June 09, 2015

The Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

If you are a regular reader of Far Flung Places you will know I have a penchant for volcanoes, particularly active ones. Travelling through Azerbaijan I had heard about their local version, the Mud Volcano, although getting to see one was not going to be so easy. 

Asking around in Baku no one had heard of them, and there were no organised trips to see them. As I was short on time I took a risk and hired a taxi, we agreed a price although the fare negotiation was somewhat difficult as the driver had no real idea where they were, just that they were in the general direction of Gobustan (spelt locally as Qobustan), a small village famed for its Prehistoric carvings.

It took us almost an hour to reach Gobustan, and then we kept stopping to ask the way. Policemen, taxi drivers, road workers, all were questioned, with often a reply being a shake of the head. Eventually we found an old man with a donkey who had heard of the Mud Volcanoes, and he drew a map in the dust on the road. It was in fact a very good map, for after retracing our journey for a few kilometers, and crossing a busy railway line, we headed up into the hills for 3 km and then turned left onto an unmarked track to an almost lunar landscape of bubbling mud.

Almost anywhere else in the world this would be a national park with toll booths, cafe's and lots of tourists standing behind fences admiring the volcanoes. Not here, the site was deserted and you could wander up to (and in, if you were not careful) the mud craters. My taxi driver appeared to be even more excited than I was, running up and down the volcanoes and watching in fascination as they belched mud.

Mud Volcanoes, also known as Sedimentary Volcanoes, are related to the more common magma volcanoes, but are instead full of cold mud mixed with gas and oil. At Gobustan there are about twenty volcanoes of varying size spread across a plateau. Some are as high as fifteen metres and some are barely raised above the surface. In the desert surroundings all that you can hear is a slurping porridge like noise each time a large amount of gas escapes. If you climb one of them you will feel a strange vibration in the cone as the gas prepares to erupt (this helps in taking photos of the eruptions!).

They are not as dangerous as magma volcanoes, although as this BBC report shows, they can be somewhat unpredictable particularly if the gas ignites (don't smoke while you are wandering around them!). There is also a risk of asphyxiation if too much gas escapes at once, although you would be very unlucky if that happened to you while visiting them.

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