Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, Iran

Day 90: Sarvan to Bileh Savar (Border crossing: into Iran)

We weren’t sure if we were going to make it to the border today or stop a bit before, but the riding was so flat today we ended up there before we knew it.

The wind had shifted and we had changed direction so we were riding into the breeze today, but it wasn’t that strong overall. We passed through a couple of towns, greeted by the usual array of car horns and shouts. I was a bit ahead of Finn and waiting for him to catch up when a car pulled over and two guys jumped out, one with a big camera.


 They crossed the road and introduced themselves as reporters for a couple of Azerbaijani TV channels. They wanted to know if they could interview me for TV and sure, why not. It was a few basic questions, what do you think about Azerbaijan, where are you going and so on. By the time I was done Finn came around the corner and the interview him too. They said it would be on TV tomorrow, but we wouldn’t be in the country to see it.


riding along the below sea level road

We were making the border crossing at Bileh Savar, which is further north and inland than Astara, the main crossing between Azerbaijan and Iran on the Caspian coast. We arrived at Bileh Savar on the Azerbaijan side shortly after the interview, though we were still 20km from the border.

Stopping to get some snacks at a small roadside market we were invited in for tea by the general assembly of curious men and were led into a small barber shop. We sat for a while and then had to move on, we wanted to get to the border before it closed.

The ride to the border was almost uneventful, except that I almost got bitten by a dog. We get chased so much by dogs on this trip that it’s bound to happen eventually, though most of them just bark at you. Fortunately anyway I got off the bike and onto the other side, it only managed to graze my calf. The owners chased it off quickly.

The border was near where the dog incident happened and we crossed it quickly on the Azerbaijan side but slowly on the Iran side. They were quite thorough checking the passports. By the time we got out it was dark.

Northern Iran-1

Iran border at night in Bileh Sivar, the photos are of the Khomeini and Khameini the first snd current Supreme Leader

It was also clear from the Farsi everywhere, the portraits of Khomeini, the headscarves, everything, that Iran was going to be special. The border opened up into a busy street in Bileh Savar and we went to change our Azeri manat (1 manat is about 1.2 euro) to Iranian Rials.

Since Iran has quite a big inflation problem we left with a big wad of paper money of denominations up to 500,000 (1 Euro is about 33,000 rials). We then ate some kebab and rode out of town. 

We hoped find somewhere to camp soon but there was nothing that we could spot in the dark. Getting a bit desperate we stopped outside a mosque and we’re going to ask to camp on their grounds when a car pulled up. Out came two smiley Iranian guys who spoke to us with a smattering of English. They took a photo then invites us for ‘Hubble bubble’. We weren’t sure what that was but sure lets find out.

They brought us to a small building, the inside warm with raised platforms along the wall and carpets everywhere. Turns out Hubble bubble meant hookah, and there were a couple of guys recumbent bubbling away. We greeted them all and soon someone had called there cousin who spoke English.

hubble bubble -1o

the lads at the hookah bar, Khyyam in the white Jacket

This cousin was a guy named Khyyam who was very friendly and talkative and had never met a native English speaker before. He was therefore fascinated with us and chatted into the night. At some point it was organised for is to go sleep at one of the owners house that night and we rode back with them and slept on futons on a carpeted floor. It was busy and fantastic introduction to Iran.


where we spent the first night in Iran

Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

 Day 89: Outside Baku to Sarvan

I’ve had some trouble getting the updates uploaded since we crossed into Iran but they should all be going up soon now. Thanks for sticking around.

We spent a couple of days in Baku looking around. Here are some photos

Maidens Tower, UNESCO heritage site


view of the Flame Towers from the old town


altar at ancient Zoastrian temple


low season empty parking lot, with a oil well in the background



Tarul, Oscars driver showed us around for that day and took this photo


lots of big flags in Azerbaijan

After a couple of days in Baku we left and started to ride South to the Iranian border. It was a long flat road and quite windy so we camped outside the city in an abandoned hut.


Finn with the biggest loaf of bread in the shop for breakfast


From our camp in the abandoned building by the highway to where we ended up today the road ran almost perfectly straight and flat. The whole region we were cycling through was below sea level which would explain just how incredibly flat the land was.

