There was one overwhelming emotion when arriving in Azerbaijan and that was relief; relief that we had somehow managed to survive the Georgian roads. I cannot overstate how bad their driving is, it is almost like they are missing something in their genetic makeup that allows them to think logically and sensibly when on the road. I have tried many times to quantify actually how bad it is and I have failed every time; the closest I got was… essentially every hour in Georgia we saw more ridiculous driving than I did in a year of cycling to and from work in London (every single hour on the road in Georgia). Simply put, it was insane! Ironic really that the border sign out of Georgia into Azerbaijan states “Good Luck”…
Aside from being glad we had crossed Georgia and were finally on our way again after a month of stagnation it was great to be back in a Turkic country. There was an immediate change in attitude towards us, and it is always a great start to any country that the very first border guard comes over, shakes your hand and welcomes you to their country. Turkish border experiences aside, it felt as though we were back in Turkey and we could not have been happier.
The first day in Azerbaijan confirmed that it was not just the polite border guard who wanted to make us feel welcome, just about every single person in the country wanted to help make us at home. There were the courteous drivers that would give us plenty of room on the road, would not toot in anger, and would often wave out with encouragement. There was the man at the ATM in Balakän who helped me understand that a scrum of people at an ATM is normal, the scrum should be embraced, and you should just go with the flow (even though to the untrained eye the scrum looked like a ridiculous way to line up, it certainly worked and everyone knew their place in the scrum). There were the innumerable girls who would follow Katie around whenever it was her turn to enter a grocery shop, who would giggle, smile, and point out what we should be purchasing. There were the two lads who approached me (whilst Katie was inside a grocery store) who just wanted to give me a man hug to say “welcome to Azerbaijan”; it was bit embarrassing that after the man hug that they insisted that I put on some of their aftershave (that they carried in a pocket), apparently after a day in the sun cycling you do actually smell horrendous to anyone that is not cycling. And finally there was the man, who after we asked him if we could camp in his hazelnut grove, pointed us to a fantastic little wooden cottage where we were given the key and told to make ourselves at home (“just lock the gate on the way out in the morning”). That evening as we listened to the dogs and jackals howling outside we were thankful to be inside, but more thankful that we had arrived in Azerbaijan; a country we knew we were going to love.
The main road from Tbilisi to Baku runs across a wide flat plain, however, due to our insistence on embracing the Georgian wine region for Christmas (in hindsight, still a very fine idea) we were faced with the foothills of the High Caucasus on a more northerly route. On the second day in Azerbaijan we got the feeling that the 400(ish) km that we had to cover in order to reach Baku for NYE were going to be more challenging than we had anticipated. The day started off on a gravel road, which deteriorated quickly; becoming a hilly gravel road covered in quite large rocks, making progress at any reasonable speed virtually impossible. Luckily, the afternoon was a complete contrast, where we were overjoyed to find a main road (of sorts), with hard shoulder and a perfect decline to make sitting on 30km/h very easy; but just as we were getting used to that the decline mellowed and became a nasty incline. The incline lasted the best part of 6 km and took almost two hours to negotiate. This was to be the cycling story of our time in Azerbaijan; long stretches of down hill, punctuated with relatively short, sharp inclines, which made the day seem as though all you had been doing was climbing. To many this probably does not sound like a lot of fun but the scenery was breath taking and a real sense of achievement was felt at the end of each day.
We have had many fine travelling companions along the way; the Rhine, the Danube, and the Black Sea to name but a few, but without a doubt our favourite companion thus far has been the High Caucasus. Every time we had to dig deep and think we were about to crack we would round a corner or summit a slight rise and there the High Caucasus would be ever mocking us, ever inspiring us. The enormous rock walls, the wide open flood plains, the jagged peaks, the enormous sky filled with all imaginable hues of blue and the clouds dancing on the wind were truly remarkable. We will miss these mountains, but feel incredibly lucky to have travelled with them as ever-present sentinels, if even for only a short time.
