When I first heard about mud volcanoes, I struggled to imagine what they could look like and how and why they exist. It was easy enough to search out information on the Internet, but even after checking it out that way I honestly didn’t know what to think. In the end, I simply had to make the trip to Qobustan to find out more and - more imoprtantly - see them for myself. Located about an hour south of Azerbaijan's bustling, modern capital of Baku, Qobustan is mostly famous for being a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its place in world history as once-home to an ancient civilization, as evidenced by 3,000-year-old petroglyphs. The region is also home to almost half of all of the world’s mud volcanoes.
The trip to Qobustan is an interesting one. The bus going past the area is – more often than not – one without air-conditioning, so keep that in mind if you’re travelling on a sweltering June day with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius, as I was. About an hour after departing Baku, the bus drops visitors off at a crossroad peppered with dusty old roadside shops before continuing on towards the south; on one side of the road is a huge, relatively new sign that reads ‘Qobustan’ with three petroglyph stick figure men that let you know you’re in the right place. Immediately upon exiting the bus, travellers can expect to be bombarded by taxi drivers wanting to get their business; after some quick negotiation, you should be able to arrive at a mutually agreeable price for the trip to the volcanoes and the petroglyphs.
Heading out of town, the trip to the mud volcanoes takes you off of the main highway and onto dirt roads that seem to lead exactly to the middle of nowhere but in actuality lead you up an impossibly steep ridge. The reward for making the climb up there is the impressive sight of your destination: the other-worldly plain that hosts the mud volcanoes. Other than a handful of other cars and a few tourists, I was alone to explore the area, but was first able to relax and let my eyes drink it all in. The ground was cracked and scaly from the lack of water and huge mounds of dried up earth dotted the landscape, with a view of the Caspian shoreline off in the distance. Around each mound pooled a river of greyish goo stuck like melted caramel.
Most of the mounds of earth are not much taller than an adult, and they do actually resemble mini-volcanoes. The greyish-goo mud flows look like lava flows and the cones of the volcanoes are filled with wet, gooey, bubbling mud. The mud slowly bubbles, pops and overflows out of the cone and down into the flow. During my visit, most had the muddy brew overflowing from its cones, but there was one volcano that was particularly active, spewing out bits of mud into the air. Going up as close as I dared, I peeked over the cone but was unable to see the bottom. A little further in the distance, there was a much taller mound, about ten meters high, with its massive bubbly brew and a trailing mud flow; a nearby pond was bubbling in its center.
Getting to the petroglyphs at the UNESCO site involves a bit of doubling back through the seemingly inhospitable dirt roads to the crossroads where the bus drops you off. From there you turn at the Qobustan sign and head down a paved road towards a rocky hill poking out of the desert landscape. Eventually, you pass through a gate from which, off in the distance, you can see a building that turns out to be a visitor’s centre and, as it happens, the only man-made structure in the area.
The centre explains a lot about petroglyphs and archeology in general, as well as the specific history of the ancient civilization that called the region home millennia ago. An interactive display offers information on what the carvings mean, though it’s difficult to fully understand until you make your way out and see the rock carvings for yourself. That in no means you should skip the info session; I would have been clueless without the basic information, just wandering around the rock carvings with ignorant fascination.
Outside the visitor's centre, the road continues up into the hill and eventually ends in a parking lot so it’s on foot from there, up the path towards the famous petroglyph sites, which are reportedly spread out over a hundred square kilometers – though the area where visitors are allowed to walk around is comfortably is no bigger than two football fields. The rock carvings are much smaller than I had expected, but are nonetheless impressive. They resemble children's doodles on a chalkboard, but it’s incredible to think that these drawings – depictions of hunters, ships and animals – were actually carved into the rocks thousands of years ago and are still plainly visible despite the wraths of nature and the passage of time. Of course, most of the rock carvings are out of reach from the footpaths, and those that aren’t have barriers and signs warning not to touch.
Walking towards the far end of the footpath, I was met by a staff member who gave me helpful explanations that offered even more insight into the area. A huge rock at the end of the footpaths was carved smooth into a concave bowl. I’d passed it thinking it was quite unusual, but didn’t know until the staffer told me that it was a drum, and then he gave me the chance to try it out. I hit it with a small rock and it made an unusual hollow sound that seemed to echo for quite a distance. He also explained the group of unnaturally round potholes on the land; they were built into the ground to collect rainwater, and an intricate system of ruts allowed water to flow more easily into them.
Another feather in the Qobustan historical cap is that it is said to be the furthest east that the Roman Empire reached. Nearby are inscriptions in rocks reportedly left by a Roman Legionnaire shortly before the end of the first century. It’s not the highlight of the trip by any means, but it is an interesting add-on to what already is an impressive trip back in time before heading back to the modernity of Baku at the end of the day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR