Part 1: Azerbaijan
I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan during the Eurovision song contest in May, 2012. Hotels had been very hastily constructed to accommodate the anticipated influx of visitors. I was the first guest to arrive at one of these newly built hotels, at around midnight.
The staff were resplendent in their new uniforms. The foyer was full of flowers. The manager greeted me and escorted me to reception. After checking in, the manager informed me that as the first guest, he would be honoured if I would join him for a drink in the bar. It seemed rude to refuse, even though by then all I wanted to do after 24 hours travelling was to go to bed. I accompanied him to the bar, and I was very pleased that I did, as his conversation proved to be interesting.
He gave me some facts about Baku, and recommended things to do and see. He told me that Azerbaijan was a secular State, and the prevailing religion was Shia Muslim. He said that the muslims were not strict, and women were not required to cover themselves.
He then launched into his version of twentyfirst century history and politics. He had been educated in Moscow, and said that the Soviets had done a lot of good things in Azerbaijan, which should not be discounted. His dates of Russian invasions, massacres and withdrawal seemed to be roughly what I knew. He did gloss over the massacres a little, and finished his story with the comment that he thought Stalin had been very good for Azerbaijan, and it was a pity there was not a Stalin around at present. He couldn’t tell me in what way Stalin had benefitted Azerbaijan, nor could he tell me why it would be a good thing to have a Stalin around now. He did add that it was good to be independent though. Time to finish my drink and retire for the night.
Whenever I encounter a new sea or ocean I have a need to swim or paddle in it. To fulfil that need the next morning I walked along the shore of the Caspian. Swimming was not an option, so I had to make do with paddling.
The architecture of Baku is varied. There is a medieval Islamic old city, surrounded by rather grand 19th and early 20th century buildings, financed by an oil boom. Wealthy Azeris and early oil barons built splendid homes. The soviets also erected some fine buildings. All around are modern skyscrapers, financed by another oil boom.
Below: Around the Old City.
Some of the 19th-20th Century Buildings.
The Flame Towers, 3 skyscrapers which are curved, and also triangular, were the most interesting modern skyscrapers. The towers light up after dark, and feature the colours of the Azerbaijan flag alternated with the colour of fire, the latter to resemble flickering flames – for oil and for the Zoroastrian’s who worshipped fire, and who have been in Azerbaijan for around 2000 years.
The Baku Ateshgah, a fire temple, still has one small fire in the courtyard. Old images of this temple show flames coming from all the towers. It seems that the drilling for oil and gas has diminished the supply to the temple. The sight of this temple in the dark, with flames leaping into the sky would have been a wondrous sight.
I spent a day in Gobustan, not far from Baku, driving through the so called badlands – acres of oil drills, with views of drilling platforms on the Caspian Sea. On the one hand, it was dreary and industrial, with nodding donkey pumps all around, and huge forests of large derricks, both on and offshore, and large refineries. On the other it was mesmerising watching the donkey pumps nodding – up and down, up and down – and never pausing.
On arriving in the area where we were going to visit the mud volcanoes and a boiling mud lake, I was a little taken aback when I viewed the 4WD vehicles which were to take us through the desert. The vehicles were in fact ancient Ladas, left over from Soviet days. Not a 4WD among them. None had seatbelts, and all were in varying states of disrepair. The drivers though were a very cheerful bunch, obviously relishing the thought of scaring us to death – which they did extremely well. There were no real tracks, lots of potholes, and mostly we slipped and slid through the sand, being thrown from one side of the car to the other. One rather large slide had the vehicle I was travelling in spinning around to face the way we had come. I have a new respect for ancient rusted out old Ladas.
The mud volcanoes were quite bizarre. The conical mounds were of varying sizes, though none were large. They were gurgling, oozing, spitting and sometimes erupting with thick grey mud, which formed a path down the size of the volcano. The mud itself was cold. The lake had mud bubbling up and glopping and plopping, like the mud pools in Rotorua, New Zealand.
A rock in the middle of the road nearby is carved with what is said to be the most easterly known Roman graffiti, carved by a Roman Legionnaire from about 1st century AD.
We also visited petroglyphs, which I have written about in a previous post. On the way back to Baku, we were startled to see flames leaping out of small hills near the road. A never extinguished gas fire at Yanar Dag, or the Fire Mountains on the Absheron Peninsular is a most spectacular sight. It is as if there is a wall of fire marching along the hillsides. The flames were relatively benign when I visited, but the flames can apparently blaze out 3 metres or so up into the air.
There was still more to explore in Baku. The Maiden Tower beckoned. No one seems to know when the tower was constructed, what its purpose was and its function. It is situated on the south eastern corner of the old city, and there are theories that there was a tunnel from the Shirvanshah Palace to the tower, but for what purpose no one knows.
After viewing the tower, I discovered a pathway, lined on both sides by decorated models of the tower. Apparently this happens each year for the Maiden Tower Art Festival. The display was most impressive.
