Cycling Across Azerbaijan
We awake in our sleeping bags in the Shirvan National Park's administrative office. The deputy director, Narmin, allowed us to sleep in the conference room after we had asked to pitch our tent outside. He smirked, said it was way too cold to sleep in the tent right now, and gave us the keys to the admin building.
After such a great day of gazelle and bird watching yesterday, we wanted to enter the park once more before continuing. With a local guide from the park we entered the park again. It is always interesting to see how little afraid the animals are from cars opposed to bicycles, so we saw the gazelles even closer. But what I don't like about the car is that you can't stop as quickly when a bird flies by and with the motor on the car vibrates too much to use the binoculars. Half an hour later we arrived at the ranger station and as we got out of the vehicle spotted a little owl!
Sera and I left the vehicle and guide behind us at the ranger station and continued on foot. We didn't have to walk far to see tracks everywhere in the sand. Gazelles, wild boars and wolves! Had crossed the dirt road not long ago. Narmin later told us that there are about 30 wolves in the park. We didn't see them, but seeing their tracks was already quite spectacular.
At midday we were back on our bicycles, hitting the road. Our next destination, the Ilisu Nature Reserve in the north-western part of the country. Approx. 350 km of which a large chunk would be cycling on the main highway. To get to the highway, we chose the most direct way on minor streets. As we turned the corner and crossed a bridge, the well asphalted road turned into an unpaved road full with potholes and inpatient drivers.
This day we didn't get far due to the bad road and a cold drizzle that had set in. We spotted a restaurant and asked if they would let us set up our tent and spend the night. They agreed and even invited us to sleep inside a small room instead of the cold and rain outside. Great! We thought at first, but a little later we found out that they were going to charge us for sleeping in the room. Not much but definitely unexpected. Worse however, was the wedding that was on this evening as well. Needless to say we didn't get a very good sleep.
The rattled road continued the next day and I wondered where all this oil money is actually going to? Not into infrastructure development in rural areas. In the distance we saw the greater Caucasus mountains rising majestically. The Ilisu Nature Reserve is located at the foot of these mountains, and as we saw all the snow, we wondered how much colder it was going to get.
Along the highway in the valley between the two Caucasian mountain ranges, the temperature was OK and especially with the sun out we made good progress, stopping only to give the street dogs some food.
After sundown, the temperatures noticeably dropped and fell below zero during the night. We asked at restaurants if we could pitch the tent and sleep, a good way of eating and relaxing in a warm room before crawling into the cold tent.
The second night we reached a small village, divided into two by the highway. A large supermarket was brightly lit and we stopped to buy a snack and dinner. A young man approached us and started talking to us in English! He said his name was “Action” and curiously started asking us many questions about our journey, our home countries and our lives. We don't often meet people that speak good English and we enjoyed talking to him. We also asked where we could set our tent for the night to which he immediately had an answer. A bit further ahead was a small restaurant with a back part to it where we should go. Then he took his phone and called the restaurant to inform them we were coming. He would come a little later, when he was done working, and eat dinner with us there. Little did we know then, that his family not only owned the supermarket, but also this restaurant. When Aqsin arrived he ordered a mountain of food, enough to feed 10 hungry cyclists. It's Azerbaijani tradition and he wouldn't stop even though we heavily protested.
With a full belly and our heads full of stories and impressions of Azerbaijan, we lay down in the tent. Aqsin did invite us to sleep inside the restaurant, but we had already set up everything in front of a massive old plane tree. Only the cat remains after we pack all our things again :)
The next day we finally left the busy highway behind us and cycled on a country road again. Unfortunately sometimes almost just as busy, but without the wide hard shoulder which we cycled on on the highway. It's ironic how cycling on the highway is often actually safer than on other roads. Our next destination, Sheki, a town at the foot of the greater Caucasus.
It's listed in the Lonely Planet as a must-see destination due to its historic old town. We spent a day there wandering around the old town where the houses are build of stone. A palace sits at the top, overlooking the city and an Albanian church is next to it. It was a nice little town, but truthfully we had expected a bit more of this town.
A days ride away from Sheki is Qax and the Ilisu State Reserve. From the WWF Director we received the phone number of the deputy director, Azerchin, and we were looking forward to meeting him. When we arrived in Qax we first headed to a restaurant from where we would call Azerchin. Little did I know that he only spoke Azerbaijani and Russian and barely any English. You can imagine the phone call was not so easy. Nonetheless we went over to the office and he explained us his work and bombarded us with photos from animals in the park, many caught by camera traps.
Unfortunately access to the Ilisu Reserve is prohibited, something we were not aware of beforehand. Nonetheless Azerchin invited us to drive with him to the reserves boundaries the next morning. We hoped to spot an animal in the hills with our binoculars. But the weather the next day was horrible, with rain and thick fog.
12 rangers work in the reserve, patrolling on foot or horseback. They also set camera traps and help with the monitoring. East Caucasian Tur, deer, chamois, bears, wolves and lynx are among the wildlife found in the reserve. How safe they are from poaching in this rugged landscape remains an unanswered question however. A day before in the restaurant, a young man had entered with a rifle and even invited us to come outside with him for some shooting. In these mountain villages many men have rifles and with little job opportunities, they also have a lot of free time. Going hunting is a frequent hobby and a popular activity to do with guests.
Of course we didn't understand everything Azerchin explained us, but we still got a good idea of his work. Besides being in charge of the rangers, he visits schools to talk about conservation, organizes school camps and is in charge of monitoring. His passion for nature and his work is apparent and we wish him all the best for the future.
Even though we didn't really see the reserve itself, we did see the many restaurants and hotels scattered along the road leading to the reserve. Infrastructure development which brings an income to the locals, but also pollution.
Waste disposal is a big problem and behind many houses and buildings, the trash is simply thrown out. In the village of Qax, a garbage truck collects the trash, but we still cycled past a large dump site in the river bed. Waste disposal is a problem in the whole country, but seeing it right next to a nature reserve is even worse for me. Hopefully the region will soon clean up its act.
With our visit to Qax and the Ilisu Reserve, we have also almost reached the border. On the 2nd of December we arrived at the border, where grumpy Azerbaijani officers stamped an exit stamp into our passports and we were greeted by Georgian hospitality with a glass of wine in the town of Lagodekhi.