Azerbaijan – Part 3 – Ateshgah & Yanardag

Our next destination was Ateshgah. The word Atish meaning fire and word gah means home. More conveniently known as Fire Temple.

It is in a suburb of Baku, called Surakhani ( Land of Surakh, meaning holes in ground.) The journey is alongside a railway track and finally you have to cross the track to reach this place.


It is an enclosed complex. In the center there is elevated temple, in which a fire is burning for centuries. Actually it used to be a natural fire, but due to over exploitation of natural gas, in that area by former Russia, the fire stopped burning in year 1969. A pipeline was laid underground from Baku which fuels the fire now.

As the name suggests, it used to be a temple, where Hindus, Sikh and Zoroastrian traders used to worship. They were on their way from northern India to Europe. The complex wall comprises of many small chambers, which must have been used by those traders for night stay.


There are various items on display there, which resemble various items used by Hindus, even today.  Moreover there are inscriptions in Devnagri, Gurumukhi and Farasee scripts.

Our ex-minister for external affairs, Sushama Swaraj had visited this place, two years back.


When we visited this place the ticket came with an almond stuck to it, with little sugar syrup. (Yup, so sweet of them, isn’t it ?)  It is very large area but kept spotlessly clean. There are no flower sellers etc, which are common in India, near any such holy place.

There are guides available. Enough information is displayed in English also. It felt so nice to hear recitals of Hindu vedic mantras at a place so far from home. The chambers are very small with a small entrance. Though you can still enter most of them, there is no ventilation. Even some underground structures are found there, which are being excavated. (I am surprised that this place had no mention at all, in our schools history or geography books.)

From the inscriptions, it is known that the place was constructed in late 17th century. The fire must have been burning there before that.

Later, when the trade route itself lost its importance, many Hindu traders deserted that place. But, again it is getting attention, it deserves. There are few shops there selling souvenirs and snacks.

Next we visited Yanardag. The word means burning mountain, and it is exactly what it is. This is not a historical place.  The burning quality of this mountain was discovered only in year 1950 by a shepherd. It has been burning since then.


It is a base of a hill, where you can see continuous flames. The natural gas seeps thru the sandstone and fuels the fires. There are nice arrangements done around this place. There is a well-designed gallery like amphitheater.  This makes it an ideal place for concerts. The flames themselves are not dangerous and you can go quiet near to them, like you would do to a campfire. You can roast marshmallows (available there).


There is a way to climb the hill and you can see the distant village from there. We had gone there during day time, but after dark it must be a fabulous site.

There are some streams in that area which also can be ignited. (I did not visit any.)

In next post, we will visit a manmade beauty in Baku.

To be continued.

Azerbaijan – Part 2 – Qobustan / Gobustan

At about 60 kilometers from Baku (this city is also referred as Baki, sometimes) there is Qobustan / Gobustan (spelled both ways) National Park.

After about an hour’s drive, we reached the place. From a distance you see a hill, with lots of rocks on it. It does not give any idea, what is in store for you. When you enter a very well created museum at the entrance, you realize, that you are travelling back in time to stone age.


This museum explains in details, this site. This site had human settlements dating back to 5,000 to 20,000 years back in time. They have carved various figures on the rocks there. Many tools and other things have been found there and they are on display here. (Not the actual rocks, of course.)


Unless you go thru the displays, it would be difficult to know, what to look for, on the rocks on the hill. The museum tries to explain the rock carvings with the help of projections, models, animated films etc. They have even recreated the huts which might have been in use during that period. Life size statues are also on display of the people of that era.

Then you can drive to the hill. There is ample parking there and well-constructed pathways are made so that you can see the rock carvings. It is likely that the geological activities must have moved or tilted the rocks over these years.

Still the carvings are quiet clear. (You may not be able to see these carvings, hence I have put circles around them, in the photo. These are not there on the rocks.) English speaking guides are available, for a small fee.


