Read an Excerpt
Baku to Älät Practical information Most of Baku's direct surroundings are covered in the Absheron section (see p000). However, the mud volcanoes, petroglyphs and extraordinary tank-graveyards to the south of the city are all within an hour's drive of Azneft Square. Even closer are the Shikhov beaches. If you are heading for central or southern Azerbaijan you'll have to pass this way anyway.
Transport The main M3 is well paved if bouncy, but with no lighting or lane markings it can be nerve-racking to drive at night. Much of the route is dual carriageway, crossing which requires you to find U-turn points (eg at Sangachal) which don't always correspond with turn-offs so you may need to do some doubling back.
Away from the main M3 most roads are in a poor state of repair. Nonetheless, a 4WD is unnecessary to reach most points of interest. Public transport runs regularly to Lökbatan via Shikhov/Bibi Heybat (eg #124 from Vurgun Gardens). Anything marked èãÄÜ serves the beaches. Bus #630 and 97 from Azneft Sq to Sahil are less frequent; only minibus #105 (from near the Old Intourist Hotel when full) reliably serves Gobustan and Älät. An occasional free shuttle bus runs to Crescent Beach Hotel from TsUM D bus stop (SW11).
Food and accommodation overview Crescent Beach Hotel at Shikhov is covered on p000. There's also a motel (Mavi Dalga/Blue Wave) south of Lökbatan. The best places for lunch are at Shikhov or the surprisingly good beachside Sahil restaurant in, yes, Sahil. There are a considerable number of roadside stalls in Gobustan specializing in cut-price bulk purchases notably alcoholic drinks.
Leaving Baku There are two main roads running south out of Baku. From the Botanical Gardens you can tumble down through Wolf's Gate (see p000) to Lökbatan with sweeping views over the southern coastline. Meanwhile the main M3 thunders through the once up-market Bayil (Bailov) suburb behind which is a dramatic rocky amphitheatre topped with the Baku TV tower. Swinging past the 'black gold' monument (hands scooping up oil) the road approaches Bibi Heybat, overlooking a forest of old oil derricks on the former Selimkhanov oilfield. It's ugly yet very photogenic at sunrise or sunset (photo opposite p000). Before the land was reclaimed from the Caspian, the waters here were famed for their subterranean gas vents. Nineteenth-century tourists reported eddies so powerful that they'd 'blow a passing boat right over'. But they rowed out here anyway to 'set fire to the water'.
Bibi Heybat At the Shikhov Point turning is the brand-new Masjid Bibi Heybat Mosque. Its formal opening in July 1998 was symbolic - the first Soviet-demolished mosque to have been totally rebuilt. The original 1257 version was one of Azerbaijan's holiest Muslim sites. It was built over the simple grave of 'Bibi' Okuma Khanum who had fled to the anonymity of Baku after her brother Reza, the seventh Imam, was ousted from power in Baghdad. The name Heybat is said to be that of her faithful servant who was buried nearby. The original historic structure was demolished in 1936 by the anti-religious communist regime.
Shikhov beaches Nearby Shikhov Point is a small, exceedingly popular beach, less for any inherent attraction than because it's the nearest to central Baku. Bus #237 from Azneft Sq runs all the way to the Sanatorium from where you scramble down past a slimy pond to the bathing area. Beware of the semi-submerged remnants of an old pier.
The main Shikhov beaches are a few kilometres beyond. The murky water is calm and passable for swimming if the wind direction blows the oily scum out to sea. There's sand underfoot despite the mainly rock and shell forebeach; the curious view of offshore oil rigs is a bonus. Shikhov has seen some considerable redevelopment in recent years.
The most up-market, groomed central section of beach belongs to Crescent Beach Hotel (see p000). They have jet skis ($25 per half hour) and windsurfers ($8 guests, $10 non-guests) for rent plus two dining options. The exclusively priced terrace restaurant goes by the rather unwieldy name Hooked and Snared on the Terrace (tel 974777). Intriguing menu items include Hibernian pasta with whisky sauce, kangaroo with spinach ($6.95, starter) and Emu steak in butter and Cointreau ($23). The Wild West Café serves an OK filter coffee as well as draught Guinness and is supposedly open all night.
Nearby, the big, renovated concrete Dostlyg Restaurant is not as expensive as the bow-tied waiters might imply and there's an open-air bar. Its beach is not exclusive, with many bathers spilling across from the tattier free area further north where unchaperoned women may encounter unwelcome attention.
Further south the shore gets increasingly hemmed in with reeds and there's rather a lot of underwater metalwork from partially submerged old beach facilities.
Lökbatan and Sahil South of Shikhov is a construction/reconditioning plant for semi-submersible oil rigs which sit with their long retractable metal legs poking at the skyline. The landscape is desolate with large commercial salt-pan lakes either side of the turn-off to Lökbatan. Sodium chloride is derived by evaporating the water runoff from less efficient local oil wells. The salt produced is rich in minerals like uranium and not the healthiest condiment to sprinkle on your chips. The most impressive views are from the low, grey hill south-west of town that's speckled with lazily turning nodding-donkey pumps and plenty of curiously twisted metallic scrap. You can climb the mud flow to the summit of the mud volcano which exploded catastrophically in 1975. The burning gas flare was visible from Baku.