To top it all off we had a tailwind, and a fairly strong one at that. It threw us along at an incredible pace, something we were thankful for as there wasn’t much else going on around us. To the left the flat land rolled to the sea, and the right off to some haze mountains in the distance.

   At around 11 we pulled into a big petrol station. One of the attendants started talking to us in very good English, he had a masters in English literature for university. How he had ended up working in a petrol station I don’t know.
We we had stopped to make use of the ATM that stood independently at the edge of the station. We had to take out all the money we planned to use in Iran now. Due to economic sanctions, Iran has no access to the international banking system so we won’t be able to take money out once we get into the country. So we were slowly withdrawing money over the next few days. This ate must have been the only one for miles around as there was a constant queue of old Azerbaijani guys around it.

Queue might be too generous though, they stood in a sort of disorganised jumble and when someone else pulled up and got out of the car he would just wander into the group willy nilly and sure eventually they’d all get to use the machine.
We finally got some money out and continued on our way across the long flat. It seemed like there was some rain behind us, but it never did catch up to us.

We ate at Salian, in a busy roadside cafe/restaurant where our shorts turned everybody’s head. 
Moving on from there we stopped in town to pick up food for the evening and morning and then set about looking for somewhere to camp. The wind seemed to be threatening rain and we had our pick of abandoned buildings just out of town so we found one reasonably far from the road and pulled our stuff into it.


Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, Finnian's Galleries, On Tour


Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 88: Shamakhi to Baku

Some clouds had rolled in last night and it had drizzled a bit. It was overcast still when we got up. After breakfast a local man came over and had made brief conversation and then watched us pack up our camp while he waited for a lift. 

our audience this morning there behind the tarp

In terms of terrain we were riding through this was really a day of two halves. In the morning it was more of the green rolling hills like yesterday. We had time and the wind on our side now so we didn’t have to ask any truck drivers for lifts up the ascent.


the rain clearing


its always cool at the top of a hill when you see the road wind off into the distance like this

Quick pit stop at the last town before Baku, Qobustan. It’s very much a town that seems to have sprung up around the highway, or maybe grown on account of it. Shops and garages lined the road but the buildings didn’t extend much beyond them. As usual there was the requisite number of old guys just generally hanging around outside and as usual they had a great time staring at us in our shorts. 


Qobustan with a big Azerbaijan flag flying

From Qobustan the scenery changes dramatically, we descended for a long time and left the greenery behind. We were in sort of desert terrain now. The road was still under construction in parts, but a couple of new lanes were open and what a treat it always is to ride on fresh Tarmac.


the road downhill through the desert


you can see the wind blowing along the road

 The strong wind was behind us most of the way to Baku, as we got closer to the city and began to change direction it really began to buffet us from the side a lot more. We found out a bit later that Baku’s original Arabic name meant ‘Wind pounded city’. Given what we experienced on our first day riding into and around it I couldn’t agree more.
The sprawl out if Baku began about 30km before we reached he city proper. Busses crammed with commuters drove past us every few seconds and the traffic got busier and busier. The outskirts were big and kind if shabby apartment blocks. As we got fur into the city concrete began to be replaced by steel and glass buildings. Before we knew it we were in the middle of the biggest city we’d been in since Ankara.
Baku is an impressive city, and when compared to what we rode through in the rest of Azerbaijan in sticks out like a sore thumb. The Lonley planet describes it as “Dubai meets Paris” and it’s the most succinct description of the place.
We got in contact with our host here, a Columbian dude working in the oil industry in Baku. He was really welcoming and his place very nice, an apartment down by the port. He served us up a lovely dinner and then a long overdue shower and night sleeping in a warm bed inside sealed the day nicely. 


Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 87: Gebele to Shamakhi

Yesterday we decided to treat ourselves by buying eggs for breakfast today and what a treat it was. I don’t mind porridge, but a plate of scrambled eggs is way more inviting. This kingly breakfast set us up well for the rest of the ride today which was going to be quite hilly. 

happy finn after our eggy breakfast


morning light over the valley

It started out flat enough, and we found ourselves riding for some distance through very pleasant deciduous forest, most of the leaves had fallen and the ground was carpeted with them. I imagine during the summer the place is packed with people, restaurants were very common, all similar with a number of gazebos around the central cookhouse. It was winter now and no one was out eating and they were almost all closed.

