Day 67-70 Cycling through Azerbaijan

The last few hours up to the border to Azerbaijan was slightly uphill and the heat was intense. We spent our last coins in the Georgian currency Lari by buying 4 pieces of chewing gum at a shop 50 meters from the border.

Exit Georgia…

A Georgian border guard asked for our passports, flipped through my passport several times and asked if I had another passport too. I do have a second passport but that was already delivered to Baku and I couldn’t understand the reason for his question.

After another minute of careful inspection of my passport the officer asked ”when and where did you enter Georgia?”

I replied ”June 20, at the border south of Batumi”. The officer then told me there was no entry stamp in my passport. He flipped through the pages once again and then he looked closely at the azerbaijan visa sticker and told me that it looked like the azeri consul must have put the visa sticker right on top of my entry stamp to Georgia. He mumbled something about ”stupid consul” and told me it wasn’t my problem, took my passport and went to check my entry date in his computer system before givingin me my exit stamp. 

Georgia is a country I have started to like. They have made big progress when it comes to moving the society away from the old soviet heritage. One thing I learned during my stay was that just like elsewhere in the former soviet union corruption was rampant in Georgia. In 2005 the government took the drastic decision to fire 95% of the police force and start over with new officers who got a salary increase of several hundred percent. I bet there were lots of influential people who were not so satisfied with this but now Georgia’s police force is ranked as being on western european level when it comes to corruption. 

Our entry into the country was late in the afternoon and we stopped in the first city to get some cash before continuing out of town to find somewhere to pitch our tent. We found lots of potential camp sites but they all had some drawbacks, but during a fast speed down a hill Wej dropped one of her water bottles and when we stopped to pick it up we saw a great camp site just some 50 meters beside the road.

Campsite. Soon 85 cattle and a cowboy on his horse were to arrive

We love eating good food but we let professionals take us on culinary excursions in the local cuisine. When we cook ourselves we stick to some simple basic food and today was the third day in a row when we ate spagetti with a sauce consisting of tomato paste, onion and fried salami. Good taste, but it starts to be boring by now. 

In the morning we found out that we had camped in a field where cattle graze and as we were preparing our morning coffee we saw one, two, three and many many more cows coming walking through the gate into the field where we had stayed. Behind the long row of cattle was a guy on a horse – a true cowboy. He closed the gate behind the cows and came over to talk to us. As usual the language barrier was too great to overcome, but this was a cowboy of the 21 century. He soon pulled out a smartphone of his pocket and we could communicate via his google translate app…..

The cowboy and I…

The cowboy told us to drop by his house further down the road and have a cup of tea and then left us. Half an hour later when we were cycling along the road we heard the sound of a galloping horse behind is. It was the cowboy who was anxious we would miss his house and had hurried to catch up with us.

The cowboy, his niece and nephew and Wej

The cowboy lived with his grandmother and brother’s family in a small house. his grandmother was a colorful and decisive old women who countiously shouted out orders to the people around her. The cowboy just nodded and smiled to us as a sign of not taking her seriously. 

Just like in Turkey they served their guests tea but here they but some leaves of mint in the tea glass to make it mint tea.

Mint tea

After having some tea we continued our ride along the valley with the snow capped mountains of the great Caucasus on our left. The landscape was very green and we very often found ourselves riding through alleys with large trees on both sides. 

It was a hot day and in the afternoon the heat was so intense it was almost impossible to cycle. We decided to take a rest at the first possible place that could offer us shade and something cold to drink. Three large trucks parked beside the road made us hope for a cafe or restaurant but when we got close we found three truck drivers preparing lunch in the shade between their trucks. They were driving in a caravan from Turkey to Baku and since they were turkish it didn’t even take half a minute until we were invited to share their lunch of fried fish, fresh salad, Trabzon bread, cold water and turkish tea. These guys showed that the turkish hospitality is extended beyond the borders of Turkey…. 

