The road into Tbilisi from Mtskheta was long and straight and mostly downhill, which made up for the crazy traffic whizzing past us. Tbilisi was going to be the first major city I had ridden into since Ankara, which had been a month before so I was a little nervous. Thankfully while it was a little hairy at times we managed to get close to our destination without any mishap.
In Tbilisi we were heading for a friend of a Georgian friend of mine from London who had kindly said he would host us while we were staying in the city. Neither Rubina or I had any idea what to expect so it was great when our host Archil arrived where we had arranged to meet and turned out to be a really fantastic guy.
Archil led us to a block of flats which were quite daunting from the outside and helped us get our bags and bikes up to his flat. This was, in counterpoint to the outside, really nice. He then showed us round and indicated a bed and a couch where we could sleep – Rubina looking around asked where he would sleep. Archil then surprised us both by saying that he would be staying with his parents and that we had the use of the flat. This sounded great as I had not had any real space to myself for much more than a night since leaving home. What wasn’t great was that Archil was staying with his parents because he had recently had his tonsils out and was recovering. This made his kindness even more startling as he should have been at home resting rather than helping two strangers!
In Tbilisi we managed to get a number of jobs done – Rubina and I both got our bikes checked over and tuned by a mechanic. Finding a bike shop took us a bit longer than it should have but we were both glad of the results.
I also got my haircut for what was about GBP 2. This was perhaps the most aggressive trim I’ve had, the woman who did it was about 5ft high and the same again across. She certainly threw her weight around when adjusting my head in order to get a better angle. She also didn’t appear to understand my attempts to explain I just wanted a very slight trim and tidy as I came away with much less hair than I expected. Thankfully it looked pretty much the same as always after a cut.
We also had a look round the centre of Tbilisi where we could see some more examples of the interesting futuristic Georgian architecture.
What was also nice was that we could cook some of our own food in a proper kitchen. When I say we could cook, I mean Rubina cooked some nice meals and I got to eat them.
After five nights in Tbilisi it was time to head off as we had stipulated that we wanted our Azerbaijani visas to run from 9 November. Riding out of the city and towards the border we were struck by how different the landscape was in the east of the country. It was far less lush and much more desolate than when we had ridden out of Batumi. In fact it pretty much was barren and post apocalyptic may have drifted across my mind.
We reached the ‘Red Bridge’ border in good time and passed out of Georgia without a hiccup and made for the Azeri border control points.
We had to pass through some massive gates in order to get to the Azeri border point – clearly the Azeri people take borders seriously.
Thankfully we were able to pass into the country without any issues the only occurrence of note was being spoken to by a man who claimed to be an Azeri Olympic gold medallist who’d won in London. After comparing his photo to their two gold medallists I’ve concluded he was probably a liar…People do seem to recognise him though so maybe he was just confused about what he has won. A prize to anyone who identifies him!
It didn’t take many kilometres of riding through Azerbaijan to realise we were back in a Turkic country, again the tea was flowing.
Riding on we kept going till a certain time when we decided it would be good to start looking for somewhere to stop. As we rode we saw an army base and they gestured us over as we went past. At the least we thought we’d be able to ask if they knew anywhere to camp. After exchanging mutually unintelligible greetings we managed to get across what we wanted and a few squaddies led us over to some grass on the other side of the road from the base and said we could camp there. The ground was flat and there was some shelter from the wind so we started to set up. Next thing we know they were back with a comrade who spoke reasonable English. He explained that due to the proximity to their neighbour to the west and that this was army land we would not be able to camp there as it might be dangerous. The soldier was very polite and clearly very sorry about this so while we didn’t feel threatened we were feeling the fact we were going to have to ride off again as night drew even closer.
Luckily, or so we thought, we saw a sign for a petrol station a few kilometres ahead and as I’d camped at petrol stations a lot in Turkey I thought it might be a good place to lay our heads. Sadly when we got there, while the attendants were happy for us to camp, we couldn’t actually find any land we could get our pegs in. Also it was a little bit open to HGVs, so the possiblity of us being crushed was a bit too much.
Off we went again with darkness really closing in and to make it even better rain starting. Riding a little way up we saw some flat plots of land on the edge of a town and just off the road. They looked like houses that had been started and abandoned and OK for camping. Close up they still seemed OK for camping apart from there being a slight overabundance of sheep droppings. Still it looked like this would have to be it… Rubina confidently unrolled her tent while I clutched mine as I paced back and forth looking for a spot slightly less covered in droppings. A woman then came past and said ‘Salaam’ which is hello in Azerbaijani (which at this point was pretty much the beginning and end of my knowledge of the language) and then wandered off. She then came back and asked either a)if we would be cold where we were, b)told us we would be cold, c) commiserated with us over the cold, or d) something completely different. Following this she disappeared again and we thought that was that. Next though she returned with her husband who she had clearly needed to consult and asked if we wanted to come and stay at theirs’.
