Friday, October 5, 2007

Baku 26/09/07
The ferry from Turkmenistan dropped us in the middle of a real big city. After quiet Central-Asia and the relaxed ferry, Baku was lively, noisy and filled with traffic jams, just like a big city should be.

We attacked the city in search of a cheap hotel - not an easy task. We even heard a story about a couple, stuck for a week in Baku (waiting for Central-Asia visas, of course) who took a night train out of Baku and back, to save the costs of 2 nights!
While searching, Rami spotted a hospital.

Rabies Part 3
As you recall, Gal didn't get vaccination #2 in Turkmenbashi, and we were a day late.
We asked about the vaccination in the hospital and the nurse scribbled something on a piece of paper and directed us to a nearby pharmacy ("Aptek" - every second shop in Central-Asia) to buy the vaccination, then return and she'll inject it.
Rami went to get the vaccination, while Gal waited with the bikes. Half an hour later Rami came back empty handed. The 4 first pharmacies didn't have it, but the lady in the 3'rd one said she will help. We brought the bikes there and she made a few phone calls. She put Rami in a taxi which took him to another pharmacy and back with the medicine.
We happily went back to the hospital, but were surprised and angry when they threw us out. They directed us to the "Turk-American" clinic, not far away.
There they reused to inject what we brought (with many efforts), but said they can inject their brand of the same medicine for a measly $25.
No problems, go ahead.
Rami couldn't hold Gals hand during the injection, because he watched the bikes out front. The Gal came out crying. She said they injected her an anti-tetanus shot, not the Rabies vaccination!
After receiving the shot, the doctor told her in Russian "Tetanus". Gal told him she has Tetanus and that she needs the anti-Rabies vaccination. The doctor immediately replied "no problem - two in one" Gal understood it in Russian (and an English speaking nurse translated it). Gal insisted that the doctor shows her "Anti-Rabies" on the prescription. Of course he didn't find. Gal started crying, out of frustration, and ran out to Rami.
After a fuming argument, about the doctor lying, some kind of manager arrived and said we could bring the anti-Rabies vaccination and they'll inject it for free, they cannot return us the $25 we've paid. They sent us to another place, not far away, to buy the vaccination. This time Rami took his bike to avoid the terrible traffic jams. In 10 minutes he was back with the correct thing, bought from the importer (wow!).

Exhausted, we were back in search of a hotel. The first hotel we tried, according to our shitty Lonely-Planet travel book was closed for over a year. We headed to the other 'cheap' one, sort of out of town (but, at least on the way west, to Georgia). After about 1km Gal spotted on the left "the Hilton!".

New derailleur
Already in Kyrgyzstan Rami heard an annoying noise from his rear derailleur. Anton, the famous bicycle mechanic in Bishkek (just next to Sakura guest house), tightened a screw as much as possible and said it'll hopefully last till Turkey.
In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Chris Bolduc tried helping, but with no success.
There were no serious bike shops till mid-west turkey (if you know of any, write about it...), so we contacted the Azerbaijan Cycling Club (many of the Ex-pat community) and asked for their help. Dave Calvin said he has an old Shimano LX he can give us.
On our way to Baku Dave Emailed us that he'll not be in Azerbaijan at the time, but he will pass it to Andy (another member of the Azerbaijan Cycling Club).While Gal waited for Rami to find the vaccination, Sarah, Andy's wife, SMSed us that she'll be in town, with the derailleur, at the Hilton. While we were cycling, Gal shouted "the Hilton!". After a quick exchange of SMSs Rami came back with the derailleur.

We continued and continued and continued, till we finally reached the hotel. It was located near the "VeloTrek" - the Baku cycling track, where on the following morning the trainer of the Azerbaijan cycling team worked on our bikes and replaced the derailleur. It was comfortably positioned near the "20 January" metro station.
There was no hot water in our $30 shitty hotel, so we quickly changed and took the metro to the old quarter. We enjoyed the beautiful old quarter when Andy contacted us; Sarah, her sister and he were at the old quarter and we were invited to join them for a drink. We ended up spending a relaxed and interesting evening in a restaurant, in a beautiful cellar of an old building, where centuries ago caravans, crossing the Silk Road, used to stop (a caravansary).

We enjoyed Baku. A big city like one should be, with a charming old quarter, which we visited the following day as well.

During the 2.5 days in Baku we used the metro 6 times. On the first time, as we went to buy tickets, a young Baku-ist called us to follow him, and took us through the entry gates with his 'metro card' and bid goodbye. At first we thought he smuggled us in, on his 'member-card', but later we understood that the locals, in this huge city, are still friendly, and enjoy 'inviting' us tourists as a token of good will.
On our 4'th visit to the metro there was no one around, and then we figured it out: a ride costs 10 cents, nothing in Baku standards. But, you need a 'metro smart-card', which costs around $5. After2 minutes someone came and let us in, obviously without accepting the 20 cents we insisted on (actually, what happened was that the clerk took our $10 and gave us 2 empty smart-cards, which we have no use of, and only after 10 locals shouted at her she gave our money back and one of them let us through. We were too humiliated to write this in the blog ;-).
The metro was cheap in Baku. That, a 2 liter 'Fanta' bottle and "Shawarma were the only cheap things in Baku, and were the only things we allowed ourselves, while there. The hotel was $30 a night and it was crap! Our best option (low budget, long term traveling) is a cheap hotel. If we pay more, we expect things (basic things) to work. If it's expensive (in our standards, Rachel) and crap, we're not happy about it (we become grumpy). After China, with its $11 3 star hotels, with big, white, soft towels, our perspective is fucked-up!
So, we decided not to stay a 3'rd day, for updating our fantastic blog, but set off to the Caucasus.

