Azerbaijan is the second country which was not originally part of the program. Having shifted our route north to circumvent Iran (which would not issue Claire a visa without an expensive organized tour which would cost the same about as a 1 year trip on our bikes), our route saw us travelling through Azerbaijan, a country which neither of us knew much about. It was an unexpected turn, but one we have had several months to come to terms with, and gradually came to the realization that our new route was a new adventure in itself, exposing us to different countries, experiences, cultures and would add some more adventure to our adventure.
After our false start from Georgia we managed to find a border open to all passport holders and crossed into Azerbaijan on the main highway from Tblisi and Rustavi. The border crossing felt a little different than those in the past, there was a larger area for inspections and the space seemed to be well used as nearly every vehicle passing through was being searched. However, the boarder guards were friendly and welcoming lots of smiles and interest in where we were from, and where we were headed. There was even a little inspection of our luggage, which was for show I guess, as after we opened 1 bag they seemed to have lost interest and didn’t even seem to care about the white powder we had in a ziplock bag. “It’s salt” Claire said nervously to the border guard, he said “OK” nonchalantly and instructed her to move along.
Once through customs and back on the road we saw three trucks transporting London style black cabs (painted purple), which was a strange, and quite funny sight as we haven’t seen any London taxies since leaving the city six months ago. The weather also changed on the other side of the border, sunny skies replaced the unwavering grey we had been riding in for the previous few days.
Friendly faces with lots of waves from the Azeri people we passed on the road, which replaced the taciturn Georgians, we had just said goodbye to. Our first lunch stop outside a gas station brought us back to our time in Turkey, when we were ushered into the café, allowed to eat our own food given tea and a salad for good measure. We also got to observe our first game of Nard (Azeri Backgammon), which was being played at the table next to us.
With bags filled with food from our time in Georgia, and having been hosted for a few days while we were off the bike, we were eager to get back into the tent, our home away from home. We set up camp and opted to put up our tarp for some extra shelter as the sky was filling with grey clouds. It was a good thing we did, as the heaviest rain of the trip so far came down that night. Which was followed by a freezing cold night that added a frosty layer to the world around us. This trend of frosty and wet weather continued on as we cycled east through Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is fairly small country, the eastern border is on the Caspian sea (which is not sea, but a lake. and is 28m below sea level) and borders Georgia (from which we arrived), Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Iran. The geography of the country is a little strange, as there is a small enclave of Azerbaijani territory called Naxçivan which is separated from the rest of the country by Armenia. The country falls within the Caucus mountain range with the greater Caucuses to the north and the smaller to the south of the country.
The country itself is a wealthy one (on paper) with oil and gas literally spurting out of the ground. There are areas where natural gas is seeping out of the ground and has been alight for decades and continues to burn. In 1918 Baku was providing 50% of the worlds petroleum, that’s right half of the worlds gas. It’s no wonder that some in this small country has been able to prosper with these resources at their fingertips. However, it seems that most of this wealth has not made it out of the capital of Baku. Many of the villages, which we passed through, seemed poor, with undeveloped infrastructure, and regularly without paved roads beyond the main highway.
Politically the country seems to more or less be a dictatorship. The current leader is the son of the now deceased Heydar Әliyev, an ex-KGB agent and former bureaucrat in the Soviet era who is referred to as the country’s national leader. His billboard sized photos still regularly pop up on the roadside, in children’s textbooks, and is celebrated everywhere in the country with parks named after him and museums to celebrate him; he died over a decade ago. Political discussion or questioning of the current government seems to be a no-no, as some of the younger Azerbaijani people we met explained that if you speak too loudly you may be arrested.
After defrosting our bikes from our first chilly night in Azerbaijan we hit the road towards the Caspian Sea. Our first order of business was to get some Azerbaijani Manats and then register with the immigration office.
