The road to Baku, the final stretch before the Caspian.
Having left the hills behind, we were now cycling on Ilham Aliyev’s pet project (or so it seems to me) – a motorway joining Baku to Azerbaijan’s other main roads. It headed resolutely on, with some slight bends, never-ending aside from a visible hazy end when our human optic lens can no longer accommodate the distance. The skies were mostly free, some clouds but not enough for shade, and the sun pounded down. Mountains, as only this part of the world accommodates, with strong erosions creating straight lines down the flanks. No trees, only shrubs and thorny grass.
Cyril, Rhys and I settled for a most beautiful wheat field in which to pitch our tents. Ahead, a shepherd was corralling his sheep, we could hear his distant cries and see the flock swaying from one side of the hill flank to another.
The sunset was stunning. It was our final night on the road and I slept with my tent’s tarp off, only the mosquito netting protecting me. Sprinkled stars sparkled, some wisps of clouds sometimes flowing over them. And indigestion from that day’s restaurant stop taking hold.
The next day would lead us to Baku, it was a decisive road. It would bring me to the Caspian, which I had planned to cross from Baku to Aktau. But the road percolated my thoughts. They had hung about, like little flying things, fluttering through my brain at intervals as I pushed my pedals, urging me to understand why I was doing this trip. Something had nagged at me since Tbilisi. It had been difficult to leave home, especially when that act had caused so much anxiousness back home, but once on the road that difficulty seemed other, someone else’s experience. I was delighted to be on the bike, rejoicing as ever at pushing myself and at the feelings of lightness, freedom, speed and nimble dancing that accompanies pedalling. Of feeling myself and beyond myself, of feeling like a cowboy, independent, against the world, experiencing it. My identity undefined externally but solid. And constantly active. But those pleasurable feelings were also accompanied by moments of wanting to give up when things got tough. I didn’t have the drive within myself nor was it externally located, as I had found when I was travelling with friends during my previous trips. The little fluttering thoughts had come in and out, along Georgian roads and Azeri motorways. Sometimes giddy and happy at the trip, at other times bringing my mind elsewhere, boycotting any kind of connection I had with the route. I was disciplined in the sense that I kept going and attempted to do that as well as possible, but it didn’t totally feel like my road.
Touring cyclists are often asked why they are doing a trip. Some have been on the road for years on end, pedalling along Earth’s contours, imbibed in the differences and similarities between cultures and landscape. I knew my reason, even if I could not put it into words. It was a feeling. It had started during my first trip and had grown within me. It was both romantic and challenge-seeking, endlessly optimistic and slightly reckless. I wanted to see and experience things I did not understand, everything around me seemed to be understood, integrated, and easy to return to, so I needed to head out to places unknown. I had spare time and thought some kind of destiny lay in it (surprising, as I am distinctly unsold by superstitious ideas of destiny). Perhaps not destiny, but rather some kind of understanding. And I was doing all this with much pushback, not only were those close to me against it but many could not understand it. I was also leaving at potentially the worst time of year, smack-bang in the middle of summer. I had to recognise that I would not be able to replicate my previous experiences and that this one was going to be difficult, it requires single-mindedness, which I have but which becomes totally elusive, nigh ungraspable, once it is questioned. This single-mindedness is required to keep pushing those pedals, along, up and down, not turning back, always forward, not questioning the drive but urging that drive to remain there, fuel for the days and nights. The single-mindedness keeps thoughts in check and the body too, when the heat, the pain, the sweat and the days without showers, bathrooms, readily available water and good food follow each other over weeks. When aches start, when the body demands that you stop, give up, when even podcasts and music fail to provide distraction or food for thought.
And so the physical and mental had both pushed back, enough for the little fluttering thoughts to percolate triumphantly. As the road continued, my decision came to me, culminating in a call to Mum from a service station just outside Baku. We had made our destination but I was going to book a flight back with Cyril. I was not staying for longer than the next few days, I would not be waiting for the transient ferry to deign to take passengers across that large lake, or small sea (even Herodotus could not make his mind up about that one). A false start.
The words that follow below describe that road to Baku. You’ll get a sentiment of the physical and mental pushback I was experiencing from them. And the next post will be about Baku, that surprising city. I am writing all this from home, having not told many that I was back as I still had so many pictures and words that I wanted to share. But it is only fair to start saying that yes, I’m back, and not somewhere on the desert roads of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. Some days soon, hopefully.
