I cycled down the buttery smooth and freshly surfaced road from Georgia into Azerbaijan, which maintained the same hot and humid, tropical-jungle feel as before. The drivers seem a little less crazy, but still frantically beep their horns (though they wave now, instead of just making noises). The people I pass on the street are very friendly, waving and saying hello—genuine smiles all round. Even though they likely see foreign cyclists pass through here every week in summer, I’m treated like the first and only.
The people generally are a bit darker skinned than the Georgians, and unlike them, share an appearance closer to the Iranians than to the Russians. It became clear quickly that at least in this region, they are also noticeably poorer. Culturally, (and linguistically) everything is remarkably similar to Turkey. The way the people invite you over, or how much tea they drink. The way they live off the land, or have vegetable patches instead of gardens. However, I feel like there are a lot more walls and fences here, and everyone seems a little more sure about which bit of land is theirs and which is not. For this reason it was increasingly difficult to find a spot to wild camp as I got further from the border (but if you’re feeling brave, you can camp within 5km of the border pretty easily I’d say).
It’s also notably more secular than Turkey, and this is most prominent in the sheer lack of hijabs, absence of mosques, and unashamed display of beer in the fridges outside nigh every shop—something which is almost unthinkable in Turkey. It’s not too expensive either, with many bottles of beer coming in at less than a Euro. Most people here identify as Muslim but it’s much more of a cultural association than a religious, as barely anybody practices.
Having decided that looking for a place to camp was hopeless, it was fresh in my mind to ask where I could camp to the next people I happened to come across, which was a group of men chilling at the side of the road. They directed me only 100m away to a restaurant called Fontan, presumably named so because it had a ridiculous fountain in the car park. There I asked the owner, who so happened to be next to the fontan, if I could camp there. He told me it was possible for 3 dollars, since I didn’t have any Azeri Manat, but later decided to just let me camp for free, after a guest at his restaurant made a face at him.
So I set up my tent amongst the apple orchard in the front, alongside some fold out picnic tables and chairs nearby. As it got dark, I was fine just lying down and getting some sleep, but all that went out the window when three guys from the Azeri military invited me over to their table for food and beer. Cheese, salad, unidentifiable saucy things, and chickpeas on a plate, (which they placed another plate over and shook up and down with lemon and salt). We couldn’t really understand each other too well, and so there was a lot of google translate and talking into phones. They were from Baku and had come to work in the military base nearby. Soon four became seven, and we were all eating, drinking and trying to learn something about each other’s culture. I was just recovering from a hangover with Ian, and now I was getting pissed with six guys from the Azeri army at a fold-out picnic table in the middle of an apple orchard. When you’re travelling like this, you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
In the morning I was quite lucky to get a bit of cloud coming off the mountain to keep the temperature down. But it didn’t last long. About 100km from the border things start to change. The forest thins out, the good road surface was all a lie and became a potholed and bumpy mess, and all the other local cyclists I had seen on their rickety steel bikes had disappeared. Soon I was the only one on a bicycle.
As I needed to get to the Uzbek embassy in Baku (still about 350km away) for a visa, I was a little in a rush too, and I missed the turn off to the northern road and I continued cycling down a road which not many take, though I’m convinced it was to my benefit due to the lack of hills. It was long and lonesome road kinda stuff. There was nothing on the way, just farmers every now and then tending to their cattle and watching the cows occasionally dip in some muddy water. Most of the water around is undrinkable, and so the tiny villages dotted quite far apart (maybe every 10km) become like little hubs of activity for the locals. Everyone comes to socialise in these places, and most people were very happy to see me briefly enter their lives. The prices for food are very cheap, especially chocolate and sugary snacks…dangerous. One guy bought me some water and sesame seeds. Nearer to sunset another guy bought me some bread, nuts, and huelva. He was just an ordinary shop worker. So nice. It was funny watching them all argue in the shop about what I said, when I said I had left Scotland four years ago. Even with google translate some things are not understood.
Not before long I found a place to sleep nearby. I’m sleeping earlier every day as the sun is perceptibly setting sooner as I track across east. I did try cycling at night a bit, but it wasn’t much cooler, just like being in the shade during the day. There were quite a few mosquitoes around where I camped. And a remarkably high number of beetles. Like maybe 10 or 15 different species flying around, attracted by my torchlight. Some of them were fighting each other, others were trying to get at my food. And then there was this huge spider thing.
After some research I found out it’s called a camel spider and it likes to eat you when you are sleeping.
Come 7am I was getting baked in a tent oven, and so had no choice but to move on. Today was filled with trucks with hay-bale hats, cars with so many watermelons stacked on the roof that the bottom of the car was almost touching the road, and more Ladas than I’d seen in Georgia and Armenia combined. There were quite a few people standing around for lifts; it seems like hitchhiking amongst the locals is fairly common. And I have to say “I don’t speak Russian,” no fewer than 20 times.
The final day to Baku was the toughest. Things went quite swiftly from The Jungle Book to Mad Max. The greenery of the Caucasus disappeared into a desert and in sections I found myself pedalling in 40°C without a water source for over 30km. I poured water over myself a lot to get to the next water point. Generally you can figure out the water stops because there is a queue of people standing around filling up bottles. But as I neared Baku, the springs dried up, and bottled water became the only source available.
I never thought I would see the day where I was cycling through a desert in a hurry to get a visa to cycle through a desert.
I woke up at 5:30am and pedalled the last 35km to Baku, totalling over 400km from the border. The guy in the embassy had no idea what I had gone through to get there before the weekend, especially the desert section.
I realised that you have to check the date on everything you buy in Azerbaijan. I bought an out of date tin of beans by two years (still ate it), found a piece of plastic in a sweet (still ate it) and also bought some eggs that were 4 days out of date (still ate them, though I didn’t realise till after).
The eggs didn’t go down well, and on the first day in Baku, I realised had to throw up late in the night. Both toilets in the hostel were busy, so in a flurry of half-panic I went out onto the balcony and chundered off the edge, sick blowing all down the windy streets of Baku. It hit some poor Russian tourist in the face. Luckily it was dark so he couldn’t see me. I felt so bad for him. His mate on the other hand, were laughing hysterically. I would then spend the next 6 days more or less in bed, and seeing none of the city. Check your food in Azerbaijan!