Trip by motorbike to Baku
When you go on bike trips you need a symbolic ‘turning point’ which for us, in this case, was Baku and the Caspian Sea. We were away the three weeks in the middle of August, forced by necessity of work, and this resulted in us crossing Turkey at fairly high speeds and stopping rarely.
From Italy to Azerbaijan, Through Turkey and Georgia
So the programme was: one week to get there, one to come back, and another whole one to roam around Azerbaijan. This also led us to cut through Georgia quite quickly, without sidetracking in the northern part that seems to be the most interesting. Another time!
Three factors contributed to making the programme possible. Firstly the ferry that in the space of one night and half a day allows you to disembark at Igoumenitsa from Venice.
Then the new Egnatia Odos motorway that literally starts opposite the Port of Igoumenitsa and cuts through Greece up to the border; finally, the incredible road network made in Turkey in recent years: everywhere you find fluid four-lane motorways which allow to keep the cruise speed at around 120/150 km/h and are also fun because of the continuous ups and downs with nice fast curves.
Some Practical Notes:
– You can find unleaded fuel everywhere. In Turkey it is expensive, approximately 2 euros per litre; in Georgia it costs more or less the same as in Italy; in Azerbaijan it is practically free.
– In Georgia and Azerbaijan very few people speak English, with the exception of Tbilisi and Baku, and possibly the second-best known language is Russian. You manage anyhow, but any kind of difficulty can be a bit of a problem;
-To enter Georgia there is no need to get a visa, while you do need one for Azerbaijan and there is absolutely no way of getting it at the border. Getting it through the embassy in Rome is practically impossible and there are no other Consulates in Italy. We asked an Agency in Milan that got everything ready in about a week: theoretically you would also need hotel reservations, but the agency makes some bogus ones which they then cancel… The whole service costs around 100 euros a head.
Turkey Is Long
There is no way of not passing through Istanbul and it’s an indescribable hell which can be understood only by those who have lived it. The city is immense, traffic is excessively chaotic and one basically proceeds at walking pace. My advice is go and visit the city travelling… by plane and staying at least 4-5 days.
To get to Azerbaijan you must pass through Georgia, as Armenia has its borders closed both with Turkey for historical reasons and with Azerbaijan due to the Nagorno Karabakh issue. Between Turkey and Georgia there are two borders, one on the Black Sea toward Batumi and the other high in the mountains shortly after the Turkish city of Ardahan and the village of Posof. Up to Erzincan we went straight along one motorway after another, but from there on up to the border crossing with Georgia the first magnificent piece of road starts, through the spectacular gorges of the Tortum and climbing up to plateaus of an unimaginable beauty and with a perfect climate.
In Georgia They Drive Like Madmen
We cross the Turkey-Georgia border with no problems. Please note: our green cards are not valid and in fact at the border with Azerbaijan you have to take out a local insurance with a month’s validity. This option does not exist in Georgia, so notwithstanding our perplexities we decided not to care… Soon after we will understand why insurances there probably don’t even exist.
After a few kilometres from the border we are immediately faced with the reality of this country. The impact with what is the ex Soviet Union is rather hard: horrible and decrepit buildings, rickety cars, smelly trucks and buses.
But mainly in Georgia people drive like insane criminals. It is absolutely normal to find yourselves in front of a wall that occupies the entire carriageway composed of a modern sports car overtaking a truck at 160 km/h, which is itself overtaking an old Lada which is overtaking a mule cart.
Terrorized by this first impact we take a decision that in hindsight, will prove to be wrong.
To enter Azerbaijan there are two borders and in both cases it is necessary to pass through the capital Tbilisi. Map in hand, options include a northern route through the city of Gori, straighter and half highway and a more southern route, along secondary and more winding roads. We opt for the first, thinking it safer, and reserving the second for the return journey.
Unfortunately we haven’t considered that the motorway is only half built and that all the local people drive as fast as they can where they can, which is on the few straight roads of the country. Needless to say that the other route, which we did on our way back, will prove to be one of the most beautiful stretches of our holiday…
Displaying a lot of cold blood we cover as much road as we can, but instead of reaching Tblisi we decide to stop in Gori, worn out by nerves and tiredness.
The Arrival in Azerbaijan: from Sheki to Lahic
Between Georgia and Azerbaijan there are only two borders, one to the south-west and one to the north-east. The first one is part of the more direct route between Tbilisi and Baku as it crosses the great plain in the centre of Azerbaijan; it’s also the ugliest, with a long motorway (half is also under construction) with a lot of trucks and few points of interest. We will do it on our way back, also because it allows you to do Baku-Tblisi in little more than half a day.
The other route is much nicer, it passes through the magnificent city of Sheki and allows you to do some interesting detours in the valleys of the Caucasus.
