Salam Azerbaycan – Hello Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan – from Baku to the Georgian border, 880 kilometers. Including a few detours.
To an old fire temple and a burning mountain. To cute little mud volcanoes. And to one of the most beautiful lakes of Azerbaijan in the Lesser Caucasus.
In Baku I met with my son. He had flown here from Germany. And we did a big part of the trip through the Caucasus together.
Until 3 weeks later he had to fly back home from Tbilisi (Georgia).
I finally didn’t have to worry about everything by myself for a while 😉
Arrival in Azerbaijan
At noon I could leave the port. And first I made my way to the town of Alat. It was only 8 kilometers away. Here I wanted to get cash and buy a SIM card.
The landscape around Baku still looked similar to the landscape in western Kazakhstan. Bare hills, steppe and semi-desert.
You can only see that Azerbaijan is a country in the Caucasus when you drive northwest from Baku towards Ganja.
To get cash was not a problem. There was a supermarket with an ATM right on the street. Now the currency was not called Tenge and Tiyn anymore like in Kazakhstan. But Manat and Qäpik. Also the conversion had become easy, 1 € was about 2 Manat (1 USD about 1.70 Manat).
SIM cards were unfortunately not available in this supermarket. So I had to head without a route to Baku. To the city this was not a problem. The way to the capital 80 km away was perfectly signposted. In the cityn it became more difficult then. Here I had to look at my cell phone the whole time while driving. Whether I was still on the right way to the hotel according to GPS. And on some streets there was quite heavy traffic.
The first 2 nights I stayed in a small inexpensive hotel outside the city. Here I noticed that one of the clocks at the reception for Central Europe was not labeled Berlin or Frankfurt. But with Bremen, the city of my birth. Very nice!
And I also noticed that in Bishkek the time difference to Germany was still 4 hours. In Aktau still 3 hours. Now in Baku it was only 2 hours. Europe was getting closer…
Tasks and leisure time
The first evening I walked to the center. There I got a SIM card from a telecommunications provider. And I enjoyed Baku’s panorama on the Caspian Sea. The city was already much more “European” than the cities in the countries I had passed through before.
Of course there are huge wide streets with lots of traffic. But with a city of 2 million people, that’s not really surprising either. But there are also small streets with shops, restaurants and cafés. They could also be in Madrid or Paris.
In addition to Beirut, Bucharest and Budapest, Baku is therefore sometimes referred to as the „Paris of the East“.
The next day I first had to take care of an insurance. And that was easier than I had expected. I went to an office called “Insurance” in the city center and after 30 minutes I had the liability insurance for the Landcruiser. I had to pay 30 Manat (about 18 US dollars).
On the way back to the hotel I happened to come across a street with a hairdresser’s store in every second house. So I could check this topic off as well. That was also urgently needed. Because the last time I had been to the hairdresser that was in Astana. Or even before that in Mongolia 😅
In between of course I tried the delicious food in Azerbaijan. Because the cuisine here is also influenced by Iranian, Turkish and Georgian food. And I drank a traditional Azerbaijani black tea – Chai. It is sweetened with strawberry, cherry or watermelon jam.
Baku, capital of Azerbaijan
A walk through downtown Baku is like a walk through history.
The oldest part of the city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Here are ancient buildings from Persian times. Palaces, caravanserais, mosques, fortifications and bathhouses. Because Baku was already a trading center on the Silk Road.
Right next door there are Art Nouveau buildings from the Wilhelminian period around 1900. Wealthy industrialists had their villas and palaces built by Western European architects. Especially on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
The third category of buildings are those from the Soviet era. Large, monumental buildings, which were probably built for the state and the administration.
But all of this is rather flat or medium high. It was only after Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 that modern glass palaces and high-rise buildings began to be built.
Initially on open spaces near the port and next to or behind the old town. However, it is feared that office towers and residential complexes could also be built in the old town in the future.
TV Tower and Flame Towers
Baku’s city skyline is dominated by the television tower and the Flame Towers. You can see that quite well on the photo at the beginning of the post.
The Flame Towers are 3 office, residential and hotel towers that symbolize flames. This represents the oil and gas wealth of Azerbaijan. The towers are illuminated differently at night, and on some evenings probably in such a way that they look like blazing flames.
In any case, it does not matter from where you approach the capital of Azerbaijan. From the sea or from the land, the television tower and the flame towers cannot be overlooked.
After my son arrived we stayed in the Fairmont Flame Towers Hotel for four nights. After all, we were on vacation.
And I had also already collected a lot of points for bookings via my hotel app. So that the cost didn’t get too high.
