Cycle touring across the border from Georgia to Azerbaijan went very smoothly, this route certainly had the greatest military presence so far, guns were everywhere.
At the Azerbaijan side of the border I was approached by an English speaking border officer who just wanted a friendly chat, hence it all went very smoothly! He took my passport back from an angry older army guy and processed my visa and entry stamp super quickly. I had no luggage check at all, the tight drug searches never happened and it seemed that throwing away my bag of unlabelled vitamin tablets was a waste of time!
At the exit gate I was asked for some piece of customs paper that I didn’t have, I cycled back up but the same guy had seen me and already called rank it seemed. I just rode back down and passed through the gate, that was it I was in the first dictatorship of the trip and his pictures started appearing straight away, the first rule any dictator is putting big pictures of yourself smiling everywhere!
Border regions are always unfair reflections on an entire country but Azerbaijan felt rough, dogs barking, staring people in the road combined to make me feel quite apprehensive. “Sod this I’ll just catch a bus” was my early thought, but after time the mountains still hidden by cloud enticed me in, I rode from Balakan at the border along a main road to Katex then Zaqatala before foolishly turning right onto the road to Bazar.
I read that someone had spent an enjoyable week in Lahic which was along the southern road. The road was lined by large walnut trees, all beautifully uniform with white painted trunks. It was quite fancy riding along here, it felt like I was on some grand English country estate driveway. All was not peaceful because the trees were getting smashed up by people with long sticks as the walnuts were in season. I assume it is a bit of a free for all! Behind the big trees were lots of hazelnut groves much like we saw in Turkey, groups were sat down shaking trees and harvesting these nuts too.
I seemed to be attracting an unpleasant number of angry dogs firstly near the border at a police check point then at random places along these nut groves. My approach to them was generally just riding faster but on one occasion they saw me coming early and they had a head start. I stopped and shouted, it seems dogs always stop when a cyclist stops but the problem is they attack again when you start pedalling! Luckily two men came over and threatened them louder and they were scared enough to ignore me as I ride on again.
I then detoured to find Lahic but it was further from the main road than expected I rode a bit and realised it was probably not the quaint mountain town I expected so headed back on the main road. At the next junction I stopped for bread and snacks for lunch. Everyone was pretty friendly, getting a chair for me to sit on and at least trying to chat with me. From here I detoured back to Qakh in the mountains, which turned out to be a good call. The town was a pleasant spot and I even found some fresh fruit and veg for dinner, amusingly the same pasta brought from Tbilisi had still not been eaten due to all the kind hospitality!
I asked around about camping and was given direction to Ilisu the village border a national park a little way above the town. The climb up was huge, about 700m which is not what one needs at the end of a long hot day!
The scenery was fantastic as the mountains rose high above me.
The road was surprisingly busy but a stunning ride, the village was a traditional mountain village with stone houses a bit like in Yorkshire. I found a website later that explained how it’s a real mix of ethnicities and history, it was part of Albania at som point then a Sultan seat later on.
I was applauded by local villagers as I rode the final section, they all seemed happy for a sign language chat pointing out a ruined castle I could hike to and another describing how close Dagestan in Russia was.
At the very top was a newish hotel where they were not happy to let me camp. I sat in a carpark for a bit weighing up my options when a group of local lads came over to help. They were super friendly and showed me some potential camp spots, one on gravel one by the local fly tipping spot, and anotherby a carpark neither took my fancy! Finally we decided I could camp in the garden of a locals house who had a small restaurant. It was a perfect spot with mountain views and a loaded apple tree.
After unloading my bike a chap from Baku who was visiting with his family and friends came over for a chat in English. I was invited to join them for dinner which was fantastic. Another girl at dinner who was studying in Istanbul spoke good English making communicating easy for a change! We ate grilled chicken, local bread, aubergines, baked potatoes, drank tea from wild Thyme and I learnt a bit more about Azerbaijan.
After they left I set up my tent, for yet more friendly visitors to arrive! The son of the restaurant owner who had been in the group earlier spoke broken English and we discussed my trip, then football, amusingly he supported Manchester United and Real Madrid and how I was welcome any time, another relative who spoke very good English came over to help translate and to chat.
While talking there was an eerie long noise of howling across the valley that then continued and progressed up into the hills, it wasn’t dogs but nor was it like wolves I had heard before in Canada. It was apparently packs of big ugly Jackals that roam the hills here! I was glad to be behind a garden fence and not next to that rubbish dump!
The next morning I ate fresh apples from the garden and cooked some porridge oats I had found in my pannier. I hiked up to a ruined castle alongside a friendly old chap out collecting some particular herbs, he said many many things to me, but I only recognised Dagestan, so I suspect he was discussing Russia.
After detouring up into the mountains I then took a much more direct route along the flat valley to Baku. In Azerbajan you have three days to register with the government, through a hotel or on your own at the post office. I wanted to ensure I was in Baku to register as hopefully they might speak English and help me out a bit at a hostel. This meant I had just two days to ride into Baku.