Lunch with the Turkish truckers

During the late afternoon the heat was so intense that I developed a rash on the inside of my thighs and needed to get a proper shower and not only a wash with my water bottle. Lucky us to find that AZ Petrol in the next town runs its own motel. It was a bit expensive but it had AIRCONDITION  Dear readers and followers – not so many months ago we sought indoor shelter to stay warm, now we go indoors to enjoy AC….. 

We rode through Georgia with an simple map we got second hand from a Thai touring cyclists we met in Batumi and it worked fine. When we entered Azerbaijan we didn’t even have a simple map – we had none and just follewed the road signs.

While we still were on the Georgian side of the border we could see mountains growing bigger and bigger as we got closer and once inside Azerbaijan we rode parallell to the mountains. The first few days the landscape was very green and there were forests everywhere and cattle were grazing on the grassy fields. We highly enjoyed this kind of landscape but 1,5 days before entering Baku the landscape changed dramatically.

After a giant climb to Gabala city it was time to find somewhere to sleep and we ended up at a little local bakery just outside the town. We asked the owners if we could camp in their garden and they didn’t only allow us to stay there. They also provided us with fresh bread.

On our fourth day in Azerbaijan the landscape changed from very green to a brown, dry semi dessert. The shade was gone and the heat got even worse. Our plan was to get to the city of Samaxi where we would try to camp. We knew there would have to get across a valley with a steep downhill followed by just as steep uphill section. It wasn’t hard to ride down, but the climb out of the valley was the steepest so far on our journey. It was in fact so steep that we almost had to push the bikes. We rode at 3-4 km/h and often stopped to rest.

It may not look steep on this photo but I can guarantee it was in reality

In Samaxi we soon found another AZ Petrol station and we stopped to wash ourselves at their restroom. When the owner asked where we were going to stay we quickly asked if he knew where we could camp. He pointed to a lawn just across the street. Since our plan was to start riding at 5 AM we thought we could as well just sit and sleep at a hidden corner at the gas station. After having had dinner at the gas station’s cafe the owner suggested we could sleep in the prayer room of the gas station. We parked our bikes inside the prayer room and then fell asleep on the thick carpets.

Living on a prayer… 😉

There is not much to say about the ride into Baku. It was 120 km across a dry semi dessert and I found the views rather boring. We stopped in a few small towns to have a cold drink and on top of one of the hills there was a large stall selling melons. We stopped there to buy one, but was offered one for free 

Melons for free only for cyclis

Riding into Baku was rather uncomplicated. The city only has 2-3 million people and we followed the signs into the centre and then used our map from the guide book to get to the hostel in the old town that we had planned to stay at.

Statistics for Cycling day 66 b  (Azerbaijan side)  

Distance:               20.4  km
Traveling time        1.53  hours
Cycling time           1.12  hours
Average speed      16.9  km/h
Top speed             39.6  km/h
Altitude gained         96  m
Altitude lost            241  m

Statistics for cycling day 67  

Distance:               99.3  km
Traveling time        9.42  hours
Cycling time           5.20  hours
Average speed      18.6  km/h
Top speed             34.6  km/h
Altitude gained       487  m
Altitude lost            407  m

Statistics for cycling day 68 

Distance:               98.9  km
Traveling time      11.22  hours
Cycling time           6.29  hours
Average speed      15.2  km/h
Top speed             42.8  km/h
Altitude gained       937  m
Altitude lost            628  m

Statistics for cycling day 69  

Distance:               87.1  km
Traveling time      10.08  hours
Cycling time           6.43  hours
Average speed      12.9  km/h
Top speed             51.1  km/h
Altitude gained     1246  m
Altitude lost          1292  m

Statistics for cycling day 70  

Distance:             121.3  km
Traveling time      12.24  hours
Cycling time           8.23  hours
Average speed      14.5  km/h
Top speed             50.4  km/h
Altitude gained       913  m
Altitude lost          1538  m

Chasing visas in Baku

We submitted our visa applications at the Kazak embassy when it opened on this Tuesday morning. The officer told us our visas would be ready by Friday which was one day later than we had hoped. The good news was that he didn’t keep our passports during the time.