The hotel was just great!
With a great view over the city and the bay. However, we had to walk about 30 minutes to the city center. That was the only disadvantage. But after weeks in the car, exercise was also quite good…
The Baku Boulevard is a wide pedestrian promenade.
It runs in the city for almost 4 km along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
And it is shielded from the main road behind it by a wide park-like strip of green.
Rare trees and bushes from other parts of Azerbaijan and from Europe were planted on it.
In addition, there are various other facilities on Baku Boulevard.
A shopping center, a Ferris wheel, a Water Sport Palace, cinemas, art museums and a ‚flag square‘.
A green oasis in the megacity.
And there is (still) oil under the city
Around 1900, Azerbaijan supplied about half of the oil needed at that time. The country was the largest oil exporter in the world.
The first oil and gas fields were developed around Baku and to the west of it.
Today, production has mainly moved to the Caspian Sea.
Nevertheless, you can still see some oil pumps on land.
Some of them are in the outskirts of Baku. In the middle of residential buildings.
A burning mountain and a fire temple
But of course we didn’t just want to see the city. And then a day trip very close to Baku was the obvious choice.
Near the village of Digah is Yanar Dag, the burning mountain. A natural fire burns on a hill from crevices in the earth. This is fed by natural gas inside. And it looks pretty impressive even in the daytime. However, it should look particularly great after sunset.
And there should be very few such natural fires like this in the world. Most of them in Azerbaijan.
Fitting to this natural spectacle we then drove a little bit further to the village Surachani. There is the former fire temple Atashgah (‘hoard of fire’).
In the religions of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, rituals took place here at an altar with a constantly burning flame. It was fed by natural gas that escapes. These fire rituals are more than 1000 years old.
The complex in its current form was built in the 17th century. Later, however, it was abandoned. The fire now no longer burns from natural gas either. Instead it burns with the help of a natural gas pipeline. Because the gas deposits under the altar are empty.
But the complex is now a very interesting museum about the culture of the fire temples.
When it was dark, in addition to the flame on the altar, huge flames burned at all four corners on roof of the temple.
This must have looked particularly impressive.
Fluffy little mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan
After the culture, the next day belonged to nature again. There are about 300 mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan. A third of all known in the world. These are smaller or larger ‘cold’ volcanoes. They emit mineral mud with calcium, magnesium, iodine and bromine. In Italy and Romania, by the way, there are said to be a few of them as well.
Of course we wanted to have a look at them. To do this, we drove to Gobustan, about 80 km south of Baku. Near Alat. The whole area here looks like a Mars landscape.
The volcanoes in Gobustan are rather smaller and bubble away comfortably. Nevertheless you should not be mistaken. They are closely linked to the oil and gas reserves in the region. And so there can also be sudden flashes or bursts of fire several hundred meters high. Because their gas consists mainly of methane.
It’s a good that we didn’t know that when we visited the area. Otherwise I would not have held my nose (and my camera) so low over the volcano openings.
While my son was taking drone pictures I was talking to a German couple. They had entered Azerbaijan on motorcycles from Russia or Georgia. And actually they also had a drone with them. However, they had to hand it over at the border. And they were only allowed to pick them up when they left the country. That means that they had to take the same border crossing.
How good that this had not happened to me. My entry point was the port of Alat. And I certainly did not want to go back to Kazakhstan via the Caspian Sea.
When we checked out at the hotel the next morning, we were unlucky. Neither we nor the hotel thought about the replacement key for the Landcruiser. We had to hand it over to the hotel. In case the car had to be re-parked.
Further into the northwest to Ganja
But we only noticed this in Ganja. And called the hotel from there. We were promised to send the key to Germany. And that worked out fine. But now I only had one car key left. At that time I couldn’t have known that this would become a problem much later in Romania…
Ganja is the second largest city in Azerbaijan. It lies at the foot of the Lesser Caucasus. But for us it was only a place for 2 nights. Because from there we wanted to go to Goygol National Park for one day. One of the most beautiful and cleanest lakes in Azerbaijan is located here. In the middle of the mountains.
So we took a hotel at the main road on the edge of Ganja. And we did not look further around in Ganja either. Especially since there were not really interesting sights listed in the internet.
Only in Heydar Aliyev Park we had a short visit in the evening. Because it was near the hotel anyway. It is a huge park complex with 350.000 trees and plants. In addition, water fountains, a triumphal arch, museums and other facilities.
