AZERBAIJAN, 5th – 9th August 2017
So said the big blue sign over our heads as we reached the border gates. I smiled nervously at this greeting. I would have thought our passports and e-visas should be enough to get us through, but this sign indicated something else. However, everything went smooth until we got to the Azerbaijan passport check and customs, that happened simultaneously. A guard took away our passports for control while another soldier with a face of cold steel looked suspiciously at our bikes. “Open” he commanded. I was not sure if he was referring to one of my many bags or just all of them, and I don’t think he was sure either. I think it seemed quite overwhelming to both of us. On top was my sleeping bag that I took out to show him. “Close,” he said. I couldn’t help giggling a little over the silly task for him to check every one of my many bags and the way he took it on with such an authoritative attitude. He looked at me more stern than ever, this was not the right time to be giggling. I took out my ukulele thinking he might find the odd shaped box suspicious. “Toy?” he asked. “No, no” I replied and strummed the strings, they were out of tune and it sounded awful. I tried with a few chords, it sounded even worse, but a subtle smile vibrated on his face. Just for a second then it froze again. “Close. Enough.” That was it, he let us go. We had our pictures taken and our visas and passports stamped and then we could roll into yet another new country. Azerbaijan, how exciting.
Although the scenery was similar to that in Georgia there were lots of other differences. Azerbaijan seemed to favour statues and monuments and often they were painted and very colourful. The themes were either of a nationalistic character or simply animals like a bear, a horse, deer and an unidentifiable big leopard-cat-thing.
Balaken was the first town we got to and it was of a completely other character than the Georgian towns we had been cycling through. It reminded me more of Turkey. The road was new and wide, well-marked, sided by a regular line of lamp posts and foot paths and with white-and-yellow painted kerbs. In the center of the town we went through some big roundabouts that were not ruled by the European traffic rules but some other system where you drive into it and wait until you can get through. This impressive road was flanked by homogenous, beige buildings in an elegant style in between parks and more big monuments and arches. Ever so often there would be big billboards showing a picture of the former president Ilham Aviyev and big, red-blue-and-green flags with a star and a half moon flapped over the streets. This stately setting was filled out by bustling traffic whereof a majority were worn, colourful Ladas, little shops selling groceries or cheap clothes and shoes, kebab stalls and people doing their daily to-dos.
The contrasts of the country became more obvious when the next day we cycled on a small, gravelly road through villages and farmland. Small, worn houses made of wood and stone huddled together along sandy roads, cows, horses, chicken and sheep walked around freely or herded by shepherds, people gathered at the water tap in the town centre, a wreck of a bus passed by picking up the waiting customers and had a row of round, child’s faces staring out of the back window at us, smiling and waving.
We stopped at a spring to fill up our bottles where a few men were setting up their fruit stall. An abundance of plums, apples, pears, berries and watermelons were neatly placed in boxes and buckets and wood was collected to build a fire where sweetcorn were to be cooked. It took a long time and they would stay at the stall all day. I wondered if they could really make enough money to make it worth the effort, thinking what the hourly pay off would be and if they would be able to sell all their fruits, there really were a lot. But I think it was not the right way to look at it. It was not like a supermarket, but based on the season and a way to make whatever money you could, not a secured and stable income. And then it was even also about something else. Generosity. I went to buy a few pears and apples, but the owner took over my shopping filling my bag with fruits to the top and refused to take any payment, he then gave us a huge watermelon and some Georgian bread, called lavish, that was still hot from the oven and we sat there in the shade with our cold water and fresh food and things could not be any better.
A family arrived on a motorbike with a sidecar, their hands were dark purple and they delivered some buckets of freshly picked blueberries. The woman of them was so thin, she was wearing cheap golden slippers, tight black jeans and a long pink t-shirts with holes in it. Her hair was dark brown, but lightened by the sun, and it was wild, but held loosely together in the neck. She sat down close to us and stared. We tried to have a conversation and offer her some watermelon, but she only seemed interested in staring at us. Chris went to the bikes and she came and sat right in front of me, still staring. I decided to just stare back, obviously I was as curious about her as she was about me. Her eyes were a soft brown, her nose little and pierced and her mouth was wide with a few front teeth missing and others covered with gold. She seemed lively, fierce and not shy at all. I wonder what she saw in me.
