Azerbaijan. Say it out loud. Go on! Say it out loud – you won’t regret it!
How cool does it sound?
When I had stared intently at our huge world map on the wall back at home in our operations room (dining room) I had looked at Azerbaijan with such curiosity. What’s there? Who’s there? What’s the main religion? What is the cuisine like? It sounds dry and baron, is it dry and baron? I would not seek the answers to my questions, instead preferring to find out on the road. We were ushered past hundreds of cars queuing to cross the border, the vast majority with token cigarette holding hands dangling on the outside of the car door. A sign above us stated ‘Azerbaijan border. Good luck’. As we crossed the border, we looked at each other laughing, amused and proud that we had cycled to Azerbaijan from London. Maybe it was the sheer distance we had clocked up by now, or maybe it the fact we had cycled to a country that had a ‘z’ in it. I screamed ‘AZERBAIJAAAAAAN’, not for the first time whilst in this wonderful country.
Azerbaijan is known as Turkey’s sister nation, and we could instantly see why. It was like catching up with the partner of a good friend in that you felt like you were indirectly connecting with that absent person. We were welcomed with familiar endearing and infectious smiles; offered Cay (Tea) by passers-by, and were asked with sincerity if we needed anything. Why can’t the whole world be filled with such caring, genuine and wise people I asked myself. Why are we not able to replace greed and selfishness with altruism and selflessness for the greater good of all people? Why have we not realised that this is the key to the world’s problems? Guilt seeped in, unable to convince myself I was not part of the problem. I was committed to learn from people on this trip and I again felt I was being given a greater education from the humble people of different parts of the world than I could get back home in my country.
We stopped at the first place we could find to get some food. We always get so excited at our first meal across a border, expecting drastically different cuisine from what was on offer thirty miles back down the road, and continuously being surprised when it’s identical but with a marginally different spelling of its name. We sat inside a large empty restaurant clad with plastic wood effect walls decorated with dusty family photos. Passers-by had gathered around our bikes. Bemused they stood circled around the ownerless heavily laden bicycles, staring, scratching heads, pointing, discussing. A young boy arrived at our table, his smile breaking into giggles. His father stood twenty metres behind, clearly having sent the boy to deal with us with the hope that he may have a better idea of how to communicate with the foreigners sitting in his restaurant. His giggling was infectious as we all just laughed at the fact that none of us knew what we wanted to eat and had no way of agreeing how to resolve the situation. In our smooth border crossing where we barely stopped our wheels from rolling, we had forgotten to do our usual queuing activity of learning the basics of the language spoken metres away, so our Azerbaijani consisted of only one word – Azerbaijan. Unidentifiable meat swimming in an oily broth with a side-salad of cucumber and tomatoes was devoured and the still giggling customers thanked the still giggling boy and the now giggling father as we vacated the restaurant.
We cycled through beautiful landscape all day. Particularly noteworthy was beautiful seemingly endless woodland. We spotted the occasional cute food/drink shack in the woods but were still too full on oily broth to stop. Later in the day however as the sun was now leaving us and concentrating on warming the backs of those back home, we stopped at a primitive place under the trees with a topless big-bellied owner; a makeshift sign, a beer keg and roaming cats. Our kind of place! We got comfortable. Too comfortable. After a few beers and long lazy chats, the night drew in and we decided it was probably wise not to cycle to our proposed night spot 5kms away and that we would ask if we could camp in the forest instead. To our surprise we were told it was forbidden so we cycled like mad with bellies full of beer to a spot on our map we were told we could camp in. Finding a camping spot in the dark is not fun. Neither is cycling at night in a new country. The forest got thinner and we turned off the road and crossed a dry riverbed to find a tucked away spot. Just as we pitched the tent, the heavens opened and didn’t stop until noon the next day. We didn’t care. “AZERBAIJAAAAAAAAAAAAAN”.
As well as being coined the sister nation of Turkey, Azerbaijan is also known as ‘the land of fire’. Hannah decided this description was incorrect, and that a more appropriate name was ‘the land of puppies’. It made more sense. I hadn’t seen a single fire, but there were puppies everywhere! ‘But where were the older dogs?’ I questioned. I quickly diminished the images of the unidentifiable meat in my soup from the day before, but they crept back in as we cycled into a roadside eatery late in the day. We lent our bikes on a fence and walked towards the hub. A creaking noise behind us called us quickly back as the weight of our bikes nearly broke the fence.