More than 4,000 pictures of animals, humans, natural life experiences, hunting, and dancing were carved over a span of thousands of years. Most of the petroglyphs are on large cliffs, divided among multiple ancient residences, and in some cases they have been carved over older images. The first carvings depicted natural human and animal figures, often irregularly, but over time they began to more closely resemble the measurements and proportions of their subjects.


It seems many animals like bulls, horses, deer, goats, and other animals lived in Gobustan. From the rock drawings and the archaeological findings, wolves, tigers, foxes, jackals and other wild animals have been found in this place in ancient times. Even bone of an elephant was found, recently.


The human figures are rather symbolic and show them dancing in a group. It could have been a ritual dance before the hunt. Azerbaijan has rich culture of dance, even today.

The climate of this region must have been different in that era. Now it is dry and none of those animals are around.  The sea is far away from this place now, it could have been nearer then.

It must have been greener also earlier. Now you can still see some fig and pomegranate trees around. There is a large tent for tourists to rest and there are rooms for the drivers and guides to rest. (So thoughtful, isn’t it ?)

About half an hour’s drive from here there are some mud volcanos and boiling pools. The road is not so good, but your guide can manage. (It will not be possible to reach this spot, if it is raining. The road may get slippery.)


More than half of the world’s mud volcanos are in Azerbaijan. Even on this site there are couple of them. Occasionally they do erupt and shoot out mud but most of the time, it is just mild simmer. It was quiet windy there but there was no smell of sulfur in the air.



Azerbaijan is land of fire, In my next post, we will go to two such places, where fire is worshiped.

Azerbaijan – Part 1 – Baku City

I had made all the arrangements for my Trip. For some technical reason, my advance payment to the Travel Agent could not go thru. But Arif RN Travel assured me, that would not be an issue, I could pay on arrival.

My Emirates flight to Dubai was parked away from the airport. After seemingly unending bus journey, we were taken to some terminal. My sixth sense told me that I have landed at wrong terminal. I moved to the right people and soon another bus was arranged for me, to take me to the right terminal, from where I could get my connecting flight.

There was a long wait, I opted for shower. (It was not so good experience. For 10 USD, they did not even provide towel.) The terminal was almost empty and I could relax for a while. My Azerbaijan flight was on time.

The flight itself was very pleasant. We flew over kish island and Iran. When we approached Caspian Sea, I could see the numerous oil rigs and I knew I have reached Azerbaijan.


The domestic & international airports of Baku, are very well designed. (I will come back with more about these Airports later.) After getting out from the plane, I was ready with print out of my visa, travel arrangements etc. And, guess what, to my surprise nothing was required except my passport. The immigration, did not even take two minutes.

The baggage arrived quickly. My guide, Ismail was waiting for me outside. The first impression of Baku was great. Beautifully designed buildings, stadia, roads lined with trees, what else you could ask ? Only thing, the traffic was not caring for the rules, but that was fine with me, as my guide was brought up in that city.


We drove almost full length of the town. My hotel, QAFQAS was on a hill. When I checked in, I almost fell in love with it. The room was huge. It was too tempting to just go to the bed, but my guide told me, that he would come back at 9.00 p.m. to pick me up.


This was another surprise for me.  I have never been out in a new country, at that hour before. When we reached Baku Funicular almost half of the town was on road. They were all with kids and families. Not only, during Ramadan, it is every day affair in Baku.

Baku Funicular is a small rail like construction which takes you to Neftchilar to Martyrs Alley. At that hour the train was not working but we could use the steps, which were very beautifully lit. There is a vast open space there, from which you can see the flame towers is full glory. Flame towers are dominant part of Baku skyline and can be seen from anywhere. These are three towers in the shape of flame comprising of offices and hotel. All three towers are lit up with LED lights and display many themes like, flames, showers, water fall. You can never get tired of watching them.


From the gallery there you get a bird’s eye view of the Baku Boulevard. a 3.5 kilometre-promenade on the shores of  the Caspian Sea with an amusement park, bars and cafés along with a cacti garden, Mini-Venice, and the Baku Eye. At far end you can also see the Crystal Hall. If you climb little uphill, there is Martyrs Alley. There is a large minaret wit continuously burning flame, on the ground. In the ally itself, each and every Shahid (yes, that is the word) rests with due respect and honor. Not only, every shahid’s name is mentioned, even there portrait is also preserved.


