Thursday – onwards to Sheki

The sun rose over the mini mud volcanoes and was reflected in the muddy pools at their base. We made breakfast and then left this moonscape, bumping back to the track and railway lines onto the road.

Although we have long since left the sophistication of Baku and are in rural Azerbaijan, there is still evidence of a more wealthy economy than we have seen in some of the other desert countries we have travelled through. There were neat single storey houses along the way with smart maroon roofs and new larger buildings, some complete and some in the early stages of development. At one stage a large roadside restaurant was well advanced and was obviously intended to entice the hungry traveller at some stage in the future.

The road itself was still under construction and we were occasionally riding along the edge of the desert to allow a new section to be completed. Where the desert had been tamed the fields looked mostly unkempt and deserted. There is no cotton picking here.

Along the roadside the usual enterprising locals had produce for sale. Though the stalls were mainly selling tomatoes, I saw one car literally full of apples – it’s boot piled high and it’s back window full of bright red and yellow fruit. Others in the group saw a fish stall and live turkeys standing like people at a bus stop, waiting to be purchased. The gardens we passed often had fruit trees. Pomegranates grow here in abundance. In the misty distance mountains appeared a mauve grey on the horizon. Near the road, and somewhat alarmingly, unattended cows wandered and Simons main use of our very loud horn was to warn them that they were getting too close to Penelope’s path.

As the day wore on we entered scrubby pastureland and could see flocks of sheep and cattle either under the care of shepherds on foot or stockmen on horses.

A right turn saw us back over the railway line and our road gradually travelling up towards Sheki which nestles in the wooded foothills of a mountain range. Autumn has definitely arrived here, with the leaves on the trees starting to change colour and the breeze has an edge to it. We drove through the town, the road lined with tiled buildings and probably the most local shops we have seen in any town of its size. Our accommodation is in a large converted Caravanserai. This is the ancient traders accommodation that we have come across so frequently along our route. This was a very large edition. We entered a domed stone courtyard and then mounted steep stone steps up to our room on a stone arched corridor facing into a courtyard where the animals would have been kept. The accommodation itself comprised of an arched ceilinged narrow room, curtained off from wooden steps leading to a bedroom. It had heavy double wooden doors at its entrance and a shower room and toilet arrangement off to either side just before the steps up to the sleeping area. Although the floor was wood, the rest of the walls and ceiling were stone, so it was quite ‘fresh’ shall we say……

There was still enough of the day left to walk back down into the town. Initially there were touristy shops selling the usual ‘tatt’ but we came to realise the majority of the rest of the shops sold sweets!! Mysterious sugary confections lined the counters and boxes were stacked up on shelves. Keith’s view was that a good dentist could probably make a fortune here!

The town of Sheki is renowned for its stained glass windows. The glass is jewel coloured in a wrought iron framework. We saw it in the palace in the Baku old town. There was evidence of it in the windows of several of the buildings in the square and I guess we will see it in the Khan’s summer palace which we are to visit.

We took our supper in a low vault like restaurant that felt as if it was underground. The service of our food took place over a lengthy two hour period. When the final dishes arrived we had more or less forgotten what we had ordered and had made the mistake of filling up with bread while we waited. Disaster!

So was the pouring rain when we emerged……

Wednesday – more Baku then bubbling mud volcanoes

We had another lazy start to the day (you have to make the most of them on this trip!). We met some of the others at breakfast who recommended the museum, but as it was a nice day we decided to forego the culture and walk along the esplanade to make the most of our time by the Caspian Sea. As Diane, our representative from New Zealand, was finding the traffic a bit challenging, she came too.

Sadly there was no news of Sarah.

We sallied forth towards the sea and found that we almost had the sea front to ourselves. The broad white marble promenade had wonderfully lush gardens on the land side, the sea glistened in the sun and before us was the wide sweep of the bay of Baku, with its distinctive architectural fins in the middle distance. From this angle, three fins are clearly visible, although you usually see only two at once, thanks to some fancy perspective magic. Apparently one of them is an hotel, one is apartments and one a financial building.

We wondered along towards them, with our back to the docks where the ferry had berthed. This was a very different aspect of Baku to the old walled town we explored yesterday. It was definitely the playground of the oil barons and a showcase for their oil wealth. Their exotic boats, bristling with antennae and beautifully designed water going javelin shapes, could be seen tied up on jetties and in the yacht marina. They seem to bob up and down in the water in a very superior fashion……..

There was a ‘wooden’ pier jutting out into the water – all very tasteful with a sculpture of an angler in bronze hanging over the railing. There was no sign of a any human fishermen daring to fish and sully the landscape with maggots! We continued our walk. At ntervals there were caf├ęs and kiosks selling cool drinks, occasionally there was a young Mum with a child in a jolly upmarket pushchair conveyance – we could have been in the south of France. What was conspicuously absent were joggers. Any long flat expanse like this at home would be a magnet for Lycra bound runners showing their paces.

