Entering Azerbaijan - not by bicycle!?
We stand on deck of the Fikret Amerov cargo ship looking at Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This morning I jumped up in my small bunk to a loud metallic rustling and a splash. Half asleep I thought we had hit something and I was waiting for an alarm to sound. All the other passengers in the cabin didn't seem to be worried though. Maybe we hadn't crashed after all. Laying there awake, straining to hear any kind of sounds beside the sound of the waves tickling the boat, it occurred to me that the loud metallic explosion must have been the anchor being dropped.
7 hours later it was already late afternoon and we still lay at anchor in front of Baku. With the last ray of sunlight, the city started to light up. Light shows beamed off of several large buildings, such as the flame towers. Baku is a city build with oil money. Even though it has a historic old town center, dozens of spectacular modern buildings compete among each other for extravagance. Right next to them oil rigs appear and the outskirts of Baku resemble more an industrial park than an architectural highlight. We look down into the water below us and see a fine oil smear floating on top of the water. A little further away, large bubbles rise to the top, looking like large medusae until they hit the surface and disappear. Oil has brought incredible wealth to some Azerbaijanis, but it has also contaminated the coast and waters along the Caspian Sea.
While eating dinner on the ship, we discuss how likely it is to reach the port soon. The crew keeps telling us its only a couple of hours, but they have been saying this since the morning. “I just hope we won't arrive at 3 o'clock in the morning!” says Bryn, a fellow traveller from Canada. He shouldn't have jinxed it. At 3:05 am, we are roughly awaken and told to come on deck. All the truck drivers have gathered here as well. Once again we hear the anchor, this time being lifted. We start to sail towards the port. It won't be until an hour later that we actually dock. And it takes another hour until we are asked to disembark and go through customs. There's no waiting area in the port and we have to wait outside in the cold wind. All the truck drivers are in front of us and it takes another 45 minutes until we finally get our passports stamped. At 6:30 we get our bicycles and are able to cycle to the city of Baku. Our first stop: Coffee!
We only spend two days in Baku. Even in the off season it's bustling with travellers, well at least in our hostel and they are mostly cyclists and long time backpackers. We even meet some cyclists and travellers again we had met in Central Asia. These two days are full of socializing, drinking coffee and hanging out with travellers.
On our second evening, Sera and I are exhausted. I guess we are not used to this high level of socializing and we deliberately sneak out of the hostel to have some time for ourselves at dinner.
Fortunately we also have the chance to meet with the director of WWF Azerbaijan, whose stories are both inspiring and heartbreaking. He explains how the endangered goitered gazelle was saved in Azerbaijan and how his NGO has contributed to resettling these animals to their previous habitat ranges. But we see his energy has been drained.
In 2015 the Azerbaijan government passed a law on foreign donor grants making it extremely difficult to receive grant money for projects. Most nature protection NGO's are almost fully financed with foreign money and this step has literally destroyed the NGO sector. (You can read more about this in the ranger section of the website or by clicking here).
On the road again, we find ourselves on a two lane highway. Instead of heading west, towards Georgia, we are cycling south. There's no alternative to the highway as it's the only road. It even cuts villages and small cities in half and there's always people running across the tarmac. Top-down mis-planning?
We are heading to the Shirvan National Park (NP), the last area where the charismatic goitered gazelle had survived its persecution. The first day we stop at the Qobustan petroglyph site. It has been recognized by the UNESCO as a world heritage site and they have build an interesting museum. With a strong wind blowing in our faces, we wander around the large boulders looking for the impressive petroglyphs. People, animals and even boats have been carved into the stone thousands of years ago!
The wind is extremely strong this day, luckily its tail wind. With ease we cycle at 30km/h along the highway. For cycling this tail wind is great, but it makes camping in the open impossible. The sun is already setting, as we find a tunnel underneath the highway large enough to pitch the tent. It's not the prettiest place for camping, but it's well protected. We fall asleep in our cozy sleeping bags, anxious to get to the Shirvan national park the next day. There we hope to meet with some park rangers and the park director. And of course we also don't want to miss this unique opportunity to see the goitered gazelles running free.
In the Shirvan NP we meet with the deputy director, Narmin, who even speaks English! He takes his time to talk about conservation, the gazelles and the difficulties of nature protection in Azerbaijan. National funds for the park are very low and in correspondence so are the wages. Equipment for monitoring and staff can only be bought if foreign donors are found. Nobody has a uniform or proper work clothing. Nonetheless the gazelles are well protected and their population is increasing. 6000 animals live in Shirvan nowadays. 50 years ago there were only 100 individuals left. Narmin encourages us to take the bicycles and explore the park. We leave our panniers in the center and grab only binoculars and camera.
We don't need to cycle long to see the first small group of gazelles jumping over the dry vegetation. It's wonderful! We ride on and spot gazelles everywhere.
You can read more about the goitered gazelle, rangers and nature protection in Azerbaijan in the ranger category. If you're interested just click here.