Absheron peninsula

  to    - darkometer rating:  5 -
                     (overall; individually between 1 for Arteshgah, and 8 for Artyom)
14 - northern end of ArtyomA semi-desert promontory that pokes out eastwards into the Caspian Sea just north-east of Baku, Azerbaijan. The area is littered with old oilfields and associated industries – and is hence heavily polluted: a surreal "post-apocalyptic" industrial wasteland – fascinating but way off the normal tourist trails, though some of it is (just about) accessible to curious off-the-beaten-tracks travellers. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations



More background info: The Absheron peninsula is kind of the birth place of the by now global oil drilling craze – at least it was the first place where this reached massive (early) industrial proportions. At the beginning of the 20th century it was the No. 1 oil production place on Earth, supplying nearly half the world's oil.
What began in the immediate environs of Baku soon moved further afield, and in particular all over the eastern part of the Absheron peninsula – and onwards beyond to offshore fields, including ones accessed from Arytom island off Absheron via wooden trestle bridge piers connecting the various offshore oil derricks. Later still, the legendary Neft Dashlari ('Oil Rocks') was effectively the first completely offshore oil rig – or rather system of rigs, a whole city built on stilts in the sea.
During WWII, Baku and its surrounding oil reserves became a prime target for Germany to occupy in order to secure vital oil supplies for Hitler's war. The German army, however, failed to capture Baku, or even to get close to it. Once it had suffered the severe defeat at Stalingrad (see Volgograd), the plan had to be given up altogether (instead synthetic fuel production was pushed ahead, e.g. at Auschwitz III Monowitz).
Baku was of course also important for the Soviet Union – although after Baku's potential vulnerability became clear during WWII, more efforts were made to drill for oil further in the east in Siberia (luckily for Russia today!).
In addition to just crude oil extraction, the region around Baku also became an important centre for other (in part related) industries, especially the chemical plants around Sumqayit. As so often, the masters in the Kremlin in Moscow cared little about the environmental costs of such industries on the edges of their empire. The pollution created by Sumqayit's chemical industry is one of the worst in the whole of the former Eastern Bloc.
These plants have mostly been shut down after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan's gaining independence. But ground pollution remains a serious problem to this day – even visibly so in some places.
Oil remains the backbone of the boom economy of contemporary Azerbaijan (additionally bolstered by natural gas). Most of it, however, takes place offshore these days. But you can still see much of the remnants of the older-style oil derricks and also many still pumping away, albeit on a comparatively smaller scale than the big modern rigs out in the Caspian Sea.
Oil, gas and fire has ancient historical importance in these parts as well. No wonder it was the heartland of Zoroastrianism – a fire-worshipping religion. One of its main centres can still be visited on the Absheron peninsula, namely the Ateshgah Fire Temple at Suraxani. Whereas the Yanar Dag fire mountain is a non-religious site of much more recent origin – but still testament of the spontaneous gas fires that these lands can emit straight from the ground, as already observed and reported by Marco Polo when he travelled through what is today Azerbaijan (the 'land of fire').
What there is to see: Even flying into Baku, visibility and flight path permitting, you can see the impact the oil industry has had on the region. Likewise, en route from the international airport to the centre of Baku you will pass through parts of Suraxani and may be able to see the oilfield installations of this district in the distance.
For most tourists that would already be more than enough, but the dark tourist with a leaning towards industrial wastelands sightseeing will want to see more. I was certainly intrigued and wanted to get to the grittiest most Mad-Max-film-set-like parts of this wastelands. And these lie further east and north. (There are also some to the south of Baku, which are partly covered under the separate entries for Qobustan and Baku).
So I arranged for a guided tour taking in Artyom, Sumqayit, Masazir salt lake and the famous Ateshgah fire temple of Suraxani as well as the fire mountain Yanar Dag … a few non-dark archaeological/cultural things were thrown in as well (see below). My main priority, however, was getting to Artyom.
This is the ultimate "best" (i.e. the worst – from an environmental point of view) of the Absheron oil-industry wastelands, to be found in its especially gritty form right at the northern tip of Artyom Island. This Caspian island lies just off the Absheron mainland but is connected to it by a road bridge. The island is also known under the Azeri name of Pirallahi adasi, but since most of the installations on it go back to the Soviet days I'll continue using the old Soviet name here.
