Old Russian Lada in Sheki, Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan

One week in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is a country we knew very little about. Is it Asia, Europe or maybe like the Middle East? We heard a little about Baku, a megapolis with a brand new grand prix race track. But what else to expect? The food, rich history and lovely people surprised us to say the least. We had only a week, and we took full advantage of the little time we had.

We left Lagodechi (Georgia) exceptionally late, after a nice breakfast with our new friends. It was only a few kilometers for our very first border crossing by bicycle and we didn’t plan on cycling for very long after that.

Heat in Balakən

After the Georgians wished us good luck, and a fairly quick border crossing the road was suddenly very smooth. Brand new tarmac, and as good as flat! We had definitely left the Georgian mountains behind us. One other thing that felt different was the temperature. Because we had left so late, we were cycling in the hottest time of the day. Not very advisable when in Azerbaijan, we must say.

Longing for ice cream but no bank in sight we had to ride through it. The first big town with a bank was Balaken. Or Balakən as Azerbaijanis write it. The signs, the tea, the döner sandwich and the language made us feel like we had just entered Turkey. The drivers that passed made it very clear however in what country we were, since they were yelling ‘Welcome to Azerbaijan’ out of their car window.

All about chores and food

We said our goodbyes to Jonas, a German cyclist who we crossed the border with, in Zaqatala. Our destination for our first day. We had booked a hotel, so we could do some much needed laundry. And he preferred to camp instead. The amount of dirt that came off our clothes was impressive. We have the Sea to Summit Wilderness wash that cleans everything (including ourselves) very well. Their washing line has also come in handy many times already. It must have been very funny looking though, all our laundry hanging on the hotel balcony right on the main street.

After our chores, we went on the hunt for some food. Seems like our life these days is becoming about food more and more. You just get very hungry when you cycle a lot. So we got really excited, when the ‘traditional’ pancakes we ordered, were the exact same ones we use to make at home. A bit overexcited maybe, for we stuffed our faces to the max. No worries however, we will cycle it off the upcoming days anyway.

Try to leave early

The heat makes cycling a lot harder. It’s a whole new challenge to deal with after the mountains. The road is flat, so it’s not like your legs get tired. It’s just your body temperature that gets higher, and it’s nearly impossible to cool off. There’s not always much shade, and your water gets warm as well. When we find a tap, we put water in our caps and let it run over our wrists to cool off.

One way to beat the heat is to start cycling very early. We had plans to leave Zaqatala early, but breakfast wasn’t served until 8.30, we met two nice men from Austria riding their motorcycles from Vienna to Mongolia. We were impressed with their equipment and bikes, and laughed about their humbleness when they thought they were doing something badass until they heard our story. 

They would ride to Baku that day, which would take us a week at least. Our destination was Sheki, quite a stretch, especially in the heat. The first part of the ride was beautiful. We cycled across small towns, with children giving us high fives and waving at us. The trees gave us some cover from the sun, and there were plenty of water stops. The last bit got harder when temperature rose and the roads became more hilly.

Cool off

When we noticed a swimming pool along the road we both squeezed our breaks and immediately thought the same thing. We were getting in there no matter what. Luckily the locals at the pool thought the same. We must’ve looked quite hot when we arrived because they insisted we got in straight away. There was only one young woman by the pool, and we think she was quite happy Sabina was there. Not being the only woman anymore, must’ve made it a bit more relaxed for here to go for a swim as well. 

We all changed to our swimwear and dove in. The young men were fooling around, diving and playing tricks on each other. No one speaks English but their humor made it easy to have somewhat of a connection. After swimming they kept insisting we should join them for a barbecue and stay at their house. They were happy to have us sleep at their house too. Super friendly, but we felt like they had had a bit too much to drink to get in the car with them. It can also be a bit awkward if you are absolutely unable to communicate with each other. They didn’t speak a word English and our Azerbaijani isn’t much good either. So on the bicycles for the last few kilometers it was.

The surprise called Sheki

At this point the road was only going uphill and on the sides there were small shops, a whole lot of car repair shops and gas stations. Unfortunately the landscape wasn’t as interesting in this part of the country. Late in the afternoon is also when the cows go home. We have no idea how they tell the time and how they know the way, but it seems to work. It’s fun to see, but after passing a few hundred cows the last weeks it was also getting a bit dull by now.

So our surprise was big when we reached the center of Sheki. Ugly shops made place for the beautiful old caravanserai. Cobble stones made the last steep climb a killer, that left Sabina on the ground, but it looked very lovely with the 200+ year old houses.

We were the only guests at Polad’s mini hostel, which he has next to his guesthouse. We told Polad we didn’t know that much about Azerbaijan, and he was happy to answer all of our questions. Over dinner, where he told us about the national cuisine which we enjoyed very much, we talked about education, politics, travel and culture. We also learned that Azerbaijan has a rich history which makes it a unique country with a special culture. They thank this to their geographic position, connecting great empires to each other. It’s a very important hub on the Silk Road. In old days traders would have their camels rest, eat and drink at the caravanserais where they could also sell their goods.

Qabala to Baku

After a rest day in Seki, where we did some sightseeing and blog posting, we continued our journey towards the East. For the first time we actually manage to leave early. Which payed off, because we make it to the next town Qabala, 90 km from Seki. Qabala is a place where people from Baku spend their time in big fancy resorts. We managed to end up in the shittiest hostel by far.

We have absolutely no idea why people would spend their free time in Qabala. It didn’t feel special to us at all. There was a super long main road with cars honking and shops that only sell sugary goods. The landscape after Seki wasn’t very interesting either and there was only a busy main road. It didn’t make it easier that the education level in this part of the country is very low. Pretty much no one speaks the tiniest bit english.

