After the expensive exit from Georgia I entered Azerbaijan through a border crossing on the foothills of the Caucasus. The weather had been beautiful, but the day would soon come to an end … the overstaying-issue took a few hours longer than expected. The Azeri officials were rather efficient and didn’t make a big fuzz out of me traveling without the proper vehicle documents. What intrigued them much more was a sticker of the Armenian flag on my motorbike, aligned with all the other countries Harry and I had crossed so far.
I was called to the first window: passport control. ‘Where have you been? Which countries?’ and so I started off in Holland, pointing my finger on the imaginary map I drew up in the air, summing up the countries but I was quickly interrupted. ‘Armenia?’ . ‘Yes, also Armenia’ I confirmed. A third official appeared at the window in front of me. ‘Armenia?’ as if he wanted me to confess to him in person as well … ‘yes’ I tried to say as neutral as I could. ‘Where? Which places?’ Each town I mentioned was written on a list. ‘Why?’ The tone was getting a little sharper. ‘Tourist’ I replied brief and clear. ‘Why so much time?’ … I’m not sure what they want to hear now. ‘Only once’ I try. ‘No! 2 weeks!’ An intriguing glance … I try to turn the tide by smiling, saying: ‘in Azerbaijan I’ll stay 1 month!’ The distraction-tric works and they start entering my data in their system. I’m being called back again to my bike, where some men are still discussing about the stickers. ‘Where’s the Azerbaijan flag?’ they ask. ‘Still in my bag. I will put it on there, as soon as I’m actually in the country’ I respond. They tell me to take off all my luggage and put it through the X-ray machine. Normally I try to skip this exercise by opening the bags and pulling out some stuff, but this doesn’t seem to be the right moment for insubordinate behavior.
All is ok. Just a few more pieces of paper, paying at another terminal to get
motorbike insurance, and off I go. By the time I enter Azerbaijan darkness is setting in. I don’t like to ride in the dark. But even less looking for a wild camp spot in the dark, let along right along the border. And so I carry on until a simple hotel some 30 km further.
Starting the day in a new country, a few things occur to me quite quickly. First of all: the amount of police force on the street. Serious looking men, fully equipped with ‘corrective tools’ for disobedient citizens. The fur hats (which make them look like they just walked away from a Russian film set) are they only warm and friendly part to their appearance. With screaming whistles they don’t only tell someone across the street that he can’t park there; it also reinforces the signal: ‘don’t mess with the authorities!’. I keep a close look at my speedometer and do my best to be a good girl checking all the regulatory boxes. All that has been recorded on the 1 million CCTV cameras that I’ve spotted (and probably another 2 million that I didn’t see) throughout the country … big brother is watching you!
Second what I notice, is the optic similarity between the local currency – Manat – and the Euro. Why this is, remains a mystery to me throughout my visit. The bank notes as well as the coins have exactly the same colors, print theme, font, and sizes as the Euro – but different value (2 Manat for approximately 1 Euro).
It appears to me when I look for some local food, which is extremely cheap … and tasty! There’s the third observation: Azerbaijan reminds me a lot of Turkey. Facial expressions and physical appearance of the people; products in the supermarket; street food; signs and signals along the road and also the language hold great similarities between the two countries. The population being predominantly Muslim, women’s dress code seems little restrictive and the minarets are a lot less imposing. I miss the calling for prayers through creaking speakers, but enjoy the fresh döner, ayran and smoked dried cheese just like I did in Turkey.
The old town of Shäki makes a convenient stop; the old caravanserray literally brings me back to the Silk Route – finally it sinks in, that I’m back on the road again. The 18th century built palace of the Khans is worth a visit: the sun shining through the numerous small pieces of colored glas in a wooden latticework without the use of nails or screws is a lovely sight. Mosaic on the outside, with a majestic big old plane trees and a pond with plastic flowers in front of the building; an Albanian church, some over-excited stray dogs and a cat jumping into the open window of an old Lada parked up round up my day with a smile.
After too much tarmac, I accidentally reach a nice stretch of dirt road. The child in me instantly awakes; Harry is acting like a young boy and we’re having the best time since we’re back together. The track leads along the mountains and then across them. I’m looking for a place to lay down for the night, but the wind is picking up. I can’t find any shelter in the barren, empty landscape. And so I continue – again longer than desired. But with a big smile – looking forward to all the dirt roads that are awaiting me this year!
The wind turns brutal; almost blows me off my bike as I enter the city. Luckily I gained some practice in Patagonia before, but it’s no fun. Storm and rain force me to stay in Baku for a few days, where it turns out to be new year: Novrus. Not one day, but five. Offices, shops, museums all closed, but great atmosphere among the crowds celebrating also the arrival of spring time. Patches of grass everywhere, with nuts that you can pick from; music to which children and adults spontaneously start to perform their traditional dances; local delicacies and snacks all provide a much more lively way to tap into this country.
Azerbaijan has oil – and that’s no secret. I’m amazed by the oil mills in the middle of urban areas; in some places like Yanar Dag gas comes straight out of the earth. It’s naturally burning non-stop, although diminishing over the recent years. Ateshgah – a fire temple where Zoroastrians used to worship the 7 holes with natural, eternal fire. Until the petroleum plants and pipelines arrived …
Soon you can read all about the molested Armenian-flag, and how I ended up playing table tennis with an Azeri champion here.