Azerbaijan: Land of Fire

Posted by James Anderton on May 28th, 2019


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Many cyclists will pass through Azerbaijan on their way from Europe to China or vice-versa. For me it marked the end of Europe and where I felt like I was entering a new world. Border guards in smart, crisp, green uniforms welcomed me into the country. The majority of the traffic seemed to be on horseback. Kids darted along on cobblestone streets around rickety wagons carrying grass and bails of hay. All of a sudden the bike would cause a stir in every village I stopped in and I would be surrounded by curious locals. It is a fascinating country. If soaring mountains and dramatic scenery are what you after then Azerbaijan won't fit the bill but the scenery is varied and enjoyable and everywhere you go you will get a warm welcome.

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Caucasus Mountains of Azerbaijan

One of the great joys of cycling across Azerbaijan is meeting the people in the places in between. The hospitality I was shown everywhere I went was second to none. In every cafe I stopped at I was soon invited to join a group of men at their table. They spoke no English and I no Azbeji but they plied me with chai and sugar and we communicated via the international language of smiling. One evening whilst camping a guy nodded to me as he went by on horseback. An hour later he returned to give me some cheese. On a short, sharp climb in the Caucasus mountains peanut sellers would line the road 50m apart. Seeing me struggling in the heat one put his peanuts down and pushed me up the climb to the next peanut seller who would take up the mantle. Thus I was the baton and I was propelled up the climb as I was passed from one peanut seller to the next. One of the most enjoyable climbs I can remember.

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My first couple of days in Azerbaijan was like cycling in a tree tunnel. The road lined with tall walnut and hazelnut trees. The shade from the heat was welcome. At the first opportunity I took the road up into the hills including a detour to the beautiful isolated little mountain village of Lahic. Here people speak a language spoken only in the village. You feel like you have been transported back in time. The history dates back 2000 years. The road up to the village is a wonderful cycle. Narrow, winding roads with sheer drops down to the valley. The Caucasus mountains in the north of Azerbaijan are an excellent place to explore. The back roads are bumpy but there is a timeless peace in this part of the world and a wonderful way to capture the rural way of life in Azerbaijan.

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Beautiful tree tunnel in the west of Azerbaijan

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The road to Lahic

Eventually the mountains gave way to desert as I approached Baku. It made for a dreary landscape under a glaring sun. There are no trees, there is no grass. Only intense heat and a smell of kerosene. It was camping here that I encountered a snake in my tent. I was about to get in when I saw the snake slivering around half in and half out of my tent entrance. I did what any respectable man would do in such a situation. I turned and ran. I did the 100m in 9.71s. Usain your record is safe for now. I don't like snakes. Eventually I decided to man up, found a stick, returned and tentatively poked around in my tent. It had gone. I got in and quickly zipped up.

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Desert on the road to Baku

A couple of days later I arrived in Baku. The contrast between Baku and rest of the country is striking. Baku is as rich as the rest of the country is poor. Azerbaijan is a wealthy country. Oil has played a key role in the economic growth and booming infrastructure. In 1994 Azerbaijan signed a deal for exclusive rights to three large oil fields in the Caspian Sea. This deal is referred to by the Azeri people as the ‘deal of the century’. I don't think a lot of the wealth filters out of the capital. In Baku the architecture is modern and glamorous. There are posh hotels everywhere. Even the subways are lined with marble. People drive fast cars. An hour drive out of Baku and you are more likely to see people driving horse drawn carts where the locals scrape a living selling bread, fish and pomegranates by the side of the road. To all intents and purposes Azerbaijan still operates under a dictatorship. It's human rights record is pretty appalling. The 2018 Freedom Index declared that Azerbaijan is “not free”, ranking it alongside nations including Libya and Yemen. When Baku hosted the 2015 European Games, investigative journalists and campaigners were forbidden to attend.