This was all before the town is Ismailli. At Ismailli we stopped for lunch. On the other side of Ismailli the terrain gradually got hillier. The scenery was still quite green though, grass and trees and hedgerows. There weren’t many ploughed field, it was mostly allotments for grazing. 


climbing up one of the hills

Anyway, we climbed and descended most of the rest of the day. There was one long climb that brought us up to almost 1000m toward the end of our ride. We thought that would be it, and from then on it would be mostly downhill. We still had to cycle a bit over 15km to set us up to make it to Baku tomorrow. Turning a corner on the descent we saw that the road went right down to a river then back up 500m the other side. We really didn’t want to have to climb it. 


nice view back along the road from another hill


last view of the mountains


the climb that defeated us

An empty truck drove past us, I half jokingly suggested we we ask them to drive us over the climb. “That’s a great idea” said Finn and pedalled up to the driver door. He got the message across and they were more than enthusiastic, even excited I’d say, to help. Next thing we knew we had the bikes in the back and we were up front in the little cockpit with two Azeri guys with big smiles on
They drove us right over the hill in ten minutes what would take us an hour to climb, and then all the way on to Shamakhi. Here they invited us for some tea and after a quick cuppa we took the bikes off the truck and said goodbye. They actually wanted to drive us all the way to Baku, but we still had a say of riding we wanted to get done.


the drivers and the truck that got us to Shamkhi

We rode a short way outside Shamakhi to find somewhere to camp and ended up in a small stand of trees right next to the road and what looked like an abandoned factory of some sort.


Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 86: Sheki to Gebele

We thought we were in for another day in the fog when we woke up. We couldn’t even see to the end of the field. As we sat there huddled over our porridge though, the sun gradually began to shine through. When it was time to leave, after we had packed up camp the rest of the fog had burnt off and we were treated to a lovely clear day. 

the sun starting to shine through in the morning

More countryside riding, but now at last the mountains that had been covered over the last two days were revealed. It was a great lift to the spirits being able to see all of the country we were riding through, and some of the mountaintops were just amazing, rising up to 4000m in places.

As I’ve probably said before in the blog, riding a bike across a country you really get a feel for its geography. In the case of Azerbaijan, we experienced this phenomenon a number of times before finally figuring out what was going on: you’d be riding along next to the foothills on the flat, happy as Larry and then the road would make a sharp 90 degree turn up towards the mountains. So you climb for a bit, the road not taking you in the right direction, until you arrive at a bridge over the river. 


a nice sign for Sheki, the region we were just leaving

This happened again and again, and we had no idea why we would have to climb up into the hills to cross the river. Anyway, as it turns out what happens is all the meltwater from the Caucuses and fills up the wide rocky plains with fast flowing river. It only lasts a day or two, but it means that the road can’t just cut across the floodplain. So we are left climbing for about 5km in the wrong direction everything we want to cross a river.
But still, today the weather was clear and every climb would be rewarded with a long gradual downhill thereafter. 
Another quirk we’ve come across in Azerbaijan was at its most obvious when we stopped to shop just before Gebele. For the life of them, they can’t fathom wearing shorts in the winter. No amount of gesturing that you get warm on the bike to explain it helps, they’ve all found it absolutely mind boggling. Finn probably gets it worse because he wears cycling shorts, but as we were wandering around this supermarket at the end of every aisle people would gather and stare in disbelief, and then as we moved to the next aisle would follow us in turn.


the wide road up to Gebele

But most people here have also been incredible friendly. We had to get internet access to get in contact with a couch surfing host, we pulled into a new looking petrol station and the manager there let us use the office Internet. He even brought out two chairs to sit on so we weren’t standing around.
So we passed through Gebele eventually, it’s another surprisingly big town given the surroundings. We found somewhere to camp in the middle of one of this flood plains I described earlier. 


Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 85: Çobankol to Sheki

More fog this morning. It was a bit of shame really, we were on the road along the foothills and didn’t get to see any if the mountains. Our morning ride took us uphill most of the way on a muddy and potholed road. Everyone we passed along the way was surprised to see us. The pattern seemed to be whoever was riding out front surprised them and then as the whoever was behind cycled past they got over the shock and let out a big smile and a wave. 