Rubina and I looked at the pretty disgusting field, then each other and without any need to confer decided that anything had to be better.
We were then led round the corner to their house where they helped us unload our stuff and cover our bikes outside. We then went inside in the warm and dry and were treated to our first taste of the incredible Azerbaijani hospitality. They gave us cay and dinner and the next day breakfast. They also made us up a very comfortable bed on the floor. This was also our first taste of the the Azerbaijani love of sugar as we were given jam to eat with our cay after dinner. Just jam, no bread. This was delicious but slightly worrying on the teeth front.
The house appeared quite large from the outside but it quickly became apparent that only one room was livable with two rooms at the back still under construction. At a guess, it seems that in Azerbaijan rather than taking out a big mortgage they’ll slowly add to houses as they can afford it.
There was also an interesting outside toilet which was basically a few planks of wood on the floor with a hole in it surrounded on only three sides by corrugated iron walls. Rubina had fun with that.
Along with the husband and wife we were also sharing the main room with their two children, who were eleven and six year old girls. At some points it seemed like we had been brought into distract the six year old who was one of the most hyperactive children I have seen.
The next day we were sad to leave as the family were incredibly kind and we knew this was probably another set of people who had briefly touched our lives for the better that we wouldn’t see again.
Leaving was harder for me than expected though as the night’s rain had turned the path back to the road into a quagmire. As I pushed my bike along it got harder and harder to move until I was almost at a stop. My mudguards were doing such a good job they stopped letting any mud through and so my wheels were barely turning. Luckily with the help of the family we were able to get my bike up on the road where I could clean enough mud out of it so that it could run. Rubina was laughing as her bike was so much lighter she had been able to carry it over the mud. On the plus side it showed how lucky we were to have been camping in doors!
Once I had cleared the mud from blocking our progress we carried on towards the the second largest city in Azerbaijan: Ganja. Sadly the Azerbaijani alphabet makes it look more like Ganca when written, so I suspect their signs will remain safe.
Arriving into Ganja we saw a massive triumphal arch and another in the distance. These were part of a Heydar Aliyev park – one of the many parks named for the previous president who had died a few years before. Reassuringly the former president was also the current president’s father and we learnt that this family had been ruling Azerbaijan for some decades – this clearly indicates they are doing a ‘Good Job’ if people keep electing them. The Americans apparently don’t agree but Obama must just be jealous as he will only get to be president twice.
The arches were very impressive and while it is hard to judge must have been on a par with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The whole park area was massive but apparently not officially opened as the president hadn’t been down to give his blessing. As we went through Azerbaijan it started to sound like half the country wasn’t officially open as the president hadn’t had time to cut the ribbon yet.
In Ganja we were to be hosted by Lucas from the warmshowers website; a Finnish Erasmus student studying English linguistics at a university in the town. Lucas had cycled round the world himself a couple of years ago and it was interesting to hear of his experiences. We also learnt more about Azeri buildings as the water in his apartment had been off for a couple of days and remained off while we were there for no apparent reason. We had to go along to some German volunteer friends of his to use their shower. There we got an expat view on Azerbaijan and some interesting opinions about what goes on there. This included views on the still to be developed concept of Azeri feminism and Azeri graft: a highly developed system of gift giving outside the normal channels, an understanding of which is required to get anything done. Apparently many people even have to give policemen gifts in order to be able to carry on their normal business!
After Ganja we headed to Yevlakh, the seventh largest city in the country. This was one of the easiest days riding I’d had as we were pretty much riding down a gentle gradient the whole way there. In fact all the riding in Azerbaijan had so far been nice and flat.
In Yevlakh we were to be hosted by Rebecca from the couchsurfing site. Rebecca was working as a peace corps volunteer in Yevlakh and was the only westerner in the city. Upon arrival in Yevlakh we went to the Post Office where we had arranged to meet. Apparently post offices in Azerbaijan are quite different from those in England – for one thing the country doesn’t have a working postal system – I’m thus not quite sure what everyone was doing there. And there were quite a lot of people as we discovered when a crowd formed around us as we tried to give our bikes a quick clean down while we waited.
