Flying from Shymkent, Kazakhstan to Baku, Azerbaijan
After some deliberation, we booked a flight to Azerbaijan over the Turkmenistan Karakum Desert to avoid cycling many days through the hot dusty desert sandscape only to wait on the shores of the Caspian Sea for a boat without a schedule, especially after reading that some people had to wait a long time at the port before a boat arrived, and then once on it, not knowing how long it would take to cross the sea due to poor weather. It probably would have been an experience, but we don’t like hanging around too much, and for us waiting is not adventure.
We booked an apartment in Shymkent before our flight to pack our bikes in boxes, and it all turned out to be pretty hassle free.
During the flight, a young boy sitting on the seat in front peered over at us excitedly and wanted to grab the Kindle I was reading. He can’t have the Kindle, it’s mine. So I waved a sugar sachet at him instead. He ended up loving this game of snatch, to see what he could take. When I allowed him to grab the sachet, he playfully threw it over his shoulder in success, hitting his mother in the process. It was obvious his mother didn’t approve; she thought he was stealing our stuff and she handed it back with an apology. He leant over again, and we played ‘snatch the sachet’ repeatedly. She apologised again when it came flying past her.
Then, it was the little on-flight pillow, which he enthusiastically grabbed and threw over his shoulder and it went flying towards his mother. Unimpressed, she handed it back to me with an apology.
I decided to take out the on-flight magazine from the seat, and waved this at him. He grabbed it, and within a few seconds it was handed back to me with an apology. I let the kid grab it again. He was so happy with this little game…
..Well, until he decided instead to be sneaky and lean around the side his seat to grab the next object on offer. His head appeared between the seat and the window. I waved the pillow at him, then he reached to it and fell slightly, his head dropping down between the seat and the window. It took us a few seconds to realise what had happened, but then realised his head was stuck and his arms flailed around. His smile vanished and his eyes widened: panic had well and truly set in.
He scrunched up his face and screamed, his mother tried to pull him back, which was of no use. Through tears of laughter, I had to push his head back up so he called pull it free.
That was the end of the game, and Lindsay and I tried to hide our laughter and tears and look as concerned as we could with the child’s welfare in mind.
It was much more entertaining that waiting for a ferry.
Baku was a refreshing change from Central Asia. Whether this country is part of Asia or part of Europe isn’t entirely clear, but after spending a few days walking round the clean city streets and the Old Town, it definitely felt more like a slice of Europe. Beautiful stone buildings, busy cafes lining the streets, and expensive cars zoomed around pretending they were part of the F1 race (we had a run around the F1 circuit too, of course). It wasn’t hard to miss the London black cabbies about…except here they were purple…
Baku to a field, somewhere
We were ready to continue our cycle tour west after our short city break. We had got up early and our panniers were outside and ready to go. However, our bike lock had seized and we couldn’t unlock it. A testament to how good it was, it took some effort to cut through it with pliers. After ‘stealing’ our own bikes, we then had to wait until 11am until a bike shop opened so we could buy a new one!
Once out of the centre, it was quick to see that the oil money was not going far. The slick shiny cars and glossy buildings had disappeared and we were now back in Asia. Old stone buildings, dilapidated Soviet blocks, people walking or cycling rickety bikes or on stone walls watching over their flock of sheep.
The road however, was immaculate, so much nicer than some of Central Asia. We were surrounded by rolling green hills and had a steady climb. After the very late start we still managed nearly 90 km and as it was getting dark, found a rather muddy field to camp in.
We were treated to a lovely sunset and when inside the tent, heard a rustling outside. Our headlamp reflected two eyes of a fox who had come to visit us, sniffing out the food we had. A little later, a rascal mouse woke me up with the sound of it scurrying and climbing on the tent. I could see its silhouette as it scrambled up the side of the tent, just waiting for the moment its little claws would tear a hole in our lovely waterproof fly.
The field to Ismayilli
Pushing our bikes out of the field in the morning caked the tires with mud, and added a fair bit of weight to the already tank-like mass. The day was full of more rolling hills, and a good share of steeper gradients. Autumn was showing itself and the forests were full of colour and farmers ploughing their fields.
The hills at times were hard work, with one steep downhill into a valley, for it to end with a cruel steep climb back up the other side.
Ismayilli to a field!
The sun was shining, the leaves were golden, the sky was blue and the gradients a lot more friendly. A fresh cold nip in the air told us that autumn had definitely arrived and the cycle through golden, red and orange coloured trees was perfect. Occasionally away from the trees, we had views to the snow capped Caucasus Mountains.
Just before the town of Sheki, we decided to camp, counting down until the GPS read 100km and used that as our indicator to find a camp spot. A field full of bushes with their red autumnal leaves to hide behind, but still in sight of the white peaks of the Caucasus was tonight’s home.
A field to a different field
The route was full of undulating hills, but soon after Sheki the road deteriorated and became more lumpy, with scars from badly repaired pot holes, not much unlike the sketchy repairs that are done to the roads of the UK after a winter of them being churned up.
Besides Baku – where we had tried piti (soup) and dolma and the salty yoghurt drink called Ayran – we didn’t have much opportunity to indulge too much in the Azerbaijani cuisine while camping and being away from towns, though fresh-from-the-oven tandoor bread was a staple as were the bags of walnuts sold at the side of the road by lonely looking vendors.
A field (Azerbaijan) to Lagodekhi (Georgia)
We had pitched our tent in a field of nut trees in some long grass. With puffy eyes in the morning, it was clear we hadn’t been able to get much sleep…deep into the night all we could hear was the cry of wolves, some sounded like they were in the same field, stalking prey through the trees. The noise was an eerie but amazing sound, and in the far distance we listened as another pack of wolves returned the howl from across the valley.
Out of all the countries we’ve cycled through, we had spent the fewest number of days in Azerbaijan due to its size. However, this is where we had met the highest number of cycle tourists! Mostly Germans. Why so many, who knows, but in our experience, if something is crazy and adventurous, it’s often a German doing it.
With the border control post sitting on the top of a hill, we sweated up to the guards, handed our passports and were welcomed into Georgia to find a charming little guesthouse and a wine cellar.