Azerbaijans iron gates rose before us, the land of fire, rich in oil, and our first predominantly Muslim country. For us, we were now entering a country very unfamiliar. Our route started from the hazelnut forests of the north, through the central mud volcanoes, to the bright lights of Baku the capital city, and then followed the Caspian Sea coastline to Iran.
However unfamiliar the script and customs were, the friendly smiles levelled all apprehension. We were expecting a thorough search and intense questioning from custom officers, but we received only smiles. After telling the custom officer that I come from Australia, his eyes widened, and he responded, “ah, kangaroo”. We were off to a great start.
The change from Georgia to Azerbaijan was enormous. Golden lanterns lined two-lane highways that led to enormous city squares where the Azerbaijan flag flew proud from giant flag poles. Oil has played a key role in the economic growth and booming infrastructure. Ever since 1994 Azerbaijan signed a deal for exclusive rights to three large oil fields in the Caspian Sea, this deal is referred to by the Azeri people as the ‘deal of the century’.
From this deal and economic boom, clearly a large gap has developed between the rich and the poor. The divide from the wealth in Baku to the struggle in rural towns was so evident. One moment we were cycling under street lights on 4 lane highways, the next we were bumping along the old roads buying bread and pomegranates for less than a dollar and saying hello to men selling live fish.
Azerbaijan has had a difficult recent history and is still at war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. From a tourist standpoint, it is certainly not safe to visit this area, and if entering Azerbaijan with an Armenian stamp in your passport it will raise serious questioning. Entrance to Azerbaijan will be refused if you are found to have entered the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Anyway for us it wasn’t a problem because we haven’t been to Armenia at all.
Now to the all-important topic of food. For us, the most outstanding aspect of the Azeri cuisine were Pomegranates, tea (chai) and sugary sweets. The pomegranates were so rich and flavorsome like none we have ever tasted before. On one occasion Jasi and I have received 7 pomegranates for free from different roadside sellers by noon. Very warm and friendly people.
Azerbaijan was also our first land of tea (chai). Jasi’s hopeful request for coffee was always met with a big smile, a declining shake of the head and the word “chai”. Chai here is offered as soon as our wheels come to a rest. We received chai from mechanics, fruit sellers, and chai restaurants themselves wanting nothing in return. Our favorite encounter was with a man who spoke no English, invited us to his table and meticulously prepared our teas with just the right amount of sugar and lemon. He was however unsure of the length of my head hair. He grabbed at my beard gesturing a wide smile and then grabbed at my now shaggy head hair, gesturing a disgusted screwed up face. Probably I should see a hairdresser soon.
In the space of ten days travelling through Azerbaijan, Jasi and I developed a sugar addiction. It was not difficult to see why. Supermarkets could be confused for lollie/sweet shops and more gold shiny tooth smiles greet you than white. We had sugar with tea, were given lollies/sweets for the road and every traditional cuisine was drenched in sugar. Remarkably at the end of the ten days we needed a piece of sweet cake by night to ease our sugar craving. Our addiction was real. We now made a pact to end it in Iran.
For the majority, the Azerbaijan people were warm, helpful and very pleased to see tourists. There was however a slight change in attitude towards the respect shown to women. On more than one occasion Jasi was made to feel uncomfortable from men. Nevertheless, we have many tales that will remind us of the friendly nature of the Azeri people.
On one such occasion, riding into a strong headwind along a giant 4 lane highway, we met two young Azeri men grinning from ear to ear. We were just as happy to have their company as they were to have ours. They were waiters in Baku and were enjoying a day off on their bikes. We rode together for 5 hours south stopping for Coca cola and sweet snacks. When we arrived at our destination we realized that there were no hotels or camping ground where we could pitch our tent. They translated for us and led us to a small police hut where we could pitch our tent. They did not leave our side until we were in safe hands. Thanks gents.
Our time in Azerbaijan finished the way it started, warm smiles, offers of tea and slurping on pomegranates. Our last days trail followed the Caspian Sea towards Iran. Our memories of Azerbiajan will be not as fond as Georgia and for bicycle touring we will find it difficult to recommend Azerbaijan as a destination. Nevertheless, it was incredible to see the impact the recent findings of oil has had upon Azerbaijan and to see the smiles still shine through from the people that have endured a lot in recent years.
Talk to you soon
Jasi and Matt