A Change for the Better
Our hearts were gladdened to leave Georgia and most of its memories behind, despite the sign reading 'Good Luck' upon our entrance to the land of Azeris. We felt that it should be reserved for surviving Georgia! Luck was on our side as we rode onto surprisingly lush, hilly and quiet roads, and again at our first pit stop where the çay was free and came with a complementary cake and only a small amount if suspicious eyeing. The mood was relaxed, the dominoes on the surrounding tables chirped and clicked and supplied seemingly endless engagement for the men in çay houses everywhere.
The reception couldn't have been more different from that we received in Georgia – Azeris seemed almost crazed by our big bustling barge (that would be TanNayNay) – waving, honking, hollering: all making us happier and happier not to have remained in Georgia a single second longer.
The first large town called Zagatala came with some surprising provisions: a lovely hairdresser called us over, right into his shop where he chatted us up, introduced us to the notion of the similarities between Turkish and Azeri language and recommended a Turkish-style restaurant just up the road. As we ate, inquisitive Azeris rang our bell, forcing our neck hairs to rise in frustration, we could feel their hands on TanNayNay like so many fingers running tracks on our own skin. Inquisitive without borders it seems. Totally stoked by the food we assumed this would be indicative of a tireless availability of Turkish restaurants and a similar cuisine to that of the tastebud-talented Turks. Unfortunately, this Turkish restaurant was the first and the last of its kind we experienced.
Scared in the Forest
Our home that evening was set in an idillic free camping ground, the leafy greenness set our souls at peace, our washing dried in the gentle heat and we were inspired to start vlogging our way around what the country had to offer. Darkness brought the realisation we weren't quite far enough from the surrounding roads, trucks bounced and cajoled over the many available potholes. Our serenity resorted with snuggling, we settled down for a kip when suddenly our ears were penetrated roughly and heartwrenchingly by a curious and fearsome howling. A screaming, desperate communication of some kind or another. We weren't sure what the sound was; it was like the distressed howling and emotion-coloured crying of an animal in pain. We were suddenly surrounded by the beasts, what were they? Humans attacked by dogs? Dogs attacked by humans? Sacrificial rituals of a clan one hundred strong at least. Eyeing each other uselessly in the dark we crossed our fingers that the satanic creatures weren't interested in Alleykats.
We found out (via posting on social media a week or so later) that these creatures were in fact jackals, little fox-like canines whose vocal chords are unparalleled in the forests of Az.
Cycling the Beautiful Azeri Countryside
The false oasis brought morning and more truck noise, we rode on to a delicious discovery: çay is a commodity freely-given to bike tourers, we wondered if all tourists are so well catered for. We rode the road to Sheki, full of more easy riding expectations. We were granted a rather undulating and enjoyable journey, we soaked up every ray of sun on our solar-vitamin D-deprived skin, indescribably good. The promise of summer after such a long time in semi-frigid temperatures would be told in the tale of every sunny day to come.
The Garminator told us the turn off to Sheki was simple: straight forward and perpendicular, however we rode for an extra few kilometres or more past our technology's suggestion (where only a man on a horse stood as a signpost) and found the way required a not-so-convenient reverse dog-leg. The hill up to the town of Sheki was a long one paved with smiles and awash with busy Azeris and busily driven Russian cars – Ladas. A man stopped us for a numebr of reasons: to take our photo, to shake our hand, to tell us he loves bikes and to share his brother's Baku bike club story, maybe we'd seem him when we got there? Hopefully!
The Lonely Planet in happy partnership with word of mouth proved an excellent linguistic blueprint for locating a hidden pansion with good prices. We settled in for a bit of a relaxation evening and unfortunately we got ripped off at dinner by one of the owners with a command of basic English and talking all “mates rates” with us until he shocked us with a bill costing us more than a night at the pansion. Needless to say from then on, we managed our own meals even after nodding when he motioned towards seeing us for breakfast. We discovered çay can be expensive if one doesn't refuse the 'optional extras' firmly, costing not 40c but $5 for a small pot of tea and a bit of jam (no scones or cream though). We discovered the brilliant basis of any poor-man's diet and thus ours while in Azerbaijan: qutab, a large thin pancake filled with a mixture of spinach and kale-type plants and cooked on an upturned wok. We stayed two nights, avoiding “mates rates” hotel guy and rolled out of town all the way down the hill: bliss.
