Several days in Baku and its surroundings, with bizarre landscapes, burning mountains, and an eclectic mix of modern, 19th century, and much older architecture.
Our research and travel schedule this past year has been in a constant state of flux (and really, continues to be), so when we vaguely promised a couple friends a spring break adventure, we expected to be in Uzbekistan. Instead, we found ourselves in Russia, where no one seemed interested in visiting (in part because Adrian and Marina had both been). So for our spring break sojourns, we proposed a trip to the Caucasus: mostly visa free (except for the three of us going to Azerbaijan), relatively cheap, and with good connections to the US. So, with that in mind, we planned a lovely trip with many moving pieces: Maki and I would fly to Baku, where we’d be joined by Adrian a couple days later. Marina would join us a few days after that in Tbilisi (Georgia), and Kate and Neil would join us a few days later in Yerevan (Armenia). If that wasn’t complicated enough, things grew extra complicated when Maki received a notification of his Grandmother’s death just 18 hours before we were set to fly to Baku. After scouring our various flight options and thinking through the practicalities, we flew to Baku as scheduled, and we were lucky to find a way for Maki to leave from there and rejoin us in Tbilisi a few days later. But I digress. On March 12, Maki and I hopped onto a plane in Moscow, and just three hours later, we found ourselves navigating Baku on a Saturday afternoon.
Not before, I should ask, Maki (full name: Markian) was rigorously interrogated by the customs officials about his ethnic background, the possibility of a secret second passports, and his alleged connections with Armenia. Once we explained that Markian was not, as they had assumed, an Armenian name, but rather a Western Ukrainian one, they seemed mostly placated and let him pass through.
We were pleasantly surprised by Baku. Perhaps because I know many people who suffered from living in the country for longer stints, I was expecting things to be a lot less nice. But it turns out, though I am sure my friends are certainly correct about the experience of living in Baku, it was a completely pleasant place to visit for a long weekend (and it helps that I was never an unaccompanied female). We ate well and called it a night pretty early. The next morning, one of Maki’s two full days in Azerbaijan, we were sure to hit the streets to explore as much as possible, since the next day, Monday, was already reserved for an all-day trip to the surrounding area. First up was the old city, İçəri Şəhər.
Our main tourist stop for the afternoon was the Maiden Tower, a mysterious tower that dominates the skyline of the old city and whose history has been the subject of much debate about what the tower was or might have been intended to be. I actually loved the way the museum was organized: you slowly make your way up the various floors, which each present a different interpretation: a defensive fortress, a religious site, an ancient observatory. Each of the explanations was nicely intertwined with the history of the city more broadly, so that by the time you reached the top — an observation level on the roof, you have a nice idea of both the tower and the city around it. Plus, the views were amazing!
After we had climbed the tower and returned, we organized through our hostel, Baku Palace Hotel (which was excellent at arranging our visas and excursions!), a short half-day trip to a couple places on the outskirts of the city. First up was the Ateshgah, or Fire Temple, an old Zoroastrian religious site. Although the natural fire has since been replaced by a gas line, the site was a cool little place to explore and presented the largely unknown history of Indian traders who had found their way to Baku. The site was pretty interesting, though I think I’d only recommend it if you had a lot of extra time in Baku, mostly because a lot of the other things we saw were much more interesting.
From there, we headed onwards to Yanar Dag, a mountain that is literally on fire. Just hanging out. Burning natural gas. As it has been for at least fifty years. Because Azerbaijan.
The site was very strange, to say the least. Behind the burning mountain, we had lovely views over onto the city.
We’ll repeat the cover picture, just for good measure:
This site I found far more interesting than the Fire Temple, though it was a pretty quick stop. We took our sweet time with a nice walk over into the hill side and I think we were still done within thirty minutes — which made us really glad to have a driver for the afternoon, rather than having come more than an hour on public transit. Ideal for our short time.
From there, we headed back into the city, got situated in the apartment where we were staying, and then walked over to meet Adrian, fresh off his flight from the US. We had a nice walk through the old town in search of dinner, before calling it a night (Adrian was especially jetlagged, after all!). The next morning, we headed over to the hotel/hostel to meet up with our driver for our most exciting excursion during our time in Azerbaijan: a trip to Qobustan, a national park where we saw countless petroglyphs, and the nearby mud volcanoes.
This daytrip was easily one of the highlights (of oh, so many!) of the trip. The first thing we saw upon entering the park is a bit Latin graffiti from a Roman soldier more than 2000 years ago.
The Latin inscription was obviously one of the more recent additions. The petroglyphs were all much, much older, and recalled the roommate trip to Tamgaly in Kazakhstan in May 2015.
The views over to the Caspian and at the stunning rock formations around us were stunning.
From there, we headed onwards, on perhaps the worst road I have ever traveled, towards the famous Mud Volcanoes, what I was perhaps most excited about on our trip. But before we get there, the roads. Oh my goodness. This road made Mongolian driving seem normal! (Though, we were only on this one for about 25 minutes).
And then, there they were, in all their bubbling glory.
More than anything, the experience was surreal. Maki bent down to touch the oozing mud, and was surprised to find it quite cold. At one point, I got a little too close. I think I spent most of the rest of the trip cleaning off my shoes…
Azerbaijan seriously has some of the most bizarre, other-worldly landscapes I have ever seen.
After we had toured them sufficiently, we headed back to Baku to enjoy one final night before Maki headed west for a funeral. I dipped my fingers in to the Caspian, and we enjoyed spectacular views over the Caspian from above.
We also hopped the metro to enjoy the stunning Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by the (now) late Zaha Hadid, who died just a couple weeks later.
The next morning, after Maki took off in the middle of the night for his early morning flight to New York, Adrian and I had one final day to explore Baku, which was mostly a museum day. The first stop was the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a fifteenth century palace complex with all sorts of interesting exhibits, as well as more interesting views of the city.
This was followed by a return up the Maiden Tower (since admission was only around 60 cents, I didn’t mind the repeat visit), and finally, a stop at the State History Museum, housed in a fabulous palace that once belonged to oil magnate and philanthopist Zeynalabdin Taghiyev. The building was stunning, but the interpretations of history were a little questionable… And of course, with the predictable fixation on just a few moments of Azerbaijani history (hint: most of them involved Armenian aggression). But let’s stick with the building!
We finished our evening with a trip of the free funicular, to enjoy more of the same views we had gotten the night before.
We grabbed a quick dinner and then, as luck would have it, we happened to be there on Chaharshanbe Suri, a celebration that takes place on the last Tuesday before Nawruz, the Persian spring holiday. This celebration involves jumping over fires, songs, dancing, and served as a perfect conclusion to our time in the capital of the so-called Land of Fire (Azerbaijan’s tourism slogan).
And from there, we boarded an overnight train and headed onwards to Sheki, in Northwestern Azerbaijan. The perfect start to our wonderful, crazy trip.
If you go: I do highly recommend the Baku Palace Hotel. They were willing to sponsor our e-visas for 10 days for the price of just a one-night stay (which could include a $10 dorm bed) and a $50 fee (standard), and they arranged day-trips for us for pretty reasonable prices (especially relative to what I was able to find online). Also helpful: even after we had moved into an apartment for more privacy, they were able to keep our stuff for the day when it turned out the left luggage office at the train station was closed for renovations and we had no where to leave our heavy bags while we enjoyed our last day in the city. They absolutely refused to let us pay them for their trouble.