Silk road

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

A lump in my throat and tears in my eyes – as I stood on the dusty mound on the edge of the moonlike mountain landscape and saw the shimmer of the Caspian Sea in the distance below. The words, “Coast to coast to coast” entered my mind, and like flickering timelapse photography, I saw moving snapshots of two steady and determined bicycle riders traversing the lands that lie between the English Channel, the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Here we are in the strange land that is Azerbaijan. Back to sea level with 5500 kilometres on our odometer. In a new kind of place where gleaming golden-tooth strangers have greeted us, and where we learn slowly that not everything is as it may at first seem…

When we crossed the border we straightaway felt like minor celebrities. The Georgians had been fairly quiet, shy and even slightly insular. A controlled and restrained “Gamarjaobat” (hello) would be mustered, but usually only if we were the first to wave, smile, greet. But now, having crossed the Alazani river that separates the two countries, suddenly, every second Azeri car is honking, bodies and faces leaning from windows in amazement and bemusement, grabbing videos or photos of us on their mobile phones as we whizz by.

The question on everybody’s lips is, “Is the President of your country paying you to ride your bike?” If only… They obviously don’t get us when we shake our heads and try desperately to communicate the environmental reasons for our cycle ride across the world. We’re foreigners anyway, so we must be rich, and all prices are promptly doubled. It’s interesting that we’re still spending the same on groceries as we did when we lived in London.

Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, it’s becoming easier and easier to camp. Shepherds and goat herders point us to good spots near freshwater springs, and reassure us, in our shared common language of Turkish, that we need not be scared in the night. They’re fascinated with our set-up and point to tent, bikes, Trangia, rubbing fingers against thumb in the universal gesture of “how much, how much?”. It’s hard to convey that these two loaded bikes are pretty much all the possessions we have in the world… It’s even harder to answer their shock that, as a couple in our 30’s, we have no children – and they raise open hands to the sky in a plead to Allah to bless us.

We’ve joined the Silk Road and our path will now weave across its ancient strands all the way through Central Asia and into China. These trading routes brought amber and honey the the east, silk and jade to the west. One of its threads took us to Sheki, a famous silk weaving town, where we stayed in an 18th century caravansaray. In its heyday, Sheki had five working caravansarays to shelter and feed traders and pack animals resting at the junction where the caravan route between Baku and Tbilisi met the cross-mountain branch to Derbent in Dagestan.

The Greater Caucasus mountains have been so elusive – catching cloud and snaring mist – that we got up before dawn every day to see their impressive peaks in morning’s first light. And when fertile earth below our feet turned to desert dust, we craned our necks some more to see circling eagles spiral and soar above our heads.

We’re in Baku now, with the rural life and Caucasus mountains far behind. In this oil-rich capital, chok-a-blok with Ladas, Nivas, pick-ups, Mercedes, and the most enormous luxury 4WD’s I’ve ever seen, we’re tracking down a boat to ferry us across the largest lake in the world – that is, the Caspian Sea – all the way to Kazakhstan.

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