush vegetation with forests covering the mountains, and this stayed for the remainder of Azerbaijan. They must get some serious rain in these parts as we passed over at least a dozen almost dried up river beds, some up to 50 metres wide, with only a trickle currently flowing through them. We were also fascinated with the hundreds of cows that seem to just roam near and across the roads throughout the country. Sites visited were many, but let me just list a few of the highlights in the regional areas, each of which has been included in the attached photos:

· Rock carvings/Petroglyphs at Gobustan - stick figure stone engravings dating back over 12,000 years.

· Suraxani Fire worshippers temple at Absheron - an 18th century temple whose centrepiece is a constant flaming hearth above which arches a pillared stone dome with four side flues.

· Merdakan Fortress - a 22m square-plan tower in which we could climb five flights of unlit steps to the rooftop.

· Yanar Dag - a 10 metre long sliver of heat-blackened hillside with permanent natural gas flames emanating from it (thus the term 'Land of Fire'!)

· Dasgil Hill - a weird collection of baby mud volcanoes, little conical mounds that ooze a thick, cold, grey mud that progressively grows the mound.

· Diri Baba mausoleum in Maraza village - is a two-storeyed mausoleum of Sheikh Diri Baba, built in 1402, which stands in a square located on a glyptic cliff

· Duma Mosque – also known as Friday Mosque, this was the second mosque built in the Caucasus, dated 745

· Yeddi Gumbaz - a group of very old brick domes in a state of disrepair on top of a hillside cemetery where three mausoleums are still saved

· Khan’s Palace – summer residence of the Shaki Khans, built in 1797, which contains some great stained glass and is covered from floor to ceiling with elaborate designs, frescoes, and stained glass

Azerbaijan is going through an interesting period right now. With its oil funds resulting in rapid modernisation, it is trying hard to shake off the old Soviet image and be perceived as an integral part of Europe. Three years ago, it actually hosted the European Games and it has also been an integral part of Eurovision, but their perception is that the world's media is not giving them the recognition for their economic development they deserve and instead focus on a few historical incidents of corruption and press-gagging. It also has hanging over it its ongoing conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which comprises 16% of its territory but remains under Armenian occupation, resulting in closed borders with its near neighbour. But for the tourist it is certainly a very comfortable country to trip around and any locals engaged could not have been more hospitable.

So from here the caravan moves onto Georgia, where we are able to make a land crossing at the town of Lagodekhi. Incidentally, I'm sorry about the poor formatting of my last blog on Istanbul - my travelblog portal steadfastly refused to let me publish it using the paragraphs planned, instead cramping them into the one paragraph, separated only by unwanted style and font details. I have since obviously resolved this problem.

Additional photos below
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27th June 2018

A New One for My Bucket List!?!
I never really considered visiting Azerbaijan, but after reading your blog I may put it on my bucket list! Nice account of your time there, and nice photos too.
27th June 2018

Bucket List
Thanks for your kind comments. I think they apply to you and most of the world. These countries are still recovering from the Soviet era and really trying to attract tourists and this shows in most peoples' attitudes. This is even more apparent in Georgia, which I'll likely post later today.
28th June 2018

We made it to Armenia which we love but ran out of time to explore this area. We'll hope to do it in a future trip.
29th June 2018

Good to hear from you guys. Well worthwhile country - very hospitable people as I'm sure you experienced in Armenia.
30th June 2018
A different perspective of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

Great blog encouraging a foray into this Western Asian wonderland, Neil. Love that it shows its emergence from Soviet days with modern architecture that is designed to make a statement and must blow you away. We experienced the perspective from Armenia with whom it has closed borders. But as always...those that visit a country return with own their real time perspectives.

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