Trans Eurasia travel

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Mardakan has a surprisingly wealthy air with some up-market dachas and several oil-boom mansions, tucked away in large gardens. The town sprawls from Shagan across a considerable area, merging into Shuvalan at the railway line just beyond the theatre, bus station and central bazaar

The main points of tourist interest are the two fortress towers: the 22m square tower (built in 1187 and rebuilt in the 14th century) is more impressive than the round tower (built in 1204, 15.5m high) which is stuck incongruously at the edge of a small overgrown park. Both have been very substantially restored but neither is well served by their suburban settings.

For locals a bigger draw is a stroll in Dendro Park. Formerly oil baron Muxtarov's dacha, this is a slightly scraggy botanical garden with mini zoo and a pedal-boating pond popular with kids. An intriguing feature is the great well with spiral stairs descending a wide, cool shaft beside a modest bungalow that's now a Yesenin museum. Yesenin, the fast-living 1920s' poet stayed here on the rebound from a tour of the USA and two short-lived, high-profile marriages (to Isadora Duncan and Tolstoy's granddaughter'). He had set off to Persia for inspiration but was so drunk by the time he reached Baku that he was persuaded he'd already arrived. His 'Persian Poems' were thus written while comfortably installed in the fine pseudo-moorish house (still standing at the northern end of Dendro Park) that had recently been confiscated from Muxtarov. Guest rooms here are available to rent by arrangement.

Another oil baron, Zeyalabdin Tagiyev, while still an all-powerful millionaire was warned by a koran-quoting holy man (Molla Abuturab) that all wealth was transitory - a gift from Allah who could take it back at any moment. It was a conversation Tagiyev was to rue when dispossessed by the communists. In respect to the holy man he asked that he one day be buried at the sage's feet as a token of religious penance. Oil baron is buried beneath a splendid egg-shaped stone pavilion surrounded by unexplained heaps of architectural fragments.

Near the two graves, one covered by a little cupola, is the Pir Hassan shrine, where superstitious locals queue up to have bottles smashed over their heads. It's considered a cure for nervousness of spirit. Seek out a bottle-wielding old crone near this shrine, stand beside the pile of smashed glass, bow your head and see what happens'. Don't forget to tip her.