Frogs chirped a musical accompaniment to the buzz of Lada Nivas whizzing past us on the road while we rode into Qavala, where we discovered the Azeri obsession with building walls. Along a 15 kilometre stretch of gradual incline, every man and his dog, his cousin and his primary school nemesis had tools and bricks and a ladder: they were all busy walling the entire strip of road with three metre fences. Mostly of fences of the same creed, flimsy-looking cinder blocks or wood and cement inside, swathed in cream granite slabs to create the right 'look'. To us they seemed impenetrable which ultimately is their purpose, to keep prying eyes out for their sake and ours. Deterred somewhat by the walls (which continued throughout the town), and also keen to take advantage of the warm weather and camp some more, Alleykat snubbed Qavala; rode in and out of town and foisted our tent in a closed camping ground. That night we were guarded by a strange slope-eyed dog all night and were lullabied to sleep by the jackals again.
Back in Australia…
Mere kilometres into our next day, we got a dose of Aussie nostalgia when we stopped at Kakadu for çay. Little did the owners understand the significance of this to us, despite sporting a picture of a Major Mitchell cockatoo on their sign. We were still chuffed. We did a short day to Ismailli (which in hindsight was probably an error), wanting a bed and a wash but didn't really succeed in getting either! We did find our first dose of Internet in Azerbaijan at a dingy Internet cafe, our enlivening experience only marred by the power occasionally failing and the cafe periodically closing its doors thanks to said developments. Here we gorged on Facebook and sorted a guaranteed Couch Surf in Baku, which looked like a little slice of English-speaking heaven pie.
Glad to be out of the disgusting excuse for a hotel, we forged a long day ending with a wild camp in a desert where we relaxed well hidden in the rolling hills of recently-planted farms and watched herders herd their flocks from afar.
Wandering Hands and the Miracle of Life
Our peaceful morning was marred by a farmer who wouldn't leave us alone, somehow doggedly convinced Kat to come a take film of his flock where he then tried it on – grabbing a kiss, a touch of the chest and a general molest where despite her best efforts he had the upper hand because of his big angry dog. Argh! What a filth bag (the fucking farmer not his dog). Kat escaped just a little shaken, but then the filthy farmer had the audacity to approach us again and continue to harass us. While Kat hid in the tent and refused to be anywhere near this pig, she unfortunately missed out on the spectacle Alex witnessed: a goat giving birth. After ensuring some distance between us and this jerk, we made a quick get away and got on the road to Baku.
Kat 'panted up' (donned pants over her bike shorts) before the city – lest there be too much attention paid to naked brown legs. It took a while to locate our destination because of the spaghetti-mess of Baku's roadmap, however we still arrived an hour earlier than we'd organised to meet our American ex-pat CouchSurfing hosts Jessica Joy and Mark. But, being the extremely generous and palatable hosts that they are, they took us in and we started on that would ultimately become the perfect stay.
A Really, Really, Really Good Time
In Baku we twiddled our thumbs and waited for mail (a new belt for our belt-driven bike), however the twiddling was in fact the best fun we'd had for quite some time, we got on famously with Jessica Joy and Mark, cooking, eating, drinking, talking, watching, reading, nothinging, and really bloody enjoying ourselves. At first we touted meagre plans of staying only a few nights, counting on our two packages to arrive in a timely fashion in the capital of Azerbaijan however, after staying five nights with our hosts (who had taken on yet another couchsurfer during this time, Pasquale, a Swiss cycle tourist) we decided to take the lovely Amanda (an ex-pat friend of Jessica Joy and Mark) up on her offer and moved into her nice little apartment just around the corner.
