The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

The Mud Volcanos of Qobustan

Mud Volcano, Qobustan

One of the Great Mud Volcanoes, in full eruption.

I took a car and guide from Baku to the famed Mud Volcanoes of Qobustan (Gobustan).

Despite their splendid name, they are actually only about 6 feet tall.  They gently burp forth mud and methane from deep mud reservoirs.  Sporadic trickles of mud run down from the small cones.  If they are lucky the craters occasionally manage to spit up a baseball size lump of mud a foot or so.  It all seems very small scale, but remember this is a geologic process that has been running gently for millennia and, yes, the big hilly area the volcanoes stand on has probably been slowly built up from the burped mud.

They are a little goofy,  but good fun, and well worth a short visit.

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

Ascending the mighty Mud Volcano

After the rather touristy Baku Atashgah, I took a taxi out to see a more modest, but more authentic natural flame, at “Yanar Dag” (Fire Mountain).

The story is that several decades ago a wandering shepherd accidentally set light to a small natural vent.  And to general amazement, that small vent has kept steadily burning ever since, apparently fed by some tiny natural leak from Baku’s vast gas fields far below.

Steps have now been built around the site, but the site itself seemed convincingly natural.  And no one was asking for money, which is also a good sign.

Despite its grand name, it is a fairly modest.  The flames run intermittently over a length of about 10-12 feet, with erratic flames varying from little 1-2 inch flickers to occasional 1-2 foot spurts.  However across the entire length it was generating a lot of heat.  Despite its small size, I found it genuinely impressive and a delightful example of the occasional oddities of nature.  I surprised my taxi driver by laughing with simple joy when I first saw it.   I can well understand why some pious traveler, on discovering such a strange natural vent, might have venerated it and made it a temple site (as probably happened at the Baku Ateshga).

After failing to find a suitable bus, train, or marshrutska, I eventually  took a taxi out to the Baku Atashgah (Fire Temple).  The taxi driver chatted with me in weak English.  He complained about government corruption and how there should be lots of money in Azerbaijan but it didn’t make it down to the people.  He also complained that California’s Gubernator Schwartzenegger was far too sympathetic to the wicked Armenians.  (Not an accusation I had previously heard!)

The Baku Atashgah or Fire Temple is a much larger complex than the Atashgah in Tbilisi, with a large courtyard surrounded by cells for visiting pilgrims.  The central building, which houses the scared flame, is surprisingly similar in shape and dimensions to the Tbilisi Ateshga.  However, here all four walls have open archways, rather than the closed archways of Tbilisi.  There is also a small crematorium pit to the side.

It is sometimes asserted that the site originated as a Zoroastrian temple which was destroyed by the Arabs, but apparently modern scholarship rejects this.  In any event, the current structure was built in the early 17th c. by Indians with a strong emphasis on Vishnu, with his trident.  (Which is a pity as the original Zoroastrian religious vision seemed much simpler and less superstitious.)  The scared flame was originally fed by a natural gas vent, which, alas, expired in 1882, so it is now run off the municipal gas mains.

Nowadays the site has been restored purely as a tourist attraction, with waxworks figures in the pilgrim’s cells.  The central flame was initially out, but after I paid my admission fee, the attendant discreetly turned on the gas .

On my third try, after much searching, I finally found Tbilis’s Atashgah, or Fire Temple.  The two LonelyPlanet maps show slightly different locations for the Atashgah, both of which are close but slightly too far East.  You can’t access the Atashgah from the path to the Narikala fortress; rather you must come to it by going up into the nameless little streets South-East of the Jvaris Mama church, then taking the steps up to the Meheti church, then going 100 m East.

I finally spotted the Atashgah because I noticed a self-congratulatory sign listing various worthy groups that were funding some restoration program.  But of what?  Then I realized  the rather dull looking redbrick building matched the descriptions I’d read, so I checked with a workman and yes, this was it!

Atashgah interior + wandering Scotsman

It is a strange structure: roughly a 20ft sided cube, under active restoration both inside and out.  There is an entrance doorway, and arched sides but no windows.  The roof is gone and there is a tree growing inside.  There is what seems to be a fire pit in the center. I paid my respects, and gently asked the Lord of Fire to be kind to California (currently plagued by wildfires).

This is believed to an authentic Zoroastrian Fire Temple, established during the short-lived Persian occupation of Tbilisi in the 6th c AD.   The Zoroastrians venerated fire as a pure element and would use the temple flame as a focus (or direction) to worship Ahura Mazda, the one universal god.

[ See also Tbilisi Ateshgah Revisited in 2010].

Gori: Stalin's Home Town

Stalin, Gori.Most relics of Stalin were swept from public view in the USSR in the years after Khruschev’s 1956 denunciation. But not in Gori, Georgia.

This small provincial town is Stalin’s birthplace.  I suspect that Stalin is pretty much the only interesting thing ever to have happened here, so, despite everything, he is still commemorated as the local boy who went on to Great Things.  His statue, birthplace and museum are all still preserved, if no longer explicitly venerated.

