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  • Jamie Shannon

Cycle touring through Azerbaijan

The border was fairly straight forward. It was pretty empty to be honest with only soldiers walking around with, well not much else to do.

We had to wait for half an hour at the Azeri side for some reason where the soldiers were asking all sorts of questions. Luckily for me, Furkan can understand Azeri and so I could just sit back and relax safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be needing hand signals for the following five days.

As was the norm, I was asked where I was from to which I replied Manchester and upon hearing that immediately got the response of “ahh Manchester United”. Every time I say I’m from Manchester I get this. It seems to be the only two words people know. I then have to pretend I’m following the football and that I’m a fan of ‘my beloved’ Manchester United. It’s causes far too much confusion if I say I actually follow Liverpool.

At the customs point, we had our photographs taken, were asked if we had been to Armenia (they really dislike each other) and were told to register at a police station within ten days. With this done, we were through to Azerbaijan. Wonderful!

The landscape was lush and green and, although very it was obviously very dry, it was like nothing that I expected. I was told beforehand that the landscape here changed very quickly once you crossed the border but this was evidently not the case.

Having now crossed the border though, the lada’s came thick and fast travelling at speeds you wouldn’t think a lada could achieve.

Not long after the border, we entered our first Azeri town. Balakan it was and it was a prosperous little town. Well-kept and clean, in fact much cleaner than I thought it would be.

Having found a cash point we ventured through town and found a little tea house where we sat for a good hour enjoying some much needed shade from the beating sun outside. It was a little different from the tea houses you get in Turkey though – here they serve beer! This really is a country of contrasts; conservative in some regards yet more open than a lot of Islamic countries in others ways.

Furkan wanted to visit a cell phone shop to get a sim card but this didn’t seem like a good idea to me. I just didn’t want to stop outside a shop and then have to deal with a hundred inquisitive men all asking me questions which I have answered a thousand times before. Needless to say my hand drawn map came out once Furkan disappeared into the shop. I was left standing outside with seven or eight men staring at me. I know it’s just curiosity at this strange looking person with a rather odd looking bike but sometimes it gets too much. I just stood there and licked my cornetto to whilst they watched.

They kept touching my bike wondering what on earth the thermometer and the mirror were for and of course uttered my favourite words, “Manchester United”. After ten minutes I went into the shop to see what the holdup was and when at last Furkan came out, all of their questions were answered. I was very much liking travelling with someone who could communicate with the locals. It won’t always be the case but whilst I have this luxury, I will take full advantage of it thank you very much.

With the obligatory photos taken and a nice new sim in his phone we were on our way once again. It was hot. Hot like you wouldn’t believe and the road went up and down all day. When the two are combined, you just feel absolutely shattered. Add to this the fact that every single car seemed to beep as they drove by and I was getting increasingly frustrated. They weren’t short sharp beeps either but were long and loud as if their hand had someone become superglued to the horn. At one point, I just blew up and began shouting out obscenities at whoever cared to listen. We again didn’t leave our camping spot until fairly late the next morning even though I was always up by half six. Furkans a late riser and so I just left him to his sleeping which gave me ample time to enjoy my morning coffee and book.

We had camped just above where the road splits into two and had been discussing the night before which route to take. His phone had been suggesting the right hand road that veered away from the mountains but which involved a ten km detour. On the other hand, the left road stayed closed to the foothills of the mountains, promised beautiful scenery and was ten km’s shorter. The problem was that we had no idea what kind of condition this road was in. There must have been a reason why his phone was telling him to take the longer route but I finally convinced him on the shorter more scenic route.

The first ten km’s of tarmac was in reasonably good shape. A tad bumpy and uneven but doable enough. We even had some downhills which was something we didn’t expect although the road was eerily free of lada’s which actually made me nervous of what was to come.

We stopped to buy some food at a market and whilst Furkan was buying the food and drinks, I once again became a museum exhibit. Don’t get me wrong there were all very friendly but the people are just really inquisitive.

We were stopped a little later by a man walking down the road whom told us that the road ahead would not be good for us but once again I convinced Furkan that this was the route we should take. It might be difficult but I assured him, the difficult times are the ones you remember.