Leaving camp the next day was a surprisingly quick affair. We needed to be on the road fast as around 90 km still had to be covered to get to Baku. I packed everything, berating my stomach into calming itself down a bit, fuelled only by a hot water and lemon drink kindly prepared by Doctor Cyril.
As we set off, we had wonderful clouds now covering us, providing cooling shade. However, this did not last for long. We had a few more inclines to scale along unfriendly roads. The views were otherworldly, Martian, Lunar, but the cars kept zooming past, every second, more and more polluting, and the road did not have as many stops for water. At some point we finally managed to make the top of the final hill. I stopped to take a picture of the view, Cyril was standing there as a young man took his bike to try it out. I was furious that Cyril was letting him do that because I hated that place. There was a pen there, with lamb. It was maybe ten square metres and they were baking in the sun, with no space to sit down or rest. No water either. I quickly took my picture, not wanting to remain there any longer, and trying to signal to Cyril that he should not give the pen owners any pleasure. Baby cries were being uttered, so I turned round but no children were there. And then I realised they were not baby voices, but the lambs. They were wailing in the cramped heat. I felt sick. I debated going to confront the pen owners, but to what end? I wanted them to stop, to free the lamb, to put them indoors, in the shade, to give them water. I didn’t have the language to explain any of that and doubted that the owners had the understanding. And so I pedalled off, encountering many more of these butchers along the way, at each bend. Did they think drivers would stop and buy some meat? I can’t find the picture I took then. Maybe my camera deleted it in protest.
The next kilometres were all downhill. I had no more water and was incredibly thirsty but could not think too much about that as the headwind was building up. Ella was going very fast down the bends and all my concentration focused on keeping her straight, as close to the centre of the road as possible but also unnervingly aware that there were fast cars and lorries sharing the road with me. There was a sign to a petrol station and I hoped that it would turn up soon. The wind was giving me a headache.
The petrol station was abandoned. But fear not, a few kilometres on, we found Nirvana.
We then sat in the “shade” of a grove by the side of the road. I was taking a long time to recover, indeed I was not recovering and had a fever.
Later on, we made it to a restaurant, where they allowed us to picnic and where we drank some sweet and lemony čay. The lady there was rather bemused and slightly put-out to see me, a girl, cycling in that heat. I was feeling nauseous, had a headache and a fever. A few days later, while on the phone with my dad, he told me that the symptoms were of heatstroke.
We cycled past a city that had three conspicuous wind turbines and a similarly conspicuous group of solar-panelled houses. Perhaps a bid to involve petrol-fuelled Azerbaijan in COP21…
You don’t see many cars in these picture, but that’s because I attempted to take them when they weren’t chugging past. The fact is, as this was the only main road to the capital it contained all of Azerbaijan’s traffic. And the cars were catalytic filter-less. So as we pedalled on, we inhaled all of their fumes. It was awful and was promising to be just as polluted further along Central Asia as there are few smaller roads, generally just shooting off the main one to a village and ending there. It’s tough on the lungs when you’re forced to stay on main highways.
Cyril did have a stroke of genius and set off to the extra lane being built along the left of the M4. It was smoothly new. We cycled there for most of the way. Amazingly, the wind was blowing towards the right, so the pollution did not reach us there and we were provided respite from the constant cars.
The land was becoming barren, desert-like, the closer we got to Baku. I was almost ready to hail down a lorry. These conditions would worsen if I set off from Aktau along the Kazakh steppe and then across the Uzbek desert. It was around 35°C as we cycled, but felt 45°C. The road between Aktau and Beyneu is one of the hardest in the world, getting to 45°C-52°C and with around 70 km between water stops. The Uzbek desert also gets to these temperatures. It requires night cycling and finding chaikhanas (tea houses) to stop for the worst of the heat. This was endurance, not travel, which I did not particularly mind the idea of, but which I was not ready for. Especially if I was already suffering heatstroke.
We finally made it to Baku, though we had about 30km left to get into the city. I had experienced an intense realisation that not just my body but also my mind felt that the pedalling was not what I really wanted to be doing, especially not in these circumstances. I needed to use my brain. The hours of pedalling were combined by a distinct feeling that it was atrophying….! However much I tried to occupy it, thinking, listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks. I need to pedal but also to sightsee, digest what I am seeing, interact with locals and write about and discuss the experience. I didn’t feel like I was doing all this enough. This is of course something that I can work on, but that coupled with the heat and pollution made me feel increasingly out of touch with my reason for setting off in the first place.
But my love for it all remains, as does the feeling that I’ll be on the road again soon.