28 Sep Trip Diary – Azerbaijan
After spending the last couple of weeks cycling over the mountains of southern Georgia, I was looking forward to the relative flatness that awaited me in central Azerbaijan. As I packed away my tent for the last time in Georgian territory only a dozen or so kilometres from the border, my thoughts raced as to what lay ahead. This would be my first visit to any of the ‘stans’, a group of countries that had long been a fascination of mine.
Crossing the border
I felt apprehensive about the crossing riding the final kilometre to the border past the long line of stationary trucks. It was still early in the morning and although the check point was busy, I appeared to be the only foreigner amongst the crowds and certainly the only one on a bike. Taking up a position behind a queue of cars, I slumped on to the handlebars and resigned myself to a long wait under the increasingly hot morning sun. After just a few minutes, I looked up to see I’d caught the attention of one of the young and smartly dressed border guards who was now heading my way. On reaching me, my initial concerns that I’d done something wrong soon faded. His face broke into a beaming smile of gold teeth as he greeted me in perfect English and pumped my hand enthusiastically. Seconds later, I found myself being escorted past the queue under a barrage of the usual friendly questions: where was I from, why was I here, and of course, what football team did I support.
My escort walked me through all the checkpoints, introducing me to other border guards, all of whom seemed equally happy to see me. Within twenty minutes and with zero custom checks on any of my bags, I’d got my stamps and found myself in the now familiar world of money touts, taxi drivers, and street vendors that congregate around every land border crossing. Far from being the nightmare I’d read about, it turned out to be a straightforward and pleasant experience thanks so some of the friendliest officials I’ve ever dealt with. I’d arrived in country number 13, buoyed by the ease of the crossing and convinced that the number wouldn’t be an omen.
From the Georgian/Azerbaijan border, there are two main routes that cycle tourists tend to take: a more mountainous and remote northern arch on poor roads that takes in some beautiful scenery before arriving at the Caspian Sea in the capital of Baku, or the central highway, a long, flat, fast and mostly uninteresting road that hits the Caspian Sea at the town of Alat before turning north into Baku and which, for the most part, is in good condition. I’d already decided I’d take the quicker central road for a couple of reasons. My main fear was that winter was closing in and I was becoming concerned that it would cause a long wait for my ferry across the Caspian Sea, my route through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would become unbearably cold, and the first snowfalls were not too far away. I was keen to reach the coast with enough time to explore Baku, a city I’d heard quite a lot about, and ideally, cross over to Kazakhstan before October.
Within an hour of leaving the border, I got my first taste of Azerbaijan hospitality. Stopping at a petrol station for water, I was greeted by a group of truck drivers sat around on plastic chairs eating their lunch. Before I’d even got off the bike, they were beckoning me over, waving a bottle of half drunk vodka in the air as I approached and they started a frantic search for an extra glass as I sat down. By the time I got back on the bike an hour later, I’d eaten well for free and drunk more straight vodka than was probably good for me. Rather worrying, after finishing their bottle of vodka, all the men drove off, their overloaded trucks lurching out of the car park at an alarming speed. I made a mental note to give any trucks I encountered a wide berth.
Just outside the city of Ganja, I came across a young German cyclist, Daniel, sat on the side of the road, fending off unwanted attention from the various fruit vendors that lined the road. It turned out Daniel was heading the same way as me until Ganja, so we decided to team up and take on the city traffic together. Ganja is Azerbaijan’s second biggest city after Baku and is home to one of the world’s biggest city parks, the rather grand looking Heydar Aliyev Park located on the outskirts of the city. After a quick ride around the wide pedestrian streets that criss-cross the park, we rejoined the main road into the city and found ourselves a cheap hostel for the night.
That evening, while walking the city streets in search of food, I was approached by a policeman who asked if he could help in perfect English. He suggested a restaurant and insisted on taking me there himself. For the next twenty minutes, he chatted to me enthusiastically about life in Ganja as he escorted me along the marble inner streets, past grand looking buildings including the recently built city mall before leaving me with a firm shake of the hand outside a small local cafe. As he walked off, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other policeman in other countries would do the same. Not many, I thought, as I stepped inside, impressed yet again by the hospitality and friendliness of Azerbaijan’s people.
