Had to do some printing in Zaqatala before leaving. Fatima, the receptionist, let me use the hotel’s computer and we chatted a bit. She’s recently got a degree in economics from a Baku-based university. She says she misses ‘the noisy city’ and that it would be easy to find a job in the capital in her field of expertise. However, her family doesn’t want her to live there on her own, so she had to return to sleepy Zaqatala and now works in the hotel since five days.
I diverted off the Baku-bound main road to go to Qax (pronounced ‘Gach’ like the German ‘Dach’), and then Ilisu, a supposedly beautifully located village 15km from Qax. A guy warned me that the road would be bad… and it was.
About 10km from Qax I met another cyclist, 16-year-old B… I didn’t quite get his name. He’s been on a Turkish private school and speaks good English. He’ll go to the States for a year as an exchange student nine days from now. He’s cycling from Zaqatala to Ilisu, too, to visit family.
He wasn’t quite prepared for the 50km ride. He’d brought no water and we soon were sharing mine. I carried his bag. He needed more and longer breaks than I did. He took a bus from Qax. I’m happy to report that I’m fitter than a 16-year-old. ;)
I wandered/cycled around town briefly, visited two churches – one of them Georgian-orthodox, the other unknown/unused -, the local ethnographic museum with Russian-language guide, and had lunch.
Then I cycled northeastish towards Ilisu, which was a sweaty 15km uphill battle. Ilisu turned out to be nice but not spectacular, and extremely touristy. The only affordable hotel (as far as I knew) was located at the highest spot of the village – and fully booked. So I returned to Qax to stay there. It had taken me 1:45h to get to Ilisu, the way back was done in less than 15 minutes, including being stopped by the police to help them practice their English. It was practically non-existent, but they had a phrase book and we exchanged about 4 friendly sentences (“Welcome!”, “I’m glad to meet you!”, “How are you?”, “Good bye!”).
Random fun facts about Azerbaijan:
“Are you traveling alone?” is one of the questions I’m asked most often.
Many people invest their savings in gold – so many golden smiles, sometimes 32 pieces strong.
Apparently, there is hardly a restaurant that has a menu, or there are no prices listed. And you hardly get a receipt when paying. Dunno yet if that’s normal or a scam.
It is also very interesting to note that not all of the elders seem to speak Russian. It is the younger generation that more often (not always!) speaks that language. This is the exact opposite to Georgia, formerly part of the USSR just like Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is predominantly a Muslim country, but people have a very relaxed attitude towards religion. Women don’t cover their heads, and no-one cares when they show skin, or rather, no-one objects. People like to drink alcohol and do it openly. The (unofficial) dresscode for men demands long pants, and so far I have oblidged when not cycling, but today I was told I could walk around in shorts without any problems. When cycling I’m wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt anyway.
My Lonely Planet states about Qax: “Travellers are a rarity […]. The natives are friendly but expect to be stared at.” I can confirm that all of that is true for all of Azerbaijan I’ve been to so far.