The crossing into Azerbaijan was straightforward and the border guards were friendly (after a rather startling border sign reading 'Azerbaijan border - good luck!’) As soon as we were cycling in Azerbaijan the temperature and humidity seemed to increase, alongside the level of horn tooting and encouraging waves. The scenery over the next days was beautiful, passing through pine forests and farmlands, with the misty foothills of the Caucasus Mountain range to our left. We moved slowly, as we had no need to rush toward Baku with the Uzbekistan embassy closed for their Independence Day celebrations. The route took us through quiet towns with dry stone buildings and tin roofs baking like cakes in the midday sun. On the second day the road deteriorated greatly after lunch (and a swim in a 'lake' with some enthusiastic/ creepy local men) and it would be another 20km until we saw asphalt! This was slow going and mentally challenging as the road taunted us with short patches of reasonable terrain before returning to a pebbly mess. We were starting to ponder our ability to tackle the roads that lay ahead in Khazakstan and Uzbekistan (if we are allowed over the border). We had heard stories of the 'demolition derby' road from Aktau to the Uzbek border where asphalt becomes a vague memory. Perhaps a cheeky train will be in order!
As the sun began to set we asked a man standing by the side of the road if we could camp anywhere and he nonchalantly tipped his head toward the house below, outside which his wife Naime and two young children stood smiling. We pitched our tent in their garden but it wasn't long before a huge storm raged, with flashes of lightning lighting up the sky like a flickering switch. Tapdeck and Naime invited us to sleep on the floor of their living room as the rain pelted down. We were able to share one of our bottles of Georgian wine with them and some chocolates we had brought and had a lively evening with their young children, despite the language barrier.
Next stop Sheki, a beautiful town famous for the palace of the Sheki Khans, set in a stunning location with the Caucuses above and distant dusty brown mountains to the South, with cobbled roads lined with restaurants, tea gardens, and shops selling halva, a sweet delicacy of the region. We stayed for two nights at the Caravansarai hotel, with a beautiful courtyard flanked on each side by rooms that, in a bygone time, were inhabited by travellers coming by caravan along the silk road en route from China, their horses resting in the cool shade of the stone arches. We visited the famous Khansarai (Palace of the Khans) on a quick tour in Azeri, a relatively small palace and beautiful, crowded with lavish murals of birds and battle scenes and stained glass windows of every colour imaginable. We also spent an afternoon in Kish, a small mountain village 7km north of Sheki which we reached through a hair-raising taxi journey in a spluttering vehicle that hurtled up the hairpin bends as if preforming its final swansong. We saw the pretty Albanian church and then went in search of a mosque on our map that at first appeared not to exist. We asked a man sat at a corner and suddenly an elderly woman emerged from a big wooden door and ushered us into her house. After retrieving a big brass key she led us wordlessly down through a beautiful sloping garden with apple trees and trussed tomatoes, over a stream to a small mosque, which she opened up for us. Every inch of the interior space was covered in colourful carpets and the atmosphere was so calm, it was as if time was suspended in both the mosque and the gardens surrounding it. We later sat sipping chai with the woman and her daughter for some time before giving them a small donation for the mosque and leaving, to flag down another precariously driven taxi. Back at the Caravanserai we met Dave, another cycle tourer from England who was also on his way to China. As we sat chatting in the courtyard it emerged that Dave had also studied at SOAS, lived a few streets away from us in London and even shares my birthday. It was meant to be! We all left together the next day, both of us shamelessly excited to have found a new travel friend. The rest of the ride to Baku was extremely enjoyable. We stopped each night at one of the beautiful roadside restaurants that dotted the route, asking to pitch our tent in their vast gardens and ordering plates of Azeri cuisine, chai and draught beers.
On one night we couldn't find a restaurant so Tim asked a man if he thought we could sleep on the village football pitch. His name was Murrdar and he told Tim he would ask around before quickly making a series of rushed calls on his mobile phone. We later deduced that he must have been calling his wife, Delara, to ask her to get their house ready for visitors, as well as his friend and colleague Ulri who turned up and directed us to follow Murrdar up the hill in his car. We followed them for a long time up the rocky streets of their village before arriving at Murrdar's beautiful home where Delara and their three children were waiting to greet us. Ulri and Murrdar both work as engineers at a state petroleum company in the Caspian Sea off Baku. Murrdar and Delara's daughter Shamama studied in Baku and was turning 18 the next day. When we went to put up our tents they insisted we sleep inside and put a row of mats out for us. The next day after breakfast we started to leave and were met with heavy resistance from the whole family, not least Shamama who said she would be sad to see us leave before her birthday lunch. Soon after, their neighbour, a 15 year old boy, disappeared and returned with his accordian and began a mini concert of Azeri music. His parents arrived and his father joined him on the drums. Next came a dance off, with several young boys from the neighbouring houses demonstrating some impressively fast moves and the rest of us trying to keep pace much to everyone's amusement. It was full of joy and hilarity!
I was allowed to help with the meal preparations while Tim and Dave were taken to watch some pretty dubious music videos on the TV. The kitchen was where the real magic happened, incredibly bustling and full of meticulous preparations with ingredients fresh from the garden (including eggs and chicken) fused together to create a traditional Azeri salad, plov (the national dish) and homemade apricot juice. The result was a huge banquet laid out across several tables with much toasting, gift giving and laughter to follow.
