Sivas, Goreme (Cappadocia + Uchisar), Pamukkale, Ephesus - Didyma and Zeus cave, Bergama (Pergamon) via Sirince and Izmir, Canakkale for ferry, Demirkoy
Sumuli Monastery, Goreme (Cappadocia + Uchisar), Gokyurt (Little Cappadocie), Pamukkale, Ephesus, Didyma and Zeus cave, Bergama (Pergamon) via Izmir, Istanbul, Erdine.
Border crossing, Sumuli and Cappadocia
Border crossing into Turkey
After crossing the border, we continue towards the Sumuli monastery. With every kilometre, the weather gets better and by the time we reached the road towards the monastery, the sun was shining again…
Sumuli and Sivas
We found a very nice bushcamp spot just off the main road with a beautiful view into the valley. The next morning when we intended to visit the monastery, when we learned that it was closed for renovation. As we had no interest to stay in the park, we made a U-turn. Our objective of the day was to reach Goreme (better known as the Cappadocia area). We followed the road towards Sivas where we have a break and visit its old Mosque’s.
We arrived late in Cappadocia and parked the car for the night just above Goreme on the rocky plateau where we would have a perfect view over the valley and the famous hot air balloons early morning. At 4.45AM, we were awakened by 65 hot air balloons; a magnificent sight! (and only a fraction of the capacity, as Turkey’s tourism was heavily hit by Erdogan’s attitude towards Europe and the bombings that have taken place earlier this year). There was hardly any western tourist in Turkey when we were there. Small local businesses that rely on tourism were closed, either bankrupt or it was just not with it to open their business as we were told that Cappadocia only got 10% of last years tourists; A major plus for us, but certainly not for the sector).
After the hot air balloon show, we visited the Goreme Open Air museum, the Love valley, the Uchisar castle, the underground city of Ozkonak, the Devrent valley, the Parasagale valley, the Zelve Open Air Museum and last but not least, the Güllüdere (Rose) Valley… It was a long day after which we decided we had earned a hotel room J
Goreme open air museum is probably the most visited museum in Cappadocia. We arrived there early in the morning (after the hot air balloons) to avoid many tourist busses. It contains the finest of the rock-cut churches, with beautiful frescoes whose colors still retain most their original freshness. It also presents unique examples of rock hewn architecture and fresco technique for Turkey. WE liked the dark church the most, a church that dates back to the end of the 12th century. Some of the scenes of the frescoes are: Deesis, Annunciation, Journey to Bethlehem, Nativity, Baptism, Raising of Lazarus, Transfiguration, Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas, the Crucifixion and Anastasis. But we were not allowed to take any pictures of the frescoes, although some ‘gatekeepers’ allowed us to take a couple of pictures of the frescoes.
In Zelve open air museum, consisting of two connecting valleys, wich once housed the largest community of the region. Here we same many churches very close together as well as wineries and a mosque. Muslim and Christians were know to live in perfect harmony here until 1924.
After a couple of nights of bush camping and in ‘need’ of a proper toilet and shower we looked for a hotel to stay the night. With a serious discount, we stayed in a three-room suite, one of the first (and nicest) boutique hotels in Urgrup (Esbelli Evi) and had dinner in one of the recommended restaurants.
Underground cities, Ihlara Valley and Kilistra
Underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu
The next day, we left for ‘Kilistra’ near Gokyurt (also named Little Cappadocia) via the underground city of Kaymakli, the underground city of Derinkuyu and the beautiful Ihlara Valley.
It is incredible how many levels below the surface these underground cities had. Kaymakli is the widest underground city with as many as a hundred tunnels, connecting living rooms, churches, a school, wine cellars and even stables for horses. We were at least 18 metres below ground level. We were only allowed to visit four levels of the eight levels. The levels that we could visit were all connect to the ventilation shafts and looking up we could the blue sky. Derinkuyu is the deepest underground city. There are about six hundred outside doors into the city, hidden in the courtyards of surface dwellings. The underground city is approximately 85m deep. It contains all the usual rooms found in an underground city such as stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, churches, wineries etc. Apart from these, a large room with a barrel vaulted served as a missionary school, and connected were some study rooms. The descent to the lowest level open to visitors was by vertical staircases which lead to a cruciform plan church and the ventilation shaft, fifty-five metres below ground level and we could hardly pass other tourist going up.
