Azerbaijan – desert, dogs and Bond Street

Cycling into Azerbaijan was in many ways like returning to our long lost friend Turkey but, and at the risk of offending any of our new Turkish friends who may be reading, with a little more order. At least superficially in the way the fields and crops are laid out in clear, tidy rows and the produce sold at roadside stalls is stacked into perfect pyramids in separate baskets on purpose built shelves rather than being heaped on a table or left in the car boot. Almost immediately we noticed similarities with the language and the general interest and friendliness we received from the people we passed.

Cow print is all the rage in western Azerbaijan

Blissful cycling along the CaucusasFor the first day and a half we cycled blissfully along the foothills of the autumnal Caucasus. The shades of red and green and the safe distance of the mountains, perfectly in view and running parallel to our comparatively flat road, kept us in high spirits, even when the R16 highway unexpectedly disintegrated into an unsealed rocky track for about 50km from Muxax to the delightful little town of Qakh. It was along this stretch that we first encountered a proper sheep dog. Not an enthusiastic border collie, but a big jawed, strong shouldered breed designed to instil fear into the hearts of wolves and snow leopards. The dog tore across a field with two slightly smaller companions, chased me down and had grabbed hold of a pannier and pulled my bike over before I knew what was happening. Luckily the near miss of the Troll crashing down on him was enough to send him backing away into his field, still snarling, while I swiftly hauled the Troll upright and jolted off as quickly as I could towards Chris who was providing encouragement from a safe distance up the road.

On arrival at Qakh the sealed road reappeared and a fairly long, hot climb took us toTea in Sheki. Note the hot pink sugar lumps - Azeri's have a creative approach to sugar & more of an addiction than the Turks! the old Silk Road town of Sheki, nestled into a little fold of the Caucasus. It was here  over a pot of tea in the shady town square that we decided to leave the mountains and take the slightly less hilly route through the centre of Azerbaijan to Baku. We were starting to worry about the validity of our Uzbek visa and knew there was a potential ten day wait in Baku for a boat across the Caspian to Aktau. Before leaving Sheki though we climbed even further up the hill to wander through the beautiful old Caravanserai which the town is famous for.

We didn’t regret the decision to change our route. The desert landscape that we rode through that afternoon made for an interesting change and eventually took us through a scenic ridge near Turan into a more cultivated valley which showed quite a real side of Azerbaijan. The shopkeeper in the small town of Xanabad couldn’t have been more helpful, refilling our water bottles from a personal drinking water supply and waiting patiently for us to scour his shop, carefully dusting the tin of kidney beans we found on a high shelf in his store.

Desert riding

Finding a camping spot in the heavily cultivated land was not so easy though. Eventually we just rode into a field when the road was quiet so were dismayed when a shepherd boy rode up on his horse, foal in tow, to see what we were doing. We tried to explain we wanted to camp, but didn’t seem to be making ourselves understood as he just stood there swatting at mosquitoes. He didn’t stop us setting up our tent though so we got on with the routine and started self consciously cooking dinner. He refused our offers of deet and snacks, but when Chris opened a beer suddenly he was all for it. Chris grudgingly poured a mug which the boy downed in one go and then remounted his horse and was gone.

An energy sapping headwind was frustratingly slowing our progress to Baku. Our struggles didn’t go unnoticed though. One man saw us pass through his village and jumped into his van to chase us down with a bag of apples. Another saw our stunted progress as an opportunity to execute a shaky handbrake turn at about 100km an hour across our path in his stripped down Lada. Seriously, the car consisted of a frame, engine and blacked out windows. He didn’t even have a bonnet or lights. Total bogan (that’s a chav to the English).

Well trained geese and cattle waiting outside their barnsAt sunset we bumped down a stony track to a quiet village where flocks of geese and cattle were gathered, seemingly by their own accord, outside their various barn doors waiting to be let in for the night. With some help from a local we located the shop and the store keeper again waited patiently while we scoured his shop for dinner supplies and once purchased, insisted we stay with his family for the evening. He even killed a chook for dinner – right in front of us. Just pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut its head off. I was served pasta, homemade garlic yoghurt and cucumbers and tomatoes, obviously, while Chris and the family picked the chook clean. The conversation extended long long long into the night before we were shown to the wash room and our beds around midnight, almost incoherent with exhaustion. It was good to see the inner workings of an Azeri household though. The various generations living together with a new bride trying to fit into the family, the functional kitchen and living room downstairs and the more luxurious carpeted, crystal and chandelier filled rooms upstairs.

