I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan 13 days ago. The drive in was miserable. From Tbilisi, there are two roads to Baku, the north and the south, and the one I chose – the miserable one – was the south. The road was very flat, and very direct: for the cyclist, how could that be miserable? But it was – so miserable it was. It was nothing but gas stations and farms and the smell of gas and a hot, hot sun. I made new friends and tried new foods, but it was far from spectacular. Such is life on the road.
I was a wreck when I arrived in Baku. I was tired, hungry, mentally exhausted, and dirty. Personal hygiene is never the shining point of the cyclist. It’s not like my tent has a shower.
I spent my first week in Baku at Vlad’s, a Ukrainian expat I met through CouchSurfing. Vlad and I instantly became friends. Vlad was an excellent host, and while I’ve had many on this trip, the excellence resonates far further with the train-wrecked cyclist. It’s no longer just food, bed, shower, and WiFi, as it was with a backpack: it’s food, bed, shower, and WiFi! In this arena, the basics become divine. My time at Vlad’s was wonderful.
My objective for Baku was to collect visas. I initially planned to source just Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but soon added Tajikistan after conversing with other travelers. I thought the processes would be logistically painful, but this was not the case. I applied for the first on Monday, the second on Wednesday, and the third on Tuesday. A week later, and not having had to leave my passport with any embassy, I had all 3 visas in my passport. It went far smoother than anticipated. The only riff was the price, unfortunately: for Europeans, these visas run $75, $40, and $35 respectively, but for Americans, they run $160, $160, and $35. It’s frustrating. Regardless, I struggle to quibble about visa fees. On the grand scheme of things, they are trivial. If a Kazakh citizen wants a US tourist visa, he or she pays the reciprocal price, plus a whole other slew of bureaucratic cow dung to wade through. For me, I just pay and get on the boat.
I didn’t know much about Baku before going. I knew it was expensive. The place surprised me greatly.
Baku was elegant, lavish, clean, breezy, and brand shiny new. The metro was great, the public parks were gorgeous, and the food was plentiful. I made friends, learned Russian, taught rollerblading, went to a house party, and walked the blazing streets. I ate shawarma on shawarma, drank beers, and had a heated, 90 minute conversation about gay marriage with a US Peace Corps Volunteer that I met at the bank. This was done over a shawarma, of course.
The ferry, like the visas, was meant to be a circus as well. It was meant to be erratic, elusive, and bordering on non-existence. Again, this proved false.
The day after I collected my final visa, Fred (France), Hugh (Ireland), and I cycled down to the port to ask about a boat. There was one leaving that day. The lady told us to come back in 2.5 hours, at 3pm sharp. This we did.
At 3, we paid our tickets ($110), and waited for the boat. It had not yet arrived. When it did arrive, it needed to first unload its cargo, and then reload the new cargo. It’s a slow process.
The next few hours were spent in a café in town, eating shawarma, sleeping on the bathroom steps by the terminal, and pitching my sleeping bag on a gorgeous spot of grass overlooking the harbor. A few hours turned into 21 hours. At 12pm the following day, the boat finally left.
I sit on the boat now. It is far nicer than expected. Myself and 5 other travelers are sharing a dorm room. The bed is the nicest bed I’ve used in a month, and last night’s sleep followed accordingly. There is a canteen, a chef, and we’ve been served decent meals. There is a TV room with a ping-pong table. If there was WiFi, this would really be a relative luxury. I just type on my laptop at the moment.
As I write, we have reached our destination: Aktau, Kazakhstan. We’ve been here for a while actually, and are just waiting to dock. This could take a few more hours. This is the official beginning of Central Asia.
How am I feeling, you might ask? I’m not sure. I’m definitely not nervous. I’m not visibly excited. I’ve got friends to ride with, and the road ahead. When I start pedaling and click the music back on, I will find that smile. I love this stuff.
Tonight or tomorrow, the ride begins. Fred, Hugh and I will cycle the 500km from Aktau to the Uzbekistan border, and then roughly another 500km to civilization. There will be food and water roughly every ~50km. I usually carry 1.5L of water at a time; for this part, I’ve outfitted my bike with 8.5L. It will be hot, and the road won’t be good. We may wake up at 4am each morning, in order to ride in cooler weather. This part will be interesting. It’s probably a good thing I have friends with whom to ride as well. If not, I might go crazy.
Life is great man. There are so many great things in my life right now. So many great people, great stories, great energies, and great fortune. Something has really been coming over me lately. Something new. This life is a blessing. I couldn’t be much more grateful for all that it offers.
Central Asia Here We Go,