En route you pass some military installations at either end of the bridge, including one that looked like an anti-aircraft missile battery. To the south of the bridge you can see some of those trestle bridge piers connecting offshore oil drilling installations. A few boats lie rusting on jetties by the bridge. Heading on north on Artyom island you then pass through the main settlement on the island – an especially drab collection of apartment blocks and generally a place oozing utter depressiveness.
Finally you get to the end of the roads at the northern end of Artyom, and this is the most surreal, nasty, wasteland of a post-apocalyptic aura of the highest order. On land, the ground is strewn with pumps, tanks, pipes and all manner of rusty old stuff interspersed with puddles of sludge and liquids whose chemical compositions you'd really rather not want to know. But the best is offshore: a forest of rusty old oil derricks, rusting wrecks of boats, plus a few that are still afloat and even moving things and people about.
From the northern-most point a trestle bridge pier takes a road out to the turquoise expanse of the Caspian Sea connecting strings of oil drilling platforms stretching out to the horizon. This is the closest you can get to seeing something like the legendary Neft Dashlari. The original is further out to sea, but this fantastically exotic place – an extensive off-shore oil extraction complex and city on stilts in the sea, now partly submerged due to the rising levels of the Caspian – is regrettably not normally accessible for non-oil-business visitors, (A special invitation would be required).
If you've seen the James Bond film "The World is Not Enough", then these types of installations will look familiar. Indeed, the relevant scenes in the film were shot near Baku, not at this particular point on Artyom. But, as I said, it's the closest to it you can get as a normal mortal. (Another film location is the aptly re-named "James Bond Oil Field" south of Baku – see under Qobustan.)
There's still some oil industry activity going on out here, so there's naturally no access to those trestle bridge piers. In fact, even getting a bit too close can arouse the suspicions of the security guards who man the little sentry huts where the piers meet the mainland. When I was there one of the guards approached us and my guide had to try and wave off the complaints by the guards about my taking pictures. He told the guard not to be so miffed, all this was after all just old rusty stuff. But we still moved on to a different vantage point further away from anyone looking too official. And apart from taking in the views and photographing a bit, any further poking about along the shores of this desolate spot was strongly discouraged by my guide. So eventually we set off back to the mainland.
Back on the main Absheron peninsula we next headed north-west towards Sumqayit, my second priority destination here. Sumqayit is a city on the northern Absheron shores on the Caspian – and there are even beaches and holiday resorts here. But for the dark tourist it's the old industrial zone to the south and west of the main town that forms the principal attraction. Again, you can't actually walk around any of these old plants, which are mostly shut down today. But a drive around the area provides good views of a thus very special sort of the dark aesthetics of industrial dereliction.
For the people living in Sumqayit through the dirty old days, that industry was of course mainly the source of so many of their troubles. But even speaking about it was suppressed during Soviet times. The record of the area in illnesses, stillbirths or birth defects spoke a clear enough language for itself, however, telling the locals that all was far from well here. Fortunately this is now history – at least in as much as such levels of pollution is no longer being created. But the detritus left behind from the heyday of the Sumqayit industries is still a heavy legacy.
The beach of Sumqayit only managed to a feeble degree to lift the depressing aura of the place. There's a seafront park with "amusements", cafes, and a strange swirly monument in the centre, from where decrepit steps lead down to the litter-strewn sandy expanse of the beach proper. People drive (no: they race) their cars down here right to and along the water's edge. When I visited, several brave locals were swimming in this suspect bay, or were fishing from an old dilapidated pier at the end of which remains of a shipwreck were rusting away in the waters. Parts had been brought to shore, probably to be recycled as scrap. But parts of the vessel, including a mast were still poking out of the sea. It makes for a strange beach scene far removed from the shiny happy beach holiday brochures in the West …
En route between Artyom and Sumqayit lies a little extra attraction that may also be of minor interest to the dark tourist: the eerily red-tinged salt lake of Masazir. It's well worth a little stop. Salt is actually being harvested here – and apparently you could even buy it. According to my guide it's "tasty" … although the colour of the briny waters and the proximity to all the pollution of Sumqayit and the Absheron oilfields would make me think twice before I tried any of it.