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Old town, Baku

In Baku I stayed with Ishim, a Warmshowers host. He's never ridden a bicycle in his life. He does speak 6 different languages though and he likes to invite foreigners into his home so he can keep up his language skills. He was a excellent host helping me find out where all the embassies were so I could apply for onward visas. He lived out in the suburbs so I got to see how the real people in Baku live away from all the glitz and glamour downtown.

For many here Baku is where the red tape starts. Here you will likely spend some time planning a way through the visa jungle that is the 'Stans'. Here is also where you get the boat across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazakhstan for the next leg on the road to China. There is no ferry service. There is only a cargo boat. There is no schedule. It runs when it has a full load. That may be tomorrow. That may be next week. The only way to know is to ring up every morning. No one speaks a word of English. The best thing to do is to ask your hostel to phone up each morning and find out if the boat is leaving today. If not, settle in for another 24 hours in Baku. If yes, get on your bike and peg it down to the port. Ishim kindly phoned up for me each morning. I only had to wait 4 days. A 'ticket' will typically cost between $60 and $80. The situation with the boats is fluid. What works one year won't work the next so be sure to check Caravanistan for the latest. Here you can find the latest contact information for the port in Baku and nearby Alat. Also ensure you stock up with a couple of days of food before you board. There is a kitchen on board but they are under no obligation to feed you and they know it. All I got fed was vodka by the crew but that was fine by me. The boat took 2 days to cross although half of this time we sat offshore of Aktau for no apparent reason. Eventually the boat docked and it was time for the next leg of my cycle to China

The boat that takes you across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan

Time to Go:

It can hit a humid 40 degrees in summer. Best time for cycling is April-June and September-October. According to locals, the best time to visit Azerbaijan is during October after the oppressive summer heat and before the onset of winter.

Roads:

Lots of bumpy asphalt but also some good dirt roads through the mountains.

Wild camping:

Easy. Lots of open countryside, forests and deserts as you cycle across the country. Just pick your spot. The locals have no problem with you camping wherever but the authorities can be funny about such things so always best to be discreet. Water can be scarce in the east of the country approaching Baku. Keep an eye out for snakes!! For a country with so much natural gas it can be hard to find screw top camping gas. Your only hope is in Baku. Your best bet is here. You can get pierce type cartridges here.

Visa's:

Europe, Australia, Canada, USA and South American countries are eligible for ASAN electronic visa. They are issued for a single-entry visit up to 30 days. The e-visa should be printed and presented at the border checkpoint. Don't do what I did and present a slightly damp dog eared e-visa. The border guard was less than impressed. The e-Visa is issued within 3 working days. Citizens of the United States can obtain a 30 days visa on arrival only if arriving on a direct flight on Azerbaijan Airlines from New York City.

Bicycle Shops:

Your best bet is in Baku. It is probably your only bet. I never needed one myself but this place gets good reviews.

Food:

Horsemeat was once widely eaten in Azerbaijan, but now it has fallen out of favour; you’ll find lamb and beef on the menu instead.

Kutabi – filled pancakes – are practically Azerbaijan’s national dish. They’re stuffed with pumpkin, veggies, meat or just a sprinkling of herbs, then flipped and toasted on a griddle. They are damn good.

Tips:

If you want to travel to Azerbaijan don't go to Armenia beforehand and vice-versa. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken off a long time ago over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. They are still technically at war. If you have an Armenian stamp in your passport when entering expect a lot of questions and then a refusal.

Although it didn't happen to me it has been known to get a thorough bag search when entering Azerbaijan overland in case you are concerned about anything you are carrying. Maybe that is what this sign is referring to.

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If near the Absheron peninsula you can visit the Burning Mountain. A mythical place. It burns all year round due to natural gas escaping from the ground.

When bread goes stale, Azeri cooks don’t just chuck it in the bin: they hang it up in bags, separate from the rest of the rubbish, to signify their respect. If you drop bread on the floor, it’s custom to kiss it, as an apology.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.