I thought about the hotel manager and his admiration for Stalin when I walked up Martyrs’ Lane in Baku. He clearly differentiated the actions of Stalin and those of the Soviet Army in 1990. A memorial has been erected at the end of the Lane, with an eternal flame for the victims of Soviet supression in 1990, commemorating some 15,000 people killed by the Soviet Army during Black January, and later to those killed in Nagorno-Karabakh war. The Lane is surrounded by photographs and memorial plaques. There is a Mosque near the Martyrs’ Lane – the Mosque of the Martyrs built in the early 1990’s with Turkish financial assistance. There is also a Turkish memorial to the Ottoman soldiers killed during WW1 in Azerbaijan. Like all memorials to those killed in battles which I have visited, Martyrs Lane sent a chill up my spine, and a dark anger at the governments responsible for wars almost overwhelmed me.
On my final night in Baku, against my better judment, I agreed to go to dinner in a converted Caravanserai to hear some local music. I wanted to hear local music, but I didn’t want to experience a mediocre tourist meal and listen to music “for the tourists”. I was assured that this place was renowned for excellent food, and that the musicians were passionate about their music.
The converted Caravanserai looked splendid, although it did not look like a place a local person would frequent. The other diners all appeared to be tourists. The meal was mediocre, and included overcooked and mushy capsicums, stuffed with savoury rice. Not sure what happened to the savoury part. The rice was bland and sticky and tasted like plain boiled rice. The wine though was excellent, so I happily drank wine, ate little and waited for the music.
The 3 musicians arrived, looking as though they would rather be anywhere other than this venue, playing for a bunch of tourists. They made no eye contact with anyone. They banged and thumped their instrument containers, shuffled chairs and began one of the most joyless performances I have heard. They didn’t even pretend to be enjoying themselves. They did not bring the music alive at all. They did not acknowledge the applause (heaven knows why anyone applauded that performance), packed up their instruments, and stalked out looking as miserable as when they arrived. It was in some sense so awful that it was funny.
There is a lot to see on the drive from Baku to Sheki. Monuments, roadside markets, varying landscapes from semi desert to mountains with rivers in between, wildflowers in abundance, vineyards and fruit trees, beehives and interesting refreshment options.
The first stop was to visit the mausoleum – mosque of Sheikh Diri Baba in the village of Maraza. The building was erected in the 15th century. Its architectural style is Shirvan. I heard lots of stories about Sheikh Diri Baba, but my favourite was the legend that a sacred person was buried there, who remained imperishable. Bring out the body I say. The building is built into a cliff, and appears to be hanging from some angles.
On the outskirts of Shamakhi, one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan is Yeddi Gumbez – Hill of Seven Tombs. Only 3 of the octagonal tombs remain extant. These are the tombs of the Shirvanshahs, and date from the 18th century to early 19th century. Inside some of the tombs are the most beautiful tomb markers, intricately carved and a work of art themselves. Trust the rulers to choose possibly the most beautiful spot for their tombs, with views of the countryside and hills all around.
The roadside markets were generally situated on a spot with glorious views of mountains and rivers. Some were in areas with wildflowers all around. The produce was varied. Fresh fruit and vegetables, walnuts, cheese, eggs, preserves, honey and spices. There was also fruit leather. Great coloured circles hanging on lines strung up around the market. They were chewy and fruity and tasted as though they were actually made with real fruit, rather than fruit flavouring.
Our lunch venue was in a clearing, with tall trees all around. The sign by the roadside consisted of a smoking samover, with a menu alongside. A few plastic chairs and tables, with sun umbrellas shading some of them looked quite festive. The people living here are all refugees, living in dreadful looking dwellings, but nowhere near as dreadful as numerous refugee camps I have seen. I am not sure where these refugees came from – no one could tell me. The roadside sign with the photo above would probably provide a clue, if I could read the language. An old lady gathered up sticks to light a fire under the bread oven. We watched the bread being made, and cooked. The aroma of fresh bread mixed with smoke and damp forest wafted through the clearing. We sat on plastic chairs among the trees, eating fresh warm bread and drinking tea from a samover with fruit leather for desert.
Approaching Sheki we drove through hazelnut orchards, and could see mighty snow capped mountains to the north. Arriving in Sheki, I was delighted to be staying in a converted Caravanserei. The entrance was like a a large space, dimly lit, with a high vaulted brick ceiling. There was ample room in the passageway to accommodate a large number of traders and their animals if any should appear, although there was no accommodation for the animals.
The Khan’s palace was the summer residence of the Sheki Khans, and was built in the mid 18th century. The exterior and interiors of this building are richly decorated. A large stained glass window made from multicoloured glass mosaics, with smaller windows made of pieces of coloured glass were themselves stunning. The walls of each of the rooms are covered in paintings. There are flowers, birds, lions, deer, dragons, gardens and friezes depicting various wars and much more. The carpets, which were in the same patterns as the ceilings, are apparently in the Hermitage, in St Petersburg.
Climbing up to the Albanian Church in Kish Village, near Sheki we wound our way up the winding cobblestone streets of the village, with views out over pretty countryside to the snow topped Caucasus. The area was excavated during 2000-2002, and remains of bodies were found within the church walls. These remains are on display, and other remains which were buried underground can be seen below the ground, through transparent covers. There are a wide range of dates to choose from to date the church, but it is said that the church walls where the bodies were found date back to the 5th century. It is a pretty little church, and worth a visit, although I prefer not to see the remains of long dead people.
The next day we left Azerbaijan, crossing the land border into Georgia. A quite different experience.