Azerbaijan: Country of mud volcanoes

Azerbaijan has more mud volcanoes than anywhere else in the world: 400 and counting. CNN Travel goes on an off-road tour of volcanic sites

Posted: Aug 31, 2018 8:18 AM
Updated: Aug 31, 2018 8:29 AM

Stretching to the horizon, the gray-white earth rises in peaks like a well-whipped meringue petrified into mud and rock.

A keen wind whips these otherworldly hills, while the land underfoot is cracked and scaly.

This could be Mars. But it's Azerbaijan, the mud volcano capital of the world.

Oil-rich region

There are more than 400 volcanoes in this oil-rich country balanced between Europe and Asia, with more being discovered all the time.

Ten years ago, a 12,000-hectare State Nature Reserve was founded on the Absheron Peninsula near the capital Baku.

In July 2018, scientists from Azerbaijan's Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources took CNN Travel on an off-road tour.

Clattering up the precipitous slopes in an off-road vehicle is like a firmer version of the dune-bashing safaris popular next door in the Middle East. But the most thrilling sights are still to come.

We start our tour beside the mouth of Deveboynu volcano, or "Neck of the Camel." The land around is parched, but inside the crater, a muddy slurry -- called mud breccia -- is bubbling gently.

The hills may look peaceful, but below this humped, reptilian landscape, the Earth is breathing and turning like a slumbering beast.

Where tectonic plates collide

Mud volcanoes are usually found in subduction zones -- the parts of the globe where tectonic plates collide, sometimes causing earthquakes, tsunamis and violent eruptions.

Pockets of subterranean gas force their way to the surface, belching out methane and a muddy mix of water and oil.

Mud volcanoes never grow to the size of regular volcanoes. Most are small, ever-changing landforms, often accompanied by peculiar sculptures formed by the spewed out clumps of clay.

These whimsical shapes, says Jeyhun Pashayev, director of the reserve, are "like a picture made by a child."

Strange beauty

"When there are mud volcanoes, it means there are carbohydrogen resources in the deep," explains Pashayev. "As you see, there are lot of mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan which means there are a lot of oil resources."

The arid lands of the Absheron Peninsula might not be as fresh and lush as the mountainous north, but they have their own strange beauty.

This is the region richest in natural resources: both for oil and for the mud breccia, which is used in the chemical and construction industries.

"About 20 of the 50 minerals used in cement" are to be found in the volcanic mud, says Pashayev -- which meant that before the reserve was signed into existence, people regularly stole mud from the site for home building projects.

As we set out on the road again to our next volcanic field, Pashayev gestures towards a huge factory on the horizon, with a large hill of mud to its side. "This, Garadagh, is the richest part of Baku. Around 90% of the stones are being produced here for building the houses. Depending on the quality, it costs from 50 cents to 3 manats ($1.77) per stone."

Mud-bathing

Unlike regular volcanoes, there's no magma or lava, so the liquid mud isn't hot -- instead it usually keeps to a temperate 22/23 C (72 F).

That balminess means that some mud volcanoes are suitable for bathing.

Volcanic clay is sometimes used in the treatment of skin conditions, as well as rheumatism and diseases related to the nervous system.

Pashayev explains that during the Soviet era, the volcanic mud was sometimes used to create casts to treat broken bones.

"Also, you can get super results using the mud volcanoes for the skin," he claims. "You can use [the mud] and get good results, even if you have scars. If the cosmetology doctor can't disappear the scars, mud volcanoes can do this!"

Radioactivity

However, not every gray puddle is skin-friendly.

"Because it comes from deep," says Pashayev, some volcanoes "come with radioactive material. It's not a joke."

Pashayev's team monitors the levels of radioactivity regularly, with safety certification being awarded on an annual basis.

The subterranean world has fascinated people around the globe for millennia, and the strange, violent and seemingly inexplicable behavior of mud volcanoes has long captivated the Azerbaijani people.

The country is known as the Land of Fire -- while Baku is the City of Winds -- and some of the gas leaks in this oil-rich region are constantly on fire, such as at the perpetually burning mountainside of Yanar Dag.

It's believed that the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which centers on fire worship, was closely connected to this phenomena.

In 2001, Lokbutan volcano some 15 kilometers from Baku erupted, sending flames close to 50 feet in the air.

'A mystic thing'

"Mud volcanoes are a mystic thing," says Pashayev. Some years ago, a Danish sound archivist came to the reserve "with a huge device like a piano" to record the sounds from within the volcano.

What Pashayev heard shocked him. "I swear, I thought that this is Hell. I heard human noises -- really. Imagine thousands of people, crying 'help us!' from the deep."

With a similarly evocative turn of phrase, Pashayev also compares the wind sighing through a mud sculpture to the sound made "when you cut the head off a cow" -- a common sight on the backstreets of Baku until butchery regulations were changed earlier this year.

And if the Azerbaijani landscape seems otherworldly, that could be because conditions here aren't dissimilar to Mars.

A number of possible mud volcanoes have been found on Mars, suggesting the presence -- at one time -- of water, and therefore the possibility of life.