Our heads were already in Baku by now, but it would still be at least three days to cycle there. We looked it up and a bus could Baku. We coughed up a few Manats (the local currency) and hopped on a bus with our bikes. Baku here we come.

Cycling and junk food

The bus driver dropped us of right outside the city at the bus station. Taxi drivers approached us when we exited the bus, but quickly lost interest when they noticed the bikes. We might have not cycled to Baku, but we were entering it on two wheels! Cycling in this hectic city gave us the same adrenaline rush we got in Tbilisi. The drivers usually give way, as long as you clearly hand signal what direction you are going. Here they aren’t used to cyclists either, so usually they liked seeing us and waved happily.

After we had found the hostel and checked in, we had something very important to do. Something Robin has had his mind set on for a few day now. It was time for McDonalds. We kept it decent, and only ordered twice. Thirds came at KFC later that day. And this wasn’t the last time we would feast at a fast food restaurant during our time in Baku.

Modern city with modern art

Some say that Baku is a mix between Paris and Dubai. It is a modern, and at some sites extravagant city to say the least. Maserati’s and Lada’s are parked next to each other and all big luxury brands have a flag store in Baku. From Baku we will set sail to Kazakhstan, but strong winds meant that the cargo ship can’t enter the port. So we have a few days to pass time, and Baku is a perfect place to do so.

On our first full day in the city, we woke up early and hungry. The streets were still quite empty, which was perfect for us. After a fancy pancake breakfast we explored the old part of the city. Also the most touristic part of town, for we were offered a guided day trip about 20 times in under 30 minutes. We rather strolled within the old city, surrounded by the old city walls, ourselves. The Palace of the Shirvanshahs doesn’t charge an entrance fee (except for the torture?! museum), so that’s good for travelers on a budget. We also rode our bikes across the big boardwalk, and cycled to the Museum of Modern art. A great museum with an exceptional collection. They have much work from local artists, but also from Picasso and Salvador Dali. We really enjoyed it.

The Flame Towers

After dinner at Vapiano, we cycled to the Flame Towers. We were promised a light show and we sure got what we asked for. From the view point you have an amazing view over the city, and when the Flame Towers finally lit up everyone was in awe. This was definitely one of the extravagant parts of the city we mentioned earlier. Heaps of fun to witness. Wished we had brought a selfie stick like everyone else.

Citytrip in Baku

The next day we teamed up with Aukje, who we met at the hostel. She’s traveling solo through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and was curious what we had planned. We were going to the Heydar Aliyev Center and always love good company, so she joined us for the day. 

We took the metro, which was very cheap. There are only two lines, and a lot of stations, which were very aesthetically pleasing too. The Center was closed, but from what we understood it’s a concert and exhibition hall. Only seeing the architecture outside was probably enough, and we had a great laugh because the wind was so strong, we could barely stand up straight.

Pro tip if you’re traveling and miss coffee? McDonalds! We sure love that Macky D. Free wifi and affordable good coffee. Never mind about that obesity epidemic, they are contributing to. Cycling and junk food seem to go hand in hand. But hey, they sell salads too.

Shopping at the Bazar

After a cup we head to the Teze bazar. A small bazar where they sell pretty much everything. Tools, lamps, signs, toilets, but also foods like fruit, meat (that smell, yuck) and a bunch of cheeses. Vendors jump on us since we are the only tourists, and let us taste all kinds of fruit. We buy some figs, which off course turn out to be rotten. We already thought those weren’t the ones we tasted! After watching a heated game of domino’s and drinking some tea with the men at the bazar we walk back to Nizami street.

Walking in Baku is an experience by itself. The buildings are immense. A lot look empty and we don’t see anything in front of the windows or people going in and out. The buildings seem well kept, and asking someone didn’t give much info either. We’ll probably never know, it all might be a facade. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive city.

Nizami street is one of the main shopping streets. It’s named after a poet, and he also has a metro station named after him. We were not here for poetry however, we were on a mission. Two weeks ago Robin thought it would be a good idea to throw away one of his pairs of boxer shorts. Three was too much he thought. Two would be enough. That would’ve all been fine, except he managed to lose one pair of boxer shorts on the exact same day. After two weeks with only one pair he finally had enough. So much to Sabina’s pleasing two brand new pairs of boxers were added to the collection. Off course the old one had to go. Two was enough after all.

Oil rig beach

Baku is a city that literally floats on oil. You can see this very clearly when you drive a short bit out of the city. Oil extractors are pumping up that what makes the country(’s government) so rich. The most bizarre site of our trip so far has to be Shikh beach. The oil rig lays just in front of it, and if you would want, you could just swim up to it. The water wasn’t too appealing to us, with garbage laying all over the beach and a film of oil on the water. But that didn’t stop local families from swimming here.

The beach is about 10 km out of the city, but a Bolt car (kind of like Uber) can drive you there for 5 or 6 Manat. We hitchhiked back, which was also super easy and fun to do. From the carpet museum, yes there’s a carpet museum in Baku which is also shaped like a carpet, we walked to Black Star Burger downtown. A fast food restaurant recommended to us by Polad, who we met in Seki. Black Star burger is owned by a Russian rapper, who not only owns a fast food chain. He also owns his own shisha lounge chain, record label, clothing brand and a bunch of other huge companies. Best part about Black Star Burger? The black rubber gloves you get with your meal. Worst part about Black Star Burger? The rapper is besties with President Putin. He even wrote him a birthday song, named My best friend is President Putin.

Next up: Kazakhstan

After a few hours of rest it was time for our last night in Baku. We met up with Aukje and had our last dinner at…. McDonalds! We are now all ready and fattened up for some cycling. Just a boat trip away, next up: Kazakhstan.

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