Azerbaijan: Land of Fire and... Mud?!

Posted 28/11/2019 by Bertie Adam

The ragged crests and parched terrain that make up the mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan could be something from another planet. In fact, it's said to be the closest landscape we have to Mars, and you can see why. Roughly hewn peaks rise up to form deep fissures bursting with a viscous sludge that bubbles and pops like a witch’s cauldron, giving them the local name gaynacha, or ‘boiling water’. Around here the earth is weaker than the norm, and easily gives way to many gaps and cracks filled with this mineral-rich mud reputed to hold highly-prized medicinal properties. Locals will tell you that the only real way to find this out for yourself is with a hearty swim in their gloomy depths. To some degree it's a little like swimming in the Dead Sea, after all the mud is so dense that you float with complete ease, so don't let a lack of swimming ability put you off. Azerbaijan has the highest concentration of the world’s mud volcanoes with around 350 of them scattered mostly around the Gobustan National Park. If a particular one doesn’t tickle your fancy, simply find another!

Maybe you’ve considered Georgia as a previous holiday destination, but this is just one of the many reasons why I'd wholeheartedly recommend visiting the ‘Land of Fire’, a country which surely ranks as one of the best of the Caucasus. This intense nickname is well deserved, after all some of these volcanoes are known to erupt violently due to the country’s many natural gas and oil deposits that lie underneath the ground. During the 13th century the famed explorer Marco Polo travelled through this region and wrote of the mysterious flames that seem to burst forth straight out from the earth.

Just outside the capital sits Yanar Dag, a natural gas leak said to have been burning steadily for almost 70 years after being ignited accidentally by a local shepherd. The name translates to ‘burning mountain’, a translation which really needs no further explanation as you can see here. A 10m long fire trickles through the permeable sandstone 24/7, resembling a very large open fireplace. It’s easily accessible from Baku, and with taxis and buses being widely available, travel in Azerbaijan and its capital is a simple affair.

Zoroastrians are one of the world’s oldest religious groups and inextricably linked with Azerbaijan’s past. For them, fire is the single biggest symbol of purity and represents the light of their God, Ahura Mazda. Fire Temples have remained an important feature in Azerbaijan, Iran, and India for hundreds of years and still are a sight to behold. In fact, Azerbaijan is considered the birthplace of their prophet Zoroaster, and the nation recognises this heritage with two steel and glass monoliths shaped like flames called, rather imaginatively, the ‘Flame Towers’ equipped with 10,000 LED screens. Every night Baku’s skyline is lit up like no other as these skyscrapers burn bright with their dancing infernal display.
The Land of Fire really is adventure travel at its finest, thanks to the exclusivity of experiences on offer.  

Image: Bertie Adam, 2018


Any knowledge of the local language, Azeri, will guarantee smiles and encouragement all round. Azerbaijanis consider themselves a Turkic people, with their language being similar enough to Turkish that there is a large degree of intelligibility between the two. Due to Azerbaijan’s recent past and split from the USSR in 1991, Russian is still widely understood, particularly amongst the older population.

These vast oil reserves have given rise to a new treatment being offered in Azeri spas… the crude oil bath. Before you panic, this isn’t the same sort of thing that runs trains, planes and automobiles. It’s a thicker derivative that contains a large ratio of naphthalene. Where the medicinal purpose comes in is that naphthalene is added to topical creams in small amounts in order to remedy irritating skin conditions, according to Dr Hashim Hashimov of the Naftalan Health Centre at least. After a quick check-up by a medical professional you’ll descend into a bathtub full of room-temperature oil with a texture similar to a thick custard. After about 10-15 minutes it’s time to get clean. Plenty of vigorous scraping followed by hot soapy water will soon do the trick, and you’ll (hopefully) emerge feeling completely revitalised with an envious complexion. Nowhere else on the planet offers this unique experience, and that Azerbaijan tour you’ve been thinking of booking – and your skin – will surely be all the richer for it.

Image: Bertie Adam, 2018

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Call us on:020 7183 6371

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