Azerbaijan isn’t exactly the greatest place to cycle, not for us anyhow. Making our way to Sheki it became apparent that this isn’t the kind of cycling either of us enjoy. The biggest obstacle to over come isn’t the mountains, the arid climate, or the crazy drivers. Brian’s biggest issue has been the lack of readily available food stuffs, which up until recently hasn’t been much of a problem, and for me personally it’s been the heat.
In order to keep Brian happy and moving forward he needs to eat a lot! The calorie deficit he runs while cycling is enormous and every few hours he needs a recharge. During our first few days into Azerbaijan and in the first few towns we came upon there wasn’t much in the way of restaurants. (It could be we didn’t really know what we were looking for?) When we did happen on one of these rare places the food inside looked less then appealing or more often then that we were met with wide eyed stares and nothing more. The realization that we would have to start cooking/preparing all of our meals came soon after. To keep Brian’s stomach full and his attitude in the positive mode, we would have to start hauling a large quantity of edibles in our panniers. Making sure that we start taking more breaks to not only enjoy the scenery but to also prepare some homemade meals on the roadside.
The heat here in Central Asia is a whole different matter. Temperatures have risen not much more dramatically then when we where riding through Turkey. The main difference now being that the weather is hotter for a much longer period of time. Staying out of the midday heat is almost unavoidable at this moment. For a person like me who over heats easily and often things are starting to get mentally and physically bad. There are only a few things we can do to ease my suffering. One of those is waking up excruciatingly early to begin riding before dawn. That way we can make some distance before 1pm when the sun’s harsh rays really start picking up in intensity. Or we can try to skip the worst summer riding by taking the train into Baku, doing this we would be skipping the less pleasurable riding through the Azerbaijan countryside and allowing more down time in the city.
The second option was the one mutually agreed upon. From Sheki we would board the overnight train to Baku.
At this time I am still very unsure that we made the right decision. It almost feels like cheating when you decide that a certain stretch of land isn’t to your liking, so you just skip it. Then again we have been on the road for over 5 months, isn’t it time for an extended break? We were starting to wear a bit thin, don’t let anyone tell you that extended travel doesn’t have it’s downsides as well. There was a bigger reason though why I think it might have been a bad decision to take the night train from Sheki.
*Warning! Do not that the night train from Sheki if you value not only your sleep but also your sanity! Do take the train from Tbilisi, Georgia and save yourself the grief. And pray (note, I am not a religious person) that you don’t get the same train attendant as we did!
The train that runs to Sheki only runs by way of Baku once a day and doesn’t hit up any other major Azerbaijani cities along the way. So your one and only chance to board is at the Sheki train station. Also while the train tickets are not expensive (9 manat for a 4 person cabin) the train actually runs slower then the buses. Brian and I have had the pleasure of taking ourselves and our bicycles on trains before with little to no hassle what so ever, while buses sometimes are more of a crap shoot. This time I wish we would have taken the bus.
Starting off the train was late getting to it’s one stop for the day, after it came into the station we had to figure out which car we were assigned. Not an easy task since the train employees didn’t seem to know their seating numbers at all. Once we found our car there was the task of getting the bikes on board. This wasn’t one of the newer trains where you can just wheel the bike on board. Some of the old Soviet markings in the train car were still abound for the not so keen eye to see. While we tried to board the train Brian’s bike was somehow pushed around still fully loaded into the personnel docking area were a large female attendant obviously of Russian decent proceeded to scream at us in Azeri/Russian about boarding the train with our bicycles. She continued to yell at us, grab our things and start throwing around our bags until it was finally discovered where our bunks were. At the back of the car of course! She forced us to wheel our bikes through a crowd of over heated people eventually making it to the rear end of the train car. That’s where Brian finally gave in and started yelling back at this very insane woman. Neither of them spoke each others language but by the time they finished screaming everything was put away and we had found our seats. In a four person cabin we were sharing a cabin with three guys from the Azeri military. They turned out to be some of the funniest and friendliest people on board this Train of Terror. After the arguments with the staff this ride didn’t get any better (other then the company) it took more then 12 hours to negotiate 320 kms of track to Baku. This included sudden jolting stops, almost throwing you out of your bunk, to let other trains pass or sometimes to hook up new cars. When things like this happened and the engine stopped, all the lights and air flow stopped as well. The train was also so old that, while I normally am lulled to sleep by the swaying of a the train as it moves down the tracks, this time it was more like the rocking of a small boat during a large storm. Needless to say neither one of us got much sleep while on board. Truthfully the only nice thing about this ride was finally disembarking, for some reason this went easy as pie and we were able to ride our bikes from the platform out the front entrance on our way into Baku.
Before we even boarded the train to Baku, Brian had contacted a real estate agent here in the capital hoping to find us a more appropriate accommodation. Azerbaijan is surprisingly expensive and the biggest populated city in the whole country is no exception. This country has been very fortunate in the last few decades since the Soviet Union dissolved. They have and enormous amount of oil and natural gas and this is the main force behind their economic development. Baku is a city like no other in this region, there is such an influx of money coming into this area and it’s very apparent when you walk around the main square and the seaside boulevard. Everything has the look of brand new construction, the pedestrian only streets are paved with pattern tile, statues and art are all around. The main square or touristy spot is by Fountain Square, were you can do almost all of your high end shopping. The apartment we ended up renting (since Couchsurfing is almost impossible) is only blocks away from this highly popular mostly shopping district. It really is a nice central location for us, only a few blocks from the main drag, the seaside, and the historic old walled city.
