Monday, August 14, 2006

Apocalypse Here

Baku's position as the main city of the Caucasus is due entirely to the oil-rich Abseron peninsula on which it is situated as well as the Caspian oil fields. From the earliest days of history the area was known for the strange fires that used to burn as if from the very rocks themselves. I've already mentioned the wells and rigs that dominate the Abseron landscape, to that you must add hundreds of miles of bright yellow pipes that snake across the countryside, beside roads and climb walls, carrying the gas and oil to refineries, and the parched, windswept sandy scrubland that occupies the little amount of land that isn't oil related. The whole area is one "huge Jahannam" according to my friend Emin, as the heat, humidity and searing winds make the place horribly inhospitable. Adding to the Stygian atmosphere are the outlandish sights of Qobustan and Yanar Dag. The latter is a 10m-long section of mountainside that has been burning continuously for the past 50 years. It is a truly baffling site as the rocks are not consumed by the flames and yet they look like ordinary stones. But the crowning spectacle surely has to be Qobustan. Qobustan is home to some important neolithic rock carvings, as well as the easternmost Roman remains in the world, but they are small potatoes compared to the little-known mud volcanoes. On a rather nondescript hillock by the sea you can find half the world's mud volcanoes. Ranging from midgets only a few centimetres across to 10m giants, these bizarre wonders fart cold mud for the enjoyment of the few hardy visitors who have heard of them (most Azerbaijanis, even those living close by, have absolutely no knowledge of them). Although the volcano hill is within sight of the main road you might as well be on the moon: the eerie monochrome craters, the lack of vegetation and the isolation. Getting there proved to be no problem, but our return journey proved to an odyssey for our Zhiguli, first snapping a fan belt and then getting stuck in deep sand, twice. The last time our driver flashed us a golden-toothed smile, motioned for us to stay put and set off, beer-belly swinging, to find some help. Help was finally found and we managed to escape dying from thirst in a horrendously unfashionable car. A most dishonourable way to go indeed.

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