Tourist Stuff: Fire Mountain

Sunday, February 12, 2017

From ice to fire - Azerbaijan is truly a land of contrasts.

But enough of the touristic platitudes! (That one was for you, PW.) Though in this case it's actually true. My last day out was all about the ice, and just two weeks later I went on another of what I’ve come to think of as Raul’s Wacky Adventures, but this time it was a visit to the famous Fire Mountain, known in Azeri as Yanar Dag.

While the “mountain” part of the title may be generous to the point of hyperbole, there can be no doubt that there is definitely fire. Yanar Dag is a natural gas fire that burns constantly at the rocky base of a hillside a bit north of Baku. The gas seeps through the porous sandstone of the area and is striking evidence of how Azerbaijan is generally absolutely soaking in hydrocarbons. I don't think I've mentioned it here before, but the oil and gas industry is the lifeblood of this country. A striking graphic from 2009 shows that 81% of the state’s exports at the time were in crude oil, and the Wikipedia article states that "Azerbaijan is considered one of the most important spots in the world for oil exploration and development.”

However, we weren’t thinking about that the Saturday morning that my colleague Leigh-Anne and I met the intrepid Raul at the main metro station for a quick tip out to Fire Mountain. A less hardy bunch might have simply hopped in a taxi, but that’s not how we roll on Raul’s Wacky Adventures. Instead, we took the metro to Azadliq station and then got out to find a small local bus to take us the rest of the way. Baku recently acquired a fleet of big modern red buses that look just like buses in modern cities everywhere. They take electronic payment cards and are efficient and boring. We did not take one of these buses. We took a small white(ish) jobbie run by an independent driver/owner. Apparently the routes are auctioned off and you pay for the license to operate on a given route, then it’s up to you to maintain your bus and drive the route.

Here’s a few buses at Azadliq. We took the #274, which, helpfully, had a scrolling sign in the window saying “Yanar Dag”, so I was pretty confident we’d end up in the right place.

You don’t pay when you get on but rather when you leave. And if you get off the back you have to walk around to the front door to give your fare to the driver. Fares are about 20-40 qepik, depending on how far you go. (At the current exchange rates that’s less that 10-20 pence.)

The ride was long, and the snowy/rainy weather made the streets muddy and floody. They are not masters of drainage here. (You should hear Gerald, who is Dutch, go on about how they don’t know how to handle water.) Though in fairness, it’s largely because there’s just not much support of infrastructure, which is obvious pretty much everywhere. We did get to ride past some of the oldest commercial oil fields in the world, which we glimpsed through muddy, steamed up windows. It’s a bit of an otherworldly landscape - tall bits of scaffolding dotted everywhere, supporting pumpjacks that were, in some cases, still nodding slowly and pulling oil out of the ground.

When we finally made it to Fire Mountain we disembarked, walked across the road, and proceeded to the ticket booth, which is a recent addition. The Intrepid Raul reported that the last time he was there about a year ago, there was no booth and no supervision at all. You simply walked in and poked around on your own. This time we each paid 2 manat entry fee, which none of us begrudged. In a place like this I think it’s simple decency to put money back into the economy wherever you can.

And then we walked down and there it was… a mountain on fire.

It really does look like the rock itself is burning.

And here’s a look at Raul and Leigh-Anne, which gives an idea of the scale of the flames

There was a lone security guard hanging around, and a group of tourists from Bahrain. But no barriers, no health and safety notices, no anything between you and what was really quite an intensely hot wall of flame. It’s not a massive area. Perhaps twenty feet across, with the flames getting up to six or eight feet high. But on a cold and overcast day it was still undeniably impressive and a bit eerie.

We took photos and commented about how we should have brought marshmallows, and how someone was really missing a trick not having a tea house where you could sit with the comforting warmth of a samovar on one side and a burning rock on the other.

And Leigh-Anne introduced my to the Slo-Mo Video function of the iPhone which is super cool!

Here’s a long shot of the area, which shows the scale well. You can also see the lovey rock art at the top of the hillside, though the stairs were closed off.

The whole site was… odd. First there was the fundamental strangeness of watching rock burn. But there was also an inexplicable circle of stones near the road that is obviously a new addition. At the centre were a few large flat pieces of stone and some smaller, harder rocks. It seems the intention was to pound the big flat rocks with the smaller rocks, which produced a nice resounding percussive note. This was briefly diverting.

Leigh-Anne on the bass rock

And there was this cool rock that looks a bit like it belongs on a mini Easter Island or possibly something in the inevitably forthcoming Flintstones vs. Transformers movie.

And it was interesting to look closely at the rock because it is literally just a compressed mix of dead prehistoric sea creatures. Azerbaijan is basically made of this rock. The ground is like this, and then they quarry it into big rectangular blocks and build everything from them - houses, office buildings, fences - everything. At first I thought it was a man-made composite in which they use shells as the aggregate but it seems that Azerbaijan is simply a porous, ancient seabed soaked in oil.

So there are the burning rocks, and the stone circle. But really the whole place had a generally neglected and run-down feeling. Mostly it all looked abandoned.

Like this place, which was a sort of stone gazebo at the top of the site which should have made a brilliant tea house, but instead was just filled with rubbish and rubble. Maybe it's livelier in the summer?

There was also this large building. It also seemed to be mostly abandoned, though you could see there was a small room where some of the workers were warming up and having tea. But truly, with a lick of paint and some patio furniture you could have a lovely little tea shop and a captive audience!

There was one bright spot, which was a tiny souvenir shop featuring the usual mix of keychains, fridge magnets and postcards. There I found the best running cap EVER, which is made of wide stripes of the blue, red and green of the flag of Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijan written across the top, and AZ on the brim and an Azerbaijan flag embroidered on the front. And, just in case there was any doubt, it’s also got “Azerbaijan” embroidered on the sizing strap at the back.

Best. Hat. Ever.
Best. Hat. Ever.  Leigh-Anne just got a boring coffee mug and some postcards!

And then there was truly nothing left to do. We’d managed to spend an hour at the site, which, judging by the others we saw who came and went while we were there, is about 50 minutes longer than most. Then we found another little bus and spent another 45 minutes bumping through the muddy suburban streets of Baku by a different route before getting back on the metro and finally returning to the familiar, relatively unchallenging centre of Baku. It was a good little jaunt, and while I enjoyed having the experience of the local bus, by that time of the afternoon I also would not have objected to a warm and speedy taxi home.

By the time we emerged from the metro station it was snowing in earnest, and I had that kind of tiredness that comes from being outside for most of the day in chilly weather. So I decided that the planned long-ish run along the Bulvar in the dark would perhaps be better reimagined as a quick 5k on the hotel treadmill followed by a glass of wine and a night of Netflix.

I have no regrets.

1 Comment:

Kathryn said...

An hour! Wow.

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