Emerging from the border control, we were impressed, or relieved at least. A beautiful smooth road was a welcome sight after a morning of bumping along on the other side. Music sung in my ears when I saw the first civilised toilet block I had seen in quite a few days and the people were keen to welcome us to their country, including the Presidents late father, Heydar Aliyev, of whom stood poised and regal upon numerous giant billboards in every town and village across the land. Litter was still scattered here and there but it was a huge improvement from what we had witnessed over the last few days. At the first town, we were all pleased to have ATM's and well stocked supermarkets again, and on first sight, everything seemed nicely presented.
Our asphalt road began to dip and bulge like waves of volcanic lava, a mixture of subsidence and heavy trucking perhaps. It was so severe in some places, that a BMX may have been quite fun! The road worsened still and eventually the asphalt was replaced by rocky, gravelly track, very frustrating and had us walking in places.
Unsure how long we should persist before thumbing for a lift or coming up with an alternative plan, we pulled up at a fresh water point (whereby there was a factory producing bottled mineral water directly behind) and another fruit vendor gave us a whole watermelon and bunch of grapes. The man also advised us to grit our teeth and bare with it, with only one more kilometre of bad road to go, we would then be good all the way to Baku. He was right too..
On the third day we stopped at a nice park in the city of Qabala. After drowning ourselves, fully clothed in the parks water fountain, we set our picnic blankets out under the shade of a tree for a well earned siesta. Unfortunately and I guess this comes with the game, it is never that relaxing when you stop anywhere. With every mile east, the people have become more and more curious. In fact, we only need to slow down and we quickly attract a crowd. I can understand it, after all, David and I love people watching more than anyone and people are what we have come to see more than anything. But, our cultural boundaries are very different and I guess we are very conscious of giving people their space in the west. Here, it's totally out the window!
I would have loved to have captured on camera the Azerbaijani version of 'queuing' for a cash machine. The phrase 'if you snooze, you loose' is the method here. Non of this 'hide your pin' malarky, it honestly looks like the whole crowd is trying to get a look at the bank balance!
It has become a frequent question to have a look at our passport, just out of interest. If you permit, you will stand there awkwardly as every last detail on your ID page is examined. However, we realised we could take this with a pinch of salt when someone asked if the long number at the bottom of the identity page represented the number of 'likes' on Facebook..
With the local languages becoming more and more difficult to decipher, conversation is clearly limited. And as people stand there watching on, as much as we would love to talk about our journey and ask them a million questions too, sometimes we just have to break the awkwardness and continue with what we are doing, aware that there are many eyes watching us intently.
We were asked to fill out some forms, conveniently written in Azerbaijani, perfectly suitable for the average tourist. We nervously joked that we could just have easily have been applying for citizenship to the country for all we knew. It seems pointless having a world wide database and seamless technology such as passport chips to access it, when you are asked to do remedial task like this. I'm fairly sure our forms will merely end up being made into paper aeroplanes or something similar anyway. The guy helping us wants more photocopies of our passports (the very same information that we have just copied letter for letter onto the forms) and then has the audacity to charge us for them, brilliant! There's a bit more faffing around and we eventually get our stamped receipt which proves we have registered. Note: This only cost 0.50 manat, make sure you keep it with you until you exit the country.
Everything resolved, we head out into the sunset and find a cracking camp where a farmer is washing down his tractor from a huge fresh water pipe that is feeding through to a concrete holding vat. The water is ice cold and the farmer lets us fill all our water containers and splash around in there before it is turned off. Fresh water always makes the perfect end to a day.
The road soon wound into the lower mountains and we had a few steep passes to get over. We were nearing the top of the first big climb when the boys spotted a truck fully loaded with dirt and gravel trudging up the hill slowly. Seeing a good opportunity to save some sweat, they positioned themselves alongside and attempted to grab a tow up the hill. David and Jacob were on, whilst Mark floundered around trying to get a grip off the back. Determined to catch a free ride, he threw a little extra effort at it, successfully grabbed a firm hold, but timed it perfectly with the truck dabbing his breaks and swerving out to shake them off. At that, a bucket load of dirt and grit then came showering down over Mark! It gave us all a laugh and even Mark cracked out a smile!
Until we had reached the city of Baku, I had began to wonder if I was the only woman around, especially in these desert towns. Groups of men stood around, generally drinking çay, smoking and leering as I came by. It was the same on the road too and even the boys in our group became increasingly frustrated with the cars of men that would slow down alongside me and gawp out their car windows as though they had never seen a girl on a bike before. It may be unusual for them, but there is no need for the sniggering and sleazy glares.