The road to Alat
Over the next seven days, I barely left the busy highway as it made its way through a mixture of farmland and vast grazing plains, small towns, and sprawling cities, always accompanied by the constant deafening roar of heavy traffic and clouds of diesel smoke. I passed many police checkpoints on my way to Baku and I was often waved to the side of the road by a group of smiling but slightly bored looking policemen for a friendly chat and more often than not, an offer of chai and food. Despite reading many articles online by other cyclists receiving unwarranted fines or paying bribes at these checkpoints, I was never once made to feel unwelcome or intimidated.
Camping options were a bit limited so close to the highway and it was often almost dark before I found somewhere suitable. Most nights were spent out in the scrubland where only the shepherds and their herds tended to venture, camping behind groups of low trees or hidden amongst the vast fields of crops as far from the noise of the road as possible. My last camp before hitting the Caspian Sea was probably the best, hidden from the road amongst small hills and with sprawling views of low mountains dotted with tiny villages, distant horseback figures silhouetted by the sinking sun guided their herds home for the night.
Baku – truly the city of wind
By midday the next day, I’d made it to the coastal city of Alat and got my first glimpse of the Caspian Sea. From Alat, the road heads north following the coast for 70 kilometres until arriving in Baku, a ride I was hoping would take two or three hours. However, it soon became apparent that wasn’t going to be the case. Shortly after leaving Alat, I encountered some of the strongest headwinds I’d experienced on the trip so far. At times, the gusts were so strong it made any forward movement impossible and each turn of the pedals became a monumental effort. Even the high and heavily overladen trucks found the going tough, many passing by only fractionally faster than me. A combination of sand, dust, rubbish, and exhaust fumes made breathing difficult and the visibility poor. By the time I cycled past the oil fields that dot the outskirts of Baku and I reached the sanctuary of the inner city streets, I was exhausted, my whole body ached, and I was covered from head to toe in a layer of red dirt.
I had arranged a host family in Baku at an apartment of a friend of a friend. I found the building relatively easily but was slightly alarmed when I realised the flat was on the 11th floor. Luckily, the lift was working and I was able to squeeze the bike inside. Carrying it up the stairs would have finished me off, I’m sure. Over the next few days, I explored Baku and my first impressions were good. It was clean and featured a number of good parks and green spaces. The tree-lined seafront was especially pretty with its harbour full of expensive yachts and grand buildings. But, after a day or two, I felt something wasn’t quite right about the city. The closer I looked, the more it appeared somewhat fake, for want of a better word.
Many of the new buildings lay empty, with closed doors and windows covered in dust. Looking down from the balcony of the apartment, the same buildings that looked grand from the outside, with their walls of slick marble adorned with statutes, looked dilapidated from above. Tarpaulin replaced traditional roofs in many cases, a few didn’t even have that, so the internal rooms and stairwells were exposed to the elements. Poking around, I discovered more and more beautiful buildings that seemed to serve little purpose. Of the iconic flame towers, the three large glass skyscrapers that light up at night in a display of synchronised LEDs, only one is currently occupied. Trump Tower also stands virtually empty.
The rich and poor divide is obvious around the city too, with the less fortunate outnumbering the wealthy greatly, which was even more puzzling given the designer shops in a capital that doesn’t attract huge numbers of tourists. Yet, the city is awash with the construction of more buildings, and I couldn’t even guess at their purpose. The old city in the heart of Baku is beautiful, but even here the sense of fakery exists with walls painted to look like bricks and windows crudely drawn on, in some cases. There’s no denying that Baku is beautiful, but it’s not all it seems when you look closer.
I spent a whole day trying to register my presence in the country with the immigration office. Azerbaijan law states all tourists must register within ten days but they don’t make it easy. It took the best part of seven hours and multiple trips across the city to produce the relevant documentation, including full details of my host family, in order for them to register me. I finally received a small scrap of paper with a few lines of handwritten text on it and was told this was my official document and that I’d need to keep to leave the country. It seemed, like Baku itself, somewhat fake but with large fines waiting for anyone who failed to produce proof of registration upon leaving the country, I decided to keep it anyway.
Tonight’s my last night in Baku. In the morning, I’ll retrace my steps back to Alat, hopefully with the wind behind me this time, and attempt to catch the rather unpredictable ferry over to Kazakhstan. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait. I’ve heard some horror stories of people waiting for almost a week due to strong winds that prevent the boats from docking. I guess there’s only one way to find. Azerbaijan has been fascinating if not somewhat confusing at times but with September coming to an end, it’s time to leave.
This diary entry covers date shows from 17th Sept – 28th Sept, 2017
All the photos from my time in Azerbaijan are available on the gallery page or by clicking here
Edited by – Emer Garry