Sorry it’s taken so long to update my blog, but it’s taken a while to recover and get back onto the ‘net’ here in Azerbaijan.
I was genuinely sad to leave Tbilisi, as the staff at the Why Not? Hostel had been absolute stars and although I’m not going to give the details on a public blog, let’s just say the cost of my trip and my onward travel has been given a huge helping hand – I cant thank you enough guys!
The second biggest surprise on my return to Tbilisi was meeting up with Buggi again and I was so pleased to have a chance to catch up and swap stories, then go for a meal. He told me he was soon to be heading back into Turkey to meet up with his girlfriend and was staying in a different hostel along with a British cyclist (Clive) who was also going to be traveling to Kazakhstan too, so we (myself and Clive) agreed to meet up in Azerbaijan and sort out our visa’s together. As for Tbilisi, I’d never really gone out and done a photo tour of the city, but here’s a few more I took:
I was a little apprehensive about entering Azerbaijan as I’d heard so many conflicting stories about people being ‘hassled’ at the border, especially if like me they had visited Armenia. Choosing the northern crossing of Lagodekhi, I was amused to see the following sign on the Georgian side:
I needn’t have worried though, as apart from a short wait and then a 5 minute ‘interview’ by the border police, in which I was asked why I had visited Armenia, how long I’d stayed there and had I gone to the Nagorno-Karabakh region (of course not!), it was pretty straightforward. When I was barked at (in what I gather was Armenian) I simply stayed calm and didn’t respond. Then strangely the big policeman cracked a huge smile and said “welcome to Azerbaijan”. I howled with delight as I rolled down the ramp from the border control into my 22nd country.
The roads on this first section were very nice and well surfaced, being mostly lined with trees where the sun broke through making patterns on the tarmac. I enjoyed just taking it all in, my cycling being at a very leisurely pace.
The riding was very hilly and difficult in the heat. I made a major mistake when I decided to try and save some time by taking a cross country route, later realising I should have stuck with the roads. After a hard 5 kilometers of riding on an ever diminishing ‘road’, suddenly I was faced with a huge hole where the rough tarmac had been washed away. Determined I was not going to turn back, I unloaded the bike and passed everything down into the hole, then back up the other side onto the broken roadway. Sadly this was not a unique happening and I repeated the process twice more, before I finally returned exhausted back to the main road.
After the two Christian countries of Georgia and Armenia, I was reminded that I was back in Muslim territory by the huge arches which span the roads here, something I hadn’t seen since I left turkey. What was soon obvious to me was just how friendly the locals are and once again I found payment for fruit and vegetables being refused, along with being plied with numerous cups of tea (and some stronger drinks!).
Day 3 and I met up with a very strange trio of friends – one was Turkish, another Afghan and the last a local. I was called over to share a meal with them and as it was near the end of a long day (even though it was only lunchtime) which had seen me start very early to avoid the heat, I had no hesitation in doing so. An extra plate was ordered, extra food and I was soon tucking into a local fish and meat dish. Oh and vodka…
The next few hours became a lot of fun as I joined my new friends in a local open air swimming pool. Rather the worse for wear after not appreciating how strong the vodka was, I dived in fully clothed, boots, glasses and all – even the money in my pocket got soaked. It felt good to be so relaxed and free and enjoy just clowning around, before being taken to meet the locals family and friends and then being given a bed for the night. Another memory I’ll treasure.
Next morning after being given a hearty breakfast I set off for what I knew would be the hardest day of the journey into Baku, crossing through the mountain passes. The heat was almost unbearable and the climbs seemed to just go on and on, to the point where I had no choice but to get off and push for a while as my legs were screaming in pain. I think it’s been the hardest section so far and collapsed into my tent, which had been erected on a football pitch, it being the only bit of flat ground I could find!
Camping on the pitch did have advantages (apart from the obvious flat ground) and soon I was surrounded by curious locals and It wasn’t long before I was invited for ‘tea’. Can you imagine just leaving behind all your possessions and walking off with a total set of strangers in the UK? I did so happy in the knowledge none of my kit would be taken – although they may well take my bike for a short ride, no problem with that. Forget everything you’ve heard and any scaremongering, it’s the safest place I’ve been to.
Baku came after my longest day of the six it took to get here. I was a bit concerned after telling Clive it would only take five, as he was planning on being about a day behind me. Concerned because you’d have to had been some kind of superman to do it in five – it’s just so hard riding. Arriving and trying to find the only hostel in town, how incredible was it that I once again met up with another traveler from Tbilisi, Sam, who was doing the Mongol Rally? He showed me the narrow passageway to the hostel and I asked him to join me for a cup of tea. That is until the hostel staff asked him to leave, absolutely disgraceful behavior which another of the residents spoke up about and he was allowed to stay. More about the hostel from hell in my next blog.
I have to say that for a tourist this city looks amazing – however I look forward to looking behind it’s glitzy facade!
Clive arrived the next day looking more tired than I had done less than 24 hours earlier. I was extremely glad to see him and we soon made plans for getting our visa’s, even venturing out later that afternoon to the Uzbekistan embassy to register. We later visited the Tajikistan and Kazakhstan embassies and now just had to wait until we could pick them up… it all went fantastically well and again I’ll post full details (for the benefit of other travelers) when we have completed the process.
The plan now is to take the ferry to Aktau in Kazakhstan, ride across the desert and onto the worst road in the world (for cyclists) in Uzbekistan, pop into Tashkent to pick up a Chinese visa, then head south to Dushanbe. There we will pick up our GBAO permits which allow us to ride the Pamir Highway (dubbed by many – the Karakorum Highway on steroids) and then possibly go our separate ways. I’m very excited and pleased also from a security point of view to have Clive riding this next section with me.
I’ll tell you more about Clive and the other great people I’ve met here in Baku in my next blog…