Despite increasing development in recent decades, the 30 plus villages of the Absheron peninsula still harbour some of Azerbaijan’s most compelling history, culture and tradition, a collective legacy of the fire-worshipping Indians, Swedish entrepreneurs, Bolshevik revolutionaries, misplaced poets, avant-garde artists, and many more of the diverse peoples to have settled here over the years. What’s more, for those based in Baku and without their own transport, the Absheron, occupying the vast area of rocky steppes to the north of the capital, is easily accessible on easy-to-master local buses.

Famously, this region has long been associated with oil and fire and these are the components outsiders are most likely to hear about when venturing here. The fire-worshipping temple at Ateshgah in particular has long been a tourist hotspot. Even in 1858, the legendary French writer Alexandre Dumas was guided here by locals and later wrote:

From a hundred holes in the ground, some large, some small, spouted tongues of flame that the wind blew this way and that, flattened against the earth or whirled up to the sky, but could never extinguish. (From Adventures in the Caucasus, by Alexandre Dumas).

A mysteriously empty railway line passes through crumbling stations and dramatic oilfields on its way into the heart of the peninsula

The last remnant of this natural phenomenon can be seen at Yanar Dag (“Burning Mountain”), although prepare to be a bit disappointed – as opposed to in Dumas’ time, all that burns today is one small patch of an entirely unremarkable hillock.

Oil has been extracted on the Absheron for centuries, originally on a smaller scale to fuel lamps and for medicinal purposes, and then from the mid-19th century to spark an industrial boom, transforming the nature and size of Baku. In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks arrived, the capitalists fled and over the ensuing decades the Absheron became a haven for dachas, sanatoriums and holiday camps.

Later, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the region’s dramatic landscapes attracted a group of Soviet-era avant-garde artists collectively known as the “Absheron School,” who wandered aimlessly across the steppes and along the coast for hours on end.

It was in a similar spirit that I set out to explore the area over the last few months. The result is this somewhat alternative list of relatively undiscovered cultural curiosities and mini-adventures to be had on the Absheron…

A historic railway

Close to the city, a mysteriously empty railway line passes through crumbling stations and dramatic oilfields on its way into the heart of the peninsula. The only regular service today is the morning train from Baku to Sumgayit but in previous years it was part of a broad ring spanning the Absheron peninsula, shipping thousands of passengers daily between the city and the Absheron villages.

Late Soviet-era electrified trains such as this one on the line between Sabunchu and Zabrat are a rarity today. January 2017

The initial section is historic. When the Baku-Sabunchu-Surakhany railway line was completed in 1880, three years before the Transcaucasus Railway began operating between Baku and Tbilisi, it became the first railway in Azerbaijan. A further landmark was reached in 1926, when the Baku-Sabunchu-Surakhany line hosted the USSR’s first elektrichka (electric train), which became a ubiquitous suburban means of transport throughout the Soviet Union. On the Absheron, elektrichkas petered out in the post-Soviet years but kept running right up to 2009. Today many Baku residents still have warm memories of riding off to their dachas at the beginning of each summer.

Although you’re unlikely to find it in any tourist guides, an interesting hike begins at Sabunchu station and follows the line up through the oilfields where local life contrasts markedly with the glossy mirage of skyscrapers on Heydar Aliyev Avenue visible in the distance. From here I recently continued for several hours all the way to Mashtagha, passing a succession of abandoned stations and one or two characterful, green, Soviet-era elektrichkas, although a better option is to walk the small Sabunchu section, veer off the track for a brief tour of the oilfields (note: photographing the oilfields is not allowed!) and then head towards nearby Ramana Castle, reachable on foot or by bus (no. 204).

Ramana Castle is thought to have been built under the Shirvanshahs in the 14th century. February 2017

The castle was once part of a network of defensive fortifications across the Absheron built in the Middle Ages and, according to some, linked by underground tunnels. Today it offers dramatic views back over the historic oilfields that fuelled the rapid development of early 20th century Baku. In the foreground are several old barracks once belonging to the Nobel Brothers. Last year, a shepherd recounted, a scene of the film adaptation of Ali and Nino was filmed around the castle: “My sheep are in it!” He said excitedly.

Azerbaijan’s “Dead Sea”

Oil isn’t the only natural resource of historical significance on the Absheron; salt has also been extracted and traded here for centuries. Indeed the name Absheron derives from the Persian āb šur meaning “salty water.” At the turn of the 20th century, salt was collected from a number of Absheron lakes (there are over 100 natural lakes) – Boyukshor, Zigh, Qala, Masazyr, Kurdakhani, Khojahasan and Jeyranbatan – and exported to Russia and Iran. Today, however, due to excessive pollution following years of oil extraction only a couple of salt-producing lakes remain, the best known being lake Masazyr, an enormous body of pink-hued water lying between the villages of Masazyr, Binagadi and Novkhani.

