Country Archives: Azerbaijan

Lənkəran - Namin

The longer I stay in a place, the more difficult it becomes to leave. Budapest, Pančevo, Batumi, Tbilisi, Baku, and now Lənkəran – without a little outside incentive I’d probably still be there.

Today’s incentive was the wish to finally make it to Iran! And a bit of boredom. Anyway, Iran, Persia!

Before leaving Azerbaijan there was a tiny bit of sightseeing to do, and a bit of cycling, of course. It’s about 40km from Lənkəran to the border town of Astara. Just outside Astara, in a village called Ərçivan, one can find Yanar Bulag, the Burning Spring. Rumor has it that the water from that spring is both drinkable and flammable! And I crap you not when I say that the rumor is true! I held a lighter to the water and it burned! There is no magic involved here, unfortunately. The water simply contains methane, somehow.

On to the border. In my head I went through my checklist again:

  • Passport and visa – check
  • Cash! There are no ATMs in Iran that I can use with my cards due to the American trade embargo – semi-check. I’d withdrawn half of my somewhat exaggerated budget in Lənkəran yesterday, and then had forgotten to get the other half today. Found an ATM in Astara – check
  • No alcohol in my bags. Import is forbidden. All the cool folks in the hostel in Baku had helped me finish that bottle of Georgian brandy I was carrying since Akhalsopeli – check
  • No pork products in my bags. Import is forbidden. Holy crap, no check. Hadn’t I just bought half a kilogram of sausages containing pork? No thinkie-thinkie, eh?!
  • Thumbs taped to the palms of my hands – no check, need them for cycling. Rumor, again, has it that the thumbs-up gesture which I so fluently use is in fact Iran’s equivalent to the ‘western’ middle finger gesture we all know so well.

To my slight disappointment, this crossing was as straight forward as all the other crossings before. “Welcome to Iran”, the smiling border guard said, and there I was, in Astara. Yeah, same name, different town (even though I bet it was the same one once), different country.

Went to a money changer and became millionaire by handing him a US$100 bill. I was now walking around with 58 Iranian banknotes of 20000 Rials each. That’s 1.16 million Rials.

Grocery shops were open. Looks like I’ll have no problems buying food during the day if necessary, despite Ramadan.

I left Astara to the west, and cycled into the Talysh mountains. And mountains they were. The road climbed pretty much all the time – from Caspian Sea level (approx. -27m) to a pass/tunnel at about 1600m. Hard work, I can tell you. When I left the tunnel the sun had set.

I’m in Namin now. Two guys from a shop next door watched my bike while I checked out the hotel for the night. When I came back they’d attached a flower to the handlebar. “Welcome to Iran”, they said.

Tomorrow will be another exciting day. I’ll try my luck on visiting another unvisited degree confluence, 39°N, 48°E.

Cycled: 106km

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Lənkəran

Yesterday’s fit is gone and forgotten. ;) I’m hanging out in Lənkəran for the time being, mostly to avoid as much of the Iranian (Muslim, really) month of Ramadan as possible. Even though travelers (and non-Muslims, of course) are exempt from observing the fasting rules, restaurants are closed during the day and eating and drinking in public are frowned upon (if not worse). Azerbaijanis don’t seem to care about Ramadan too much.

August 14 is the latest possible date of entry on my visa. Ramadan will end on August 29 this year, and my Iranian visa is valid for 20 days. I would like to witness at least the first day of the month following Ramadan, Shawwal, called Eid ul-Fitr. Eid ul-Fitr is a three-day holiday celebrating the completion of the one-month fasting.

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Ələt + 4km – Lənkəran

I’m growing a bit annoyed by (some) people’s habits here in Azerbaijan. Their driving is reckless and outright dangerous with no consideration for others, the honking is nerve-wrecking, and their inquisitiveness and doubtfulness is close to being rude. People just walk up to my table at a restaurant and pick up my phone to look at it, or they take my sunglasses off of my head to try them on themselves, and a police or security dude took my bike for a test ride while I was busy asking for directions elsewhere. It appears all this is much worse south of Baku. Or maybe I’m just less tolerant today for some reason.