We stopped in the first reasonably sized town, Gazakh, and were directed to the immigration office. We arrived at the office right as lunch started, no problem, let’s get some cash instead we thought. We then headed to an ATM, which had run out of cash, okay let’s try another, down the road we ride to another ATM, it denies our card, try another, same deal. Turns out our cards only work at certain ‘International’ banks. We head back to the international bank, which is also on lunch. After a boring wait, with a small group of locals coming past to take a look at the foreigners, we manage to get into the bank, only to find out that; 1. They don’t dispense money inside the bank, and 2. The bank machines in town are out of cash. Time to go back to the immigration office. It’s a quick operation, we register and get our easily lost slip of paper. Some of the staff speak English and are eager to help us with our cash problem after we explain the difficulties we are having. They escort us to the lesser-known ATM down the road, it’s dry. They think of another, and I am whisked away in a speeding 4×4 Lada which uses every lane of traffic, oncoming or not to get to our destination. Another empty ATM, the driver stops by the bank to confirm that the entire town is out of cash, and learns that more will be arriving at around 5:30, it’s 2:30 now. Claire and I are amazed that this is possible, ATMs run out of money, but a whole town. Unheard of. With grumbling stomachs and a lot of our daylight wasted we set sail for the next big town on the road Tovuz.
The road to Tovuz was uneventful, apart from a very large and destructive puncture I received right outside a police check point. A very large piece of metal was stuck in my tire, which left a fair size hole when removed! Whilst I was fixing the puncture, Claire sheltered inside the police checkpoint entertaining the officers. We had nice tailwind that helped us to save what little we had of our dwindling daylight hours. After some searching we found a bank with money and quickly bought a doner kebab.
With the problem of food and money behind us, we quickly found ourselves with a new problem on our hands. We were in a small city, with nowhere to sleep. We asked around a little bit to see if there was somewhere to put a tent for the night to no avail. As dusk set in, we strolled down the main (and only) pedestrian avenue when we were approached by a friendly man, with some vodka on his breath. After a short conversation he ushered us into a hole in the wall, very local canteen. A small room of curious and confused men, quietly sitting drinking beer or vodka welcomed us. The proprietor of the establishment was constantly yelling at the patrons, and vice versa, and seemed in a way to loath having to do anything whether it was to make a dish or open a bottle for someone, it was a scene straight out of a film. We got chatting with the locals and were quickly sharing a drink and a bite to eat with them, before we knew it we had been invited to stay for the night with the quietest man in the joint, who it turns out was the brother of the local we were chatting with.
After dropping our bicycles off at city hall, where they would stay for the evening, our evening was spent looking at old photo albums with lots of pictures of Gulnar’s family, army photos during his time as a soldier in the Soviet Union era and pictures of visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg. We were promptly fed again and a new bottle of vodka was opened which was some of the best vodka I have ever had. We all slept well that night. The next morning we were brought to a cafe, fed breakfast and then reunited with our bikes. We met the mayor, and took some photos as we said farewell to our gracious hosts with big smiles all around.
Sweets and gold teeth
From the first moment we entered into the Azerbaijani community we noticed there were a lot of people with gold teeth. I’m not talking about one or two in a crowd either, nearly every person we met had at least one golden chomper, and in many cases a few. Extreme cases, a full grill that would make the Cash Money Millionaires jealous. It was puzzling at first, but after spending some time in the country it became clear why this is the case, the Azerbaijani people love candy. Markets always have a big section devoted to candy, no matter how small the size of the shop. Also, they drink tea and sweeten it by holding a sugar cube between their teeth, or in some cases forego the tea altogether and go straight for the good stuff. I think gold teeth salesman will be in business for a long time to come in the country.
We were lucky enough to regularly have a 4-lane highway to ourselves, since new lanes are being added to the highway that have been constructed but not completed. It was a welcome break from the chaos of the main road. The following night we ended up in Gyanja at nightfall, which is Azerbaijan’s second largest city. We passed a house built largely from glass bottles, a stop I was hoping to make on the trip as I had seen it on Atlas Obscura. The centre of the city had a large main square and was more modern than any other areas we had passed through in the country so far. With grumbling stomachs we hit the streets in search of some cheap street food. After walking around the main square we were approached by a few young men, they were intrigued and excited, two of the three spoke English, and were eager to talk to us. It turns out we were the first native English speakers they had ever spoken to! We were told about the difficulties Azerbaijanis have travelling to Europe, and especially the UK. We all had dinner together, and before we knew it we were being invited to meet one of the three’s family, which was followed by a whistle-stop tour of the town followed by some tea and dessert in a cafe and then we were offered a place to stay for the night. Sometimes our luck is ridiculous, and the kindness of strangers seems to know no bounds in many of these countries as of late. Following a nice send off and a fond farewell to the boys, we hit the road, slowly out of the city. Our road east was flat, grey and windy. There was little-to-no scenery to either side of the highway, which gets boring, fast. On the bright side, riding on the highway had us passing lots of roadside stalls peddling all kinds of different goods. It was quite funny, as there was a great deal of diversity between the goods on the road, however they were always grouped together. The fish stalls were in one area, a few kilometres later come the fruit stands, then the turkey and fowl farmers selling live turkeys that stand by the roadside with their legs tied to their neighbour watching the cars drive by. After a few nights of staying with hosts, we were keen to have a night alone, back in the tent and some solitude. We found a fantastic campsite just off the highway, with nice pine trees’ and plenty of firewood. It was a crisp cool night, with clear skies and a full moon.
