Alti Agach National Park

Alti Agach National Park is a perfect destination for a day trip away from Baku. Located about 120 km from the capital it offers excellent trekking and hiking opportunities as well as unique aesthetic experience as the last bit of the road leading to the park takes travelers through the picturesque Candy Cane Mountains. The mountains are famous for their unusual colours – a mix of pink and white stripes, an effect of iron oxidation of the rock. The area where the mountains are located is semidesert both in terms of the climate and the scarce human presence – Khizi Rayon is the least populated region of Azerbaijan.

palmtreeproduction candy cane

Candy Cane Mountains by palmtreeproduction.com

Alti Agach National Park

In contrast to the Khizi mountains, the park is covered with lush forest and cut with wide rivers, which are almost completely dry in summer and autumn but fill up with water during springtime. The main road takes you to the little village of Alti Agach (literal meaning in Azerbaijani language: six trees), which gave the name to the park. Along the road there is also a small shelter for wild animals including a Caucasian bear. There is not much to see in the village apart from the pretty little houses with colorful shutters that still haven’t been replaced by modern buildings. If you continue driving after the village you will get to a large tourist resort with tennis courts, spa, a restaurant, hotel, a little zoo and more.

altiagach

Alti Agach National Park

Hiking

The advantage of Alti Agach over many other parks in Azerbaijan is that there are virtually no route limitations for tourists so you can go anywhere you like. The best idea is to set off from one of the restaurants by the river. Cross the river on foot or by car (there’s usually little water!) and explore the hills and pastures on the other side. Just in case, take some nibbles with you  – this will buy you the kindness of the local shepherd dogs.

Eating

In the park there are some simple but good restaurants offering traditional Azerbaijani food (kebab, salads, raw vegetables etc.) and tea with varene. Unfortunately, people in the area don’t speak much Russian – not to mention English –  so you will need to either prepare a few food-related words in Azeri or rely on their choice of dishes. In the latter case you’ll most likely end up with a delicious plate of assorted kebab. The restaurant at the tourist resort also serves tasty Azerbaijani food and pahlava.

Getting there

Alti Agach is easily reachable by Quba road. At some point (Gilazi village) you will see an indication for Alti Agach (shortly before the Besh Barmag mountain). Take this road and continue driving for about 30 kilometers until the entrance to the Altyaghach National Park.

Fighting the ”evil eye” in Azerbaijan

Evil eye is an ancient belief that strangers have the power to look at the others in a vicious way with the intention of causing them harm, either out of jealousy or pure malice. This old superstition is one of the strongest all over the world, especially in the Middle East and Eurasia, and modern and secular Azerbaijan is not an exception. Below is a short list of the most popular amulets and treatments against the evil eye.

Uzarlik or wild rue (Peganum harmala)

wild rue

Wild rue burnt on the charcoal. Image by today.az

This plant, which grows in the semi-desert regions of Azerbaijan, is usually burnt on red-hot charcoal. The little, white, dry bulbs explode with a popping noise, releasing a fragrant smoke that is supposed to scare off the evil eye. The smoke is blown around the head of the person afflicted by or exposed to the gaze of strangers. However, to ensure the effectiveness of the herb it’s best to take it from a very remote area.

According to a renowned Azerbaijani medical historian, Farid Alakbarov, in a book from the 18th century there is a reference to uzarlik, which suggests that in order to enhance the power of the wild rue it’s necessary to take the right eye of a hyena, keep it in vinegar for 7 days, then boil it and keep it next to the herb…

Nazar

If you walk around Azerbaijani cities and villages you will notice the eye-shaped symbol of Nazar (called locally gozmunjughu) on many buildings – both businesses and private houses. The word “nazar” is derived from the Arabic “sight” or “seeing”. It is another form of protection against the evil eye. There are also smaller beads with the symbol, which are often put on a thread and  tied around a child’s arm. It is worth mentioning that in theory, in Islam the use of amulets is strictly forbidden as it is believed that people start seeking help from an object rather than put their full trust in God.