The weather is awesome, however. It is again overcast and I have a nice tail wind. At noon I’d already done the first 100km.

Tried to get some food at a restaurant. Knowing about the (small) size of the portions I ordered three of them, but couldn’t make myself understood properly. People thought I was trying to haggle down the price. Didn’t get much to eat and had to pay more than was quoted originally. Left frustrated and hungry.

Many kilometers and a few hours (as well as a few edits) later…

Ok, I wrote the above after my failed lunch. Meanwhile, almost 100km further down south I’ve calmed down again. Of course, the honking went on during the day, and the driving skills haven’t improved, either. However, I’ve met a couple of nice people (one even drove me around Lənkəran in his Lada helping me find a hotel with Wi-Fi), I have a comfortable-enough place to stay at, and I just had a filling dinner in a simple restaurant where staff spoke Russian and understood that I need more than one portion.

The countryside down here is green again and flat. I’ve crossed the central plains and am now in the Lənkəran lowlands, bordering the Talysh mountains to the west.

Oh, and I had my first dog fight today. Had to kick it in the face to make it leave.

Word of the day: Super-Mini-Market (As seen on a shop near Salyan.)

Question of the month: “Do you work for the post?” (Asked by a couple of young mothers chatting me up when I was confusedly looking for a place to stay in Lənkəran.)

Cycled: 197km (Yupp, leaving early, good winds, and desperately wanting to leave Azerbaijan soon worked together quite well.)

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Baku – Ələt + 4km

Stuart and me went out again last night. Heather rang at 2am telling us that she’d gotten word from their boat, it would leave soon.
So we said good bye a little later. Good times, great people, unfortunately leaving Europe. Schniefschnuff.

After few hours of sleep I packed my stuff, said good bye to Michael, and left the hostel at noon.

I had a great tail wind today and rode southward with 30-40kph. Stopped in Qobustan to have a look at the petroglyphs and Roman grafitti there. The former are from various centuries and between 2000 and 20000 years old. The latter is the easternmost Roman inscription found to date.

I also visited the mud vulcanos near Ələt. Tiny little mini vulcanos spitting mud. Funny to look at.

Asked at a road side kafe/restauran for permission to pitch my tent in their backyard. Got invited to scrambled eggs and tea, and was questioned about all kinds of aspects of my life. People’s inquisitiveness is getting a bit annoying and tiring.

Throughout the day’s riding I had a gut feeling that was a mix of being hungry and feeling lonely.

Cycled: 97km
Top speed: 74kph

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Baku

Baku is a strange place. It has a grandly built city center, but there just don’t seem to be that many people around to justify that. At night some folks stroll along the boulevard at the Caspian, but the city center itself and its many pubs and bars are almost deserted, even on a Friday night. Maybe it’s due to summer heat and holiday time that people have moved to cooler regions (where would that be, though?) of the country. However, on top of the general lack of people I’m noticing a severe deficit in females. An effect of the conservative nature of this society, I guess.

There are also almost no foreign travelers here, as far as I could see. People’s staring is not as obtrusive as in Georgia.

However strange Baku itself may be, I’m having a great time here with Micheal from the States, and Heather and Stu, the moving-to-New-Zealand-by-bicycle couple, and various short-timers in the hostel.

Michael has just finished his mission of visiting the lowest points on each continent, and will be flying back home on Monday, and Heather and Stu will catch a boat to Kazakhstan tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, insh’allah. I myself will leave the posh-looking capital of Azerbaijan tomorrow, if I’m spared. I’ll be heading south towards Iran. Unfortunately, I’ve not met anyone here who could help me meet the Azerbaijani ESC contestants/winners.

Word of the day: matutinal (dt.: morgendlich). None of the above native English speakers knew it (neither did I). :)

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Novxanı Beach - Baku

We started cycling at noon today, and with a slight hang-over. Though the swim in the Caspian in the morning was good.

