Land of Fire and Wind

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Azerbaijan  ,
Friday, January 25, 2008

Even the air smelled like oil surrounding the Atesgah Fire Temple. Around the seventeenth century site, built by fire-worshipping Indians, were dozens of oil wells and the oil town of Suraxani. Now, with all the pumping, the oil pressure underground has decreased, so the once-natural gas fire in the center of the temple is now fueled by a small pipeline. This was the old and the new of Azerbaijan, the land of fire. Even the country, if you look at its boundaries from above towards the setting sun, looks like a flame.

The fire worshippers chose this location for the natural gas seeping from the earth, which they kept lit in the center of the temple. Sanskrit and Punjabi inscriptions stand as testament to the Indians, who traveled here for spirituality and for trade along this part of the Silk Road. They worshipped Jwalaji, the sensual tantric goddess of fire.

Suraxani was one of many toxic towns surrounding Baku, the capital, with black sludge behind shantytowns interspersed with oil wells. This area was also once a major chemical processing center for the erstwhile Soviet Union. After communism's fall, the rust began and the toxic waste and its effects became apparent to the world.

But the upside of the oil is that Azerbaijan, a secular Turkish Muslim state, is experiencing a boom, with a pipeline--a New Silk Road--from here through Georgia to the Black Sea, where the oil is shipped to Europe and America. Baku shines with prosperity and the people are smiling and happy.

Everywhere I was greeted with friendliness, whether at the shaurma stand, the internet cafe "I love Americans!" or the streets.

The Caspian Sea moderated the climate in Azerbaijan, but at the same time sent winds whipping through the streets.

Exploring the fire of Azerbaijan further, I visited Gobustan, with its small mud volcanoes burping methane into the windy air. The site overlooked the blue-grey Caspian Sea and its thousands of hidden, swimming caviar-laden sturgeons. Nearby was a Stone Age petroglyph site, with rock art dating to a time when the Caspian Sea was much higher and larger than today, surrounded by a more lush landscape. Today, all you could see was brown barren rocky hills covered with windblown snow, with the Caspian far below.

In Baku, I changed my travel style, shipping my tent, sleeping bag, stove, and cook gear back home via the Azeri post. From here, I will travel light, better for navigating the marshrutkas and more, with the camping gear not needed anymore as I continue to head west.
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Bala Sultanov on

Azerbaijan is such a beautiful place that it definitely worth considering to travel. Make sure to go on youtube and check videos under Azerbaijan. If you need any place to look for businesses in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan Business Directory is a place to look at.

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