Allah's Eye

Allah’s Eye

Black cumin

The seeds of black cumin are another way of protecting the household or a person from the vicious look. Not only are the cumin seeds used in bread, but some Azerbaijanis burn them with salt, repeating phrases like: “Oh God, don’t let the evil eye harm us!” or “Let the one with the evil eye lose his own eye.” (Azerbaijan International).
Camelthorn
Camelthorn

Camelthorn

It is believed that this shrub, known as well by its scientific name Alhagi Camelorum, also protects from the malicious gaze and brings happiness into the household. Many believe that the sharp needles of the plant will prick the evil. It is usually hang at the entrance to Azerbaijani houses.
For more information on various amulets used in Azerbaijan clik on these links:
The Evil Eye. Staying Off Harm With a Visit to the Open Market – an excellent article explaining many different ways of using wild rue against the evil eye.
For a better understanding of the concept read this: The Evil Eye by Lucky Mojo

Mud volcanoes

What are mud volcanoes?

mud vulcano

Mud volcano. Image: wikipedia commons

Mud volcanoes are channels for releasing pressurized gas and mineral water from great depths of the earth (even 812km) and depositing them on the surface where they form cones that can reach up to 700m in height, although usually they are about 1m high. The width, on the other hand,  can range from a few centimeters to a few kilometers. They are also close cousins to magmatic volcanoes. Both types of volcanoes can erupt powerfully and throw flames to great heights, both can spew out millions of cubic meters of clay from the bowels of the earth, and both can create islands if they erupt from the floor of the sea (Source: Azerbaijan International). However, unlike magmatic volcanoes, mud volcanoes are at ambient temperature and may even be cool. Another distinctive feature of mud volcanoes is that  they are one of the visible signs of the presence of gas and oil deep beneath the surface of land or sea.

Mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan and its Caspian coastline are home to nearly half of all mud volcanoes on earth – there are between 200 and 300 of them in the country, located mainly in the eastern part fo Azerbaijan. The two largest mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan are Kinezadagh (397m high) and Turaghay (400m high). When the first one erupted on the 10th of  October 2001 it sent flames shooting out 300m into the air, the highest recorded flame height from a mud volcano eruption. 

mud vulcanoes locations

Locations of mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan. Source: Azerbaijan International

Are they dangerous?

Mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan occur in uninhabited areas thus they usually don’t have any disastrous impact on the population. However, there were episodes when they caused serious damage and loss of life. For instance, according to local residents, an eruption of a volcano, which took place northeast of Shamakhi, resulted in the deaths of six shepherds who were camping in its crater. About 2,000 sheep in their flock were killed as well. There is also a legend about destruction of an entire settlement known as ‘Old Gilady’ during an eruption that took place sometime in the 15th century. Fortunately, such events are extremely rare.

explosion

Explosion of Kinezadagh, 2001. Source: BBC News

Where to find them?

The best place to see mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan is probably the Gobustan National Park. Make sure you go with a driver who knows where to find them because there are no indications in the park. Also, keep in mind that some taxi drivers will want to take you only to the petroglyphs and will refuse to go further as the road is unpaved and rather difficult for a regular car. Ask us and we will be happy to advise.

Qobustan AZerbaijan

Gobustan mud volcano. Image by notebooklovespen

Another good place to find them is the Shirvan National Park. There you will find some indications leading to the volcanoes although the park’s guide discourages from going there mainly due to the long road of a poor quality.

shirvan mud vulcano

Mud volcano in Shirvan National Park. Image by Kuba Bak

Things to keep in mind

Mud volcanoes are a good fun but – especially when traveling with kids – remember to bring a few extra bottles of water to wash off the mud, and some clean clothes to change!

Useful links:

For more ”technical information” about mud volcanoes go to Mud Volcanoes, Questions & Answers by Azerbaijan International or read Mud Volcanoes in Azerbaijan by Vulcano Discovery.

For images visit Don’t stop loving blog

Baku in pictures – a journey through time

Gobustan – the cradle of humanity

Gobustan Heritage Site

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape Reserve is situated just over 60km away from Baku and it hosts one of the largest and most ancient collections of rock engravings in the world. The importance of this site to humanity was appreciated in the 1966 when the government of Azerbaijan designated the area as the National Protected Heritage Site. The stone engravings were discovered by chance in the early 1930s during works in the local stone quarry. A few years later, during an archeological expedition carried in the area, the most ancient petroglyphs were estimated to be as much as 40,000 years old. Many thus believe that Gobustan is the cradle of humanity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gobustan rock painting. Image by Fiona van IJzendoorn

The engravings

The land was populated already in the Stone Age and ancient people living in the area used to cover the cave interiors and the surrounding rocks  with various images that were carved first with stone and later – with advancement of the knowledge – with metal tools. The themes of the engravings vary – among them are pictures of people, wild bulls, deer, goats, lions, gazelles, horses or wild asses. There are also drawings on some rocks that represent collective labour processes such as reaping, sacrifice, hunting or battle scenes. Some of the drawings show as well boats with both armed and unarmed men. Interestingly, one of the rocks has Latin inscription dating back to 84-96 A.D. It confirms a visit of a centurion from the XIlth Roman Legion, who passed through Gobustan in the 1st century AD.