Before going to Baku proper we wanted to do some sightseeing on the Abseron peninsula on which both Sumqayit and Baku are located. The peninsula is rich in natural oil and gas reserves. There are two places that were of particular interest to us. The first was Yanar Dag, where gas streams out from the earth. It was ignited accidentally by a shepherd’s cigarette in the 1950’s, they say, and has been burning ever since. The place is now labeled “State Historic Culture and Natural Preserve” and an entrance fee of 2 manat is charged. The guards made up for that by inviting us to a glass of tea.

The second sight is called Ashtagah, the fire temple. It was built by Indian Shiva devotees in the 18th century, but was sacred to Zoroastrians for much longer. It is also located at a natural gas vent, however that reserve has run dry and is now connected to Baku’s main gas supply.

The ride from Yanar Dag to Ashtagah led us through the semi-desert of the Abseron peninsula, with oil fields and the ubiquitous nodding-donkey oil pumps everywhere, oil ‘lakes’, salt lakes and decrepit settlements. Quite an uninviting place.

We reached Baku from the east, on a crowded highway. The city is entirely different from all the other Azerbaijani cities I’ve seen so far. It is an actual city. Huge buildings, many in a neo-Persian style.

The hostel we’re now in is tucked away in the Old Town, awesomely located in a backyard off a tiny alley. Guess who’s here? Heather and Stuart, the cycling couple I’d met briefly in Akhalsopeli a week or so ago.

Cycled: 69km

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Almost Şamaxı – Novxani Beach

The sky was overcast again this morning. We were just getting up when a few vineyard workers arrived. They started their working day watching us packing our stuff.

Today we wanted to reach Baku – almost. That is, since it was likely going to be late at night when we arrive there, we wanted to stay somewhere outside the city to have a relaxed day arriving in the capital tomorrow.

About 40km from Baku the road descended in a long turn down towards the Caspian plain, and we could see the city of Sumqayit and the Caspian Sea in the not-so-far distance. It was a magic sight and we decided to go to Sumqayit, or rather a beach near that city, instead of Baku. The Dutch tourists I’d met in Şəki had told me that it was a nice place.

We rode through Baku’s and Sumqayit’s suburbs and judging from the traffic and the amount of houses it became clear that we wouldn’t find a secluded, quiet beach there.

It was indeed, of course, crowded. A hotel and disco nearby. No way we could camp there conveniently. What’s the major difference between an Azerbaijani beach and a European one? The (almost) lack of women and girls. Azerbaijanis may have a comparatively relaxed attitude towards religion, but they’re still conservative.

Well, we spent some time there anyway, had water melon, went for a refreshing swim, and got invited by a bunch of off-duty police officers to bread and cheese and tomatoes and German Eierlikör.

Eventually we checked into a hotel directly at the beach. There’s a disco there, too, and we wanted to check out the local party scene. The bouncer asked us politely to pay 10 manat entrance fee each (a bit less than 10 Euro), which we politely refused, thinking that was the ‘tourist price’. That almost put an end to our first Azerbaijani party experience. We were almost gone when the bouncer called us back and we were granted free entry. And so we met Azer, friends with the bouncer, hairdresser from Sumqayit, who’d put in a good word for us without us even noticing at first.

He’s of Dagestani descent and offered to help us with anything in Baku, Sumqayit or Azerbaijan. I asked about the Azerbaijani ESC contestants, but he doesn’t know them and can’t help me get an autograph. :( We learned that life is not easy for gay people in Azerbaijan, but he and his (male and female) friends had fun that night anyway. And we did, too.

Cycled: 137km

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Nic – almost Şamaxı

We got up kind of late – the sun hadn’t woken us up, the sky was overcast.

Anyway, the day was a hot one already, and the thin layer of clouds disappeared soon.

I haven’t counted yet, but I think I drink about 7 to 10 liters of water per day now.

At some rest stop a guy told us that he’d seen three other cyclists going in the opposite direction today. However, we must have missed them somehow (how?).

We hitched a ride hanging on to the back of a slow truck to get up a particularly nasty hill.

We stopped about 3 kilometers from Şamaxı in a hamlet without name. The place consisted mostly of a restaurant, two shops and about three houses. Had dinner there and then retreated to a vineyard where we pitched our tents.

