Monday, 17 February 2014

moonlight and magic

There's something about collecting visas on the road that stresses me out even when I know that a rejection would be problematic but hardly the end of the world.  We discovered this on our last journey in 2008 when China suddenly decided to stop issuing visas to independent travellers just before the Olympics.  As it is, the rather serious consular official at the Iranian Embassy, having kept us waiting for half an hour and then umming and ahhing with our passports in his hand, finally hands them over and with a smile says "Welcome to Iran".  In the sudden and emotional release that this triggers I leap out of my seat and kiss him on both cheeks.

Georgia wishes you Good Luck as you cross to Azerbaijan
With happy hearts we set off to Azerbaijan, having decided to try and get a ride to the border.  At the marshrutka stand there is only one transit van with enough space for the bikes and it is going our way.  Lucky for us.  The driver has a good laugh at us before we tell him we want to go with him.  That wipes the smile off his face for a moment until we start talking money and then his face lights up again.  But they are not sharks here.  The ride out of Tbilisi is bleak and grey but the landscape and weather improves as we climb up along a ridge before descending and crossing a wide open valley to arrive at Lagodekhi.  The sun appears as we sort ourselves out with food before taking the road to the border.  Here there are more smiles.  A Georgian border guard speaks fluent English - he lived in London for a few years.  Formalities are brief and we roll along to the Azeri side.  The guards look a little more stern but wave us past the cars and vans to the front of the queue.  Here we are met by another border guard who speaks English fluently - he also lived in London for a few years.  He's a smiley man who keeps us chatting while someone inside taps our passport details into the computer.  We have our photo taken, as in Georgia, before someone shouts out through the window.  Our guard translates. "Problem with visa.  You will need to wait.  But don't worry.  It may only take a day or two.  You can work here. We will get you uniforms." Ha, ha, ha, ha, we laugh. After 10 minutes we are waved through. We've just realised it's Valentine's Day.  What could be more romantic than Azerbaijan?

It would be unfair to compare cycling in Azerbaijan with Georgia considering how little we've actually done in either country, but the waves and honks as we scoot along the road make us feel very welcome here.  Our road takes us along the bottom edge of the Caucasus mountains, from village to village to town to village, past farmland and across dry rivers with huge alluvial fans that have swept out from the mountain valleys.  Somewhere off to our right the land flattens to a wide plain.  As the sun lowers we are unsure of where to camp - much of the land is fenced off and gates are locked.  Just before a town we go past an army camp and come to a series of hazelnut groves.  Luckily one gate is open so we quickly get off the road and push to the back of the enclosure as far out of sight as possible.  A dog nearby starts barking but doesn't appear.  A full moon rises as we cook dinner. 

The next day we continue in much the same way.  The road climbs to a settlement and then dips down through farmland before climbing to the next one.  The road is often dead straight and the climbs become longer.  Before lunch the quiet road deteriorates to the stony layer beneath the tarmac and we rattle along for quite a way before a final and endless straight climb up to the town of Sheki.  It's about five o'clock when we wheel into town and we're both weary.  Exclamations of surprise and joy are uttered, all begininng with the f word, when we realise the hotel we're heading for is up another hill.  It's worth it: the hotel is an old caravanserai built in a rectangle around a patio garden with two storeys of arched colonnades.  There are huge doors at the entrance, a place to store our pack animals and baggage, and food and water are available for the weary traveller.  It's wonderful.  For just a while we can be time travellers on the Silk Road.

Sheki, described as Azerbaijan's most pleasant town in our guidebook, sprawls down the hillside and along a ridge.  Behind it are tree-covered mountains, and beyond is the snowy ridgeline that forms the border with Russia.  The town feels low-key and old-fashioned, with few big buildings.  The houses are built with gardens and surrounding walls.  Below our hotel is another restored but empty caravanserai and above is the fort with a church, a few outbuildings, and the pasha's palace, built during Persian times.  It's an attractive modest building, decorated inside and out and shaded from the sun by two enormous plane trees.  Down the hill, on the other side of town, we wander the market.  After checking out the turkey and chicken corner a man comes over to check that we are indeed English Tourists.  He looks happy with the answer - must have had a bet on it.  There's plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lamb at the butcher stalls, pickles in big jars, cheap clothing, electrical bits and bobs, bric-a-brac homeware from China, and great trays of the local baklava - chewy and supersweet.

cabbage car

Our thoughts turn to Baku.  Here we have an invitation to stay with Pamela and Joe to see out the winter.  We  met this lovely American couple on our last journey, through Turkey, and we stayed with them in Istanbul each time we returned.  They had written to us back in the autumn and offered to host us so this was a big reason for us to cross Turkey and the Caucasus in January rather than wait out the winter in Greece.  It means that we will be able to include Iran in our onward route before heading to Tajikistan.  Being sloths, and not hardcore cyclists, we opt to take the bus from Sheki to Baku (Gayle's new catchphrase is "Enjoyment not Endurance") and, hey presto, here we are in the Big City.

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