Both cities had the same method of blocking the entry to the tunnel could by huge ‘stone doors’. Large round stones would be pushed in front of the tunnel openings. In both underground cities we noticed that some tourists needed to get back above ground as it was too much for them being so many metres below ground level.
We liked the underground cities, but were absolutely impressed with the beauty of the Ihlara Valley; a canyon of 100 metres high and 26 bends carved by the Melendiz River thousands of years ago. We only walked the first part of the canyon and visited one of the many cave churches, named St George. As Wilfred always seems to have a special interest for St. George as he slayed a dragon.
Gokyurt and Kilistra
When we enter the village of Gokyurt during sunset, we completely missed the Kilistra site and decided to set up camp on the old road that we found. We went to bed early as it was very, very cold and around midnight we were woken by voices and saw light of torches shining. We were not sure who was more surprised; the locals walking back home and seeing us camp on the old road or us…
The next morning, we returned to Gokyurt to find Kilistra… This time, we were more successful. Unfortunately, it was not too impressive and garbage, once again, spoiled the fun. We did visit the little St. Pauls church, which is carve from one rock both on the inside as well as from the outside, reminding us on the much larger monolith churches of Lailibella, Ethiopia.
After our visit to Kaklik cave we drove to the Laodicea ad Lycum archeological site. From the Laodicea site just eight kilometres before Pamukelle. Here we could see the white cotton rocks of Pamukkele in the distance on the other end of the valley. The site itself was nice, but we were not amused that the main attractions (and covered areas) were “closed for archeological research” (Turkish bullocks! No one was there, not even a guard…!) We suspected they laid off as many peolple as possible given the extremely low number of tourist).
The temperature at Pamukkele was high and we again decided to take a (discounted) hotel room. The next morning we climbed up the ‘cotton castle’ via the intricate series of travertines (calcite shelves) towards the ruined Roman and Byzantine spa city of Hieropolis. Most of the travertines were dry and we could not help thinking that is because they fill many ‘swimming pools’ where tourist are allowed to swim instead of letting the water flow freely. We had to walk this part on our bare feet and could feel that the water was sometimes icy cold and other times nice and warm. The nicest part of Hierapolis was the amphitheatre, which they were still restoring.
Datça peninsula, Selcuk, Bergama, Troye and leaving Turkey
After our visit to Pamukkele we drove towards the west coast peninsula of Datça where we set up camp at ‘Smuglers cove’ and had an illegal BBQ (we honestly did not know we were not allowed to make fire as the number of firepits on the beach warmed our appetite). The next morning, we visit Knidos on the most western tip and is perched on a steep hillside, providing dramatic views. It is surrounded by the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Knidos was a rich, cosmopolitan city, and some famous mathematicians studied here. And a brit, named Sir Charles Newton, helped himself to many of the site’s statues and shipped them to London. You must now go to the British Museum if you want to see these statues.
After that we continued our way back towards Ephesus via Didyma’s Apollo temple and the Zeus Cave (which we found closed for the public after deadly accident).
In Selcuk, again, we stayed in a discounted luxury boutique hotel (possible the best quality price we ever had). The next morning, we got a ride from the hotel towards the upper gate of Ephesus and follow the trail down hill. Once again, we wished we could have seen the buildings in their full glory, but are still pleased to see the partially restored ruins. The most famous ruin in Ephesus is the library and it was built in honour of the Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. The library was "one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire" and third library after Alexandria and Pergamum. The library was built to store 12,000 scrolls and to serve as a mausoleum for Celsus, who is buried in a crypt beneath the library in a decorated marble sarcophagus.[
Impressed by the hotel facilities, we decided to enjoy them one more night. After visiting the improved museum and the Basilica of St. John, Judith planned a massage and Wilfred dove into the pool.
