The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Azerbaijan

Russia-Azerbaijan Border

The Russian-Azerbaijan border used to be closed to foreigners. But a couple of recent postings over on the Lonely Planet forums had indicated that the Russian regulations have changed to allow non-CIS citizens to cross.  I was in the Caucasus, so I thought I would give it a try, starting from Derbent in Dagestan and going through to Baku. Here are some notes for anyone else taking that route.

Derbent Citadel

Derbent Citadel

I originally planned to take a bus or a shared taxi. In Derbent, the long distance buses leave from the South Bus Station. The timetable there lists a Baku bus, leaving Derbent at 11:20 and getting into Baku at 16:40. Hurrah! But when I tried to buy a ticket, all I got was headshakes. When I went back to look at the timetable, people indicated I shouldn’t pay any attention to it. The ticket office ladies were trying to be helpful and seemed to be saying that I needed to take a taxi to the border. Hmm. It looks as through the bus may not be running at the moment for some reason. And I couldn’t find any signs of shared taxis.

I did find a taxi driver willing to go to the border. But then we ran into the problem of there being several crossing points and which one did I want?  I thought it would be easiest to take the major M29 route, which runs across the Samur River to the Azerbaijan town of Samur.  But in the end I left it to the taxi driver. For some reason he didn’t seem to want to try the M29 crossing and near the border he cut across from the M29 through minor dirt roads to try a crossing near the Russian town of Filya.  At that crossing the Russian immigration officer made it clear I couldn’t cross there, but redirected us towards the Yalama crossing.

[Afterwards I learned that the M29 road crossing often suffers severe delays and I think my taxi driver was trying to help me by taking me to a faster crossing.  It wasn’t clear to me whether or not cars were being allowed across at Yalama, so if you have a car it may be safest to stick with the M29 route.]

Along the way we got stopped a couple of times at police checkpoints. At one, I was taken aside and my passport very carefully scrutinized. Then there was some rubbing of thumb and fingers together and significant smiles. It was clear that a small gift was expected. But I gave a very polite “no” and after a repeated try and slightly disappointed looks this was accepted with good grace.

Baku Flame Towers

Baku Flame Towers

At Yalama I was able to get through without major difficulties. My passport and visas did get an unusual degree of scrutiny on both sides and the Azeri officer in particular looked at almost every pixel. He even wanted to see my US Green Card, but I think that was mostly just curiosity. After exiting on the Azerbaijan side I found plenty of people offering “taxi?” and after a quick break, I chose one and we leapt off at full Azeri racing speed to Baku.

I left Derbent around 8:00am. It was about one hour from Derbent to the border, about an hour total to cross the border and then a little under 3 hours to Baku. Plus some lost time at the failed crossing point.

I speak only a few words of Russian and I have lousy haggling skills, so I paid 1300 Rubles for the taxi to the border and another 2500 Rubles for the taxi to Baku. A skilled Russian speaking haggler could probably do much better.

Makhachkala to Derbent: I had got to Derbent from Makhachkala by a marshrutka from Makhachala’s South Bus Station. It took 2 hours and 170 rubles.  Marshrutkas seem to depart quite frequently, at least every half hour. At Derbent I got dropped off at the central bus station. This seems to be only for local traffic (the long distance buses use the South bus station) and the staff there denied all knowledge of a place called Baku.

Safety: Dagestan has safety issues at the moment and there are regular ugly incidents between Islamic insurgents and the police. I recommend reading up carefully on current status before visiting. The situation is ugly, but the militants don’t seem to be targeting the general population, let alone random travellers. I saw a fair amount of security in the government area around Lenin Square in Makhachkala, but less elsewhere, and very little in Derbent. I felt quite safe walking around both cities, although I realize that can be misleading.   People I met were all friendly and helpful.  (But please do not try to go wandering alone in the back country!)

I took a marshrutka out from Stepanakert to the old scenic town of Shushi.

Shushi was on the front-line of the 1990’s Nagorno-Karabakh war and suffered heavy damage.  It was an Azerbaijan stronghold, opposing Armenian-held Stepanakert.  Over the course of the war most of the population fled, and the town still has many abandoned buildings.


I started at the Ghazanchetsots Armenian Orthodox cathedral, which is partly restored but mostly new built and looks very spiffy.  The interior has some well-executed modern murals in a classic icon style.  Then I strolled out to the old city walls.  These also appear to have been fairly aggressively restored after the war: most of the stonework looks fairly new.

After some searching, I found my way to the remains of the old mosque. In an elegant theological touch, it’s two minaret towers have the Arabic letters for “Allah” repeated in white-on-red stripes ascending up towards heaven.  The mosque interior is gutted and the courtyard is overgrown with weeds.

The center of town contains many decrepit old Soviet-style apartment blocks.  But there is also some amount of new construction and renovation going on.  Further out there are many derelict and abandoned buildings, some mere shells.

The Old.
The New.
The Abandoned.


The Caged Queue

The Astara border crossing from Azerbaijan to Iran turned out to be a bit of a zoo.

The border crossing is very slow, and to maintain order the Azeri authorities have created a special queuing area with four distinct queues separated by cage-like walls. Every 30-40 minutes the authorities would open the steel door for one of the queues and let 20-30 people into the main immigration area. Each queue might only move every couple of hours.

Ahh, but the Azeris do not like to queue. Especially not for 4+ hours. So when a door opened some people in adjacent queues would frantically climb up through the roof and try to force their way down into the moving queue. And as the authorities tried to reclose the steel door, people would frantically try to force their way through anyway, sometimes using planks of wood to try to reopen the door!

