Alert: there is a picture towards the end of the post of a sheep being skinned.
The roadside was becoming distinctly more touristic, there were more cars and little stalls by the roadside. It made for pretty pedalling. Cyril even got some free bread from one of the lady-manned stalls, she flat-out refused any payment for it!
The land was also distinctly tilled, with farms either side.
We were a few kilometres out of Oğuz, with sun shining on us, large trees for shade and a couple of young guys racing us in their horse-drawn cart, blasting hip hop from a boombox.
We ended up sleeping outside this strange large city. First was a welcome pit stop in a market, outdoor for fruit & vegetables and indoor for chili sauce and odd cervelas-esque sausage.
Then the stormy rain clouds threatened menacingly, ominously, darkly, quickly incoming. So on were slipped the rain trousers, zipped up tight were the water- & windproof jackets… off we sped sweatily. No thick drops fell, just drippy drizzle, and we had a hill to climb as Heydar Aliyev observed, mouth seemingly smiling softly, tooth sticking out meanly, ubiquitous and creepy. He opened the end in the road towards a concrete Soviet power station that overlooked a more modern factory and a gravelly river.
Not my picture of the poster, sadly I did not manage to take one, but it looked similar to the one on the left – albeit with the photo of Heydar looking a lot more like the one on the right (note the peeking tooth…). Speaking of missing photos, I also failed to take a picture of the concrete structure. It was a cross between a Frank Lloyd Wright villa and a bunker. However, I do have a picture of another Soviet structure. For many kilometres the view to my right across the wheat fields included two dystopian, sci-fi structures… I have finally, after much googling, figured out that they are the Gabala (Qebele) Soviet radar stations. The USSR built them in 1985 and they were operated by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces until 2012. They were designed to detect missile launches as far as the Indian Ocean, with surveillance covering Iran, Turkey, India, Iraq and the entire Middle East.
Cyril had spotted a lake on the map and we were aiming straight towards, naively hopeful. We should have learned by now that what seemed inviting on the map inevitably turned out to be a hollow promise. The lake was pregnant and sparkly, the only clean body of water we came across, but tantalisingly inaccessible, a resort for the Botox-ed, not the bike bums. And so to our usual field we rolled, where a taxi (those little Ladas are beyond 4×4), some cows and goats, and a man proposing some çay ambled by. And the storm caught up with us.
The next few days were tough. Well, not straight away. First, we had a lovely few kilometres as the road traversed a forest and the trees shaded us, casting grayscale patterns on the tarmac. But the cars were constant. Rushing past, honking less than when we were in more rural areas. The Ladas were also distinctly few and far between, replaced by SUVs and family cars, laden with Azeris visiting this touristic region. Cycle touring can sometimes be difficult for sightseeing as it requires pre-planning and time for detours. I have frustratingly only just found out that the Seven Beauties Waterfall (Yeddi Gozel Shalala) and hot springs near Gabala are worth seeing, as well as Chukur Gabala, the ancient capital of Caucasian Albania dating from the 4th century BC, of which two gateway towers remain. People here also harvest silkworm cocoons, an emblematic example of Silk Road trade (silk is thought to have first come from China, one legend being that it was brought by a Chinese princess as dowry to the King of Khotan). The Caucacus range, along Russian Dagestan, has deep canyons, visible from the road, and beautiful nature (though it is not recommended to venture too close to the border). All this, sadly, I missed.
As the forest opened up onto hills, the heat became oppressive, and the constant stream of cars rushing past, fast and spewing diesel fumes galore, required feats of endurance at every pedal stroke.
We powered on, with me trying to wear my facemask (usually used to fight the London pollution) but the heat and steep hills made it too sweaty to keep on. Up a hill, down another. Sun blasting. I think it must have been around 30°C but it felt like 40°C. At some point, somewhere on one of the infinite bends, I couldn’t take it anymore and started pushing my bike up, walking alongside it. There were stalls alongside the road all the way along this road, with men selling corn on the cob. A young boy rushed towards me, gesticulating, insistent. And whoosh – my bike was taken off my hands, he was pedalling it – despite its 40 kg, despite the frame size, despite the sun and heat, and despite his own thin arms and legs. Up Ella went… and of course I bought a corn on the cob from him. He did try his luck and attempt to sell it at an overpriced value (not as bad as when I was ripped off paying the equivalent of GBP 6 for a tiny pot of honey at one of the touristy roadside stalls later on). He also wanted me to give him my headphones, but that I wasn’t going to part with – they were broken (I could only hear out of one ear) so wouldn’t be of much use to him, and they were the one help with the pedalling!
A satellite tower finally loomed up ahead, which meant we had reached the highest hill, it had to be downhill from now. Indeed, it was!
We sped down and towards a little market. These modern oases, promising water and ice cream. The markets were now markedly doubled as butchers too. We had a clear view of the whole process involved in swiftly killing, skinning, and disembowelling a sheep. The entrails and body were then left out to dry in the sun, enticing passers-by into coming to buy a chop or two. The whole affair was quick and clean-cut, not disgusting as such given its expertise and the innate, ancestral, rather humane way in which it was done. Later on, I would see an awful example of how not to treat animals.
There had been many roadside restaurants in the forested part of the route and given that it was lunchtime we hoped to find one where we could try local cuisine. We finally stopped at a lovely place… made lovely by the columns and wideness of the restaurant, but especially so by the outdoor tap where we could wash some of our clothes. As these dried, we went in and Cyril picked out the cuts of meat that we would eat, roasted on a embers and seasoned with salt and garlic. They also brought out bread and a collection of pickled vegetables, one particularly dubious-looking algae-like one. I had indigestion later on – perhaps caused by the meat, or perhaps by the pickles… or maybe picked up somewhere else. I ended up blaming the garlic, but it likely had nothing to do with it – poor thing.
As we set off, our washing still humid, we were stopped by a policeman, enthusiasm bubbling at hearing of our cycling route, who told us that it was the end of Ramadan. We had been the only people eating in the café. All drank tea instead.
Having scaled the hills, we had finally reached the final stretch of the M4 leading directly to Baku.