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by Irene Butler
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

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. Finding 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. Eateries abound in the caravanserai style of the early traders, and souvenir shops flow with carpets and copper.

UNESCO-designated monuments are a draw. The Maiden Tower with its tapering stone appears to be 12th century. Experts believe it functioned over the years as a defence structure, a celestial observatory, a place for religious rituals.

The Palace of the Shirvanshahs was the seat of the Middle Age ruling dynasty; the remnants recently restored are mostly 15th century. We wander through age-old living quarters, mausoleums, and courtyards that delve deep into the country’s history.

Outside the 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 1800’s and lasted until the collapse the USSR in 1991”. 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 where about 6,000 simple rock art engravings remain. We climb up and down between the craggy boulders spotting human and animal depictions.

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, 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.

Another geographical peculiarity, this one is a literal hot spot known as Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain).

Amid dreary surrounds at the foot of a hillock a 10m wall of fire blazes, and has since the 1950's 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. This is 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.

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. This amazing country’s entwining of the old and new, fascinating geographical phenomena and delightful encounters with locals will long be remembered.



More Info:

Canadians require a visa for an Azerbaijan visit. For details go to: Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Canada

PHOTOS : credit Rick Butler:

1 Promenade by Caspian Sea
2 Old City Bazaar
3 Maiden Tower
4 Palace of the Shirvanshahs
5 Flame Towers
6 Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve
7 Mud volcano site
8 Bubbling mud cauldron
9 Waiting for next mud spurt
10 Burning Mountain

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