A man sitting on his own at a bench outside (there was no inside, I don’t think they really do inside in Azerbaijan) stood up and enthusiastically called us over to join him at his table. We sat down unable to refuse the hospitality of any person since we left Europe. With a big smile on his face and his hand miming a drinking motion he simply asked ‘Pivo?’. We accepted his Russian spoken offering of a beer and made ourselves comfortable. His second question in Russian baffled us and he quickly realised that we neither spoke his native Azerbaijani or Russian beyond the words yes, no, beer and tent. He could not disguise his disappointment and clearly regretted asking us to join him. All was not lost however. Google translate came to our rescue and yet again we had a memorable evening with a local communicating through an app on our phone and charades. He spoke of his children, his job, his past life whilst we ate chick peas and stringy goats cheese covered with salt and lemon. The other customers sat playing dominoes whilst simultaneously looking and laughing at the awkward yet enjoyable experience at our table. As more beer and more chickpeas arrived we realised we had done it again. It was getting dark. We didn’t know where we were sleeping. We downed the beers, thanked the man and I went to pay. The bar owner closed his eyes, shook his head and shooed us off with his hands. We looked at the man at the table. ‘No problem, no problem’ he said. I begged to pay. I was flatly refused. Like Turkey, it seemed it was rude to argue with someone who has paid your bill. With huge thanks and a warm hug we said goodbye to the man who waved us away with a smile.
The smile was infectious and stayed with us until some twenty minutes down the road we became worried about where we could sleep. It was now getting dark and we asked in a roadside restaurant if it was at all possible to camp on their land. The place looked too posh to allow two dirty cyclists and a tent in the garden, but it was worth a try. A sharply pruned man in a waistcoat directed us up a road whilst repeatedly saying ‘Army, army’. An army base? Really!? With no alternatives we followed his directions. We cycled up a dirt track and spotted a rifle-holding soldier in an outpost on stilts. I felt uneasy, Hannah was fine obviously. I tentatively cycled towards the outpost. I half expected to have the gun turned on me and told to stop. We got to the bottom of the outpost and stared up at the soldier. We knew Russian was spoken by many here so made pyramids with our hands like tent shapes and asked ‘palatka?’ (Russian for tent). The man didn’t even acknowledge us. I repeated myself twice. Without leaving his long forward gaze toward the horizon he simply nodded behind him. I looked at Hannah for confirmation of what I thought I had seen as an offer to pass behind him. We rolled our bikes past the army barracks and looked for a place to pitch up in the dark. I didn’t like it. I felt uneasy. Hannah had the opposite feeling, she felt protected by the soldier’s invitation. It’s strange how our inhibitions and trust of people can vary so much. With the soothing sounds of stomping and barking army soldiers in the background, Hannah nodded off. I on the other hand guarded our tent, suspicious of the guard guarding the army barracks.
The following day started badly. We were both feeling quite rough and decided to have a slow morning drinking sweet tea and rehydration salts in a café, to ‘top up the levels’ as we called it. The kind café owner would not accept our money. Turkey’s sister nation for sure. Azerbaijan in comparison to its ‘brother nation’ was less committed to its Islamic roots and seemed to be being pulled towards a more liberal European way of life. Islam was less openly practised; women’s fashion was under-clothed in comparison, bars openly sold alcohol and American pop music was a trend amongst children.
Roadside stalls are one of the greatest joys of cycle touring. They are a welcome rest stop, a place to try new and cheap local food, and an opportunity to converse with locals. Today’s treats were buttery spinach breads cooked in roadside tandoor-style ovens for main course, followed by a dessert of frisbee sized discs of sugary dried fruit brittle. Our enjoyment of the breads led our appreciation to be rewarded with a full-sized loaf being gifted to us (trust me, you cannot say no, you can try, but you will lose the battle). Our appreciation for the brittle however, was less genuine. We could never quite understand why roadside vendors selling the same product would all group together. There would be thirty, forty, fifty purveyors of the same style of bread bunched together either side of a stretch of road, and five miles down the road would be just as many pitched up selling the brittle. What would happen, we questioned, if one day one of the bread vendors dare venture into brittle territory? Would there be mass confusion? Would there be anarchy? Would Azerbaijan become a failed state? Just as we daren’t consider the repercussions any longer, someone sharply pulled over in front of us, got out their van and presented us with a 15-kilo watermelon.
