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8) june 26th, Azerbaijan - Last stop Baku. All change for Central Asia..

At 5289km, both the Europe and the "Middle-East and Caucasus" leg is over. I'm in Baku, Azerbaijan, waiting for a boat to take me across the Caspian Sea and onto Turkmenistan, the start of Part III - Central Asia.
It's only been two and a half months since I set out from humble Wallingford, but it does feel a lot longer.

The hardest part, I now realise, in not the physical challenge, but the loneliness. And having to rely on myself for everything, the whole time. Sometimes I'd just like to leave the route-planning, food-buying, smalltalk pains to someone else!

Well, I only hope the next leg will go smoothly, and also give me a chance to hook up with a few other travellers, as I'm getting rather bored with my own company... not too confident on the internet connections in Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan, so the next report may be a couple weeks coming. But keep checking and don't forget me!

19 June, Sun: Another long day cycling, but after getting over the pass after Tabriz (40km later...) - oh the traffic! - it seemed to get a trifle cooler and once I'd turned east (the beginning of the trek to the coast), even a bit greener. Uneventful (you can just assume pain and suffering was involved), and arrived in Sarab - the middle of nowhere - quite exhausted. Initially led to the town's "Tourist Inn" by a friendly bloke in a car - but $15 a night, so I asked if anyone knew a cheaper place...
Now I'm in an Iranian dormitory, sharing the room with a young lad and his uncle, looking at his war wounds.
Distance: 135km. Overnight in Sarab (Iran)

20 June, Mon: Sarab, the town of bloody cheats. As I left the "hotel", the manager tried to stiff me for more money, despite me paying the assistant last night. And it wasn't just a little more, it was taking-the-piss more. Stopped at a chay-shop for breakfast. I supplied the bread, he supplied the cheese and honey. In a decent hotel restaurant, including the bread, this would come to about 10,000 Rials. But in his scabby little place, he wanted no less than 50,000 Rials! I exploded, and he immediately knocked the price down, but still at the Shitty Sarab Price of 30,000 Rials.
The only honest people in that town was the old man who sold me the bread, and the teenager who had cycled next to me when I entered the town, saying cheerfully "Sarab is bad town, Sarab is bad town".
A long straight climb, but I don't remember much as I was still fuming over being fleeced. When I reached the turn-off for Sareyn - the hot springs I'd been told about - I reluctantly stayed on the road to Ardebil... no time left in my schedule for pleasure.

Ardebil was like a mini-Tabriz, albeit with not the same level of friendliness. Different grilled meats on large skewers seemed to be the local cuisine (it was all I could find) - a little like "kushiyaki" in Japan. And it was lovely! At night, all the shops were illuminated, with throngs of people passing to and fro - really nice, actually. And it was even a little chilly in the evening.
Kept awake all night by evasive mosquito.
Distance: 85km. Overnight in Ardebil (Iran)

21 June, Tue: Today's destination - the coastal frontier town of Astara. It was actually grey and cloudy when I left this morning, and in contrast to the dry heat I've been experiencing over the last few weeks, it felt pretty humid. The usual long climb through semi-desert was instead replaced by a bit of greenery, then green hillsides. Unfortunately, almost all of this was obscured by low-lying cloud. And it was raining. When I got to the top of the pass, what should have been a stupendous view... was blocked by a cloud below. This was the road I'd been told about countless times, the road I'd been looking forward to... and at some points I couldn't see further than 5 yards through the almost solid fog.
However, from what I did see - green hills tightly enveloping the steeply decending road - it really reminded me of Japan. And at that moment it all came back to me, and I wished I was back in Japan! This is the kind of cycling I enjoy, not yellow arid landscapes. Actual conversations, well- mannered drivers, good pensions and campsites, the food, shrines & temples hidden in woodland... it was a kind of "homesickness" if you like, and a revelation: I missed Japan...

Astara is my final stop in Iran. On the Caspian Sea (though I only saw it in the distance..), another dusty border town. The women here are dressed more casually - headscarfs, of course, but very few chadours, and even fringes of dyed blonde hair freely showing (shock!). And for the first time in Iran, the reception of the hotel was staffed by women. Border influence I guess.
Very apprehensive about Azerbaijan. By my calculations, it's a hard 3 days riding (330km) to Baku, and seemingly very few places to stay on route. Hope I can pull myself out of this funk and start enjoying rather than enduring this trip again.
Distance: 85km. Overnight in Astara (Iran).

22 June, Wed: Fate has a funny way of pulling me out of the doldrums just when I need it. I think I might like Azerbaijan.
Set of this morning with my bike smelling, strangely, of shit. One of the more chaotic border crossings - Iranian money-changers yelling at me from all sides, countless passport controls (one guard on the Azerbaijan side was looking for a bribe, which I managed to avoid), and then into the Azerbaijan side proper. A mad Asian scene of dusty streets, loud music, hussle & bussle - and women without headscarfs! Jeans, even some tight T-shirts... by the Gods... if the Iranian women look anything like the Azeris I can now understand why their husbands and fathers want to keep them safely covered up.
Out on the road it was oddly comforting to see the Lada firmly back in vogue. The shops and houses seemed slightly more "ordered", Soviet-style, and the scenery was a gorgeous lush green, almost tropical. I might have been cycling the roads of South East Asia with the amount of vegetation (and humidity). Maybe it was the trees, maybe the ever-so-slightly more "Western" feel to the place - I don't know, but I was starting to feel a damned sight more positive again.
Sometimes I got the feeling that the Azeris were competing with Iran on the hospitality stakes. Lots of shouted greetings from the side of the road, an offer of vodka from a policeman (it was 10am), and a snack of bread and tinned tuna given to me at a roadside stall (the village came out to say hello, and one 80 year old great-grandmother seemed quite taken with me).
Staying in a behemoth of a hotel (a leftover from Soviet times) - empty, but lovely room and spotlessly clean, well worth the $8. And an extemely nice and helpful assistant... with the emphasis on "nice" I think.

