Desert Mud Volcanoes

When we returned to our hotel this evening, a man asked us why our shoes were so muddy. "Oh," we said, "we were just at Gobustan."
"Ah," he said. "Mud volcanoes."
Gobustan is a nowhere town about an hour south of Baku, not far inland from the oil rigs of the Caspian. Beyond the cement buildings, some kilometers of dirt road lead to this - a strange and lonely group, gurgling in the desert.
Azerbaijan has more mud volcanoes than any other country on earth (you knew they had to be hiding somewhere, right?), with over three hundred sites in all. There are several types and classifications, but seemingly little interest in them. We spent about an hour at the cluster - supposedly the most famous in Azerbaijan - and saw nobody. On the road we passed no other cars, only a few shepherds and a boy twirling a stick.
This is the top of the largest cone, which is about fifteen feet tall. There were large, satisfying bubbles in its ooze.
The volcanoes are apparently seasonal, and the "eruptions" are sometimes more impressive than the bubbling we witnessed. The action on the day we visited was limited to bubble-and-seep, but at times there are real geysers of mud and, occasionally, flames.
A strong wind was blowing, and we had a hard time hearing above it, but the gurgling was still audible. The wet, plopping noise is amplified somehow, as though by an earthen drum.
On one side, somewhat separate from the cones, was a bubbling pool, more watery than muddy. Called a "salse" pool, it was the most active of Gobustan's features.
The volcano action is produced my methane gas under the earth's surface being released through small holes in the ground. Mud from a large, semi-liquid aquifer is brought up with the gas. It's cool to the touch - there's no pyroclastic flow or molten lava, no steam. Just slow streams of brown mud. Built up over centuries, the ground around the volcanoes is constructed of many layers of the stuff, in various degrees of solidity. Older mud is cracked and hard-edged, younger flows are still liquid.
Warning signs, in Azeri, probably asked that the site be respected - we couldn't read them. Sadly, there are tire tracks from 4x4 vehicles around the periphery, and some trash stuck in the flows.
We left feeling more bemused than anything - Gobustan isn't that impressive, but it's almost a new concept. Cold, muddy volcanoes? They highlight the otherworldly feeling of the desert - the wind and distant mountains, the scrubby growth, the burbling mud, the distant-planet texture of the earth.
(Our shoes are still muddy, it's very tough stuff to get off.)
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