After walking for over an hour by the sea we came to the carpet museum – shaped like a giant roll of carpet! It was close to the building created to host the Eurovision Song Contest a few years ago (that’s where you might have heard of Baku). We decided to take a look at the Museum. The carpets were amazing. The museum took you through from the old carpets of Persia through to modern designs and processes. We saw how they made a sort of shelter of carpets thrown over bent saplings for travelling and how the Silk Road travellers used carpeting for travelling bags and saddles for their camels and mules. The designs and patterns were exceptional. The skill taken to make them phenomenal. It was a really good insight into the history of carpet making in the area and well worth a visit.

Having educated ourselves on the vexed question of carpet manufacture and all that it entails (no photography was allowed) we wandered into the old city for lunch and then back to our hotel for a 2.00 pm departure to some bubbling mud volcanoes where we were to camp for the night.

Sarah is still in the clinic so has to be left behind. She and Wendy will try to catch up with us when Sarah is well enough to travel. I was really saddened by this news as they are a lovely couple and I am not sure if they will be able to make contact again as we are out in the wilds for several days and co-ordinating transport is not easy in these parts.

We shall see, but it was a sobering lesson that if for any reason you can’t keep up, the journey rolls on without you. We are now down to eight travellers plus two crew. Given that the trucks capacity is 20 (which would be ghastly!) we are beginning to rattle around a bit!

Anyway, after saying fond farewells to Wendy who had come to take their belongings from the truck in case they cannot catch up, we set off for our bubbling mud. We followed the bay road out of town, soon leaving the sophistication of the new city, into the industrial outskirts. In the sea one or two oik rigs could be seen not far from the shore. Eventually we ran out of the urbanisation and back into the desert.

The ubiquitous railway line ran parallel with the highway. After a couple of hours we turned right into the desert on a sandy track. We bumped along, crossing several railway lines and a big pipeline. The track surface got worse, we lurched over it, the truck rocking from side to side. Our route began to climb and pointed hillocks like giant ant hills appeared. The only thing growing on the sandy mud was a prickly shrub which seemed occasionally grow to a small bush size. Penelope ground to a halt. We were at our bush camp.

We piled out and scrambled up to the top of the hill where the bubbling rock pools were. Sure enough, every few seconds there was a gurgle and a large bubble would appear on one or other of the pools. The bubble would then burst with a plop and all would be still until the next bubble. Wet streaks running down the side of these peaks would indicate that occasionally more energetic bubbling causes the wet mud to breach the mud craters and run down the side of the hills. This process has obviously been going on for hundreds of years as this flaw in the earth’s crust allows something of its inner workings to be exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that it looked like a working demonstration of earthly indigestion……..! A little underwhelming perhaps, but yet another new overland experience. Having captured a bubble on camera – not quite as exciting as getting that photograph of a whales tail, but similar – we trudged back down to the campsite to dig out The Ritz and make our nest for the night.

Tuesday – sightseeing in Baku

We had a lazy start to the day. It was raining. Not what we are used to and Keith had left his wet weather gear on the truck and we had no access to it. As the rain showed no sign of stopping we set out, bought him a jacket and then went to revisit the old town. This time with a guide and a camera!

Baku really is a fascinating place and our guide, Raphael, brought it to life for us. We started with the Maiden’s Tower which was apparently at one stage on the edge of the sea. It’s dimensions are amazing – 5 metres thick and 28 metres high. It has been used as safe haven, a defence, a light house and an observatory. It’s top is also now at sea level so the whole of current Baku lies below sea level!

The tower is built of the local limestone, as is much of the old city. There is evidence of a church beside the tower. Azerbaijan was one of the first countries to be converted to Christianity. The name Azerbaijan means ‘land of fire’ and before Christianity the people were fire worshippers.

Of the 90 million Azerbaijani people living in Azerbaijan, 30 million live in Baku. 45 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran. Another result of the moving borders issue. Oil was discovered in Azerbaijan in the 1800’s but they have exhausted the oil to be found on land and their oil now comes from under the Caspian Sea.

The Palace that we had already visited was part of the tour and a lot of new things became clear. For instance, In the courtyard of the domed palace there are a large number of stone slabs with Arabic writing on them. They were apparently rescued from the large castle now under the sea in the bay. They are incredibly well preserved, given that they were under the sea for many hundreds of years. The palace itself is lovely. Built in the sandy limestone of the area it has many rooms and a large bathhouse built on the side. At one point there is an amazing view of the palace mosque with the huge fins of the new city behind it. Old meets new Baku style!

In the old city square there is as sculpture of a famous poet and philosopher of the region. It is the work of three sculptors and at close range his hair is comprised of all sorts of figures and activity associated with his writing. Fascinating!

After several hours of his time, Raphael left us to have his lunch and wandered outside of the old city walls to find somewhere to eat ourselves. We found ourselves in fountain square a large garden area with lots of trees and, as it name implies, lots of fountains. Lunch eaten we strolled back to the hotel. It was still drizzly and overcast, so it was blogging time for the Gregory’s. It was good to have time to catch up and reflect on the last few days.

Sadly we also learned that one of our party had been taken into hospital with tummy problems. It was one of our lovely Australian ladies. We were very concerned for her. Hopefully there will be better news soon.

We strolled out again in the evening by ourselves and after a light supper returned for an early night, we take off again tomorrow and it is a bush camp overnight.