844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Mud Volcanoes & Dead Guy On A Camel (Gobustan, Azerbaijan)

April 27th, 2010 - Smiling is out. Stoic melancholy is in. You know what they say, when in Rome. I've read that this general lack of enthusiasm is cultural in nature. People do not generally smile at strangers on the street and woman rarely make eye contact with males in public. I've even read that random bouts of smiling might be interpreted as a consequence of mental retardation, although I feel that may be a bit of an exaggeration especially with regards to a foreigner. The phenomenon is even more pronounced in the business world as maintaining a serious countenance is considered a sign of professionalism.

So I guess I'll give it a shot and put on my grumpy face when roaming the streets. Not such an easy task as I've found a simple smile useful for breaking the ice in much of the world. Heeeere.....not so much. The problem is that the more I try to stifle my smile reflex the more I want to laugh. Facing down individuals who seem unnaturally serious given the circumstances does nothing to help my ability to practice self-restraint.

Yesterday, a friend and I (a German gentleman named Sascha) rented a 4WD and headed south. Our agenda: oil fields, mud volcanoes, petroglyphs, tank graveyards, and random incursions into the countryside. Just two yahoos and a Hyundai Tuscon. What more do you need?

Our first stop was the Bibi Heybat Mosque. The original mosque that stood here was built in 1257 AD but was destroyed by the Soviets around 1934. The structure as it now stands was opened in 1998. The mosque overlooks what has become known as the 'James Bond' oilfields for their role in the opening sequence of The World Is Not Enough' (no doubt chosen for 'end of the world Mad Max' feel of the area). 

After the mosque we hopped in the Tuscon and headed down into the oil fields. 'Forlorn' and 'god-forsaken' would be appropriate adjectives for what we encountered. In fact this was to be the general theme throughout the day. It is basically what happens when you mix soul-less development with Soviet imagination (or lack there of). Standing in the midst of nodding donkey oil pumps with the smell of oil wafting in the air it is not too difficult to imagine an post-apocalyptic world run by 'the machines'. Captivating and photogenic in that perverse 'How f@#$ed up is this?' kind of way.

The farther south you go the more and more it feels like the land that the Soviets forgot (and everyone else for that matter). As we drove along I began to wonder if these folks even noticed when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan gained its independence.

Our next intended stop was the petroglyphs of Gobustan but a wrong turn (I blame me) led us to the boulder strewn slopes of lower Mt. Kichik Dash. Although we did not realize where we were at the time we found ourselves at Qara-Atli Baba Pir or cave of the Black Horse Grand Dad (according to the all knowing guide book). It is reputed to be a place of miracles and a sort of pilgrimage site for those looking for a bit of luck. Supposedly, an old man retreated here after being pursued by 'pagan enemies' and was saved after a spontaneously formed supernatural spider web hid the cave's entrance from view. Need luck? All you need do is lodge seven stones on top of the 'happiness rock'. 

Nestled in the same hills is a graveyard that feels decidedly out of place. No one appears to live in the area (pardon the pun). The quasi-dwellings we did see appear to exist for the benefit of pilgrims or cow/sheep herders and seem to be temporary in nature. I guess being buried near cave of the Black Horse Grand Dad (say it fast ten times) is desirable.

Cave of the Black Horse Grand Dad

Next was the mud volcanoes of Gobustan. Azerbaijan is home to over 400 hundred of these geologic anomalies (about half the world total) formed by the geo-excretions of liquids and gases. They have been known to explode with authority, ejecting tons of mud and meters of flame into the air. This is where the 4WD was essential as the dirt track leading to the site was nothing short of a mudskipper's utopia. We slipped. We slid. We fishtailed. We nearly became glued to the landscape. A la shitload of fun.

The whole episode unfolded to the melodious sound of a light jazz radio station and was somehow strangely appropriate. The sound of saxophone meshes perfectly with the sound of a revving engine and the sight of mud splattering across the windshield. Although the track led right to the volcanoes themselves the recent rains made the last 400 meters nigh impossible. We parked beneath the hill leading to the area and began our slog. On the way up we encountered a sheep herder tending to his flock. He was accompanied by three of the signature canines used to assist with the job. I've heard that these pooches can be quite vicious. On the way in a couple chased our vehicle through the mud for over half a kilometer barking like lunatics the whole way. So it is understandable when one approached us why I was filled with mild pangs of trepidation. Luckily, Fido was quite docile but it did not look like it would take much to set him off.

