Northern city of oil

22:57, Nov 25 2012
North city of oil
GEOLOGICAL INTEREST: A mud bubble almost at bursting point in the midst of the mud volcano field.
North city of oil
RUSSIAN INFLUENCE: Azerbaijan was once part of the Soviet Union and symbols from the Communist era have largely been removed, but some can still be found. This one is above the main entrance to the national carpet museum.
North city of oil
GROWING CITY: Baku lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The blue-domed building beneath the towers is the city's main fire station.

The man next to me was splattered with mud. I was liberally splashed with the thick grey substance as well.

"You sure know how to show a man a good time," he said, as we trudged through the weird lunar-type landscape of inland Azerbaijan. The sound of a rather juicy fart rent the air. Beside us a small cone of solidified mud disgorged a trail of viscous grey liquid.

We could both confidently disown the small explosion of gas. We were standing in the desolate midst of a field of mud volcanoes - not one of the Caucasus' best-known tourist attractions, but to my geologically biased mind, one of its most intriguing.

North city of oil
ECONOMY ON FIRE: The newly constructed Flame Towers, in the capital Baku, are a symbol of the oil boom in Azerbaijan.

I pointed out to my companion that almost anyone could have shown him the Eiffel Tower, but the opportunity of being showered with mud while being serenaded by a chorus of gentle methane farts took more effort to organise.

Azerbaijan lies on the western coast of the Caspian Sea and offshore and on land are some of the region's largest reserves of oil and natural gas. Mud volcanoes are often associated with such areas, spilling out not lava but mud, water and gas, usually methane. They are sometimes known as "sedimentary volcanoes", as opposed to the ones we are familiar with in New Zealand, which are fuelled by volcanic activity.

Apparently Azerbaijan is home to about half the world's mud volcanoes which, although fascinating to those of us keen on geology, is not nearly as important to the Azeris as their far more lucrative sources of oil and gas.

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North city of oil
ANCIENT ART: Oil might be fuelling Azerbaijan's development these days, but the traditional art of carpet-making is still a source of national pride.

However, every year a very small number of tourists (most Azeris are unaware of the volcanoes or, if they are, are rather bemused by travellers wanting to visit them) do find their way to the various clusters of volcanoes an easy drive from the capital of Baku.

The volcanoes we visited had cones, or gryphons, about two metres high. They rear up from a landscape largely devoid of vegetation. The land is covered with the dried remains of mud eruptions large and small. In some places, the volcanoes are simply round pools of muddy water, or salses, in which the occasional giant bubble forms, grows steadily to bursting point and then sprays onlookers with a fine mist of mud particles.

The volcanoes have the potential to be more energetic. A few years ago, one volcano began to erupt flames up to 300 metres high. The ones we visited were much more docile, enabling us to clamber up the cones and peer into the mud pools at close range.

In most places of the world, no doubt there would be walkways, guard rails and signs warning one to stay back. So I made the most of the fact that there were none here by sticking a finger in one of the pools to test the temperature (clearly it was not going to be hot because there was no evidence of any heat).

Even so, it was surprising, given our experience with Rotorua's hot mud pools, to discover the mud here was at air temperature or even slightly cooler.

I also couldn't resist finding a long branch from lower down the ridge to stick into one of the craters. It descended more than half a metre before it encountered a squelchy layer of mud.

Even though it was hardly quicksand, this would not be a good place to stumble upon at night and is perhaps why one mud volcano area's ancient name translates as "the camel got stuck".

Elsewhere in Azerbaijan the impact of oil and gas is of a less frivolous nature. Even on the southern outskirts of Baku there are oil pumps in people's backyards, in workshop yards and scattered across apocalyptic landscapes of rubble and general detritus.

Beside the Caspian Sea are several giant docks, where oil platforms are constructed and repaired. Several platforms were lying on their sides like leviathans washed up from the deep.

Baku itself is an extraordinary testament to the world's insatiable and growing demand for oil and the prices it now commands.

Baku has long been an oil town, but since my last visit about five years ago, it's obvious the oil revenue is flowing even stronger than ever before.

Azerbaijan is regarded as one of the birthplaces of the oil industry, with its first oil well drilled in 1846. Intriguingly, it was the Swedish Nobel brothers, including Alfred, who founded the Nobel Prizes, who were key to the development of the oil fields in the late 19th century.

They built the world's first oil-carrying steamship in 1877 and there are photos in their mansion in Baku showing the view from their front terrace - oil derricks so close together no land or water can be seen beyond them.

By the start of the 20th century, Azerbaijan produced half the world's supply of oil. Yet for the Azeris, oil was nothing new - it had been seeping from the ground for centuries and was in regular use from the 9th century. Marco Polo commented on how the Azeris were exporting oil in the 14th century.

Today, although Azerbaijan ranks low in terms of world production, oil is still the key to its prosperity and a target for interest from around the world, especially from Russia, with which it shares the Caspian Sea, along with Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Baku is awash with money - luxury mansions sprawl across the rocky hillsides above the sea and pedestrians en route to Hermes, Hugo Boss and Cartier stores dodge among the Hummers and Ferraris on the streets.

There are new public buildings of startlingly innovative architectural styles springing up all over the city, such as the new carpet museum, which is designed to look like a partly unfurled rug. Most striking of all are the Flame Towers - three 200-metre-high curved skyscrapers. At night, these become lofty lightshows, their flanks flickering like fire. The symbolism is deliberate. Azerbaijan is known as the land of eternal fires and in ancient times the predominant religion was Zoroastrianism, which venerates fire.

Even the Soviet-era buildings (Azerbaijan was, like its neighbouring countries Georgia and Armenia, part of the former Soviet Union) have been given major facelifts. Formerly dire-looking apartment buildings have been faced with new stone and buildings from the early 20th century that have strong Western European influences have been cleaned and renovated.

In the midst of the building boom lies Baku's World Heritage listed Old Town, parts of which date from the 7th century. One of the oldest buildings is the Maiden's Tower, which once would have been one of the tallest in the town.

Legend has it the tower was the scene of a tragic death plunge by a young woman trying to escaping from a forced marriage to her father. However, it is much more likely that the tower was part of the town's defensive walls and might also have served as a place on which to light fire beacons, or as an astronomical observatory.

None of these is quite as dramatic as the tale of the maiden's plunge, so the legend lives on.

Around the towers are restored buildings from Baku's medieval past, including mosques, minarets and bath houses. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, unlike Georgia and Armenia, which are Christian, which follows the Shi'ite tradition and thus has friendly relations with neighbouring Iran, the largest Shi'ite Muslim country in the world.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the three Caucasian countries have become free to decide where they fit in the world. Perhaps in Azerbaijan more than the other two, there is confusion as to whether they should be part of Europe or align themselves to the East, or simply be Caucasian.

Oil and the proximity of Europe pull Azerbaijan towards the West, while Islam orients it to the East.

Today, however, one gets the feeling that for many of Baku's citizens at least the attractions of ancient Zoroastrianism or modern-day Islam have taken a back seat to the pursuit of the oil dollar.

The result is an endlessly fascinating collision of tradition and modernity, the hub of a country still forging its place in the modern world, while attempting to control one of the fastest developing cities anywhere on the planet.

The Timaru Herald