Around the world by bike
(929km - 18days)
23/5 - 9/6 2008
23 May - Tbilisi, Georgia - Qazax, Azerbaijan – 101 km
We left Tbilisi and cycled off to the border, a fairly easy ride of about 60 km, and got out of Georgia smoothly. Things were a bit more haphazard on the Azeri side, and our passports went from one person to the next until, eventually, we got our entry stamps. We met a Chinese cyclist at the border who has been cycling for the past 11 years! After having a cup of tea with him, we cycled on for about 40 km till we reached Qazax, where we camped in the garden of a run-down restaurant. The time had moved on another hour meaning that it got dark late, making for long cycling day.
24 May - Qazax - Ganca – 99 km
The road was narrow and in poor condition, and it was mostly better to cycle on the dirt section next to the paved part as it was not as bumpy. A headwind did not make riding any easier either. Spring came to an end and the summer days became hot and dry. That evening we found what was called a "Tir Park" (truck stop), where one could have a good shower for about a dollar.
25 May - Ganca - Yevlax – 120 km
This section was somewhat uninteresting, but Ernest insisted on cycling this way instead of taking the scenic mountain route. Once he sets his mind on something, there was no changing it, and it seemed that we hardly ever agreed on anything. The road remained in poor condition and coupled with the headwind we were cycling into, did not particularly make me very happy, especially knowing that there was a better route along the mountains. We found the local people more open and friendly than in Georgia. Stopping along the road, usually meant that people would soon start up a conversation and in no time at all, it felt that the entire village was there to inquire about our comings and going.
We also found the language similar to Turkish and could tell them where we were from and where we were going. Just past Yevlax we stopped for tea and met the Turkish roadwork team, working on the new road, they, in true Turkish style invited us to camp at their road camp. We hardly had time to pitch our tents and food arrived.
26 May - Yerlax – Alat - 123 km
We packed up early as we were camping in the carpark and people were arriving for work. Once again food came as we were packing up. It was a good thing we had breakfast as it turned out another frustrating day of cycling into the wind on a lousy road and in the heat. I was not a happy chappy!
There were apparently not many foreigners going through that section as the village people were genuinely fascinated by us and we hardly ever paid for a cup of tea. By the time we had finished our tea someone had generally already paid for it. The incredible thing about the people in Azerbaijan is that about everyone had a full set of shiny golden teeth, apparently the fashion in that part of the world.
We struggled on for 123 km before we set up camp behind a petrol station, a beautiful place overlooking a dam. We soon discovered our mistake as the mosquitos came out and no sooner had we pitched our tents when we noticed that the pond was alive with hundreds of slithering snakes (I'm not exaggerating). I could only stare wide-eyed at what must have been the worse place I have ever pitched a tent! It was already late, and I crawled into my tent only to surface the next morning.
27 May - Alat – Baku - 88 km
It felt that our problems were never-ending as we encountered a really strong headwind. At least the road surfaced improved. The country folk were extremely friendly continually waving us in for tea, that was not just served by the glass but came in a big pot. We usually would spend some time chatting with them, if that is what one can call it, seeing that we can say about five words in the local language.
We reached the coast at the Caspian Sea, which was far more romantic sounding than what it turned out to be. The coastline was not only littered with rubbish but also with oil-related industries and pipelines. We set up camp next to the road and only later found that it was next to a rubbish dump! I was getting rather tired of being dirty, and it felt that I needed a normal life for a while. I was covered in, mosquito bites, haven't showered for days and had run out of deodorant!
28 May-5 June - Alat - Baku – 68 km
It was a short ride into Baku, along a barren coast, littered with oil rigs, pipelines and factories. Baku, the capital, is an oil-rich city with large modern buildings, and loads of designer stores, all in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Say “oil-rich” as at present Baku produces one-fifth of the oil that is used in the world! That s a lot of oil!