A mix of cultures
Before arriving in the country I read Azerbaijan described as “a tangle of contradictions”. Indeed with strong historical influences from Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the West, there is a real melting pot of cultures and you can experience a fascinating and often unusual mix of them all. Our arrival in the country felt like being welcomed back to a place where you had never been. The culture of hospitality, welcoming strangers and general friendliness was similar to what we had experienced in Turkey. In fact similarities between the countries don’t stop there; tea was back with a vengeance (which was very welcome in the cold) and the language is very similar to the point that we were able to communicate with locals immediately with our limited Turkish vocabulary. The Azerbaijani’s consider their country to be a brother country to the Turks, and it seems to have much more in common with Turkey than it’s neighbouring country to the south, Iran. The original Azerbaijani flag was originally nearly identical to the Turkish flag, All red with the crescent moon and a single star, apart from having an 8 point star rather than a 5 point star.
Similarities seem to end there. The shadow of the Soviet Union is still present everywhere in the country; as a great deal of Russian tradition and culture has become part of Azerbaijani culture itself. Like in many East Block countries, Russian is spoken everywhere and is an unofficial second language which nearly all of the population still speaks today. Russian food and recipes have greatly been integrated into the culture of Azerbaijan, as many of our hosts have made us some traditional Russian dishes, and even have reminisced about days when caviar was cheap and plentiful during the ‘old days’. Drinking vodka, Russian style is the norm. We saw people regularly drinking a bottle of vodka with lunch, and we were often offered vodka as we cycled through villages. All of which is surprising when you consider most Azerbaijanis are Muslim.
Religion does not seem to be as prevalent here as in Turkey. Mosques were not nearly as regular or prominent as they were in Turkey. We saw only a few Mosques during our time in the country, whereas in Turkey we would regularly see several in a single remote village. Mosques were also of a different architectural style, minarets are larger in diameter and have round domed caps, rather than smaller diameter minarets with peaked tops like in Turkey and were rendered a stone/earthy colour instead of the crisp white ones of Turkey. I found out later that these differences are because Azerbaijanis are mostly Shi’a while Turks are mostly Sunni, but you would be hard pressed to find someone who seems to make this distinction in either country. We certainly never came across anyone who seemed to care about such denominations in either Turkey or Azerbaijan.
Western culture seems to have permeated into Azerbaijan in some ways. Television and commercials are identical to what you might find in America, Canada or the UK only in a different language. Big cars and having the right brands of clothing seems to be another western import. And guess what? They have christmas trees in their homes!
After a flat and monotonous ride across the plains of Azerbaijan we were blown into Baku with a strong tailwind that propelled us up the highway just off the coast of the Caspian Sea. We passed through the standard light industrial area that always surrounds a major city, however, it was striking the scale of some of the plants and refineries we passed. We also cycled past a huge oil platform that was set to be brought out to sea. The cycle into any city is almost always a bit painful, and more often than not, a bit dangerous. Our cycle in was, well, stressful and occasionally a bit terrifying. Azerbaijani drivers on the straight highway were bad, in the small villages were scary, and en mass in Baku were bad beyond words. Our hosts live north of Baku in a satellite city, we approached from the south, which made for a long cycle, on the highway, around Baku. Traffic was heavy, lanes meant nothing, busses stopped on the highway to drop off and pick up people, horns were constantly in use, and it was crazy. But, as always we survived.
Our hosts in Baku were two lovely sisters, Rovshana and Yegana, who have treated us with unheard of hospitality and kindness. We were joined the next day by two more cyclists, Will and Tom who had followed a similar route to us from Germany, on a much smaller timescale. Tom shortly left us and flew back to Switzerland, while Will stayed on to, like us, arrange visas for his onward travel. We all spent the next few days making visits to Baku to apply for our visas, collect bicycle boxes from stores and make travel arrangements.