Then we went to beach. Coming from beautiful island nation, Seychelles, the actual beach was of no interest to me, but I was surprised to note the families which were out there to enjoy. Unfortunately the Carpet Museum was closed but other open gardens were open. There was a huge chessboard where people were actually playing it.


We returned to the hotel, almost at midnight. Next morning was a very pleasant. My guide was to pick me up at 10.00 p.m. I had my breakfast at the hotel. Even for a vegetarian like me, there was huge choice of breads, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit preserves and the tastiest pomegranate juice.


After breakfast, I went out for a stroll. I could see vide roads, and gardens at every corner. There were so many fruiting trees and flowers around that I have decided to post them in separate posts here.

My guide came to pick me up as promised, we started our journey  to our next attraction. The roads almost resembled those of Dubai.  We were on our way to Qobustan. More about it, in my next post.



To be continued.

Azerbaijan – Introduction

This time for my short vacation, I had chosen Azerbaijan. After visiting Uzbekistan, few months earlier, I was looking for similar experience, and I narrowed down my search to Baku. Though there are good blogs on Baku (Capital of Azerbaijan) there wasn’t any detailed blog. (At least, I did not find any.)

Hence, I decided to take help of a tour agent. Arif RN Travel, is an agency, highly recommended by Tripadvisor. When I wrote to them, they wrote back giving me complete tour program. Almost everything was covered in that, the price quoted was also very reasonable. And, I am very happy to say that, it was the best choice. All the arrangements were superb. I wish I could spend more time there.


Here is some basic information about Azerbaijan.

  • Where is Azerbaijan ? It is a country on the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is on the banks on Caspian sea, and very rich in Petroleum. As my subsequent posts will reveal, it is mixture of Dubai and Switzerland, and much more economical than both these destinations.
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  • Visa Requirements (for Indians) . Visa is available on line, for a small fee. Only a photograph and passport scan is needed. The visa gets approved within few hours.
  • How to get there (by Air). Azerbaijan Airlines has twice daily flights to Dubai. Even flydubai flies there. ( If you read the reviews nobody talked good about the later and hardly anybody has complained about the former, so the choice is yours.) The flight from Dubai, takes less than 3 hours.
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  • Where to stay ? Lots of choices available. Arif Travel arranged my stays in 5 star properties and they were quiet reasonably priced. The hotels themselves were excellent. In fact, the one, I stayed in Qabala, was the best ever hotel, in my life.
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  • How to move around ? – My tour agent had arranged a private car for me. But I found ample taxies, buses, metro etc. The hotel you chose, may make these arrangements for you.DSCN8123
  • What language they speak ? Azerbaijani is the official language, and is spoken by most of them. (Surprisingly, you may find many Hindi words in that language.) But nothing to worry, most people in Hotel Industry, Shops, Supermarkets speak decent English. Most of the information is displayed in English also.
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  • Is it costly ? I didn’t find so. Most of the things I bought were reasonable priced. A large falafel sandwich in 5 star hotel (room service) costs me 3 USD. This country has abundant food production, rich in petroleum and other natural resources, so you may find, it is actually cheaper than Europe or even Dubai.
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  • How are the people ? They are extremely fit. They have to do compulsory military training for two years. They have the athletic look and body. The very few people, I interacted with, were found helpful.
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  • What to eat ? The choice is almost limitless, with abundance of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. The local cuisine is interesting. They serve red tea in specially designed cup and it is to be taken with variety of jams. The most remarkable jam was made with fresh walnut. The whole fruit is used (with shell) and it was the most delicious jam, I have ever eaten.
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  • What to shop ? Apart from the branded goods, you can buy camel wool scarves, carpets, metal utensils, glasses, dry fruits, fruit preserves, fruit leather.. you are spoiled with choices.
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  • Any Security Issues – None.


And yes there are many wonderful places to visit. In this series I am going to post many photos. This area is reach in flora and fauna too. So keep reading.

Uzbekistan – Samarkand (Part 3 of 3)

Our next stop was a Samarkand Bukhara Joint Venture Silk carpet factory. By the time we went there, it was lunch time, still the lady in charge, explained us the entire procedure.

The girls were busy weaving the carpets, knot by knot. A carpet with intricate design can easily take 3 to 6 months to complete. The carpets on display were treat for the eyes.


I was more impressed by the tapestries created by those girls. They were nothing short of paintings or I would even say digital photographs. Those things were reasonably priced too. (But still beyond my budget.)


I purchased some scarves and jackets there.



Our next stop was Shakhi Zinda Necropolis. Shakhi Zinda means “The living king’. (Yes, the same meaning of Zinda, as in Hindi). It is complex comprising of eleven mausoleums arranged on both sides of a narrow street. You climb 40 steps to reach this complex. These mausoleums were built around year 1379 to 1449.


The first one is imaginary grave of Kusam ibn Abbas, Prophet Muhammad’s Cousin. He came to Samarkand in year 640 and spend 13 years. He was killed by Zoroastrians while he was praying. Till today, it is believed that he is present there, hence the name.


This place is truly divine. On both sides of the narrow streets there are beautifully decorated entrances to the mausoleums. But the problem is, that the street is so narrow, that you can not take photo of any of them, from a distance. Nevertheless, these are my trials to capture the beauty.


It was my last day in Samarkand. I wanted to see the lit up beauties of Registan Complex. Hence we went their again. This time, there was hardly anybody on the complex and I could click them, the way I wanted.


Next day we caught a fast train to Tashkent. The station and the train, both were impressive. (The speed going up to 216 km per hour ). My last day in Tashkent was reserved only for shopping.



I purchased flower and vegetable seeds, dry fruits, spices. I even found a Baboshka (A Russian wooden doll)


I also walked the market street opposite Chorsu Bazar. (I was impressed by baby cradle with drainage arrangements.) My guide Shokhrukh had been giving me company, for all these days. I requested him to go home to spend time with his family. I walked the streets of Tashkent all alone.


And first time in my life, I overslept. Shokhrukh woke me up for my return flight. We rushed to the airport. When I approached the counters I came to know, that my Mumbai flight was cancelled. But the staff on duty was quick to make alternative arrangements for us. They put me on Delhi flight instead and made arrangements for my onward travel to Mumbai. The flight was held up for us. (Hence, we were rushed to the plane. I missed the last minute duty free shopping.) And let me tell you, I had the heaviest and the tastiest flight breakfast on this flight, comprising of 16 items, nothing less.


Till today, I am holding the memories of my wonderful holiday in Uzbekistan. They are as sweet as this lovely, Halwa.




Uzbekistan – Samarkand (Part 2 of 3)

The area of Registan ensemble is very large and many international cultural events are held there. From there we can walk towards Bibi Khanyam mosque. The road towards this mosque has many shops on both the sides. We had ice cream in one of those shops.


There is an Art gallery on the way. The building is actually modern, but seems very much from history.


From a distance you start noticing the ribbed dome of Bibi-khanyam mosque. Amir wanted to build the largest mosque for his wife (Bibi) from the enormous wealth he brought from India. The construction took 5 years to complete and it was completed in year 1404.


The rumor has that while Amir was away on another mission, during the construction period. Bibi and the engineer of this massive project, had fallen in love. When Amir came to know about this, both of them were killed.



The construction was too big for the technology of that era and soon started collapsing within few months of the construction. The site has some photographs showing the very bad condition it was found to be. However, what we see now is the carefully recreated version. The walls and domes are beautifully decorated now.


Just outside of this mosque, there is a large bazar. Fruits, vegetables and dry fruits are sold there, among other things.


From that place, distant snow clad mountains could be seen.


We returned to Hotel Orient Star.


The next day we visited Mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari. (This is about 25 kms from Samarkand). This complex has great religious significance and is considered as mini-Haj (with other places in Uzbekistan).

