Saturday night in Baku. Very cold, too cold for snow but a definite hint of rain in the air. We’re going to see Yanar dağ, fire mountain. It’s about a 30-minute taxi ride from the centre and thanks to Ms M’s impressive command of Azeri, we negotiate a return fare of 30 manat – about €28. For this, our man in his Lada will take us to the mountain, wait for us to warm ourselves by the flames, and then drop us back to town.
The journey out amidst the Saturday evening commute (and yes, Saturday is a working day for most people) could have been filmed for TV. Weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding potholes, and snaking around buses and trucks, our nifty lada ploughs ahead at bone-rattling speed. It’s quite the journey. We drive for what seems like ages into the hinterland, passing settlements and villages that are a far cry from the flash new apartment buildings in downtown Baku. Earlier that day I’d seen the new Hilton (not quite finished but nearly there) which is practically next door to the new Marriott and within walking distance of the new Four Seasons. Add to this concoction of starred accommodation, the Fairmont, the Park Inn, and many others and you can’t but ask yourself who’s coming to stay. Is it a question of ‘build and they will come’ or does the Azerbaijani government know more than they’re letting on? It seems like an inordinate number of beds for a city that has yet to produce a commercial-grade postcard. But hey, what do I know?
Back to the fire… and the mountain.
As far back as the thirteenth century, Marco Polo mentions fire spouting from the Abşeron Peninsula. When the drilling of oil wells reduced the pressure underground, most of them burned out. According to folklore, the fire at Yanar Dağ was started by a shepherd in the 1950s, who carelessly tossed aside a cigarette butt in the vicinity of a natural gas vent. The ten-metre stretch of ground has been on fire ever since.
It’s quite surreal. Picnic tables have been set up alongside Fire Mountain and a little çayxana (tea house) perches close by (it was closed the night we went but I am sure that in ten years’ time, this will be quite the tourist attraction; some entrepreneurial mind might even supply marshmallows!) The heat is intense. Tiny blue flames flicker on the edge of the path working up to full flame as they slowly climb the hillock. We’d actually passed it in a taxi thinking that it looked as if someone was burning rubbish in their backyard. Its grandiose pretensions to mountaindom are reminiscent of the movies starring Hugh Grant – The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain. But it has a certain charm and the fact that it has burned through rain and hail and snow for nigh on 60 years is a miracle in itself. Definitely worth the journey.