After cycling across the mostly barren interior of Azerbaijan – desert on one side of me, Caucasus mountains on the other – it was a strange experience for this tired, bedraggled cyclist arriving into the sprawling metropolitan area that was the capital. So this was big, bad Baku. It was certainly big, and built up, and the downtown cityscape bold and modern, but it wasn’t so bad. Most travellers arriving here stay not for the appeal of the city but the necessity of getting onward visas. Which was my need. And the concern is typically the expense of the place – food and accommodation. Baku is an oil city, in fact Azerbaijan is nearly totally dependent on its income from oil. In the early 19th century the offshore oil fields in the shallow Caspian Sea supplied nearly half of the world’s petroleum needs. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the nineties former local KGB head and Politburo member Heydar Aliyev became the country’s leader. He was the kind of strongman the West, in particular the oil companies, could do business with and in the last twenty years the country has accelerated in growth due to the revenue from oil. His son Ilham currently holds the reins and the image of his dead father is still is prominent throughout the country portrayed as the benevolent and powerful father of the nation. Every town and city has a stadium or public building named after him (avenues and squares in other countries as well!). The wealth generated from oil is apparent in the city – spectacular architectural creations where it is apparent money was no object, and sumptuous 19th century European style apartment blocks with balconies.
Something though doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps it was because I was aware of the nouveau riche origin of these buildings some of which look centuries old but are reproductions or renovations, but it is apparent the city has not evolved organically. Apart from some commissioned public buildings which show an imaginative blend of Arabic and European influence, the most noticeable feature for me was that building styles were copied. To my eyes there is little indigenous expression (I stand corrected if anyone would like to guide me on a tour of Baku to show me otherwise!). Magnificent public structures, well designed communal spaces and wide boulevards – it has more of a planned feel. So yes, the downtown area is great to spend time hanging out, enjoy a beer or a meal in, particularly if you’ve been on a bike for months, but it’s expensive. And for me, lacking a bit in charm.
My main task was to visit various Central Asian embassies to get visas. Probably three. How long would that take? As it happened not as long as I’d feared. The first port of call was the Uzbekistan embassy where the consul was so helpful and obliging it restored my faith in embassy staff. He was at first doubtful he could do anything – the required documentation I’d paid for before leaving Ireland was for a visa to be issued in London, not Baku. A new document would be needed and the process could take up to two weeks. But this man was not cut from the same cloth as his consular brethren. He hesitated and thought a moment before telling me to return in two days. The visa was ready then. In the waiting room Bakie, a bearded Dutch cyclist I was to run into further down the line, had been waiting there three hours as the computers were down and the consul couldn’t get approval from his capital, Tashkent. Eventually he told Bakies it would be unfair to keep him waiting any longer and he’d issue the visa at his own risk, hoping it would be retrospectively approved from Tashkent. We were both very impressed with that! Definitely not typical in both our experience. It’s usually “come back next week”.
Outside the embassy I got chatting with Will a young American who was planning to cycle to Uzbekistan through the desert of Kazakhstan with a French guy, was I interested in joining them? He gave me a link for blog of another cyclist who’d crossed the route earlier in the year (timgoesforabikeride) and I could see it was – as I’d heard from a cyclist previously – “do-able”. But 600 kilometres across desert tracks in the middle of the summer – was that such a good idea?
Where I previously had dismissed the option out of hand as far too ambitious for me, too arduous, more the type of challenge a younger version of me may have looked at, I was slowly beginning to consider the option. Crossing the Caspian Sea from Baku to Turkmenistan and making my way to Uzbekistan was my initial plan but that was looking less and less practical. The visa timings required were so tight the bureaucracy was looking increasingly likely to trip me up. Was Kazakhstan a viable option? With company it mightn’t be that daunting…
Will and Fred the French cyclist at this stage had spent time researching the route and I needed to catch up on that to satisfy myself. We poured over the map, chewed over practicalities like distances between water stops, how many litres one would have to carry on the bike at any one time, food supplies, possible kilometres to be covered a day, route options, how to deal with the heat. A persuasive factor I think for all of us was the blog detailing exact distances between chaihana – small stone buildings set at forty to fifty kilometre intervals along the route which sold water and some basic food – and details such as road conditions, where the track deteriorates, improves, etc. Water availability would have been the prime consideration, particularly at this time of year. We were putting our trust in the information in the blog but we had little reason to doubt it. The deciding thing, for me anyway, was the knowledge that we would be following the same route as trucks plying their way across Kazakhstan from the port of Aktau, where our ferry would land, and the rest of the country. If the worst came to the worst, if there was an accident or illness, there was always that backup. Eventually a vehicle would pass. The more we talked about it, the more encouraged and the more enthused we got about the idea of the challenge. Imagine the feeling of achievement making it across 600 kilometres of the Karakum desert in the heat of July. It was going to be an adventure!
