Traveling in Azerbaijan and Baku


I had met Ofer at my hostel in Old Baku. We had bonded over our mutual admiration for Russian theater and had gone to see a performance of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov at the Russian cultural center the night before. Ofer, though born in Russia, had just been released from his service in the Israeli military intelligence and was now exploring the Caucasus on his own. I, on the other hand, had been living in Russia for the past few months and studying in an intensive language program. On the weekends I liked to leave the Motherland to explore the former Soviet bloc and practice my Russian.

The previous week I had visited Armenia, which caused me a great deal of grief when I entered Azerbaijan, as I was held up at the Baku Airport on suspicion of being an Armenian infiltrator. The two countries had fought a brutal war in the 90s and Azerbaijan has never moved past its defeat. The fact that I had an Armenian entry stamp in my passport but no visa had led the immigration officials to suspect that I may have been on visa-free status to Armenia and of Armenian descent. After an hour or so trying to explain, in Russian, the core concept of an electronic visa, I was finally allowed to proceed with my trip.

It turns out there wasn’t much to see in Baku. The Caspian was severely polluted, the Old Town gentrified and the Zara stores packed with British expat oilmen.

The waterfront promenade of Baku at night.

The waterfront promenade of Baku at night.

Ofer was bored too. He had arrived a few days earlier, after spending a week in a small village in the mountains up north, and had already exhausted the sites in Baku. Our guidebooks weren’t much help, but they did mention that the Gobustan mud volcanoes were just to the south, so we decided to hit the road.

First we took a local bus to the station south of town, where we boarded the coach that would take us about an hour down the coast. With the Caspian on our left, we rode mostly in silence, but after a few minutes it started to pour.

Well, it isn't exactly the coastline of a holiday resort.

Well, it isn’t exactly the coastline of a holiday resort.

Ofer had asked some of the other passengers to tell us when we were at our stop, as otherwise it would have been near impossible to know which side-of-the-road bus stop was ours.

Disembarking from the bus, there was an old Lada taxi waiting. Ofer quickly negotiated a fare and soon we were off on the dirt road and into the mountains.

Ofer checking the guidebook with the road stretched out before us.

Ofer checking the guidebook with the road stretched out before us.

The landscape was otherworldly. There were barren and muddy hills before us in all directions without any vegetation beyond simple shrubs. The only objects rising above the ground were the power lines and occasional abandoned oil derrick.

We were driving through the rain and climbing steadily for a half hour until our car came to a jolting stop. We were stuck in the mud.

Ofer, the driver and I got out of the car to survey the situation. The left two wheels of the Lada were stuck in about a foot of mud, as we had driven too far to that side of the road.

The small muddy backroad and the barren landscape.

The small muddy backroad and the barren landscape.

The driver suggested that we continue onward to the mud volcanoes by foot. I gently took a step off the road and it was knee-deep mud. So the three of us rolled up our pants, took of our shoes and marched through the mud to the mud volcanoes about two kilometers away.

Crossing over the second hill, the Caspian Sea came back into view, with the small coastal road that we had bused in on just visible at the bottom of the hill. Hiking over the small ridges took quite a bit of time in the thick mud, but we were in no rush and eventually we reached the mud volcanoes.

As they had been described as mud “volcanoes,” I had really high expectations. It never really occurred to me that they were only mudpots; small, non-eventful mudpots. We walked around the bubbling mud, which was kind of interesting if only because we were barefoot and some parts of the mud were warmer than the others. But all in all, it was quite the disappointment. Not to mention our taxi was still stuck on the side of a deserted, muddy road in the Azerbaijani backcountry.

The Gobustan mud volcanoes with the Caspian Sea in the distance.

The mud volcanoes with the Caspian Sea in the distance.

Back at the taxi, I was ready to call it quits and trek to the main road. The taxi driver, however, made a desperate plea for our help, so Ofer and I decided to acquiesce and help get the car out of the mud.

It was a lot of work, as there was no wood for us to use for traction or leverage, but eventually, after a few hours of pushing, pulling and shoving, we freed the taxi.

It doesn't look bad, but it was not easy getting the car out.

It doesn’t look bad, but it was not easy getting the car out.

The Lada dropped us off back at the main road, but unfortunately it was almost dark and we had missed the last bus back to Baku.

Standing on the side of the coastal highway, in the rain, covered in mud and clutching our ruined shoes, Ofer and I probably didn’t seem like the world’s most appealing hitchhikers. But it actually wasn’t long before we found a ride back to Baku. Some nice people let us ride in their truck, despite our haggard states, and dropped us off in the capital just after dark.

Now all we had to do was walk across the entire city barefoot on the cold and wet streets. A sight to behold, the old Azerbaijani men of Old Baku playing backgammon and drinking tea from underneath the awnings of their shops and stores found us quite amusing. As we walked past, they shouted out helpful exclamations to us in Russian about how we would catch cold and asking what happened to our shoes.

We just smiled and kept walking.

Finally, we arrived back at the gate of Old Baku.

Finally, we arrived back at the gate of Old Baku.


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Dakota is a Canadian travel writer who has lived in Hong Kong since 2006. His travels take him around the world and there's nothing he enjoys more than experiencing new cultures. Find him on Google+.