The third gifted watermelon of our trip so far was yet another portrayal of great kindness, generosity and complete lack of understanding of how difficult it is to carry watermelons on bicycles. The gifter was desperate to help us in any way he possibly could. He seemed genuinely saddened at the fact there was nothing he could do for us other than pose for a group selfie. The kindness we received from locals since leaving England and in particular since Turkey never failed to humble us and was never taken for granted. Out of sheer desperation of presenting the man with a problem he could help us with, Hannah asked me if it was inappropriate to ask if he had any experience with healing saddle sores. She didn’t risk finding out.
We rode through miles upon miles of seemingly endless beautiful woodland. Amongst the many trees the land was bare and free of fallen trees and shrubs. This was taken advantage of with hundreds of rustic relaxed eating and drinking places dotted under the shaded canopy. Some had fairy lights, some had hammocks, some had BBQ’s, some even had fountains and swimming pools, all had cute little picnic tables that were very tempting to stop and rest at. After a roadside disagreement (argument) as to what the definition of enchanted was, we happily agreed that these forests were an example. We deliberated stopping but aware of two big climbs ahead, we decided to tackle them instead, not knowing how long they would take to beat. In hindsight, we should have stopped, called it a day and relaxed. However we were still amateur cycle tourers keen to chew up the road. On that note, one of my tips to anyone considering a long cycle tour, is that unless you are attempting to break a world record, slow down. It can be very tempting to have one eye on your destination, but once there, the experience ends.
The first of the day’s climbs passed with relative ease as the trees shading the road and steady incline made light work of a meaty climb. The second however was horrible. The sun was higher in the sky, there was no shade, and the air was drier. It was relentless. We quickly went through our emergency water reserves. The heat on our backs was zapping us of energy. The noise and fumes of roadworks added to our shitty moods. It’s hard not to look up at the top when you are climbing, however it never helps, as the top is never where it appears to be, and you are always left more frustrated and with more climbing to do. As we slowly crept up a wide corner, a car came at us on the same side of the road, tooting like a mad man trying to force us off the road. Hannah’s stubbornness fuelled by the frustrations of the climb was released on the driver. She stood her ground and waved at the driver to quite rightly get back on his side of the road. She won the battle and the irate driver passed very close to us hurling what must have been Azerbijani swear words. I definitely heard the word ‘twat’ too.
As we arrived at the top of the climb, we received a round of applause from the cars that had passed us on the way that were now parked up enjoying the far-reaching views. The summit was blustery and cloud-covered and our skin soaked up the coolness. Our bodies broken, we quickly absorbed the view before rolling down hundreds and hundreds of metres of windy road to find a bed for the night. The contrast in the landscape was distinct. On one side of the ridge lay green trees and brown soil. This side, was orange. It was the start of what lay ahead for thousands of miles. Sand. We felt like we had just been dropped in the Middle East. Our map told us we were only just above Iran, so it was unsurprising. We were met by rolling dunes and covered faces at the bottom. We soon realised it was time to wear own face protection from the stinging sands that were wrapping our bodies like pin-covered blankets. Today had taken its toll on our bodies. It had been a big day of riding in uncomfortable conditions and we needed a good night sleep. We didn’t get one.
It’s strange how Hannah finds the feeling of safety in emptiness and I find it in the comfort of others (except army guards). Hannah would much rather dive into a quite area and pitch up the tent where I would get a better night’s sleep camping with permission on someone’s land. Tonight, my preferences prevailed and we ended up pitching our tent behind a large detached roadside house with a café occupying the ground floor. I write this description knowing it sounds nicer than it actually was. There really was no other word that could describe it better than shithole. Our tent was pitched next to piles of exposed rubbish. The toilets we were told we could use had not been cleaned or even flushed for that matter quite possibly since they had been built. I attempted to share my exaggerated (purely false) enthusiasm for our evening’s location with Hannah but for some reason the feeling was not reciprocated.
