Cycling in Azerbaijan
Cycling in AzerbaijanAugust
Shortly after we arrived in Azerbaijan there were two things that put a smile on our faces. The first noticeable difference between Georgia and Azerbaijan was smooth tarmac and the second was the police pulling a car over. I have never been so happy to see law and order on the roads. This trip has given us a new appreciation of law, order, policies, protection and yes, even health and safety.
After battling with some particularly rough roads in Georgia we were so happy to see smooth tarmac. Oh what a difference the road surface makes. We rolled along the new beautiful flat road in Azerbaijan and stopped just a couple of kms after the border for a snack of stale bread, crisps and jam on the side of the road. I was so hungry. We were at the border crossing for about an hour and the next town, Balaken was 9 miles (15kms) from the border.
Balaken didn’t have a lot going on in terms of hotels, but it was a good town. There were plenty of eateries, cafes and markets. Actually we felt like we were in Turkey again. There were more men in the streets than women and I really felt this after Georgia. Men could be seen enjoying their tea in cafes. The main reminder that we were in Azerbaijan and not Turkey is that we were frequently asked if we spoke Russian. Older people in Azerbaijan can speak Russian, but young people are taught English in school.
We were able to locate a cashpoint in Balaken, and once we got our hands on cash we headed straight for a cafe, so we could just chill for a moment, devise a plan and enjoy a coffee. We decided we would stay in Balaken although it was early; I always think stopping early in a new country is beneficial for feeling settled.
We found a guesthouse on booking.com, the instructions were to go to the front of a hotel called Qubek Hotel. Seemed weird, Quebec Hotel looked pretty dreamy – a nice looking 3/4 star hotel. We were greeted by an English speaker who confirmed that we were in the right place, but the guesthouse was full. He tried to upsell a room in Qubek Hotel. We declined. We were left with no options online and we hadn’t seen any other hotels, luckily for us the English-speaker who greeted at Qubek hotel said he had some friends who might have rooms. A few calls later and we followed our greeter to a cafe.
I followed the owner upstairs who showed me the one available room, the room was a twin room that had been used, assumably the night before – there were coffee stains on the table, bed sheets all ruffled up and unfinished cigarettes strewn across the side.The price was 30manat (£15), the host promised to clean it and I confirmed we’d take the room. Bargain, even with it’s semi-ok aircon, dim lighting and a bulb-less wet room.
Stew and I thoroughly enjoyed the roads to Sheki, the temperatures in Azerbaijan were perfect for cycling, it was probably 24c and there was a gentle and welcome headwind. It was a little grey, but the temperature, grey skies and greenery reminded us of England. It was really pleasant – just like home.
There are 2 main roads you can take in Azerbaijan – the northern hilly route or the southern flatter route. Typically we took the northern hilly route. It was pretty tough cycling riding uphill just to come down and climb again. Most towns and villages seem to be on the top of hills – especially Sheki which was literally on the very top of a sizeable hill! We decided to get this over and done with in one day and stay there 1 night.
We left Balaken in good time, the weather was perfect, our bikes were organised the night before and loaded adequately with food and water. We were feeling good and planning to arrive at our hotel in Sheki in good time for a relaxing evening.
With Azerbaijan being similar to Turkey, in that it is incredibly hospitable arriving anywhere on time is optimistic. We rolled into Sheki at 8pm because we were called into every cafe, gas station, store or home that we passed. Sometimes we just have to put our head down, shout a polite “Teşekkürler” (Thanks) and keep moving otherwise you’d never get anywhere.
After a busy day of frequent stops we rolled into our hotel as the sun was setting. It was 8pm and we were tired! We’d been on the road for about 10 hours!
The next day we left the hotel, but little did we know we were short of one Garmin charger. The hotel staff kindly helped us to clear our room, so we were somewhat out of our normal routine. Consequently we didn’t do a final room check and typically left something behind.
I was so gutted! I wear my Garmin everyday. It tracks our routes and uploads automatically to Strava. I absolutely love it. We have a full record of all the roads we’ve cycled and it’s great to look back on and remember all those miles cycled across the world. Lucky for us Azerbaijani people care to help their guests. With thanks to Warmshowers and WhatsApp I put Tofiq, a Baku contact who has a bike shop in touch with the hotel in Sheki. They organised for the watch to be sent to Baku and Tofiq picked it up for me. I was so grateful!
