Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

Thoughts on Azerbaijan

After a month of traveling through the poorer parts of the ex-Soviet Union on incredibly bad roads (for the most part), arriving in Azerbaijan was quite a shock!

In our <3 days in the country (we could only get a 3-day permit for the truck), I discovered that:

  • the roads are great
  • there are Western clothes, icons and food everywhere you look. Everything from KFC to Planet Hollywood to Starbucks, as well as many of the famous retail stores are here
  • WiFi is prevalent and fast
  • there are police (and very fancy police stations) seemingly on every corner
  • The number of people who smoke (something that was very rare in the ‘Stans) is unbelievable!  It appears to me that in both Central Asia and in Latin America, the prevalence of smoking is a key indicator for how much disposable income the population has (I’m thinking of you, Chile!).

The other thing that was very different was that as we drove along the highways, there was a seemingly infinite number of places to eat.  You are definitely not going to go hungry on your road-trip through Azerbaijan!

Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos to illustrate this post, but two random things that stood out for me:

There is a huge number of billboards advertising tea in Azerbaijan.  I have no idea why.  They didn’t strike me as tea connoisseurs in particular.

billboards for tea - Azerbaijan

Many of the houses have decorated roofs and gables.  Most of the roofs I saw had a variation on spires at either end and a miniature building in the middle, while the gables showcased all sorts of decorative tin masterpieces.

Gable and roof decoration - Azerbaijan

This practice actually continued over into Georgia as well, but Azerbaijan was the first place I saw it.

Our time in Azerbaijan was way too short, so these are very superficial impressions for the time being.  That being said, my overwhelming impression of Azerbaijan was that it definitely felt more like Europe than Central Asia!

Mud Volcanoes – Azerbaijan

The other quick stop we did in Azerbaijan was to the mud volcanoes (otherwise known as sedimentary volcanoes).  These weren’t too far from the Gobustan Petroglyphs in fact, and were definitely worth the quick side-trip to see.

It’s an amazing, moon-like landscape, with the Caspian Sea in the background

Mud volcanos and the Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan

with both fresh and baked mud making amazing patterns around the volcanoes.

Mud volcanoes - Azerbaijan

It is oddly satisfying watching the volcanoes bubble and plop (yes, it was quite windy)



but the most amazing thing is that the mud is cold!  I tentatively dipped a finger into it and was most surprised to find this out!   I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how that could be, but a later Google search revealed that these types of volcanoes are found throughout oil and gas regions and are an indicator of deeply buried gas reserves.  The volcano is essentially a release channel for the pressurized gas, mineral water and mud.    Apparently, they can ignite underground (they exist because of the gas after all) and be explosive, but the day we visited these ones just quietly bubbled away.

Bubbling Mud volcanoes - Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is home to a large fraction of the mud volcanoes in the world, a few of which are constantly on fire.  This is what is thought to have brought the Zoroastian religion (the predominant religion across Central Asia before Islam) to Azerbaijan over 2000 years ago.


Gobustan Petroglyphs – Azerbaijan

Because you can never see too many petroglyphs (and I don’t say that facetiously – I actually find them fascinating), one of our quick stops in Azerbaijan was to visit the Gobustan petroglyphs.  This National park is home to more than 6,000 rock engravings dating from between 5,000–40,000 years ago – some of which are in an amazing state of preservation!

We arrived at 9am only to discover that the site didn’t open until 10am.  So we decided to boil some water and make a cup of tea while waiting – the advantages of traveling in an overland truck 😊

The site we visited was not particularly large (there are other parts of it that we didn’t manage to get to), but the petroglyphs were fantastic!  They were carved into large boulders that littered the hillside – quite different to the more shale-type of rocks on which the La Silla and Tamgaly petroglyphs are carved.

Gobustan National Park - Azerbaijan

There were lots of very clear human figures

Gobustan Petroglyphs - Azerbaijan

As well as bulls and horses and goats.

