Our last few days in Azerbaijan took us out into the sun-baked oil-rich dessert plains. Often we could see the black gold oozing out from the ground, and the only feature on much of this huge expanse of desiccated ochre was hundreds of abandoned oil-rigs.
We took a very sweaty and unpleasant trip into the interior in a tiny bumpy little van, however we were rewarded with the chance to explore a field filled with bubbling mud volcanoes. There were large thick puddles that were slowly oozing down the slope, tiny ponds simmering energetically, and even one vent that occasionally made a sound like a very old man every and then shot crumbling dirt high up in the air.
Nearby, we also had the chance to view an astonishing array of petroglyphs at Gobustan, at least 4000 years old. By this time it was high noon, and the sun was unbearable. I could only manage to dash out for a few minutes to examine these carvings before again seeking refuge in the shade. It made me remember my Australian summers, and I wondered how I coped with months of this endless heat.
The natural gas deposits were incorporated into the religions of the Zoroastrians and the Indian. While John and Adrian rehydrated themselves, I visited the Atəşgah fire temple in Surakhani that was used first as an ancient Zoroastrian shrine and then as a Hindu temple. It was actually cooler to stand in the shade next to the fire than out in the sun filled courtyard. The current stone temple that envelopes the “eternal flame” was built around 1745. This flame is now less eternal, as the vast number of oil rigs around the site exhausted the natural gas deposits in 1969, and now the gas is supplied by an artificial pipeline and switched off every night.
Back in the wealthy capital of Baku, the weather became enjoyable sometime after 9pm. We soothed our parched selves with some fresh pineapple juice and strolled along the beautiful promenade by the Caspian Sea. We said farewell to John and started packing our bags for our departure from the Caucuses.
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Our first few days in Azerbaijan involved travelling through the Silk Road, and I loved the excuse to buy a couple of silk scarves and treat it as an educational experience. For Adrian it was the chance to stay an 18th century Caravanserai. Personally, I am more likely to choose a place with a bathtub and WiFi rather than celebrating the limitations of the past. I imagine the conditions must have been so much worse back then – bed bugs, poor sanitation, and long trips on horseback under the hot sun. However, one of my few rules when deciding on our destinations is “no camping”, so I figured I didn’t really have the right to complain, as it wasn’t like we were freezing in a flimsy tent in the middle of nowhere.
To further enhance the illusion of living in the past, we were lucky enough to witness traditional dancing and a Mugham opera that were performed in the central courtyard. A more modern touch was the half-dozen cameras positioned throughout the place, as the performance was screened on National television the next day.
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I found the land border crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan a little intimidating, especially as we were separated and had to pass each check-point individually. First, I had to exit Georgia. When the guard saw my passport, he picked up the phone, and said something about “Australian”. Georgia had just changed its visa rules about 10 months ago, so while I would have needed a visa to enter in 2009, I no longer needed one in 2010. I held my breath and hoped that his superior was looking at the most recent rule book. Happily he was, and with a nod and a stamp, I was permitted to leave Georgia and wander through no-mans land.
I crossed a bridge, looking down at the cows of ambiguous nationality grazing below me, and walked towards a twelve year old boy carrying some sort of large rifle. In front of me I could see a very large “Azərbaycan” sign in front of me, but I decided not to take the risk and get a photo. Happily, not all on the internet are so risk averse.
Photo from wikipedia.
Once I was across the border, I surrendered my passport with its visa, and all our bags were searched for anything Armenian – postcards, maps, even the Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan Lonely Planet. They carefully examined our water bottles to ensure that the writing on it was Georgian and not Armenian. There was some debate over some Georgian postcards, but finally we were all returned our passports and permitted to enter the Republic of Azerbaijan for the next chapter of our adventure through the Caucasus.