|The drive toward Baku started through pleasant green farmland with a backdrop of green mountains but soon changed to a semi arid landscape and then almost desert as we got closer to to the capital. When the russians controlled Azerbaijan they set up huge petro-chemical industries on the Abseron Peninsula (where Baku is located) which basically caused environmental havoc.You can certainly see the exploitation by the Russians in the years past with vast expanses of baron land and pipes and rubbish dumped everywhere.
Baku itself has a population of 1.7 million and is the biggest city in the Caucasus. It is situated on the edge of the Caspian Sea which is actually the biggest lake in the world and its level is rising every year.
The first thing we noticed is the amount of construction work going on in not only the suburbs but also in the centre of the city. This is mainly due to the fact that Baku is oil rich and there is certainly lots of money here. At one point Azerbaijan supplied 80% of the worlds oil.
The first night we found that there was an Indian Restaurant and as we haven't had one for a while we all got very excited and headed off into town to find it. We ended up in Fountain Square the centre of the town nightlife where all the locals were milling about - it was a very lively place although no sign of the Indian restaurant. We have come to realise that the Lonely Planet guide book is not all that great when it comes to some of the countries we are visiting at the moment. Fed up with walking about we ended up having Pizza instead!
The next day we wandered the streets of Baku spending most of the day in the old town. After grabbing some breakfast in a local restaurant we climbed the steps up the Maidens tower which gave us great views over the city. The Maidens tower dates back to the 6th century and used to be right on the sea (its now about 200m back from the seafront).
Next we meandered through the narrow streets of the old town passing old hammans, a couple of caravanserais which had been done up really well and the many obligatory carpet shops which I managed to keep Heidi out of this time! and ended up at the top of the town and the Shahs Palace which is a large complex containing baths, various mosques and the burial chambers of the Shah and his family.
We then strolled along the 'sea'-front stopping for a brief beer at one of the many outside cafes where we were duly ripped off - 2 pounds for a flat (and cloudy) pint of beer. They also serve chopped up pieces of snicker bars with their tea here - Heidi quite liked this local custom! By the way the main local beer here is Xirdalan which usually costs about 1.20 pound for a large bottle. That evening we managed to find an Indian Restaurant and we all ate far too much and suffered for it that night!
The next day it was up early for a trip out to the mud volcanoes at Qobustan. On the way out of Baku we passed loads of oil fields and even in the Caspian Sea it was oil rig after oil rig. It is so oil rich you can even see the oil coming up out of the ground in places. What was funny was seeing that some locals had set up mini beach resorts where they had planted palm trees etc along the sea front - the beaches looked straight out onto all the oil rigs. Needless to say we declined a dip in the Caspian Sea for fear of coming out glowing!
The mud volcanoes weren't quite up to Rotorua (NZ for you non-kiwis) but were still worth a visit. The mud basically forms large cone shaped hills which resemble mini volcanoes and the bubbling cold mud at the top in the 'crater' runs like lava down the side.
From there we headed up to one of the big mountains where there are a number of petroglyphs (rock carvings). These date back to 20,000 BC and are actually in pretty good condition.
We intend going to a caravanserai for a typicaly Azerbaijani meal tonight and then it is off to Turkmenistan on the cargo ship tomorrow which should be interesting....its actually an 18 hour crossing.