Baku and the Absheron Peninsula

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There’s no OSHA in Azerbaijan:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spot the face

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Across the Caucuses

After Tbilisi, Jacek and I meet up again and travel North to Mt. Kazbek.  The city of Kazbegi sits at the base, though this is the old Soviet name for the city and is officially called Stefanstminda.  It’s a beast of a ride and takes us two days, uphill, but the good roads make it pretty manageable.

This is one of the best Georgia home-wine we bought.  Just take an empty liter bottle, shake it and say “gvino” and usually you can get a fill-up for about $1.50.  Quality varies….this stuff was delicious and the semi-sweet wine makes a good road-drink when diluted 5:1 or more with water.

Home wine!

Home wine!

We stop about 70km in for a campsite near the side of the road.  Jacek expertly cuts open a melon.  I find some wild mushrooms and ask him if they are edible.  Immediately, Jacek says they are “traveler” mushrooms and very good to eat.  I say great – and start picking them to make a little dinner of buckwheat, onion and mushroom.  Jacek then suddenly becomes less certain of the safety of the mushrooms, even after a small taste and confirmation by a local woman that they were OK to eat.  Not thinking very forwardly after a liter each of home-wine, we cook them up and eat a delicious meal.

Melon Man

Melon Man

And we survive the next morning with no intestinal or mental damage….

I wake up early in the morning and decide to forgo the woods and go to what I thought was an outhouse I saw across the street the other day.  I see a large family along the way, the same ones I saw eating at a HUGE table (15 meters long at least!) on the way in.  They see me and a half-dozen of them call me over by holding their arm horizontally above their head and moving their wrist up and down.  To me, this looks like I’m getting shooed away….but this is how Georgians call you over.  Hesitantly, I make my way over and call out if anyone knows English.  I hear a “yes, yes” so I decide to head over.  I meet two women about my age (Nini and the other I can’t remember!) who live in New Jersey but were visiting family in Georgia.  I get stuffed with freshly killed lamb, fried mushrooms (not the same kind as last night!), chicken and of course khatchapuri.  Then the toasting starts….with home wine.  At 8 in the morning.  The leader of the group, the Uncle of the girls if I remember right, starts the long toasts.  Unable to say no (the “just-say-no” policy doesn’t really work in any culture) I get a few glasses of wine down before Jacek and I were feeling over the curve for bicycling that day.  The wine was delicious and the hospitality is – amazing.  It’s just not something I’m used to coming from a US culture, but it really is terrific and genuine.  I say many thanks and Nini packs up a bag of chicken, khatchapuri and cake for the road to Kazbegi.  That cake was wonderful, eating a tasty dessert looking through the clouds at the mountains….

Kilometers on kilometers of serpentine

Kilometers on kilometers of serpentine

On the edge...also, my new setup!

On the edge…also, my new setup!  No more blue basket.

Classic Jacek

Classic Jacek

We make it to Kazbegi that evening.  Owing to the alcohol the night before and the many glasses in the morning, my muscles and mind were not too happy.  We camped immediately once we got a little North of the village of Kazbegi.  Unbeknownst to me, this was the start of about a week of rainy weather.  It was so cloudy, we couldn’t really see the peaks of the mountains; I’m not even sure we saw Mt. Kazbeg as it is situated North-West of the village and it was all cloud.  Oh well, you can’t see everything.

 

Kazbegi

Kazbegi

A good shot of our campsite

A good shot of our campsite

The horses took over this old gas station.  In my mind, they were plotting to destroy it to remake their monopoly of mountain transport.  My mind is strange.  The next day, a local cow heard was plotting at this location as well.

Derelict gas stations are all over the Caucuses

Derelict gas stations are all over the Caucuses

Mountains in the clouds

Mountains in the clouds

In the cloudy morning, we ride down the beautiful valley about 20km to the Russian border.  We didn’t see much because of the clouds, so we waited at a church for a few hours for the clouds to clear.  We make strong tea with much sugar and drink with a monk-in-training.

Russian border. Georgia and Russia are still at war...kind of. I suppose this border is open because of trade with Turkey or Iran or some other big player.

Russian border. Georgia and Russia are still at war…kind of. I suppose this border is open because of trade with Turkey or Iran or some other big player.

Outhouses by the church.

Outhouses by the church.