Bergama and Troye
The next morning, we drove towards Bergama and visited the two ancient sites (Acropolis and Asclepius) and the museum in the city centre.
On the Acropolis we saw ruins of various temples, an amphitheatre, a library and much more. However we did noet see any sulptures on the Acropolis itself as those are now housed in the museum in the centre of Bergama. After our visit to the museum we drove to Asclepio, also known under the name of ‘The Pergamum God of Health’. A health and medicine centre serving the people for several hundred years; thus making Pergamom a medical Centre of very great importance. Famous medical scholars, like Hippocrates and Galenus, were born in Pergamom and worked there.
Afterwards, we drove towards Troye where Wilfred pretended to be Brat Pitt and climbed into the horse. After a quick pic, we walked the site itself. Honestly, the legend of Troye is much more impressive than the ruins itself and one needs a very vivid imagination to translate the texts of all the extensions of time.
Canakkale or was it Istanbul...
Is it bad luck, or poor management… As we arrived at the ferry crossing from Canakkale to Eceabat, we learn that today, the day of the celebration (?) of the failed coupe a year ago, no ferries are crossing to the other side… Meaning that 60% of the total capacity along the shore is out of business! The only ferry that was operation had a long queue of more than 10 kilometre and only a small capacity…it might takes days to secure a spot on the ferry.
As we had to arrive in Sofia in time to meet Wilfred’s family, we decided to have a ‘en route’ dinner in the car and drive for a couple of hours towards Istanbul to make up for the aprox. 500-600 extra kilometres we now had to do. After some hours, we noticed that the route we decided to take would cross the bridge where Erdogan would hold his speech… As the traffic jam grew; we decided to pass Istanbul via the North and aimed for a bushcamp beyond Istanbul where we finally arrived at 2:30am. We popped up the roof and immediately went to sleep. The next morning we were again, maybe not surprised but disappointed that a nice picnic place is left with so much garbage lying around!
The next day drove to Plovdiv after a toll debacle and traffic jam at the border going into Bulgaria. Driving into Europe did not go as easy as we thought…standing in line for 4 hours in total. Luckily we still had some mobile data left and watched Federer win the final on Wimbledon.
After two days of driving we treated ourselves to a hotel in Plovdiv, went to bed early and slept till late the next morning.
Tbilisi, Kazbegi, Mstkhali, Gori, Vardzia, Upper Svaneti
Back in Georgia, it had much more a resemblance with the Armenian landscape and we very much enjoyed the drive to Tbilisi passing the mountain range with its volcanoes, lakes and forests. We even saw three foxes cross just before our truck.
When we arrived in Tbilisi the temperature was close to forty degrees Celsius and we had a good but sweaty visit of the open-air ethnography museum showcasing several original traditional wooden houses. To cool down, we enjoyed a wine and cheese tasting at ‘8000 Vintages’ before heading for our camp spot on the mountain next to lake Lisa. Of course we could not leave before have tried the local grappa named; ‘chacha’.
The next morning, just before breaking up, we are greeted with a friendly ‘goedemorgen’. We had a small chat with this friendly Dutchman walking his dog Beau. After we explained our trip, he mentioned that he had been working in Iran before and was not in Tbilisi for some years. When we mentioned we were going to the wine a food festival at the open-air museum tonight, he mentioned that he was going to the theatre to see the Dutch ballet perform. Like he had already three times this week... Although he was vague about his work, we did get the impression that we had just met our ambassador in Georgia. As soon as we had mobile signal again, Judith went on the internet to get a confirmation.
Tsminda Sameba Church in Kazbegi.