As far as things to do in Baku, there really isn’t much unless you are into malls and shopping. There is a few attractions not that far outside of the actual city but we didn’t make any effort to see them. This stay extended stay in Baku was mainly to obtain Visas for onward travels and for some rest from traveling. We did however board the Ferris wheel down by the seaside. Make sure if you do this it is on a calm and not so windy day. Otherwise you are in for a very unnerving amusement park ride.
Getting our Visas turned out to be easier then expected, we made the trip to all 3 embassies on a Friday and ended the day with 2 stickers in the passport and one applied and ready for pick up the following Tuesday.
Starting at the Turkmenistan embassy first, (Note that we had already been issued an LOI for a tourist not a transit visa) the office is only open for a few short hours in the morning 9am-12pm Mondays and Fridays. If you go down there be prepared to sharpen your elbows for making way to the front of the line and maintain your ground. We were in line with a group of foreigners making their way acrossed the Caspian Sea in a race called the Mongol Rally, and like all mostly good westerners they know how to queue properly. But this is not the time for such formalities, the local Azeris will try to force their way to the front of the line by any means necessary. Be prepared for this and make it clear that there is no cutting in front of you! Voice it clear (they won’t understand you) and stand your ground. These tactics may or may not be effective but if you have ever been to India, you’ll know the drill and come away just fine. The Turkmenistan embassy was the only place we visited where pushing and shoving was the only way to assure your spot in line, all the others worked more normal. I think it has to do with the limited time frame upon which the office operates and that the hours of operation are not strictly adhered to. Often they open later then posted. Inside though, the men who run the office are friendly and helpful and the male secretary speaks English fairly well. It will take an hour or more for the whole process, paperwork, and payment ($55USD for Americans) but it is almost painless and surprisingly quick considering all the red tape just getting to this point.
The next stop was the Uzbekistan embassy, hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9am-12pm and 3pm to 5 pm. Luckily we skirted in just before noon and were able to get into see the consul before he went on lunch break, we were also the only ones applying for visas in his office at this time. Filling out all the paperwork weeks before in Istanbul, having been approved, and paid for the visas at the bank in Baku ($160 USD again the price for Americans) made this much easier. All he had to do was look up our application forms on the computer and fill in our visas, so the process went a bit quicker. All total maybe 45 minutes from start to finish. The only hard time we had during our visit to the Uzbekistan embassy was that the consul thought him self to be quite the comedian and on top of that he seemed a little forgetful. While talking to him we got to hear some really terrible jokes told a few different ways. Nice enough guy but a little strange, he did though give me a piece of chocolate “For the lady” he says.
Finally the Tajikistan visas, this last stop we did noting earlier in the trip to make the application process faster. As it came to be there really isn’t much that you need to do in advance as long as you have a little extra time here in Baku. Almost always you will have planned a longer stay here because applying for visas takes some time. For this embassy you just must show up with 2 passport photos and your actual passport, the consular will fill you in on all the rest. There is this one strange bit of personalization that you have to do along with your application form. The ask you to handwrite a letter to the Ambassador of of Tajikistan stating why you want to visit their country and some of the specifics of your trip. It’s noting hard and they will give you an example to copy and add your own style and flourish to, it’s just kind of a strange antiquated formality. After that we were told it talks 4 days to gain approval but that everything would be ready for pickup on the next business day, the following Tuesday after lunch. The Tajikistan embassy hours are 3pm to 5pm Tuesday through Friday. ($35-$50 USD depending on length of stay, this is to be paid at the time of pick up to the consul)
With these chores mostly out of the way we only had to do a few things here in Baku to prepare for forward travel to Turkmenistan. We need new chains for the bikes, it is coming on the 3000+km mark so we had to visit the local bike shop Baku Bike Shop 2teker which has a surprising array of stock to be had. But still no jockey/pulley wheels for my rear derailleur. They said to call back on the following Friday when their next shipment is said to arrive but I doubt they will have such an odd item.
We’ve had a large amount of free time to do whatever we want to do, it has been mostly staying in the air conditioning, cooking up homemade meals in our apartments’ kitchen and hanging out with friends both new and old. Baku is another funneling point for people who want to travel into Central Asia and for those just traveling around the region. Ewa, the woman who collected my lost camera in Tbilisi, has come to stay with us in our rented flat for the last few days that we are in town. And another cyclist we met in Batumi, Georgia is here as well. Baku is almost starting to feel like home, it is the longest time we have been in one place since leaving home almost 6 months ago. It has been nice having a little bit of normalcy and being able to stay in one place for more then just a night or two. Hopefully this little respite has recharged the batteries and helped us be able to move forward with a bit more gusto then we had been able to muster up these last few weeks. The adventure really starts after Baku.