We drove north from Lankaran towards the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, visiting en route the mud volcanoes and then the the UNESCO site of Qobustan en route. Qobustan being home to over 6000 Stone Age cave drawings and petroglyphs

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Lunch on the way was in a strange cafe with concrete animals    

Mud volcanoes A series of mud volcanoes in Gobustan. There are nearly 400 mud volcanoes, more than half the world total... Apart from anything else it really sticks to your boots, and the poor cleaner at the museum we visits next was at her wits end with the mess that we made. In 2001, one mud volcano 15 kilometres from Baku made world headlines when it suddenly started ejecting flames 15 meters high. The mud is actually cold, not hot, and is believed to have medicinal qualities. On the average, every twenty years or so, a mud volcano may explode with great force in Gobustan, shooting flames hundreds of metres into the sky, and depositing tonnes of mud on the surrounding area. The appearance of the Zoroastrian religion in Azerbaijan almost 2,000 years ago is closely connected with these geological phenomena, and Azerbaijan's etymology - Land of the Eternal Fire derives from its Zoroastrian history.

The Gobustan petroglyph site covers an area of 537 ha, is part of the larger protected Gobustan Reservation. Most of the rock engravings depict primitive men, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, pictures of sun and stars. The petroglyphs and rock engravings are an testimony the way of life of the caveman artists, graphic representations of activities connected with hunting and fishing at a time when the climate and vegetation of the area were warmer and wetter than today.

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The area has been settled since the 8th millennium BC.Its oldest petroglyphs date from the 12th century BC. In 2007, UNESCO included the 'Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape' in the World Heritage list. There are inscriptions nearby left by a Roman Legionnaire around 75AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian which is the eastern-most Roman inscription ever found.

Throughout many centuries under impact of the sun, wind, seismic activity and various atmospheric precipitation, blocks of stones broke away from the edges of a vast limestone layer and rolled down the slopes. Here, the huge blocks of stones and rocks chaotically pressed against each other, forming about 20 big and small caves and the canopies serving as a natural shelter to the inhabitants. The archeological value of Gobustan was discovered when a group of men went in to mine for gravel in 1930 and a mine employee noticed the sacred carvings on the rocks. They also discovered man-made caves with more of the drawings. The reserve has more than 6,000 rock engravings dating back between 5,000 - 40,000 years. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

We drove into Baku and checked in to our hotel, The Central Park Hotel, which was neither central nor on a park. The hotel was another of the "charmless" edifices that had blighted the tour and showed really bad planning by the organisers, it would not have been asking to much to have stayed in hotels where we could have walked round the town and which had some local character. In addition to being "charmless" our hotel was half an hours walk from the town, in the middle of a run down residential area - I have no idea why it was chosen, it must have been that it was very cheap! Both evenings we walked back from the centre of Baku to the hotel - not an easy walk, and the hotel was unknown even to local inhabitants. When we asked the way - one nice couple insisted in walking us to the door to make sure that we got back safely.

Dinner that night was in a restaurant slightly out of town, which was not really worth the effort of getting there - a dinner in town would have been better

Next morning we had a walking tour of the old town of Baku. Baku is apparently 28 meters below sea level, which, as places always want to show how special they are, makes it the lowest lying national capital in the world, and the largest city in the world located below sea level. It is located on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. The city consists of two principal parts: the downtown and the old Inner City. Baku's urban population at the beginning of 2009 was estimated at just over two million people. Officially, about 25 percent of all inhabitants of the country live in the metropolitan city area of Baku. The Inner City of Baku along with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

The first oil well was drilled in Baku in 1846. Large-scale oil exploration started in 1872, when Russian imperial authorities auctioned the parcels of oil-rich land around Baku to private investors. Within a short period of time Swiss, British, French, Belgian, German, Swedish and American investors appeared in Baku. Among them were the firms of the Nobel brothers together with the family von Börtzell-Szuch and the Rothschild family. An industrial oil belt, better known as Black City, was established near Baku. By the beginning of the 20th century almost half of world production was being extracted in Baku.

In 1917, after the October revolution and amidst the turmoil of World War I and the breakup of the Russian Empire, Baku came under the control of the Baku Commune. In 1918 Bolsheviks and Dashnaks fought to establish control over the Baku streets, against armed Muslim groups. Muslims suffered a crushing defeat by the united forces of the Baku Soviet and were massacred by Dashnak teams. On 28 May 1918, the Azerbaijani faction of the Transcaucasian Sejm proclaimed the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in Ganja. Shortly after, Azerbaijani forces, with support of the Ottoman Army of Islam led by Nuru Pasha, started their advance into Baku, eventually capturing the city from the loose coalition of Bolsheviks, Esers, Dashnaks, Mensheviks and British forces under the command of General Lionel Dunsterville on 15 September 1918. Baku became the capital of the ADR.

