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Mud volcanoes of Qobustan

  
 - darkometer rating:  3 -
 
07 - mud bubbleA really bizarre sight that is almost unique to Azerbaijan: bubbling, spitting, leaking, oozing, grey mud volcanoes. One set of these, near Qobustan, is even on the tourist trail and should definitely not be missed. A tour to Qobustan also allows good views of some of the oil industry south of Baku

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

More background info: Nowhere else in the world are there so many mud volcanoes as in Azerbaijan – which has literally hundreds of these strange things, more than in the rest of the world put together.
 
Mud volcanoes are a strange phenomenon of water and soil mixtures pressed out of the Earth's crust by gas field pressure. Unlike proper magma/lava volcanoes, the mud from mud volcanoes is usually cold. They can, however, also spit fire, literally, when gas vents ignite (see Absheron peninsula). Occasionally they even explode in big eruptions (as in 2001 – see this report) … although none are as devastating as the artificially triggered one at Sidoarjo in Indonesia.
 
Not that many of Azerbaijan's mud volcanoes  are accessible to the casual tourist in any case – some are not even on land, but form new islands in the sea (as has happened quite recently off the Caspian shores of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan).
 
The easiest ones to access are the mud volcanoes near Qobustan, which are also normally quite peaceful. But it's an utterly eeri thing to look at all the same.
 
These mud volcanoes are a tourist attraction mainly because Qobustan is on the tourist trail anyway for its remarkable ancient petroglyphs (rock engravings) in the same area. Tours combining both these petroglyphs and a selection of mud volcanoes are offered by various operators from Baku.
 
 
What there is to see: While most of Azerbaijan's many mud volcanoes are way off any tourist routes, the ones near Qobustan (also spelled Gobustan) are the exception to the rule. Many tour operators in Baku offer excursions to both the mud volcanoes and the nearby historical/archaeological site with its petroglyphs (see below).
 
The mud volcanoes of Qobustan are not the biggest specimens of their kind, but they are fascinating all the same. In fact, their comparatively small size has the advantage that you can get right up close – you can even touch the mud if you like (it's indeed just cold mud, as I can testify). The best bit, however, is just watching the bubbly action. And listening to it. Many of these flatulent little vents make rather suggestive noises.
 
How much action there will be at any given time will vary a bit, but at the very least you should be able to see some bursting gas bubbles and spluttering ejections of mud from the more virile volcano vents.
 
Most of them are on the top of cones some 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 metres) high, but there is also one flat, almost perfectly circular mud lake a bit off the mud volcano cones proper.  
 
And if you're really into mud, you can even do so literally: go into the mud that is, namely in that same said mud lake, and wallow about in it. I've not done it myself but have seen video clips online of some quite astonishing mud-bathing – with one person even completely submersing herself in the mud only to suddenly come out looking like some horror movie zombie …
 
Apart from the muddy action, the whole scenery is quite amazing, an otherworldly moonscape surrounded by the semi-desert along the Caspian Sea, which forms a turquoise backdrop to it all.
 
The waters of the Caspian Sea itself are studded with countless oil rigs, as well as those systems of connected trestle bridge piers (like at the legendary Neft Dashlari – see under Absheron).
 
The oil industry installations and the detritus and pollution left by it in the area form a kind of dark attraction in its own right too – on the tour to Qobustan you can see some of this.
 
The biggest and starkest oil-industry-related sight has to be the oil rig cemetery near Lokbatan. You can see it from miles away as you approach it. The main M3 road leading south-west from Baku en route to Qobustan goes right past this monster graveyard. They almost look like giant spiders made of iron lying on their backs, with their long "legs" poking into the sky. These are indeed the legs, or stilts, of the old rigs, poking out upwards because the rigs are parked in shallow waters. When I visited (in August 2010) there was also a sea-oil-rig (like those used in the open sea such as the North Sea off Norway or Great Britain) parked just beyond the cluster closer to the shore. Amazingly, there are even beach resorts nearby – where one can behold the unusual sight of beach folk frolicking about in their usual beachy ways, all against the backdrop of these gigantic metal rigs.
 