Abu Abdullah Muhammed inb Ismail al-Bukhari was great Theologian and hadith collector. His work “Al-Jomiy al-Saheeh” is considered a Holy Book, only next to the Holy Quran.


He was born in 810 and had visited many Islamic countries. However his mausoleum was neglected during the Soviet era. It was only is 1954, when Indonesian President visited U.S.S.R., and wanted to visit this place, it was “discovered” again.

At present, It is marvelous complex. The actual marble mausoleum is piece of art.


The 786 square meters prayer hall is very peaceful and soothing. Here we met a very kind mullah, who actually made me sit next to him and prayed for me.


This complex also has specially printed, crafted copies of the Holy Quran, which were presented by various countries. It also has kisva presented by The King of Saudi Arabia.



Another incident happened there. When I came from the hall, and wore my shoes, a young lady tapped on my shoulder and said something. I did not understand, what she said, so I checked with my guide. He told, me that, she had said, my trouser were soiled. ( I had sat on the steps). What a kind gesture. ! I could not even thank her. This is how people of Uzbekistan are.  Hopelessly friendly and caring. Frankly, I myself would not have bothered to do this for anybody, even after I had noticed it.


Then we visited the Observatory of Ulugbek.  Ulugbek was more of an astronomer than a ruler. He had a huge observatory constructed on a hill. As written by Babur, it was a three storied building (estimated dimensions 46 meters diameter and 30 meters height). It also had a giant goniometer vertical circle of radius, estimated to be 40.212 meters. They were able to document the positions of more than 1000 stars and their calculation of Solar year is almost equal to that calculated today, with modern instruments.


Unfortunately, after the death of Ulugbek, this complex was destroyed. Much later, only in year 1908 archaeologist Vyatkin found first document regarding the location of this observatory. What remained was only the underground portion of goniometer.

Nevertheless, there is a very well maintained museum at that place now. They have not built the observatory but it’s model is kept in the museum and so are, some of the instruments.

We then visited a unique place where silk paper, (yes, paper not cloth) is made. This process is carried out using ancient technique which has not changed over centuries.


The leaves of mulberry tree are used to feed the silk worms and the inner bark of this tree, are used to make this “Silk Paper”. The sticks are scrapped to remove the outer bark. The inner silky bark is boiled for several hours and then pounded using ancient technique. The pulp is washed and dyed using natural colours. Then it is pressed and dried. The resultant paper is hand polished, using stones or sea shells. The resultant paper is very strong and durable. It can not only be used for printing but also can be made into money purses, jacket etc.


It can withstand modern printing also and surprisingly it is more soothing for the eyes.

To be continued.

Uzbekistan – Samarkand (Part 1 of 3)

Our next stop was Samarkand (Also written as Samarqand). The journey by road takes about three hours. The road is good. We do see lot of cotton fields on both the sides of the road. The mulberry trees are planted on the roadside. The leaves are fed to silk worms and the bark is used to make silk paper (we are going to see the process.)


Half way we saw an ancient well. The construction is remarkable. It is a well covered by huge dome. The some keeps the water very clean and cool too.


Just opposite to the well, there is an ancient caravan sarai (yes the meaning of sarai is same as in Hindi). Right now, there is not much of it is left now.


Samarkand seems to be a modern town, but still it is there for many centuries. It had it’s dark and forgotten era, but as of today, it looks fascinating. By the time we entered the town, it was already lunch time.


After lunch, we went to Gur Emir. This majestic complex was built at the beging of15th century. It consists of Khanaka, the madrasah of Muhammad Sultan, grandson of Amil Timur and tomb of Amir Timur himself. (The Khanaka & madrasah are not renovated, as of now.)


The front entrance was designed by Architect Muhammed ibn Mahmud Isfanani.


The actual burial chamber is in the basement (which is not open to public.)  Amir Timur himself, his two sons Shahrukh & Miranshah,  grandsons Muhammad Sultan and Ulugbek and also Timur’s spiritual mentor Mir Said Baraka, are all buried there. There are gravestones in the chamber for all of them.


