There is so much excitement in crossing a border. You feel like an explorer. Yet you’re surrounded by dozens of other people also crossing, also feeling the same (or perhaps it’s daily routine for the many Georgians who live at the border). The first border in a series of borders, each promising to be harder and harder to cross. My Azeri visa was relatively simple to obtain, only requiring an online application (though I had managed to have it rejected at first try – perhaps a ploy to extract more manats from me), whereas the next ones (especially Uzbek and Chinese) require administrative gymnastics paired with cunning charm to obtain.
The Azeri border loomed. I mean, look at the sign that greeted us as we approached it:
I tried to do everything as correctly as possible… such was my enthusiasm for being law-abiding that I gave my Azeri visa to the Georgian border guard. How embarrassing.
Happily, though, I was chivvied towards the Azerbaijan part of the border. That was the start of the free things… when it was my turn to hand in my visa and enter the country, the border guard took my passport, said how beautiful Switzerland was, and handed me a delicious Azeri chocolate as he sped me on my way.
The gate (an actual gate) to Azerbaijan was then opened by a rather handsome guard and we were able to pelt into the country along a steep road.
The start of Azerbaijan was lovely. The country was welcoming, we received tea from an elderly lady and her family as we were picnicking for lunch. The country roads were kind, though the cities were slightly alienating, their main roads feeling like the main street in a Western.
But the pollution quickly became apparent. The country does not seem to care for its nature. The people do, to the extent that they live off of the land (at least in the parts that I crossed). The government (ruling family) also subsists from the land’s free things, extracting not just its oil but minerals too. This funds Azerbaijan’s economy (though there is little trickle down to the poorer parts of the country, i.e. anywhere other than Baku) and fuels the ruling family’s sparkly existence. The discard from this is difficult to stomach and to breathe. And so, the filter-less (catalyser-less) cars that would characterise the latter part of the Azerbaijan cycle were already appearing (they were present in Georgia too) – not just the Soviet-era Ladas, but also more modern cars. As my stepdad later remarked, this is definitely not a country for bicycles. The cheap petrol makes it the ultimate driving country, with the most recurrent store being car repair mechanics and the road system being effectively single motorways with small dead-end offshoots towards villages.
The first pollutant to greet us rather ominously was a black cloud that had settled on the road. Dense, yellowish black. And the only way was to cross it. Apnea ensued.
The above view popped up often, usually linked to wide dried up rivers, and factories spewing sulphur-heavy smoke. This made it difficult to find somewhere to camp that had the perks of a clean water source (most rivers, when flowing heavily, were yellowish or greyish).
Luckily, the road towards Şəki (Shaki) followed the mountains closely, and we found ourselves closer to more hospitable nature.
A couple of crazy boys also decided to join for a few kilometres of pothole-avoiding whizzing. They look tame in the photo, but note the lack of brakes on the bikes. They used their feet to brake the front wheel, or opted for gravel-spraying swerves to come to a stop.
The field we ended up sleeping in was bordered by a fast-flowing river and its pond, filled with little black fish that insisted on nibbling at my toes, a marsh, and houses. In the middle was a cool horse-riding man practising rearing.
I headed to wash at the mouth of the pond and upon my return found Rhys, my tent and his tarp surrounded by women and children. They had gathered to ask us for dinner and to stay at their house. We declined the kind offer as we had already set up camp but said we would gladly come for dinner. They came back again once I had put up my clothes to dry to ensure we made good on our promise.
As it was Ramadan, the family who offered us dinner provided tea (it seems to be the only thing allowed during the daytime fasting in Azerbaijan) until sundown. The wife also went to rummage and took out a little card from a box, handing it victoriously to me. It was Toni and Daniel’s (The World Ahead) “thank you” business card – they had stayed in the family’s home for a night!
Suddenly, more people started arriving and food was placed upon the table. It was a very simple but delicious feast: noodles fried in salty oil and thin soup with a couple of potatoes in it. We attempted to speak with everyone, managing some words via a translation app, but ultimately resorted to repeating “saul” many times (thank you).
The next day we regretted not taking up the family’s very kind offer of staying in their home. The rain had poured on us again and the line of clean clothes that we had so carefully extended between my tent and Rhys’s tarp was not just soaked but mud-splattered as well. We got our soggy selves ready speedily (though I, being eternally slow, had to skip breakfast to keep up with Rhys’s lightning-quick packing up) and hopped on our bikes to head East. We were to meet Cyril, my stepdad, in Şəki that afternoon. The cycling, needless to say, was spent avoiding the mini-lakes that had formed in the potholes and saying “salam!” (hello) to bemused folk.
We rolled into Şəki in the sunshine. It had reappeared and guided us through the busy city to a central piazza where there was a chai café (an odd juxtaposition, yes, but I cannot for the life of me think of a non-coffee related synonym for café… terrace, perhaps? Or chai house?)… and Cyril suddenly materialised!
How lovely to see family in the midst of a trip. How heartwarming and exciting to shout “Cyril!” in the middle of Azerbaijan, a country I had never once thought I’d end up visiting.
We three headed out to find a campsite via a supermarket, where I made friends with a lady selling delicious fruit and where I was given a free box of matches! Don’t quite know why (gender? smiley face?), but I kept getting little free things in Azerbaijan.
Our campsite was visited by a shepherd, in military garb, which made me suspicious and think he was telling us off – but actually he was being kind as all Azeris had been and was gesturing for us to come and sleep at his, or at least stop by for some chai. The kindness and hospitality experienced in Azerbaijan was overwhelming, as was that of Georgia, and had been in Turkey when I cycled there.
I joke about the free things I received, write about other “free things” such as exploiting the land of its “free” natural resources… but I always feel these seem cheap anecdotes or analyses next to the ingrained hospitality present in this part of the world.