Today we drove to Kazbegi (and back) with stops at the Anara monastery and driving the Jvari Pass. Our aim was to visit the Tsminda Sameba Church high in the mountains. The monastery can be reached in three ways; walking, on horse back or with your 4x4… We took up the challenge and went up by car. We were not alone driving up. It turned out there was a fourth way to get to the monastery; taken a ride (for a fee) with one of the local ‘taxi’s’. The single lane track had been heavily used and also in the rain. At places, the road had deep tracks making the trip one of the toughest 4x4 tracks we had done thus far. The fact that it was single lane and the middle of high season, made especially interesting at times.
When we were safely back down, we decided to have lunch at the Rooms hotel, a tip of our ambassador. This former Soviet resort had been turned into a luxury hotel and has stunning views over the white-capped mountains and the monastery in front. If we had not planned to visit the Natural Wine and Food festival in the open-air museum with Berry and Jenna (and servicing the car), we would probably have checked into the hotel... it was really amazing.
Back in Tbilisi, we were right on time for the opening of the festival and we waited for Berry and Jenna to join us. We had a great evening tasting the different Georgian wines and specialties. Afterwards, we went back to our spot in the forest next to lake Lisa.
Servicing the car in Tbilisi, Mstkhali, Gori and Bakuriani
The next morning we are (too) early at the Toyota garage. Where in most countries the garages are open at or even before 8:00, in Tbilisi, the mechanics start at 9:30… After some discussion, they did start on our truck at 9:00 and about 45 minutes later, we were on the road again after a fast check and most importantly an oil change.
Before we drive westward, we planned to visit the Javri Monastry, the Mstkhali Cathedral and the old fortress at Amezi that can be reached by a small 4x4 track only. When we drive back from the church, we noticed the light of thr oil level signal went on… Back at the dealer they started by cleaning the control unit as they did not believe it is the fact that too much oil was put in the car. After cleaning, unfortunately the problem is not solved and they start looking at the wiring of the control unit… With Wilfred in the car on the bridge, several checks are done and finally, after about 30 minutes, the light stays off and we can continue our route towards Gori; Stalin’s place of birth.
We had been informed that the museum entry price was off the chart expensive, but his train carriage and his house of birth were accessible free of charge. The moment we get to the house, the wagon is still closed, however when we came back the train carriage was open and we could go through it.
From Gori, we drive towards the mountain village of Bakuriani via Bojorum (where we filled up the water tank with a ‘salty, light bubbly’ mineral water) and stayed in hotel where we could also make use of the washing machine.
Vardzia, Kutaisi and Upper Svaneti
From there, we drove to Vardzia via the beautiful scenic drive to see ‘Georgia’s Cappadocia. Just before the crossing towards town, we passed a stronghold that appeared to have been a major monastery or fort at the time. In Vardzia, we visited the cave houses and churches and were truly amazed by the escape route at the back of the cathedral.
After lunch, we drove towards Kutaisi and the prehistoric park and its cave (which we did not visit as the tour had just left and we did not want to wait for an hour). We visited the Bagrati cathedral. agrati Cathedral was built in the early years of the 11th century, during the reign of King Bagrat III, due to which it was called "Bagrati", i.e., Bagrat’s cathedral. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by Ottoman troops who had invaded the Kingdom if Imereti. The incident caused the cupola and ceiling to collapse.
After that we continued our route towards Upper Svaneti towards Mestia. Initially, we started the 4x4 track from the Prometheus cave, however the road was blocked by a river with a walking bridge and the rain in the area of the past days had made the road challenging enough already (we had to use low gear to turn the car in a mud pool). Later a local informed us that the road did continue, if we would take the left road instead of the old right road, but we decided to follow the tarmac road towards Tskhunkuri until it became a 4x4 track again. Halfway to Mestia, we decided to set up camp next to the roaring river that was pushing the rainwater and rocks down the mountain with force. Every now and then, we heard the rocks crash into each other, like a thunderstorm.