The Mongol Rally
In Azerbaijan Stew and I started to see British number plates…we waved enthusiastically as they passed, but alas, no one stopped for a natter.
On our way to Sheki we pulled into a petrol station for water and wifi. While we were there we were joined by “Lapazz team goes Mongol”, a group of 4 men from Malta who were driving their camper van to Mongolia as part of the Mongol rally.
Meeting this brilliant bunch was one of the highlights of our day! They were an energetic crew of 3 electricians and an aircraft sprayer. They were driving their van from Europe to Mongolia raising money for two charities: Cool Earth and Puttinu Cares.
I was particularly interested in Puttinu Cares, Puttinu Cares is a Maltese charity who fund and support young people with cancer. They have property/hostels in London and help Maltese families fund their treatment in the UK.
When I asked who the mechanic was they shrugged their shoulders and laughed. None of them have any mechanical skills, but they had a bike on the roof their van. If they get into any trouble one of them will take the bicycle and get help! The name “Lapazz” is inspired by their lacking-mechanical-skills and translates as “fix everything with nothing” or “fix everything with whatever you have.”
The van has been customised with an old bed as a roof rack and a hobby horse on the front for “extra horse power”.
Stew and I had seen a lot of vehicles passing us and occasionally we’d get really excited as a GB number plate whizzed by! The Lapazz Team were the first to stop and thanks to them we understood why we could see so many GB cars in Azerbaijan. They explained that drivers start off from the UK and drive to Mongol each year – they were raising money for 2 charities and were brilliant company.
Tea and jam?
We lost 1-2 hours in that petrol station as once the Lapazz Team had gone we we stayed with the station attendants and had tea. Tea in Azerbaijan is served with murabba, which is basically jam. It sounds so odd, but it’s so good! It took me ages to find out exactly what it was, but as I expected it’s stewed fruits with sugar and a setting agent. The fruit isn’t fine like jam as we know it, but left whole. It’s delicious! You can take a mouthful of murabba and sip your tea. Popular flavours include: grape, blackberries (which there are LOTS of in Azerbaijan in July/August), peaches, cherries, strawberries.
The road to Sheki was pretty eventful with the frequent stops and cyclists we bumped into – when Stew got his first puncture of the trip we couldn’t believe it; another hold up!
We’d just stopped to chat to Barbara and Balthasar, a couple of cyclists from Switzerland. They started their journey in Singapore and they were on their way home. They’d been on the road for 7 months so far. We exchanged SIM cards and a little currency from Georgia before parting ways.
Almost straight away Stew got a puncture, the first one so far! I was just thinking his tyre looked weird when he commented that his bike didn’t feel right. We pulled over and Stew inspected the bike. He got to work straight away and ended up pretty pleased with himself. He managed to unload the bike, change the tube, locate the metal, put the tire back on and load the bike again all within about 20 minutes.
Stew and I arrived in Gabele and headed straight to a cafe for dinner. We simply rolled into the first one we could find, and we rolled into a real special place.
The staff in the cafe didn’t speak any English so I signalled that we wanted food. Namiq, pictured below stood up to help us. He took us through to the kitchen and showed us all they had to offer. We chose our food and sat down to eat. Thankful for this help I gave his children a fruity disc I’d bought earlier in the day.
Later, Namik sat down to join us as we finished our meal and started discussing our hotel options. Gabele is an expensive place and we were just looking for a spot camp.
It turned out that Namiq owned the cafe and gave us dinner. He told us about his sister who lived in Finland. She spoke very good English and later he put her on the phone. She explained that Namiq wanted to host us for one night. She said he had a house less than 10kms away. We were thrilled. She explained that we needed to go to a petrol station 5kms away (back in the direction we’d come in – and downhill). When we got there we’d need to call someone. This posed a problem as we hadn’t managed to get a SIM card for Azerbaijan. Plan B was to head for the garage and look out for a man who would flag us down. This man was called Nazim.