The walls are beautifully decorated with intricate designs. The grids on windows, panels, paintings are all stunningly beautiful.


You can not take your eyes off the ribbed dome. No wonder the basic design of this structure, was the basis on which, the Tajmahal was designed.


There is one peculiar stone tub in the yard. It served a duel purpose. It was used to extract juice from pomegranates and also served a statistical purpose of counting the casualties of a war. ( While proceeding on war, each warrior would put in a coin and on his return, he would pick one. The remaining number of coins, would be the indicator of lives lost at war. So sad, but true.)



Then we proceeded to Registan Ensemble (Yes, the word Registan, means place of sand, the same meaning of Hindi.)   This ensemble of three magnificent buildings is landmark of Samarkand. Actually they were built in different centuries, but still make a harmonious,picture perfect place. The present day glory is due to efforts of Uzbekistani Engineers, who have worked very hard to recreate the glory of these medieval Islamic Architectural masterpieces. It comprises of three separate structures, 1) Ulugbek Madrasah, on the left 2) Tilla Qori Madrasah in the centre and 3) Sher-Dor Madrasah on the right. We will visit all of them.

Though the basic structures are few centuries old, there has been at least two centuries, during which the entire complex was left unattended. It was downfall of Samarakand as an important town on the silk route and the focus was on Bukhara. (Which we have seen earlier.) But once again, it has gained importance and we are lucky enough to witness it’s glory.

This place was actually a central place, where traders used to meet. It was also used to publicly announce the royal decrees. Later Ulugbek (grandson of Amir Timur) ordered the construction of a madrasah. It has 34.7 meters high pishtaq portal ( a projected rectangular portal) of the main iwan entrance.  It has intricate geometric mosaic designs and calligraphic inscriptions.

On either side there is a minaret decorated with geometric designs. (Probably there were four, in each corner originally.) What we see today were in very bad condition and were leaning. They were repaired in the year 1965.

When we enter the madrasah, we see a large rectangular area. There is a mosque inside. The entire structure was completed in the year 1420. The architect of this structure is unknown, but it is believed that Ulugbec, himself had contributed to the design. (He was a prominent astronomer of his time.) Earlier it had a dome in the centre. But due to time, it has sunk and not visible from outside.

During the era of Ulugbek, this was the best Islamic education institute. Ulugbek himself and Qadi Zada al-Rumi (who was considered as Plato of his times) were guiding the students here. Unfortunately, Ulugbek was killed, by order of his own son.


Tilla-Qori Madrasah

This is he central building of the ensemble.It was constructed by order of Yalangtush Bahadur and it’s construction was completed in 1660.

This was the latest construction among the three but it is not replica of either of them. The main portal is smaller compared to other two but the wings are longer with 8 hujra cells each. It has two small minarets at either ends.

It has a mosque with beautiful blue dome. The mosque served the purpose of Friday Community Prayer. The mosque is stunningly beautiful and has highly decorated walls and mihrab.

The yard is surrounded by hujra cells, which are used as souvenir shops.



Sher-Dor Madrasah

This madrasah is on the right hand side of the ensemble (when you see from the main road.) The word Sher-Dor means possessing lion. This is not the official name but is derived from the tiger like figure on the pishtaq. Actually it is cross between a lion and a tiger. They are shown catching a white dear and a The Sun is also depicted with human face. But the face is neither of a man or a woman. All these ambiguities may be due the fact that, Sharia does not permit drawing of human or animal figures. (These figures are printed on 200 som currency notes also.)

The construction of this building was completed in 1636. It was intended to be a reflection of Tilla-Qori Madrasah, which was already standing in front for 3 centuries, then. But it is not so. There was elevation difference between these two hence the new building was made shorter.

This madrasah has two ribbed domes on either side. There is no mosque inside.


All the three building have shops inside. It has a shop where you can see, how the mosaic designs were created.

When we went there, it was a Sunday and the place was bit crowded. I wanted to see these buildings again, when they were lit up. So we decided to leave the place for the time being.

To be continued.