Azerbaijan to the banks of the Caspian

(English below)

Ominous - needing luck on entry

Ominous – needing luck on entry

Around Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

Around Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

Moments away from being crushed by a slightly overloaded hay cart

Moments away from being crushed by a slightly overloaded hay cart

Just after dusk on the way to Sheki

Just after dusk on the way to Sheki

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki Caravanseri

Sheki Caravanseri

Sheki at sunset

Sheki at sunset

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Into the desert in Azerbaijan

Into the desert in Azerbaijan

Thirsty work in the desert heading to Baku

Thirsty work in the desert heading to Baku

Photo gallery

Während ich so vor mich hin und durch üppig bewachsene Wälder radelte, musse ich es immer wieder laut aussprechen, damit ich es auch wirklich glauben konnte: Ich bin in Azerbaijan! Und nicht nur das: Ich reise durch Azerbaijan auf meinem Fahrrad! Erstens wäre es mir wohl niemals in den Sinn gekommen, dieses Land, mit dem ich bis anhin nur Öl und Wüste in Verbindung gebracht hatte, überhaupt jemals zu besuchen. Zweitens kam es mir unwirklich vor, diesen Besuch auf dem eigenen Fahrrad abzustatten, in aller Selbstverständlichkeit über aserische Strassen zu kurven und mich gegen aserische Autofahrer durchzusetzen. Nun, da war ich also und staunte: Statt durch die Wüste radelten wir ab dem 9. Juli erst mal drei Tage lang durch grünste Wälder und fruchtbare Gegenden entlang der Berge nahe der russischen Grenze. Die Menschen kamen wieder neugieriger auf uns zu, luden uns mehrmals täglich auf eine Kanne Çay (hier sogar mit Zitronenschnitz) ein und sehr schnell hatten wir uns wieder an Pide und Ayran gewöhnt. Mit unserem Bisschen Türkisch konnten wir uns problemlos verständigen und sowieso fühlten wir uns kulturell ganz stark an die Türkei erinnert.

Trotz langer Radeltage verbrachten wir am 10. Juli einen Nachmittag in Şeki, einem der ältestens Städtchen Azerbaijans, genossen eine Kanne Çay innerhalb der kühlenden Mauern der alten Karavanserei, bewunderten den orientalisch anmutenden Palast und liessen uns in einer Privatunterkunft von Ilqar und seiner Familie mit einem aserischem Abendessen (Linsensuppe, grillierte Auberginen, Bohnen, Tomaten und Fladenbrot) verwöhnen.

Nach Şeki folgten drei anstrengende Tage durch immer trockener und gelber werdende Gegenden. Meist war es spätestens ab 14.00 kaum mehr möglich, in der Hitze weiter zu radeln, so dass wir jeweils lange Pausen, irgendwo unter einem Baum, einschalteten, um erst gegen Abend weiter zu reisen. Die letzten 100 Kiometer vor Baku führten uns durch sehr karge, staubige und kaum bewohnte Gegenden und ich konnte zum ersten Mal erahnen, wie es sich in der chinesischen Wüste wohl anfühlen wird. Wir kämpften gegen die Hitze und teils gegen einen starken Wind, fanden nur mit Mühe ein Schattenplätzchen, wurden von Einheimischen vor Schlangen und Skorpionen gewarnt und erklimmten trotz der wüstenarigen Gegend mehr Höhenmeter an einem Tag (1800 m) als jemals zuvor.