After a goodnight sleep, we continued to Upper Svaneti and its famous towers, especially in Mestia and the frontier villages, such as Ushguli and Latali. These towers usually have from three to five storeys and the thickness of the walls decreases closer to the top. Nowhere in the world is there an analogue of these unique defensive structures of the early Middle Ages epoch. Historically the existence of the towers is explained by the necessity of protection against enemy and natural disasters. Therefore each house had a similar tower, which served for the families as a refuge in case of war. Alarm signalization was the other function of Svan towers. They were used as sentry posts. In case of approaching danger a fire was lit on the main tower. As soon as this flame was noticed on the nearest tower they lit a fire there as well. This process was repeated on and on until the entire gorge was instantly ready to fight. The youngest one is at least two hundred years old. Many of the tower-houses have disappeared or are collapsing into ruins nowadays.
Around 11:00, we reached Mestia and after a coffee stop, we continued down hill again towards Poti. Finding a place to sleep turned out to be more of a challenge than expected, on our map it was a huge green area, but in reality houses where everywhere. After an hour so we found a spot in a meadow where we slept and were waken up by the bells of the cows early the next morning.
Crossing the border
When we woke up, there was rain in the air and by the time we arrived in Batumi it is poring. Batumi is clearly not our type of city… It is all about the beach (which means: if it rains everyone is pissed and bored, there is a major lack of parking places, people are unfriendly and even hotels (that all have a casino) only offer paid parking (if they even have a parking). After having tried the top end hotels, we decided not to even have lunch and continued towards the Turkish border… obviously Batumi was not our kind of town! Standing in line, we applied for our e-visa and the officer was pleased that we had done so upfront. The line was long, but the procedure straightforward (we did have to show our insurance papers next to our vehicle ownership papers).
Sevan (via Alaverdi), Yerevan via de selim pass, Gyumri.
Goght (via Sevan, Yerevan), Gyumri.
Border crossing, Goght, and Gyumri
Border crossing into Armenia
The weather in Georgia had not been at par with our average; hence we decided to change our plan by visiting Armenia first. The border crossing into Armenia was easy and we did not notice any of the fraudulent practices that everyone warned us for. The only new thing was that passengers need to walk passed the immigration and cannot stay in the car. To get the formalities for the car completed, a fixer or broker is certainly not required, neither mandatory! Yes, the spoken English of most officials is poor and it took a while before we understood that we had to pay at the "bank counter" before we could receive the stamps... The third party insurance could be bought just outside of the border gate in dollars (at a reasonable rate... although they tried to give less in Armenian change than supposed to).
The landscape in Armenia, was much more mountainous than we had had in Georgia and we liked it instantly. It was a pleasant drive towards the 3Gs B&B and campsite near Yerevan passing several abandoned cities as well as the main tourist town of Sevan and its huge lake. We had made the right decision... The weather in Armenia was much better! We enjoyed the luxury of the campsite and just relaxed for two days. One evening we joined Berry and Jenna on their visit to the nearby Temple and a delicious dinner at a noisy trout farm and restaurant where many locals were dancing.
The temple of Garni is Greco-Roman temple complex probably built in the 1st century AD by King Tiridates I of Armenia with the support of the Roman Emperor Nero. And the complex hosts a number of buildings including a royal palace, Roman baths, and a 9th Century church. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, the Garni Temple was partially reconstructed in the 1970s and is now made up of both original and replacement masonry.
After one more day at the 3Gs, at the pool and had a pleasant diner with Marty and Sandra eating mushroom risotto, with some pancetta many fresh herbs we explored a little bit more. We visited the Geghard monastery located against the hills looking into the valley, close to the campsite.
At the turn of the 4th century, only one nation in the world had accepted Christianity as its official religion, and it was not a country anyone would expect. Led by Gregory the Illuminator who baptized the Armenian royal family in 301, the nation plunged into religion, collecting artifacts and building spectacular monasteries along the way. The Geghard Monastery began only as a small cave chapel, which Gregory declared held a sacred spring in the 4th century. From there, the complex grew, becoming more ornate and massive. In 1215, the main and most prominent chapel was built. Partially carved out of the rocks on all sides of it, the stone monastery melds beautifully with its surroundings and stands out among the outcroppings above. Geghard is a derivative of an Armenian word meaning Monastery of the Spear. The complex was named after the spear used to wound Jesus during the Crucifixion. Allegedly, the spear was brought to Armenia after the Crucifixion and is now housed in the Echmiadzin Treasury, in the spiritual center of Armenia.
