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Bubbling mud and ever-burning flames in Baku

The gas and oil that fuel Azerbaijan’s economy also create an otherworldly landscape

(above) The Mars-like landscape of Gobustan where mud bubbles up from the ground; and the ever-burning flames at Yanar Dag. Photographs from Alamy
(above) The Mars-like landscape of Gobustan where mud bubbles up from the ground; and the ever-burning flames at Yanar Dag. Photographs from Alamy

We leave our comfortable Mercedes minivan and jump into a Lada taxi to drive to the famous mud volcanoes of Gobustan in Azerbaijan. My husband and I are amused both by the battered car—a relic of former Soviet rule—and the suicidal speed at which the driver drives. Completely unfazed by what the speedometer shows or the non-existent roads, he chats away with our guide sitting beside him. Leaving Baku, we hurtle past low-lying hills and miles of barren land till we arrive at a handful of parked Lada taxis that herald our destination.

“This surface probably comes closest to that of Mars," says Elnur, our guide, as I stand atop a small mound peering into its large cavity. At regular intervals, a big bubble forms on the surface of the molten cement-like substance that fills it, and then bursts, sending specks of mud in all directions. Unlike magma or lava, the mud is ice cold.

Ringed by the blue Caspian Sea, the stark landscape, dominated by hillocks of varying sizes, with elephant-grey cracked mud running off the sides, is otherworldly. Apart from the howling wind and the loud plop when a bubble bursts, the scene looks and sounds fairly benign. Not surprising though as all the action is happening underneath. These active muddy puddles are formed when subterranean methane gas leaks through the earth’s surface. Mud volcanoes are found in subduction zones or places where the earth’s crust moves downwards and upwards, even colliding with each other, and indicate the presence of hydrocarbon and petroleum deposits. Over 400 of the world’s 1,000 mud volcanoes are scattered across Azerbaijan, a country that’s rich in oil and gas.

As we stand around, our driver scoops up mud in a broken plastic bottle and passes it to me, with a recommendation to apply it on my face. The clay-like mud is believed to be beneficial for the skin and is also said to work wonders for those suffering from rheumatism. It’s not advisable though to jump into a mud volcano unless it has been certified safe for bathing, as some may contain radioactive material. As tempting as the results of slathering on the mud sound, with a long day ahead, I pass up the offer.

Historically and culturally, oil and gas have defined Azerbaijan and the lives of its people. Known as the Paris of the east, the capital city Baku is filled with buildings that boast of European grandeur fuelled by oil money. Going back in time, explorers, traders and invaders were fascinated by the bizarre natural phenomena of bubbling mud and burning mountains that they encountered on their journeys through this country. Even 13th century explorer Marco Polo wrote about the mysterious fires he saw on his travels in the region.

It’s nearly time for sunset when we get to Yanar Dag, a natural gas fire that lies north of Baku. A 10m-long stretch at the base of the hill burns day and night, through rain and snow. According to local lore, the continuously burning flame was ignited when a shepherd tossed his cigarette butt at the spot. The burning mountain looks particularly fascinating at night and forms an enthralling backdrop against which musicians and dancers frequently perform.

At one time there were many such fires across the Absheron Peninsula, but widespread exploitation of oil and gas reduced ground pressure and most of the flames eventually died out. At the 17th century Ateshgah Temple, a 30-minute drive away, the main altar was built atop a natural flame which was extinguished in 1969. Since then, a gas pipe feeds the fire in the main altar. Like the mud volcanoes, Ateshgah is intriguing and baffling. Here, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the last thing we expect to hear is the sound of “Om" coming from a room, part of the complex surrounding the central courtyard that houses the main altar. Inside, we see lifelike models of ascetics performing penance and outside, above the doorways, inscriptions read “Shri Ganeshaya Namah". Debate continues whether the temple, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, was a Zoroastrian or Hindu place of worship, but research and excavations indicate that it probably began as the former, eventually turning into a Hindu temple. Hindu and Sikh traders passing through the region, part of the ancient Silk Route, used the complex as a temple and as a caravanserai or travellers’ inn.

Back in Baku, the skyscrapers known as the Flame Towers light up the night sky. The façades of three buildings are illuminated with thousands of LED lights that go from beaming the national flag to displays of pouring water and raging fire. The towers, the showstoppers of Baku’s skyline, serve as a constant reminder of the inextricable relationship the country shares with the burning flame.

Dubai-based Chaitali Patel writes about the arts, history and culture.

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