This trip challenges you in all sorts of ways. We were blindly following instructions of a stranger, to meet a stranger who would take us to an empty house to sleep. Sometimes it feels so strange to think this is actually happening, but it does. Opportunities on the road present themselves all the time.
We headed down the hill hoping and hoping this plan worked out because if it didn’t we had to go back up the hill! The pin took us to a spot that was not a petrol station as we expected, oh great. Using good ol’ common sense we fearfully carried on downhill another 1km. Please don’t be that we have to cycle back uphill, not tonight. A man waved us down. Phew.
“Nazim?” We questioned
“Car…house…” he said with his little English.
We followed Nazim along a gravel path to a huge house with a beautiful garden. We were showed the downstairs and there were beds everywhere. The house was undergoing a full renovation and the walls were mostly plaster or in need of major works. I assume people worked on the house until late then just slept there.
Nazim took a glass to the sink and signalled that we should not drink the water – he was right aswell as the water had a bit of an odour. Still good enough for a cold shower! Nazim took a glass to the tap outside, filled it and drank from the glass to show us it was okay. Bless him!
The shower room was undergoing full renovation, and the water was ice cold. Took our breath away cold! I was a little spooked by the large, empty house, so we showered together. We stripped down in the shower room and took a freezing cold shower, both stinking from the 60mile/100km day! Honestly, you gotta love each other to survive a world-cycling-tour because some things are just ugly!
Namiq’s house was so large we emptied all of our things and repacked our panniers so we have more space for food. This was helpful to prepare our bikes for the desert that will soon be upon us!
Sleeping in a large, empty, under-renovation house was a bit spooky! The beds were single but I squeezed myself into Stews bed, meaning that poor 6ft4 Stew didn’t have the best nights sleep! I, on the other hand slept pretty well!
The next morning we cycled up to the cafe to see Namiq before we left. Sadly he wasn’t there but the staff looked after us very well. We left a note and some gifts to thank him for his kindness. We left our details and sure enough Namiq dropped a message on WhatsApp and we’ve kept in touch.
This is one of the best parts of cycle touring you just never know what or who you’re going to find on the road.
From Green Mountains to Dry Desert
If you ask me, Azerbaijan has got it all! The food is fabulous, the hospitality is wonderful – just like Turkey and the roads & views are beautiful. Riding through Azerbaijan is a real treat, you’ll enjoy winding roads, climbs and all types of landscape – from greenery to desert.
Between Ismaili and Sabir there is one hell of a climb! Stew and I were having quite an enjoyable and chilled day. Stew was feeling a bit tired, and unlike me Stew isn’t enjoying the cuisine in Azerbaijan. We planned to take it easy, cycle to the next market, buy some groceries and cook on the side of the road, so Stew could get a good meal in.
However, we were making good way down a steep downhill when I stopped to take a photograph. I’m glad I stopped when I did, because we saw exactly what was ahead of us – switch backs on a mountain side; this climb was about to put a stop to our existing plans.
We exchanged glances and turned our bikes around, as there was a cafe a few kms down the road. We were going to need a good meal before we tackled that beast. We spent quite a bit in the cafe, so much so we decided we should camp to make up for the extra spend. The food was lamb with breads and salads. It was delicious and so worth the extra money.
The mountain climb was just 3 miles long, but it was KILLER. I expect the ascent was roughly 8-12%, which is very tough over 3 miles. It took me about an hour to crawl up there! Some of the switch backs were so steep I jumped off the bike and walked. Stew, on the other hand managed to cycle the entire way, as he always does.
This was our second to last climb of the day, we went uphill one final time in the mountains and dropped down the other side. We started looking for a campsite, but the greenery, mountains and greenery soon turned into dry, open, desert landscapes. That put an end to our idea of camping.
We asked a local if there was a place in the area to camp, but they advised us not to due to wolves and bears! We were feeling a little demoralised at this stage as we weren’t aware of any hotels. We called by the next restaurant next to a LukOil petrol station and asked if they had a room. Luckily they did! It cost just £10 and we had a good night socialising with the cafe staff. The room wasn’t great, but it was good enough – at least we were safe!
Our final stop before making tracks to Alat is Baku. We plan to rest for a couple days and prepare our bikes for the desert. Our next country is Kazakstan and things are about to get really interesting!