Our 2012 Caucasus tour started in Azerbaijan the richest of the three former Soviet republics in the Caucasus. We spend most of our time in the capital Baku making day trips to interesting places like the Absheron Peninsula and Gobustan. We spend our last day in Sheki before moving on to nearby Georgia. Azerbaijan is a great place to visit with a mix of 1950s Soviet glory, Silk Road history and surprising natural phenomena’s like mud volcanoes and Fire Mountains.
"There are those who say that the successful development of the distant land of the Caspian is, forgive the pun, a ’pipe dream.’ But I ask you to do like Marco Polo did. In the future . . . believe."
Federico Pena, U.S. Secretary of Energy - 1993
We already had hoped to visit Baku at the end of our 2009 Central Asia tour , taking the notorious cargo ships that transport passengers between Turkmenbashi and Baku. We did not manage to fit Baku in our Central Asia itinerary so it ended up as the first country in our 2012 Caucasus tour. Azerbaijan is a great country for tourism with an interesting mix of Soviet legacy, ancient history, vibrant city life and rough nature.
Comtourist often uses the Riga based airline Air Baltic for destinations in the former USSR. We booked our flights to Baku and back from Yerevan for this trip with Air Baltic as well. Air Baltic, however, managed to cancel both flight two weeks before departure, losing a lot of the credibility it managed to build up with Comtourist over the past years. In the end we managed to book ever cheaper flights (below 500 euro p.p.) with Aeroflot, having stopovers in Moscow. The Russian airline delivered excellent service for a good price and is now the official preferred airline of Comtourist!
A Visa is required for most nationalities to enter Azerbaijan and an invitation is needed to obtain the Visa. Most visa service companies can help getting both. Be sure not to have a Visa for Nagorno Karabakh in your passport and don’t mention that you have been there or plan to go there if that is the case. Azerbaijan views Nagorno Karabakh as occupied territory and rates visiting it as a crime. Having a visa for for Armenia is not a problem, the border guard did scrutinize our passports carefully after noticing the Armenian visa but there are no consequences.
The flight from Moscow to Baku takes a couple of hours and provides great views of the giant Caucasus mountains. Heydar Aliyev International Airport is located on the Absheron peninsula, the approach from the Caspian sea gives a great view on the famous Baku Oil Fields. The airport has been renovated during the 1990s, so most of the Soviet architecture has been demolished. We did see some nice Soviet birds on the tarmac, including Tupolev 154 airliners, an Ilyushin 76 and a couple of giant Antonov An-124 cargo planes. It takes half an hour from the airport to the Baku city centre for around $10.
Baku was one of the largest Soviet capitals and of great economic importance thanks to the Oil and Gas supplies found in the Caspian Sea. The oil fields near Baku were one of Hitler’s prime objective for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942. Baku today is a boom town where modern high rises and other prestige projects dominate the city. We had booked a room in the Sunrise Hotel just outside the city centre but close to Ganjilik Metro Station. The Baku Metro is relatively small but connects most of the important city sides. The stations are beautifully decorated like other Soviet metro systems. Also close to our Hotel was Ataturk park, a great place where the locals come to smoke, drink tea and play backgammon, we often ended the day here with a cold beer and some Shashlick.
Soviet highlight walking tour in Baku
Baku is probably the former Soviet capital where communist history is disappearing with the highest pace thanks to broad anti Soviet sentiment and plenty of oil money to spend. Most Soviet monuments have been removed and Soviet era buildings have to make place for modern architecture. Enough reason for Comtourist to make a walking tour and see what Soviet history is still there today.
We started our tour with a Metro ride from Ganjilik to the 8th of May Station, taking photographs of the beautifully decorated Metro Stations is prohibited, so no pictures this time. The 8th of May Station is located on the Square in front of Baku Central Railway Station a great Soviet building from the 1970s. There Square also features a large Soviet era monument of Azeri Film Dirctor Jafar Jabbarly and the old railway Station in Oriental style.
The large Town Square features a large statue of Heydar Aliyev the former president of Azerbaijan who is now subject to an old school communist style personality cult. The former Lenin Palace, renamed to Heydar Aliyev Palace is a classic Soviet building and takes centre stage on the Square. The route to Fuzuli Square takes us trough the old Jewish Quarters, a run down but picturesque area with a Synagogue, Mosque, the Fantasia Bathhouse from 1887 and the best bookshop we found in Baku. From Fuzuli Square with the 1919 State Drama Theatre we move on to the Central Department Store found in every major Soviet city often named ZUM, TZUM or GUM and called MUM in Baku. From MUM we climb up hill to for the giant Nariman Narimanov monument one of the Soviet highlights if Baku. Narimanov was an important Soviet Azeri revolutionary and statesman, the statue construction of the statue was ordered in 1970 by then Secretary of the Azerbaijan SSR Central Committee Heydar Aliyev personally.