We did a terrible job of sneaking out at 6am the next morning, setting all the crystal ringing as we crept across creaky floorboards. The owner came out and accepted 10 manat from us, still sore that Chris wouldn’t give him his head torch which awkwardly, he had asked for the night before. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t something Chris was prepared to part with.

We were back to climbing today with two high escarpments standing across our path to Baku. Off we set, panniers weighed down with the dinner that never happened, ingredients and a big bag of pomegranates from our hosts for good measure. We offloaded our beer to some builders who were just starting work in Agsu at the foot of the climb but kept the rest, doubting they’d appreciate our groceries. Two hours later and just over the top of the first climb we had our second sheep dog encounter. This time a pack of five of the huge snarling dogs surrounded and stopped us. We weren’t sure how to handle it. Their tales were wagging furiously but their ears were flattened and teeth bared so it seemed they meant business. What to do… Just as I was about to drop my bike and run screaming down the road in a blind panic, a car drove through them which dispersed them. The nice driver then drove with us until we were clear and could speed away down the mountain. Saved again!

Horrible hillside butchers. See the miserable sheep hobbled outside in the cold.The next escarpment was unsettling too. A cold, rainy wind was blowing and the landscape was stark. This was the butchers’ mountain. Every couple of kilometres, a little unmarked butchers shop was set in a dusty clearing, a forlorn looking sheep or two hobbled outside awaiting their fate, unsheltered from the cold wind, their mates already dangling from hooks inside. We continued on fighting the wind until a good stretch of descending released us into the desert again leaving the hills behind. Our final Azeri camping spot in a desert gully was wonderful. No bugs, no wind, no people. Just a star filled sky and weirdly, a sun bleached tortoise shell.

Baku's parliament building, 8 lane boulevard and Phil & Hayley's pink building to the rightOn to Baku and very excitingly – we had friends to stay with! A mutual friend had put us in touch a couple of months before we left London. Hayley and Phil were wonderful hosts. They welcomed us into their home with an impressive view of the parliament building next door, a block back from the eight lane (one way!) boulevard and almost opposite the boat ticket office we had to visit daily to enquire about boats to Aktau. We couldn’t have planned the location better if we’d had a say in it. We washed our clothes, they took us out to lunch and dinner, fulfilled our wish list for breakfast and even drove us out to see the ancient petroglyphs and mud volcanoes. Honestly, Azerbaijan just oozes oil and farts gas and has done for centuries. They started mining oil there back in the 10th century simply by scooping it off the surface. I found it a fascinating country. The rural communities appear to have a more professional approach to agriculture than we have A child playing in the mud volcanoes at Qobustanseen thus far on our travels. They still use far from modern methods but it all looked more structured and steady. Baku on the other hand starts with a facade of bizarre cladding concealing the rubble of its sprawling outer suburbs. You don’t need to look far down a side road to see the cladding is literally 10cm thick, applied to badly built walls designed to hide a world of poverty, dirt and sewage. Then you come into the centre of Baku and a new world materialises. Bond Street shops, modern restaurants and bars, Norman Fosterish buildings, beautifully landscaped pedestrianised squares and promenades and lanes and lanes of fast moving traffic.

The ferry system is a farce I can’t be bothered explaining here but Hayley had contacts! Chris and I were ‘doing coffee’ on the promenade when I picked up an urgent email from Phil to say a boat was leaving for Aktau in the next two hours. He had sent the email an hour before. We left our coffees and raced back to their place to grab our bikes and head for the wharf for tickets. Hayley’s contact went so far on a Sunday afternoon, as to actually come and find us cycling down the eight lane boulevard in search of the correct dock and boat. He guided us there hazard lights flashing, introduced us to the dock staff and explained to us that we just needed to wait for Customs to arrive before we could board the boat. We have never been so grateful for help as I doubt we would have found the tucked away dock by ourselves. A mere seven hours later, the Customs official arrived around 1am, checked our passports and allowed us aboard. We gave a grubby crew member $20 for his filthy cabin and set sail for Kazakhstan!