museum

Museum in Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape Reserve

Interesting conclusions

One of the interesting facts drawn from the paintings is that in the past the climate in the area was very different from today, humid subtropical, and the landscape resembled much more a savannah than today’s desert. All of this is visible from the outfits worn by the pictured people – mainly loincloths – and also from the presence of various animals, such as bulls, deer and pigs, whose existence is impossible without perennial water reservoirs and rich pastures.

gobustan today

Gobustan today

Getting there

From Baku you can get there by bus 105 that will drop you off on the intersection located about 5km away from the historical site (taxis are available in the area). Otherwise, ask us to arrange a driver/tour for you that will include you as well the mud volcanoes, which aren’t very well indicated and are often missed by the taxi drivers.

Useful links:

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, UNESCO

Rock paintings of Gobustan, Window 2 Baku

Gobustan – gate of Europe

Azerbaijan – places not to miss

Hiking in Zaqatala

Zaqatala is a town of about 25, 000 inhabitants situated in the north-west Azerbaijan on the slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountain range. The distance from Baku to Zaqatala is about 450km and the quickest way to get there is by the Yevlakh-Balakan highway, which takes about 4.5 hours by car, depending on the traffic. Thanks to the rich history and its unique location in the foothills of the Caucasus and on the crossroads of seven rivers, the city offers excellent hiking and trekking opportunities, and provides a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

zaqatala

Zaqatala. Source: vk.com

Some history

The city was established in the 17th century and after the declaration of the First Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918 it was made the local center for the northwest region. During the Soviet times Zaqatala had undergone a process of industrialization that effected in creating a network of roads and railway, and in development of tobacco, wool, brick, hazelnut, wine, and dairy factories in the area. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a few mosques, two educational institutes, and several schools were opened in the city (more information here).

Thanks to its vicinity to Georgia and Dagestan, the region of Zaqatala is ethnically diverse and apart from Azerbaijani people the area is also inhabited by Georgians, Tsakhurs and Dagestanis, including the Avars and Lezgins.

What to see:

Russian fortress – Zaqatala’s most characteristic feature. Built in 1830s to defend the city from Dagestani guerillas of Imam Shamil.  In the 20th Century the fortress became very famous thanks to the mutinous crew of the battleship Potemkin that was imprisoned there in 1905. The fortress can be reached only by foot or on horseback. Here you will find more details about the fortress and the mutiny.

Car village (also spelled Jar) a picturesque village full of greenery and beautiful chocolate-box houses. It’s a lovely place for hiking – walks by the river are especially pleasant – or just relaxing with a cup of tea. The locals are very friendly and they might as well invite you home for a drink. Car is especially charming during the autumn when the persimmon trees bear the fruit and are covered in small, orange balls. Ask the locals to guide you to the ancient Georgian house.

persimmon

Persimmon tree

Zaqatala Nature Reserve  – the hills above the village Car covered with lush deciduous forest are perfect for hiking. The peaks go up to 3000m above the sea level. Watch out for the brown bear and wild boar!

Ancient Albanian Churches – between the 2 – 6th centuries AD the area was dominated by the predominantly Christian state of Caucasian Albania and thanks to this today visitors can observe plenty of ruins of ancient churches all over the city.

albanina church

Caucasian Albanian church from the 5th Century. Zaqatala

Peri Qala Fortress –  a castle-like structure carved into the 300 meters high rock cliff outside of  Zaqatala. There are two theories about the origin of the castle’s name – one refers to the name Peri, which means ”fairy” (i.e. the Fairy castle). The other goes back to the times of Chingiz Khan who supposedly chose a daughter of a local ruler, by the name Peri, for his bride. When she heard that he is interested in taking her into his harem, she escaped into the castle. However, after realizing that she will be captured anyway she threw herself off the cliff and fell to her death. The visit at the castle is not for the faint hearted – it takes a ride by 4×4 on a rough road and a 40 mins steep climb only to approach the cliff.

PeriGala_atypicalview

Peri Gala, the Fairy Castle

When to go

Summer and early autumn are the best seasons to visit Zaqatala. Winter in the area is very atmospheric but bring some warm clothes as it may snow a lot. Spring is fairly warm but quite rainy thus not advisable for trekking.

Where to stay:

There are a few hotels in the area and we recommend you to stay at the Zaqatala Olympic Complex, on a hill north-east of the town center, or at the Qafqaz hotel in the heart of the city.