After riding in the cold for about a month, and the time constraints of getting to India in mid January (for family visits), we decided to re-evaluate our route, and opted to scrap our plan to cycle across Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Due to the time constraints, we would have been stretched to make it to Tashkent in time due to the mileage. This coupled with the unreliable and reportedly shady Caspian Sea cargo ship, the increasingly bad weather, and bureaucratic difficulties, which accompany visiting both countries, our decision was easier to make. Both Claire and I are disappointed about not visiting these countries, however, hope to come back another time – when it is warmer and we are free to cycle at our own pace and not under pressure to make our destination.
Getting too and from Baku involved a long bus ride, and taking the metro. It was a long journey, an hour and a half, but fairly easy. Both the busses and metro were interesting in their own right. Busses are not run by a central transport system, but are ‘chartered’ by individuals who essentially rent the bus for a flat rate and collect fares for themselves. This meant that busses were crammed to the brim by bus drivers, waiting at metro stations until there was no space for another passenger. Fares were also collected at the end of the journey not the beginning, why I do not know! You enter from the rear and exit from the front, the door of the bus was often left open because it could not be closed, even on the highway! We regularly saw passengers’ hanging out of the bus while it was speeding down the highway; one was even smoking a cigarette once – we wished we could have photographed it.
The metro was built during the Soviet era, which was immediately evident. I have never been to Moscow, but the photos of the underground there that I have seen reminded me of the Baku metro. The stations were quite large and open, and many had chandeliers, how I imagine Russian metros would. The metro also played a short tune when it arrived at a station, and each station had it’s own tune which was charming in a way.
The centre of Baku, including the waterfront is highly developed, and has clearly had a lot of money thrown at it. Construction is ramping up as Baku is set to host the 1st annual “European Games” which is strange in many ways, as it is not in Europe itself. Like many cities that develop quickly with aspirations of modernism, glitz and glam, a lot of it is for show. Planning at a larger scale, and smaller scale is disjointed if non existent in many ways. Urban planning for pedestrian and bicycle users is laughable in most areas of the city, connections between areas are often non-existent, and it often just does not work. Baku also has a historic centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), but has been massively overdeveloped. The ‘Heritage’ in the WHS has been taken out of the site completely. This is always sad to see, as historic areas that are developed cannot be reverted back to their original state at any cost.
The land of Fire
What else did we learn about the country? Azerbaijan is corrupt. We knew it before we arrived, it never affected us, and were isolated from it completely. However, talking to some people on the road in smaller towns, it was shocking how common, and expected it was; essentially part of society. We even saw it first hand while on the coast of the Caspian Sea, a fishing boat landed on the beach, a government car sped over, they were handed some fish and promptly drove off. “Bakshish” it is called, roughly translating to “tip” but more appropriately translated as “bribe”. All problems are solved with bakshish from your electric bill, to not getting a ticket from the police. What else did we learn? Azerbaijan is disorganized. This is pretty evident when you just walk around a neighbourhood. Buildings, roads, sidewalks, everything is more often than not haphazardly built, without thought to either itself, or it’s neighbour. You get onto the subway by pushing the person in front of you, into the people who are getting off. Examples are a dime a dozen. But the pièce de résistance was the fact that our hosts in Baku did not know their own address! They had lived in this apartment for over 2 years!
Our time in Baku was in many ways just what we needed. During this entire time our hosts have made us feel amazingly welcome, even after hanging around for over a week! We grew to feel like a little family! Stopping for a while gives you not only the chance to rest and repair, but also time to reflect. We found ourselves feeling very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, and the chance to learn more about places that in many cases we had no previous knowledge of. Being immersed in so many new environments and over such a short period of time, it is often only after, when we have time to look back that we really realise how much we have taken in.
As mentioned previously, we chose to forego Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and looked into flying direct to India. After some more research we found that we could fly to Dubai then to India for less money. Arriving in India too early was not appealing, as we will have a long time in the country, having to cross from west to east. However, staying in Dubai for a few weeks was also not appealing to either of us. So, after some investigation we found that flying out of Oman was even cheaper and would allow us a few weeks to cycle in the desert and along the Persian gulf! An unexpected turn, but one we are both looking forward to!
For more photos from our time in Azerbaijan click : HERE