Miles of smiles in Azerbaijan

As we approached the border crossing, we were met by two border guards in smart, crisp, dark green uniforms. We were greeted with huge smiles and welcomed in to Azerbaijan. Having heard rumours that the border could be tricky, it was surprisingly easy with a quick x-ray of a couple of panniers and confirmation that we didn’t have a drone.

Known as the land of fire, it seemed appropriate that we were cycling through Azerbaijan in Autumn when the trees and bushes were shades of red and orange. It is a truly stunning country, and we loved the transition from snow peaked mountains to forests to sandy hills as we worked our way south east towards the coast.

For the first few days we cycled with mountains to our left and wide lush plains to our right – it was incredibly beautiful. Almost everyone we passed gave us the biggest smiles (often with a number of sparkly gold teeth!) and enthusiastic genuine waves we have seen all trip. The countryside and the people have one of the best first impressions we have had, especially with wild camp spots a plenty. When we pulled over, people asked us questions, and happy to talk to Verity on her own (which hasn’t happened for a while). We have also found the best response to the most asked question… Do you have children? We can now do a clear explanation that: (a) no; and (b) our bikes are our babies – cue much laughter and thigh slapping.

The weather was chilly and so it was fine that etiquette in Azerbaijan dictates that men wear trousers not shorts! Luckily although cold, the weather was dry and our winter supplies, brought over by our mums in Istanbul, kept us toasty.

Sheki was a slight bump in the road, the only tourist place we visited along the way to Baku, and we suddenly (for the first time since we left England) felt as if foreigner=money. Restaurants and accomodation were expensive and we were asked for money by children which was uncomfortable. As a country fairly new to tourism, we hope that this is simply a knee jerk response to a new way of making money and that the tourist hotel spots will revert to old Azeri charm.

Outside of Sheki, our initial impressions were confirmed and Azerbaijan was friendly, warm and welcoming. Roadside restaurants for lunch in villages were cheerful and again we embraced wild camping and were offered heartwarming hospitality by locals. We took advantage of the surrounding wide open space for camping, often chatting with passing farmers who waved to us with a smile as they bought their cows and sheep in for the night. One evening when camping in a field, a nearby roadside shack selling pomegranate wine and syrup brought over a teapot of cay and some sofa cushions for us to sit on! Another night, we were pleased to find a little restaurant at the top of a steep climb and we asked if it was ok to set up our tent nearby. After exclaiming it was far too cold to camp, we were ushered to a small carpeted prayer room round the back of the building to sleep in the warm.

The last night before we arrived in Baku we battled some wind and ended up asking another friendly petrol station attendant if we could camp on their turf. Welcoming as ever, they found us a sheltered spot on the corner next to the power washer and we set up the tent. The premises had a restaurant and we popped inside for some soup and çay as adequate payment! However, that may not (although we aren’t sure of the cause) have been a great idea. Soon after midnight we both had to rush out of the tent to find a little “alone time” to have a second look at the dinner, whilst also having one eye out for the large dogs which patrolled the area. The night was a write off and the next day was pretty tough going, despite only being 30 miles into Baku.

To make matters worse the heavens opened, and with no WiFi for days we didn’t really know where we were heading. Verity had definitely not recovered was still feeling fragile when, with the river flowing over manholes and taxis spraying her as they overtook, we pulled over to take shelter from the torrent. However our mood was bouyed as we were beckoned in to the (you guessed it) petrol station and offered some çay and a rest! The owner welcomed us inside, offered Verity his big leather seat next to the heater and tried desperately to engage is in conversation. However, being reluctant to mime and seeing a much easier alternative he soon got his English speaking son on the phone and within 10 minutes he arrived at the petrol station and was translating everything for us. They were an amazing couple of guys and we felt awful we were not in the physical state to take them up on their hugely generous offers of hospitality: everything from buying us a meal, to putting us up for the night was mentioned but we were aware that we would not be great guests, and food was certainly not high on our agenda!

After a day recovering in the first hotel we stumbled across, we moved to an Airbnb for the next few days in Baku. Serendipitously, the flat was only a short walk away from a bike shop which agreed to pack up our bikes into cardboard boxes for our upcoming flight to Dubai. They even helped arrange a trial run in a “London taxi” to check that it could fit the two bikes boxes, plus us and the panniers.

Baku is a great city. It has everything from serene 15th century palaces with ornate Islamic stone carvings, to super modern architecture: Zaha Hadid’s white, curvaceous Heydar Aliyev Centre, the golden Carpet Museum which looks like a rolled up carpet and the famous Flame Towers, three skyscrapers which are lit up at night to look as if they are on fire.

One afternoon we joined a free walking tour around the old town. We were the only people and so effectively had a private guide explaining the interesting history of the country and city. Its clear that Azerbaijan is trying to position itself as a must-visit cultural capital. The markings on the roads from the Formula 1 route was a reminder of the investments the city must be making in its aim to be on the world stage.

We really enjoyed our time in Baku, and spent many a happy hour in quirky coffee shops and wandering around the streets. It was a shame that we weren’t feeling 100% well and couldn’t sample the many local restaurants, preferring to keep food simple whilst we got over the sickness bug.

It feels as if chapter 2 has now come to an end as on Saturday morning we took our first flight of the trip to Dubai, effectively flying over Iran. Iran remains a country we would love to visit and we hope the visa rules relax soon. That said, from peering out of the aeroplane windows, we are quite pleased we are skipping some fairly large snowy moutains and are back in warmer climes!

We are now staying with friends and being treated to some home comforts as we research our route for the next few weeks. Slightly worryingly we have realised that whilst we have stayed in the odd Airbnb, there is nothing quite like staying in a home!