Qobustan: Petroglyphs and Sovietism – Against the Compass
The reason why one would go to Qobustan is to visit one of the country’s top tourist attractions: the most ancient petroglyphs ever found. On the other hand, this is going to be your first point of contact with the real ex-Soviet Union Republic of Azerbaijan
Maseratis, Rolls-Royces and endless luxury stores. The top fine-dining restaurants in the region, awesome pubs and an amazing social life. Sometimes, you just can’t believe what you are seeing: Why the hell has this country been off the tourist trails for so long?
Thanks to the oil business, Baku is a modern, clean and completely westernized city at the level of any other European capital. But you know what? Not everything is as beautiful as it seems…
Remember that, for more places to visit in the country, read my 3-week Azerbaijan itinerary
After spending a couple of days in Baku, I read about a place called Qobustan.
What is Qobustan?
It’s a town located 50 kilometers away from the capital, which is famous for containing some of the oldest petroglyphs ever found.
This is one of the country’s main touristic attractions. I liked the idea, so I decided to go there.
The cultural shock on arrival in Qobustan
I couldn’t wait to see the petroglyphs, so I caught an early morning bus. As soon as I arrived at the final destination and stepped out of the bus, I asked myself:
”WTF, am I still in Azerbaijan?”
Soviet buildings and cars were all over the place. There were people begging on the unpaved and dirty streets. The cafés were dodgy, dark and sad and, on a Tuesday at 10 am, they were packed with people because of the high unemployment rate.
Alcoholism is an issue, and it’s easy to figure it out when you see a bottle of vodka on almost every table. Welcome to the ex-Soviet Union Republic of Azerbaijan.
For all practical info to the country, read my travel tips for Azerbaijan
Qobustan is one of the many places in Azerbaijan that hasn’t benefited from the oil industry. It’s a city whose inhabitants strongly miss the Soviet Union because then, at least, they had three meals a day guaranteed.
The contrast between Baku and Qobustan is way too big. After spending three days in Baku, Qobustan was sort of a cultural shock for me.
I continued walking just to see more abandoned cars and houses falling apart. I took a couple of pictures of those streets, which was not a good idea, by the way, as some locals started to yell at me in their local language.
I didn’t need any translator because their message was more than clear: ”Get the fuck out of here”. This was something that one would never experience in Baku.
Since I hadn’t eaten anything, I went into one of those dodgy cafés I just mentioned previously. As usual, my camera was hanging from my neck and, as soon as I stepped in, one man stood up and got really aggressive with me for no reason.
He was telling me to fuck off (I guess) and looking at my camera, like if he wanted to take it from me and break it. I was about to leave the café but his friends calmed him down first. One of them approached me and said:
The random man: I apologize, this man is drunk and crazy. Don’t worry, there’s no problem at all.
He invited me to sit down.
The random man: What would you like to eat or drink?
I ordered a kebab and a pint of fresh beer. It couldn’t be cheaper. That man was a physicist who lives between London and Qobustan.
The random man: I am a physicist and also an inventor. I spend most of my time in London but, I also give conferences at different universities around the world.
I believed him. That guy knew things. His name was Ferid and he told me everything about the misery I just told you about. Ferid was the lucky one and the exception of Qobustan.
The story of the ancient petroglyphs
Let’s talk about petroglyphs. After all, this is what you came for, right? What’s the story behind those ancient engravings?
During the Stone Age, around 12,000-15,000 years ago, when the Caspian coast was richer and more fertile, a big group of hunters settled down in a set of caves in which they carved more than 600 petroglyphs (from the Greek words petros meaning “stone” and glyphein meaning “to carve”). Today, many of these stone carvings still remain and, the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve has become a UNESCO-listed Heritage Site.
Mostly, these petroglyphs represent livestock, different types of human figures and wild animals. No one knows with certainty what their actual meaning is, but there’s an interesting museum explaining the different interpretations of each and every carving.
Both the tribal dancing men and the reed boat are probably among the most popular ones. There are different interpretations of the actual meaning of the reed boat but, some archaeologists believe that, they represent death.
In addition to the petroglyphs, from the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve, you get to see interesting views of the different oil refineries over the Caspian Sea.
Practical information for visiting Qobustan – How to get in there?
Getting there by public transportation may be a bit tricky, especially because people in Baku don’t speak English at all. Below is a step by step guide on how to reach the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve by public transportation:
1 – Take the metro and drop off at Iç Eriseher Station. Price = 0.2AZN (10¢)
2 – Once outside of the metro, you’ll find yourself at the main square next to the old city. Ask anyone for the bus stop, which is 150 meters to the west
3 – Take the bus nº6. You need to go to another bus station to make another connection. Tell the driver you are going to Qobustan. He’ll tell you where to drop off exactly. Time: 15 minutes approximately. Price = 0.2AZN (10¢)
4 – Take the bus nº195. Tell the driver you want to visit the petroglyphs, so he will drop you off at the nearest place Time: 1h approximately. Price = 1.6AZN (80¢)
5 – The petroglyphs are around 10 kilometers away from the city. You need to take a cab. After negotiation, I got someone to take me for 12AZN ($6); round-trip, including a stop at the museum
6 – On the way back, tell the taxi to leave you at the city center
By the way, going there on a private taxi will cost you 20-25AZN ($10-$14); one way
One Travel Tip: In Azerbaijani, ”Q” is pronounced like a ”G”. When you ask for ”Qobustan”, better say ”Gobustan”. Otherwise, the locals won’t understand you.
More information about Azerbaijan
Don’t forget to check my 3-week travel itinerary to Azerbaijan
And my 3-day guide to visit Baku
For Georgia, here you check all my travel guides
Going to Iran instead? Here you can find all my travel guides to Iran