Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Basking in Baku

Sunday, August 16, Baku

I am sitting on the couch here in the spacious downtown apartment of fellow ex-Yangonite Natalya, who's now teaching at the International School of Azerbaijan and who is graciously hosting me. After a month on the road, a few days of urban civilization, nightlife, quiet and books has been a much-needed boost to my morale and body. I will likely be here another day before continuing my Journey to the West by heading north (go figure) out of Baku up towards the Caucasus.

The three days of riding I had here in Azerbaijan were a very mixed bag. The first afternoon, after finishing my last post, I rolled a few kilometres north of Astara to find a cheaper hotel (it looked like rain, so I didn't feel like camping) and lucked into a really nice joint run by Mammad, a genial mountain of a man who looked like an ex-con turned hotelier. As I was settling in, a carload of four Brits showed up headed for Mongolia overland in a battered Skoda. They were great fun to talk to, and were quite self-deprecating about how ill-prepared they were. They had no map of Azerbaijan, just a digital photo of a rough sketch map that they'd seen at the border. When they took a wrong turn, they were halfway back to Georgia before they realized they were heading west instead of south. In a great idea, they painted their car with chalkboard paint so that everyone could write graffiti on it, and it would be washed clean after each rain.

I set off early the next morning, via the amazing Yanar Bulag, or Flaming Fountain. There's an upwelling spring of water that's full of methane, and the methane bubbles burst from the water surface and can be set on fire, resulting in an unusual sight of hot flames dancing atop flowing water. I then rode through a pleasant hilly landscape of forests and orchards and village squares full of men drinking tea and playing dominoes in leafy cafes. In Lengkaran I stopped for some quick internet and had a funny conversation with a gaggle of hairdressers from the salon next door. On the way out of town, I bought a baked chicken stuffed with a delicious walnut paste and lunched alfresco beside the road with a bottle of beer, a loaf of delicious fresh bread and peaches. It was intensely delicious but I ate so much that I could barely move afterwards, making for a lethargic afternoon. I kept stopping in search of inspiration, buying batteries and ice cream, soft drinks and beer, reading my guidebook in a cafe. I finally gave up the struggle and camped behind a farmer's abandoned barn, fighting with my recalcitrant stove to make tea.

The second full day of Azeri cycling the scenery rapidly became very dull, sort of the Netherlands without picturesque villages. Or good cheese. I was uninspired by the flat uniformity of the landscape, as yesterday's hills receded inland and I crossed the pancake flat plains beside the Caspian. Headwinds kicked up strongly during the day, and I again sought excuses to loaf beside the road or in cafes. I passed through a town of post-Soviet apocalyptica, a shattered landscape of abandoned, decaying factories spread along broad rusted railyards, in the town of Salyan where I stopped to buy a SIM card for my phone. I abandoned my hopes of a big 140 km day and camped just outside Shirvan National Park, home to the last remaining wild herd of gazelle in Europe, but unfortunately closed for the day when I arrived. I camped sheltered from the raking wind by the ruins of an electrical substation.

The next morning I awoke early, determined to make good time on the run into Baku. However, the previous day's headwinds had freshened into a mild gale and battered me mercilessly all day, reducing progress to a crawl and sapping my will. Luckily I had lots of things to see to keep my mind off the incessant clawing of the wind. It started with a francolin pheasant racing away from me beside the road. As I stopped to watch it run, I saw more motion behind it in the distance and, pulling out the binoculars, watched a herd of over a hundred gazelle racing away from the road over the savannah. I was still congratulating myself on my luck (I had given up hope of seeing them after not being able to get into the park the previous day) when I saw a herd of two-humped Bactrian camels grazing right beside the motorway, great for photos. I was reminded of some of my other camel encounters along the Silk Road: in western Xinjiang, and along the Oxus in Tajikistan. Always nice to reconnect with the original transport of the ancient caravan routes that I'm retracing.

I was in Elet by 11 am, ready to seek out mud volcanoes. It took over an hour to find the way (nobody really knew its location, least of all the Lonely Planet) and pick my way over an oil-stained landscape onto a tiny hill surrounded by the Caspian where pint-sized mud volcanoes burbled away. They looked like scale models of real volcanoes, but the mud was not at all hot. Like real volcanoes, the "hot spot" (here more like "wet spot") moves over time, leaving inactive cones to erode slowly in the rain and starting new craters nearby. I could have stayed for hours, but Baku beckoned.

I then cursed and sweated my way up the road to Qobustan in search of Paleolithic petroglyphs, which proved to be up a steep hill below some cliffs that were once lakeside thousands of years ago. It took a while to find the first of the petroglyphs, but once I knew what I was looking for (paved walking paths rather than vague trails through the grass) they were much more obvious. They were really interesting carvings: lots of bulls reminiscent of Lascaux (apparently they're really the extinct European aurochs), hunting scenes, a long reed boat that got Thor Heyerdahl theorizing about ethnic connections, lots of deer, and quite a few human figures doing some sort of dance. In places carvings had been inscribed over older carvings many layers thick, resulting in a dense network of incisions almost impossible to decipher. I thought back to the petroglyphs on the shores of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan that I had seen in 2004, and how almost identical subject matter and style could be found thousands of kilometres apart, evidence of prehistoric contacts along the pre-silken Silk Road. On my way down the hill, I turned off to find the easternmost Roman graffiti ever discovered, an inscription from the time of the mad emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) by the centurion Julius Maximus of the XII legion, presumably sent to scout out the border territories with the mighty Parthian Empire.

Having exhausted my list of things to see, I set myself to the task of grinding into Baku against the dreaded winds. It took four and a half hours to make it 50 flat kilometres into town, fighting for every metre against the malevolent forces of Aeolus. I finally got onto the Boulevard around 8:30 and met up with Natalya who was out celebrating the first staff gathering of the year. I snarfed down food and beer and went out on the town, staying up until almost three, the latest I've been up for months, and then slept until noon, letting my body catch up on much-needed rest.

Yesterday I poked around Baku with Natalya, admiring the wonderful Belle-Epoque architecture from when Baku was the world's petroleum capital a century ago, and the Turkish stone architecture in the 700-year-old stone town. Baku's stone, like that used to build Jerusalem and Rhodes and Oxford, glows a marvellous golden colour in the late afternoon light, and injects an aesthetic warmth into the atmosphere that is almost palpable. The only pity is the enormous amount of state-sponsored renovation going on, turning entire blocks into dust-shrouded construction zones. We wandered about taking pictures, riding the funicular up to the Martyr's Cemetery and the tomb of the Great Leader Heydar Aliyev: it was all very solemn and Soviet and at the same time like Ataturk's Mausoleum, a secular shrine. Luckily the view from the Eternal Flame down over Baku Bay lightened the mood, and we strolled downhill through the stone town ready for some Mexican food and more late-night Guinness and live music.

Today has been a day of unadulterated sloth, spent uploading photos to Facebook, reading and eating. Tomorrow I will do some bike maintenance, and maybe ride out into the industrial hell of the Abseron peninsula in search of an ancient fire temple.

Hope everyone is squeezing the last drops of enjoyment out of the northern summer!


Riding Day No.
From Bushehr

Final Elevation

Daily Destination








16.123.3Shirvan National Park
8/182695.167.404023:2719.752.8Baku (day trip)


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