I wanted to learn more about Baku’s vast reserves of gas and oil and to see what was behind the glitter and glamour of the city. In my hostel I met a friendly lady in her sixties who decided that now was the best time to travel. We decided to explore the things to do in the Absheron peninsula around Baku and our hostel convinced us to take a tour with them.
Beyond Baku you will find a strange world of pollution, but also ancient history that shows the interesting past of Azerbaijan. Ottomans, Persians and Russians dominated the landscape in different times resulting in Azerbaijan’s own unique cultural traditions. They are hard to find in Baku, but the Absheron peninsula offers a glimpse into the soul of Azerbaijan.
A tour might not be enough to get a full sense of Azerbaijan’s essence, but with a little exploring by yourself you will be rewarded with interesting experiences. After our tour we took another day to explore the Absheron Peninsula with public transport.
Things to do Absheron peninsula
The sights on our tour were rather peculiar. What was maybe the most amazing thing of the day was how ugly things were outside of Baku.
We were in shock because of the pollution. Every inch of the soil was exploited by the oil industry with abandoned pipes and machineries left to rust. Whole fields of iron donkeys dotted the dry desert landscapes.
A quick search on Google showed that nearby Sumqayit is in fact one of the most polluted cities in the world.
This is not a reason to dismiss the Absheron peninsula. It gives a fascinating look into Azeri culture where ancient traditions and superstitions survive alongside the cultural influences left behind by the Ottomans, Persians, Russians and others that once passed through the lands of fire.
Qobustan mud volcanoes
Our first stop were the mud volcanoes. Almost half of the 800 mud volcanoes in the world are in this area. We weren’t too excited about the bobbling and spitting muddy waters. Although it felt like I was on the moon rather than in Azerbaijan.
Our second stop was much more interesting. Up on a hill were several caves with very old petroglyphs of animals, hunters, warriors and dancing people. It shows the long history of human habitation in this region.
There are more than 600,000 rock paintings depicting prehistoric life. The landscape was once full of green forests which was hard to believe when we looked at the desert around us.
Bibi Heybat mosque
On the way to Gobustan is the Bibi Heybad mosque. The Shirvanshah dynasty built it in the 13th century around the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum, a descendant of Mohammed.
In Azeri culture a pir is a holy place that is often associated with the grave of a holy person. The Bibi Hebat Pir became an important place of worship for local people.
During communist rule it was destroyed, but when Azerbaijan gained its independence they immediately reconstructed the mosque to its original design.
The new building is quite impressive, but most pirs are simple shrines marked by a piece of colorful cloth tied to a tree. They have grown rapidly throughout the country after the collapse of the Soviet union and there are several important pirs in the Absheron peninsula.
To read more about pirs in Azerbaijan I can recommend this article about the persistence of pirs.
Yanar Dag: the burning hill
The last stop was a burning hill where natural gas evaporates from the earth. It was accidentally set on fire 50 years ago by a shepherd lighting his cigarette. It has been burning ever since, despite rain and snow.
Even some of the streams near Yanar Dag can be ignited with a match. Locals believe that the burning springs have curative powers.
Ateshgah: the fire temple
The next day we decided to explore some of the suburbs of Baku on our own. Our first stop was Ateshgah, the fire temple. Like Yanar dag natural gas evaporated from the soil and lit a fire that kept burning. It was a place of worship for both Zoroastrians and Hindus.
It’s origins remain unclear, but in the 7th century people already believed it was a holy place. In the late middle ages Indian merchants built the current structure. You will find inscriptions in Persian, Sanskrit and Punjabi.
The current fire is no longer natural as the gas reserves have been depleted under Soviet rule.
Mir Movsun Agha pir
After the fire temple we took a bus to the Mir Movsum Agha pir. Mir Movsum Agha was a disabled person, but locals believed he had supernatural powers and cured many diseases.
People still visit his grave looking for miraculous cures believing that a visit can make any wish come true. As with many pirs people sacrifice animals, sweets and money to the shrine, especially when their prayers have been answered.
The Mir Movsun Agha pir receives hundreds of visitors each day and they collect enough meat to help 600 local people that could otherwise not afford to eat meat.
Our last stop was the small town of Mardakan. One of the oldest villages in the Absheron peninsula with an old castle from the 13th century. Here was another interesting pir.
The Hassan pir is a shrine where they smash bottles above someones head to cure nervousness of spirit. Often patients first undergo childagh, a mystical treatment to relieve shock, fear and anxiety. The ancient practice involves burning cloth rolls that are used to touch certain nerve endings.
Exploring the Absheron peninsula was an interesting way to look beyond Baku where people live a less glamorous life. Soviet flats still dominate the suburbs and the local citybuses are rusty and always packed. There is maybe not deep poverty but people live a simple life amidst pollution. Moreover the oil wealth is nowhere to be found.
Logistics Absheron peninsula and Gobustan mud volcanoes
Option 1: Day tours
The easiest and most expensive way to explore the absheron peninsula is to take a tour. There are several daytours to Qobustan. Bag baku runs tours from 40 manat onwards depending on the amount of people that sign up. Therefore prices can vary a lot among the tour companies.
Most hostels also offer similar tours so I can recommemd to talk with your hostel and negotiate a good price with them. The more people, the cheaper it is per person. So it helps if you can find other people in your hostel to join the trip.
Option 2: Arranging your own taxi
In theory this would be the cheapest option if you dont want to take public transport. However, you need very good negotiation skills and a good intuition to know whether you have a trustworthy driver.
Also keep in mind that the mud volcanoes requires to go off road and not every cab in Baku wants to get their car dirty. In addition, they might not know where the mud volcanoes are.
Prices to Gobustan start from 45 manat onwards, depending on how many other things you include in your trip (Yanar dag, fire temple).
Option 3: Public transport
Travelling the Absheron peninsula by public transport is not straight forward, but not that difficult either. There are frequent buses and locals will help you find the right bus.
Gobustan: Gobustan is the most difficult to get to by public transport. You can take elet bound bus 195 and get off at the south end off qobustan town (before the overpass bridge). From here it still requires a taxi, but it will be cheaper. 10 manat to see the petroglyphs and 25 manat if you include the mud volcanoes
Bibi Heybad mosque: Bus number 124 leaves from the 28th may bus station or Sahil bus station (both bus stations are easily accesible by metro)
Yanar Dag: From metro station Koroglu take bus number 217 to Yanardag Reservation till the last stop (45 minutes)
Atesghah fire temple: From metro station Koroglu take bus number 184 to Surakhani railway station till the last stop (45 minutes)
Mir movsun agha: From metro station Koroglu take bus number 136 to Suvelan Cimerliyi and get out at Mir Movsum Aga mescidi
Mardakan: From metro station Koroglu take bus number 136 to Suvelan Cimerliyi and get out at Nizami Merkezi
Note: It is easy to travel from Baku to Atesghah and there continue with bus 136 to Mir movsun agha and mardakan in a single day. From the fire temple it is a 5-10 minute walk to the bus station where bus number 136 passes by.
To read more about everything there is to see in Baku you can read my post about the best of Baku: Oil, wealth and history
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.