Another day – another country. Our train from Tbilisi arrived early in the morning so we reassembled the bikes and set off, attempting to orientate ourselves in the new city. We were also trying to find some breakfast! Riding in the city was not easy as the majority of the roads in the centre are one-way and 4 lanes wide. Beaten-up Ladas mix it up with expensive European cars, all united by their love of the horn! We navigated around the streets and eventually found the city centre, which has been completely rebuilt in marble, even the pavement! This is a city made rich from oil!
The rebuilding of the city has meant that many of the budget accommodation options have disappeared. We were researching our options when Will, an American cycle tourist, approached us and asked if we were looking for somewhere to stay – we were. He suggested that the Bicycle Club called ‘Nature Friends’ might let us sleep on their floor for free! This sounded like an opportunity too good to miss, so Will kindly sent a couple of emails on our behalf and later that evening we were unrolling our mattresses onto the office floor. The facilities were basic – sink, toilet, kettle, privacy was limited and the water sometimes worked! On the first night there were six bodies squeezed on the floor and even with windows wide open, it was a sweaty, sticky and restless sleep! However, there were no lye-ins, as the room was in use during the day, so after a strip-wash in the sink avec flannel, we locked our bags into the cupboard and spent the day on the streets. In Baku we needed to apply for our Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan visas and these would take a week to process. After we had found the embassies (both were in the suburbs but on different sides of town) and filled in the paperwork, we were free to relax and enjoy the local sights and the hospitality of the Azerbaijan people.
After a full day exploring Baku, we returned to the office and saw Paul, who we’d shared the floor with the previous night. Three of our other roommates had got a place on the ferry and left. Paul had spoken to Mirvari from the bike club and she would be coming round later to say “hello”. So, in the mean time we sat and chatted, swapping stories and tales, waiting for our host to arrive. As the clock passed midnight we assumed that we’d misunderstood and made our beds on the floor. Tim and Paul were both lying on top of their mattresses (only in jocks – it was still very hot) and Rebecca was in the bathroom in pyjamas when we heard the front door open and a shout of “hello, can you bring our bikes upstairs please” – it was Mirvari!! Paul and Tim both jumped up, grabbed their clothes, made themselves decent and ran downstairs to help! It would appear as though Baku is a slightly nocturnal city as Mirvari and her friend had just been out enjoying an evening ride! Soon, Mirvari’s parents arrived and after introducing ourselves we were then invited to visit their house. Had we understood correctly? Did they mean now?…. Yes they did! After a detour to a local shop, we were at the family house and were treated to all sorts of delicious home cooked food, beer and inevitably, vodka! Joined by the rest of their family plus other guests, we sat around the table in the middle of the lounge, and enjoyed a great evening with generous hosts. It was not long before the karaoke machine was brought out! It became obvious that their son was a seasoned expert so Tim and Paul stayed seated and instead offered Rebecca to represent the tourists! After a couple of duets to ‘Hello (is it me you’re looking for?)’, ‘Alleluia’ and Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, it was definitely time to go home, it was 4am after all! Although it was a good job Tim and Paul weren’t on the microphone, they weren’t able to get Stevie Wonder out of their heads for the next 24hrs!
Through new contacts and people we’d previously met in Tbilisi, we met a large number of fellow cycle tourists whilst in the city. Baku is a popular place for cyclists to get onward visas and also the departure point for the ferry to Kazakhstan. It is on one of the two routes currently open into Central Asia – the other being via Iran, so it wasn’t a surprise for so many of us to be in one place. During our stay in Baku we met 5 other English, 3 French, 3 Swiss, a German, Australian, American and an Irishman, all on bikes, all travelling east. We all met three times before the group disbanded but not before sharing some international beer, swapping tales from our past adventures, and sharing on information for the road ahead.
Whilst returning from a ride to the bicycle shop, Tim was practising his bicycle skills by performing a track-stand at some traffic lights. As the lights went green he tried to pull away in a tall gear but the chain skipped resulting in a rather painful knee-handlebar interaction. For some time, Tim hopped around at the side of the road waiting for the pain to subside! After some investigation back at base, it was apparent that the chain was worn and had stretched – it had done over 4500km and it was now time to spend some money on the bikes. During our week in Baku we visited the bike shop on an almost daily basis, but we are now the proud owners of a new inner tube, combined compass/bell, a rear cassette and front chain rings for Tim and new chains for both bikes. We were wondering whether to spend the money, but then realised that the next proper bike shop on our route is 2000km away in Kashgar, China!
Spending so much time at the bike shop meant that we got friendly with the staff and so when Magsud invited us to go mountain biking in the nearby forest we jumped at the chance to see a little more of the countryside surrounding Baku. To avoid the heat it was an early start, meeting at 06.30hrs and pedalling up and out of Baku to meet the other mountain bikers closer to the forest. Although we both have mountain bikes, their lack of suspension, heavy racks and narrow tyres meant they were not ideal for ripping around the trails but it was still good fun! One of the fellow bikers had some excellent photography equipment and took some magazine style photos of us as well as Magsud and his new bike.
When we got back to the Bicycle Commune, Paul had left for the ferry but fellow countryman Stephan had arrived. We were to enjoy many hours relaxing together over the next few days!
Rebecca and Stephan enjoy a brew in the Bike Club cupboard – Tim looks out to sea.