We then ride South of Kazbegi to the mountain pass.  It is under construction and pretty nasty to bike on since it rained so Jacek refused to ride back up the pass.  So we wait and try to hitch a ride up the hill.  Our hitching spot was pretty nasy…pig shit everywhere.  Also, pigs.  This one was smart enough to get into Jacek’s pannier and steal his bread which made some comedy in a bleak situation.  He’s eyeing that pig like a hawk now!  We meet an ultralight touring young American couple and travel with them for a day before they headed off to Armenia.

Bahahah!

Bahahah!

More relaxed shot.

More relaxed shot.

We eventually get a hitch…after three hours.  The ride was more akin to a wooden rollercoaster ride at 6 flags than a car ride.  The drivers in Georgia and Azerbaijan are crazy.  Not crazy in an endearing way, crazy in an unsafe and irresponsible way.  Anyway, we get over the hill and signal to get out once we hit asphalt again.

Back wheel and seatpost!

Back wheel and seatpost!

The ride down from Kazbegi to the Azerbaijan border was fairly uneventful.  It’s supposed to be good wine country but hard to tell except for a few nice signs for wine cellars.  The scenery is nothing compared to the mountains!

Georgia hammock

Georgia hammock

All along the road to Azerbaijan there are melons….so many melons….the sellers have makeshift huts to sell them (I think) but they’re super trashed out.  The whole road smells like rotting fruit.

Mellon Market

Mellon Market

Slowly, we cross to Azerbaijan!  Good luck!

We make it!

We make it!

We enjoy the border crossing with a delicious liver gulash with salad, bread.and of course, a huge pot of tea.  Tea will become a common theme.

First Azeri meal

First Azeri meal

Riding in Azerbaijan

Riding in Azerbaijan

Beautiful sunset in a hazelnut orchard

Beautiful sunset in a hazelnut orchard

Tea culture is very stong here.  Instead of advertizements for beer, half of the billboards you see are of a woman drinking tea with her family in the background.  Seems much more … wholesome.  The other half of billboards are poorly photoshopped images of the President looking courageous or strong with some silly background.

Roadside tea

Roadside tea out of this boiler contraption.  It has a special name that I can’t remember, but Jacek assures me it’s a Russian invention.

We ride to Sheki, supposedly the most beautiful Azeri city.  It’s not really that beautiful with the exception of the Xan Palace, a 500 year old building for some guy probably named Xan.  It has beautifully ornate custom cut glass and wood, along with a great mural on the interior.  Here’s a picture of Jacek drinking from the fountain water hose right outside.

Xan Palace

Xan Palace

 

Near our campsite on top of Sheki that night. Unfortunate that many areas in the Caucuses are littered....public trash collection is really lacking.

Near our campsite on top of Sheki that night. Unfortunate that many areas in the Caucuses are littered….public trash collection is really lacking everywhere but capitol cities.

After Sheki, Jacek’s bottom bracket was finally on it’s last few kilometers and he gets off his bike and wants to hitchhike to Baku.  I want to ride there (though I eventually hitch as well!) so we decide to take separate paths and meet up in Baku or Armenia at a later date with a fully functioning bike.  We say our goodbye and I continue down the road.

The next afternoon, I get hungry for some tea and maybe a kebab.  I stop at a cafe in the woods, though it is little more than a couple’s summer home.  I get some tea and a bit of stew they had earlier in the afternoon.  I still want something to eat, so the guy takes me in his car to the supermarket and we get some hot dogs, bread and brandy.  We some back and the woman kebabs up the dogs and we all sit around toasting the brandy and eating hot dogs and bread.  After three hours, I need to get on the road again.  We’re all friends and they wouldn’t accept payment of any kind.  In fact, the man said he would shoot me if I offered anything.  The woman is an artist and the man is a veteran army officer.

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I ride far that afternoon and camp before an impending rain storm.  I got desperate and picked a campsite that I’m sure Jacek would laugh at me for choosing.  The morning was very muddy.

My shoes are heavy

My shoes are heavy

After sporadic downpours the entire morning and afternoon, I decide to hitch the final 60km to Baku.  I’m siting in the back of a minivan with the trunk open, holding on to my bike and the car to make sure we both don’t go flying out.  It seemed dangerous at the time, but looking at the shoulder and the crazy (see above) drivers, it was probably a wash with the danger of riding into Baku on bicycle.

Scary hitch

Scary hitch