The following day (wednesday) the three cyclists we got to know in Tbilisi came to our hostel. We met Bartek (Poland) first time at the guesthouse in Batumi and first time we met Simon (New Zealand) was at the gas station outside Gori when Wej’s knee problem had got worse. They were riding with Marko from Slovenia who we met when he rested in the shade of a tree outside Bojormi. They had cycled together from Tbilisi to Baku at high speed to be able to apply for some central asian visas before the weekend.

We followed them to the Uzbek embassy to see where it was located. They all had letter of invitations (LOI) for Uzbekistan and would get visas on the spot. Our LOI wasn’t ready yet and we were afraid our friends would get their visas quickly and sail away with the next ship and leaving us to cross the Kazak and Uzbek deserts on our own,

Sine they had gone too late to the embassy the consul told them to come back to pick up their passports the following day when the embassy’s consular department actually was closed. When we all returned to the hostel we had got our own LOI e-mailed to us two days quicker than promised. The owner of the hostel told us there would be a ferry sailing to Kazakstan on Friday and this message was great but even if we now had our LOI:s we still had to get the visas.

The Uzbek embassy was going to be closed the following day (Thursday) but since our friends had made an appointment to pick up their passports we joined them to get inside. Once we were there the consul wasn’t too happy of seeing more visitors outside opening hours, but he was kind enough to grant us our visas on the spot too.

With our Uzbek visas stamped into our passports we hurried to the Kazak embassy. It was only Thursday and the passports wouldn’t be ready until Friday, but we took a chance. The consul immediately recognized our faces and said ”I told you to come on Friday, but I will check if your visas are ready”. We waited patiently outside his office and when we heard the sound from his printer the hope of being able to sail on the same ferry as our friends grew. 

Our passports had now visas for Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and China and I felt just as relieved as after having a tough test a university. It was party time…..

In the Friday morning we got the news that there wouldn’t be a ferry to Kazakstan that day after all. We are 7 cyclists at our hostel who want to get across the Caspian and we discussed what to do. Some of us were under more time constraints with their Azeri visas soon expiring and the thought of flying across the Caspian once again returned.

When I write this it is Saturday afternoon and we have got information that a ferry is on its way into harbour and that we should be at the ticket booth at 8 PM. We hope that the ferry will sail some time during the night and arrive in Aktau on the Kazak side of the Caspian Sea during Sunday or early Monday. 

From Aktau we expect some rough riding through the dessert to the town of Beyneu. It is 400 km through the dessert. Our plan is then to take one rest day in Beyneu before continuing on an even more horrible road to the Uzbek border.

Uzbekistan requires travelers to register every 72 hours. The registration is done by checking in to a hotel where foreigners are allowed to stay. From the border to the nearest point of registration it is 370 km of pure desert so we are looking forward to some interesting days of cycling.

Crossing the Caspian Sea

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The unreliable sailing times of the ferry from Baku to Aktau in Kazakstan led us to book our beds at the hostel for one night at the time. This would sooner or later lead to problems since new guests kept coming all the time. 

We don’t know if it was to get rid of us or if it was of pure concern, but the lady who runs the hostel kept calling the ferry company several times each day to check if there would be any ferry. On Thursday morning she said it might be one on Friday, but when Friday came it turned out that there wasn’t going to be any departure that day. We asked if we could stay one more night at the hostel and although a bit problematic, the owner managed to let us stay by squeezing in some newcomers in her own apartment.

The Magnificent Seven…

With all our visas ready we spent a few hours visiting the Swedish honorary consul in Baku who is a friend of a friend back home. It was great to sit down and talk in Swedish to someone else but ourselves. The consul invited us for a midsummer night dinner the following day.