In summer, the water level drops and entrepreneurial locals wade out to collect and trade salt. Others come to cure bad legs or skin disease by bathing in the shallows, whose pinkish colouration is either due to the high concentration of iodine in the salt or as a result of the sun’s effect on algae according to differing accounts. The western edge is more built-up, with several new lakeside housing developments and one or two adequate restaurants, whilst the eastern shore is more rugged and presents greater scope for exploration, particularly along the picturesque road snaking up past the new German-built salt factory to the village of Novkhani.

In summer, the water level drops and entrepreneurial locals wade out to collect salt

A salt sanatorium has been under construction for the last few years but it’s unclear if and when this will open. In the meantime the lack of tourist infrastructure gives the lake a relatively undiscovered feel.

Qutabs of Jorat

If you can’t find anywhere decent to eat around Lake Masazyr, not far from here is the small coastal settlement of Jorat, nestled between Novkhani and the city of Sumgayit. Jorat is reputed for making Azerbaijan’s best qutabs - traditionally large flat pancakes with beef, cheese or herbs. But the Jorat variety are different: they are much smaller, thicker, served with tomato, sour cream or cheese-based sauces, and washed down with fresh fruit compote.

A special delicacy, however, are those made from camel meat sourced from a nearby camel farm. Cuisine aside, the Novkhani-Jorat coastline has some of the quietest beaches on the Absheron.

Mardakan’s dachas

During the first oil boom of the late 19th century Mardakan attracted a succession of oil barons and other tycoons with its clean air and setting on top of a hill, a few kilometres from the sea. Renowned magnates and philanthropists such as Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, Shamsi Asadullayev and Murtuza Mukhtarov built astonishing dachas here with pools, fruit trees and soil specially imported on barges from Lenkeran. But these dachas suffered a tragic fate; when the Bolsheviks came to power grand properties such as these were confiscated overnight and converted into sanatoriums, their owners fleeing into exile.

Some of them still function today and to see them Yesenin Street is the best place to start. It was here that Murtuza Mukhtarov, Shamsi Asadullayev, Musa Naghiyev and the Ashurbekovs built their summer residences, all of which are still there, albeit in a decrepit state. The exception is Mukhtarov’s former dacha, which became and still is a botanical garden and contains a small house museum to Russian poet Sergey Yesenin, who stayed at the former dacha in 1924 and 1925 and wrote his Persian Motifs, a collection of poems inspired by the exoticism he found in Azerbaijan. Next door is the childhood wonderland of Banine, granddaughter of Shamsi Asadullayev, who wrote extensively about the family dacha in her fascinating memoirs, Caucasian Days, published in Paris in 1945 (See The Eventful Life of Banine, Summer 2016).

A pre-revolution-era statue in the grounds of the Asadullayevs’ former dacha. February 2017

The Asadullayevs’ dacha became a military hospital, then a sanatorium for intestinal diseases and since the early 1990s a home for refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In a similar twist of fate, the former dacha of Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, where he spent his final years, became a military hospital during the Second World War and then a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. In the 1990s part of the property was handed back to Taghiyev’s descendants, several of his great-grandchildren live there today.

Folk medicine

Taghiyev himself was buried just around the corner at Pir Hasan, which is also worth visiting for its trilogy of folk rituals designed to reduce stress.

The first of these is childagh, an age-old treatment whose precise origins are unknown and which is sooner associated with the village of Mashtagha. Childagh is a mystical treatment designed to relieve shock, fear, anxiety or trauma which involves stubbing small cigar-like, burning cloth rolls into specific nerve endings on the wrists, neck, torso, forehead and lower legs. One 73-year-old Mashtagha resident explained that this stimulates the nerve system and blood circulation. Having tried it myself I tend to agree; following the shock of the first stubbing, I found the experience oddly pleasurable.

Pir Hasan in Mardakan. February 2017

Clients come to Mashtagha and Mardakan from Baku and surrounding villages and judging by the steady stream of patients that I witnessed this ancient practice remains a feature of life on the Absheron. In Mashtagha several practitioners (childaghchi) are thought to have God-given powers; one family in particular on Mirza Akhund Abdulkerim St. has been practising childagh for over 100 years.

Back at Mardakan’s Pir Hasan childagh is followed by a bottle-smashing ritual that tests the level of anxiety left in the body: if you react strongly to the sound of the smash, you may need some more childagh. In part three, which takes place just down the steps, visitors walk three circuits of the gravestone of Khadija Khanim, daughter of the seventh imam Musa al-Kadhim, kneel with fingers in small holes and conclude by making a wish.

If following this you still feel in need of enlightenment, hop on bus no.136 and ride the short distance to Shuvelan, where the Mir Movsun Agha mausoleum is another revered place of pilgrimage. Mir Movsun Agha (1883-1950) was paralysed as a child but developed supernatural healing abilities that enabled him to heal people with the touch of his hand. His elaborately decorated mausoleum in Shuvelan is visited by newlyweds, people suffering from ill health and those simply seeking positivity and good fortune.

Island of Pirallahi

Continuing on the holy theme, Pirallahi (God’s Sanctuary) is a small island off the northeastern part of the peninsula. The name echoes back to the ancient fire worshippers who witnessed the extraordinary scene of flames spouting from the ground and considered the island holy. In Soviet times it was renamed Artyom after a famous revolutionary and comrade of Lenin, Fedor Andreyevich Sergeyev, also known as “Comrade Artyom,” whose biography – including a stint rousing workers in Eastern Australia - would make for a thrilling novel.

Many locals still endearingly refer to the island as Artyom, perhaps because the Soviet period was the island’s heyday, during which workers from across the USSR were attracted by the oil industry and day-trippers from Baku would venture here on fishing trips and family picnics. Prior to this, the island had been largely uninhabited until the Nobel Brothers began drilling for oil here in the 1860s.

On a recent visit I discovered the remnants of Pirallahi’s uniquely multicultural society, meeting Russians, Lezgins, a Ukrainian and a Tartar in the space of only a few hours. Russian language was noticeably more in use here than in other parts of the Absheron. Yet, in reality, many long-time residents left in the chaos of the post-Soviet years, and the island’s population (of roughly 30,000) now comprises those that remained as well as IDPs from Armenian-occupied areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The historic oilfields still function at the far end of the island although locals informed that extraction was now scaling down and focusing more offshore. Elsewhere some quaint wooden houses harking back to the early Soviet years occupy several streets just off the main avenue. In 2013 Pirallahi was declared a district and ambitious development projects followed: thousands of trees have been planted and plans made to construct a technology park, medicine factory and tourist infrastructure, including a Disneyland. If followed through, they may breathe some much-needed new life into the area. In the meantime, however, the dramatic landscapes, intriguing history and somewhat otherworldly nature of Pirallahi make this an offbeat place to visit.

National park

In previous years, observing Caspian Seals swimming in the waters off Artyom may have been another reason to visit, but given current low water levels the best place to see them is likely to be at the tip of the Absheron National Park, occupying the eagle’s beak of the peninsula.

Established in 2005 to protect the Caspian Seal, this is probably the last patch of genuine wilderness on the Absheron. Besides seals (appearance dependent on water levels), a number of other species inhabit the park, including wolves, gazelles, wild boar and a huge variety of birdlife. But watch where you tread! From April onwards the ground begins to wriggle as a large number of snakes appear; one species - the notorious gurza - is poisonous.

            Elsewhere, an abandoned bunker and underground tunnel system are evidence of the Soviet army base that protected the country’s southern, Caspian borders from here up until the 1970s. Two routes lead visitors around the park, one of which goes all the way to the very tip of the peninsula. A guide will either accompany or instruct groups on the flora and fauna and code of conduct. Entrance costs 2AZN; the park is open from 9am-6pm in spring/summer.

Just before you reach the park the Zire coastline is less developed than the likes of Bilgah, Buzovna and Mardakan, but its simplicity and ruggedness, harking back to the Absheron of times gone by, may well offer a more authentic beach experience.

Of course this is by no means an exhaustive list; mention must be made of Bilgah’s saffron, Zire’s tomatoes and the Mashtagha flower mafia, but those are stories for another time. In the meantime, perhaps the above will inspire you, like me, to follow in the footsteps of those wandering artists of the Absheron School, to venture slightly off the beaten track and create your own mini-adventures. If you do, Visions would certainly love to hear about it!

Buses from Koroghlu metro to:
Sabunchu (and Ramana) – 204
Mardakan – 136
Pirallahi – 150
Zire (for the Absheron National Park, get off at Zire and take a taxi) – 175
Mashtagha - 131

From Ajemi Metro to:
Masazyr – No.525