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. .