During our stay in Baku I have serviced our bikes and Wej’s back tyre isn’t in the best condition so I moved it to the front wheel instead where it will wear out more slowly. We can’t count on finding any good bike stores in central asia so our plan was to buy a spare tyre in Baku to carry just in case of the unlikely event that some of our tyres blow up, are cut by sharp rocks or simply worn out.

Since Wej’s tyre was in a worse condition than we had expected we went to a bike store to buy not only a spare tyre, but also a completely new tyre for Wej. At the bike shop we met Magsud who has a summer job in the store and is a serious MTB rider. Magsud speaks very good English and we got his phone number in case we needed any help.

When cycle touring in far away countries it is a dream to visit a well stocked bike shop

When the Friday evening came we were still waiting at the hostel but on Saturday morning the hostel owner told us there would be a ship later that day. She also had a new group of visitors coming in so she almost chased us away. 

We were really confused because the hostel owner seemed to have a good contact at the ferry terminal, but her English wasn’t good enough to pass the details in the information on to us. We sent a message to Magsud who dropped by on his way to work and he translated all the information so that we could make a fact based decision.

Common picnic lunch

The information we got was that the ferry would indeed leave that day (Saturday) and she had reserved tickets for us and that we should be at the port at 8 PM on Satuday evening. The hostel was by now soon full of new guests and we all packed our bikes and cycled to a nearby park where we decided to have a common picnic lunch and then spend the afternoon by just hanging around.

After picnic….

There will be a big army parade on June 26th and the Bulevar street (beach road) and the road leading into the port was closed for rehearsals. Earlier during the day someone in the group had tried to ride to the ferry terminal to check the status but had been turned away by soldiers.

When it was time to leave for the port we were afraid that the army would turn us away so we called Magsud who once again came by and rode with us to the terminal. He did an excellent job in telling the soldiers that they had to let us through and when we rode by all the army vehicles parked for the coming parade it felt like an invasion was under preparation. There were hundreds of tanks, rocket launchers and troop transport vehicles parked in straight lines.

A similar ferry to the one taking us to Aktau

Once we arrived at the port around 7 PM on Satuday we found there was nothing. The ticket office was empty and the ferry was not in port. A group of German motorcyclists were already waiting there and they told us (one of them spoke excellent russian) that the lady who sells the ticket would come at 10 PM and that we would be able to board at midnight. 

The ferry between Baku and Aqtau is not a regular passanger ferry, but a ship that transports train carriages across the Caspian Sea. It sails when there is enough cargo and when the weather conditions permit.

The deck in the aft of the ferry. Railway cars and the car from a National Geograpy photo team

This is how railway cars are shackled on a ferry

We all got very excited when the ferry finally arrived in the Saturday evening but there lady in the ticket office was still absent. We spent our time waiting in an old shed and we had two 2.5 liter bottles of beer to share so the time passed easily  Around midnight we learned that the lady selling tickets would come early in the morning instead. Rumours said that we could board the ferry before and pay straight to the captain afterwards, but we decided to spend the night at the shed.

We want to board….

7 cyclists, 5 motorcyclists and a lone french backpacker spread out their sleeping matresses on the ground and fell asleep only bothered by mosquitos and the squeeking sound of railway cars being pushed on and off the nearby ferry.

Sleeping at the shed in the port

We woke up around 6.30 on Sunday morning and packed our equipment and had some bread with jam for breakfast. At 8.30 we went to the ticket office to buy our tickets. Finding the port and the ticket office and then buying the ticket is rather complicated and I have read numerous journals on the web about travelers running into all sorts of problems and that the lady selling the tickets is a witch.

Buying tickets to the ferry

For us it was very smooth. The german motorcycle rider who spoke fluent russian helped us and the lady at the ticket office is certainly not a witch. She was actually very nice and smiled and joked all the time.

With tickets in our hands and our bikes loaded we were ready to board the ferry, but again nothing happened. We spent a few more hours waiting at the shed that now started to feel like our home.