Gobustan Petroglyphs - Azerbaijan

It would seem that Azerbaijan was not always as arid as it is today!

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the site – it would have been great to get to the other areas that our ticket gained us entrance to – but this is one of the challenges of being on an overland trip.  Never enough time to fully explore anything, and the constant need to keep moving.

Baku – Azerbaijan

Woke up early after only about 2 hours sleep, thanks largely to the snoring efforts of my traveling companions, and decided to just get up and start exploring Baku.   Made my way downstairs at the hostel to be confronted with doctors and patients and wheelchairs on the first floor…   WTF??!!   The running semi-joke is that we were actually accommodated in a mental health clinic, which is somewhat appropriate after having spent over a month (and for some, 2 months) together as a group.  And, to be honest, it sort-of looked like that kind of institution from the outside, seen in the clear light of day…

Given our delay in getting off the ferry, we only had 1 day to explore Baku, so I walked the 4kms into the Old City and joined a walking tour (can never do too much walking!).   Our guide was great, and the reason I love doing walking tours so much is that you get to ask all sorts of other questions about the country and culture as well. 

We started off in the Maiden Tower – a predominantly 12th century structure and one of the key symbols of Baku.  It seems to have served many purposes throughout its history, starting off as a Zoroastrian Fire temple (around the 5th century), and later a solar observatory (~12th century) given that “the 30 stone protuberances on the tower’s lower section and 31 protuberances on the upper section correlate to days of the month”, and the fact that the sun shines through slit windows in the upper section of the tower on the equinoxes.

Maiden Tower - Baku - Azerbaijan

Its strange shape is to make the structure earthquake-proof, but also forms the shape of the ubiquitous “buta” – a popular motif in Azerbaijan signifying the sun and fire.  You can also see an internal water well and plumbing – not something I typically associated with these ancient structures before this trip!

It actually has a good museum inside, with explanations in English, an awesome electronic book with many of the legends about the tower in it, and good views from the rooftop, so definitely worth a visit!

Directly opposite the Maiden Tower is an open-air museum featuring many tombstones with different styles of writing, figures, and gravestones in the form of a ram. 

Open-air museum - Baku Old Town - Azerbaijan

From there we poked our head into one of the old Caravanserais – to get a glimpse of what these structures were like inside.  This one is now set up as a restaurant, and apparently the chandelier was given to Baku by Pope John Paul II!

Refurbished caravanserai - Baku - Azerbaijan

We also spent a lot of time going through the Shirvanshahs’ Palace (15th Century) – which is quite extensive.   Most impressive parts for me were the throne room (no photos allowed), and this stained-glass window from Sheki – there is no glue/nails – it is held together through careful balancing of all the wooden pieces

stained-glass window from Sheki - Baku - Azerbaijan

And the bullet-holes in the walls.  Every time I see an artifact of war like this, I cannot imagine the circumstances leading to it.  It is so far removed from my reality, but relatively recent history in many of the countries I travel in.

Bullet holes - Shirvanshahs' Palace - Baku - Azerbaijan

I also loved this 1970 paper etching of “Baku – the capital of oil” by J.M. Mufitzade.  Sometimes a piece of art really just captures you 😊

Baku – the capital of oil” by J.M. Mufitzade - Azerbaijan

I also found some paintings that used crude oil as “paint” in an Art Gallery I’d popped into earlier in the day.  Given the focus on oil in Azerbaijan, I thought this was a really interesting idea too!

After the walking tour, I wandered down to the waterfront to join with tons of other people strolling the really pleasant parkland that has been created there.  Great views of the Flame Towers, and really just an amazingly pleasant place to sit and watch people.

Flame Towers and boardwalk - Baku - Azerbaijan

You definitely need more than one day in Baku to explore it properly, but I really enjoyed what little I did see!

BTW – did you know that Baku is located 28m below sea level?  It is the lowest lying national capital in the world and the largest city in the world located below sea level!

Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea

After a couple of wonderful days in the fascinating city of Ashgabat, we were back in the truck for the 540km trip to Turkmenbashi to find a ferry to transport us across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

On the way to Turkmenbashi

This perfectly captures how I spend a lot of my time on the overland trip. Sitting in the truck staring out the window contemplating the scenery as it slips by

The road was pretty good (for a change), and although it was 4 lanes for most of the way, only 2 of those lanes were actually in use for any particular stretch of highway.   9 hours of desert scenery later, we caught our first glimpse of the dazzlingly blue Caspian Sea.

Approaching Turkmenbashi - Turkmenistan

Approaching Turkmenbashi, and the first glimpse of the Caspian Sea

Arriving in Turkmenbashi, we found the port without too much trouble, and discovered where all the Turkmen people were!  The reason Ashgabat was empty was that everyone in the country seems to be employed in construction at the Turkmenbashi port – which unfortunately doesn’t allow photos – though I sneaked one or two.

Turkmenbashi port - Turkmenistan

Our local guide found the right person to talk to, and it turned out that there was a ferry due in at 9pm (it was 7pm when we arrived).  So, although our trip leader, Gayle, had prepared us for the worst by saying that we may be waiting up to 3 days at the port before we could depart, things were looking positive!   We parked the truck and went about cooking dinner bush-camp style in the middle of the port.

Turned out the ferry was late in, but at around 11pm we were moved off the truck and into the waiting room of the port “terminal”.   Gayle had also encouraged us to take our sleeping mats with us in case we had to sleep in a common room on the ferry, and this came in handy as I settled down on the floor of the terminal to await the call to board.   Obviously, the resident cat thought my sleeping mat was heaven as well, as he ended up sleeping up on my feet for the whole night.

We were still there the next morning, but things started to move at around 9am.  Passed through immigration and customs, and got taken around to the ferry … which was much newer and much more modern than I was expecting!

The ferry to take us from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan

The ferry to take us from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan

Given that we needed a ferry that could also transport our truck, the other thing Gayle had prepared us for was the possibility that there may not be any food available while we waited for the ferry and on the ferry itself – so all of us had about 3 days’ worth of food with us.  

Ferry - Caspian Sea

Given we had the truck, we were on a truck/car/cargo ferry, rather than a passenger ferry

However, again it was not required – and we sat down to an amazing lunch of one of the most delicious soups I’ve ever eaten, as well as chicken and rice prepared by the ferry’s kitchen staff.

Dining hall on the ferry - Caspian Sea

Dining hall of the ferry. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find my other photos that show inside the ferry 🙁

We also were allocated a bed in a 6-bed room.  This was heaven!

We finally got underway at 2pm with the assistance of a tug boat

Tug boat - Turkmenistan

And headed out into the Caspian Sea.  There is something I love about being on a boat.   I sat out on the top deck for as long as I could stand the sun watching us navigate the channel out into deeper water.   

Caspian Sea

Retreated inside before I got burned, and then came out again a bit later to further contemplate our progress through the water.

Caspian Sea

Dinner was more of the amazing soup from lunch, as well as mashed potatoes and stew.  Again – absolutely delicious!  The top bunk was surprisingly comfortable, but I was very glad I had my sleeping bag with me – it was a tad chilly! 

Woke up the next morning in sight of Baku, Azerbaijan.  However, there were a large number of boats in front of us, so we dropped anchor in the harbor and waited for our turn.  

Baku from the ferry - Azerbaijan

Baku from the ferry, Azerbaijan

Estimates were that we wouldn’t get into port until the next morning, so a day of enforced relaxation where we had more delicious food, read books, played games, watched an amazing sunset, and I managed to catch up on all my photo processing!

Sunset over Baku - Azerbaijan

Sunset over the Flame Towers of Baku, Azerbaijan

We were, unfortunately, awoken at 1am for our departure off the boat.  It was always going to happen that way!  Spent the next several hours standing around on the docks in the cold breeze as we and the truck passed through immigration and customs procedures, and then onto the hostel.