Arriving at the “Red Bridge” border at midday and seeing a long queue of cars we prepared to wait for hours. What we didn’t know is that pedestrians and cyclists (who are also considered to be pedestrians) can head to the front. Only when one man told us we should go to the front and didn’t have to wait as all the cars we left the queue.
The Azerbaijani side of the border looks like a private estate with soldiers guarding in front. We received a red card (for customs) and were soon “invited” to enter the border. Only a couple of vehicles are allowed to enter the border at once, then gates will close again and the rest waits outside. At passport control we were welcomed by another soldier. In the whole process of crossing the border we got prioritized all the time. When a soldier checked our bags at customs, we would only open the rear panniers, they would look at them for a second and make us close them again and wish us a save journey.
Once in Azerbaijan, we felt directly that we were in a new country – the sun seemed to us to be even stronger and endless fields would surround us. Coming from Georgia, where we saw nothing but mountains, it was nice to have our eyes gaze at the horizon. Just after border control there was a small village consisting only of shops and a gas station. A man asked us on the road if we needed some Manat (Azerbaijan’s currency). We kindly declined and started our quest to find an ATM, which we would find on the next day some 50 km from the border in Qazax.
We decided to ride to Qazax that day. Roads were much better than in Georgia, and we saw only three colours – blue sky, green fields and a red burning sun. I can imagine why the flag of Azerbaijan consists of these colours. Some 15km after the border we were already tired of the heat and hoped to see a tree in whose shade we could rest. Our tree turned out to be a gas station where all the truck drivers also stopped after having crossed the border. We were invited to drink Turkish tea and everyone asked us where we came from, where we were going and so on. An elderly man said he would come with us but he would take an e-bike instead.
We decided to continue our journey, and soon we paused again because of the burning sun. We felt a bit dizzy and wanted to fill up our water bottles. Gratsi went across the street to check if an old well was still functioning. Unfortunately, no running water. As we were staying under the tree there was a little boy who was also riding a bicycle. He saw all this, disappeared, and a couple of minutes later came back with a small bottle of water. What a miracle! We thanked him and were just about to continue our trip when an old man approached us and invited us to have dinner with his family. We kindly refused, since we were determined to ride for another 30km. Later on, we saw another well, which like the previous one didn’t have running water. Luckily, in a nearby shop a woman filled up our bottles with water for free.
After 80km and the sun soon to set we decided to end our day and find a nice camping spot. Yet, all the ground was either used for farming or unsuitable for a tent. We rode for an hour until we reached a motel some 10km before Qazax. Since there hadn’t been any ATM and the one at the motel wasn’t working, we arranged to pay in Euros (US-Dollars were also possible).
During the next days we were greeted numerous times. Maybe every fourth car or truck honked at us. Some would even slow down and shout from their cars “Hello!” or “Where are you from?” Once, we stopped for a group of Azerbaijani boys so they could have a selfie with us.
On our second day in Azerbaijan we stopped at a place that seemed to be a café. It turned out to be the local police office. We kindly asked if we could use the toilet and filled up our bottles. The policemen who were very interested in where we came from invited us to have a tea with them and we chatted for a while. Being invited to drink tea seemed to be normal – every time we were at a gas station or in a café people would serve us tea. Some would even invite us to have lunch or dinner with their families.
Until Ganja, the second biggest city in the country, we followed a hilly road. After Ganja the land got flat and locals called the region “Azerbaijani Africa” – the hot and dry climate have made the land look like a semi-desert or steppe. We found shade only at gas or bus stations, both of which came often enough, so that we could survive the heat. Along the way, we saw the same domestic animals as in Georgia – cows, sheep, and horses.
Every town we visited seemed to be rather modern – state buildings are renovated and freshly painted, tarmac roads are in good conditions and canalization is being renovated. It was clear that all the money came from the oil business. Yet, we started wondering if the people actually received any of this money. Most of the cars were old “Ladas” and only a few built after 2000. The same was true for buses and trucks. After having had conversations with the locals, we soon understood that all the wealth in Azerbaijan is concentrated in the hands of few people who resided in Baku. Outside of Baku, everyone would complain about how difficult it is to find a job if at all, and about how little people earn. We were told that the average salary was 100-150USD and it seemed that a lot of Azerbaijanis would be happy to leave the country.
The saying that the people who have little will share with you all they have came so alive in Azerbaijan. In Ujar, a regional town, we were searching for a hotel when we found a businessman who owned a bakery. His family offered us one of the rooms in their house and fed us with freshly baked bread, served us a lot of tea and made breakfast. Later, we found out that the businessman also ran a bookstore and distributed ice-cream in the district. Since we met him in his bakery, he offered us to drive us to his house in his old Lada which he called “Kopeyka” (so are called the Russian cents) and leave the bikes in the bakery.
One thing we have learnt so far on this trip is to trust people. In both Georgia and Azerbaijan people were very honest. We would be surprised if anyone stole. We would leave the bikes unattended for a couple of minutes or over the night – something we would not prefer for safety reasons. Still always things went well.
Upon arriving in Baku we felt a huge difference right away. Gratsi was thinking that she had missed a border crossing and was now in a new country. Baku is a modern city that has been renovated over the last decade. People were richer than in the rest of the country. Yet, prices were the same as in other parts of the country.
The following days we spent awaiting a ferry that would take us across the Caspian Sea to our next country: Kazakhstan.
Jan & Gratsi
P.S.: Check out our route map to see where we’re cycling now!