Once we’d met with Rebecca we took our bags up to her apartment, which belonged to an Azeri family who were currently in Russia, and took our bikes along to the garage of the family who had hosted her when she first arrived in the country. We then had dinner. This was a really great experience as Rebecca wanted to make sure we would get to try Azeri food. She had asked some Azebaijani friends to help her prepare a dinner for us which was really kind. We got to try some delicious Azeri dolma, which are mince stuffed vegetables as well as Azeri rice known as plov. We also got to try homemade Azeri fruit juices, which I think are known as sherbets and some delicious cakes.
It was also very interesting to talk to some English speaking Azerbaijani people as two of the friends were English teachers: Khoshbext muellime and Rena muellime and the rest were students that Rebecca worked with who could also speak English very well: Aytac, Shole, Rejab and Emil. The students seemed to have a good opinion of London and wanted to visit there, sadly this appeared to be more from a love of One Direction than a desire to see the sights.
Later on Rebecca was kind enough to introduce us to another Azeri family and really made sure we had a good time. Being able to meet with Azeri’s who could communicate with us was great and something we would really have struggled to do off our own backs.
Back on the bikes we headed towards Baku, we had no more planned stops now so would just be making towards the city and stopping where we could for the night. On the first day out of Yevlakh this was to be at the town of Syghyrly which we decided upon as we got there at just after 16:30. Riding in we tried asking a family if we could camp in their garden but as the husband was not to be found the wife was unable to give permission so we carried on a bit further. At this point we started to think that finding a camping spot might be hard without help as there were corrugated iron fences lining the road into town and we couldn’t see any open ground. Luckily we came across a group of men and one agreed to help us. He took us through some gates into a fenced area with two large houses in, the furthest of which he took us towards. We’d thought we would be camping somewhere in here but apparently not. As in Georgia we were led inside to be treated to more incredible hospitality.
The place we were staying it would transpire was a pomegranate farm and the man who took us in was the owner. He proudly showed us his land and the house and gave us some fresh pomegranates to messily munch on as he did so. The house was very nicely done and was new and neat and while the decor left something to desire it was clean and modern looking inside. He lived in one of the houses with one of his wives and their two sons. In the other house lived his brother with his wife, son and daughter…probably (no one had any English).
The food they were kind enough to provide us with was also amazing. It was all freshly baked or grown on site or nearby. The chicken we ate was so fresh it had been running around outside when we arrived. The next morning for breakfast the bread we ate was incredible and with some of the nicest cheese I had eaten for ages. We also got to experience more sugar as we tried a couple of jams ‘neat’.
If we made one mistake the evening we arrived it was asking the brother’s daughter if she liked One Direction. This indirectly led to us watching a two hour video of a family celebration, a DVD of Azerbaijani music and our having to dance along with the family. Something definitely got lost in translation – including my pride when dancing.
The next day Baku bound again Rubina and I marvelled at how flat the road was – we’d been going slightly down or on the flat for around 400kms since leaving Georgia. This would in fact continue the whole of the remaining 150kms to Baku which meant we made very good time.
We had in fact wondered the evening before if we would be able to make it all the way into Baku that day, on consideration though we decided it would not be worth the risk of cycling at night in Azerbaijan. The country does not have the best road traffic reputation and we thought it better to play it safe. As a result of this we ended up spending our final night on the road in Azerbaijan sleeping on the floor in a cafe.
This came about after we rode into the town of Sangachal and were unable to find anyone to ask if we could camp somewhere. Luckily there was a cafe on the edge of town and we asked if we could camp there, which was OK. We then had dinner in the cafe, which the proprietor refused to accept any money for, which was extremely nice of him. After dinner when we went to set our tents up behind the proprietor came over and made it clear we should sleep in the cafe, which was a bit of a relief as we would have been on concrete behind the cafe. The man was really very kind, telling us to help ourselves to anything we wanted and to just leave the keys under the mat when we left.
The next day, having spent rather longer than expected cleaning all the mud off and out of our bikes we set off to complete the remaining 40kms to Baku.
We were expecting this final ride to be extremely unpleasant as we had heard that the roads into Baku were busy and dangerous. We were surprised then when we had a very easy ride on a fairly uncongested highway into the city. We eventually reached the coastal boulevard running around the harbour and started cycling on this which was given over to bikes and pedestrians.
I think if we had come in from the west of Baku rather than the south the story would have been different so we were lucky.
Once in Baku we had fun crossing a main road as there was only a subway with stairs to get across it. My bike doesn’t like stairs so this required help from locals to get me up the other side on the unfeasibly steep wheelchair ramp. We would have crossed the road but the policemen there made it clear we’d be in trouble if we tried.