Nach 5 langen Velotagen in Staub und Schweiss waren wir erleichtert, als wir – von weiter Ferne noch – die modernen Bauten Bakus am 13. Juli zum ersten Mal aufblitzen sahen. Wir näherten uns dem Stadtzentrum und damit auch dem ganzen Verkehrchaos, wo es die Autofahrer problemlos verstehen, drei- in fünfspurige Strassen zu verwandeln, mitten in der Stadt in Sekundenschnelle auf 100 Stundenkilometer zu beschleunigen oder ohne jegliche Richtungsangabe abrupt abzubiegen. Statt gebremst, wird gehupt. Wer stärker ist, gewinnt. Wer zögert, hat definitiv verloren. Auf unseren Fahrrädern stehen wir in der Strassenhierarchie meist nicht gerade hoch oben. Uns bleibt einzig übrig, zielstrebig vorwärts zu treten, Nerven und einen kühlen Kopf zu bewahren und uns vorzustellen, wir seien genau so stark wie alle andern. Bisher hat das gut geklappt und so haben wir auch das Verkehrschoas Bakus wohlbehalten hinter uns gebracht. Wir feierten unsere Ankunft in einem Gartenrestaurant mit einem türkischen Mittagessen und kühlen Bier. Bald darauf stiessen Peter, der zurzeit in Baku lebt, und Sean, der Peter gerade besuchte, zu uns. Wie schön, bekannte Gesichter aus Bern zu sehen! Peter spielte den perfekten Touristenführer, zeigte uns paar erste Sehenswürdigkeiten und die Altstadt Bakus und führte uns schliesslich in ein aserisches Restaurant, wo uns Essen, Leute, Raki und kitschige Popmusik  wieder so sehr an die Türkei erinnerten. Später gesellten sich paar Freunde Peters hinzu und die Strapazen der vergangenen Tage waren nach paar Gläsern Raki in dieser fröhlichen Runde vergessen. Wir zogen weiter in “the room”, wo Peter sogleich die Tanzfläche in Schwung brachte und Sean, der sich als DJ durchgesetzt hatte, zum Schluss sogar noch Patent Ochsner abspielte. Seit der Schweiz hatten wir keine so fröhliche und lange Nacht mehr gehabt! Was für ein Tag: 5.00 Uhr morgens aufstehen, Zelt zusammenpacken, durch Wüste und Metropole radeln, Freunde wiedersehen, Baku anschauen, aserisch essen, türkisch trinken, bis 5.00 Uhr morgens feiern. Erschöpft, aber glücklich sanken wir früh morgens in unser bequemes Bett.

Wir verbrachten einen weiteren Tag (14. Juli) mit Peter und Sean, fuhren an den Strand, schwammen im kaspischen Meer, das entgegen meiner Vorstellungen weder ölbeschichtet noch (zu) vergiftet ist und schauten uns die alten Ölfelder an. Leider flogen Peter und Sean nächstentags nach Georgien und wir blieben alleine in Baku zurück. Peter war so grosszügig, uns seine Wohnung zu überlassen, so dass wir in aller Ruhe die Visaorganisiererei (siehe Visas) angehen, unseren Blog aktualisieren, E-Mails schreiben und in einer eigenen Küche endlich mal wieder richtig kochen konnten. Das Usbekistanvisum hatten wir erstaunlicherweise bereits innert einer Stunde in unseren Taschen. Das Kazakhstanvisum war jedoch erst am Freitag, 19. Juli, abholbereit. Wir verbrachten unsere Tage mit schlafen, kochen, essen, spazieren sowie Filme schauen und genossen es, in Peters Wohnung ein Zuhause zu haben. Abends trafen wir uns jeweils mit andern Tourenfahrenden, die ebenfalls auf irgendein Visum oder auf ein Schiff nach Aktau warteten.

