10 days from Tbilisi and memories of the way faded just a little in the heat and bureaucracy of Baku. First try at the Uzbek embassy failed. Closed for locals to sign a book of condolences for President Karimov. Second try in two days, and if we manage to get a visa a mad dash 7km north to a ticket office and then 70km south to the port to take a cargo ferry across the Caspian to Kazakhstan.
I had absolutely no idea about Azerbaijan. Same for every country I visited to be honest. But my hazy mental picture of Azerbaijan was the most far off. I don’t know what my hazy mental picture was it was that hazy. Just a vague sense of a big and growing oil city on the Caspian.
So I was imagining a four to five day dash from Tbilisi along a 500km highway to catch a ferry. Not an awesome adventure through the foothills of the Caucasus, cycling through mountains, forest, and desert, and staying in ancient caravanserrei, family homes and outdoor restaurants with treehouses for tables at the side of the road.
The way here was very cool. I heard early on after leaving Tbilisi that the Uzbek embassy was closed early for Independence Day celebrations. I have a letter of invitation already, but I need to go to the embassy to apply for the actual visa, which touch wood will be issued on the same day. I already delayed my entry date on my letter of invitation by about two weeks, as the embassy was not accepting applications with a start date between August 24 and September 6, due to Independence Day celebrations.
So what was planned as a bit of an intermediate sprint between capital cities turned into a slower adventure with some new friends, cooking up large, long lunches and camping in the countryside.
Leaving Tbilisi I cycled north-east to the border crossing at Lagodekhi, through the wine region of Kakheti. Sellers sit alongside ramshackle wooden racks at the side of the road filled with plastic bottles of wine and cha cha, and ordinary households leave a few bottles on upturned buckets to invite you in. Occassional honey and fruit stalls provide some respite, until the owner offers you a cha cha. The scenery is great, less dramatic than the mountains, but busy with agriculture and full of life.
As ever day one started a long time after lunch and the lazy assumption that I would cycle 120k to shake off the lethargy of city life met with a hard stop when the sun went down. Nearly 10 days in a Tbilisi hostel had eroded my bank balance as well as my aspirations as an adventurer, and I was planning to wild camp.
A search for a spot in the vineyards resulted in lots of bites and a traverse over a smelly river, as well as nowhere to pitch a tent, so I carried on to the next town. Eventually the owner of a beautiful restaurant and farm let me sleep in the grassy central courtyard and gave me a tour of the bakery. Spot on.
Having cycled half as far as I intended on the first day I followed my own example the day after and stopped in Sighnaghi at lunchtime. I bumped into a friend I met in Baku and spent the afternoon and evening tasting local wine and trying out some new cycling gear.
The way to the Azerbaijan border, two days later than planned, was the longest flat bit of road I have seen since Turkey, ending in the impenetrable height of the Caucasus, like a wall from East to West.
The road turned east before I got there, and I crossed into Azerbaijan near Lagodekhi. A prominent sign, and the casual conversation of the friendly border guard, wish you good luck entering Azerbaijan. I started mentally going through my possessions and papers, slowly wheeling through no mans land, and realised my switch blade was in my pocket as the armed guards swung the gate at the border shut. “One minute three minute” one of them said after five minutes of silence, and we talked about the Premier League until fifteen minutes passed and I was let through to the inspection. Very easy.
The route runs parallel to the Caucasus, avoiding the more central highway 100km to the south. One kilometre after the border I met a German cycle tourist and we made our way through the first few townships as the afternoon sun very slowly mellowed. The level of welcome was off the chart as locals leaned out of speeding ladas polished to within an inch of their life. We even got stopped by the police for a friendly chat.
Two 80-90km days got us to Sheki, rumoured to be the most beautiful town in Azerbaijan. It was pitch black though, and the last 50k had been either on an awful road or up a big hill. After a few false starts, we got some directions from a guy in a fruit shop to a caravanserrei that had been converted into a guesthouse at the top of the hill. I finished the last of the wine in the courtyard with some fellow cycle tourers from the UK, Jess and Tim, and we planned to set off as a group the next morning.
I am writing this about 10 days later, still with Tim and Jess, hiding out from the ships crew in a cabin on a cargo boat for railway carriages across the Caspian, 40 hours into an 18 hour voyage. Long story.
I made a quick trip to a stunning small hill-top palace in Sheki in the morning and by lunchtime we were off. The next five days to Baku were blissful. Six slow days of 50-60k, on newly paved roads, ended in outdoor restaurants, where the owners were always happy to let us camp, or in the family home of a local that invited us to stay.
Stopping as late afternoon turned to early evening for tea in a tree house set the tone, no great rush and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. The next day we found a place next to a small river, and the owner and his son brought plentiful barbecue, bread, cheese and beer as we fashioned a shower in the fast running stream of water.
On the third day we ran out of restaurants and thought our winning formula was coming to an end. We were considering sneaking in to a walled garden as there was no cover for a tent in the more open landscape, until Tim met a guy called Merdan in a nearby village after a long walk with heavy bike up a stone track. He was keen to help and we stood to the side as he made call after call. He looked increasingly stressed after each conversation ended, and we thought that our luck was out. Later we realised he was ringing his friends and his family to issue requests to prepare for our arrival. We arrived in the understanding that we could camp in his garden and left almost a day later after a good night’s sleep indoors, several feasts, plentiful tea breaks and multiple impromptu dance offs.
We set off late in the afternoon before an impending storm arrived, making a hasty stop in a restaurant to set up tents in torrential rain, enjoying the memories of home.
The next day took us into the desert surrounding Baku. Absolutely amazing scenery. Towns and villages were scarce so we stocked up on water and stopped in Qobustan, at another friendly restaurant that suggested a small pavilion to let us shelter from the rain.
A long day followed into Baku, with the final 20 or 30k representing a complete change of scene as cars and buses inched into the coastal city. End of Europe, arguably, and even less idea what is on the other side of the sea, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, before I get to China.