One got the distinct feeling that Baku existed in a bubble unaware of the perceived poverty in the rest of the country. We booked into the Canub Hotel which was the cheapest we could find. The rooms were large but old with torn bedding and a somewhat springy floor! At least there was a shower with hot water, which was the most important thing at the time.
The plan was to take the ferry across the Caspian Seas to Turkmenistan and cycle via Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to China. It turned out far more difficult to arrange than what I had expected. Getting visas for central Asia was not that easy as we needed letters of invitation for most of those countries. Although this could be arranged on the internet, it takes time, a full itinerary and money.
While waiting, we explored Baku and its historical sights. As is the case with many of the countries in the region Azerbaijan’s history goes back to the stone age. Near Umid Gaya, a prehistoric observatory was discovered, consisting of a rock with images of the sun and various constellations carved into it together with primitive astronomic table.
The Old City, including Maiden Tower, date at least to the 12th century, some researchers estimate the construction dates as far back as the 7th century. Baku's Maiden Tower is a Baku landmark and the origins somewhat of a mystery - no-one knows for sure when it was constructed or what its use was for or even how it got its name. No written sources survive that record its construction or original function. Legend has it that a king fell in love with his beautiful daughter and wished to marry her. Horrified, the princess tried to delay the process by asking her father to build the biggest tower she had ever seen. When the tower was completed, the princess went up to admire the view and threw herself into the waves of the Caspian. Today the old city is a UNESCO world heritage site.
All we achieved, after a week in Baku, was getting a “Letter of Invitation” for Uzbekistan. Getting the visa, itself was a process that took 10 – 12 days. Only once we had the Uzbek visa could we apply for the Turkmenistan visa. We were by then well rested and, as was our nature, could wait no longer. Instead of taking the ferry across the Caspian Sea we decided to cycle to Central Asia, via Iran, to pass the time. We, therefore, arrange for the Uzbekistan visa to be sent, NOT to the consulate in Baku, but to the one in Iran instead.
The Iranian visa only took one day, but we were nearly flattened in the process. You needed to shove and push your way to the front. Once in front, you needed to stand your ground firmly in order not to be driven away from the windows. Ernest, being a true well-mannered and polite South African gentleman, at first gave way and allowed the elderly ladies to go ahead, but soon changed his behavior after being elbowed out of the way by a tiny and very wrinkly old lady. Good manners were, clearly, not the way to go if you wanted an Iranian visa.
6 June - Baku
At last, we packed up and cycled off, just to find that Ernest’s rim was broken! We cycled directly to the bike shop, which we located close to the Velotrack. Good thing Ernest carried a spare rim. I thought he was crazy, but then it came in handy. I also used the opportunity to have my bike serviced.
7 June - Baku – Shirvan National Park – 113 km
Finally, we were on our way, and with a good tailwind, we headed south. After about 110 km we spotted a sign for a nature reserve. We stopped to inquire and were welcomed in. We were even offered the guest cottage, only paying the small park entry fee. What a pleasant surprise. There were loads of gazelle and birds, in the park, even flamingos!
8 June - Shirvan – Calilabad – 110 km
As we headed south, the road deteriorated again, was very narrow, busy, and with an inferior surface. Add a headwind to that, and it makes for some frustrating cycling. Still, we were called in for tea on various occasions which we gladly accepted. The countryside was suddenly a lot greener. Fruit stalls were once again found next to the road, and we were given a whole bag of fruit by one of the stall owners. We were even filmed by the Azeri TV. All this took place without us speaking a word of Azeri and them speaking no English. We camped next to a teahouse under the trees with many spectators. All were coming to see what two people on bicycles do after a day of cycling.
9 June - Calilabad – Astara - 107 km
The lousy road continued, and we once again encountered a headwind. The scenery became lush and green with lots of trees and high mountains in the background. About 10 km before the Azerbaijan / Iran border we stopped and camped behind a petrol station. It felt like the entire village came to have a look at as. There was nothing romantic about camping between old oil cans and rubbish with petrol fumes up your nose. At least there was water and a sort of a toilet, which Ernest rightly said could easily feature in “Fear Factor”.