Even closer to Baku, in fact right at its southern end, there's a viewpoint from where the (in)famous James Bond Oil Field can bee seen. This acquired its epithet because some scenes of the James Bond movie "The World is Not Enough" were shot there. The site was well chosen to convey a gritty, dirty atmosphere: a forest of derricks and nodding donkeys in an expanse of grimy, sludgy, pollution. I've even seen video clips of tourists driving right through this. But when I was there I was told that this is no longer possible due to tightened security measures. So I had to make do with the view from the square in front of the Bibi Heybat mosque that stands on a hill above the South Bay Caspian shipyard, just beyond the oil fields.
 
The sight is no longer as gritty as in the film – the area has more recently been cleaned up quite a bit. The nodding donkeys are still there, still nodding away (i.e. pumping oil), but now they are all painted a clean bright blue. And the ground has clearly been sanitized a lot too. Certainly good for ecological reasons, but a bit of a shame from a dark tourism perspective. But it's not all lost. If you still want to see the oil industrial wastelands of Azerbaijan at their very grittiest, you should instead head out to the eastern end of the Absheron peninsula, to the northern tip of Artyom island.
 
The guided day excursion tours to Qobustan typically take in (even as the main destination) the historical site with its many petroglyphs on the rocky hills above the town Qobustan. As this is hardly a dark tourism attraction, it's described below under non-dark destinations.
 
 
Location(s): the mud volcanoes of Qobustan are actually located a bit south of the town of the same name, just inland from the Caspian coastal town Alat, ca. 40 miles (65 km) south-west of Azerbaijan's capital city Baku.
 
Google maps locators:
 
 
 
The Qobustan historical site with its petroglyphs, in contrast, is indeed to be found in the hillside just above Qobustan town.
 
 
 
The oil rig cemetery of Lokbatan is just off the Caspian shore between Qobustan and Baku, closer to the latter, ca. 7 miles (12 km) from the city centre – and about 3 miles (5 km) west of Bibi Heybat mosque.
 
 
 
Bibi Heybat mosque, from where the South Bay shipyard and James Bond Oil Field beyond can be seen, is on the southern edge of Baku, about 4 miles (7 km) from the Old Town, just before the spot where the M3 route turns westwards.
 
 
 
Access and costs: fairly easy by guided tour, trickier independently; not cheap either way.
 
Details: in theory you could get to the mud volcanoes independently and somewhat more cheaply. First take a bus to Alat and get off at Qobustan town (this is very cheap), then haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the mud volcanoes (not so cheap – the drivers are known to charge tourists rather steep fares). You could also go by taxi all the way from Baku – but apparently Baku taxi drivers do not necessarily know where to find the mud volcanoes.  
 
If you want to drive it yourself, you too will need directions: first head south from Baku on the M3 route, which leads all the way to Lankaran and Astara on the border with Iran. Pass through Qobustan town and ca. 10 miles (15 km) onwards you'll get to the junction in Alat (Elat), where the A324 branches off. Take this and then turn off to the right at the first opportunity and immediately left to take small road that leads towards and crosses the train line. Just beyond the level crossing take the dirt track to the right and go straight (crossing some pipelines) for about 2 miles (3 km). As the track starts curving into the hills keep right and just beyond a patch of black oil seeping from the ground look for an old rusty oil valve poking out of a little hillock and park there … unless you have a 4x4 in which case you can drive up the rickety track that branches off to the right up the hill. If you only have a normal car you'll have to climb it on foot. Once at the top you will see the characteristic grey cones of the mud volcanoes.
 
The oil rig cemetery and Bibi Heybat mosque are both just off the M3 and cannot be missed. Parking may be a bigger problem.
 
Hiring a car in Azerbaijan is not cheap, though, so you could just as well look into hiring a car with driver and a guide. This also takes all the navigation out of the equation and generally makes things easier. It's obviously not cheap in a country with such oil boom inflated price levels, but may still be worth it. My wife and I paid 150 USD to the UK-based tour-operator who we eventually decided on (I also had other quotes, which were all similarly priced or even more expensive). This price was for a car with driver and a competent English-speaking guide. The tour included all the stops mentioned here. There were no extras ... other than a tip. It is quite an investment, yes, but the hassle you save for it should not be underestimated.
 
 
Time required: Just having good look at the mud volcanoes can take between half an hour and maybe a good hour, more if you even want to go for a mud bath in the mud lake. Getting there from Baku takes the most time. If done in combination with the Qobustan petroglyphs and a stop at Bibi Heybat mosque, the trip takes about 5 to 6 hours.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: if you liked seeing the oil industry detritus south of Baku and the rig cemetery at Lokbatan, then you will most definitely love Artyom island's northern tip just off the eastern end of the Absheron peninsula!
 