The final point of the tour was Yanar Dag – which means "fire mountain" in Azeri. Apparently a natural gas leak on a small hillock was ignited some time in the fifties and has been flaming away ever since. It's a particularly cool sight to behold at dusk or, better still, at night. So we made sure we got there after dark. Gazing into the flames you can't help but feel a certain affinity with those Zoroastrians of old ... although it's nowhere on the scale as at the Darvaza flaming gas crater in Turkmenistan.   
The Absheron tour I did actually started out with a site more developed for tourists ... and more mainstream than dark. Hence I'll only mention it at the end here: the Ateshgah Fire Temple at Suraxani. Here, fire has been worshiped in an ancient religious way since times immemorial, but today almost all visitors are tourists. A small museum, housed in a ring of buildings around the main courtyard and the fire, chronicles the religious significance of the site.
The fire, however, is no longer genuinely fed from the Earth's bowels as it had used to be. The natural source had long fizzled out because of all the nearby drilling lowered the gas pressure underground. The fuel for the fire temple is now artificially supplied through the area's main domestic gas supply.
There is one main fire flaming under a shrine-like stone structure, which has four little chimney-like corners on the roof .. once these used to flame too, but no longer today. Next to this shrine/temple is another fireplace in the open. Compared to Yanar Dag, the fire here is pretty unimpressive. Unless you also want to take in the historical background it's hardly worth bothering. It's certainly not really a dark tourism site at all, even if some of the dummies in the museum part have a slightly grim air about them, in a kind-of doll-like way.
Location: At various locations on the Absheron peninsula, Azerbaijan:
Artyom Island is furthest east, ca. 30 miles (45 km) from Baku.
Google maps locator:  [40.48,50.33]
The Sumqayit industrial wastelands are a good 20 miles (35 km) north-west of Baku.
Google maps locator: [40.58,49.60]
Masazir salt lake is about 12 miles south-east of Sumqayit.
Google maps locator: [40.525,49.762]
Yanar Dag fire mountain is located ca. 10 miles (16 km) out of central Baku to the north of the city – and ca. 16 miles (25 km) east of Sumqayit.
Google maps locator:  [40.5018,49.8912]
The Arteshgah Fire Temple is in the eastern Baku suburb of Suraxani, ca. 10 miles (15 km) from Baku Old Town.
 Google maps locator: [40.4155,50.0085].
Access and costs: in part tricky to do independently, easier as a guided tour, which however comes at a steep price.
Details: while it is in theory possible to reach Artyom island by public transport from Baku (by "marshrutka", one of those minibus taxis so common in the ex-Soviet part of the world), it cannot really be recommended. It would be a lengthy effort and it only gets you to the main town on Artyom, from where it's another mile or two to the northern end of the island. Walking it may well attract the attention of the police who, to quote the Lonely Planet guidebook (2008) for Azerbaijan, "might question your motives for coming here" (p 259). Having a local guide at this location, is definitely the better choice.
Similarly, you could quite easily get to Sumqayit (e.g. by train), but the derelict industrial area is out of town, way west of the station and city centre. Again, a guided tour makes it much easier to get near these parts (which aren't walkable at all any way). The same is true for the Masazir salt lake.
Yanar Dag is similarly off the regular public transport system, but at least it's well-known enough so you could simply take a taxi there.
The Ateshgah Fire Temple can be reached by "elektrichka" regional train from Baku, or by marshrutkas, to Suraxani station, from where it is only a few minutes walk.
I did all this as a day tour, starting a bit after noon and lasting till after dark, i.e. in august late in the evening (ca. 10 or 11 p.m.). The cost for the car with a driver and an English-speaking guide was a hefty 280 USD (for two persons) with the company that I eventually went for (I had quotes from others who would even have charged significantly more than that). Given the difficulty of access of some of these destinations, however, I think it paid off.
Time required: the best part of a whole day if done as one comprehensive tour with a car and driver (+ guide). Doing Yanar Dag at the end, after dark, means that in summer, when night falls rather late, you'd start the tour in the early afternoon and get back to Baku rather late.