In true friendship fashion, lucky Alleykat maintained magical times every night with 'the crew'. As we were waiting for this lost package, two weeks somehow went past – we spent time with a whole host of characters from all around the globe: Sebastian, Steve, Bernard and Siti, Juan, Amanda and Seymur. We were wined and dined, we were treated like kings and like friends.
Back in the Desert
Too soon (and just soon enough according to the dates of our 30 day visa) we left regretfully with the belt handily fixed by Alex. We rode past Qobustan and its ancient carvings and mud mountains we'd visited mere days earlier, and camped in the desert next to a river replete with fishermen. One of these fishermen hobbled over, almost disabled by the sheer size of the fish he was carrying which he then offered to us, we politely declined as much as we'd have liked to relieve his disfigurement!
More riding through the most barren plains we've experienced thus far, desert with desert for dessert, a few garnishes of scrubby shrubs but really not much else. We cleared this plain jane environment after three quarters of our day and ended the day by wild camping next to another river. We were rewarded for our efforts of scrambling down the bank with a beautiful sunset and a mostly noiseless section of road. It was seemingly perfect except for the rain that bucketed down on us all night turning our river bank into a bog. Big trouble.
The morning routine was slow, and even slower was our way out – 500m took almost an hour (including lugging our many kilograms of TanNayNay, panniers and Alleykat up three metres of steep embankment to the road above). We also had to ward off “help” from a stray Azeri farmer who was determined that Kat, being a women, couldn't do a good job of carrying the back half of the bike and took to macho-ing his way into our bad books, being a headache for Alex who then had to counterbalance this new “helper” who didn't understand how to do what he was trying to do!
A Wheely Big Problem
On this, our last day in Azerbaijan, during a pit stop we realised we had managed to mangle our rear wheel while we were riding somewhere over the past days – almost all of the nipples had pulled right thought the rim and the poor old rim itself was dying a slow death, split through in a number of places. This was bad news as the tyre had already begun rubbing on the frame and was a ticking time bomb (or rubbing rim bomb, whichever you like). We need to get somewhere close to the border and fast.
Once we'd ridden 70 kilometres, we were hailed to the side of the road by Ayaz a curious Azeri who wanted to chat… soon Kat was packed into the car with every last bit of luggage removed from poor old TanNayNay and Alex was doing a tandem time trial to come and meet us in Lankaran at Ayaz's home which was now ours for the night.
As soon as Alex smashed out the remaining 70 kilometres, arriving sweaty browed and rightfully fatigued and footsore we were whisked off to a lavish wedding ceremony of Ayaz's friends: there were two camera crews, almost no English, more food than an entire Indian slum would eat in a week and enough dancing (while being filmed) to see us through the rest of our journey and maybe our lives. Dinner followed at a private restaurant in the hills with more friends, more food and more missing communication. We stayed with Ayaz and his girlfriend and his cousin for two nights (at their request) and found Internet to contact some saviours throughout the world: friends to help us with our wheely big problem and hosts to have us across the border on our first night in Iran.
The Road to the Border
The last day in Azerbaijan was warm, we harboured warmth in our hearts for our generous hosts and looked hotly towards our next Persian destination. Although the weather was fine, we were well covered by a densely forested road, lots of shade and green views compelled us forwards toward the border.
We lunched on the Caspian Sea's 'beach' and finished our time in Azerbaijan with a thoroughly confusing border crossing: we were directed to three different areas: first the pedestrian doorway (where within eight minutes of waiting in line we were moved on), second the truck exit (where were completely surround in an entirely friendly fashion and advised further up the road) and finally to the car crossing where we were offered çay on our way out and then spent two hours chatting amicably with with Iranian guard on the other side.
Don't forget to catch our film on Azerbaijan!
Read all of our Central Asian Series!
Or, catch up on our European Series HERE