Architecture - old and new in Baku

Architecture – old and new in Baku

Baku old town

Baku old town

The Flame Towers, Baku

The Flame Towers, Baku

Peter the famous Baku tour guide

Peter the famous Baku tour guide

Die hübsch herausgeputzte Altstadt Bakus mit ihren Teppichhändlern und altertümlichen Hammams hat den Status eines UNESCO-Welterbes und erinnert an ein orientalisches Märchen. Das historische Zentrum ist jedoch klein und schnell gesehen. Die Ölmetropole glänzt vor allem mit ihren ambitionierten Bauvorhaben, neuen Luxushotels und glitzernden Fassaden. Manches wird gebaut, ohne später genutzt zu werden. So dominieren etwa die für den Eurovision Song Contest 2012 erbauten und nach aussen glänzenden Flame Towers das Stadtbild Bakus, doch stehen diese mangels Ausbaus im Gebäudeinneren noch heute grösstenteils leer. Der Gegensatz zu den ärmlich wirkenden Lehmdörfern in der Wüste vor Baku ist enorm. Korruption gehört zum Alltag und alles Geld Azerbaijans scheint sich in Baku zu sammeln und auf paar wichtige Familien zu verteilen, wozu insbesondere auch die Familie des aktuellen Präsidenen, Ilham Aliyev, gehört. An jeder zweiten Ecke hängen Plakate seines Vaters, Heydar Aliyev, der von 1993 bis 2003 selbst Präsident war, das Land wirtschaftlich forangetrieben hat und – wie es scheint – mittlerweile beinahe göttlichen Status erlangt hat.

Am Freitag, 19. Juli, hatten wir also die für unsere Weiterreise nötigen Stempel im Pass und stellten uns einer neuen Herausforderung: Ein Frachtschiff zu finden, das uns über das kaspische Meer nach Aktau (Kazakhstan) fahren würde. Passagierschiffe gibt es leider nicht, Frachtschiffe fahren jedoch alle 2 bis 7 Tage, wobei meist erst kurz vor der Abfahrt über das Schiff informiert wird. Das Personal spricht in der Regel kein Englisch, was die Kommunikation noch weiter erschwert. Mit gepackten Taschen warteten wir also auf ein Schiff und versuchten in unserem besten Russisch, an irgendwelche Informationen zu gelangen. Die charmante Dame, welche für die Tickets zuständig ist, verzog keine Miene und weigerte sich, uns genauere Abfahrtszeiten zu nennen. Wir wussten nur so viel: In den nächsten paar Stunden würde kein Schiff ablegen. Wir verbrachten einen weiteren Tag in Baku (20. Juli), trafen andere Tourenfahrer, tauschten Neuigkeiten und Gerüchte aus und boten einander während dieser mühseligen Warterei etwas Ablenkung. Am Sonntagmorgen rief uns Raz (Tourenfahrerin aus England) aus ihrem Hostel an. Die Hostelbesitzerin, die glücklicherweise über die nötigen Beziehungen verfügt, hatte herausgefunden, dass ein Frachtschiff in Kürze ablegen würde. Wir stürzten aus Peters Wohnung, stiegen auf unsere Räder und fuhren so schnell wie möglich an den Hafen, doch wie es schien zu spät: Alle andern Tourenfahrenden, deren Unterkunft sich näher am Hafen befand, hatten ihr Ticket bereits gekauft und die charmante Ticket-Dame meinte erst mal, für uns gäbe es nun keinen Platz mehr. Wir fragten höflichst, ob da nichts zu machen sei und übten uns in Geduld. In aller Ruhe trank die Dame eine Tasse Tee, führte ab und zu ein Telefonat, feilte ihre Fingernägel, wischte den Boden und entschloss sich schliesslich doch noch, uns ein Ticket auszuhändigen. Es dauerte dann doch vier Stunden, bis wir das Schiff bestiegen und weitere 3 Stunden, bis es ablegte. Mir war mittlerweile alles egal, da uns ein Kebab tags zuvor mächtig den Magen verdorben hatte. Ich war nur froh, ein Ticket und sogar eine Kabine mit eigener Toilette zu haben und verbrachte die nächsten 24 Stunden fiebrig in Bad und Bett.

(28. Juli, zur Beruhigung aller: Wir haben uns wieder erholt und radeln mittlerweile fröhlich durch Usbekistan!)

