The Azerbaijan surprise and crossing the Caspian Sea

After the happy weeks spent in Georgia I was a bit unsure about what to expect in Azerbaijan. My preconceptions (heavily weighed by a lack of knowledge and research) had me imagining an oil money state, characterised by a conservative Muslim population and anticipating little interaction with the people. Basically a country I had to cycle to in order to catch a boat somewhere else. The visa being relatively expensive ($110) and often hard to obtain (unless you visit the consulate in Batumi who is more worried about looking like Poirot and playing solitaire on his computer!) means it is not exactly a tourist hot spot. But it was more than a pleasant surprise. At the border we were waved through to the front of the queue and were the first ones allowed through the gates that morning. Passports, visas and a border camera mugshot later and the man with the over sized military hat behind the big desk flashed a grin emblazoned with gold teeth and waved us through.

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The road followed the foothills of a mountain range, mostly hugging the point where they met the flat plain dominated by gravel and bolder strewn dried out river run-offs. This often led to the strange phenomenon of having to gain height in order to reach a narrower section of the river or stream to cross bridges. Apart from a 10km section through some very rural villages the road had good tarmac and the reception alongside it was more than warm. I assume the enthusiasm of all the people waving, beeping their horns and shouting hellos at us was a reaction to the limited number of tourists and foreigners who travel through these parts – especially by bicycle. Whatever it was it had the affect of making us feel like some kind of heroes! One elderly gentleman sitting by the side of the road as we passed called to us to “stay here for a while”. He spoke excellent English and invited us to escape the heat in the shade of the 1100 year old sacred tree (can’t prove this fact and he was the one who made the sign for it). He explains he is 82 years old and very excited to meet us and talk to us and over the next hour or so he fed us with (unripe) plums, walnuts, tea with fudge sweets and watermelon – despite not being able to eat anything himself as he was fasting for Ramadan. Periodically we are joined by other people who he waves down as they pass, including a fantastic Toad of Toad hall type character complete with flat cap, tweed jacket and gold teeth, riding a beautiful old motorbike with side car.

In the town of Sheki I came across my first Caravansary – a kind of inn for the travelling merchants of times gone by especially silk road travelers. This one had been restored and was operating as an affordable hotel so we treated ourselves to a night of luxury. Which made it more of a shame to leave in the morning in misty, murky rain. But it dried up in the afternoon, albeit becoming incredibly humid, and we were once again in some luscious green landscape. The variation in scenery was something I had not envisaged in Azerbaijan; we could still see snow-capped mountains to our left and passed through huge water run off areas, green forests dotted with tea houses, fields of hazelnut tress and large areas of farmland. There were also some incredibly poor villages by the roadside. One of which was characterised by clay ovens like over-sized rustic pots in which women were baking fresh flat-breads to sell to road users and hungry cyclists. In the the fields behind were tumbledown wooden houses and several patched together tents it made for a real sense of real hand-to-mouth existence. Wooden carts pulled by scraggly horses and even scragglier donkeys would share the road with clapped-out Ladas and the juxtaposing oil money, gas guzzling 4x4s and hummers. The drivers of the latter would often double-back and stop us to take our photos, sometimes putting our helmets on and wanting to pose on the bikes.

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We passed through the photo opportunity villages of ‘Nic’ and Sin’, camping in the forest tea gardens near Ismailly and towards a ridge line that provided a very dramatic landscape change. After a killer drop down to the river aand climb back up a 12% gradient we looked back at our last mountainscape and began to roll through huge golden corn fields. These soon gave way to another golden landscape as the sun was setting over the first stretches of desert. Gently rolling hills stretched further and further to the horizon with little more than the road and electricity pilons. We were now 4 cyclists (as another Enlish guy, Alex had caught us up on that killer hill) and there were not many prospective wild camp spots to conceal 3 tents. One twisting section had a series of butchers huts on each corner, one of which had a grassy spot next to it so we pulled in to ask if we could camp. The owner waved us open armed onto the camp spot and we set about pitching. “I’ve got a hoof” came from Alex, “Me too” as I kicked one out of the way for my groundsheet, “there’s a jaw over here” Claire joined in! Seems like we would be sleeping in the sheep graveyard, not that there was much left of them. By way of saying thank you for letting us stay on his land we went to buy some meat for dinner, the last of a sheeps leg was hanging up and a portion was pulled down and chopped off on a wooden block for us. The guy motioned for me to wash the meat and the water source was in the open shed/lean-to; which also turned out to be the make-shift abbatoir. A hose hung from the ceiling over a pit carved out of the earth that was full of stomach contents, congealed blood and the head and hoofs sat on a stool infront of me. Sorry if you are a bit squeamish and the smell is probably as you imagine, but the reality of meat production was actually very refreshing to see compared to the sanitised, behind-closed-doors, pretend-it-doesn’t-happen way we buy met in the UK the meat was delicious.

