AZERBAIJAN 9th – 15th August 2017
“We have to get off the road” Chris said. It was dark now and we had come to a side road that went into a little village. We usually preferred to camp out of sight of villages and houses, but this time we had to do something else, but what exactly? We looked up into the fields behind the houses, we could probably get away with spending the night up there, but down the road a shepherd had already spotted us and now he came walking towards us.
“Do you need a place to sleep?” he asked in perfect English. We said yes, and he explained that we could go up to the small restaurant in the village and have dinner, they also had rooms for rent. “But if you like, you can also sleep at my place” he offered. We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but all we really needed was a place to pitch the tent, so we agreed to follow him to his home. We went through a gate in a high wall that surrounded his property: two old brick buildings, some stables and sheds, a small garden and a few trees and a big open yard in the middle. Two women, one of the man, Merdan’s age and an older one, were sitting by a table outside the houses in the light of an electric bulb. He said a few words to them and left to go and fetch the sheep that had wandered off into the fields again when we had distracted him. The women had us sitting down and quickly served us bread, cheeses, watermelon and tea even though we protested mildly and explained that we had already eaten and were full. But the generous hospitality was unstoppable.
A cow and a goat came back in through the gate, and a little later Merdan too. He explained that the women were his sister and mother, he had never married, but had studied a masters in film making in Baku. That was why he spoke such good English and he said he was trying to learn German too, meanwhile he lived the simple, hard life on the farm with his animals. There was something that didn’t match up about him, the English speaking shepherd. He wanted more from life, he had ambitions and dreams and knew about the world outside the farm and outside the country. But the system held him down, he explained. Only people with money and the right connections could get jobs, not the people with the right skills and competences. He told one disillusioned and passivating story after the other about how the politics were ruled by the international oil scene and didn’t have any interest in and eye for the people of Azerbaijan and their real needs. He was one man against the system and he clearly felt defeated. “The Soviet Union cleans people’s brains, Soviet people can not think, they just follow the leader” he said, indicating that he didn’t find much support among his fellow citizens, his battle was lonely and lost. His stories filled me with frustration and sadness.
He insisted we’d sleep in a bed inside the house. It was a bare, hot concrete room and a hard, wooden bed, softened by some layers of blankets.
In the daylight the next morning the simplicity of the place really struck me. Everything seemed old and nothing seemed excessive, all was there for a purpose. The toilets were a simple hole in the concrete, the water from the tap by the mirror in a corner of the yard was collected rainwater – the same water Merdan also used to nurse and grow the trees in his little oasis out on the dry, harsh steppe. The mom was old and wrinkled and had trouble walking, but she still worked as much as she could chasing the chickens around and carrying heavy buckets of water to the animals in the stables. It made a deep impression, not only to see people living so hard and simple, but also that they took us in and generously shared what they had with us. They served us a delicious and filling breakfast with fresh, warm milk from the cows, homemade cheese, thin bread, tea and eggs with the most yellow yokes I have ever seen. Then Merdan sent us off on our last day off cycling to Baku.
Our hopes about an easy day of cycling downhill to Baku were soon turned down. The road seemingly went more up over long, steady climbs than actually going down, but it was the wind that really troubled us. It came from the side and grew stronger and stronger, so that by midday we found ourselves in a dust storm that momentarily blew us both off the bikes. We sought shelter by a little shop and some nice men gave us a melon that was soon covered in the flying dust that was everywhere. But we had a goal, a nice private double room was waiting for us in Baku that evening and we were keen to get there as fast as possible. However, speed was something we could forget about when we coninued and I found myself pushing the bike only just able to hold it up against the wind, while Chris wobbled along ahead of me. I shouted angrily at the wind to stop blowing so hard, but it didn’t listen or maybe it couldn’t hear me at all. Fortunately the road bent a bit and enough to get the wind a little more behind us, so that I again was able to cycle.
We reached the outskirts of Baku in the middle of the afternoon and the ride in through the city proved to be a difficult and time consuming task for us. The city was structured for cars with big highways connecting the different parts of the city, but if you were not a user of big highways it was almost impossible to get from one end to the other. And as the cautious cyclists we are we are not happily using big highway systems. At one point we were cycling on an eight lane road that split into two and we wanted to take the left arm, but could not safely get across the four lanes going right. So we were forced to the right and soon found ourselves on another big highway with a barrier in the middle that made it impossible to cross with the bikes. At one point an underground tunnel let us get to the other side but not without the inconvenient task of lifting the bike down the stairs, unloading them and carrying them and all the bags separately up the stairs on the other side of the tunnel. We were getting exhausted, but there was still a long way to the centre and we feared more roads that were difficult to get across. But after another hour or two zigzagging towards the centre on small backroads we finally arrived in front of our hostel at 8pm and we could agree that we had seen many little streets and alleys that we would have missed on the highway.
I went to check in to our pre-booked room, but was met with upsetting news: while the receptionist nervously looked at me the manager on the phone told me he had double booked the room. He began offering me two beds in separate dorms, but I didn’t even wait to hear his offer until I told him how unacceptable it was for me after I had been travelling all day to get to that room. I’m usually not one who gets angry at strangers and talks with a raised voice, and I guess under other circumstances I could have been more understanding, but at that very moment being so exhausted I could not take any more challenges, I just wanted to have what I had expected and to rest undisturbed. The phone went back to the receptionist and some other calls were made to arrange that we instead could have the same deal in a neighbouring hostel. We walked the bikes around the corner and were welcomed by the keeper and the English-speaking Elmin, a wonderful little man who would do anything to help us. And there were a few things we needed help with. We were to go to the Uzbek embassy the next morning and we needed to print and copy a few things as well as plan how to get there, and we also needed to be registered in the country as we were most likely going to stay there more than the ten days that are allowed unregistered. Elmin would help us with it all and after a long, tough day of cycling it meant everything to meet a kind person like him.
