It was like a home coming with all the beeps, hoots & honks, grins , hellos & welcomes we got. By contrast, many Georgians had seemed rather disinterested or just indifferent to us as we cycled along. They were perfectly helpful when asked but unlike the Turks, and it would appear the Azeris, they kept their distance. Back come the children too, running up, keen to say hello; hands everywhere & at least one pair of eyes looking for an opportunity to make a quick grab.
Taking the more scenic route towards our planned stop, Qax (Qakh), we were once again immersed in rural life: cattle under trees along the roadside, goats in the scrub land, flood plains are once again criss-crossed by herds of cattle & sheep, herdsmen in their wake. The plain between the mountain ranges is vast and flat. Non of the usual v or u shaped valley malarkey. The country looks more arid than Georgia, although streams and irrigation channels are still numerous. For the first two or three days we were close in to the base of the small, steep foothills, and couldn’t see beyond them to the bigger peaks. But to our left (south) the shadowy bulk of – presumably – the Lesser Caucasus range was present.
The road is classified, by Garmin, as a secondary main road. Initially the surface is good, & traffic is quite light with little or no big commercial vehicles. It undulates along well graded hills, the steepest being when we need to cross a river. Unusually, we climb higher up the river to a point where it can be crossed as lower down the rivers fan out like deltas across the land. But we knew this wouldn’t last. True enough, half way through our 42km journey it deteriorated into a dirt/gravel road. It was a good one, and nearly level, but any dirt road is slow and tedious with 35/40mm tyres. Gone also are the views as our eyes are firmly fixed on the road avoiding lumps, loose gravel & large stones. Fortunately, after Qax, it all has been well surfaced.
We haven’t camped now since Cappadocia, in Turkey, resulting from a combination of factors: mountainous terrain, no where suitably quiet away from towns/villages, cheap hotels and guesthouses with showers, the threat of dogs & wild animals or roaming cows & live stock (we’ve been in a camp before where one tent was trodden on by inquisitive cows, breaking the tent poles and potentially kit inside). But looking out across the plain I was beginning to think the time had come again. At that point some road side stalls came into view. I expected to see a few tons of melons all stacked up or maybe a more interesting assortment of local grown fruit & veg. but no, this time smoke was wafting up. As we got nearer we could see the bread making ‘kilns’ with piles of bread stacked up on make shift tables. It became apparent that we’d come across a gypsy site as the woods behind the stalls were staked out into areas with shacks, children, chickens & a few sheep in the mix. The men, very thoughtfully, were under trees on the other side of the road playing backgammon, not under anybody’s feet. Shortly after this we passed another herd of cattle banishing any last lingering thoughts of camping.
Azerbaijan has oil money, and although, at least here in the sticks, there’s no sign of surplus wealth, things generally are in much better repair than Georgia, increasingly so as we go East towards Baku. The middle aged men are back to being slim, dapper, and moustached: So Gideon has to lose the tummy gained consuming the Georgian diet of greasy carbohydrates.
Getting into Azerbaijan, with our e-visas, was trouble free, but quite slow. It’s not a busy border, but there were a lot of checks going on in both directions, especially vehicles leaving Azerbaijan were examined with sniffer dogs, occasional use of an inspection pit & camera on a stick. But the staff were friendly and helpful. Once in, a plain single carriageway road took us East. The traffic was very light, although it got busier in the small towns. At the first town Gid got a bit stressed about finding an ATM. What appeared to be the only one was surrounded by 30 Azeris collecting their wages. Interestingly, the ATMs, once found, offer the option of dispensing USD.
The tight border controls (I mean trade across it looks difficult, and thus low in volume) keep the Azeris from following in Georgia’s automotive footsteps, and although there are a few imports on the roads, we were basically surrounded by Ladas and other Soviet Union products (later note: More imports as we move East). Gideon decided to pursue a photography collection of the distinctive and common ZIL 130 trucks. A few bikes are in the towns, and, at one point we were overtaken by a roadie with Azerbaijan written on his bum.
Here’s two to whet your appetite.
Azerbaijan is a moslem country, but after being communist (officially atheist) for nearly 70 years, it isn’t pronouncedly so. It was our second day here before we saw a mosque or heard a call to prayer; we saw a church before any mosque. Still, the older folk especially are modestly dressed, so we’ll try to fit in.
Qax readily came up with an hotel, of a type we recognise, large, simple and probably Soviet era, a bit in need of repair and redecoration. However, here there are signs that refurbishment has started. But one thing they’ve not done is replace the sagging, lumpy, awful beds. Clare has again resorted to the camping mats and the floor to save her back. Oguz had a row of three modern, modest looking hotels. We wandered into the highest up hill thinking that if it was lousy we could drift back down with little effort. It was fine, and good value; the product of competition probably – 30 manat (£15) including breakfast. Whereas the next day, in Ismayilli, being tired, we didn’t bother to explore beyond the first option: a motel by the main road. This really was a falling apart relic, and pretty squalid, but still 28 manat. Ouch!
Interestingly, we’re not the first cyclists to suffer this, see mirror image of our loo shot here https://twohungariansandabritgoforabikeride.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/baku-to-seki-monday-13th-saturday-18th-july/
Midway through day 2 in Azerbaijan, we passed through Seki. We knew this was a tourist spot, and although out of step with our overnight stops, we had a very long lunch break there, viewing the lovely old caravanserai and the Khan’s winter palace, and picking up a few souvenirs.
After Seki, the road is a bit busier and the towns bustling. There are roadside vendors, who, like the Georgians, tend to cluster selling the same thing, be it, more recently, halva or bottled fruit. There are also lots of open air restaurants, which look as if they might have room for a tent, or even … Are those cabins?
After that, things thin out on the road. We planned in advance to stay at Qobuland, which seems to be nothing but a small theme park mixed with a garden centre. We expected the hotel to be pricey; well, it was a bit (50 manat), but rather good and the next stopping place was way too far. From there it was a reasonably level dual carriageway blast past rather desert looking countryside; crops long since harvested and meadows baked under the scorching sun. Apart from a few big hills, that is.
Traffic got heavier (and expensive looking) as we got into Baku, but it wasn’t as dense, chaotic or smokey as Tbilisi. We’d earmarked, but not booked, a place to stay, which wasn’t hard to find. Now we have to wait to start the next big adventure.