Doing all the items described here independently (as far as that is possible at all – see above), would take significantly longer, probably two or three whole days.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Baku and Qobustan.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Baku – part of the tour described above already included not so dark elements, especially the Arteshgah Fire Temple, which is more a regular cultural tourist attraction than a genuine dark site to begin with.
The tour I went on also threw in a visit to a relatively new cultural attraction (it was not requested but I didn't complain), namely the "Qala Archeological [sic!] Ethnographic Museum" complex. It's at a historical site alright, but most of the complex was brought together from elsewhere or even built for the purpose of making this a cultural tourism sight. It thus felt a little artificial, if not fake, but still had some good bits. My wife liked the resident camels best, and what I found most entertaining (cliché!) was the pre-historic "porn", which in actual fact was just suggestive stone masonry depicting male and female shapes apparently doing it in rather ambitious Kama-Sutra-like positions. Our guide cheekily pointed it out – otherwise I wouldn't even have spotted it.
Qala is located roughly half way en route between the Arteshgah Fire Temple in Suraxani and the bridge to Artyom island, just south of the main road.
Google maps locator: [40.43955,50.16855]
  • 01 - Absheron oil derricks01 - Absheron oil derricks
  • 02 - oil derricks and camels, Absheron peninsula02 - oil derricks and camels, Absheron peninsula
  • 03 - oil drilling in the olden days03 - oil drilling in the olden days
  • 04 - Absheron Oil04 - Absheron Oil
  • 05 - Artyom dwelling05 - Artyom dwelling
  • 06 - off-shore Artyom Island looking west06 - off-shore Artyom Island looking west
  • 07 - Artyom Island northern tip07 - Artyom Island northern tip
  • 08 - Artyom rusting metal08 - Artyom rusting metal
  • 09 - off-shore oil derricks north of Artyom09 - off-shore oil derricks north of Artyom
  • 10 - wreck on Artyom shore10 - wreck on Artyom shore
  • 11 - still pumping oil on Artyom Island11 - still pumping oil on Artyom Island
  • 12 - trestle bridge to Artyom off-shore oil installations12 - trestle bridge to Artyom off-shore oil installations
  • 13 - off-shore oil installations north of Artyom13 - off-shore oil installations north of Artyom
  • 14 - northern end of Artyom14 - northern end of Artyom
  • 15 - more oil installations in the Caspian south of Artyom Island15 - more oil installations in the Caspian south of Artyom Island
  • 16 - oil drilling on Absheron peninsula16 - oil drilling on Absheron peninsula
  • 17 - entering Sumqayit17 - entering Sumqayit
  • 18 - Sumqayit old industry18 - Sumqayit old industry
  • 19 - rusting industry at Sumqayit19 - rusting industry at Sumqayit
  • 20 - derelict industial landscapes near Sumqayit20 - derelict industial landscapes near Sumqayit
  • 21 - the polluting chimneys now stand silent21 - the polluting chimneys now stand silent
  • 22 - rusting chemical plant, Sumqayit22 - rusting chemical plant, Sumqayit
  • 23 - you do not want to know what chemicals are lurking here23 - you do not want to know what chemicals are lurking here
  • 24 - dereliction at sunset24 - dereliction at sunset
  • 25 - some optimistic words about a NEW Sumqayit25 - some optimistic words about a NEW Sumqayit
  • 26 - Sumqayit seaside26 - Sumqayit seaside
  • 27 - scrap metal salvaged from a shipwreck27 - scrap metal salvaged from a shipwreck
  • 28 - swimming out near Sumqayit shipwreck28 - swimming out near Sumqayit shipwreck
  • 29 - aerial view of salt lake near Baku29 - aerial view of salt lake near Baku
  • 30 - Masazir salt lake on Absheron peninsula30 - Masazir salt lake on Absheron peninsula
  • 31 - gleaning salt from Masazir salt lake31 - gleaning salt from Masazir salt lake
  • 32 - Yanar Dag32 - Yanar Dag
  • 33 - fire mountain33 - fire mountain
  • 34 - blue and orange gas flames on Yanar Dag34 - blue and orange gas flames on Yanar Dag
  • 35 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire temple today35 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire temple today
  • 36 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire temple as it used to be36 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire temple as it used to be
  • 37 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire no longer natural37 - Ateshgah Zoroastrian fire no longer natural

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