Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Azerbaijani Adventures

In its first few pages, Lonely Planet describes Eastern Azerbaijan using such terms as “mesmerising ugliness”, “dystopian industrialist nightmare”, “intriguingly decrepit”, “leaky oil detritus”, and “spirit-crushing soviet townships”. I’m happy to report that once again, Lonely Planet is accurate in its reporting, but thankfully also goes to great pains to highlight the quirky attractions that make this a fascinating place to (briefly) visit.

En route from Romania, I met my close friend James, with whom I’ll be travelling for the next month.

Driving in from Baku airport on the newly constructed highway with no apparent speed limit, our beat-up Volga passes fields of ancient oil equipment baking in the semi-desert, as we are passed by brand-new European cars going over 200km+.

This is Baku, an oil-driven boomtown that’s been providing oil to the world since the 10th century, but has gone into hyperdrive since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is a country that refreshingly has no tourist infrastructure, but a drive along the highway takes you past massive Schlumberger & Halliburton complexes, as fields of massive derricks work onshore and offshore oil & gas deposits. Thousands of rusty pumps work tirelessly in a spaghetti of leaky pipes criscrossing pools of oil-encrusted saltpans in every direction.

As Lonely Planet points out, some of the most fascinating sights of this region are the examples of the environmental and aesthetic nightmare that such indiscriminate resource pillaging creates, but in addition, the unique geology provides some quirky attractions.

We visited sites where walls of flame leap from burning natural gas vents, where black pools seep from underground to form rivers of crude oil, and bubbling mud volcanoes spurt forth in an example of “geological flatulence”.

Given the region’s long human history, we visited ancient temples where Zoroastrians worshipped the flames shooting from the ground, and saw ancient petroglyphs carved by the region’s residents 12,000 years ago.

The "nascent" tourism industry was both a blessing and frustrating, because although we were the only visitors anywhere we went and nothing was fenced, signposted, or restricted, local cartels had decided anyone stupid enough to want to see this stuff needed to pay hundreds of dollars to do so, resulting in tortuous workarounds to achieve seemingly simple objectives.

Central Baku was surprisingly pretty, the old city walls were surrounded by landscaped parks and creatively lit period buildings. The compact centre had dozens of good restaurants with cuisines reflecting Baku’s mixed ethnic and religious heritage, as well as its more recent expat populations. James & I were unable to find anything resembling nightlife, but that may have been a function more of the days of the week than any fault of Baku.

On this brief trip we didn’t have the chance to visit a legendary village of Mountain Jews, who apparently hang out near the Dagestani border several hundred kilometres away, but I think we were able to knock over most of what Baku & its surroundings have to offer. A delightfully random and always surprising location, I’d recommend it for those with time and money to spend getting way off the beaten path in non-luxurious surroundings.

Next stop- Georgia!

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

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