The triumphal arch is 38 meters high. And the avenue through the park is 53m wide and 1.4 km long. All quite monumental and intimidating…
Similarly, a presumably Soviet war memorial nearby. But that somehow looks like it hasn’t been taken care of for many years. Abandoned empty and unkempt.
Very different from the Soviet war memorials I have seen in Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
One village – 4 names
Helenendorf (1819 – 1931). Yelenino (1931 – 1938). Chanlar (1938 – 2008). Goygol (since 2008).
Yes, you have read that right, Helenendorf. Because the place was founded by Swabian families. However, they were expelled from the Soviet Union to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the 1930s.
But we only droved through the village. Because we wanted to go to Goygol National Park. Especially to the lake of the same name. We had found it on the Internet as one of the most beautiful lakes in Azerbaijan.
However – to make a long story short – our day trip there ended up being a bust. The landscape is beautiful and the lake very blue. And maybe clean too.
But we didn’t get to the shore. Everything was locked.
And the restaurant or hotel right above the lake was deserted. It looked like it had been closed for a long time.
So we wanted to at least let our drone fly over the lake. And we looked for a suitable take-off site.
But at the same time a man made it clear to us that we should not even think about starting the drone.
So we retreated towards the car. That was a few hundred meters away on a parking lot.
On our walk there, the man stayed by our side the whole time and talked to us.
Of course we didn’t understand anything. However, we got the impression that we should either come with him or get on his motorized cart. However, neither was an option for us.
Only later did we learn that the whole area was a military zone.
And the military would love not to have any tourists here. And no drones at all. As long as it’s not his own drones. Because the area is only a few kilometers away from the Nagorno-Karabakh border…
Places with different names
The place names are not always easy to understand for tourists in this area. Gəncə (Azerbaijani). Gjandscha (Russian). Gandscha or Gändschä (German). Ganja (English). That still worked to some extent.
But enter the fire temple Ataschgah (German spelling) in Google Maps. You will not get a result. Only if you enter Atashgah in English spelling.
It is even more complicated with places at the border to and in Nagorno-Karabakh. Where we were not allowed to go. If you type in the main place ‘Stepanakert’, you will see ‘Xankəndi’ on the map. There you can’t no longer simply decide anymore if this is the place you entered. Or another one.
Trouble with the police on our last day in Azerbaijan
We spent one more night in Ganja. And then we drove on towards Georgia. We hadn’t had anything to do with the police until then. Although there were a lot of controls in Baku and on the highways. But that was about to change on that day.
The first time right when leaving the hotel. They stopped next to us and claimed that we had crossed a continuous line. But there was no continuous line at all. And I claimed that very clearly to the officials. In German and in English. Then we just drove on and they did not care about us anymore.
A few hours later on the highway towards the border the same thing. We were stopped. Again we were told that we had crossed a continuous line. Because despite many radar measurements, they couldn’t hold us against a speed violation. We drove 10 km slower than the signs allowed.
The fact that the line was continuous was simply not recognizable. I did not think it was continuous. Maybe someone had painted it later. Whoever he was…
In any case, a lively discussion now began. The policemen tried to make me understand that I had passed a white car. At a point where it was forbidden. And I insisted that I had a nice white car. With which I even drove here from Australia.
Consistently I played stupid for 15 minutes. Then the policemen gave up. And they told us to get out of here.
The border between Azerbaijan and Georgia
The border crossing was surprisingly easy and fast. Azerbaijan stamped my passport. Car and luggage were only checked briefly. The Georgian control immediately in the next building. It was very professional, friendly and quick. Also here my Landcruiser was only examined very superficially.
I got a multilingual glossy leaflet in my hand. With information where the nearest office for car insurance is located. Namely 5 km further in a container. And how much the insurance costs depending on the type of car and the length of stay in Georgia. And who to contact in case of problems in Tbilisi. Including phone number and website. Really very exemplary.
As a driver I had to go through the controls alone on the crossing for vehicles. While my son had to take the pedestrian crossing with his passport. That was already the case at the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border with my fellow passengers at that time. We only met again after the checkpoints. And drove on to Tbilisi.
Now it was time to say goodbye to Azerbaijan. You land of fire and speed traps. And what we experienced in Georgia I’ll tell you in my next blog.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎
At this point, as always, the video with Dashcam and drone recordings (2m 54s, 532 MB; Music: Wind of Spring – The 126ers / YouTube Audiolibrary).
- Leaving the port of Alat
- Yanar Dag
- Mud volcanoes
- Lake Goygol and Ganja
- Towards the Georgian border
I’ll link my YouTube video from 2019 in a later blog. Because in it I have summarized all three countries in the Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.