On the road to Qakh

A bit before lunch we got into Qakh, a small town at the foot the mountains. We stopped at a small market to get some snacks and while eating outside a guy came up to us and started communicating as best he could. He then got his phone out and handed it over to us. It was his daughter, who spoke very good English and explained that this was her dad and he wanted to invite us back for tea.
It was almost lunch so yes of course. He led us back to his house, and welcomed by his friendly wife. They had a really fancy place, a wide spiral stair and marble floors. They served us up so,e tea and coffee and then some delicious lunch, sweet pumpkin pancakes, yoghurt and fresh bread. Mustafa (the guy who invited us in) called up his daughter and Skype and we chatted through her. 
It was a real slap up feed and a great chat too, Mustafa had a a lot to share with us about Azerbaijan and the local area. He saved us time and effort too when he let us know about a new road, freshly laid and in much better nick than the road we were on before stopping. He led us in his car to the start of he new road and we said goodbye.


with our generous hosts.

Some good flat riding followed along the new road. I think if the fog wasn’t there we would have had a great view of the mountains to our left, but alas all we could see out there was grey. 


one of todays more interesting photos

Crossing a bridge over a wide floodplain filed with stones we turned up into the foothills for a while, climbing up into the fog for an hour. At the top of the climb we came to Sheki, a big town in the hills that we didn’t spend too much time looking around, it was the end of the day and that long climb had tuckered us out. We got something to eat then continued on on the road to Baku.


crossing the bridge into Sheki

Camping spots were a bit hard to find at first as the sprawl around the town took up most of the land. We passed a lot of small houses with huge plots of land marked off around them by walls, fence etc. Darkness was setting in and we eventually found a flat, empty field shielded from the road, opposite a cheese factory on the other side of the road. The fog still hung, it was a dark, damp night.

Azerbaijan, Dublin to Nepal, On Tour

Day 84: Lagodekhi to Çobankol (Border crossing: Into Azerbaijan)

Clouds had gathered overnight, it wasn’t raining but a think fog was starting to set. Breakfast (porridge, bread, butter, coffee) and set off. We had been told that we had to pay to camp the night before, but when we went in to pay the guy working at the visitors center refused to take our money. I think he liked that we had used a tarp and not a tent: “no tent on grass, you don’t need to pay”.
We were right by the Azerbaijan border, no sooner had we left Lagodekhi did we arrive at the crossing, only 7km away. The Georgian border guard had a good time looking at all the visas in my passport, he was thumbing through it for about 20 minutes and even radioed someone about the Pakistan and Iran visas. But it didn’t amount to anything and he waved me through and on to the Azerbaijan border where I met up with Finn.


coming up on the border

At the Azerbaijan border we were questioned about Armenia at least three times by every guard we met. “Have you been to Armenia?” “Will you go to Armenia?” “Do you have Armenia stamp in passport?”. We also had to go through a pretty extensive baggage search and X-ray but, again, it didn’t result in anything just procedure. It did take a lot of time though, and it was over an hour before we were on the road again. The Azerbaijan side of the border was a bit more flamboyant than the Georgian end, the whole crossing is blocked at the end by two huge iron gates in a stone arch that the guard open and close manually every time someone comes through.


on the other side, in Azerbaijan. you can see those big metal gates I was talking about

By the time we got through the fog had really set in and we couldn’t see much beside the road in front of us and a few meters either side. We pulled into the town of Balakan for lunch, a big enough place where our bikes and shorts garnered a lot of interest.
Outside of Balakan the road was lined with houses and walls, much like the settlements on the Georgian side of the border. The traffic was becoming more frequent as we moved further into the country. Already we noticed that the drivers were very friendly here, most of them waving or beeping as we rode by. 


these arches are all made of wood and plaster

At a fork in the road we turned off the main route and onto a smaller road that would take us closer the mountains. We pulled into a small shop by the road. A bunch of old Azeri men stood outside and were pretty interested as usual. One problem we’ve had so far is explaining where Ireland is to locals who want to talk and ask where we are from. A lot of people don’t know Ireland but in Azerbaijan they have (for whatever reason) a picture of Europe on the money. So we were able to finally communicate where our little corner of the world was.


these wide, stoney , dry riverbeds were very common

After the shop we found a nice camp spot in a wide flat flood plain next to a river. We walked a while away from the road and in our own little bubble of fog we set up by a solitary tree and settled down to our first night in Azerbaijan.