Queue Jumping

I arrived at 8:15am. There were already several hundred people queued. By 11:45 I was still stuck in line and I climbed up and traversed out for a bathroom break. But of course, at that very moment our steel door opened, my queue started to move, and I had to frantically start climbing back in. Luckily people saw that I was just reclaiming my earlier place and made it easy for me, which was nice of them.

But woops, I was spotted by the authorities. You! I was waved angrily to the head of the line. I don’t speak Azeri, but the gist seemed to be a rather annoyed “You’re a foreigner!” I was ushered through into the immigration area and then ushered to the front of the inner queue. I felt simultaneously guilty for queue jumping and also slightly silly for not having played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.

I was quickly processed through Azeri immigration, with only a short discussion of British football teams. But the Iranian side was more interesting.

I was stamped into Iran fairly quickly. But then after a short pause, I was escorted upstairs to the immigration police headquarters. Where everyone was very nice, but my papers were very carefully checked. The chief himself reviewed all of my many passport stamps, no doubt looking for the dreaded I*****i stamp. He exclaimed in mild amusement when he finally deciphered “Paraguay” and the mood got a little lighter. Eventually he was done, everyone seemed happy, and I was handed off to a soldier with a rifle, apparently to show me out. Ah, but not quite.

The soldier escorted me out of immigration. And then into town. And then towards the local police station. And then into an interview room. Woops. But everyone seemed pretty relaxed and the police merely rechecked my passport and asked the usual “where are you from” kind of questions. And then I was carefully fingerprinted. This was probably the main reason for my visit to the police station: UK immigration fingerprints Iranians, so Iran is determined to return the favour.

After fingerprinting, I was led out to wash my hands and then waved onwards. Amidst the enthusiasm to check my passport and fingerprints, I had somehow bypassed customs, so we were all done. Hurrah!

After all that, I splurged on a taxi to Ardabil, and then took a bus on to Tabriz.

Practicalities: I think my timing (8:15am on a Saturday) was especially bad.  I arrived after the locals had already mostly joined the queue, and very few people were joining behind me.  By the time I finally got through, there was only a fairly short queue behind me.   If I had arrived at (say) 2:00pm I might have had only a fairly short wait.  Also, I should probably have played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.  There seems to be an area to the left (East) of the caged queue where some officials were housed and maybe I could have talked my way through there.

The Mud Volcanos of Qobustan

Mud Volcano, Qobustan

One of the Great Mud Volcanoes, in full eruption.

I took a car and guide from Baku to the famed Mud Volcanoes of Qobustan (Gobustan).

Despite their splendid name, they are actually only about 6 feet tall.  They gently burp forth mud and methane from deep mud reservoirs.  Sporadic trickles of mud run down from the small cones.  If they are lucky the craters occasionally manage to spit up a baseball size lump of mud a foot or so.  It all seems very small scale, but remember this is a geologic process that has been running gently for millennia and, yes, the big hilly area the volcanoes stand on has probably been slowly built up from the burped mud.

They are a little goofy,  but good fun, and well worth a short visit.

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

After the rather touristy Baku Atashgah, I took a taxi out to see a more modest, but more authentic natural flame, at “Yanar Dag” (Fire Mountain).

The story is that several decades ago a wandering shepherd accidentally set light to a small natural vent.  And to general amazement, that small vent has kept steadily burning ever since, apparently fed by some tiny natural leak from Baku’s vast gas fields far below.

Steps have now been built around the site, but the site itself seemed convincingly natural.  And no one was asking for money, which is also a good sign.

Despite its grand name, it is a fairly modest.  The flames run intermittently over a length of about 10-12 feet, with erratic flames varying from little 1-2 inch flickers to occasional 1-2 foot spurts.  However across the entire length it was generating a lot of heat.  Despite its small size, I found it genuinely impressive and a delightful example of the occasional oddities of nature.  I surprised my taxi driver by laughing with simple joy when I first saw it.   I can well understand why some pious traveler, on discovering such a strange natural vent, might have venerated it and made it a temple site (as probably happened at the Baku Ateshga).

After failing to find a suitable bus, train, or marshrutska, I eventually  took a taxi out to the Baku Atashgah (Fire Temple).  The taxi driver chatted with me in weak English.  He complained about government corruption and how there should be lots of money in Azerbaijan but it didn’t make it down to the people.  He also complained that California’s Gubernator Schwartzenegger was far too sympathetic to the wicked Armenians.  (Not an accusation I had previously heard!)

The Baku Atashgah or Fire Temple is a much larger complex than the Atashgah in Tbilisi, with a large courtyard surrounded by cells for visiting pilgrims.  The central building, which houses the scared flame, is surprisingly similar in shape and dimensions to the Tbilisi Ateshga.  However, here all four walls have open archways, rather than the closed archways of Tbilisi.  There is also a small crematorium pit to the side.

It is sometimes asserted that the site originated as a Zoroastrian temple which was destroyed by the Arabs, but apparently modern scholarship rejects this.  In any event, the current structure was built in the early 17th c. by Indians with a strong emphasis on Vishnu, with his trident.  (Which is a pity as the original Zoroastrian religious vision seemed much simpler and less superstitious.)  The scared flame was originally fed by a natural gas vent, which, alas, expired in 1882, so it is now run off the municipal gas mains.

Nowadays the site has been restored purely as a tourist attraction, with waxworks figures in the pilgrim’s cells.  The central flame was initially out, but after I paid my admission fee, the attendant discreetly turned on the gas .