This mother and daughter invited us for a drink in their beautiful garden, Sheki
An 18th birthday meal to remember
Simon and Garfunkel eat your heart out
We were sad to leave, but pushed on around 5pm. The storm was rolling in and we set up camp outside a roadside restaurant. The next day we assessed the damage - our tents were sodden and caked with mud from the overnight deluge and upsettingly the water had reached the inside and some of our clothes and bedding were wet. We had to push off as the rain pelted on, realising we were high up in the middle of a rain cloud. The road was misty and grey, the route was winding, and in the wet weather the scenery started to resemble Scotland or the Yorkshire Dales which, perhaps bizarrely, lifted our spirits - we felt right at home! That night we searched in vain for a hotel and found ourselves at a strange town full of men working on the road reconstruction and not a woman in sight. We broke our rule - never go backwards! - and cycled back to a restaurant where we ate and squeezed our two tents into a covered area designed for diners. The staff were again incredibly warm and friendly and didn't bat an eyelid at our request to sleep there. The last day's ride into Baku was our first desert crossing and luckily the colder weather front worked in our favour, as there was no shade to be found. We snuck onto a cordoned off road and enjoyed having some space to ourselves to cycle quickly alongside one another and marvel together at the changing scenery. The landscape was unlike anything we'd ever cycled through, full of parched lands and bare rocks and only occasionally small huddles of buildings. Driving into Baku rivaled Istanbul on the scale of unenjoyable riding (bonkers drivers, constant merging lanes and no hard shoulder, I went silent and focused on breathing calmly!), but we made it in one piece to our hostel in the middle of the Old City.
Baku is a strange mixture of old and new, with wide leafy boulevards based on the Parisian model, tall glass buildings and grand development projects funded by petrodollars spreading out along the sea front as far as the eye can see. It feels discombobulated and yet somehow coherent, as plush hotels and fast food joints jostle for space with mediaeval walls and towers. We were up early Monday and straight to the Uzbek embassy only to find out that it is closed until Wednesday to observe the signing of the condolence book in respect for Karamov's passing. This meant a bit more waiting about and a lot of lazing around in our room (a weird spillover area for the main hostel where people working in the building occasionally appeared in the middle of the night pissed and passed out on one of the spare 'beds’/ duvets on metal bedframes, snoring merrily away through the night). I find these parts of the trip the most challenging, full of bureaucratic manoeuvring with no idea of how long we'd be waiting for the visa or the boat and plenty of time to think and worry about what on earth we are doing long here, moving further and further away from home and any semblance of familiarity. We could soon be heading into deserts, climbing cold mountainous passes, haggling our money on the black market, lugging around litres of water and pushing our bikes along stoney potholed makeshift roads. At the same time, I'm always itching to get back on my bike and out on the open road and back to the privacy of our little tent, which I'll gladly take over a hostel full of snoring random men any day. I love to be on the move.
On Wednesday it was all go. After waiting to be let into the embassy (the hours are ‘flexible’) we were told to 'hurry’ to the nominated bank and pay the visa fee. The bank was situated back in the centre of Baku so this involved two more frantic taxi drives there and back and some nail biting queuing at the bank counter as the clerk popped off for a coffee as the clock ticked closer and closer to the embassy’s midday closing time. I was beside myself but Tim was fantastic, he said I was anxious enough for the two of us and this helped him to retain his calm and good humour. Back at the embassy the younger of the two staff members handed me a brochure for Uzbekistan as the other examined my application form, telling me that he was from Tashkent and we must visit the lake there for a swim. This was promising, and sure enough minutes later my passport was returned to me with a bright blue Uzbekistan visa inside! Tim was next up and then the straight faced older man working there surprised us with a very sharp joke. Walking past where Dave was sat patiently waiting his turn he turned to him and said 'no more visas, come back next month.’ Dave looked crestfallen. The man waited a beat before continuing, 'only joking’ he said, completely deadpan. Who knew embassy staff could have a sense of humour!
Next stop was the hostel, where we asked the owner Michael to call his friend the famous boat woman who could tell us if a ship was sailing to Kazakhstan that day. We were told one was leaving that afternoon and Michael's friend could drive us to the boat office when it opened in an hour. We rushed off to pack before jumping in the car and, after waiting outside the shipping container/ office for half an hour, we were the proud owners of three tickets for the Shagdah, a cargo ship that carries train carriages across the Caspian. We were told to get to the port at Alat by 5pm, which was 70km south of Baku. We crammed into a London style cab with our bikes and bags and sped off past oil fields full of blue mechanical drills swinging pendulously up and down into the earth in a dystopian looking scene. At the port dozens of lorries were parked up waiting and rusty old train carriages were creaking along the tracks behind the passport check.
We spoke to an English speaking man working at the port and, barely concealing his enjoyment, he told us that we would be lucky if the ship left the next day due to a storm out at sea. He advised us to check out the hotel 2km up the coast or to set up camp by the passport control, but to be mindful of the snake that patrolled the area (he seemed to particularly relish this part). Having just splashed $80 on the ship tickets we opted for the latter and were soon joined by two young Russian backpackers who we had bumped into earlier on our trip at some caves in Georgia. They were incredibly lovely but gave off an overwhelming odour of smelly feet from a radius of several metres. Soon after we settled down to sleep we heard a commanding voice from next to the tents instructing “passport check! Five minutes!” We all scrambled up and packed our tents away in record time before groggily wheeling our bikes through passport control and onto the dimly lit Shagdah