On 28 April 1920, the 11th Red Army invaded Baku and reinstalled the Bolsheviks, making Baku the capital of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. During the Nazi German invasion of the southwestern Soviet Union, the capture of the oil fields of Baku was one of the goals of Operation Edelweiss, between May and November 1942. The German Army's closest approach to Baku was no closer than some 530 kilometres northwest of Baku in November 1942, falling far short of the city's capture before being driven back during the Soviet Operation Little Saturn in mid-December 1942.

Since independence thousands of buildings from the Soviet period were demolished to make way for a green belt on its shores; parks and gardens were built on the land reclaimed by filling up the beaches of the Baku Bay. Improvements were made in the general cleaning, maintenance, and garbage collection, and these services are now at Western European standards, although still with a one party government. The city is growing on an east-west axis along the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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The Flame Towers are one of the iconic sights of Baku and completely covered with the LED screens that display the movement of a fire visible from all over the city at night. You cannot really avoid seeing the flame towers where ever you are on Baku. Completed in 2012, the buildings consist of apartments, a hotel and office blocks.
    War memorials are common throughout the country. Here individual graves and an everlasting flame
      We took a long guided walk through the Old Town, which has ..
.. stood the test of Soviet colonisation well. Pembroke stopped off at this kiosk to buy an Azerbaijan badge in the shape of the flag
A very pleasant town to visit Where necessary it has been well restored. You can see this is a town with money The site of our evening meal
The boys told Jake they liked it Lunch venue   Stuart goes to hotel in cab  

We spent the morning thoroughly exploring Baku on foot. The government has gone to much expense to preserve the old town - traffic is at a minimum, and buildings have been restored

Palace of the Shirvanshahs The Icheri Shekher (Old City) is the oldest part of the capital Baku and dates from the Middle Ages. Reflecting those unsettled times, it is surrounded by an impressive defensive wall. Within the complex are 40 structures such as towers, palaces and mosques. Shirvanshahs' Palace is considered one of the masterpieces of Azeri architecture. It is the one-time residence of the Shirvanshahs and provides a glimpse into how Azeri rulers lived between the 13th and 15th centuries.

Shirvanshahs' Palace

The Shirvanshahs' Palace complex was declared a museum-reserve in 1964 and was taken under the state protection. Major restoration works are ongoing.

Maiden Tower Built in the 12th century, as part of the walled city of Baku, the Maiden Tower, with the Shirvanshahs' Palace dated to the 15th century, are an ensemble of historic monuments which have been inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage in 2001. It is one of Azerbaijan's most distinctive national emblems, and is featured on Azeri currency notes.

The Maiden Tower houses a museum, which presents the story of historic evolution of the Baku city. It also has a gift shop. The view from the roof takes in the alleys and minarets of the Old City, the Baku Boulevard, the De Gaulle house and a wide vista of the Baku Bay. In recent years, the brazier on the top has been lit during the nights of the Novruz festival. Consequent to the receding of the sea shore line of the Caspian Sea, a strip of land emerged. This land was developed between the 9th and 15th centuries, when the walls of the old city, the palace including the huge bastion of the Maiden Tower were built.

The tower, which is Baku's most distinguished landmark, described as the "most majestic and mysterious monument of Baku, the Gyz Galasy", built on solid rock foundation, demonstrates right on the coast line, a fusion of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman influences. It was constructed alongside a natural oil well. It is a cylindrical eight storied structure that raises to a height of 29.5 metres. The internal space available in the tower is said be able to accommodate 200 people.. The thickness of the walls varies from 5 metres at the base tapering cylindrically to 3.2–4.2 metres at the top floors.

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Zoroastrian Fire Temple, now a museum with piped rather than natural, gas to power the flames
The nodding donkeys which one is not allowed to photograph, who knows for what reason
A castellated fort in the area, which is old and now sits forlornly among local houses
The "fire mountain" is not as impressive as the Gas Cater in Turkmenistan
Our "charmless" hotel Out to the airport for us....and the Magic Carpet home for the boys

After lunch in a pleasant restaurant in the old city, we headed east onto the Absheron Peninsula to visit Yanar Dag, one of the only remaining natural “fire mountains” that the region was once universally famous for. In fact this turned out to be a bit tame after the Gas Crater in Turkmenistan. The fires are the result of hydrocarbon gases escaping from below the earth's surface and igniting at this point. The whole area is full of gas and oil. Apart from Yanar Dag, the other famous site of such a fire is the Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which is a religious site known as ateshgahs, meaning temples of fire. The Zoroastrian Fire Temple was on our itinerary too, and was well preserved. The natural gas ran out many years ago, and they now pipe it in via the mains to keep the temple fire lit for the tourist - it is no longer a temple in religious use.

After that back to the hotel, and off to dinner in the Caravanserai Restaurant in town. Turned out too cold to eat outside, but we were eventually housed in a very agreeable room off the open courtyard. Walked back to the hotel, 3 hours sleep, then off to the airport and Valencia via Istanbul.

Silk Route Holiday 2013