Once we’ve done all the customs paperwork at the border (consider at least three hours: they check everything), we head towards our first planned stop: Sheki. The place is famous for the incredible palace of the Khan, built at the end of the 18th century entirely in wood and characterized by colourful mosaic windows.
The following day, along the road to Baku, we venture into a side valley that penetrates for some tens of kilometres into the range of the Caucasus to reach the remote village of Lahic. The road is mainly dirt and dug into the sides of a gorge and the village, one of the most ancient human settlements of the country, is really isolated, so much so that the population speaks a language of their own and probably in winter the road is not even viable.
The following day we depart from Lahic to head toward Baqku, the capital on the Caspian Sea and our holiday’s halfway point. Azerbaijan is relatively small, but in a few tens of kilometers the landscape can change radically. The mountains of the Caucasus are alpine, moving toward Baku it quickly becomes desert.
Baku is beautiful! For several thousands of kilometres we were far from urban areas and suddenly we find ourselves in the equivalent of a European city. The city has almost completely been freshly restored and the historic centre is a must-see jewel. There is a part dating from the beginning of the century that could almost be Paris, if not for the colour of the stone used, and a park full of fountains and picnic areas runs around the medieval walls. Inside the walls there is an older historical centre, still lived in, where you can lose yourselves in the classic maze of narrow streets. Taking the underground and the cable railway you can reach the iconic Flame Towers, headquarters of the national company that extracts petrol and other offices; the facades are covered with 10,000 LEDs and by night the towers in the shape of flame become enormous ‘flaming’ screens.
Finally another must is the magnificent promenade, clean as a new pin and with an infinite variety of plants which form a huge botanical garden, among which there is an olive tree from the south of Italy. At one end of the promenade you will find the museum of carpets… in the form of a rolled up carpet.
The Magnificent Nothingness of Khinaliq
From Baku you quickly reach Quba, and after Quba we delve into spectacular gorges, to then climb up a road to do in second gear that leads to a magnificently vast, imposing plateau. Reaching the remote village of Khinaliq, a place literally out of this world at 2,300 metres of altitude: unforgettable! The road – sometimes dirt – crosses the whole plateau for several tens of kilometers, keeping high on one side of the valley. It is of breathtaking beauty and when you finally reach Khinaliq you discover there is basically nothing, as could be expected. The road ends at the village, so then you have to go back by the same route; but it’s so worth it that anyone passing in the area should go see it.
The Return with a Missed Opportunity
The following day we start our journey back counting on reaching Tblisi without stopping, so we take the route we had excluded on our way out, the most direct between Baku and Georgia. It does not offer anything interesting, being absolutely flat and monotonous. The only detour we decide to make takes us into the Qobustan territory, south of Baku, because of the unique natural phenomenon that occurs there, i.e. a huge mass of mud volcanoes.
We take a promising dirt road which seems to go in the right direction (towards nothing), and we follow it for tens of kilometres before giving up and retracing our steps, worn out by the heat and fatigue.
Once back in Italy I wasn’t happy so exploring with Google Maps (https://goo.gl/maps/kFA57GdoVhP2) I discovered we were just a few kilometres away! What a disappointment. Never give up! If you want here is a youtube video that explains the phenomenon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQB5bGbhl5w.
We reach Tblisi late in the afternoon and the historical centre of the Georgian capital reveals itself to be a lively jewel, even if very far from the architectural splendour of Baku.
Up to the Turkish border, still mindful of the disaster of the outward journey, we choose to go the other way, the one further south and more winding… beautiful! It rises onto a plateau with non-existent traffic and we flank a couple of great lakes in a bucolic atmosphere where we can finally unleash the bikes’ horsepower. Really recommended to anyone travelling in those parts, categorically excluding the northern route. You get close to the border with Armenia, you can almost touch it, but reluctantly we point the handlebars toward home because we need to get back. We will cross Turkey again doing more or less the same route as the outward journey, taking the parallel valley just for a change of scenery.
Wizz and Arianna
Wizz and Arianna
I am 30 and have lived in Romagna for what seems like forever. I like to take advantage of every minute of my free time, climbing and cycling and taking part in Athletics. Riding my motorcycle makes it possible to turn any journey into an adventure, even the daily commute to work in any season of the year. I do prefer the winter. Even though like many people, I do not like the cold I can stand it better than the heat and the snow gives the landscape a unique look which repays the hardships endured.
I am 25 years old and I was born in Brescia. Besides my love for travelling – and constant changes – I have never had any firm certainty in life, except the fact that I wanted to write, to communicate my emotions to the world and provide a permanent record of my feelings. Hence after gaining a degree in Languages and Cultures for Publishing and four years working as a journalist for a local newspaper, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. I alternated my educational experiences with travel around the world which was equally educational.
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