At this stage I had moved in to a room the Baku Bicycle Club shared with other clubs in the old city to join the other two sleeping on the floor. The first week I had been generously hosted by David and his family in their suburban apartment. And very fortunate I was too. David was the sole warmshower member in town and in a few weeks he was about to leave home to do his compulsory military service. So no more warmshower hosts and cyclists are stuck with paying big prices for an hotel waiting for their visas, or staying in the only budget place, a poky hostel charging €20 for a bed in a crowded dorm. It was a real treat to share the family’s home, although no-one spoke English except David. His older brother, who had given up his bed for me to sleep on the couch, was keen to chat and my lack of Azeri or even some Russian was so frustrating. His interest was football (as it seemed was everyone’s I’d come across) and I was stuck on his pronunciation, as with increasing exasperation he attempted to ask me about Sligo Rovers, Drogheda, Shelbourne… ‘Limerick’ unlocked it for me. Previously it had cracked me up when names of a few Irish players in the English Premier League had been recited to me. But this was bizarre. I think he was a betting man and for some reason followed the form and results from the semi-professional League of Ireland!
It was great to hear David’s and his friends’ views on their country (not his real name). A driven and motivated guy with strong and well developed views on the potential for Azerbaijan – and the corruption of the country’s politicians – I could see he was a natural leader who people respected and listened to. Even his older siblings, and he was just nineteen. And something in his manner suggested the earnest idealism of youth – without wanting to sound condescending. Already he’d spent time behind bars for public protests against restrictions to freedom of speech in the media. More recently in support of the opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov who had been arrested for it was claimed, inciting a riot in Ismailly. The riot appeared to be about local corruption and abuse of power. The reports I read backed up Davids assertion the charges were trumped up. The authorities wanted Mammadov out of the picture before upcoming elections.
As he was about to be posted to border duty he would be in some danger, and that thorny topic of Armenia came up. In a nutshell as it was explained to me, Armenia has for a long time desperately wanted access to the sea. They annexed Nagorno – Karabakh in 1991. David showed me on Google maps the remains of the raized city of Agdam, previously with a population of 100,000, now a ghost town. Refugees flooded into Azerbaijan. There are power plays involved of course – no country can unilaterally act like that without some big time support. That support is the superpower Russia. Turkey on the other hand is friendly with Azerbaijan (“Our language is very similar. We are like brothers.”) From the times of the Ottoman empire Russia and Turkey have been at odds. So while the UN and the rest of the world condemn Armenia’s unilateral aggression, nothing is done while Russia vetoes action and supplies Armenia with arms. Turkey and Azerbaijan have closed their borders with Armenia.
And Armenia and Turkey have history. What about the genocide of Armenian people in Turkey, I asked David, which Turkey has yet to accept? “Well, first it’s not as many as they say,” he replied. “And second it was reprisal against Armenians what they do to Turkish people. During First World War Armenians come and steal cattle and rape women in their villages when the men not there to defend. So when they get back after war they very angry.” I raise my eyebrows in surprise. “It is very bad, very bad. But war is very bad.”
The three of us were set to leave. It had been long enough in Baku and the heat and humidity didn’t let up even at night. Sleeping on the club room floor the back of my head would be wet with sweat against my makeshift pillow. My arm, any limb, couldn’t lie across another without getting slithery wet. Fred had had his passport stolen and was awaiting a stamp on his new passport – which of course now didn’t have an entry visa – from the Azerbaijan immigration in effect releasing him to leave. Due to this little formality he had been waiting here longer than Will and myself. Which practically made him, as he pointed out, a captive. He couldn’t leave the country without their permission. From then on Fred was known to us as ‘the prisoner’.
I had my Uzbek, Kazakh and Tajikistan visas as did Will. Fred was under a promise, any day now. But there was the issue of the ship. There are no passenger services to the port of Aktau in Azerbaijan, it was a matter of trying to get a place on a cargo ship. And by their nature they sailed when they were ready. Every day we’d cycle down to the port and politely ask the middle aged Russian lady hidden away in a tiny concrete office for news of a sailing. Her reputation for impatience and tetchiness preceded her. And she’d no English so we’d try and get on her good side by having the necessary Russian words. Problems arose when she’d stray from the “No, try tomorrow” text. But I think she appreciated the effort, in fact we even got a smile out of her. We were onside! Fred had heard she doesn’t suffer the backpacker type easily. Our seniority (he’s my vintage) must have swung it.