However, nothing upset us more than the treatment of animals we witnessed time and time again. Horses with their feet tied together, herders hurtling large rocks at their cattle to make them move, sheep left to dehydrate in the desert whilst tied to a concrete slab and when we had already seen enough, Jacob and Russell showed us a disgraceful video that they filmed when we arrived in Baku. They had woken up to a startling noise, so loud that they assumed an elephant would be coming down the street. They jumped out of bed with their video camera, only to be confronted with a cow being beaten across the street from them. Whilst alive, the butchers had tied its legs, dragged it along the ground, kicked it and even stood on it. After some time, the butcher eventually took the knife to throat and bled the cow to its death. The boys continued to film, the cow continued to kick and struggle as its blood spread out around it. I am fully aware that we do not know what goes on behind closed doors in our factory farms, but this just seems barbaric. By all means, bleed it out according to tradition, but for goodness sake, stun the poor creature first.
I am not quite sure what to make of the desert. Before man ran power lines, highways, pipelines and dug quarries, the sheer desolation would have been quite beautiful. We slipped off of the main road and found ourselves another stirling camp, the sun saturating us with hues of orange and red as it slipped below the quarry pits. This was our last night before cycling into Baku.
Traffic converged, horns were endlessly beeping (but not at us for a nice change) and at the first big roundabout we had to dodge around a man with his head sticking half way out of a manhole in the middle of the road! We navigated our way in through the chaos and when we arrived in the centre, it was as if we had entered another world. There were grand sandstone buildings with spectacular water features, sculptures and parks. And when we finally reached the Caspian Sea (a poignant milestone), we cruised along what is quite possibly the most impressive boulevard we have ever seen. The standard of finish is outstanding. Amongst some impressive architectural features, the promenade (declared a national park by the former president) is lavished with magnificent trees and plants from around the world, many that look like enormous bonsai trees. The cities facade is glowing with wealth and with high-end designer brands adorning the streets everywhere you look, you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived somewhere similar to Monte Carlo. Killer stiletto's support the legs of beautiful women and fully buttoned men with polished shoes, brace the heat. It couldn't be a greater contrast to what we had been experiencing.
After gaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan underwent a huge redevelopment programme in a bid to regain their identity. And after speaking with our local hosts, they described to us the epic changes they have seen during the early 2000's until the present day in their Capital city.
Baku is bursting with quirky and innovative architecture, with some of the most mesmerising modern buildings we have ever seen. Probably the most famous of these are the symbolic Flame Towers, completed in 2012 and wired up with approximately 10,000 LED lights that display an enchanting sequence of burning flames, followed by figures waving the flag of Azerbaijan. The three sky scrapers, with their curves and pointed tops, imitate a burning flame, representing Azerbaijan, which translated means - The Land of Fire.
Even more impressive, however, is the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. I am not entirely sure of the deep,
Hospitality in Baku
Studying law and English language at university, this would be their first experience hosting travellers and as such, there was a little nervousness and excitement as to how it would go. Əmiraslan and Shahin had come to meet us in the old town to begin with and then directed us to their home in the northern suburbs. When we arrived, we were greeted by curious kids playing in the park and also Shahin's beautiful grandmother who showered us with kisses and beamed from ear to ear when her boys introduced their guests. Exclaiming "Inshallah, Inshallah!" (God Willing, God Willing), she held the palms of her hands above her face and to the sky, looking with hope and happiness.
Əmiraslan made us feel incredibly welcome in his home and with big aspirations to travel and work in Europe in the future, we had lots to ask and learn from one another. On the first evening, after a dinner that could almost pass as a Sunday roast (something of a real treat), we took the subway back into the city and the guys introduced us to the city landmarks. The boulevard had really come to life with families enjoying the cooler evening air and a trip on the venicular took us to a poignant memorial site and cemetery that gave us a deep sense of the unrest suffered in Azerbaijan and neighbouring regions. Known as Martyrs' Lane, we passed along an avenue of memorial stones dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January, a tragic event of which we learnt led to the deaths of at least 98 unarmed Azerbaijani citizens, some were merely adults, when the Soviet forces evaded Baku. Later, the lives of those killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988 - 1994, were acknowledged at this memorial site and also 1,130 Turkish troops, which were killed when fighting Bolshevik and Armenian forces in the Battle of Baku in 1918. At the end of Martyr's Lane you arrive at the External Flame. Tragically, the unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous region is still in upheaval today, resulting in the continued loss of lives from both sides.
The cemetery is set within beautiful parks with spectacular views across the city and out to the Caspian Sea. We could also fully appreciate the cities night-time illuminations from this vantage point, including the Flame Towers and the Baku Crystal Hall built to host the 2012 Eurovision song contest.
Badimjan Dolmasi: Otherwise known as the 'Three Sisters'. The dish contains a selection of whole tomatoes, aubergines and sweet red peppers stuffed with minced lamb that can be prepared with herbs like mint, fennel, cinnamon or coriander, it is sometimes combines with rice too and then baked in the oven.
Dovga: a soup made from sour milk, rice and herbs and served chilled.
Pomidor Yumurta: Tomatoes reduced down and then beat in eggs whilst still simmering on a low heat. A popular Azeri breakfast I believe. This was personally my favourite and we have already recreated it on our camp stove! On this video link, the proportions seem to be more egg than tomato. We were served this dish more like a pomodoro sauce (with fine onion and garlic) with the eggs whisked in to add creaminess and a little thickness. As you wish!