As I entered Azerbaijan customs for my first ever solo motorbike border crossing, I was mesmerised by the custom’s lady’s flowing hair. I had not seen women in public with their hair out for seven weeks! She however was less than impressed with my “car passport” (in Australia it’s called registration). So in between her giving me a spray for what looked to be some sort of weird official document I was explained that there is no such thing as a car passport in Australia and this is what it is! They weren’t remotely interested in my Carnet de Passage so I stuffed it back into my backpack.
I emerged from the checkpoint and was now officially in Azerbaijan. I started my several hour ride into Baku and the things I noticed initially were: the roads were poor (although it seemed a new highway was practically complete right beside me), there were many seemingly brand new fuel stations and everyone either had a beaten up old Lada or a nice Mercedes. Quite the contrast. I later learned that Azerbaijan imports a lot of second hand Mercedes from Germany and these are quite popular (whereas Georgia had more of a penchant for BMW and Volkswagen). The areas I rode through certainly seemed quite poor. I stopped at one point for a snack and local guy came up for a chat. He asked a lot about Australia and money (people are always interested in this) and he explained that his wage was US$150 per month. I was thinking thank God he didn’t ask what people earned in Australia. (If people ever do, I’m also able to explain the very high relative costs (housing, food, phone etc) and this shocks them, but of course there is a still a massive discrepancy in wealth.)
Along the way I did my usual look behind to check luggage was secure to discover it was not. And so, I was now sans-tent. That bloody thing I bought brand new and had never used was now gone! I hadn’t even opened it once to see what it looked like! It’s empty torn bag was dangling freely. I rode back 15kms to the service station I had stopped at to check my route (sound familiar?) but nothing. I asked (with sign language) the attendant if he had seen anything and he seemed to indicate that he saw it dangling when I arrived. I was like what??? Why didn’t he tell me! Ha ha, priceless. Either way, I didn’t care too much. It just meant one less thing to pack and tie onto the bike.
Side note: Originally I wasn’t planning on bringing camping gear. I wanted to travel light and there are always places to stay, but Anne and Anthony convinced me I would really appreciate having it and camping in the ‘Stans. Now I don’t blame them, but they probably don’t realise how lazy I am. And the fact that my brother Paul and I traveled South America for six months and only used our tent twice! So in hindsight, I probably would have been better off without it, but given I’m only half way through this journey who knows? I often think about throwing out my sleeping bag and sleeping in my moto clothes, but losing the tent means I probably should keep it and use it in conjunction with my blue tarp in an emergency.
Riding into Baku was quite refreshing. They have beautiful roads leading into the city and as you come over the rise and descend into the chaos your initial thoughts are ones of majesty. But that quickly changes. What I noticed about Baku is that it has this incredibly beautiful central area. The old city and all the new street malls, parks, restaurants, promenade along the Caspian Sea… all very stunning. But you venture only a couple of blocks back into residential areas and you can see the contrast of the old style apartment buildings. It reminded me of what I imagined the Soviet era was like. Things are a little bit run down and old. It took me some time to find my AirBnB accommodation. (The building numbers are a bit odd and some entrances to apartments are at the back of buildings in alley ways. To make things even trickier the apartment numbers don’t line up with floors, so 41 is on the 7th floor! When I finally arrived at what I thought was the place, the shopkeeper said it was further down the road. I’m literally looking at the number above his shop saying this is it, but he was adamant. Of course, when I came back later (through the help of others) he made no acknowledgement of his earlier advice, but I was happy just to have found it. Despite the outside appearance, inside the apartment was lovely. I guess the residents don’t have much control over the state of the building, but inside they can renovate. My hosts were lovely, but largely absent. So I was on my own.
I spent the next two days exploring the Old City and I found this central area of Baku to be quite beautiful. You could easily just stroll around and enjoy the sights and history along with the investment made in tastefully modernising the city. Azerbaijan has benefited in recent years from being an oil and gas rich country, but the recent period of low oil prices has lowered some of their ambitions.