The stars aligned, “this afternoon” we were told, and we shifted into gear, hairing back to pack our bikes. It was a mad rush doing the last minutes chores. I had everything prepared and supplies bought – pasta, noodles, electrolyte powder, tuna, cereal bars, fruit and nuts (close to the source here!), muesli, milk powder… But I had to find a post office to post one of my passports home, which I just managed to do in time. At €30 I nearly changed my mind but bit the bullet. I had got the brainwave (wish it had arrived with a little more notice) to apply for a Pakistan visa in Ireland as I had just learned that in recent times it was near to impossible to get one in Central Asia. Cutting across the Pamir and Himalaya mountains into Pakistan was a big part of my travel plans. I knew it would be a while until an opportunity of a post office arose again.
Will was desperately trying to put on pause his steamy affair by skype with a girlfriend in Columbia, and Fred was crossing his fingers the French consul had pulled the necessary strings at this late stage to have his replacement passport stamped out of the country. To all of our relief he did and with minutes to spare we made it on time to the rendezvous with our Russian lady at the port office and got the last three of six passenger tickets going. She’d kept them aside for us, the sweetie.
That was for the 3pm sailing. At midnight, with the freight still slowly being loaded by rail on to the ship that evening, we rolled out our mats on the ground and got some sleep until activity woke us at 4.30am when instructions were issued to go through passport control. We got into a bunk at 6am. At lunchtime nearly 24 hours after we got to the port the ship eventually set sail and the impressive skyline of Baku receded behind us.
The Caspian Sea is really a very large lake – the largest body of enclosed water in the world – and has no outlets to the sea. Rivers drain into it and evaporation does the rest. Which makes it pretty salty. Pretty soon we were passing acres and acres of disused oil derricks rusting away. I was starving and my question using eating motions and using the word restaurant was met with an amused response. “This cargo boat. No restaurant!” We were fed after the crew got their chow, and I got the idea, grudgingly. As if it was their stores we were eating into. We were fortunate I think with the ship, a fairly modern one. When the ship was bought in Croatia it was sailed through the Mediterranean, around Europe to St Petersburg in Russia before arriving in the Caspian via a system of canals! I was gobsmacked. But then there is so little I know about the infrastructure of the former Soviet Union.
Two of the other passengers were a pair of manic Basques competing with their small Peugeot van in the Mongol Rally. The rally is held annually from London to Ulan Bator and the rules only allow cars under 1000cc in power and less than ten years of age. The idea is to leave them for charity at the destination. The athletic Javi, a carpenter, was built like a second row and was the spitting image of Paul O’Connell – number one cut red hair, lantern jaw and big wide grin included – and his offsider Jordi, wiry and with a swarthy complexion, the opposite, was dwarfed next to him. They interspersed their high jinks and fun with bouts of agonising about the delays so far and their changing plan. Along with their fuming that they were ripped off with their ferry fare. The idea was to sell their vehicle in Russia but they’d just discovered that entering the country with the car on their passport, they would have to exit with it too. Or pay big duty. The poor guys, it didn’t seem like a lot of planning had gone into the trip. They had tickets bought for the Trans Siberian express to return home. And time was running out. The other passenger was a chatty Greek Londoner travelling through Central Asia on his BMW 1200cc, with an admirable and boundless level of curiosity. About everything, Azerbaijan politics, the size of the ship’s engine pistons, hanging out with the captain on the bridge quizzing him on the navigation equipment… He was delighted the guys offered to carry his panniers in the van across the desert, which would make it a lot more fun for him.
We all six shared the one cabin and the conversation helped pass the time on board. Asif, one of the younger crew, was traffic control, the guy who has a walkie talkie in his hand transmitting instructions from the bridge to the deckhands. He spoke a little English and so was the source of any slight scraps of information we could glean. Fred though keen to chat was having a problem being understood by Asif. Actually by a few people for whom English wasn’t their first language – his accent was so Peter Sellers, you had to smile listening to him he was nearly a caricature of himself. (When asked where he was from his answer, “Bordeaux”, was pronounced with the strong swallowed ‘r’ as if replying to another Frenchman’s casual query. Which more often than not would just sail over people’s heads.) English is the language of international shipping and Asif told us when the ship sailed through the Mediterranean – Spain, Italy – and around Europe they had no problem understanding the traffic controllers radioing from ashore. But once they got into British waters it was incomprehensible. “Like from Japon!” he exclaimed. There was a deckhand from Turkey who understood a little better so he ended up piloting the ship! Fred enjoyed that one.
From reading internet reports on this crossing I had been prepared for an uncomfortable, cramped and unpleasant experience. In fact it was fine. We made it across the Caspian Sea in two days. But then had to wait a further twenty four hours to get a berth. The two Basques were chomping at the bit ready to race off across the desert. However, disembarking after clearing Immigration we were stopped at the exit gate – none of us were allowed to exit. There was a shutdown as a Chinese general was visiting! I looked over to the Basques’ van to see if it was going to lift off. After some time persuading various guards we were no threat to national security a sympathetic senior official let us three cyclists slip out the gate. We were in Kazakhstan! I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for the other three. We were excited. Ahead of us lay the desert!