Azerbaijan to the banks of the Caspian

Sean and Peter

Sean and Peter

At the beach in Baku

At the beach in Baku

Oilfields around Baku

Oilfields around Baku

"Bobbing ducks" pumping away

“Bobbing ducks” pumping away

A proper brunch

A proper brunch

Too many cyclists waiting for visas and boats

Too many cyclists waiting for visas and boats

Bags ready and waiting at the door

Bags ready and waiting at the door

Passing kilometre after kilometre along roads winding through lush green overgrown sticky forests, I almost had to ask myself, “Am I really in Azerbaijan?”  “Am I really riding my bicycle through Azerbaijan?”  This country, which when mentioned previously, merely brought images of deserts and oil to my head, was never a place found on my “places to visit” wishlist.  In any case, not only was I here, but I was here on my bike, enjoying the intensely green scenery surrounding me everywhere I looked.

After crossing into Azerbaijan from Georgia (July 9th), instead of spending the following three days riding through desert as we’d expected, we were greeted with green forests and fertile fields hugging the base of the mountain range running along the southern border of Dagestan (Russia).  Once again, similarly to in Turkey, the people were filled with curiousity and approached us full of questions, and once again numerous times daily came the offer to drink çay.

Between the long hot days of riding, we managed to find an afternoon to have a look around the mountain village of Şeki (July 10), which is one of the oldest settlements in Azerbaijan.  The town has been substantially renovated (much of which is still in progress) and contains the Palace of Shaki Khan (built in 1762 without a single nail) with its stunningly elaborate stain glass windows.  After a visit to see what all the fuss was about, we contented ourselves with drinking çay (Azerbaijan style with lemon slices and lots of sickly sweets) and relaxing in the cool of the lovely Şeki Caravanserai, before enjoying the hospitality of Ilqar at his homestay.

Upon leaving Şeki the greenness dissipated to be replaced by yellows and browns.  The relative coolness afforded to us by the forests also disappeared and we sweated our way through the next 350km and 3 days to Baku.  The heat on the road became so intense soon after midday that we had to find shade and wait again until early evening for the temperature to drop a little in order to be able to ride a few hours longer.  The main problem being that the prevalence of shade also shriveled up the closer we came to Baku and the Caspian Sea.  As we began looking for a place to pitch our tent the night before reaching Baku, we realised that whatever we did find, such was the nature of the flat, almost treeless expanse encompassing us, wouldn’t be very well hidden from the street.  After finally finding something about as appropriate as we were ever going to find just on dusk, we were of course interrupted about one hour later by a carload of people heading back from their field.  Quite animatedly they warned us about sleeping where we were, and only after a few minutes did we realize they were referring to the presence of snakes and scorpions in the area.  We thanked them for their concern, told them we’d be safe inside our tent, waved them off as they drove away, and then quickly proceeded to carry out a thorough enemy check of our sleeping quarters before triple checking all zippers for cracks and lying down to sleep – I’m pretty sure it took Nina even longer than usual to fall asleep.

Finally after 5 long days in Azerbaijan we rolled over the last of the mountain passes before the coast and sighted Baku.  The last 30km into town in the scorching midday sun (July 13th) surrounded by more cars than we’d seen since Istanbul, brought us both to the boil (our nerves and our sweaty bodies).  Within the city limits, we found ourselves either on 6 lane highways or roads being turned into 6 lane highways (but which were unfortunately still narrow single lanes of dust clogged with cars).  The position of the cyclist within the road user’s hierarchy had been predetermined long before we arrived, and so it was with a steely resolve and a no hold’s barred attitude that we confronted the inner workings of the streets of Baku.  Knowing that we would have the best part of a week in Baku to recover gave us a little extra strength for the last struggle to Peter’s place, a Swiss friend we were visiting and who’s place we could stay at for our first couple of nights in town.

Bikes waiting patiently in a row

Bikes waiting patiently in a row

Cyclists also waiting patiently in a row

Cyclists also waiting patiently in a row

Baku harbour

Baku harbour

Our fever den on the boat

Our fever den on the boat

The first impression one gets when entering Baku is construction – construction, construction everywhere, everywhere you looked, everytime you turned a corner, always something somewhere being built, reconstructed, renovated, but more often than not, just being torn down and built anew.