Puppies to the rescue! Dirty, bouncy balls of fun were living in a cardboard box near to where we had pitched up and this took the edge off the situation for a moment. The two young men who had taken pity on us and taken us in invited us to come and drink tea in the café. We were too tired to cook so decided to take advantage of what the café had to offer. Upon sitting at the table at the empty café and absorbing the surroundings, it was clear that nothing had been cooked on the premises since roughly 1976. We settled on ordering two packets of crisps and two snickers’ bars. I’m not sure if it was local custom or if they had gone to extra lengths in preparing our snickers bars, either way we were not disappointed as our chosen cuisine came sliced and lay overlapping like a piece of steak in a Thai restaurant. We ate it delicately, giving it the respect it deserved.
After a shitty night’s sleep on sloped ground in between a pile of rubbish and toilets only a bomb could clean, we thanked our hosts, said goodbye to the puppies and made our way towards Baku, the capital and our final destination in Azerbajian. I must have had a good nights sleep however as Hannah told me I snored my way through a harrowing performance from what she thought was a jackal. She was not amused when I told her it was probably a puppy.
We rode for a long portion of the day on what felt like Mars before the land became dotted with houses and Baku came in to view. The exposure to the sun on unshaded roads had again taken its toll despite umpteen litres of water and rehydration salts. As we navigated our way around Baku looking for a hostel we were surprisingly unenthused about being in the city. We needed rest. The long hot rides and poor night’s sleeps had taken it out of us and we saw Baku not as a bustling city to explore, but as a place with a bed where we could lie with fans permanently fixed on our bodies. The city was undeniably beautiful however. An attractive Islamic old city surrounded by Russian imperial opulence, both clear signs that there was once great trade and wealth here. Not far from here however are many grand futuristic looking structures than any modern city would be jealous of, and a statement of current wealth from another oil boom in recent years. As the many tourists wandered the streets either enjoying the architecture or the host of designer clothing and jewellery shops, we sat in a hostel kitchen sharing stories with a family from Afghanistan. Each to their own.
We had wanted to cycle through Iran but were unable to get a visa due to recent events affecting UK-Iran relations. We had left it too late to get a visa on the road to go up and around the Caspian Sea through Russia so were left with the only choice being to board a commercial vessel transporting truckers and lorries to Aktau in Kazakhstan. There was apparently a boat going to a port in Turkmenistan, south of Aktau. This would be more on track with our final destination being China, however the caveat was that you had to cycle 500km across a dessert to reach Uzbekistan on the only visa available – a 5-day transit visa. Many cyclists take this option known as ‘The Desert Dash’. Most make it, some don’t. Strong winds are usually the reason for the latter. We opted for the just as windy, just a desserty, longer route.
We were in contact with the port and shipping company every few hours whilst in Baku as we had heard of cyclists waiting up to a week in the port for a boat to depart. Nobody knew when these boats would leave as departures were dependant on many factors such as wind strength, the number of lorries wanting to board, and what colour underpants the captain happened to be wearing that day. Today was red pants day and with news that a boat was leaving at 9pm that evening, we packed up our freshly cleaned clothes and nearly rested bodies early in the morning and made our way to the commercial port. The ride was crap. Strong headwinds made a 70km journey a long and tiring slog. Arriving at the port around 1pm, we were told that a boat was indeed leaving at 9pm. We felt lucky to have timed our arrival in Baku with a boat’s departure so well. There was plenty of time to eat and snooze in the shade and wander around the port.
Shake your mind like an etcha-sketch to remove the romantic images of strolling around a port hand-in-hand like something off the opening credits of ‘Wish you were here’, for this was merely a lorry park where entry was only granted to diesel fragranced men with grey vests pulled up over pot bellies. Hundreds of lorries sat gridlocked. Bodies lay underneath on cool concrete hiding from the suns glare. As the sun begins to set these nocturnal beer-bellies, native to the lorry car park, crawl out from their burrows to dine with one another on barbecued whole chickens whilst playing dominoes. They will remain here until a lucky few make the small group migration across the sea and onwards towards China where they will nest for some time before making the great migration once again in reverse.
