The sign on the Georgian side of the border with Azerbaijan said ‘Good Luck!”
I laughed as I passed under it, not realising that I would be needing some luck very soon. I was about to dip my toes in the murky pool of post soviet bureaucracy for the first time.
Azerbaijan uses an e visa system – meaning you apply and receive your visa online. Turkey does the same thing. When you arrive at the Turkish border you flash them your phone with your e visa, they glance at it, they wave you through. I assumed Azerbaijan would be as easy.
“Where is your visa” the straight faced border guard asked me. I showed him my phone. He looked at it then back at me.
They need to physically stamp the visa to let me through.
I don’t have it printed, I replied, it hadn’t said anywhere to print it. Can I print it here?
Other guards are called over to the desk. There is no internet and the printer is broken. Many, many phone calls are made while I stand waiting in the sun.
I wait for half an hour while we plug my phone into their computer, download the visa and confirm the printer is broken. More calls are made and finally a different piece of paper is stamped instead. The border guard pretends to stamp the visa on my mobile screen as a joke, has a good old laugh and I’m sent on my way.
We have to register with the municipality after arrival – another silly post soviet requirement.
“Visa?” I am asked at the registration office . “On your phone? Hrmmmm… Stamp? Separate piece of paper? Hrmmmm….”
A further forty minutes of phone calls and waiting ensue in the stuffy office until I can be registered.
They should just tell you to print your e visa!!!
Luckily things improved from there and Azerbaijan was one of the greatest surprises of the journey so far!
We took the most northern road, skirting along the base of the caucuses mountains to Baku. It is rarely hilly (except for a brief stretch ~140k from the city) and generally very well surfaced.
Beware of cows with cute pig tails in the area though. These signs were all over – they must be a real menace.
I had arrived in Azerbaijan days after the beginning of Ramadan. Now that I was back in an Islamic country I was expecting this to be an issue – that I would have to hide my eating and drinking to be respectful to those fasting during the long, hot days. Not so at all.
Despite being a Muslim nation Azerbaijan seems far less religious than their Turkish neighbour. I couldn’t turn a corner in Turkey without seeing a minaret poking out over the trees, or find a camping spot where I couldn’t hear the call to prayer as I drifted off to sleep. I could count the number of mosques I saw in Azerbaijan on my two hands, and have heard the call to prayer only a handful of times even at this most religious time of the year. Everywhere I look people are eating and drinking, not wearing head scarves and wearing tight modern clothing. Only twice did I encounter people observing Ramadan.
Where Azerbaijan is just like its Turkish neighbour however is çay. Here the tea houses were mostly outside, spilling onto the street but still filled with mostly older jolly men enjoying their long lazy afternoons. The setting was different, but the çay tasted just as good as Turkey.
Riding across the country Thomas and I were subjected to a barrage of encouraging honks from passing cars, and people yelling ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome’ from the roadside. I haven’t felt as embraced by a place since riding through Iran.
At every stop we were swamped by inquisitive boys and men, speaking rapidly at us in Russian and ringing the bells on our bikes. Sometimes this was welcome but other times it was a burden. After hours in the summer sun, sometimes you need some peace and quiet, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t pretended to be asleep once to make the crowd go away. It didn’t even work.
Often, and somewhat unnervingly, they would often simply stand a couple of meters away and look at us without saying a thing. This happened a lot, and is a bit weird. It’s hard to eat an ice cream and relax in the shade when five men are two meters from you just watching you do it like you’re an attraction in a zoo.
Despite all that, Azeris are wonderful and showed us nothing but kindness.
At a roadside tea stop we were served by a mother from her roadside stall while her children played around us. This inquisitive boy came over to our bikes and ran his fingers softly over their saddles, poked at the bags and squeezed the tyres. It was clear from his face that he was fascinated by them, but he approached us with a softness that was rare and welcome. I stuck my riding gear on him and he smashed out a few laps of the tables on his mountain bike. Maybe he will be touring too some day!
Sameh here was the best of a good bunch. With a little rope tied around his waist as a belt, he disturbed Thomas and myself taking our midday nap under a tree and invited us to come to his house for çay.
If you have read earlier posts you will know my theory about eye wrinkles. Sameh had some great ones so his offer was accepted.
The theory paid off again.
His family were some of the few observing Ramadan but a meal was quickly assembled and presented to us. The home made plum juice in the bottle was a sweet cinnamony delight. We sat with three generations of Sameh’s family as the day got away from us, helping his many grand children practice their English, telling stories about our lives and learning about theirs.
Sameh’s little farm was a paradise. He and his family produce their own wine, honey, milk, eggs, plums, apricots, berries… the list goes on. As we ate, baby chicks scuttled around our feet beneath the table, Sameh’s sheep grazed around his porch and his dog lazed in the sun by the fence. It was very hard to leave.
His daughters and grand daughters fled giggling from the camera. Only his wife stayed for the photograph.
The countryside gave us stunning vistas to ride through…
…even if it was sometimes hot and dusty.
The camping was often excellent – despite us being occasionally discovered.
The roadside fruit vendors were always delicious and well stocked.
The bike shops were messy.
And looking over us at all times was the watchful pensive gaze of Heydar Aliyev, the former president and ‘grand father of Azerbaijan’
Maybe Azeris and I got along so well because we share a similar philosophy: if the luggage won’t fit, strap it on.
Over the last 150 kilometres into Baku the scenery changed rapidly. First the trees disappeared and soon after the grass followed and we found ourselves in what felt like a different country. This was more the Azerbaijan I was expecting – and I am so glad that it wasn’t the Azerbaijan I found. The road was hot and long. The shade was non existent and we ate lunch in the dirt under the shadow of an overpass.
In Baku money talks. The city feels like a more European version of Dubai and the population in the city centre swan past Armani stores and Bentley dealerships dressed like they are heading to a smart casual cocktail function. It couldn’t be further removed from the rest of the country I experienced, and it seems very little of the money in Baku ever finds its way into Azerbaijan’s more rural areas.
At night the cars provide the city’s soundtrack, driving slowly while revving loudly and blasting the latest dance mixes from their open windows.
A motorised gondola goes for a spin at Baku’s mini-Venice.
Just act natural.
For now I am posted up in Baku waiting for the mythical and unreliable ferry to Aktau. Others are in the same boat (pun intended) and my hostel has five cyclists in it!
At least if I decide to ride the desert stretch to the Uzbekistan border, I probably won’t be alone.