For the first time since a few weeks, we were feeling happy and free again on the bicycles. Leaving Iran for the next country en route gave us new motivation to continue our big trip. In Tehran Sara had almost booked a flight home for a break because of the emotions and overwhelming experiences from cycling through Iran. Luckily she didn’t but we did decide to take a bus from Tehran to Astara, the border village from where we could cross into Azerbaijan. Both of us felt we could not handle another week of cycling through northern Iran and we were also suddenly on a much tighter timing to reach China because of the visa validity, so the bus was an easy choice for our comfort.
One of our goals on this trip is of course to experience different cultures, when you travel by bicycle you don’t feel like a typical tourist, you often feel closer connected to the locals as you get a lot of opportunities to meet them on a more personal level. In Azerbaijan, we could sense that we were still very much in a Muslim country though it was very different than Iran. The people are also very hospital, everyone on the street greeted us with ‘Salaam’ (meaning hello and it’s considered rude and offending to ignore it). This was the same as in Iran but here it had a different feeling. People were welcoming friendly without imposing anything else on us and accepting a ‘no thank you’ when we didn’t feel like accepting an offer for tea or a home invitation.
At the end of our first day we asked a farmer to refill our water bottles before looking for a camp spot but we quickly found ourselves setting up the tent in front of the farmer’s house and spent the evening with him and his family. We were offered shaslik, cooked above a wood fire. Maarten didn’t refuse of course and he had the best and tasty shaslik of his life.
The next day we encountered our first technical problem. Maarten’s bicycle fell over during the lunch break and the rear rack broke at one side. He managed to fix it with some heavy duty tie wraps and it seemed strong enough to make it to Baku where we could look for a new rack. But they didn’t really have any that looked strong enough to carry 30 kilos of luggage. So Maarten decided to try and reinforce the broken rack some more and was determined to keep using it until a better one could be found.
Since Turkey we tried to avoid busy main roads as much as possible so the first day in Azerbaijan we had cycled through the country side on smaller roads until, on day two, we suddenly saw a brand new highway without any traffic. It had a big safety shoulder, looked so peaceful and attractive so we took our chance and started to cycle on the highway. Very soon we learned that it was a highway still under construction and we could really enjoy it all to ourselves almost all the way to Baku. Having a lunch pick-nick on an empty highway isn’t something you do every day but then it also dawned on us that we wouldn’t have enough supplies if we wanted to keep following this new highway. Info from maps.me and some locals made it clear that for the next 150km there would be nothing else but the asphalt and only one exit up ahead would allow us to find a shop for food and water. Luckily the nearest shop was only 4km away from the exit and with new food in our panniers we continued along the empty highway.
During our lunch stop that day we were visited by a construction worker responsible for handing out lunch boxes to the various construction teams along the highway. Sometimes we can guess up front the intentions of people who approach us and indeed this man came to offer us a lunchbox. Even though we tried to make it clear that we just had lunch and were in no need of more food he ignored our polite refusal and handed us a lunchbox together with mandarins for desert. Being pleased with our acceptance he got back in his van and drove off to his next handout. It never stops to surprise us how people love to give us food.
That evening we stopped at gas station still under construction hoping to find a camping spot. But the construction manager showed us an office container where we could put our sleeping mats. He spoke fluently English and warned us about snakes and sleeping outdoors so he thought the container would be safer for us. To really make his point he called over one of his workers who had been bitten by a snake earlier that day, the bite in his hand looked really painful so we accepted our indoor place for that night. Also it didn’t take long before he invited us to go out for dinner with him and a friend, he was very much interested in our adventure and wanted to hear more about it. After some thought we accepted and were driven to a local restaurant nearby. Only two days in Azerbaijan and already two times the opportunity to get acquainted with Azerbaijani.
We haven’t mentioned this before yet but, starting from Georgia, very often when you go to a (local) restaurant you will get your own private dining room. In Europe we are used to dining with many tables in one big room so at first it was a bit strange for us to be put in a separate room. The first time we even thought it was because we were clearly tourists and they wanted to give us a special treatment or something. But no, that’s the way they like to go out for dinner here, it gives them more privacy to talk with friends and family.
The original plan was to cycle all the way to Baku and cross the Caspian Sea from there. We had foreseen some buffer time as it can take up to a week before a ferry is available to cross the Caspian Sea and there is no fixed schedule to be found anywhere. On our way to Baku on the 3rd day we passed by Alat and saw a sign ‘International Sea port of Baku’. Knowing it was difficult to find any information about this ferry we followed the signs to the port. We were lucky that a ferry was scheduled to depart in two days so we bought our ticket, left our bicycles in the port and hitchhiked to Baku.
This city was a complete surprise. You could clearly see the influence of the oil & tourist business. Big lanes, big cars, high class luxury shops everywhere and they even clean the sidewalks with soap! A pity we had only had one day to discover the city as the phone call to the port office brought us the news that our ferry would be leaving a day earlier than scheduled. With only one evening left we enjoyed an amazing dinner of sushi and pizza, the best quality of food in a restaurant we have had in a long time.
Azerbaijan got just a short visit. We cycled 250 km in 3 days from Astara to Alat, spent 1 day in Baku and 36 hours on the boat from Alat to Kurik (Kazachstan). We got a great first impression of this lovely country!
TIP for those that want to cross the Caspian Sea
Online research will show that taking the ferry from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan might be a bit stressful and very uncertain. The ferry isn’t regular and it’s hard to find any information in Baku. However you can find a lot of useful and updated information on caravanistan: https://caravanistan.com/transport/caspian-sea-ferry/
Below our tips and experiences that might be of help!
- On Monday 14th of May 2018 (the day after we arrived in the port) the president officially opened the new international port of Baku, located 70 km south of the city. Every ferry going to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan should now be leaving from Alat. This should make it already a bit easier, since before this date the port of departure could change between Baku and Alat last minute.
- In the international ferry port Alat you have a little container office with an English speaking ticket officer. We advise you to go there, ask when the next ferry leaves and buy your ticket if already available. Also if you want to visit Baku ask to leave your bicycles at the office and get other transport to the city. 70km is a lot and the uncertain schedule could get you in trouble if you suddenly have to get back to Alat as fast as possible. Even if the ferry you bought a ticket for is scheduled for a specific day be sure to call each day to the port to check if there are no changes. Either call yourself or have someone call for you.
- Our ferry named ‘The Dagestan’ had 2 options: 70 dollar per person for a 4 person cabin or 80 dollar per person for a 2 person cabin. There was no extra cost for the bicycles. When we boarded we were able to choose our cabin without our ticket being checked at any time.
- The crossing took about 18 hours, however our ferry arrived at night and was not allowed to moor until the next morning so we got another comfortable night on the boat.
- If you plan to cross the Caspian Sea you should definitely factor in some extra days. For us it all went smooth but stories from other cyclists who did the same thing weren’t that positive.
- If your destination port is Kurik (Kazachstan) then be sure to bring enough extra water with you. The port of Kurik is about 30km away from Kurik town itself and the road in between is (at the time of writing) in a very bad shape. It took us half a day of cycling with more than 30°C and nothing but desert on the way except for a shipyard company about halfway (where we were able to refill our bottles)
Tip Visa: It’s an easy online evisa application (website: https://evisa.gov.az/en/). The only thing you have to take into account is that once you receive the visa there is a 4 day waiting period before you can enter the country.