We had two efficient days in Baku. We got our visas without any problems issued by the chatty and cheerful ambassador and got hold of one essential bike part, a Shimano rear hub for my wheel to replace the wobbling one I was riding on. These errands took us around the city so we both got a close look at the iconic Flame Towers and the modern architecture of Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, but also at the everyday life in the parks, the markets and the old quarters of the city where women were washing wool and a man was building wooden boxes in the street. In the evenings we met up with our friend Alex who had made it to Baku one day after us. Together with the evening crowds that came out after dark when the temperatures dropped we walked down to the promenade and out on the pier and marvelled over the city lights along the bay and the show on the Flame Towers.
As Dea mentioned briefly there, we did enjoy the light show on the Flame Towers in the evening, and I was especially impressed by it. I’d never seen anything quite like it. There were literally great big men made of lights, waving Azerbaijan’s flag, on the towers. It was really spectacular, and all I could do was stare at it and say things like “I love it” until it eventually got too much, and I had to make some videos. Here they are for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy watching them, and then Dea will continue with her lovely blogpost.
With an Uzbek visa with specified dates in our passports the clock had begun ticking for real, now it was not just worries about winter in the mountains, but a very tangible ‘September 19th‘ where we had to leave Uzbekistan that urged us to press on. And the challenge now was to get across the Caspian Sea. There are no regular ferries crossing this vast lake, but a steady flow of cargo ships transporting trucks from Azerbaijan to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. Therefore other logics and systems rule, and there are no time schedule for departures and no certainty about when the boats arrive and will be ready to depart. Furthermore the strong winds can hold up the ferries for days and also the port the ships use is not even in Baku, but in the middle of nowhere, a place called Alat, 70 kilometres south of the city. From our research we had found that tickets could only be bought in Baku on the day of departure, which made it an exciting game of how to get the tickets in the morning, navigate through the city and to the port south of it to be ready for departure the same afternoon – all on bicycle. However, we had met some motorcyclists at the Uzbek embassy and they were heading down to the port sending us reports that it was possible to both buy your tickets at the port and to wait there camping at the parking area until a boat was ready to leave. So this was our plan: cycle to Alat, buy a ticket and wait. It could be one day, three days or a week, we didn’t know, but honestly we didn’t mind having to wait a few days as it would give us a chance to rest without having to cycle or do any other things.
Cycling out of Baku was easier than cycling in as we could follow the coast on roads that most of the time had a fair shoulder. On the way we met a surprising number of local cyclists, a couple on road bikes and some commuters, and we stopped to have a little chat with all of them. It was good to see that people still insisted on taking the freedom of cycling, like a protest against the city that was built for cars only. I had a lot of respect for them, for it was not easy and not the safest thing to do, but I think it made them happier.
Out of the city we followed the highway through industrial areas of mining and oil extraction both at sea and on land. It was not beautiful or charming, but I still enjoyed seeing another and very essential side of Azerbaijan and the source of the black blood of our consumerist society.
We arrived in Alat at sunset seeing the parking area full of trucks and other travellers, two on bicycle, five or six little British Mongol Rally cars and the motorbikers we had met a few days earlier. We thought they had already left, but found out that the boat had been delayed for several days due to the strong winds we ourselves had struggled with. Now it was about to leave that evening, so we hurried to the ticket office hoping we could be so lucky that there would be two beds available on this ship. Unfortunately it had sold out already the day before, so instead we bought tickets for the next one, but when the next one was leaving was not entirely clear. Some said it might leave the same night and therefore we were reluctant to go and camp in case we would miss it, but as the evening progressed and nothing happened even with the first boat we took the chance and went away from the crowds (that were dominated by the Mongol Rally teams that had decided to get ‘shit-pissed’ as a girl told me) and camped away from the trucks.
The next morning most of the trucks had left, the cyclists, motorbikes and Mongol Rally cars were all gone – except from one. These rally drivers were still asleep after the party the night before but one by one they woke up and introduced themselves. They were Angus, Claire and Adam from the UK and Benji who was Norwegian, but had studied at Lancaster University together with the others and now had such a convincing British accent that he sounded way more British than Chris.
The news on our boat was now that it would arrive some time in the evening and depart during the night, so we had the whole day to do very little and it was great. Chris and I went over the bikes and fixed some minor things and we hung out with the rally team playing cards and football. In various shipping containers there was a shop, a bank, toilets and showers and there was even wifi we could use – it was a great place to spend the day.
As it was getting dark the trucks suddenly began to run their engines and one by one go through the passport control, so we got our stuff packed and Chris and I stocked up in the shop prepared for a ferry ride that could take anything bestween 25 hours and five days. While the last trucks got going I sat down by myself and looked around, thinking. We were about to leave Azerbaijan and enter the Stans, another chapter of the journey was over and a new one was about to begin. Somehow it was all too much, too many things happened every day, everything kept changing all the time, it all went so fast. I could hardly believe it was only a few days ago we had woken up in Merdan´s simple bedroom. It was hard to keep hold of it all and to take anymore in. I was tired. But the imaginations of the desert, the mountains and the challenge of winter still intrigued me and drew me onwards, made me thrilled and excited about what was coming next. How could life be so rich in experiences, impressions, pictures, meetings, sights, emotions and views, I wondered, and what was I to do about them all? I looked at Chris playing ball with the Rally team in the sunset and decided that they were just there to enjoy.
Baku – Alat
151 kilometres cycled