After my 70 minute marshrutka ride from Tbilisi, I was dropped off in the Gori’s main town square.  This is dominated by a tall and imposing statue of a mustached figure in a military greatcoat.  There is no inscription.  Back in the day, none was needed.

Heading North from the square, I spotted what initially appeared like a smallish Greek temple.  But no.  This is the site of the modest house where Stalin was born and raised.  That modest  two room brick building has been lovingly preserved and, to protect it from the elements, a temple like outer structure has been erected over it.  On the North side is a second, smaller statue of Stalin, this time in a softer, more relaxed pose.

The Stalin Museum itself lies just to the North of the preserved house.  The museum has a wide array of Stalin paraphernalia, including reproductions of early photographs of the young “Soso”, a copy of Stalin’s first police mugshot, his first desk in the Kremlin, historical exhibits from WWII and Yalta, an array of his favorite pipes, gifts received from foreign governments, and finally his bronze death mask.

My favorite piece is definitely the Tsarist police mugshot.  It casts such a different light on Stalin: as the wild young revolutionary, rather than the  smug middle-aged dictator.

A guide took me inside Stalin’s armored railway carriage and we tiptoed nervously past the compartments where the great man had slept and worked.

The Museum presents its artifacts without commentary: neither praising nor denouncing.  But of course the choice of exhibits is itself significant: we are shown Nazi banners being flung at Stalin’s feet during the great Soviet WWII victory parade, but we are not shown any hints of the Gulag, let alone of the Great Terror.  In an unintentional piece of symbolism, the elegant clock outside the museum is stopped: permanently frozen at the High Noon of the Soviet Empire.

As background reading on Stalin’s Georgian youth, I’d strongly recommend Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Young Stalin” which paints a very vivid picture of Stalin’s time in Georgia, showing his different roles as a seminary student, a star choirboy, a proud Georgian poet, a rabble-rousing Marxist, a ruthless underground Bolshevik leader, and an organizer of daring bank robberies, supplying badly needed cash to Lenin’s headquarters.

Down the Potosi Mine

Cerro Rico

Potosi in Bolivia sits below the Cerro Rico mountain, which is a treasury of metallic ores and riddled with mines.  During the Spanish colonial period it was a fabulously wealthy silver mine, generating vast fortunes for the Spanish Crown.

The mine is still mostly hand worked.  I took a small group tour with Koala Tours (recommended by LonelyPlanet).  The tour involved a fair amount of talking, standing around, buying supplies, visiting an ore refinery, etc, but we also got a good two and a half hours underground.  The city is at a heady 13,000 feet up the Andes and the mine entrances are higher.

Potosi now produces mostly zinc, with some tin and only a little silver.  World zinc prices rose dramatically two years ago and so the Potosi miners are prospering.  They have very large incomes by Bolivian standards and are buying 4 wheel drive trucks, etc.  But they still have very poor life expectancies (as low as 38?) mostly due to silicosis.  Miners typically start at 15, with some starting at 10 or 12.

The mining is all done by small (100-200 people) competing cooperatives with no coordination between cooperatives and very little concern for safety.  Mines can easily run into one another (and fight) or undermine one another.  The mountain is slowly being hollowed out and may eventually collapse.  The optimal solution for the whole mountain would probably be to move to open cast mining and level the thing, but the cooperatives oppose this, as they would lose their livelihoods. They reckon it is better to have desperately harsh but profitable jobs, rather than to have nothing.

Most work is still done by hand.  In the mine we visited, they loosen the rock by blasting, hand-shovel it out, move mine trucks by pushing and pulling by hand, and hand-shovel the ore in and out of big baskets for mechanical winching between levels.  We didn’t see the mining face (too dangerous) but we saw shoveling, winching, and trucking.

El Tio

We had stopped at a supply store to buy gifts for the miners, including soda, coca leaves, dynamite and fuses.  (Note: you have to be at least 12 to buy dynamite.)

We visited a rather touristy in-mine museum, with a touristy statue of El Tio, the lord of the mines.  (The miners are all good Catholics above ground, but they perhaps wisely regard below ground as belonging to Someone Else.)

We then went down two levels, the first being 25 meters, the second less.  Within a level, most of the travel was through the railed tunnels for the trucks, which was easy going, with only occasional crawls.  But between levels, we scrambled up fairly narrow, steep, irregular passages.  Our guide explained that when he was younger they used to have to carry the ore out on their backs, up these steep passages.

By the standards of CUCC, this would have been a very easy cave, but at 13,000 feet, the climbs up felt like very hard work.  I was very definitely out of puff and breathing very hard after the second climb. But it was good fun!

Scot + Dynamite

I was in a group of eight visitors plus two guides.  Most of the others were young students and I think I was twice the average age. After we got out, the students had kept back one tube of dynamite.  So we got to wad it up, (it felt like putty), light the fuse (naturally we passed around the dynamite with lit fuse for photos) and then our guides put it in a field, waved us back, and we watched the explosion.  Loud, but not outrageous.

Later, after a shower, we visited the rather dull refinery of San Marco.  There was some refining machinery, but it was much less impressive than the mine tour.