We wrestled ourselves free from the little oasis and continued our cycling. It went up a long, mild hill to the town Qax where there was a bridge over a wide river. It was such an unusual thing to ride uphill to cross a river, but in Azerbaijan it seemed to be the norm as the road went up to where the rivers were narrow as they came down from the mountains. In the late summer there was hardly any water in the rivers though, just a wide rocky berth where the waters used to flow, but in Qax there was a fresh stream running under the bridge and we took advantage of it and went for a swim. It was not such a bad concept having the rivers on top of the hill so you could cool down after the climb.
It was another longer and steeper climb up to the river crossing in the bigger town Şeki. Here we were aiming for an old caravanserai that the Belgian couple we had met a few days earlier had recommended to stay in. It was run by some old people who still ran it the old-fashioned way, no option for booking online or location on Google maps, you just had to ask your way there and hope they had a room available. I kind of liked this concept, but I liked it less when we realised that the place was located even higher up at the hills and when we arrived sweating and tired at 6pm, the old man had a long glance in his handwritten book of reservations and finally said: “Only luxury, 50 manat”. The old beautiful building was full of tourists and a wedding couple having their pictures taken and it just didn’t feel like a place we really were meant to stay, so instead we went back down the hill via the narrow, winding, cobble stoned backroads. Here tourists seemed to be a rare sight as people stared and children curiously ran after us, while chicken fled from our wheels.
We had no other alternative, but needed a place to stay as it was getting late and we needed to register in the country by staying at an official address. So we felt lucky, when we suddenly saw “Canal hostel” written on the wall of a house in the narrow backroad. We had not expected to find any accommodation here. We went in and immediately spotted two other touring bikes and knew we had come to our place. It was a traditional building in two levels with a big courtyard in the middle run by some young and friendly Azerbaijan guys. We met the German couple, Jenny and Rene, who had been travelling from China towards home over the last ten months. As always it was great to meet other cyclists with whom we could share our experiences and also they could tell us about their experiences with the semi desert in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and winter cycling in Western China, two of the six challenges that lay between us and Mori and at least for me, things I had never tried before. My mind drifted away in imaginations, apprehension and anticipations, slowly preparing for what was waiting ahead.
We kept following the main road for the next few days as it went along the foothills of the big mountains to our left over where Russia lay. Sometimes we had beautiful views of the grey-green mountain peaks, other times we caught glimpses of the shimmering hot, yellow plains south of the mountains where we were happy we were not cycling, yet. Hot, flat plains were to come at us soon enough when we crossed the Caspian Sea, so for now we enjoyed the cooler and greener environment in the hills.
What we didn’t enjoy so much was the amount of traffic on the road, we had thought we were taking the quieter (and longer and hillier) way through Azerbaijan, but the flow of cars and trucks were constant and the cycling an endless swerving in and out of the road to get out of the way. What lifted our mood were the encounters with the locals. In the villages it happened several times that a group of boys would either walk, run or cycle with us curious and excited about the strangers passing by. In the little shops we were often met with great politeness and helpfulness to the point where a young guy gave Chris his recommendations on which energy drink to choose. Energy drinks seemed to be the number one most popular drink in this country and with worrying effectiveness we also caught a slight addiction to them, trying out brands such as ‘Hell’, ‘Bizon’ and ‘Hazard’. It got to a point where I got worried about Chris and strongly advised him to not buy anymore of these drinks as I had heard they were really not very healthy for your body, and he reluctantly followed my advice. It didn’t make it easier for Chris that a young man in a shop rejected to sell the poor man a carton of chocolate milk, his usual favourite ‘energy’ drink, because he assumed it had run out of date whereas really it was the production date that was printed on it. But Chris did not manage to convince him that it was okay to sell.
