The cosmopolitan delights of Azerbaijan's boomtown capital Baku are well known to international oil industry types, so it's not surprising that the authoritarian country is heavily promoting itself as a tourist destination. With endless beaches, ancient ruins, snowcapped mountains and the chance of glimpsing the critically endangered Caucasian leopard, the country has plenty to offer visitors. Add mud volcanoes to the mix, and Azerbaijan begins to look like paradise for jaded travelers.
Mud volcanos -- typically, small conical mounds that bubble up a clayey slurry -- aren't as spectacular as Etna or Mount St. Helens, but they are safer to view – normally – and Azerbaijan has more of them than any other country: 344, according to Adil Aliyev of the Geology Institute of Azerbaijan, co-author of "What Do We Know About Mud Volcanoes?"
The most popular place to see mud volcanoes is Gobustan National Park, about 37 miles from Baku. Famous for its ancient petroglyphs, Gobustan is also dotted with small mud volcanoes that can be viewed close up. These geological oddities are generally well-behaved but can occasionally erupt in magnificent bursts of flame. The Lokbatan volcano near Baku belched fire hundreds of feet into the air in 2001, and its 2012 eruption left a layer of mud spread over an area of two hectares, according to the Geology Institute.
Across the Caspian, another energy-rich former Soviet republic is trying to shake off its reputation as one of the world's most isolated and repressive countries. Tourism, though, is in its infancy in Turkmenistan. The brand-new luxury hotels of the Avaza beach resort complex, complete with artificial river, are mostly empty, and it's a bit disconcerting that the government's official resort website is a dead link.
Tourists are few, but Turkmenistan swarms with oil and gas experts from all over, especially China, which the two countries recently announced will up its annual gas purchases to 65 billion cubic meters a year by 2016. Turkmenistan is thought to have the fourth largest gas reserves in the world, and the Galkynysh field that will supply China is the second largest after the South Pars field in the Persian Gulf.
And for adventurous tourists, Turkmenistan offers something even more spectacular than mud volcanoes: a "Door to Hell." Set amid the bleak Karakum Desert, this attraction near the village of Derweze, or Darvaza, dates to the 1970s when a sinkhole opened beneath a test well drilled by Soviet geologists. Gas just beneath the surface ignited and has been burning merrily ever since. The ever-burning flames can be invisible by day, but at night they create a truly eerie sight, lighting up the desert for miles around like a giant witches' cauldron big enough to swallow an office block.
Several local tour operators arrange trips to the crater. Accommodation is in tents, and the evening entertainment consists of, "Enjoy view to burning gas crater" followed next day by "enjoy morning view to burning gas crater."
But that's not all, according to one travel agency, which claims that the crater by night "becomes an attraction for huge and largely harmless spiders that run into the fire for reasons best known to themselves." Presumably they run out again, or you'd think they'd be extinct by now. Could Derweze and its spiders have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create Shelob, the humongous spider in "Lord of the Rings" who guards the way into the land of Mordor and the fiery pit of Mount Doom? Since Tolkien died in 1973, it seems unlikely.
But in the land whose late dictator erected a 50-ft golden statue of himself, anything is possible.
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