There are beaten paths and then there are beaten paths. The path we chose had been beaten so badly it disappeared finally into the mud. And that was exactly what we wanted.
“This weekend what?”
“We’ve put it off long enough,” she said. “There’s always something that comes up that gets in the way. Not this weekend. Cancel all outings to the tea houses! Pack the figs and pomegranates! This weekend GOBISTAN! ”
“Does this mean Woolx?”
“This means Woolx.” There was no stopping this train.
She was right. Gobistan equals Woolx. To tread there without proper attire is inviting a listing in the don’t do what these people did section of a travel book. Gobistan. Land of the Gob, or ravines. As the name implies, it is very rocky. We also assumed, correctly, that lying adjacent to the Caspian it would be very windy. But to tell the story of Gobistan is to really tell two stories. Two unusual attractions lie out there, south of Baku, Azerbaijan. The first is the UNESCO world heritage site located at the edge of these ravines that now protects some of the best preserved petroglyphs in the world. The second is dicier, a shot into the sparsely populated inner sanctum of Gobistan to locate strange geophysical features.
Without our own car, the task of getting there proved more challenging. With no bus available we found a taxi driver on the edge of the city who claimed he knew everything about these places, new exactly how to get there – “Nyet problem!” he exclaimed, waving his hand with a thin Russian cigarette. Hired on the spot, in Russian, we were soon bounding south on the Baku/Iran highway for the 200 or more kilometre dash to Gobistan. When my wife asked how many times he’d been there he replied matter-of-factly, “Mikovda.” “Never.” I remember us driving along in silence for several minutes after that.
Yet if anything, Asim, our new Mercedes taxi driving friend, was resourceful. Once off the main highway he managed to find the right roads, sometimes stopping to ask a wandering boy on foot, and, upon arrival at the Petroglyph Park, took as much interest in the UNESCO visitor centre as we did. The new building laid out the history of the area and the stone age peoples who once lived there, dating back 10,000 years, in a very up-to-date and technology-driven walk through. In the ravines just beyond lay the magnificent petroglyphs.
Depiction of a Roman ship with stone age image of a dancer below. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014
On this day we were nearly alone, save a handful Eastern Europeans and the young Azerbaijani interpreter who popped out of the rocks speaking very good English. We thought him to be a con artist of some sort, but he turned out to be working for the Azerbaijani Park Service, and proceeded to give us a fantastic tour of just the small piece of the petroglyph park we were in. It was surprising to learn that this rocky, barren landscape, devoid of all trees, had once been lush and teeming with wildlife thousands of years ago. A perfect place for a cave dweller then, and as the cool wind blew in off the Caspian in the distance, a perfect place to have on our toasty Woolx.
If things seemed they couldn’t get more fascinating in Gobistan, they did. Here the adventure turns to that beaten path. Petroglyph Park may be marked and visited, but what lay beyond is not. Out there in the distance, somewhere, so we were told, lay the famous mud volcanoes. Resourceful Asim went to work – for a small fistful of money – and after a few failed attempts found the right dirt track heading out into . . . Greater Gobistan. Across great bumpy flats, around some low hills and finally racing up a steep one, Asim hit the mark.
In the Caspian wind listening to the slurping mud volcanoes of Gobustan. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014
All around us stood miniature volcanoes of mud, perhaps fifteen to twenty feet tall, slurping quietly as they slowly bubbled and pushed out small streamlets of cool mud. We stood transfixed, listening to the soft slurping noises coming from all directions.
“Sounds like a food tasting competition!”
It was just us – a taxi driver, two curiosity-seeking historians, and the slurpers. Up one volcano and down the other we bounded, laughing, listening, peering into the bubbling ooze. We think Asim is still talking about us – the day the crazy Americans came out of nowhere and paid him to see rocks and mud.
Taking chances with a mud volcano. Copyright James V. Michalec 2014