How shall I describe the mud? Ever step in dog dooky (the pasty non-turd variety)? Well, imagine replacing the layer of topsoil normally present with 1 to 3 inches of soggy Lassie pies. It is insidious. Wanna know why the Germans had such a hard time in Russia during spring offensives? Blame the kaka mud. As you trudge through it binds to your shoes and continues to do so until walking becomes oppressive and you appear to be wearing the mud version of snowshoes. The only upside stems from its inherent stickiness. Its adhesive nature provides much needed traction when walking uphill. Had it not been for this I believe Sashca and I would have been doing a constant 'ass over tea kettle' interpretive dance.

After about fifteen minutes we reached our goal and were presented with a surrealistic mud-soaked landscape of miniature bubbling, gurgling volcanoes. It felt a little like we were walking through a student's eight grade Earth Science project. The going was slow and a careful balancing technique was required to avoid the sort of bath people pay good money to experience at the spa. Mud oozes out of the earth like puss from an open wound, punctuated by a bubble-associated geologic 'burp'. The constant gurgling resembles that of a 'mad' scientific laboratory. Mega-neato.

Nice doggy.

Mud Bubble Art

After our second bout of mud bogging we rejoined terra firma and headed to the Gobustan Petroglyphs. The cave carvings, although intriguing, are more of an anthropologist's wet dream than a compelling tourist hotspot. Still it was worth a look. The fact that ancient man made these drawings over five thousand years ago is a bit mind boggling (at least my mind was boggled). The actual date for many of the drawings seems to be up for debate and ranges from 5,000 to 40,000 years (way to narrow it down). The area may even represent one of the original cradles of civilization. After a brief tour punctuated by grunting and pointing (our guide did not speak English) we mounted our Tuscon and proceed back towards Baku. 

The 'drive off into the countryside for shits and giggles' portion of our trip came near the town of Sangachal. We'd read about an isolated cemetery situated half way between the middle of nowhere and the moon. Our piquing curiosity compelled us to investigate. After a twenty minute drive through dirt flats speckled with shrubs and decorated with electricity pylons we arrived. One might be curious to know why the hell one would choose such an odd place to intern your loved ones. One would be justified in wondering such. The area is considered sacred because it contains the remains of a local holy man. Apparently, he requested that his dead body be placed on a camel and buried where Mr. Dromedary decided to rest. Guess where Joe Camel stopped? In a courtyard on the edge of the cemetery lies the remains of the holy man inside a concrete tomb while just outside the door lies a concrete camel to match. Awesome.

The camel stops here

Exactly what I am putting on my gravestone

That's just f***ing dirty. 

We made a half-hearted attempt at visiting an old Soviet tank graveyard but were rebuffed immediately by not so cordial guard in a yellow rain suit. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. I am sure if would love us if he would just get to know us.....sniffle.

Our last stop was a construction/reconditioning plant for semi-submersible oil rigs on the Caspian Sea. As I stood upon the shore and gazed at these menacing metallic behemoths I was struck by the sensation of just having set foot on the set of a Star Wars film. Part of me expected to see Storm Troopers patrolling the decks. Breaching a hole in the fence and stepping along the access way drew the attention of a security guard that was of the 'grumpy fat Azeri dude' disposition. Rebuffed again. Double fiddlesticks. At least we did not get arrested or draw the attention of the local police (a common occurrence for foreigners in the area). Sascha and I arrived at the conclusion that next time such an endeavor would be accompanied by vodka and cigarettes (for them, not us). 

The other night I stopped for water on the streets of Baku when I spot 'Tom' chilling out down a corridor. I thought this was a might odd and felt a picture was in order. When I asked the gentleman working the kiosk (who spoke very little English) where I could find 'Jerry' he replied with 'Jerry upstair sleeping'. Excellent.

"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget." -- Arundhati Roy

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