After riding away from the hills the sheer scale and size of the mountains became apparent with another higher rocky ridge appearing behind like a giant reptile lurking, they’re simply massive.
As the mountains got small the landscape became drier and more lunar, it really felt like there was a desert approaching. The heat was actually OK, with it being September now and when it’s this flat I can keep a steady speed and enjoy the cooling breeze it brought.
I was getting more scared and annoyed by cars and the crazy drivers in Azerbaijam, even the police head on overtook forcing me onto the verges, I concluded that riding on the busier roads near Baku would be suicidal, if I made it that far. I resolved to catch a bus into the city so I could register and also because the Uzbekistan embassy only opens on odd days so getting there on Monday would be a big help too. Sadly as it was Sunday all the buses were full so that plan failed!
The other option left was riding to catch the night train from Tbilisi as it passed this way in the early hours of the morning, which meant I had time to ride petty far towards Baku, but despite riding into the dark, I had to kill many hours late at night in small town Azerbaijan.
As I was looking for the train station I rode a back alley that the GPS showed heading to the station. It was a bit sketchy: first I was chased by angry dogs, next some kids threw rocks at me, then a group of young kids linked arms to form a road block! I stopped and had to force through the gang of small people grabbing at everything they could, next up were two more angry dogs charging up to the road, I stopped and grabbed two big stones and rode on. As one got close to my ankles with teeth bared being super angry/rabid I lobbed a big stone and struck it square on the head, it instantly rolled over in pain screeching, then it went still, it seemed I had just killed my first dog. I felt really bad but on refection it is a survival situation when they are so angry like that.
I bought some bread, beans and fruit and set about having a picnic dinner in town, this created much excitement among the locals, firstly a group of nice enough kids who spoke odd words of English turned up, they were then joined and scared off by a group of rough looking gypsy kids who seemed more shifty than friendly. Happily a local guy came along and told them all to clear off and leave the foreigner alone. This was much appreciated and he also invited me to drink cay at the local tearoom while playing dominoes. I happily accepted and passed the late evening hanging out with them using the WIFI and playing the odd game of dominoes, and as always posing for countless selfie pictures with random people. I even won a game of dominoes although I didn’t understand how they scored it!
At midnight I left to hang out at the train station where there were some friendly security guards and less friendly police officers sitting about. The bike and its skinny tyres yet again caused much interest with multiple selfies requested by random people walking by. Finally people started arriving for the train after it got well past midnight.
When the train finally arrived a crowd gathered to watch me attempt to lift a bike up the steep steps onto a carriage, there’s no platforms it this part of the world! Each wagon had its own stern faced female attendant and my lady on number 4 was having none of it. The three policemen arrived and helped keep the peace, they discussed with the lady and after I took the wheels off, the inevitable request for cash arrived, after paying up the big crowd helped me load all the bags and bike parts on board, miracously it all got there safely. It was an open sleeper with beds crammed in everywhere and me passing down the aisle annoying or entertaining passengers in equal measure!
Finally I locked the bike and wheels to the train itself for peace of mind and squeezed into my narrow and low bed space. I slept a bit but it was unbearably hot and smelly, with so many bodies crammed into an airless space!
As we approached the outskirts of Baku and the sunrise was stunning over the low sand coloured brick houses rising from an arid desert like landscape.
There is an abundance of fancy and very expensive hotels and one hostel, that surprisingly won Azerbaijan hostel of the year award 2014, maybe next year there will at least one other hostel in the competition. The hostel was up this alleyway!
The hostel had two other touring bikes locked up as you might expect given Baku’s importance on the silk road route. I immediately bumped into an English girl called Jess who was a massive help to me, as I arrived she was heading to the Uzbekistan embassy so she kindly waited and we caught the bus together. Apparently there was a cargo boat leaving tonight so we were both in a rush to get sorted and maybe catch it.
At the embassy, which is up a random road, Jess asked first but they had nothing from Tashkent so couldn’t proceed. I felt bad but luckily and in what felt like a miracle mine had arrived and was ready. This was after I dropped the form off in Istanbul one month ago. I ran out the door grabbed a taxi and headed for the bank to make a payment to the embassy. The Taxi driver sadly dropped me at the wrong branch so I sat wasting time before I realised anything was wrong. I was then sent to the head office where luckily there was no queue, I went straight in and out, after paying my $75. For reference the correct bank International Bank of Azerbaijan and is diagonally behind the main fountain square MacDonald’s!
Another taxi back to the embassy and I was all good to get the visa. Well that was after 2 hours waiting on the sofa chatting to some Uzbek ladies, the counsel finally processed and printed the visa, at 2pm so I was good to go!
I charged back to the hostel where Jess kindly gave me directions to the boat ticket office as the picture below shows it is not your standard looking office. What happened next getting the boat to Kazakhstan deserves its own post so I will leave it there!