Post-apocalyptic is the only way to describe the landscape in Qobustan. Situated just 70 kilometres south of Baku (or an hour’s drive) along the Caspian coast, Qobustan is all rock and oozing mud, scars and craters. Beyond, an azure Caspian floats just out of reach, a backdrop to the flat-top mountains this retreating inland sea pummeled into shape. Above, the azure sky is dotted with choppers surveying the oil rigs below.
Azerbaijan is often described as otherworldly, and Qobustan is otherwordlyness incarnate.
Despite initial appearances, Qobustan is not actually dead but living – living in the 14,000 residents who call the nearby town home; living in the blistering mounds and temperamental coastline that are constantly shifting on Mother Nature’s whim.
It’s not oil or tar bubbling up from the earth as you might imagine, but mud – thick, goey, cold mud. More than half the world’s mud volcanoes – about 300 in total – are found in Azerbaijan, and some of them are here in Qobustan. Mud volcanoes are not really volcanoes at all, but take their name from their resemblance to the molten-lava kind. Mud volcanoes come in all shapes and sizes and many are very small. Because they have no lava and rarely erupt, it’s safe to get up close.
Methane and carbon dioxide gases released from deep within the Earth cause Qobustan’s mud volcanoes to constantly bubble away, releasing a slow drizzle of wet mud that paints the ground grey and black. Qobustan’s weather is windy and salt-crusted, so the mud dries out quickly, cracking and changing colour almost before your eyes.
Exploring this wicked landscape is great fun; it really does feel like you’re standing at the edge of the Earth out here. A vista of Qobustan is like a glimpse at the end of existence.
The stark, almost hostile landscape is a wonderful juxtaposition to the other tourist attraction this area is famous for – a place where people come to ponder the beginning of life as we know it.
Qobustan Natuer Museum & petroglyphs
Most people don’t travel to Qobustan for the mud volcanoes – they come for the petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs are symbolic and figurative ‘drawings’ made by early humans by chiselling shapes into the patina of exposed rock. Petroglyphic ‘art’ (crude as it may be) is evidence of the development of symbolic thinking, making it one of the most important artifacts of early human history.
Qobustan’s petroglyphs date back up to 40,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. More than 6,000 individual carvings were discovered here in the 1930s and have been protected through the Qobustan National Park (Qobustan Milli Parkı) ever since.
The Qobustan Natuer Museum sits adjacent to the petroglyphs and this is the first port of call for visitors. The Museum contains interactive displays that explain the meaning of the carvings as well as a more general exhibition to help you understand the context of Qobustan.
Many of the petroglyphs found here depict horses, goats, lions and big game. Evidence suggests that animals were carved into the rock as part of pre-hunting rituals – or maybe even for target practice. Other petroglyphs are visual records of Qobustan’s culture: dance ceremonies, pregnant women depicted in profile and abstract tamgas or status symbols.
Outside the Museum, walking tracks wind through Qobustan’s eerie landscape of stacked boulders, rock shards and caves, tumbledown from the countless earthquakes this area has endured. This part of Qobustan is noticeably greener, but it’s just as windswept and dry as the mud volcanoes.
It’s essential to visit the Natuer Museum before going out to see the petroglyphs in-situ. The carvings are well-preserved but difficult to identify, so it helps to know what you’re looking for. Better still, have a guide from the Museum accompany you like we did.
How to visit Qobustan from Baku
Just an hour’s drive from downtown Baku, Qobustan National Park makes for an ideal trip out of Azerbaijan’s capital. The mud volcanoes are located very close to the Natuer Museum, so it’s a good idea to pair the two and make a day of it. The Natuer Museum is well signposted and you should have no trouble getting there by taxi. The mud volcanoes, however, are off-road and hidden away. Most taxi drivers won’t know where to take you, so it’s not recommended to do this independently.
The most convenient way to see Qobustan’s petroglyphs and mud volcanoes is with travel company Bag Baku. They run a daily minibus from Nazimi metro station to Qobustan Natuer Museum during peak season (leaving at 9am and returning to Baku around 3pm), plus off-season trips by special request. At the Museum, they’ll organise your guide. Bag Baku staff then coordinate with a fleet of Lada taxi drivers to take you out to the volcanoes.
We travelled in the off-season with six other people and paid 35 AZN each, including all transport plus entrance to the Museum and our guide.
Visit the Bag Baku Facebook page to enquire or make a reservation.