Promenade by Caspian Sea
Photos by: Rick Butler
I admit, initially, not knowing where in the world Azerbaijan was located. Our desire to visit this country was inspired by my husband Rick’s and my search for places around the globe we had not yet ventured to – after having already set foot on the soil of 115 countries. Finding just such a pocket of countries, Azerbaijan along with Armenia and Georgia, known collectively as South Caucasus nations sealed the deal!
Baku, the bustling capital, rests on the shimmering Caspian Sea. Leisurely strolls on the wide promenade alongside its opal waters are a daily delight. The outer edge of the city in this oil-rich country is a collage of beaches with grand resorts, oil-tycoon mansions, and on the city’s southern edge the derricks pumping away are nick-named James Bond Oil Field, being the filming locale for the opening scene of the movie, The World Is Not Enough.
The walled Old City is the perfect place to hang our hats with its maze of cobblestone alleys and ancient stone structures, many turned into small hotels (including our Old Street Boutique Hotel). Eateries abound in the caravanserai-style of the early traders, and souvenir shops flow with carpets and copper… of which I am quick to find a bracelet skillfully fashioned by a mountain village coppersmith.
UNESCO-designated monuments of the Old City draw us in. The construction date of Maiden Tower is subject to debate, though much of this tapering stone structure appears to be 12th century. Climbing the eight-storey interior, we stop at each level separated with platforms that display old photographs, artifacts, and legends of females in distress leading to “maiden” in the name. The tower’s purpose is controversial – defence structure, a celestial observatory, a place for religious rituals – experts have collected evidence for all the above.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs was the seat of the Middle Age ruling dynasty; the remnants recently restored are mostly 15th century. Wandering the rooms of age-old living quarters, mausoleums, and courtyards delves deep into the country’s history. On the lower level are the Bayil Stones. These strange carved stone blocks inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, animal and human faces were recovered from the ruins of a 13th-century castle that sunk to the bottom of the sea during the earthquake of 1306.
Outside the historic Old City, modernity takes the lead in grand stone structures and winning designs in glass edifices. The Flame Towers dominate the skyline; visible from most points in the city by day, and an attention getter with a swirling light show by night. On our city tour, our guide Ahmed, points out fine museums and a stunning extensive business section, which he says, “are all post-Soviet era… an era that began in the early 1800s and lasted until the collapse the USSR in 1991, wherein it was the Soviets who profited from the oil reserves.” Since 1994, foreign oil consortia investments added a forest of off-shore derricks to the tangle of on-land wells, and built the world’s second-longest oil pipeline to Turkey (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan or BTC), ensuring Azeri oil could be exported to the West without transiting Russia or Iran. With BTC going on line in 2005, Baku has boomed.
In our search for what Rick and I call “Odd Gems,” the rare and wondrous are only day-trips from Baku over desert terrain and rocky plateaus. Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve time-warps us back 12,000 years to when the Caspian coast was lusher and sea levels higher. Stone Age hunter-gatherers settled in caves and, although the cave sites have since crumbled, about 6,000 simple rock-art engravings remain. We climb up and down between the craggy boulders of this site spotting human and animal depictions. I stand riveted before a shaman in ritual regalia. A spindly reed boat throws my imagination into overdrive of these long-ago human-kind braving the sea. The small museum in the complex adds artifacts and detailed information to this captivating UNESCO-listed archeological experience.
Now… onto one of the weirdest geo-thermal phenomenon we have ever witnessed! Some 10km south of Qobustan, mostly over dirt roads with ruts large enough to swallow a small vehicle, we arrive at an otherworldly landscape of mud volcanoes. Mound after mound of cool grey mud oozes, burps, spits and bubbles from the top, running down the sides to ever increase the cone size. We climb, skid, and balance our way to peer into the mounds, likened to boiling witches’ cauldrons. Azerbaijan is home to over half the world’s mud volcanoes, with about 400 along the Caspian coast, of which 50 are in this more accessible area. The sheer desolation devoid of sound other than the eerie mud-belches and the whistle of sea-wind leaves us strangely speechless. Rick, a few mounds away quietly says, “I somehow am finding it difficult to leave.” Our driver senses our inexplicable need to linger, until another vehicle of passengers pulls up, breaking the spell.
Another geographical peculiarity, this one is a literal hot spot known as Yanar Da? (Burning Mountain). Amid dreary surrounds at the foot of an inconspicuous hillock, a 10m wall of fire blazes, and has since the 1950s when a shepherd’s cigarette accidently ignited the steady seep of natural gas through the porous limestone; which will burn continually until the source is exhausted. Nature’s hearth comes to mind as we sit watching the flames dance into the darkness; no doubt like the numerous ones mentioned by Marco Polo, albeit since his 13th century travels most of these natural-gas flames spurting from the peninsula have petered out as a result of drilling reducing underground pressure.
No matter how we spend each day, evenings find us in Fountains Square, where locals and visitors alike come out in droves to escape the daytime 30C+ summer heat. The buzz of camaraderie in the large piazza is as electric as the neon that brightens the square.
Everywhere, we find evidence of Azerbaijan being a progressive and secular democratic Muslim country with religious freedom written into the constitution, of which its citizens are proud. Liberal artistic freedom is manifested in flourishing venues for theatre, dance and opera. A bronze statue of a young lady with a bare midriff and holding an umbrella in one hand and cellphone in the other is “very Baku.”
Travellers rave about the northern snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains and forested villages, making us wish our stay was longer. To us, Azerbaijan was a rare melding of east and west, an entwining of old and new, fascinating geographical phenomena, and wonderful encounters with hospitable locals – all now filed in fond memories.
IF YOU GO
Canadians require a visa for an Azerbaijan visit. For details go to: Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Canada http://ottawa.mfa.gov.az/
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