'Millions of snakes'

"There are six types of mud volcano," explains Pashayev. "Active. Not active. Oil-producing. Underwater. Island mud volcano. And destroyed mud volcano."

There are around 140 underwater mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan and there are six island volcanoes under the reserve's jurisdiction -- although explains scientist Anar Baghiriv, the team lacks the resources to visit them.

But on one of the island volcanoes, Pashayev explains, the strangest sight isn't the bubbling mud. "From 100 meters, you see that the island is shaking. But when you go close, you see millions of snakes, can you imagine? Millions."

So covered is the island with sea snakes, adds Baghiriv, "You cannot find a place to put your foot."

What lies beneath

Pilpili Gardag is the last stop on our tour. Once we're ushered past the security guard, it's a steep walk uphill to the most dramatic volcano yet.

The slick surface of the mud glistens in the searing July sunshine, with huge gray bubbles forming and then bursting with a satisfying plup.

Mud volcano eruptions vary enormously, from those that quietly, continuously pour out slow streams of slurry, to explosive eruptions that expel thousands of cubic meters at once.

In Azerbaijan, says Pashayev, we have "different sizes, different views, different sculptures. We have all the types, all the forms."

The Guinness Book of Records lists the world's largest mud volcano as being an Azerbaijani one, measuring one kilometer across the base and several hundred kilometers in height.

At Pilipili Gardag, the volatile lunar landscape, with the sun bouncing white off the bleached-out clay and the summer heat sliding towards 40 C (104 F), has an uncanny majesty.

But the real mysteries, the churning, living wonders, are in the many shifting layers beneath our feet.

To find out more and to contact the scientists at the State Nature Reserve, visit the Facebook page Mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 31715

Reported Deaths: 1984
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9189533
Lake3299167
Cass15826
Allen127766
St. Joseph117034
Hendricks112367
Hamilton109992
Johnson1082104
Elkhart100827
Madison58258
Porter48721
Bartholomew48033
Clark45838
LaPorte40821
Tippecanoe3733
Jackson3611
Howard35618
Delaware35434
Hancock31927
Shelby31421
Floyd31338
Boone28235
Morgan26124
Vanderburgh2482
Montgomery22717
White2268
Decatur22431
Clinton2151
Noble18520
Grant18520
Harrison18521
Dubois1822
Greene16723
Warrick16426
Dearborn16221
Monroe16010
Henry1597
Vigo1477
Lawrence14322
Miami1391
Putnam1337
Jennings1274
Orange12422
Scott1183
Ripley1126
Franklin1068
Carroll922
Kosciusko861
Daviess8216
Steuben792
Newton7410
Wabash722
Wayne695
Fayette654
Marshall641
LaGrange602
Jasper561
Washington521
Fulton471
Rush452
Jay430
Jefferson411
Randolph403
Pulaski390
Clay391
Whitley392
Brown331
Sullivan321
Starke313
Owen311
DeKalb291
Perry270
Huntington262
Benton250
Knox240
Crawford230
Wells230
Tipton221
Blackford201
Switzerland190
Fountain182
Parke170
Posey170
Spencer161
Gibson142
Ohio130
Adams121
Warren121
Vermillion90
Martin90
Union80
Pike60
Unassigned0152

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 112017

Reported Deaths: 4885
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook730973324
Lake7723250
DuPage7207340
Kane5761152
Will5188258
Winnebago195351
McHenry142767
St. Clair99172
Kankakee79942
Kendall71419
Rock Island63622
Champaign5647
Madison53954
Boone39716
Sangamon33126
DeKalb3253
Randolph2593
Jackson22810
McLean21110
Ogle1922
Stephenson1902
Macon18819
Peoria1797
Clinton17716
Out of IL1641
Union1417
LaSalle14012
Whiteside13410
Iroquois1304
Coles1169
Warren1140
Unassigned1100
Jefferson10116
Knox940
Monroe9211
Grundy892
McDonough835
Lee771
Cass670
Henry670
Tazewell673
Williamson551
Marion500
Jasper457
Adams441
Macoupin411
Perry410
Pulaski400
Montgomery391
Vermilion391
Morgan341
Christian334
Livingston312
Douglas270
Jo Daviess270
Fayette202
Ford201
Jersey201
Washington180
Mason170
Menard170
Woodford172
Shelby161
Bureau151
Mercer150
Carroll132
Hancock130
Franklin120
Crawford110
Fulton110
Piatt110
Bond101
Brown100
Clark100
Cumberland100
Logan100
Moultrie100
Schuyler100
Wayne91
Alexander80
Henderson80
Johnson70
Massac70
Saline70
Effingham61
Greene50
Marshall50
De Witt40
Lawrence40
Richland30
Stark30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Hamilton20
Wabash20
White20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Pike10
Pope10
Putnam10
Edgar00
Terre Haute
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 79°
Robinson
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 73°
Indianapolis
Broken Clouds
76° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 76°
Rockville
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 70°
Casey
Clear
76° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 76°
Brazil
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 79°
Marshall
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 79°
No Major Changes
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events