For yet more dark sites see under Baku.  
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Qobustan is primarily a non-dark tourism destination, namely for its historical site with numerous ancient petroglyphs, and tours to Qobustan regularly combine this with a short visit to the mud volcanoes. If you're into such extremely old, almost pre-historic evidence of humanity's artistic streak, then the Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve may be just the thing for you. You can make out various animal shapes, as well as those of the hunters who used to live here. Some of the rock engravings (rather than paintings) are easier to interpret than others. The more obscure ones may require explanations by a guide to understand what they depict.
 
Personally I found it a bit dull, to be frank. OK, you can admire the sheer age of these doodles scratched into the rock face, but the excitement wore off for me very quickly indeed. I found the modern signs painted onto rocks to warn visitors of snakes (or is to warn the snakes?), or admonishing visitors not to touch anything, at least as entertaining.
 
The museum at the site is almost endearingly old-fashioned and simple: it mostly shows dioramas filled with little doll-size cavemen mannequins in their daily routines of hunting and gathering and such like. A few artefacts and photos (one is of a skeleton found at one of the archaeological sites in the area) complement the rather naïve exhibition. The best thing about the place is the views over to the Caspian.
 
Closer to Baku, the Bibi Heybat mosque not only allows good views over the harbour and oil drilling fields but is also worth a visit in its own right. The structure itself is quite young (built in 1998), but it's on the site of an older and rather significant shrine. The inside is tiled in a very deep green – really quite pretty.
 
  
 
  • 01 - Qobustan eerie moonscape01 - Qobustan eerie moonscape
  • 02 - mud seeping down from a mud volcano02 - mud seeping down from a mud volcano
  • 03 - bubbling mud03 - bubbling mud
  • 04 - a little mud crater04 - a little mud crater
  • 05 - blob blob05 - blob blob
  • 06 - bursting mud bubble06 - bursting mud bubble
  • 07 - mud bubble07 - mud bubble
  • 08 - mud lake08 - mud lake
  • 09 - evidence of mud bathers on the edge of the mud lake09 - evidence of mud bathers on the edge of the mud lake
  • 10 - edge of Qobustan mud lake10 - edge of Qobustan mud lake
  • 11 - mud ejection11 - mud ejection
  • 12 - rings formed by bubbling mud12 - rings formed by bubbling mud
  • 13 - another mud ejaculation13 - another mud ejaculation
  • 14 - overflowing mud14 - overflowing mud
  • 15 - mud crust bleached by the desert sun15 - mud crust bleached by the desert sun
  • 15b - rusty old oil valve by the mud volcano hill15b - rusty old oil valve by the mud volcano hill
  • 16 - Qobustan petroglyphs16 - Qobustan petroglyphs
  • 17 - more ancient doodles including a snake17 - more ancient doodles including a snake
  • 18 - no snakes allowed18 - no snakes allowed
  • 19 - do not touch the pork scratching19 - do not touch the pork scratching
  • 20 - display in Qobustan museum20 - display in Qobustan museum
  • 21 - photo of archaeological dig21 - photo of archaeological dig
  • 22 - Caspian Sea with oil rigs22 - Caspian Sea with oil rigs
  • 23 - trestle bridge piers out in the Caspian23 - trestle bridge piers out in the Caspian
  • 24 - in Azerbaijan oil literally seeps from the ground24 - in Azerbaijan oil literally seeps from the ground
  • 25 - oil rig under construction25 - oil rig under construction
  • 26 - oil rig cemetery at Lokbatan26 - oil rig cemetery at Lokbatan
  • 27 - rusting away just off shore27 - rusting away just off shore
  • 28 - oil industry detritus just south of Baku28 - oil industry detritus just south of Baku
  • 29 - Bibi Heybet mosque29 - Bibi Heybet mosque
  • 30 - green inside Bibi Heybet mosque30 - green inside Bibi Heybet mosque
  • 31 - view over shipyard from Bibi Heybet mosque31 - view over shipyard from Bibi Heybet mosque
  • 32 - zoom view of James Bond Oil Field32 - zoom view of James Bond Oil Field
  • 33 - recently cleaned up James Bond Oil Field33 - recently cleaned up James Bond Oil Field

 

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