Interestingly, I started to hear and use Russian! Of course, the former Soviet countries all spoke Russian as a second language so the old people still new it well, but I think the younger generations less so. Of course, not having practiced for two months meant I was pretty rusty, but bit by bit I started to recall words and could use some very broken sentences to communicate. English was certainly present, but not heavily. I also saw lots of Russian tourists. Azerbaijan is their neighbour and the coming days would be a big reminder of that. Russians everywhere. The biggest culture shock of Azerbaijan was the westernisation! After being in Iran for seven weeks, it was weird to see bars with alcohol, places like McDonalds and Starbucks and even a Hard Rock Cafe which I must say was pretty good! Felt good to be drinking beer listening to live rock music.
I didn’t know much about Azerbaijan, so I randomly chose Ganja as my bridging point for Georgia. I decided on the scenic route taking in Gebele in the North and then Mingecevir next to a beautfiful water reservoir. I wasn’t disappointed at all! Mingecevir had the most exquisite turquoise river flowing through it and I stopped for some photos and nature appreciation! As I punched on to Ganja, I flew past a couple of cyclists and thought who on earth would be out here? So I stopped and chatted with them. Cal and his sister Kirsty from Scotland where doing a big trip. Cal had planned to go to Tokyo but decided to turn around at Baku (about 10,000kms!) and his sister Kirsty had joined him for parts of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan (herself doing about 2,000kms). I was incredibly impressed and it sure made me feel like a king being on a motorcycle. I don’t know how cyclists do it. It is such a different experience to motorcycling. Not sure I would ever be motivated to try. Cyclists are just generally impressive. Imagine carrying all your camping gear and food and water on a bicycle? And then riding up mountains??? No thanks. We swapped Instagram details and I headed off.
I arrived in Ganja and was immediately made to feel welcome by Afghan and his family. His parents, brother and he all live together and they have a lovely place with a small courtyard in the middle where meals were had (and the mighty Shah was parked – my bike that is). Afghan’s English was very good and he too had travelled a bit (including an exchange in the States when he was 17 where he got first hand exposure to rednecks! Ha ha. He said it was a culture shock, but the bigger culture shock was coming back to Azerbaijan after several months away!). He took me for a drive around Ganja that evening and again I couldn’t believe the amazing centre of this small city! Furthermore, Ganja has the most phenomenal park. Like I mean phenomenal! It is the largest in all the Caucasus and it deadset looks like a Roman entry way. A huge long columned promenade leading to what looks like the Arc de Triumph! It is ostentatious and awe inspiring at the same time. Afghan asked what I thought. I said I was torn. It was so magnificent, but in a city like Ganja where one street away from a main road you have dirt rock roads (like Afghan’s street) it just seemed crazy! Apparently, the mayor had it built as a gift to the former President of Azerbaijan. Expensive gift to be sure. Afghan agreed. He would observe his guests awe, but equally questioned the money spending priorities of government officials.
The next day I took a ride to Goygol Lake. The ride was certainly fun and the destination even better! Yet another glorious lake tucked in amongst incredible forested mountains. I sat and enjoyed the ambience sipping on a cup of tea. Back in Ganja I went for another walk around the city. So beautiful… until of course you are two blocks into suburbia. Afghan enquired as to my movements the next day. I said I was going to Georgia. He said the border is open 24 hours and his family has a place in Gazakh which is on the way so why don’t I join them. I thought why not. I wasn’t in a rush.
We drove to Gazakh and along the way Afghan’s brother took some action shots of me on my motorcycle (hard to do myself traveling solo) and of course when we arrived we ate. Afghan’s mother fed me so much. Such a common theme in these parts. I was constantly stuffed. Afghan and his brother and I then jumped in his car and went to a lookout over a reservoir. We were right on the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia. We could see villages of both countries literally a stone’s throw from each other, yet tensions between these two countries is very high. They’ve had ongoing and tragic fighting based on a disputed territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. Currently there is a ceasefire but there has been the odd instance of outbreaks of violence. It’s a long story that I don’t even know the half of so for those interested, there’s plenty that can be read on the Internet. Either way, it is sad for both countries. We then went to a beautiful rocky outcrop and then made our way back to Kazakh. Meanwhile Afghan’s parents were attending to one of his gardens. Afghan is a keen gardener with fruit trees and vegetables. He loves trees! He has a couple of properties and has turned them into wonderful places of harvest!
I finally said farewell and headed off at 6pm declining the offer for supper. (I was still full from lunch!) Way later than planned, but the journey to Tbilisi, Georgia wouldn’t be too long and I felt quite refreshed. Azerbaijan had been a fascinating experience and in five days I’d seen quite a lot.