Also situated in the uphill area of Baku is Martyrs Lane where the victims of the Soviet repression from 1990 to 1994 and the soldiers who died during the Nagorno-Karabakh War are buried. Martyrs Lane is an impressive place to visit and the view on the city and the Capian sea is magnificent. The area was named Kirov Park during Soviet times with a giant Kirov statue visible from anywhere in Baku. Only the stairs leading to the statue are still visible today, they will probably be demolished soon as well. Another Soviet remainder is a bust of Soviet general Azi Aslanov who led tank units during many important battles of World War II. The funicular used to connect the Martyrs Lane with the lower part of town is now closed, however, the Soviet era building is still there.
We have now descended to the Baku Boulevard a great place to enjoy a cold beer in one of the many Sea-Side bars and restaurants. Soviet highlights on the Boulevard are The Perl Cafe, a beautiful piece of Soviet architecture, the former Lenin Museum and the parachute tower. Our Soviet walking tour ends ad the House of Soviets, an impressive building from the Stalin era constructed between 1936 and 1952 in baroque style. Go to our article about Soviet Baku to see some photos from the Soviet era plus original Soviet promotion video’s from the sixties until the eighties.
Most tourists will not visit Baku for its Soviet legacy but rather for its ancient and modern sights. The walled Old Town is a maze with small streets dating back to the 12th century. Minarets, bath houses, carpet shops and old cafés brings the visitor back to the times of the Silk Road. The most famous sights in the Old Town of Baku are the Maiden Tower and the Shirvan Shahs palace. The old Caravanserai, a Silk Road resting place for travellers with their camels, is now converted to a tourist restaurant and highly recommended for dinner and evening entertainment.
Gobustan National Park
Gobustan National Park is located 60 km southwest from Baku and offers some great attractions for a day trip. The most famous attraction of Gobustan is the prehistoric site where people have lived in caves from 40.000 years ago. Over 6.000 rock engravings depict men, animals, boats, battle scenes and musical instruments. Roman legionaries left carved a rock inscription around 84 AD. Also found in Gobustan are the 400 Mud Volcanoes that eject a constant flow of grey mud.
The trip to Gobustan National Park along the coast of the Caspian Sea is as interesting as the park itself. Close to Baku are the famous "James Bond" oil fields where parts of the 1999 Bond movie "The World is not enough" were recorded. Tourist resorts along the coast with giant oil platforms in the background create some great photo opportunities. This area is also the starting point of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and South Caucasus (SCP) Oil pipelines that are of great importance for Europe.
The Absheron Peninsula
Baku is situated on the Absheron Peninsula, the Eastern Part features more Oil field and some interesting places to combine in a day trip. The Surakhani Ateshgah or Fire Temple is a Hindu and later Zoroastrian temple, build for Indians who needed a place of worship on the Silk Road. The Mardakan castle features a beautiful quadrangular tower dating from the 14th century. Absolute highlight of Absheron is Yanar Dag, a fire mountain that continuously blazes a natural gas fire.
Absheron peninsula was the site of some of the world’s earliest petroleum production and the area is still covered with pump jacks and oil derricks. The famous Oily Rocks strech far into the Caspian Sea and are a great sight, especially from the air. The Nobel Brothers started their successful business career in Baku and their house is now a museum.
The Road South
After some days of relaxing in Baku with daytrips to Gobustan and Absheron it was time to head south for Sheki and the Georgian Border. The landscape slowly changes from the dry rocky surrounding of Baku to the lush hilly landscape of Northern Azerbaijan. There are also some interesting places to stop on the way like the Mereze Diri Baba Mosque, a unique two story building from the 15th century near the town of Shamakhi and the Yeddi Gumbez Cemetery, an 18th century burial site near Shamakhy where the Azeri Kahns were buried.
Sheki was our last stop in Azerbaijan before we would cross the border to Georgia. We would spend the night in the old Caravanserai that still serves as a resting place for travellers today. The Sheki Caravanserai is a beautiful old Inn build around a central courtyard, staying here truly is an authentic Silk Road experience. The Caravanserai even beats Hotel Intourist, the typical Soviet era tourist hotel that we would normally prefer.
The major tourist side of Sheki is the Khans Palace, an 18th century summer residence for Local ruler Hussein-khan Mushtad. The palace is a wooden structure with colourful decorated wooden window frames pieced together without nails or glue. The rooms inside are decorated with painted scenes depicting the history of the area and historic battles. The old Albanian church, located near the Palace hosts a Soviet era Museum of applied arts.
Our favourite attraction however was the Sheki Historical Museum, a local history museum where almost nothing seems to have changed for the last forty years. The museum combines all sort of historic artefacts, local dresses, stuffed animals and a section dedicated to local Soviet Hero’s and dignitaries. The Sheki Historical Museum is one of those places where time stood still for years, giving the visitor the feeling of traveling back in time to the Soviet days. More and more of these museums are either closed because a lack of funding or they are renovated to modern standards.