After that we headed towards Tbilisi via Gyumri and the Bavra crossing. In Gyumri we decided to take a hotel as it was really hot and enjoyed a diner at the trout farm on the edge of town. This time, instead of trout, we tried the sturgeon; their specialty. It was really good.
Crossing the border into Georgia the next day was the easiest border crossing thus far. No waiting lines, a straightforward process and friendly officers who wave you forward.
Telavi via Gremi, Nekresi en Alaverdi, Sighnaghi, Tiblisi, Gudauri (via mtskheta kazbegi), Sadakhlo (+border crossing Armenia) + Zhdanovakanti, Vardzia (grotten), Bakuriani, Kutaisi, Batumi
Telavi via Gremi, Nekresi en Alaverdi, Davit Monestry via Sighnaghi,
Sadakhlo (+border crossing Armenia) + Tiblisi, Bakuriani, Vardzia, Kutaisi, Mestia, Batumi (border crossing)
Border crossing, Telavi, and Davit Gareja monastery
Border crossing into Georgia
Entering Georgia was almost pleasant and took less then 5 minutes. No visa, no payments, no carnet, etc. They did check the car and it was for the first time that they asked what the ‘sealed compartment’ under the truck was…our long range dieseltank.
After buying lunch at the first bakery, we continued through the vineyards following the base of the Caucasus mountain range towards the first main attraction; Nekreski monastery. The monastery lies high into the mountains with a steep climb or shuttle bus. The shuttle bus had just left and the next meant waiting 25 minutes… As we wanted to end the day with a wine tasting, we did not have too much time to waste. We made a picture of the complex from below and drove onto Ananuri Castle. This beautiful stronghold lies right next to the road on the small peak.
From the castle we continued towards Schuchmann wines estate close to Telavi. MapsMe provided us with an interesting shortcut through the grain fields and vineyards via a road that had seen better days witnessing the deep potholes filled with water after the passed days of rain. As we entered the parking the first thing we noticed were two other overland trucks… We immediately clicked with Pete and Jen from the UK, who had done their tour and were now enjoying their wine tasting…
After our short tour through the winery that makes about 25 types of wines European style as well as traditional, using large underground ceramic bowls for fermentation, we started our wine tasting. Halfway through, we sat down with Pete and Jen and a very enjoyable evening with lot’s of stories and wine began. Luckily we had been allowed to camp on the premises that night.
The following morning, we started a bit slow (again sharing stories with Pete and Jen and doing some things around the car. We again had a battery problem, which luckily turned out to be just a loose wire and Pete borrowed our drill (never leave home without it J). After saying goodbye, we drove via Alaverdi Cathedral towards Signagi, a village in the middle of the wine region surrounded by a huge stone wall. In other words, a perfect stop for lunch and a little stroll through the old city.
After lunch we followed the mountain range towards the half-desert slopes of Mount Gareja towards the Azerbaijan border. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rocks. It was our idea to stay the night close to the Monastery, but did not fancy staying on the parking and decided to make our way towards Tbilisi. The road had not been great going towards the Monastery, but got seriously worse towards Tbilisi… The dirt road had become a mud road and the rain of the passed days made it an interesting experience. After about half an hour, we found a small road that could bring us out of sight of the main road as well as a Dutch campervan next to the road. Stopping next to the campervan, a ‘good evening’ was all it took, to decide to park next to Richard, Petra and their three kids for the night. It was another pleasant evening with good stories and nice wine.