Aside from the terrain, the other reason that the distance to Baku looked more and more intimidating was the local hospitality. We had seen hospitality on a countrywide scale in Turkey and were so pleased to see it again here; the only problem is that you feel as though you are letting people down when you don’t stop for çay all of the time. One morning we decided that we should stop and take in some çay as the day was early and we were confident that we could make our desired distance. The fact that we had not had breakfast (too lazy to cook the porridge on that particular morning) meant that it was an easy decision, as the çay house appeared to also provide food. On entering we were greeted with robust handshakes, slaps on the back and innumerable smiles filled with gold teeth (the Azeris love nothing more than a mouth full of gold teeth!). We were also greeted with a very intense game of dominoes being played out between the local constabulary and the local old boys (old boys seemed to be winning). On enquiring about çay and piti (a truly fantastic Azeri dish) we were assured that both were on offer and we should sit down and relax. Çay in Azerbaijan does not come by the cupful, but by the pot full (usually consisting of about 10 cups of çay), so we sat back and relaxed. When the first 30 minutes passed we politely enquired about piti and were assured that it was on its way; another 30 minutes passed and again the enquiry was made and again we were assured it was on its way. Another pot of çay (unordered) just appeared so we again relaxed and took in some more of the dominoes. This continued for two hours and still no piti (and our morning hunger was at new levels), at which point we pointed out we really must leave as Baku is a long way on velocipede and got up to leave. We think the Azeris must have felt as if they had let us down as all çay was paid for (not by us) and they were overly apologetic about the piti. We are still none the wiser about the piti and do not know how long one should wait; suffice to say we made a promise to not be so lazy and cook our porridge from now on (I can confirm we have failed every morning since to cook porridge).
Having fallen in love with Azerbaijan, the Azeri people, and the High Caucasus it was a sad moment when we had to leave the mountain range, and to some extent the Azeri people behind as we pushed on into the desert that surrounds Baku. The sadness was however matched by our excitement about cycling in a desert for the first time (I am sure that will wear off very quickly in the months to come), and the fact the most ferocious tail wind had joined us. Leaving the desert gateway town of Qobustan we were literally pushed by the wind into the desert; the gusts were so strong that it actually felt as if someone was placing a hand our backs and pushing us forward. At some points across the desert we needed to use brakes on the inclines to make sure we could keep control of our bikes. This glorious cycling finished very abruptly when we crested the final peak of the desert and looked down onto the outskirts of Baku (for Star Wars fans, it felt like Luke and Obi-Wan looking down on Mos Eisley). We were met with a head wind equal in strength to our beloved tailwind coming straight off the Caspian. The final 40km push into Baku (downhill) was a real struggle; thankfully the time we had made up across the desert meant that although we were cycling in the early onset of rush hour, we were not cycling in the dark in full rush hour.
Arriving in Baku was really the first major milestone for us since leaving Istanbul more than two months ago and it felt good to be there! In our ignorance, our expectations were almost non-existent of what to expect from the city, as our only real need to be there was to obtain the fabled container ship tickets to whisk us on our way to Kazakhstan before our Azeri visa expired. This sort of attitude did not allow us to do the city justice, as we had not planned for the obtaining of tickets to happen so quickly (Katie will explain this process in the next blog). What we saw of the city impressed us immensely; the location, right on the Caspian Sea with an enormous promenade made it easy on the eyes. The cleanliness and grandeur were also remarkable; we both commented that we have never seen a cleaner city, with armies of workers beavering away throughout the day to make it look the best it could. It was easy to see that oil money can make anywhere look and feel fantastic. The oil money has also brought in high-end designer shops of all ilk, making it virtually impossible to shop for anything other than trinkets or incredibly expensive high-end items (there is not a single area in London or Paris that I have seen that can compete with Baku in the sheer number of designer shops). Aside from all the cleanliness and flashiness of the new city, it would be wrong not to mention the traditional old city, which is where we were lucky enough to stay. The old city still has much of its original wall, and it is an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the rest of town. There has clearly been a lot of money poured into gentrifying boutique hotels, excellent local restaurants, and public spaces. The downside is that it is almost too perfect and too pretty, possibly taking away some of the original charm, but this said, it is certainly worth seeing and in the summer months with concerts and performance, it would be quite a special place.
Azerbaijan far exceeded any expectations that we had, and it is a real shame that we did not get to spend more time there. The people are the kindest we have met, the roads the quietest, the drivers most polite, and with the High Caucasus we were truly spoilt with scenery. In saying this, we are super excited to now be in Kazakhstan and really looking forward to testing ourselves in the desert.