Bikes loaded and ready for boarding

Sometime around noon on Sunday we were waved to the customs and immigration booth. Once again nothing happened and we had to wait another hour before being called inside to get our travel documents checked.

Waiting outside the customs office

At 2 PM on Sunday we could finally roll over the gangway and park our bikes among the railway cars. The ferry only takes 12 passengers and we were 15 in total which caused some problems. We were told to wait in the passenger’s mess and we all quickly fell asleep. Being onboad the ferry didn’t mean that we were getting any closer to Kazakstan though. It took another 3 hours before the ship finally set sail and left the Baku’s port at about 5 PM on Sunday afternoon.

Parking and securing the bikes on cargo deck

We spent the good part of the Saturday day sitting and waiting in the park and then 22 hours by waiting at the shed and in the ferry before we really departed Baku.

Finally… Bye bye Baku

The ferry company has two ships on this route, one old and one that is newly built. We are on the old ship (Agdan) and we are surprised that the ship isn’t in as bad condition as we had expected. The only drawback is that there has been a misunderstanding about our reservation and there wasn’t beds for all of us (bunk beds). A crew mate was ordered by the captain to give up his cabin for Wej and me and our friends slept on their own matresses in the passenger’s mess.

Our, or actually a crew member’s cabin

We feel safe with proper life boats

The main income for Azerbaijan comes from oil export and after leaving the port in Baku we sailed passed hundreds of oilrigs before we enjoyed a lovely sunset at sea followed by a bright fullmoon.

Passing one of the many oil rigs in the Caspian Sea

We felt just like we were on a cruise and the only thing we lacked was some entertainment onboard but I guess the crew isn’t prepared to set up any shows for only 15 passangers who are now only thinking about the coming ride through the desert….

Caspian sunset

On Monday afternoon we could see land on the Kazak shore of the Caspian Sea and we all hoped we would be able to get off the ship and cycle into town to buy some supplies for the coming days. Then the captain dropped the anchor…….   Soon after we were informed that there were no available space for our ship in the docks and we had to wait until perhaps 10 PM on Monday evening. Arriving to a new country and city that late is not very pleasant and we asked if we could stay onboard until Tuesday morning. The captain said he would try to see if it would be possible to arrive later and after an hour or two we got the message we would arrive early Tuesday morning instead.

Enjoying the last view of the horizon at sea. Next time will be in Thailand

When we were loading our bikes on early Tueday morning to be ready to disembark, we got new information telling that there harbour workers had a shift change and that we would have to wait 2-3 more hours before being able to leave the ship and go to thorugh customs which they say will take around 3 hours. 

We arrived at the port in Baku on Saturday afternoon and will be cleared to start cycling in the early afternoon on Tuesday. For the time being we have been onboard this ship for 44 hours and we expect it to be 46 in total. That’s a lot of time to sail 450 km across the Caspian Sea…. Next time we should maybe cycle around it instead…. 

Wej in the ships only corridor

The good thing in all this is that we didn’t have to pay for the second night onboard and the extra dinner and breakfast that we would be served. The ticket prices was 110 USD and if we count the two nights of accomodation, two breakfast, lunches and dinners served, then it is not a bad price at all, but I would be happy to pay another 10-20 USD to get working toilets. They all stopped working in the Monday evening and I will spare you the description of look and the smell of the bathrooms 

The very long wait for the ferry and the 46 hour long ferry ride itself has been interesting. In our western societies time is money and we are not used to wait for something to happen sometime which could be this afternoon or three days later. We want exact dates and times and feel unproductive and get restless and upset when there is no reliable information available about when things can be expected to happen.

Tug boat in Aktau harbour

I have during my trips to other far away countries often found that people seem to be able to not get restless when they wait for something to happen. Things will happen when they happen and maybe we stressed westerners who always want to be productive have something to learn. At least for us the experience with the ferry across the Caspian Sea has been a good lesson of how life is for many people around the world and I think we all have learned quite a lot from it this part of the adventure.

Moon rise at sea