We had booked two day trips from Baku with a company called Private Tours Azerbaijan. I did a lot of research, but it was difficult to decide based on the sites alone. Private Tours seemed to have good reviews and another upside was that we didn’t need to share with anyone and they could customize the second tour for us and were quite flexible with the dates.
First we headed to All Sights Tour, which included many sights around the Absheron Peninsula (Gobustan rock art, Ateshgah fire temple, and Yanar Dag burning mountain). The tour cost 170€ for two people and took most of the day. I think we were back at hotel between 4 and 5 p.m. We had one guide/driver, but to be honest, he was more of a driver than a guide. He rented guide services from local people at the sites and didn’t tell much himself. Another thing was that I specifically ordered tours in English and he kind of switched to Russian as soon as I told him that I speak Russian. The entire point is for both of us to relax and not for me to translate something all day long.
Anyway, our first stop was Gobustan National Park. While we were driving, we got to enjoy the scenery, which was quite desolate. We would learn later from one guide that Azerbaijan has five different ecosystems ranging from desert around Baku to savannas, and forests. But the desert together with signs of oil drilling gives a somewhat post-apocalyptic impression.
Gobustan National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has rock carvings dating back up to 10,000 BC. It also has mud volcanoes, which are located a bit further away.
The part of national park with rock carvings seems to be in a very good shape and designed with tourism in sight. The park is vast and tourists can access only a small part of the park. There is also a rather well-designed museum on site. We went to see the rock carvings first as it was still early in the morning and there weren’t almost anyone on site yet. We had an amazing guide, a young woman, who spoke excellent English and was studying international relations. You are allowed to roam the area by yourself, but without her we would’ve missed a lot of subtle details of the carvings and the context.
We also did a tour of the museum where our guide pointed out the most important things. At this point we could see cars and tourist busses parked in the area and the site was significantly busier.
After that we continued to see the mud volcanoes. We were riding in this rather new Mercedes minivan and suddenly our guide stops the car and says that we need to move to a very old Lada parked nearby. So that’s what we did. Turns out that the road to the mud volcanoes is so bad that our guide works with this other man and his Lada from 1979 because this road would kill the fancy van. It is unbelievable that the road to one of the most important sights in Azerbaijan is in this kind of shape! It was a fun ride and the Lada was very comfortable, but didn’t have any air conditioning. 😀
After a short ride (it’s only 3km, but because of the road conditions, it takes like 15 min to drive) we arrived to the field with mud volcanoes and there were quite a few of them.
It doesn’t smell like anything, but our driver showed us that there is gas coming from the earth and it is possible to light it on fire. It was a windy day, but you could see a spark.
The mud volcanoes were bubbling slowly and if you touch one, the mud is cold. I was watching one of the volcanoes and it popped a big bubble and because it was so windy, it sprayed on my skirt making it muddy in places. Oh, well…
After that we got back in Lada, changed again to our van, and continued our trip to the other side of Baku. We stopped briefly at Bibi Heybat Mosque, but the driver just said that we can go and take a look. It wasn’t anything spectacular from the outside and we couldn’t go inside.
The mosque is located near the sea on a cliff, but the view is of course the typical Azeri one with cranes, rigs, and ships.
We continued to Ateshgah Fire Temple, which is a religious temple for Hindu and Zoroastrian worship. It was built around “eternal flame”, but it went out in 1969, so now the fire is lit by gas piped from the nearby city.
Our driver hired a guide to give us a tour around the temple. Apparently he usually prefers another guide, but that person was away, so we were guided by this young woman, who had memorized the spiel and was parroting it back to us in every room. It was super annoying. You could have an audio guide and get exact same experience. Also the temple is overly reconstructed. It is in immaculate shape and I highly doubt that it has stayed in this shape since the 17th century. 🙂 The interesting part was that I wasn’t aware that Zoroastrian religion existed, so it was interesting to hear about the background and practices.
What we got from the tour is that the Baku Ateshgah was a centre for Zoroastrian pilgrimage from India. The temple served also as a caravanserai or an inn for the travelers as well as a place of worship and a house for monks. The temple ceased to be a place of worship after 1883 and the complex was turned into a museum in 1975.
There was a map showing when different part of the temple were built and what is the final shape of the temple.
The museum was full of these kind of figures trying to illustrate the everyday life at the temple. 🙂
Our final stop for the day was the Yanar Dag Burning Mountain. Here things got even worse from guide point of view. Our driver hired this woman, who not only parroted back the default speech, but she also spoke Russian, so I had to translate everything to my boyfriend. Luckily this was a pretty cool site and I now understand why they always call Azerbaijan “The Land of Fire” on Eurovision. 🙂
Yanar dag fire is entirely natural and is made of gas seeping through the earth. The gas contains impurities, which according to our guide light on fire when they come in contact with oxygen in the air. The fire burns quite steadily. It is weakened by rain and wind, but never goes out.
Apparently there used to be much more of these fires on the side of the mountains, but the natural gas had run out in the earth and they were extinguished. This also explains the popularity of Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan.
After this we were taken back to our hotel. In the evening we went to a restaurant called Shah, but this was clearly the worst restaurant we visited during our stay in Baku. They really tried and were friendly, but the food just wasn’t that good, so I don’t recommend this place despite them being in the top 10 restaurants in Baku. The meat was very fatty, and the rest of the food despite looking quite good just missed something in terms of taste.