The hostel I stayed at is in Old Town in Baku, an ancient part of the city encased by beautiful walls. Inside you can find carpet sellers and peoples homes among the beautifully narrow and winding streets – walking around here has been my favorite part of Azerbaijan. In Old Town, I treated myself to an Azerbaijani bath (hamam). They are public bath houses with saunas and flowing water. For an extra fee, you can get a big Azeri man to scrub you down with a hand-loofa and give you a massage – necessary after four months of biking. I wasn’t sure about the appropriate level of nudity, but quickly found out when I walked out of the main room naked and the big Azeri man said “OH!”. I guess I’m supposed to wear a towel or something.
Hamam in Old City
The baths are apparently identical to Turkish bath houses – just one piece of culture shared between the Turkic countries. An unfortunate shared item is sexism, for example this bath house is open 5 days of the week for men and two for women.
Azerbaijan has “cleaned up” a lot of Soviet-era propaganda and art. I found one beautiful lingering piece on my way to buy some beer. Nothing here is strict Islam, though I haven’t seen any pork for sale.
After staying in the only hostel in Baku (very lame hostel anyway, but the cheapest accommodation you’re going to get), I meet back up with cycling friends Brian and Amy who I met in Batumi. They were staying in the city for a week or so to do Central Asia visa business and wait for the ferry to Turkmenistan. They elected for a short-term apartment rental, and hosted me and Ewa (we all met in D’Vine hostel in Batumi!) for a night. I’ll take my air mattress over that hostel bed! Plus we watched Archer together and made a breakfast scramble in the morning which made me feel much more at home in this foreign land.
Baku is particularly bad for pedestrian travel. I can’t even walk down a street without being scared a car is going to sideswipe me. Cars just park anywhere, blocking any semblence of a sidewalk. Getting around on bike is even worse. In fact, large cities in Georgia and Azerbaijan have been by far the least bike friendly out of all places in my trip. Tbilisi was a total nightmare on bicycle, cities near Baku tests your patience and level of zen. Cars honk – some loud, some soft, some with novelty horns, always when they pass you. It’s incredibly distracting and inconsiderate – they still don’t budge an inch as they pass! But they honk everywhere all the time anyway, impossible to find peace above the din of the road.
There’s no OSHA in Azerbaijan:
As Azerbaijan wears on me, I decide to travel along the hook nose of Caspian geography: the Absheron Peninsula. Once the epicenter for oil production, now it is mostly a flat wasteland. I wanted to see if there were really pools of oil on the ground, something claimed by more than one person flying into Baku. I found my answer not too far outside the city – a murky lake with a nice ring of black stuff. I never found puddles of oil, so I suspect larger areas of this is what people claimed to see. Once more tick for being “on the ground” on bicycle.
Most of the peninsula is scrubland. I travel to the far South-East where a National Park was created. I ride a few kilometers from the sign on relatively nicely paved road and come upon a large gated structure. OK, they want me to pay to get in…whatever. I go to the counter and motion that I want to go in, the guard says “nyet” (No in Russian) and makes an “X” with his two arms. I complain that it’s Friday at 4 in the afternoon and pressed him as to why I can’t go in. He just responds “nye ponimayu” (I don’t understand in Russian). Tourist infrastructure just doesn’t exist here. The park is heavily guarded with high gates with pretty intense spikes at the top – who are they trying to keep out? Seems excessive.
I continue rolling North, where I cross a small land-bridge to a small island. It’s getting late enough and I’m tired, so I start looking for a campsite. I select an unglamorous site on the other side of some barrier, ostensibly a wind-break. It was a pretty nice site and had a view back to mainland.
Spot the face
The next day, I roll West back to Baku. I pass by the nice beach area on the North part of the horn and go for a swim. I lean my bike on this broken grave.
Despite reports to the contrary, the beach is pretty nice. Coarse seashells make the sand on the main beach, with fine sand in the clearish sea. What a perfect way to cool off at 1pm!
I want to get to a nice mosque before the call to prayer around 2pm, so I dry off and travel inland to a mosque marked on my map. It looks like it’s two mosques in one – both very pretty and modern.
I went inside the one in the former picture. After taking off my shoes, I walk in to find the place mostly deserted, save one couple to the left as I enter and a man on the far side. I sit down on the carpet and admire the ceiling (no icons here!) and notice the man on the far side is laying down and snoring, with a pillow under his head. During the heat of the day, this seems like an awesome thing to do, so I find a pillow and take a nap. I awoke about 30 minutes later to a man speaking fast to me in a language I couldn’t understand. I sit up; he takes my pillow, says a few things to me, and puts the pillow in the corner. I guess I can’t do that. Whatever, I should get on the road anyway.
One more sight to see before I get back to Baku – Yanar Dag. Natural gas seeps out of the rock here and after accidentally being lit on fire by a Shepard in the 1950’s (legend!), it’s been burning since. It’s right of the side of a road, but of course the tourism industry built a big gondola with lame gifts and a chai garden to block the view for anyone who doesn’t want to pay the 2 manat (2 Euro) fee to see it. It’s also twice as expensive for foreigners than locals – like paying for my visa wasn’t enough. Anyway, it was pretty awesome and I snapped this picture while the guard wasn’t watching (otherwise I’m sure there would be an extra fee!). Being the country of fire, this is the first time it delivered.
The construction on the peninsula is almost exclusively concrete brick. There are many half-finished buildings and windbreaks everywhere. All paths though the cities have very tall concrete windbreaks which made me feel like a mouse in a maze, trying to find the cheese on the other side of the city. Luckily, this mouse has a GPS with a map.
The ride back from Yanar Dag put the dirt in my mouth which bleeds into the tone of this post. Terribly dust roads full of heavy construction vehicles honking all the time – mostly at me. Intersections had no rules, it takes critical mass for one group of vehicles to move. Uncurtious, noisy, dusty, unsafe, hot and boring landscape made me decide to get out of Azerbaijan that night. I knew where the bus station was, but not the train station. I asked about 10 people for the train station. Nine didn’t speak any English and didn’t understand my “choo-choo” noise (admittedly pretty bad!), the tenth pointed me in the wrong direction (I later found out). Frustration peaks and I finally get on a bus to Tbilisi. My bike fits in no problem and 12 manat doesn’t sound too bad for an overnight bus ride, certainly cheaper than that bad hostel in Baku. I board and meet a pair of Czech backpackers who share frustration of this country. They came here raving about Iran – and cut their trip in Azerbaijan short to get back home. I had decided to ride from the border crossing with Georgia instead of continuing to Tbilisi, so I was going to say goodbye to them at the Georgian side of the border. I see them running after our bus….clearly it wasn’t a big deal if they left us behind.
Farewell Azerbaijan, maybe another time.