Hannah made friends with the only other lady in the port amongst a thousand men and was awarded the sole key to the women’s toilet. As Hannah made the most of the facilities I sat on the ground with our map out, marvelling at how we had cycled from London in two and a half months. Looking at the date reminded me, it was my Birthday tomorrow, and I would be spending it on a boat of truckers on the Caspian Sea. It would certainly be one I would not forget. I went to the only shop in the port which turned out to be smaller than the women’s toilet (so Hannah boasted). The tuck shop sold frozen whole chickens, toothpaste, razor blades and dominoes. Not the obvious birthday party shopping list. I played a quick game of ‘Ready, steady, cook’ in my mind but could not quite think of how I could make a birthday cake out of these ingredients so left the front of the queue empty handed.
9pm came and went and we were annoyed with ourselves for thinking this was going to be anything other than a smooth process. We met another cyclist. A timid, young man from Belarus. His heavily blistered hands and forearms were signs he too had suffered from the literally blistering heat on the road. He rode a racing bike with little more than a change of clothes and a few spare parts. His bike made ours look more akin to the lorries surrounding us. I was impressed. People were always shocked at how fast we were moving across the world, but this Belarusian was flying!
Midnight came and we celebrated the start of my birthday with a warm fizzy drink. I had tried to buy a beer but there was no alcohol on sale in the port. This makes complete sense thinking about the hundreds of bored men sitting around for days even weeks on end being told to take control of their lorries at any given moment. At 1am we were given the green light to board and we were greeted on deck by a deep-voiced feisty Russian lady in a night dress. She seemed to be in charge of everything on the ship other than steering it and her first words to us were ‘this is where you sleep’, ‘there are no sheets, they are dirty’, ‘the shower does not work’, ‘the toilet does not work either’. ‘Is there wifi?’ Hannah asked. ‘You are silly’ she smiled. I think she took an instant liking to Hannah. She was the only other woman on the ship and she was clearly used to dealing with a ship full of men. Let’s just say she didn’t take any shit.
We made ourselves comfy in the tiny diesel smelling cabin on the old Russian boat by laying out our sleeping bags on our bunks and opening the window. We were pleased with our little cabin as we had read horror stories from others making this crossing. We slept for a few hours until the diesel fumes and the sound of the Russian lady woke us up. Hannah remembered we still had the Belarusian rocket fuel given to us by the crazy Belarusian we met back in Georgia. There wasn’t much left so Hannah decided to feed me a mini cap full every hour. We played games and laughed and joked about everything that had happened on our journey so far and how weird this birthday would go down amongst others.
Without me knowing Hannah had slipped the Russian lady $20 and we were invited into the dining room of the ship after everyone else had eaten for romantic dinner. She pulled back some 1950’s red velvet curtains to reveal a regal wooden cladded room that had clearly seen some parties and who knows what back in the ships hay day. Despite feeling incredibly seasick we managed to eat half the food and a quarter of the birthday cake that the Russian lady herself had baked especially. It was an utterly surreal and memorable experience and we laughed at the weirdness of it all before sea-sicking ourselves to sleep.
Land ahoy! The morning came with a new country and we quickly disembarked to get away from the diesel smell and the still clearly not working toilets. We cycled past the long line of trucks that were even more keen than us, towards a small hut that looked like it may be able to stamp our passports. The trucks, clearly displeased at our presumption that we could jump the queue, made their frustrations known by performing a beautiful rendition of ‘cyclists are dicks’ with their horns. Up until now we had been very respectful and waited in line until at border crossings until someone usually came and grabbed us and ushered us to the front. Our presumptions were then met with laughs as we had to make our way back to the ship to be stamped out by the immigration police that had boarded the ship earlier. We knocked on the elaborate mahogany door and were met by an intimidating bushy-moustached Russian-speaking official in full military gear. Despite being completely legitimate I still panicked and thought I was going to end up in a Kazakh army prison for the rest of my life. Hannah was much less disturbed at the idea. After complaining that we didn’t speak any Russian the man continued to speak in the Queen’s finest English to us. He turned out to be a lovely man who wished us well on our journey and dismissed us with an endearing hairy smile.