Sure enough, after another couple of km’s, the road literally disintegrated beneath our feet from asphalt into gravel of all shapes and sizes. As we rode on, it became increasingly difficult to cycle on and we had to push the bikes for large parts in. It was tough going to say the very least.

There was a town called Sheki up the road where Furkan wanted to break from camping but for which the main reason was to charge his power pack up fully which would take an entire night. To be fair, it was only eight euro’s each for our own room, but having spent the best part of two weeks paying for accommodation in Tbilisi I wasn’t keen on the idea. Nevertheless, with Azerbaijan proving very easy on my wallet I reluctantly agreed to take the room and so off we went.

We hadn’t even left the town when a lada pulled us over requesting another photo with us. Of course we agreed but this seemed to be happening so often that we were getting a little tired of it. Even stopping for a break meant having to answer twenty different questions. My favourite of which was “do the government pay you to come here?” Every person we talk to asks this question as they are genuinely surprised to find a tourist out here in Azerbaijan, particularly in the countryside. Little do they know that it’s me whom pays the bloody government.

We were accompanied for part of the day towards Sheki by four kids on bicycles of their own whom had wandered over to the bus stop where we were resting.

We made it to the town centre which was a relief but obviously our hotel was located way up higher on the mountainside. Oh the joy. The last 500 metres were over cobblestones which was a real pain in the ass. When someone began snapping away on his camera at my struggling up the steep streets over the cobblestones, I barked at him, “not now mate, give me a break. I’m carrying 40 kilo’s here up a hill here”. Thinking back I should have stopped and began taking pictures of him.

When the guy behind the reception desk asked to see my visa, I met him with a surprised look and said I had hiked over the mountains from Georgia. The look on his face was priceless. I promptly presented my visa shortly after.

We dined on some amazing food in the centre of town later. Stewed lamb with chickpeas and bread, tomatoes and cucumber all washed down with an unhealthy dose of beer for two euro’s. Shower was nice too.

We stopped off at a gas station for benzene at one point the next day. Usually, there are pump attendants to do it for you, but to be honest, I’d rather do it myself. They can never pump the fuel correctly and almost always end up spraying petrol over the forecourt which inevitably involves me having to pay double than what I’m actually taking with me. On this occasion I left Furkan with this job and I went off into the adjoining café where I tried to change my large notes with the people in there. One guy indicated that he had change for the fifty I was carrying and so he began to count out fifty, 1 Manat notes on the table in front of me but could only offer me 46 Manet. I said I'd rather wait than lose two euro but he kept saying no problem no problem. I really did insist that it was a problem after which he would reply that it was no problem for me to which I would reply that it was a huge problem for me. I’m from England yes but I’m not a walking bank. As we approached a bridge I was handed a juicy green apple from a fruit stall owner and then some berries from some kids running alongside me. It was just what I needed to get me over the last few km’s to where we could camp.

We pulled off the road and headed down alongside the river where we found a great spot to sleep. The only problem was that there were so many people about that we knew we would have company sooner rather than later. Furkan again did most of the talking and we even had one man come back to our tents later on with a huge bottle of coke, two cups and some fresh bread. The Azeri people are beginning to grow on me you know. After Furkan finally decided to wake up the next morning we were on our way and spent the rest of the day cycling though amazing scenery once again. We stopped for some coffee at a petrol station in the morning but were quickly ushered onto the property of the house next door which they assured us was a restaurant but was clearly just a house.

The lady whom owned the house/café/restaurant was very nice and even offered up her daughter in marriage as she wanted her to go to England. I’m sure she wasn’t being serious. I politely declined anyway. As was the custom here, we offered payment but this was swiftly declined and we were sent on our way with a huge bag of hazelnuts. A very nice offer but for myself at least, the last thing I want to be doing in 40 + degrees is sucking on a dry hazelnut. Later, knowing that some seriously steep climbs were coming, I tried to ready myself. When the first finally arrived and but a few turns from the top, I once again blew up insisting that it was not possible to climb this kind of gradient in this heat. I threw my bike against a tree and plonked myself down on the ground wondering how on earth I was going to climb the next one as it was even steeper.

