Country number: 151
Territory number: 176
When? October 2017, coming from Georgia, going on to Turkmenistan
How? Train, bus, on foot
Who? Group tour on train
‘Before you trust your camel to Allah’s protection, tie it fast on to your fence.’
Kurban Said, Ali and Nino: A Love Story
The Azeri police have been on the train, confined us to our cabins and taken our pictures and we’ve been allowed in. The train is actually moving properly across country now, though I still haven’t been able to see anything out of the window. The rails seem in even worse shape than before and the jolting is erratic and uncomfortable, I’m shaken awake every ten minutes or so.
Baku, we’re told, is famed for its medieval walled inner city. Within the city we visit the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a royal retreat dating to the 15th century, and the centuries-old stone Maiden Tower, which dominates the city skyline. But it’s also yet another city where the incumbent president (who has been in post again a very long time, this one is Pre-Soviet, he just switched his title and allegiance) has lavished money on architects, glass and steel in an effort to impress. Here, we have a tower, various sleek museums and games/Eurovision song contest venues, shopping malls (one a more complex version of Sydney opera house) and, The Flames. The latter are three towers that dominate the sky line and are appropriately illuminated at night. The whole is perched above grand esplanades that line the Caspian Sea. We’re also told by guide Elvin that Baku means city of winds, so Chicago has a rival. It’s living up to its name today.
The Land of Fire is aptly named. Farida and I have read the guide books and, not wishing to miss any possible highlights, have managed to get this afternoon’s trip extended, so we’re doing both the Zoroastrian temple, with fires burning and the most well-known of Azerbaijan’s volcanoes, Yanar Dag, also known as ‘Burning Mountain’. True to its name, in turn, a patch at the bottom of the slope on this mountain has been burning for as long as anyone can remember. We’re informed it’s natural gas and the mountain is right in the centre of the oil fields that run right along the edge of the Caspian. (There’s a huge ‘debate’ going on at the moment over whether the Caspian is a lake or a sea, as this affects the apportionment of ownership by the five countries that abut the Caspian, and therefore rights to all the oil and gas.) There are a veritable sea of rigs, platforms and nodding donkeys of all ages, ranging from Victorian, through soviet to modern day. It’s not the most scenic of outlooks, but interesting. It clearly accounts for Azerbaijan’s wealth (although there is a very clear delineation between rich and poor here, the money has not been distributed at all equitably). The fire is very welcome in the chill of the wind and cloud.
The Ateshgah Temple is surrounded by a seventeenth century castle wall and sadly, however, no longer has a natural fire burning, despite five years of praying to the gods for it to return in the eighties. They have to pipe in the gas here. My prayers have been answered however. The Four Seasons Hotel is eminently comfortable. I could fit about six railway cabins into my room and I have a view of the old town and The Flames, in all their glory. What’s more, the bed is huge and doesn’t jolt.
Azerbaijan is home to half of the world’s population of mud volcanoes, over 400 in fact, so naturally we have petitioned to have them added to today’s tour to Gobustan Park. The Stone Age petroglyphs are the advertised attraction here, but I much prefer the side trip. We have to proceed in ancient taxis (Ladas proliferate in the Caucasus) and we speed off road, rally driver style, to the patch of mini volcanoes, once more located in the middle of the oil fields. It’s like being on the moon (I imagine) and the bubbling cones and mud flows are fascinating. Tino and I decide to make our photos more exciting and generate an explosion by throwing rocks into a pool. This works rather too well and I’m splattered in mud from head to toe. Anyway, Tino gets some amusing pictures.
The script here is very similar to Turkish and their Turkish heritage is very obvious in the Azeri physique. They are dark and swarthy. Elvin is very patriotic. He boasts happily about the hosting of the Eurovision song contest and the European ‘Olympic’ games, and according to him Azerbaijan is more or less the main home of early man, the first stopping point after emerging from Africa. Shane dubs it ‘Lucy’s First Truck Stop’.
The airport is another lavish display of opulence. It’s incredibly spacious, with arty bars, and is virtually empty. There’s also rather too much attention to bureaucratic detail and some sullen immigration officers. They’re not keen on my entry stamp for some reason and then I’m on the receiving end of an almost illegible exit print. Turkmenistan here I come.