Friday, June 11, 2010

Gobustan - Petroglyphs and Mud Volcanoes

It was over a casual conversation while sipping a drink at Fashion Café (Baku city center) that plans were made for a weekend trip to mud volcanoes. That was Sunday and I had forgotten about it till Nazli’s email on Wednesday afternoon asking for confirmation of numbers who will be joining for the trip. She had made a plan, organised a vehicle with the help of driving coordinator and the entire itinerary was well laid out in the email for the trip to Gobustan mud volcanoes. Of all the things, initiative for having fun is what most of us usually lack, on this occasion Nazli did not. I added my bit of idea of visiting the ancient rock paintings and she graciously added that to the plan and also found out that these are called petroglyphs (as her next email indicated).

Talking of initiative and energy, internet was well researched and about fifteen page handout was prepared for people to read and educate themselves. All Nazli. Well since Nazli did went all the way to take this trouble it was only fair I (and I hope others as well) should read it. Here is what I would have otherwise not known:
  • Azerbaijan and its Caspian coastline are home to nearly 400 mud volcanoes, more than half the total throughout the continents.
  • Mud volcanoes have a direct relationship with the presence of oil and gas fields.
  • A drilling accident offshore of Brunei in 1979 caused a mud volcano which took 20 relief wells and nearly 30 years to stop the eruption.
  • Gobustan rock art cultural landscape has more than 600,000 rock paintings, on average dating back 5,000-20,000 years (inscribed as a world heritage site in 2007).
  • These petroglyphs (rock paintings) were discovered by accident in 1930s by workers of a stone quarry.
Saturday came and with the last minute rush to get few water bottles from the canteen we were on the way, only five minutes behind Nazli’s schedule. The vehicle which has been organised for the trip was surprisingly better than the usual one’s we travel in daily to and fro from the base. Comfortable seats and seat belts that actually worked. Buckled up and off we went south of Baku towards Gobustan/Qobustan.

The highway runs parallel to Caspian for most part of the journey. I was on the other side of the vehicle and had a rail track running parallel to the road. We crossed many out-of-use carriages but never crossed a train on the way. Development or rather the developed world is slowly catching up on this side of Baku. There is an assortment of factories along the road. But for most part it seems a quiet landscape.

As we neared Gobustan driver had a chat with Nazli and decided that it was better if we see the petroglyphs first and then go to mud volcanoes. This saves some time on road seems to be the argument. We were glad that Nazli was along as none of other eight could speak the language. So off we went to petroglyphs. Few very rusty steel poles and not-so-very threatening fence and a lot of sheep welcomed us at the gates (supposedly as there wasn’t any real gate there) of the 4400 acre world heritage site and another five minutes of drive up the hills and we were there. Water bottles, check; cameras, check; we were off to watch history when suddenly the table under a rock caught attention and a group photo had to taken. Tripod out and two different cameras shot the moment. With nine pair of legs it is hard to maintain a single direction so it was after a little while that we managed to make our way to the MUSEUM. The lady made us pay three manat each and took two manat for every camera. The receipts for the two manats for cameras were never issued. The museum literally ended before it even started. Probably, they can do a better job at a world heritage site.

Soon we were climbing the rocks to find the ancient civilisation for ourselves (museum had not been much help). Over next 30 minutes or so we did find it along with many other things. The rock paintings included few animals, boats, a pregnant woman (more like a bunny!!) and assortment of various other shapes and sizes. I am no archaeologist and few minutes of rock staring were enough for me. The musical rocks (rocks used as musical instruments!!) were interesting and did produce some good musical sounds. Soon one by one we retired from petroglyph watching to generally stone and cliff and distant sea watching. Ionut in the meantime had found a group of 15 odd touring girls and was busy getting himself captured in their cameras. Making his own bit of history there I suppose.

Found a Toot there and tasted few little fruits straight of the branches. Nathan didn’t find these good but Emily did. And then we saw the desert rose. A lone shoot of a rose in the middle of lot of dead dry grass and three pink roses. But this was not all too encouraging to ensure that we stayed a bit longer. And we were on way to the next destination on time.

After a bumpy ride on the mud track the driver let us out and pointed upwards towards a track. The mud volcanoes were close and we could all smell the petroleum in the air. The short climb was soon over and we all beheld little cones mushrooming out on a little plateau. They were not much of volcanoes to be frank. We could walk right up to the volcanoes and in fact stand over some. To put in Nazli’s words these were “Cute”. And cute they were. Ranging from few inches to few feet in diameter at their mouths and from 5-10 meter height these mud volcanoes are possibly the friendliest type. They were burping there occasional gas burps, plump, plump, some small, some large enough to be caught on cameras. The place did revive some spirit with the feeling of a little adventure being accomplished.

We could actually make the volcanoes burp more by exerting a little pressure on the sides. In fact one actually stands on the dry exterior with the muddy interior still in fluid shape and that’s how the little pushes lead to more burps. There was a lot of slippery exterior as the mud overflowed to the sides. Slipping on these was easy and one had to be a little careful.

There was a little hill some distance away and soon Kennedy and I were on our way to that little lonely hill while others busied themselves with taking the pictures of little cute volcanoes. This was possibly the largest among the mud volcanoes at this place. Soon Tom joined us. The place was quiet and a lovely breeze was coming from the sea. Sun was out and it all made for a lovely day. Good time to be out.

Suddenly, the place where Tom was standing gave way or so we thought. He had slipped on mud. After the initial shock me and Kennedy (incidentally standing on either side of tom) grabbed his arms and pulled him up. After the initial little shock the laughter started. Finally the adventure that had been missing was here. Tom’s hand and one leg were covered with volcanic mud and so was his camera. According to him an attempt to capture the different patterns of the mud lead him what would eventually be a slip. Soon the others arrived and each had their share of laughter as did Tom. There was sufficient recreation of the event and plenty of the pictures taken of the mud covered Tom and recently christened mud volcano in Gobustan, Mt. Tom.

For 15 manat per head the trip was well worth it and thanks to Nazli’s efforts well organized. And that was that. A relatively short trip to Gobustan but fun nevertheless, especially at the expense of Tom. Driver was kind enough to let him in the vehicle in the mud covered condition. A towel was provided for him to put on the seat. And off we started the return journey.

The highway is well laid and the vehicle is moving on comfortably back to where the trip started. We just had some snacks in form of few Doritos and M&Ms each drowned down by water all kindly provided by Nazli. On hungry stomachs this feel like a delicacy and with tired legs and bodies the group slowly starts to doze off. After a while Kennedy looks around and finds most of the heads rolling onto sides. He smiles and closes his eyes. The Caspian looks clean here and an occasional group of swimmers can be seen on the uninterrupted length of the sea shore. Caspian almost looks beautiful. The light music on iPod, a steady speed of the vehicle on a smooth highway, the magnificence of Caspian and the tiredness in the legs and I also join the club of happily dozing heads shortly.

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