The mud volcanoes located in Gobustan National Park, about a 90 minute drive southeast of Baku, Azerbaijan, look like simmering pots of something you’d find on Voldemort‘s kitchen stove. Audibly they sound like the casually burping and discretely farting relative we all have in our families, although Gobustan’s mud volcanoes don’t smell like sulfur that’s been sitting in someone’s intestines for hours.
In fact, these “volcanoes”, caused by heated water and (mostly) methane gas rising above the Earth’s crust, don’t smell at all. The mud volcanoes in this UNESCO World Heritage Site simply bubble, dry, and move on to form a unique landscape.
Although these mud volcanoes are usually a mellow bunch, quietly bubbling all day and night, every so often one of them explodes over several meters high, the flammable gases often igniting. I
unfortunately didn’t get to see such a show but it gave me a better idea of where the name mud volcanoes comes from.
There are around 400 mud volcanoes throughout Asia and over half are located in Azerbaijan, a country that has 2% of the world’s natural gas reserves. 2% might not seem like a lot, but that amount of natural gas – approximately 6 trillion cubic meters – puts Azerbaijan 7th in the world. (Despite being the 114th largest county on the planet.)
When I arrived close to sunset, I was the only person among the mud volcanoes (aside from the driver waiting to take me back to Baku). I turned into a little kid as the dried mud is soft and fun to bounce around. Or ideal for some mud volcano surfing on if you’ve got no shame to release your inner-child. (I certainly don’t.)
Much like Oman, a destination you should visit before it becomes a hit, Gobustan feels like a science-fiction movie set. Paint it red and you too may just feel like you’re on the surface of Mars – which actually might have its own mud volcanoes.
Despite its boiling appearance, the mud isn’t bubbling due to high liquid temperatures; in fact, the fluids are only about 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 F) warmer than the surrounding air.
Entry into the park is free, although getting there requires having your own car as there is no public transportation to the isolated mud volcanoes.
The Gobustan State Reserve also contains rock art spanning about 40,000 years of human history which nightfall denied me a glimpse of. Though my late arrival did, I believe, add to my fondness of Gobustan’s mud volcanoes. Being the only one there made it feel more remote and exceptional than they might have with crowds of other tourists around me. Mars, and other tourist sites, often feel more alien the fewer other astronauts there are around you.