After reaching our destination we setting about enjoying a beer in a pleasant shaded tea garden.  Soon afterwards Peter (a Swiss friend living and working in Baku) arrived with Sean (another Swiss friend visiting him from Bern), which left Nina with small pangs of homesickness.  It was good to see some familiar faces from home, and we spent the rest of the afternoon (after we’d enjoyed the comfort of a shower that is) getting shown around Baku with Peter playing the perfect tour guide.  Towards evening we found somewhere to eat, the beer and raki starting flowing freely and eventually some time around 5am we crawled exhaustedly into bed – quite a long day in the end after having to get up at 5am and ride 75km.

A long sleep in a comfortable bed at Peter’s gave us the energy for a new day.  After finally rising from our slumbers, the four of us spent the afternoon (July 14th) at the beach on the Caspian Sea north of Baku.  Being a Sunday, the place was packed with people, and after the relative conservativeness of inland Azerbaijan, it was strange to see so many women also swimming at the beach – in normal bathing suits at that.  The water was lovely and warm, and going against all of my preconceptions wasn’t covered in a layer of oil either.  The quality of the water even seemed ok – confirmed somewhat by the fact that at least afterwards no unwanted rashes appeared.  At a café on the clifftop overlooking the beach we enjoyed some çay and nibblies and set about playing a quick game of Jass.  Unfortunately it would seem that card games are frowned upon in public in Azerbaijan, so before we could even play one hand, we’d been asked to stop playing by a member of the café staff.

With cards off the table, and the luxury of Peter’s work car at hand, we instead went to inspect the still working oil fields scattered around the edges of and sometimes right in the middle of the towns ringing Baku.  These archaic oil towers are still slowly pumping away, slurping the last drops of oil from their well many decades after first being drilled.  This bizarre landscape of hundreds if not thousands of “bobbing ducks” with the metropole of Baku in the background really is an intriguing sight.  Next stop was Yanar Dag, a flaming stream of natural gas escaping through a fissure in a rock wall, which was inadvertently set alight by an errant cigarette butt from a shepard 50 years ago.

Although Peter and Sean had originally planned to leave to go hiking in Georgia on Sunday night, difficulties obtaining a ticket for the overnight train meant that they decided to leave the following morning with the plane.  This change in plans meant that we got to enjoy another evening together (although unfortunately time did end up running out before we could get through a game of Jass).

Our cargo ship loaded and raring to go

Our cargo ship loaded and raring to go

Managed to crawl out for the stunning sunset

Managed to crawl out for the stunning sunset

As it turns out Peter was extremely generous and offered us the use of his appartment for the time that he was away, which for us was a huge luxury.  Due to the oil boom Baku is in the middle of, living costs (which translates to hotel prices) are very high and there is a definite void of cheaper hotels and hostels.  The fact that we were afforded a whole apartment for the week really saved our skins.  It would have been nice to have had some more time with Peter and Sean, but holidays are always too short and they were off to Georgia, so Nina and I settled in to the place and started organising our week ahead.

The week was spent finding the Uzbekistan and Kazkhstan embassies, followed by locating the International Bank of Azerbaijan to make payment for our visas, and then heading back to the aforementioned embassies at some other prearranged time later in the week to collect our visas.  Since we had arranged a Letter of Invitation (LOI) for our Uzbekistan visas, the visas had already been approved and as such we could pick them up the same day as we applied for them (best 40USD ever spent – thanks Stantours).  The consul at the Uzbek embassy was a bit of a character, had a bit of a Yoda air to him, and we’d have had the visas stuck into our passports within 5 minutes, if he hadn’t been telling jokes the whole time – in the end it took about 30.  We were told that the Kazakhstan visa could be picked up in 4 days time (applied Tues 10am, picked it up Friday 4pm), no discussions to be had there I’m afraid.

