The best selling tour out of Baku is to visit Gobustan and the Absheron Peninsula, which takes you out into both the desert and oil-well & gas pipeline country.
The tour was to leave me underwhelmed and more than a little irritated due to poor organisation, pain in the rear guests and a case of what we saw not quite living up to what had been portrayed.
For the second time in three days we took a day tour and again we were to be frustrated by the hotel pick up logistics that saw us drive round and round greater Baku to track down fellow tourers.
Bad traffic, missing people and over-zealous traffic policemen saw us take over an hour circling around Baku before we set off for the tour proper. Our last pickups were livid.
They had clearly been waiting ages and the Moroccan chap gave the tour guide both barrels whilst his Thai girlfriend looked on meekly.
Gobustan Mud Volcanoes
Our first destination was where my frustration started to climb a notch further. We were to be driven by battered old lada ‘taxis’ that all looked more apt for the scrap heap than the Azeri desert.
We had been warned that the drivers may offer to let us drive once out of the sight of our guides. Under no circumstances should we accept because a) it was dangerous and b) the regular driver would expect a decent tip.
We were split into groups of three with me grouped with the Moroccan/Thai couple, who promptly declared that they needed the toilet!
Whilst the rest of the party went off in search of mounds containing hot volcanic mud, we left in the opposite direction searching for porcelain apparatus.
These we to be found at the petroglyph museum, to which the couple ambled in their own time as I waited impatiently. After ten minutes they ambled back and we were finally off.
Once we hit the rough desert tracks, as expected we were offered a chance to drive. The Moroccan enthusiastically agreed, to which I boomed “NO WAY!!” Any chance of building rapport had now gone completely!
We eventually arrived as everybody else prepared to leave. Seeing one poor chap covered in mud, having got too close to an earthly explosion, cheered me up somewhat and also served as a warning to me.
The mud volcanoes were impressive, making the bumpy journey worth the effort.
The irritation stakes soon rose again as the Thai girl produced a selfie stick and proceeded to preen, pose, pull faces and generally ensure she appeared in every photo she or her partner took.
Her Instagram account must have been working overtime all day as the narcissistic behaviour continued for the duration.
As she stood on one leg at the base of a volcano, clad in her pink coat and leggings, arms stretched out wide, she looked like a demented flamingo with a balance problem.
Oh how I wished a flying gush of mud could have spouted up there and then to mess up her flyaway hair, that she shook at every opportunity. That’s an image I would happily have captured myself!
I am not a bad person, honest!
We were dropped back at the minibus where I related the selfie story to Hamish, whilst he told me about the mud bath he had actually witnessed. He managed to stifle a huge laugh apparently and the victim found it quite amusing too, so no harm done.
We soon pulled up at the museum, a familiar place to three of us of course.
We whizzed around the museum feigning interest, although we were pretty impressed with the vivid petroglyph pictures we saw, that depicted farming & hunting activities, dancing and religious ceremonies.
It was then off to the petroglyphs themselves that were carved into the rock face.
Sadly the in the flesh carvings were not quite as vivid as the museum depictions. That’s what tens of thousands of years does. A philistine I may be, but I just expected better.
The fact that the rocks painted to warn visitors about snakes impressed me more says it all really!
The Thai girl was suitably impressed however, posing in front of childlike drawings of donkeys, cattle & pigs to share with her 7 Twitter followers. She didn’t care a jot that this inconvenienced other visitors who had to wait until she finished her posing routine to get a person-free shot.
We then nipped back to Baku for a very uninspiring lunch of tasteless soup and bland grilled vegetables with rice, before heading for the fossil fuel rich Absheron Peninsula.
“Freddie Mercury is the best known Zoroastrian” beamed our guide as we headed off to the Ateshgah of Baku, a castle-come-temple that was dedicated to the fire worshipping religion.
The faith had emerged in India and travelled to Central Asia during the Silk Route heyday.
Some worshippers chose to stay, building the temple in the 17th & 18th Centuries and seeing out their days in piety and semi-starvation in the belief that this would give them a better deal in the after-life.
The site was my highlight of the trip (against some poor competition) and even though the temple had been restored extensively, it still made for an entertaining hour or so.
In its centre courtyard stood a natural flame of worship that had been burning undeterred for centuries. It went out in 1969 due to all the oil & gas exploitation in the area, so now the gas is piped in to create the fire. Not quite authentic but nicely warming on a cold afternoon.
The Flaming Mountain of Yanar Dag
For somebody who had never seen anything like it, this would have been quite impressive.
Having visited the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan the previous year, this paled into insignificance in comparison.
A few flames did flicker through the stony hillside but a home fire in its grate was more dramatic in my opinion, especially as it was still daylight.
Yanar Dag & Darvaza
This did not stop our Thai companion going into selfie overdrive. # YANAR DAG was spelled out in large letters on the brow of the hill.
Miss Thailand was compelled to photograph herself in front of, behind or draped over each letter in various poses/ridiculous expressions. This brought guffaws of laughter from Hamish & I and knowing smiles from our fellow travellers.
On the way back we passed row upon row of oil rigs pumping black gold from the oil fields. The land was barren and with the odd shaped tall buildings of Baku in the far distance, the land did have the look of something out of ‘Lord of the Rings’.
When we were eventually dropped off near to our hotel, Hamish & I vowed never to go on an out of town guided tour again unless there was absolutely no choice.
Time for a beer!