The majority of my 24 hour ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea has been blessed with beautiful blue skies and sunshine, but as we draw closer to land the clouds begin to thicken and by the time we make port in the city of Baku it has become a thoroughly miserable afternoon. Azerbaijan is a very interesting country, caught between the east and the west yet not entirely part of either, it has flourished in recent years due to vast oil wealth. An Islamic country with significant western influences and the birthplace of the famous chess grand master Gary Kasparov, Azerbaijan is a country of which I yet know very little.
I am stamped through customs by a friendly border official who warmly welcomes me back to Europe. I am not going to argue with him, although for myself the long awaited return into Europe will not happen until I have crossed the Bosporus and am standing on the western shore of Istanbul. The line between Europe and Asia is a point of contention for many; the eastern border is generally accepted to be Russia’s Ural Mountains, but the southerly limits are less clear. I have always thought of the Caucuses and Turkey as being in Asia, but my time in Azerbaijan will certainly lead me to question this
Baku is pouring with rain as I pedal through the streets, but it is already noticeably warmer than it was east of the Caspian. I quickly find a bike shop to replace the knackered old pedal I’d bought for $1 back in Uzbekistan, which had heroically got me almost 2000km through the cold Central Asian steppe. Because I am racing to try to get home for Christmas and don’t have time to waste, I have only got a 5 day transit visa for Azerbaijan and it is already late afternoon so I will have to get a move on if I am to cover the 500km to the Georgian border in time.
It takes me a few hours to ride out of Baku, and my overall impression of the city is one of modernity. It feels like a very western city, far more so than anywhere I have been in Asia. I see my first McDonald’s restaurant in almost 11,000km – the last being on my way out of Bangkok – and have to laugh when I realise I am considering taking a photo. Within 10 minutes of seeing the first one, I have seen 5 more. Everywhere are western fast food chains, expensive department stores and fashion outlets – perhaps Azerbaijan is closer to Europe than I had thought.
I ride through the outskirts and camp for the night; as I am cooking up some pasta I can just about make out the Muslim call to prayer echoing in the distance. I have always enjoyed listening to the call to prayer for there is something exotic and exciting about it; it is a reminder that although Azerbaijan might have many things in common with the west, there are many things it shares with the east as well.
Although warmer than Kazakhstan, the temperature still dips below freezing in the night and the morning brings with it clear skies and a ferocious headwind from the west. It is bad timing, for I am entering the Caucasus Mountains and have a lot of climbing to do. The Caspian Sea lies at around 28 metres below sea level and is officially the lowest point in Europe (assuming that at least part of it is in Europe), so the only way I can go is up. I ride for hours, occasionally being treated to brief downhill stretches but never far from the next climb. The landscape is beautiful, with rolling green hills that are a breath of fresh air after the endless barren wastes of Central Asia.
The wind is wearing me down though, and long desert miles have left me out of practice with mountain riding. Feeling sore at the top of an hour long climb, I stop at a petrol station to shelter from the wind and am immediately invited to join the mechanics for lunch. It is perfect cycling food; a huge greasy omelette topped with chunks of salami, absolutely delicious. I ask them if Azerbaijan is normally so windy; they nod seriously at me. “Yes, Azerbaijan very windy. Georgia not windy, but there it is always raining”. I am headed to Georgia next. Still, I’ll take rain over headwind.
To my immense relief the wind finally calms in the late afternoon and I have a few spectacular hours of riding towards the sunset. The mountains to my right are breathtaking and I want very much to detour north to explore them, but it will have to wait for another trip as I have only managed 100km in over 8 hours of cycling, the wind and hills having slowed my progress. Passing through a small town I stop at a market to buy apples and bread when I am approached by an Azeri man named Afiq who speaks excellent English and very kindly insists on buying the supplies for me.
I offer him an apple and we sit and eat. Afiq asks where I have come from, and takes some convincing before he will believe I have ridden all the way from Papua New Guinea. He talks of Azerbaijan and how much the country is changing, and of the popularity of its President. I tell him that I hadn’t realised Azerbaijan was in Europe, he laughs and nods. “Yes, Azerbaijan is on the border but we are Europeans here. Look at me – do I look Asian to you?”
I know it is risky but I decide to bring up the subject of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s neighbour to the west. Instantly, Afiq’s face darkens and I can see him deciding whether to spit. “They are bad people”, he says flatly, “Armenians are all criminals”. I had expected a reaction: the two countries have been fighting for decades, but I am still taken aback by the undisguised hatred in his eyes. The source of the conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a relatively small disputed territory which is officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is de facto controlled by Armenia.
The conflict flared into full-scale war in 1992 and although a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, even now there are shots fired and occasional casualties between the two countries in Karabakh almost every single day. The two sides have completely opposite narratives, each blaming the other for starting and perpetuating the conflict. Afiq gives me a passionate rendition of the Azeri account, and also tells me the Russians are to blame for playing both sides. Again I am struck by the venom with which he talks. This man has a cold and frighteningly pure hatred for Armenia; he doesn’t just dislike them – he really hates them. Ethnic tensions can run deep in this part of the world.
With the light fading I leave Afiq and ride out of town to camp in a forest on a bed of fallen leaves. The morning is glorious and I am treated to the sight of a country in the full splendour of autumn. The forests are a patchwork of green and gold and the mountains are white with snow. It has been more than three years since I have seen autumn, and I had forgotten just how beautiful the falling season can be.
After a wonderful morning of descending from the mountains, I spend the afternoon and all of the following day riding hard towards the border, the flatter terrain and much reduced wind allowing me to cover a lot more ground. I meet a few more Azeris, who are all extremely friendly but all of whom share Afiq’s remarkable hatred for Armenia. One man driving a fast tractor on the main road lets me grab hold of his trailer for a tow, allowing me to cruise along and watch the mountains in the distance, effort free, for almost half an hour before he has to turn off and I reluctantly resume pedalling.
I reach the border an hour before sunset and cross into Georgia, finishing on another 240km for the day. It is a shame to have had to rush through Azerbaijan so quickly for it an interesting and beautiful country with friendly people and spectacular mountains. I am still not sure whether I think Azerbaijan is in Europe or Asia, but having entered the country knowing virtually nothing about it, I will leave with fond memories and a desire to return. You can learn a lot in three and a half days.