Short four day stay in Azerbaijan
Border crossing into Azerbaijan
When we drove into Azerbaijan Wilfred passed some trucks, but also the immigration office. Judith heard loud shouting of the customs officer and we stopped. After being directed into the right direction we started the immigration process. After Judith gave her e-visa and passport the immigration officer looked at her passport, then at her, her passport, her and repeated this at least a dozen times…finally he said that is not you in the picture. Well, of course after no hair cut for a couple of months, wearing a headscarf until we crossed the border her hair cut looks nothing like the picture in her passport, but not her?! So a senior officer was called in and one look at her and he just said: ‘That’s her”. After finalizing the formalities for our truck including a dog search we were good to go. Baku her we come!
On our way to Baku we looked for a nice picnic place to have a cup of tea and some cake to celebrate Judith’s birthday, but it was raining until we reached Baku. So we ended up having tea and chocolate cake in our hotel room.
When we drove into the city we noticed certain roads were blocked, crowd control barriers, etc…Baku was preparing for the Formula 1 weekend that would start in a couple of days. Driving and walking around in the city became a challenge due to all the roadblocks and our hotel is fully booked by a couple of Formula 1 teams.
Our first impression is that we are in a western city again; modern buildings, luxury cars, properly filled supermarkets, and we could order a glass of wine (after 3 months in Muslin countries). And we didn’t just use taxi’s…Uber is very active in Baku.
To celebrate Judith’s birthday went out for a nice Italian dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in town and the following day we visited the old city with its cobbled stone streets, restored houses, Shirvanshah's Palace, the old city walls and gates and of course the Maiden Tower. To complement our sightseeing we tried some Azari sweets and since it was sale we also went shopping for a new backpack as the one we have, is not good anymore.
Shirvanshah's Palace was build in the 15th century the Shirvanshah dynasty, under Ibrahim I of Shirvan, transferred his capital from Shemakha to Baku following a devastating earthquake. He committed himself to the construction of the "palace". The building is believed to be a memorial complex built around the sacred place of worship (pir) and tomb of Seyyid Yaxya Bakuvi who was a Helwati Sufi saint. It is a very large complex and has a main building, two mosques, a bathhouse and a mausoleum.
The Maiden Tower is a landmark you can see from almost everywhere in the city. A large brick tower built in the 12th century and there are many legends of the purpose of the tower. With the most impressionable one being about the fire-colour haired virgin girl saviour which saved Baku's people from slavery. This legend is even the topic of many theatre and ballet shows.
“Once upon a time, there was an ancient town-fortress of Baku. The fortress had a Fire Temple-Tower. In a very old time of Baku, the enemy encircled the fortress. The enemy requested Baku's people to be surrendered but they refused it. So the enemy launched a siege to demolish the fortress and capture all inhabitants into the slavery. Many fortress' defenders died trying to stop enemy attacks. Meanwhile, the enemy's commander ordered to cut the water supply lines, aiming to overthrow fortress' defenders. So everybody was thirsty inside the fortress. No water no food, only blood and death. And the Supreme Magi, together with other priests, prayed to the Holy Fire in the fortress' Fire Temple-Tower, asking the God of Ahura Mazda to help the people. They prayed day and night asking Ahura Mazda to save their life and to push the enemy back. Finally, He heard their prayers. On the next day, the people saw that a large piece of the Holy Fire was fell down to the earth from the top of the Fire Temple-Tower. A beautiful girl came up from the fire. She had long and fire-colored hairs. The crowd went down on their knees and started to pray to her. She said: "Don't worry. I'll help and protect you. Give me a sword and a helmet. The enemy should not see my girl's hairs. Open a fortress' gate". Meanwhile, the enemy's commander was waiting outside for the fortress' pahlevan for one-to-one fight. If the fortress' pahlevan wins the fight, then the enemy's army will back away. But if the enemy wins, they will capture the fortress and all survived inhabitants will be slaves. The fortress' gate was opened and the enemy's commander saw that one pahlevan is coming to fight with him. The heavy battle began. In one of God's blessing moment, the fortress' pahlevan unhorsed the enemy and put a knife direct to his neck. The enemy's commander screamed: "You win! Who are you? Take your helmet off. I want to see your face, pahlevan!" He moved out the helmet and saw that the fortress' pahlevan is a beautiful girl with long and fire-colored hairs. He exclaim: "Oh, you are a girl! You are brave and beautiful girl! If girls of Baku are so brave, I'll never capture your fortress! Don't kill me, beauty!" He fell in love with her for her beauty and bravery. He asked her to marry him. Of course, the girl did not kill him. She fell in love with him too for his open heart. Finally, the enemy did not captured Baku and the local people named a tower as the Maiden tower.” (source of the description of the legend: Wikipedia)
The next day we visited some sight near Baku and started the morning with Yanar Dag, the ‘burning mountain’. It is a natural gas fire, which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula. This is caused by hydrocarbon gases emanating from below the earth's surface and these flames were discovered by a shepherd during the 1950’s. They say that flames can jet into the air 3 metres from a thin, porous sandstone layer, but we only saw some small flames burning.