Cycled: 106km

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Şəki – Nic

When I woke up this morning I wasn’t sure where to go exactly today, and which route to take.
At breakfast I met two Dutch tourists who told me that a couple of the places I wanted to see have changed a lot since the Lonely Planet recommended them (in 2009), and are now very touristy. So I took them off my list.

Went to the silk factory shop I’d been at only briefly yesterday, and on the way back I met Andrzej from Poland, cycling to Iran. He went to see the city, I went to pack my stuff, and then we met again to cycle on together.

The road was good and easy to ride on (mostly downhill) and we chatted the time away. After about 40km we noticed we were on the wrong road and had gone too far south. So we changed direction. On a long stretch of straight road going uphill people handed us slices of refreshing water melons from passing cars.

Originally, we wanted to go to Qəbələ but with that little diversion earlier we didn’t make it there. In Nic, about 20km east of Qəbələ, we stopped and asked about possibilities to pitch tents. People sent us to the local ‘stadium’ – a soccer field with cow shit and thistles. But it worked well for us.

The Polish word ‘nic’ translates to ‘nothing’. Kind of appropriate for the village of Nic.

Cycled: 98km

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Qax - Şəki

Slept in and left Qax after noon. I took the ‘old road’ to Şəki (pronounced Shäki), which the Lonely Planet lists as ‘unpassable’ due to broken bridges. I was sure to find a way across the dry rivers or streams. It turned out that the road and all the bridges are being upgraded, and that the streams are indeed dry at this time of the year. The road was flat but in very, very bad condition most of the time.

Got invited to tea on the road side, and met Failez, student of Maths and Computer Science in Baku. The ride would have been almost pleasant, if it weren’t for the last 10km or so, which were, again, an uphill battle. The digital mercury climbed to more than 50°C (in the sun) multiple times today.

In Şəki an old karavanserai has been renovated beautifully and is again being used as a hotel. It is recommended by Lonely Planet, but due to multiple ‘de-recommendations’ by locals (“too expensive”) I decided against staying there. Instead I checked into a somewhat shabby place closer to where I arrived in Şəki.

There’s a silk factory here in town which cannot be visited but has a shop were its products are sold. That was my first stop after a cold (read: warmish) shower. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my cash in the hotel…

Then I hurried to Cingiz Klubu, museum and cinema, which was supposed to show a movie at 6pm, hopefully with English subtitles.
Unfortunately, the movie’d started at 5pm (it was almost 6 when I arrived).

I walked up the street to the Karavanserai hotel. Single rooms are not really expensive and cost less than 5 Euros more than what I’m paying in the other place.

I was seriously considering staying another night in Şəki, if only to have slept a night in the Karavanserai and to go to the movies! Well, the Karavanserai is fully booked but at least I’m using their wi-fi right now.

It was almost too hot to do sightseeing, but I still managed to wander around a bit and have a look at the old khan’s fortress.

Cycled: 38km

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Zaqatala - Qax

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.

Cycled: 66km

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Akhalsopeli – Zaqatala

When I mentioned to Sura this morning that I was ready to leave, he called his wife and she prepared a magnificent breakfast. I was almost forced to eat more and more. I successfully refused the vodka Sura offered.

The ride along the Alazani valley was easy, the road goes downhill most of the time. Not far from the Azerbaijani border I was invited to a couple of slices of water melon by some guys at the road side. I happily rested and chatted for a few minutes, as temperatures where soaring high again.

Rumor has it that guide books and maps that list the de facto-independent region of Nagorno-Karabakh separately from Azerbaijan will be confiscated if found by police. My Lonely Planet and my Caucasus map, both possible victims, were tucked away deeply inside my bags for today’s ride into Azerbaijan.
Well, crossing the border was easy. Three passport checks on the Georgian side, and two on the Azerbaijani one. No one was interested in my luggage.

The countryside is now considerably less lush than further north in Georgia. The rivers are almost dry. Temperatures reached 49°C (in the sun).

Had lunch in Balakən and then rode on to Zaqatala, where I’m staying for the night.

Azeris are extremely friendly. Many greet when I ride past (in contrast to the Georgians, who greet only after being greeted).

Cycled: 68km

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