Afte a day of rest in Baku, we rode out of the city in typical developing-world traffic. Buses vie for passengers at each stop three deep, then dart into traffic without notice. The streets are filled with people rushing for buses, taxis and cars, trucks; horns blare, black diesel exhaust suffocates.
There are no street signs in this huge city, so we had to stop often for directions out of town. A crowd of men always gathered in an instant, each having his say at telling us the way in Azeri, none of which we understood; they also loudly shared their opinions of Zippy, and probably particularly Claire: what kind of woman would do a thing like travel on a bicycle in a country far from home? Their wives, sisters, mothers, were all somewhere other than on the streets, because all we saw were men, men everywhere men; it gets a little disconcerting after awhile. What kind of society hides the best half of the population? Their curiosity was in no way negative, just real surprise at the spectacle we make in a place where no one, repeat, no one dares ride a bicycle on the streets. Unlike in Beijing, Urumqi, or Almaty, we didn’t have time to learn the Baku caste system, so it was an exciting trip to the edge of the city, and we were again glad to be touring in a new country and a new landscape. Our hopes were high.
Our route followed small roads in the foothills of the beautiful Caucasus mountains, not very high, but very steep at times. We found the country people very friendly and encouraging as we struggled up sometimes 14% grades in temperatures to 37C. In the week of touring we had three bush camps (more like guerrilla camping) and so our expenses were very low.
The first bush camp was on a low bench over a small canyon in country that could have been in the grasslands of Nevada. The second one was in a wooded area, completely out of sight of the road with a small stream for bathing. Unfortunately, Claire was enjoying her bath a bit too long, when a father and his ten year old son came quietly driving the family milk cow home from grazing. The man politely ignored both of us, but the boy didn’t even look at Zippy, preferring to look at Claire clutching clothes to herself; a normal boy. I was concerned that his father might be upset, since nudity is a big taboo in Islam, but no one returned that evening and we had a good sleep through a light rain.
Sharing the simple things, like a cup of tea and bread, bridge the language gap.
The third bush camp introduced us to a family as they came to work late into the evening in their rock infested tobacco patch. We waved at them, and managed through pantomime to request permission to camp, which was granted. As the parents, and an aunt probably went back to hoeing, Claire entertained the three boys with balloon hats.
Later the adults came over bearing tea with lemon and sugar and cucumbers and bread; we shared dried fruit.
A special gift: Before we ate, the man took me to his tobacco patch and began to talk tobacco farming, something I know a little bit about, but none in Azeri; the experience was the same as if we understood each other: two men walking through a field, kicking stones and clods, pointing out insect damage. Then he took me to the stream to wash-up; he showed me how they scoop water over their head and face and neck, and hands and forearms. It seemed to be a male ritual, and I was honored. He was playing the father figure, showing a son perhaps, and yet I am more than old enough to be his father. We continued to develop a non verbal connection through tea as we all shared the ritual of sharing of food. I was reminded of having tea on the beach in Fiji with the beautiful Melanesian women. Always one to work with the local language, Claire and he shared the phrase book (everyone here knows a little Russian) and he was able to share that he was a native Farsi speaker, and Arab from Jordan, who came here to marry his wife, and settle here. I sense he is very happy with the verdant land and abundant water. I was also so happy to feel no animosity at all at our being American, and Christian. People connect on a human level; one on one, we are friends who are far more alike than different. So far the Muslim people have been the most caring and sharing along our route.
In the next town, four kilometers away, I found a photo shop that could print from my Nikon’s card. I had them print the pictures we took of the family, and asked if anyone in the shop knew them. One of the shop girls knew the family and (all this is through pantomime) promised to get the prints to them! What a joy, to know they would be surprised with the pictures of what I know was a memorable evening for them as well as us.
Uh oh! Border Day. Another China Moment, far from China
After changing our remaining Manat in the middle of a crowd at the bazaar (there are no private transactions in this part of the world), we loaded up with Fanta and snacks for the ride to the Georgian border. There was a long hill in the heat of the day to the border crossing. What was waiting for us at this border? Problems.
After searching our passports for a Georgian visa, the Azerbaijan officer told us we could not leave, because we did not have a Georgian visa. Claire tried to explain that Georgia had recently removed all visa requirements for US and European Union residents. They of course did not understand her. They looked truly sad, knowing they were sending us away on a pushbike for a 400 kilometer ride to the main border crossing where we could get a visa. We were good Americans, trying not to be ugly, (and we were not completely sure the rules had gone into effect) and went away quietly, more than a little depressed; we were going to have to ride across this country twice! One border guard told to see America was his dream.
Back in town we found a lovely hotel with hot water and a great restaurant, negotiated a reduction to $25 US (equivalent US hotel would be $90). The next morning we managed to get money, (we needed Manat again) with the usual audience; they don’t think it is rude to look over your shoulder while you enter your PIN. Then we decided to try and find out how much it would be to get a taxi to the other border crossing, after all we had ridden across the country, why do it again. The guy at the hotel said we could expect to pay $85 (they all want dollars for big numbers) for the trip, and we determined that was worth the roughly four days we would have to take to ride, half of it over roads we had already traveled.
The Most Dangerous Ride of this Trip
In the square the first two drivers I approached turned me down when they saw Zippy loaded with our stuff. The Ladas they drive all have roof racks, and carry amazing loads on top; perhaps they thought I would be tough company for the four hours it would take; in retrospect, they knew how bad the roads would be. Finally a young man (young and brave) stepped forward and offered to take us for $50 US. I pantomimed (in front of a crowd of onlookers) that I would give him $25 at the start of the trip, and $25 when we arrived. Everyone nodded, and we had a contract. No attorneys required; there is considerable advantage to making transactions very public.
He borrowed a roof rack from another taxi driver, we strapped Zippy to the roof, threw the panniers in the trunk of his beat-up Lada, (no seat belts) and we were off. Were we ever off! Young men drive fast; and remember we had been riding a bicycle alongside donkey carts for a week. Sixty-five miles per hour in most cars feels like one hundred miles per hour in a Lada, particularly on long neglected roads!
Halfway through the trip he took a detour through a small city to buy cigarettes (he was feeling rich) and we had a fender-bender with a mini-bus. There was lots of arguing, flailing of arms and general confusion. Amzaloh knew he had them where he wanted them when the passengers began to leave the mini bus. He was quickly given 30,000 Manat and came back to the car with a smile, although I can’t figure how he will fix the damage for $6.30.
He got us to a town 50 kilometers from the border, I gave him the $25 owed and a $5 tip for his excellent driving, ie he got us there alive.
Azerbaijan has given us the type of touring we had looked forward to for this trip. Rural riding with friendly country people. The hills and headwinds of the first few days are now forgotten.
We’d made the mistake of asking for a hotel at Samaxi. All the young boys of town led us continually upward until finally, at the top of the town, an enormous hulking ruin of an old Russian Intourist hotel stood with dark windows and crumbling concrete balconies. Bob made an attempt to negotiate the price with the keeper, but the lobby was so dark, our solar calculator wouldn’t work. When I asked to see a room, I was taken to the second floor and shown to a bathroom with no electricity. The keeper had left me alone and I found myself wandering the dark halls, past gaping elevator doors, broken furniture, piles of rubbish and tripping over buckled, broken parquet flooring. Another floor up, the doors to all the rooms were locked, all except one, where a collapsed and lopsided bed was made up as though someone might actually want to sleep on an incline. I’d never seen a place I wouldn’t be willing to stay. Until now. It was late in the day and we had to rush to stock up on food and water in hopes of finding a bush camp somewhere out of town. I was still in shock from the awful hotel when, as we rounded a corner, a shiny new motel greeted us. I couldn’t believe it. Electricity and a cold shower, what more could I ask for? The inn keeper might have thought it strange of me to kiss his feet so I refrained. It wasn’t not bush camping that I was so ecstatic about, rather it was finding out that the standard for accommodation in this new country wasn’t as foreign as I’d feared.
“Okay, try to look fresh and ready to keep looking,” I said as I staggered off the bike. The last six and a half of our hundred and eleven kilometer day had been 1000 feet uphill all the way through the town of Seki. At one break, two old men approached, clucking as one traced a finger down Bob’s sweat-soaked back. With the onward urging of men at every tea house along the way, we’d made our way to the famous Karvansaray of Seki, an extremely picturesque historic inn along one of the silk road routes. I peered into the castle-like entry hall, past the fountain to the rose garden beyond. First on my mind, unfortunately, was cost, after being quoted 200,000 Manat ($42) for a bright, shiny room at the Olympic Training Complex. Sure, the room here was cave-like but it had such a great atmosphere that I double and triple checked the price of 60,000 Manat ($12.60). For that price we could stay two nights and have a rest day. The doorman opened the large, wooden camel-train door for Zippy to pass through. What a beautiful friendly town! There is something about having a caravansary in a town that makes it friendly; centuries of attending to the needs of exotic strangers makes for a very welcoming place. We could have stayed for weeks, but the Silk Road still called us west.
Leaving Azerbaijan, or not
“Problem, yes, problem,” said the Azeri Passport Control guard. We had no Georgian visa, so they would not let us clear from Azerbaijan. We tried to explain that Georgia had just dropped its visa requirement for U.S. citizens. No luck. “We are not standing you.”
The language problem does still come up in the worst ways. The guards knew we were facing a four day ride to the border at Qazax, where we could get the visa that we didn’t need. We still have our China moments a long way from China.
Instead of riding, we decided to take a Lada, the new camel of the old Silk Road. Bob approached a taxi driver with his proposition, he was turned down as soon as the driver saw the bike. He tried another and was rejected again. A crowd was gathering. A young confident pony express candidate stepped up and made a proposal. He had a roof rack, he would take us the 350 kilometers for fifty dollars. The town dentist did the translating while a mob of onlookers gawked as Bob dismantled the bags and loaded them in the trunk. Everyone wished us well as we took off for the other side of the country.