Moved forward into another timezone - 30 minutes. And also BROKE THE 5000KM BARRIER! A total of 5050km to be exact.
Distance: 85km. Overnight in Masalli (AZERBAIJAN).

23 June, Thu: A torturous day. Ferocious headwind - the worst yet, abysmal road surface (I chose the dirt verge over the tarmac in the end) and reckless drivers putting me in a bad mood. It took all my stength to keep control of the bike, and I can feel it now in my arms and shoulders.
Soon after leaving Masalli, the trees thinned out - then disappeared - the road became dryer and flat, and it was clouds of dust & dung for poor ol' Steve again. Again, an Asian feel to the place - tut-tuts, flocks of geese criss-crossing the street, small makeshift stalls alongside the road, and cows right in the middle of it, oblivious to the mad traffic trying to dodge them.
One particularly keen sheepdog (more like a Jack Russel actually) was attacking every car that raced past, trying to bite their tyres. Needless to say, what on earth will that mutt do to a cyclist, I nervously thought to myself as I inched past, hiding behind the stream of cars coming the other way. In a foul mood for most of the day, I ignored calls for "chay", apart from later in the afternoon from a group of workmen.
I can't help thinking that this funny-sounding "Azeri" dialect they speak in these parts originated from somewhere around Birmingham. I hear it and I suddenly think I'm in the Midlands, listening to a couple of blokes from Dudley trying to speak French.
Tonight's hotel - another Soviet monstrosity - has long dark corridors with torn-up floorboards and mysterious echos. There's no running water (but buckets are supplied) and the erratic lighting is supplied by a network of lightbulbs and wires dangling from the ceiling. I will not be recharging my camera tonight ..
Distance: 108km. Overnight in Salyan (Azerbaijan)

24 June, Fri: I've reached Baku, at last. Staying in a cheap & nasty hotel, in a musty room with a dodgy lock that has been forced just too many times. But life is good.
Glad to be off the bike for a few days while I sort out my boat to Turkmenistan. Today was another trial - crap roads, headwinds, and a long long dead-straight stretch of road through a barren landscape with nothing to break the monotony. Things improved after lunch, when the road hit the coast. Although only a sliver of turquoise blue a couple of kilometres away through the complexes of petrochemical plants, polluted wasteland and the odd on-shore oil-well... nevertheless, it was more stimulating that the line of 2400 telegraph poles of the last 60km. And the cool breeze from the Caspian stopped any complaints of a headwind.
There was no abatement, however, in the giant billboards depicting the president and his late father (the previous president..) standing proudly, looking into the middle distance with the Azerbaijan flag fluttering in the background. Or billboards showing quotes - pearls of wisdom - attributed to one of them. Neither was there any lessening of the obvious dislike (or even hatred) that the Azerbaijanis have for Armenia (always some caustic comment made when "Armenia" is seen on the front of my guidebook).
But how pleasant it was to cycle into Baku, past the resort hotels on the outskirts, past a horrendous wasteland of pipes, bits of metal, cranes and mini oil-rigs, and into the city proper, with a long park following the sea.
Only had a little chance to wander, but what I saw I liked. Majestic crumbling buildings and streets, old and new, and quite cosmopolitan. And it's official - tight T-shirts are in. Oh yeah.
Distance: 130km. Overnight in Baku (Azerbaijan).

25th, 26th June - a break in Baku: A lot of time spent sorting out things for the next leg: picking up maps, books and spares; sorting out the ferry times (still a mystery), withdrawing money (and preparing clever places to hide it), cleaning and checking over the bike, etc, etc. But in the course of things I did get to look around the place. A modern city (unless we talk about the toilets), and a fair number of oil company ex-pats... a few "sugar-daddies" among them with a young Azeri girlfriend on their arm...
The subway platforms seem to have no signs indicating the name of the station, but there are, strangely, rows and rows of wide-screen high definition TVs suspended from the ceiling, showing continuous nature programs of an oceanographic nature - corral, dolphins and the like. And the fastest escalators I have ever seen.
Two cops tried to shake me down for money at the entrance. They looked through my bag and emptied my wallet several times. There wasn't much in there, but I kept my eye on it. They were disappointed not to find anything worth discreetly taking, and eventually indicated that I should go and buy them a bottle of vodka. I pretended not to understand and kept talking about bicycles until they gave up and let me go.
I did the "old town" thing - nice enough, but I preferred the old town in Plodiv, Bulgaria. Took a walk along the sea-side boulevard - families and couple out for walks, cafes... and a faint scent of oil from the slightly sludgey dark sea...

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