Accidents can and do happen all the time: they just don't usually happen to me

Just moments after beginning again, I heard an almighty thud behind me. Furkan was down. He had slipped when he was looking in his mirror at the Lada’s zooming up behind him. It was a bad fall actually but with the help of my medical kit, we had him back on his bike in no time. That’s the third time I’ve had to use my first aid kit and none of them were for me….. We spent the next 10km’s flying all the way down, which although lovely, I knew in my heart what this meant. Why god why?!! And then we saw it. We had stopped to take a photo of the valley floor and once we had started riding again, Furkan asked if I had seen the next climb. I said that I hadn’t. He simply replied, “it’s not good….” My heart sank as I rounded the next corner. There it was snaking its way up the hillside from the river below. From my current angle it looked almost vertical. I wasn't happy but I said let’s just get this over and done with – we’ll arrive in Baku in a week perhaps.

Near the top, and as we were resting by the roadside, a lada pulled over and out popped five people. I swear every car you see has no less than this number. If it’s an environmentally unfriendly way to travel then they are at least economically minded with regards to their space versus petro ratio.

After the pass, the road gradually dropped in a long straight line and there were people selling things on the side of the road. Every one of them wanted me to slap their hand as I flew past. I did this on the first couple but the third actually tried to grab me. I managed to clear his hand away in order to avoid my becoming a pile of bags and twisted limbs but this really annoyed me. I cycled in the middle of the road thereafter.

We stopped in the last town of Shamaxi to pick up supplies as we were warned there was nothing between here and Baku 120 km’s away.

It was a bit of a farce really. We were followed around the large supermarket as we picked out groceries by flocks of staff and customers. It was odd. They probably thought we were the odd ones though.

Once back outside, these kids wouldn’t leave us alone. They kept asking if they could have things from my bike as a kind of payment for looking after it whilst we were inside however I had noted that they were in fact the ones following us in there. I said no. Then they asked for money. We cycled off.

I had a rock thrown at me from another kid by the side of the road. It didn’t hit me but rather crawled to a stop next to my wheel. This was my first and only bad experience of my time in Azerbaijan however. Every single person I have met has been kind, almost overly helpful simply inquisitive.

A few km’s later we found a restaurant where the owner led us to the back to a lovely shaded camping spot and with two ice cold beers to enjoy, it was a great way to end our last day on the bikes.

Cycle touring through the desert in Azerbaijan. It's not easy

What can I say about the last 100 km’s? It was hot but spectacular or was it spectacularly hot? The two things are still competing with each other in my head. I had never been to a desert before and certainly not cycled through one so it was an experience like no other. Having cycled through some awe inspiring landscapes in the past, this was probably the most interesting and beautiful I had ever seen. It was bone dry and desolate.

By midday, it was hot, hot, hot which made it some of the most difficult riding of my life. When we finally saw a gas station, we pulled into it with excitement at the thought of cold water.

The security guy wouldn’t stop talking to me and finally out popped the words; "where are you from?" Thinking back to the previous few days, I opted this time to say Liverpool instead of Manchester. It didn’t work. His immediate response was “ahhh Ryan Giggs”. I said “yes he is very talented” but wondered at which point he played for Liverpool. I mentioned to Furkan later about my lack of punctures in the previous six days which I was surprised about and then mentioned that I usually got one five km’s before the finish line. Sure enough, and to my utter utter astonishment, I felt the tell-tale signs of a puncture not 5 km’s from the centre of the city. I was left speechless. I mean how could this possibly happen. I don’t believe in anything supernatural but if this continues, then perhaps my view might change.

But…….We made it to Baku It was 7pm and the light was beginning to fade. The hostel I had booked didn’t seem to exist. We looked everywhere but it was to no avail. We thus decided to make use of one of our life lines and Furkan phoned a friend of a friend whom could host us at least for the evening.

It was now 9 pm though and his friend’s place was another six km’s back through the suburbs. I wanted to cry or just sleep on a park bench. We got lost, travelled through long tunnels in darkness, pushed the bikes the wrong way over huge intersections and I got another puncture in the last kilometre. We arrived at 23:00 but luckily we had a lift to take us to the thirteenth floor. I couldn’t have done it without one to be honest. I was a wreck.

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