Between the towns Qabala and Ismayelli the road went through cool, old forests which where facilitated richly with fruitstalls and little picnic areas with benches and shops selling drinks, light food and tea. We stopped in a few of these, they were just too nice to resist, especially when we found one that had a volleyball court. We had not been playing our volleyball and football games since we had left Europe and so it was amazing to get into the game again as we played three very close sets with Chris finally winning in the end. And the best part was to see him victoriously cheering on his knees on the ground, we should be playing games every day. After our match the keepers of the picnic area invited us for a cup of tea, served in the Turkish way in little curved glasses on a round tray, only here they added a slice of lemon to the tea, which I found made it even better.
Stalls selling fruits, nuts and pickled vegetables were both a decorative accessory along the roads, but it also happened several times that the sellers would hold out a few pieces of fruit for us as we passed by as a generous, thoughtful and refreshing gift we appreciated a lot in the late summer heat.
150 kilometres from Baku we woke up to a day with three big hills to climb. The first one began right away and was not too hard, but from the top of it we got a terrifying view of the next one that snaked up over the next big hill. The road was narrow and got busier and busier the closer we got to the big city, so we had to cycle out on the uneven and rocky shoulder next to the tarmac. The gradient was high and so was the midday temperatures and we struggled, especially Chris. “I need shade!” he gasped, and collapsed on the ground when we reached some trees after a few more switchbacks. “I wish I had had that chocolate milk” he complained, but suddenly his face lightened up. He dived into his panniers and from the bottom he came back with an energy drink, the Red Bull can that Halil had given him three weeks before in the middle of Turkey. And for a moment my warnings about the unhealthy consequences of energy drinks silenced and thanks to Halil we made it over the hill and enjoyed the glorious downhill on the other side to the town Samaxi.
Here the landscape changed abruptly; gone were the old, shaded forests and the cool mountain climate, actually there were no trees at all, as we were now riding through an empty and dry, barren landscape of rolling hills. It seemed like a harsh place to be and again my thoughts went ahead to the desert awaiting us. This was an appetizer and I looked around me in awe.
We got up over the next hill and finally reached the town Qobustan at the top of the 100 kilometre descent down to Baku late in the afternoon. Outside a little shop we were approached by a man in army-coloured clothes who spoke Swedish when he heard I was from Denmark. It was Thomas, who had lived in Sweden for 15 years and was now back in his home town for the summer holidays. He wanted to buy us dinner, and as he suggested we went to a roadside restaurant further down the road we gratefully accepted his offer. It was a simple place with flies buzzing around on the outdoor terrace, but it was the first time we had gone to a restaurant in Azerbaijan and the food, a tomato omelette for Chris and lamb kebab for me, bread, white cheese and a tomato and cucumber salad, proved to be very, very delicious. Thomas seemed to have settled well in Sweden with a good job as a car mechanic for Mercedes Benz and two kids, but he also still seemed to be at home in Qobustan. He knew people and they still knew him, which had come in handy earlier that day, when the police had stopped him for speeding. A brief interrogation showed that he and the policemen were relatives and the ticket was reduced to a little note that went straight into the policemans pocket. “That is corruption”, I couldn’t help saying it, and Thomas agreed, he knew the difference between the two systems from his many years in Sweden, but he didn’t seem to despise one or the other. “Most people here have not even passed a test to get their driving license” he told us. “They just buy it” he said with a little smile. I reckon he could see the advantage and disadvantage of both.
He said goodbye to us shortly after we had finished eating, as he was keen to go hunting in the hills in the sunset. That left us enough time to begin the glorious downhill as the sun sat beautifully behind us. I had a great feeling, we had almost completed the ride to Baku, we had had so many little precious moments along the road in Azerbaijan and I was expecting the last bit to Baku to be fairly easy. There new tasks and challenges were waiting, but for now all we needed to think about was where we were going to sleep.
It got darker and darker and it was high time to get off the road. Even in the dusk it was still busy with traffic and furthermore it was narrowed in by roadworks with the workers still being around. No where could we escape unseen. The landscape was open and barren with no side roads turning off from the road. We began to worry about the situation, but there was only one thing to do. We put on our lights and kept cycling. Where were we going to sleep that night?
Balaken – Şeki – Qabala – Qobustan
343 kilometres cycled