On our way to the Fire Temple ‘Ateshgah of Baku’ we passed many small oil fields very close to the city and many nodding donkey pumps (‘ja-knikkers’) with some of them even in the backyards of people. Imagine having your own oil supply in your backyard?!
The fire temple is religious temple in close to Baku and based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, the temple was used as a Hindu and Zoroastrian place of worship. "Atash" is the Persian word for fire. The pentagonal complex was built during the 17th and 18th centuries, which has a courtyard surrounded by rooms for monks and an altar where the fire burns in the middle, The natural "eternal flame" went out in 1969, after nearly a century of exploitation of petroleum and gas in the area, but is now lit by gas piped from the nearby city.
Mud Volcanoes and Sheiki
After our visit to the temple we started our drive towards Sheki, a town built on the foot of the Caucuses Mountain range. On our way we searched for Azeri’s famous mud volcanoes, but we not very successful…as our first location was in the middle of an oil field not forbidden to access…although we got halfway there as security guard pointed the way. The second attempt was more successful but was not scenic at all as it was used as the local garbage dump (with even a dead dog lying there).
We arrived in Sheki just before sunset and since it was raining we got ourselves a nice hotel room. The town is very picturesque and was part of the silk route with two nicely restored caravanserais and a palace inside castle walls.
The Palace of Shaki Khans, which was their summer residence of Shaki Khans, still remains one of the most visible landmarks of Shaki. Constructed in 1762 without a single nail. Inside the palace are Azerbaijani Khanate-era artefacts on display, as well as many frescoes, considered to be among the finest in the world. But we doubt we authenticity of these frescoes as they seemed touched up in a childlike manner.
After that we did something we normally do not do…we went purposely shopping for souvenirs. Judith wanted to buy sheepskin for the truck. So we visited some shops, negotiated on price, waited to see new ones buying brought to the store and finally bought three of them.
Crossing the border at Belokany
And then you want to leave Azerbaijan... For the first time on our trip we actually arrived at a border with a serious high and strong fence. It was impossible to climb (even if we wanted to...) and worse, it was really closed. We were second in line behind a truck. After five minutes of not moving, nor a single sign that something was going to happen today, Wilfred stepped out of the car and walked towards the gate to ask the guard why the border appeared to be closed. Instead of providing information, we learned that we had to wait a little longer... so we did. And as it goes, just when Wilfred walked towards the toilets, the gate opened :-)
Aside waiting outside the gate (instead of the immigration offices, the border crossing was very straightforward. The truck was again seriously checked with a mirror and even three times with a dog on the outside of the truck!? Our version; when Wilfred was getting all the stamps, all dog walkers wanted to have a closer look at our truck. .
KM’s driven : 7050km
Total liters of fuel : 1130lt
Fuel consumption : 6,6km per litre
Average diesel price : 5,3IRR
Nights Camping : 17 nights
Nights B&B/Hotel : 6 nights and 2 nights with people we met in Iran
Fines : 0
Bribes : 0
Theft : 0
Highlight : driving scenic mountain route in Alamut Valley and Iranian hospitality.