Our border crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan was our first experience of more bureaucratic control. There was a range of uniformed men making orders, getting us to line up in different queues and the fact our e-visa was not printed out caused issue but after our mug shots were taken we were finally allowed to enter the country.
Wild horses and fouls stood along the verdant roadside as everyone we passed waved and greeted us. The first day in a new country tends to swallop you in the face and Azerbaijan certainly packed it in. It was a nuts of a day, which I found myself laughing out loud at the many splendid things we encountered.
We had many photos, selfies taken by locals, even a man on a JCB followed us to take pictures on his mobile. Stopping to buy fruit at a stall we then found ourselves sat on a bench with 2 guys force feeding us cheese, bread and watermelon. They don’t take no for an answer when they offer food. As we continued our first day the road went from newly tarmaced surface with freshly painted lines to uneven half dug up tracks. We meet two pair of cyclists that day the last pair the famous ‘world biking’ duo Eric & Amaya who have cycled for 11 years ! Our conversations certainly due a local crowd and within minutes we had a small army of onlookers, kids wanting to try the bikes to women offering drinks in their house!
We managed to slip away and found a quite wooded area away from the inquisitive locals. Our spot seemed perfect. We cooked, bedded down and felt cheery as we seemed left alone. However, as the night got later our senses were shocked into alert mode as the cries and calls in the woods and mountains echoed. We glanced at each other and both under our breadth muttered the words “wolves”. We were awake, scared and on edge but we didn’t tell the other that till morning. As I lay awake and dropped into light sleep I was suddenly woken by cries and whimpers similar to the earlier ones but now these were outside the tent! My heart stopped and I was preparing myself to defend us when I realised beside me Barbara was the one whimpering during a nightmare. Oh we laughed when daylight came.
Our journey continued through to Sheki, a picturesque town of historical importance on the Silk Road and home to Shaki Khan’s Palace. Our treat was 2 nights in one of the original Karavansaray Inns. A stunning pieces of architecture built based on the travellers needs; camels and goods carried. The wooden door big enough to accommodate the flow of the animals and people. You could almost sense the past smells and noise that this place would have attracted. On our rest day we visited the palace and took a tour to see the beautiful stained glass windows, wood carvings and painted walls and ceilings.
Refreshed we continued along the original travellers path and over next few days we cycled through a variety of landscapes with the great caucus mountains on the left and the distant desert landscape and hills to the right. We finally meet Eva and Louisa, from Sweden (cycling Thailand to Thailand for an orphanage charity) who we knew were ahead of us!
Temperatures had increased and we adopted a more sensible schedule and stopped in the shade for 2 hours around 12/1pm, which helped with motivation especially as the hills became tough going. During the next couple of nights we camped not in the woods but we asked restaurants or Cay houses if we could camp in their gardens, which all were happy to accommodate. In return we bought a meal and beer which served us well also. However we do attract attention, people are inquisitive about how and why we move and live the way we do. Why are we not married and don’t have children etc. I have now begun to make a different story up as it seems our real one (edited in parts) does not seem to be understood. On the last camp spot in a cay garden we were woken by the guys to drink with them but we declined then a little later one of the guys brought his girlfriend to see the tent and they sat outside eating and drinking. Hello, tents do not have sound proofing!
As the journey continued the landscapes became very changeable, from lush mountains and wooded areas to more baron and hostile terrain. Greens turned to ochre and burnt umber and the trees became more sparse. The hills became more aggressive and every 500 metres was a gruesome scene. Only halal butcher shops littered the curb side with pens of chosen goats or sheep and the rest of the flock sitting outside the fence. Some carcasses hung up in the window, a reminder of what was to happen to the penned animals. As we cycled up hill the pungent smell of death meet us as it travelled down hill. It was a horrid scene and this continued for several kilometres. Death for these animals lingered but lots of live flew by in the form of sweet sounds of birds. We found the scenes and heat very challenging but with every corner a new more lighthearted surprise awaits you. This came in the form of a mini theme park sprung up in the semi desert. It was so kitsch we had to stop and spend a restful night in the hotel there.
The next day the desert awaited us, some 100 km to Baku. Could we do this in 1 day and if not where would we stop the night, would we have enough water were questions that we considered. The road was fast and as we covered the first 20 km quickly we set our goal to reach the capital that day. The landscape was stunning as the black tarmac surface ripped through the brown/yellow tints,of dry land. As temperatures rose into the 40’s with no shade insight you begin to think how to make shade and rest in the midday then around the corner comes a haven, a petrol station. We spent 2 hours there in the company of 2 petrol attendants, who gave us cay and we talked about many things.
The last 20km we began to hit the outskirts of the city and soon we found markets for cold drinks. Again we drew attention and this time the guys brought us juice and ice creams in return we had our photos taken with them! Earlier on the road, as my mouth became dry and I dreamt of iced cold drinks and from nowhere a stall selling melons appeared. A small group of men eat with gusto and called us over. I returned with 2 slices of juicy melon and god it was good.
We made it through the desert, it gave us a slice of the next big stage, one I think where we will take some transport through as the desert this time of year is cruel. We are now in Baku sat in an air condition room, relaxing after a visit to the Uzbekistan embassy after applying for the visa. It will be awaiting game now as everything is dependant on visa times, ferry schedules (where the boat leave once full). The city looks like it can entertain us for a week with architecture and history delights awaiting us.
Azerbaijan is a place of inquisitive people, they are generous and generally intrigued about you. Outside of Baku tourists are not seen often and this creates at time more attention than required. Car drivers constantly beep their horns or wave from their window, kids or young men on bikes try to out ride you. The echoes of ‘hello’ ring out along the roadside as kids sell hazelnuts, fruit leather etc. What is striking is the lack of female presence. It seems to be another male dominate country on the surface. We are both left asking where were the females outside the city?
All photography taken by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2017 ©