The sunrise over the barren landscape the following morning was stunning and we set off early to try and take advantage of the cool on our first day riding in desert conditions. It was a one-day stint to Baku, just over 120km away and the heat was not too bad as a helpful breeze cooled the sweat instantly. At a lunch stop on top of a hill a stall selling melons by the road gifted us with 2 juice soaked melons to refresh us and in the late afternoon we were embracing the suburbs of the Azerbaijan capital of Baku. It was a strange approach from the desert scape into a more built-up environment, the first signs of the city’s oil wealth were in evidence too with the odd oil dereck rocking up and down in between houses. The traffic became more intense and the buildings and cars got bigger and newer as we closed in on our hostel (the only hostel or vaguely affordable accommodation in the city) in the old town.

We spent just over 6 days in the strange city of Baku and 4 of them with our brilliant couch host Kasia who is originally from Poland and doing an internship in the city. The reason for the extended stay was the same as all the other cyclists and overland travellers who we met here – waiting for visas (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and then playing the waiting game for an available space on a cargo ship across the Caspian Sea to Aktau (in our case) or Turkmenbashy (Tukmenistan). The old city is a UNESCO heritage site but has been really over restored and lacks any real charm, the rest of the city is the oil money extravagance I was expecting with a ridiculous number of fountains, expensive clothes shops and slightly sleazey bars plying their trade to ex-pats working for the oil companies. There is wide spread corruption throughout the country,  the former president (he died 11 years ago) Heydar Aliyev can be seen everywhere in statues, monuments, buildings and billboards and has been succeeded by his son and potentially his wife in “elections”. There wasn’t too much of a police state feel except for when it came to crossing the street – if there is an underpass and you don’t use it there is a 30 manat (around $35) fine and police sat in huts on the street corner to enforce this! But the evenings were well spent meeting up with a constantly evolving group of cyclists (some would get their visas and a boat as others would arrive in town to start the process). Never had I met so many cycle tourists and the most popular subject was usually the latest boat rumours. It is not a scheduled service just a side industry for the cargo ships when there is space and their cargo is not deemed to dangerous for passengers. We had heard horror stories of lousy conditions, hassles obtaining tickets from a woman who only speaks Azerbaijani and Russian, long waits (of several days) at port, customs, on-board, on arrival and bribes being demanded just to use the loading ramp onto the boat.

After 6 days and another beer heavy night of cyclists chat and ‘rocking out’ in one of the ex-pat bars I was woken in the hostel to the news there was a boat leaving. I think I was probably still drunk as I phoned another cycle couple waiting for the news (Anina and Paul), scrambled everything onto Carra and wobbled across town to the port. In our favor the hostel staff had rung ahead for us and we found the non-descript door at the port behind which a woman was selling tickets. I wowed her with my hungover Russian (Thankyou, goodbye, beer and cheers!) and she sold us tickets for about $100 each. Oustide and a little shell shocked by the ease of the first stage we met our first Mongol Rally teams, some of whom had slept in their vehicles for several days at the port trying to achieve the same progress for a boat to Turkmenistan but with no luck. We were directed to a shed by a customs gate and told to wait there, which we did, for about 6 hours!! We were joined by our Georgian cycling company Anina and Paul, Alex who had caught up with us on the way to Baku and Jon (another English cyclist who arrived in Baku 2 days previously). 7 cyclists lined up in various states of boredom and anticipation with our 7 bikes lined up against the shed wall and various other randoms who came and went and sat down and moved bags around and seemed to know no more than us. Then movement, showing tickets, passports and visas to another selection of uniformed gold teeth and funny hats and directed towards the good ship Barda.

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Getting on board proved to be a little tricky as the loading ramp is a train track and we were directed away from it and to the side of the boat, eventually we had to haul our bikes round the side of the loading door and pass them to each other over an open drop down to the oil slick water below. We leaned them up against the cargo bay wall and wandered curiously up some steps towards the deck waiting for someone to question or direct us. To our surprise we were each eventually assigned to very nice (if stiflingly hot) cabin and then left to wander wherever we liked around the boat. It finally set sail around 3 hours later and the Baku skyline started to fade as we headed out into the Caspian Sea (which I later found out is actually 25m below sea level!). Shortly after departure a man came and stuck his head through the  cabin doors saying what sounded like ‘Atlas’ – I hoped he wasn’t the captain. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, sleep was near impossible in the hot cabins and I dozed between trips onto deck to cool down. During one of these wanders around midnight ı saw a man emerge from the crew area with a pair of shoes and launch them over board into the sea, a second later he did the same thing – I just went back to bed a bit more confused from sleep deprivation. The following afternoon we caught sight of Aktau on the horizon and to our surprise sailed straight into the port, we were still discussing how smooth the voyage had been when we were told to vacate our cabins. An hour or so after docking, customs had boarded and cleared the ship and we were wheeling our bikes down the loading ramp (much easier) and into Kazakhstan!

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