Dated: 28 May 19
Not two minutes back on the road in Tbilisi and we met two more tour cyclists one of whom is headed for the Azerbaijan border. Matthew is an Australian silver fox in his early forties, a lawyer from Canberra who is taking six months to cycle through Asia. He is a different breed of cyclist, glam-biking he is staying in hotels each night our budgets are not in the same league. He doesn’t know what he is missing when it comes to camping, he is at the start of his trip and just getting into the swing of it, he is even still buying bottled water. Big spender.
As soon as you are south of Tbilisi the landscape changes from the lush green rolling hills with a mountain back drop to an arid tinder box of scorched grass and dust, its almost as f someone has turned the taps off. But after the palaver with my visa at the border with Azerbaijan the landscape changes again to a vast open plane of green cultivated fields. It makes great cycling and I have some ways to go if I am to make the ferry. Life seems simple, farming, small shops and road side cafes which cater for the trucks which rumble past. Like in Africa cattle stroll aimlessly on the road, dogs run a mock and gentlemen drive donkeys pulling rickety carts. There is however the odd reminder of the oil money which flows in from the fields beneath the Caspian Sea as the occasional gleaming sports car ostentatiously speeds past.
We cycle with Matthew for just a few hours we are not right for each other, he is a touch slower and doesn’t need to find a campsite so he is happy to cycle until sunset. I like to be well bedded in come dark not searching for a patch of grass by lamp light. So I slow and exchange pleasantries and excuse myself as if asking to leave the dinner table early.
I better not get used to the smooth roads and regular amenities of Azerbaijan for after the Caspian Sea things will be a tad more sparse. The drivers and road side walkers or loiterers are extremely friendly. Cars almost swerve towards us as the drivers lean over to wave out of the passenger side window. As passers by we are waved at my adult and child alike. The Azerbaijanians are full arm wavers, not like me who just British-ly wiggles my wrist. Their waving arms which stretch above their heads almost get the hips moving as their hole bodies takes to motion. One farmer from atop his mule raises his flat cap in a 1920s styled wave. As always by the end of the day my wave has diminished to a mere nod of the head.
I am woefully bad at languages but I normally attempt to learn some simple pleasantries for my short stay in each country. Thank you in Azerbaijan to my untrained ear sounds like sow- as in a big female pig. So with an “oink” here and an “oink” there on a daily basis I have been essentially saying ‘pig’ on anyone and everyone with whom I interact. In the supermarkets we are quite the novelty, a muzungu, a man follows at your shoulder and every item you even look at he say “oh yes that very good,” or “no no I have better” before harrying you to a different asile with an entirely different genre of product. Dare I say it but if a black man were to visit these small towns or an Indian, there might just be an impromptu village fate or parade. And once at the checkout it seems that the punters and staff a like are close to breaking our in applause. “Pig.”
It is a rural country of farm land with populations held within small quite desolate villages. But in the town of Ganja which proudly boasts a bid for the title of European City of Sport 2019 with wide boulevards of tree lined roads leading to Romanic columns and a marble archway of clean cream coloured sandstone. At the side of which large billboards displaying an ego boosting image of President Ilham Aliyev with the back drop of the Blue, Green and Red Azerbaijan flag and subtly behind on a small sign are the yellow stars of the EU on a blue back drop. In a country which is oil rich but rurally poor I wonder why the EU encourages such development, yes improving the sports facilities and awareness of Azerbaijan is a positive thing along with the associated improvements in infrastructure but it does not pass on any noticeable benefits to the average flat cap wearing citizen.
This part of the world and further east to the Stans is relatively unknown in Europe, perhaps thought of as exotic or more likely not thought of at all. But in this cycling circle in which I now find myself part of it is pretty standard fair. I thought this would be the most gruelling segment of this venture, isolated, lonely and perhaps relatively untouched. But what I have learned is that this is a well rolled route, the Silk Road through the Pamirs is perhaps the most commonly cycled large scale tour in the world. And there I was thinking that this would be the toughest leg of my trip what a wholly. I must admit it is a tad disappointing, helpful in terms of information but disappointing none the less. Most are doing just a relatively short trip, two weeks or a month, some are doing a touch longer and one or two are doing a few years at a leisurely pace.
Tbilisi is the start of a cycling bottle neck which funnels tourers bound for the orient, I know of at least twenty in Tbilisi at the time I was there and the numbers will only increase as I head east before the neck opens back up after the Pamir Highway north of Tajikistan and perhaps then I can find some solitude. I’m anticipating a lot of company on the long but not so lonesome road.