World by Bike 26: Azerbaijan
After a less-than-glamorous arrival in Baku Sea Port, 70km south of the capital of Azerbaijan the next phase of the trip world tour began. The ship is mainly for cargo and not for tourists, so myself and my new travelling colleagues had to guess our way out of the customs checkpoint at 3.30am, evading the aggressive stray dogs, without local money or anywhere to go. As I was with my bike, I rode ahead to scout out a petrol station the shone in the distance out towards the pitch black port.
The station attendant was able to backhandedly change some US dollars for local Azeri manat, and when fellow ship-goers arrived, they decided to split a few beers from the shop's fridge rather than find somewhere to rest. A few hours later and several beers down (them, not me), I got changed into my still-sweat-salt-covered biking gear as the sun rose over the western shores of the Caspian. I bid farewell to Miguel (from Spain), Phillip (from Germany) and Martin (from Australia) who were planning on hitch-hiking to the capital, and I jumped on my bike and headed into Baku.
My immediate impression of the city was excellent. The modern architecture of the wealthy oil businesses towered above the city, and the older city and townhouses reflected an almost Parisian scene. The European-feel of the place initially lured into a false sense of security when riding around the capital, but someone reversing up one of the city's biggest roads and opening a passenger door reminded me that I was still riding in Asia. I quickly sorted an Azeri SIM card for my phone before checking into the cheapest room I could find and falling asleep, I was shattered.
I stayed in Baku a few days before realising that none of the bike shops had any sort of decent gear and that I'd have to nurse my ailing bike a few days further to Tbilisi in Georgia, where Google Maps offered hope of a good bike store. I left Baku on the more northerly mountain road into the Caucasus, where the near 40 degree heat sapped my energy and revealed the chronic, cumulative fatigue in my legs. The bike wasn't in a good way either, now overdue a service and the replacement of parts by near 1000 miles. The bike creaked up hills and an ever-reducing braking capacity made descending into a chore, rather than the reward it should have been. After two days of fighting the bike, I decided to abort the hillier road and make sure I got to Tbilisi in one piece, heading instead for the flat valley lands than links Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Even on the flat roads, however, I struggled. In the last few weeks since leaving Tashkent, I'd been stopping at almost every petrol station, small roadside market or teahouse that I'd seen as they were generally so spread out. However, this side of the Caspian, and especially on the main road connecting Tbilisi and Baku, there were places to stop every few kilometres. In the heat, and in my continued state of fatigue from the desert, I was struggling to not stop for a cold drink every thirty minutes. My tiredness and the continued appalling driving meant I had to constantly battle to stay alert and vigilant on the bike, and not relax at the appearance of nicer, more European cars and smooth road surfaces.
Fortunately, however, I made it the Georgian border without further issue and managed to avoid the Azeri police until I got to the border guards. I'd been warned that Azeri police could be relatively dodgy (can't think of a more polite word for corrupt), and pull you over and ask for bribes. However, other than seeing many cars pulled over by the traffic police, I myself hadn't been bothered once. The border guard did ask me for my GPS watch though after it bleeped to un-pause itself as I shuffled along the queue of traffic trying to exit the country.
Perhaps mt fatigue made it quite hard to gather an accurate impression of Azerbaijan, but overall I enjoyed it. The riding in the mountains was good fun and much prettier the valley road, and maybe if I'd been less tired I could have been a little more patient with the drivers who didn't leave me space on the narrow mountain roads. However, with the massive oil industry here inflating the price of everything else in the country, I couldn't help but feel that some of the towns outside of Baku were being left behind. I've read that Baku is trying to make tourism the primary industry in the country, but I personally felt as though I saw some of the negative effects of that. Azerbaijan was the first country in a long time that children had come up to me and asked me for money, and some of the hostel and restaurant managers were clearly putting up the price for me as a tourist. I felt for the first time on this trip that I was being seen as a walking piggy bank, rather than another person, or a tourist. East of the Caspian most people were keen to hear what you were up to, but some of the people I'd met in Azerbaijan were just after my money. I can understand where they're coming from as Baku grows in wealth and expats fill the city, bringing in Western culture and possibly pushing out the local feel. However, asking a bike tourer with a dirty t-shirt, and a scraggly, untrimmed travel-beard probably isn’t your best bet for acquiring money - they've got a long way to go before they become a proper money-jacking tourist spot.
I would like to return to Baku though, for the Formula 1 motor racing perhaps. Despite the inflated prices, the city is still cheaper than most European cities, and is just as beautiful. Maybe that's why Baku's got the little-known nickname of Paris of the East, according to Wikipedia. I'd recommend it.