Knowing that we had until Friday before our last visas would be ready, we concentrated all positive energy into making sure that a boat would leave on Saturday for Kazakhstan.  In the mean time, we spent our spare time during the week relaxing, reading, washing, planning, skyping, cooking (for me probably the biggest highlight was having a proper kitchen again) and catching up with other people we’d met on our journey or some even who we’d just met who were also waiting for visas or boats or something.

The UNESCO World Heritage Listed Inner City (old town) of Baku has been renovated and scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and with its array of rambling streets and alleyways winding up and down stairways, hidden mosques, imposing palace and towers, the place really is quite charming.  Strolling around the centre of Baku, one could assume to be in almost any large European city, wide pedestrian-only walkways, neo-classical architecture, large open spaces, fountains, cafes and restaurants everywhere, and western European prices to boot.

Move away from the centre and it soon becomes apparent that it is also a city of the haves and havenots, and depending who you’re friends with, determines you’re position on the have scale.  Wide scale corruption seeps into every crack of society leaving Azerbaijan ranked 135th on the world ranking for transparency of it’s public sector, human rights abuse is rampant, and freedom of the press is something that an editor can only dreama about.  Democracy here is a bit of a pipedream, since almost everything is owned or controlled by descendents and friends of the former president, Heydar Aliyev, who himself has became somewhat of a god in the country, his face plastered across the whole country on billboards, schools and public buildings.  Since his death, his son is the current president, and his wife might even become the next one.

Large oil reserves have clearly financed rapid transformations within Azerbaijan, however, after coming from the western part of the country, it would seem that the oil money to a large extent, doesn’t flow too far from Baku.

Friday (July 19th) afternoon came and we grabbed our last visa and now started trying to find out when a ferry to Aktau would leave.  There are no passenger ferries, so tourists are dependent upon gaining passage aboard one of the transport ships sailing across the Caspian Sea.  These boats leave intermittently (a few a month, or a fortnight, or a week, or so the rumours say) as soon as they are full.  The reputation of the woman working in the ticket office (small hidden hut to be precise) preceeds her, and since she only speaks Russian and Azeri, finding out exactly when a ship is leaving can be difficult to say the least.

A few of other cyclists were also waiting for a ship, so at least we could share information a little asit came to hand.  As it turned out, after many phonecalls and internet peeks on the international maritme traffic website, there was to be no ferry on Friday night – “but maybe tomorrow” we were told.  Saturday came and went and the same story again – “maybe tomorrow”.  Sunday morning we got an early call from Raz (an English cycling friend) who informed us to get down to the harbour ASAP since a cargo ship was leaving today.  Our bags had been packed and patiently waiting next to the door of the apartment for well over 36 hours, so all we had to do was carry them downstairs and load them onto the bikes.  We then said goodbye to our luxurious home for the past week and headed to the harbour.

Upon arrival the “ticket lady” muttered something about “no tickets”, “maybe full”, “wait, wait”, so although we were a little concerned that we wouldn’t be on the ferry afterall, we conveyed as best we could an outward aura of pure patience.  She went about her business for another ten minutes, made a few phone calls, had a cuppa, cleaned a table or two, walked a little to and fro, from one room to the next, seemingly without reason, then decided that there were tickets to be had afterall.  180 Azeri Manat later (about 200USD) and we were the proud owners of one-way tickets to Aktau.

Relieved, we then waited about five hours until we could clear passport control and board the boat, then another three before the ship set sail eastwards.  Our sudden start to the day had also brought with it stomach problems (probably as the result of a dodgy kebap for lunch the day before) and so the adventure of the voyage was numbed somewhat by the urge to stay in bed within dash distance of the toilet.  Thankfully aboard the ship (which was actually quite new, nothing like the horror boats we’d read about), we had a clean, but stuffy private twin room with shower and toilet, which we spent giving a good work out between the two of us.  Here we come Kazakhstan!!

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