Up till now, the only thing I knew about Azerbaijan was that the country enters the annual Eurovision Song Contest (and has even won it once). But it was where I was being sent for work, and as always, I’m always glad to go somewhere I don’t know much about.
My previous trip was to Algeria. On paper, the two countries looked pretty similar. Both are Islamic countries whose economies are based on oil.
Boy was I wrong. Where in Algeria, religion dominated everything, in Azerbaijan, it felt much more a secular state where it just so happened that most people are Muslim.
In Algeria, you heard the Azan call to prayer five times a day, from not one but two to three mosques (and you saw them everywhere). In Azerbaijan, I barely even saw/heard a mosque and shiny skyscrapers were more obviously the temples of worship.
In Algeria, appearance really didn’t seem to count for anything (buildings, clothes, attitudes were shabby if anything), while in Azerbaijan, flash cars with big engines, designer boutiques as well as stupendously showy architecture and interior design were the norm.
In Algeria, I struggled to make my €250/night hotel understand why I was complaining because of black marks on the walls and curtains that were missing hooks, while in Azerbaijan my Marriott room (on the 20th floor) of the Marriott literally took my breath away.
In Algeria, I lamented the sorry state of disrepair afflicting most buildings and the Qasbah (a UNESCO World Heritage site), while in Azerbaijan, I thought that the Old Town had been scrubbed so clean and so many parts rebuilt that it didn’t even feel as old (or as special) as it should have.
In Algeria, I wasn’t impressed by the food on offer (we have a few very good Moroccan places in Bristol) and was incredulous of the lack of awareness of what good service was, while in Azerbaijan I had one of the best steaks (imported) I’ve ever had in my life and was delighted by the symphonies on my palate during many of my meals.
Azeri food has similarities to Turkey and Iranian food with the kebabs, mezzes as well as delicate stewed fruits (like quince) and cheeses that are the norm in the Caucasus.
Now, I will make clear that when I talk about Azerbaijan and Algeria above, I am really referring to their capital cities of Baku and Algiers respectively.
Over the weekend I had in Azerbaijan, my local colleagues very kindly arranged to drive me out of the city and see what else Azerbaijan had to offer. We decided on going to Gobustan (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to see some ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) and the mud volcanoes.
I got picked up from the hotel in the morning, and off we went.
As a side note, driving in Baku is pretty mental. Everyone seems to have the skills of a racing driver (albeit in very stop-start traffic), squeezing into the smallest of gaps and suddenly braking. Even having learnt how to drive in Malaysia (also pretty crazy), it put me on edge every time I was in a car. So I was glad I didn’t have to actually drive myself.
Driving out of Baku, skyscrapers were quickly replaced with oil pumps and a barren, rocky landscape. You could literally smell the oil fumes in the air.
The journey to Gobustan did not take long (90 minutes or so if memory serves) but it was interesting to see the scenery change every few miles.
First stop was the visitor centre and museum. For a small fee, we got an English speaking guide who explained the history of Gobustan as illustrated by the exhibits to me. A fairly basic museum, but definitely worth doing to understand what we were about to see.
We then went to see the actual rock carvings themselves, the older of which date back to 10,000BC. The ones on display were actually rather clear, apparently because Soviet archaeologists had traced them out some decades previously. In addition to various animals (horses, aurochs), there were also depictions of pregnant women and traditional circle dancing. Perhaps this is where modern day line dancing originated.
If (like me) you rather like the macabre, there were also water holes that apparently served to collect blood after sacrifices.
There was also a ‘drum rock’ which apparently is a big drum that you can beat with some rocks to make a sound. We couldn’t find anything around to beat it with, so I had to amuse myself doing silly poses, to the amusement of some school kids.
The mud volcanoes were where it really got interesting.
The way to these are on unmarked dirt tracks, so we needed a guide to get there. The security guards at Gobustan gave us a number for a guide and told us to meet him at the junction from the main road.
Our guide turned out to be a dwarf (what’s the politically correct term these days?) called Hamlet. He took a look at the suspension of our Volkswagen Polo and decided that the suspension wasn’t high enough. He would therefore take us in his car.
Hamlet’s car turned out to be an old Zhiguli that looked straight out of a movie about road tripping in the former Soviet Union. I was a bit hesitant about Hamlet actually being able to drive but he had some (very) raised pedals and he seemed competent enough.
When I got into the front passenger seat, I instinctively reached for the seatbelt. Nope, no seatbelt. Oh, and my seat was only being held up by a wooden stick.
Nonetheless, Hamlet skilfully manoeuvred us through the really bumpy dirt tracks to where the mud volcanoes were.
The mud volcanoes are so-called because they spew out mud instead of molten lava. They are caused by the release of natural gases (also what causes the fire from mountainsides that gave rise to Zoroastrianism and gave Azerbaijan its ‘land of fire’ nickname) and can cause some rather violent eruptions.
When we were there, it was more a gentle bubbling, although there were parts where a river of mud had formed from an earlier eruption.
It was also great to come and see something unique like this, without having anyone else for miles around. This was probably a combination of Azerbaijan not being a huge tourist destination (although the Government is trying to build this) and the fact that it was the end of November. Nonetheless, seeing unusual geological phenomenon (whether or not classically ‘pretty’) always gives me a sense of connection to the Earth but also reminds me how short our lives are in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in Azerbaijan, but I’m certainly glad I had a chance to see some of it. I must say though, my defining memory is definitely be Hamlet driving us in his Zhiguli on those dirt tracks to the mud volcanoes.