Rabies Part 4
We were ready to leave, but didn't want the headache of finding an anti-Rabies vaccination out in the country, or, worse, 'jumping' back to Baku (not as simple at is sounds). So, we quickly took the metro down town. Rami had a vague idea of where the 'vaccination office' was located, so, we decided to get off the metro in a 'new' station. We had the address, so we asked around. 100 meters from the station we asked a taxi driver for directions. He pointed that'a way. Then Rami looked around at the many old buildings, and spotted a brown door, just across the street we were at, opposite the taxi driver’s direction. It was 08:00, and only an old guy (sort of a janitor) was there, this time. Rami went to the refrigerator and took one vaccination, gave the guy 5 Azeri Manat (the correct price, = $6) and we headed to the Turk-American clinic. Gal quickly got the shot, we metroed to our hotel and cycled out of Baku.

Back Cycling
We haven't cycled for a long time. Since the end of Uzbekistan, where we lingered (due to the Turkmen visa), then Turkmenistan, with the 'dog' incident, the ferry and Baku - we didn't cycle too much.
Leaving Baku was not so fun (for Gal). Lots of traffic for 20km, then, still a lot of traffic for another 40km. Not so fun, but not too bad. We were surprised to see that Baku was surrounded by desert, real desert! It was a beautiful, mountainous desert, with glimpses of the Caspian Sea behind us, from time to time.

Leaving Baku.

We were called for a watermelon break from one of the watermelon stalls, in a watermelon junction, after seeing nothing for some time. The guy spoke English + the hospitality surprised us, giving us good vibes. He said this area has many scorpions & snakes.
That evening we opened our tent on the porch of a small cafe, in the middle of no-where. It was such a no-where that every truck on the way stopped there, making lots of noise all night long.

The Caucasus
Slowly the desert hills grew to green mountains to the north and a valley filled with agriculture to our south, while we were cycling west through hilly, sub-tropical forest. It was like a jungle. We haven't seen so many trees in months. After thousands of k"ms of desert, we've reached somewhere so green!
Everything was perfect: the weather, the scenery, the road (paved, not too hilly and little traffic) and our mood was fantastic. We were cycling again!
In the first few nights we slept in cafes on the side of the road. The places had taste; located in the forest, away from the road. They never let us sleep in our tent, always offering us some kind of a room. One cafe had bungalows for $20. We told him we prefer sleeping in our tent for free, so he gave us the bungalow for free. True, it was off season already, the place was empty and under renovations, but still...
There were many small 'bakeries' (only a Taboon/tandir/clay oven) on the side of the road, giving us Nan-bread, or 2, or 3...

We were looking for a place to sleep. Near a tiny village Rami asked a local riding a horse “Where can we sleep?” He hesitated for a few seconds, but then waved to us to follow him. He took us to his house, a typical village house; 2 cows, a few chickens, a dog, a cat, fruit and vegetables and a million walnuts. He ordered his wife to make chai. The wife was working on supper so he called again for chai. He nagged her for 10 minutes instead of just putting the kettle on the fire by himself. He was a very gentle and kind man, but, this is how things are in Azerbaijan – the men don’t make chai!
We managed to communicate well and had a nice and interesting evening.
Going to sleep, they ruled out us opening the tent and led us to their room. There were 2 small (single) beds (with springs that you can count with your back) and 2 blankets on the floor. Rami got 1 bed, the husband got the other one and the two women slept on the floor – just the way it should be!
The next morning the wife got up quit early to start working on a fire for breakfast, to milk the cows and so on, while we (Gal, Rami and the husband) all slept.
Another warm farewell and we were off.

Our hosts.
Back on the road.

We reached Shaki. We were told about an ancient Caravansary (where caravans stopped in ancient times), a few centuries old, turned into a beautiful hotel. While Rami cycled the 2 km uphill, to check out the caravansary, Gal was waiting with all the luggage in the center of town, near a typical chai-house, where all the old men sit all day and drink tea. All the guys around said hallo and offered her help, brought her a chair and chai and made her feel welcomed. Gal was surprised. Since we entered Azerbaijan, the locals totally ignored her, as if she was not there. It’s not just the offering of cigarettes only to Rami – Gal was used to that. Even when she was the one who understood the locals (speaking Russian) and talked to them, they insisted on speaking only to Rami.

The old Caravansary.

Broken rim 2 03/10/07
While cycling, Rami used the front break again, but this time he felt something strange. We stopped to check the bike and, surprise-surprise, the front rim was cracked.
4 months ago Rami broke his rear rim and now this. We were quit calm about it and quickly SMSed Rachel, Ramis’ mom, to call our cellular + local SIM (modern traveling). They were flying to Georgia on the following day, for vacation, and we planned on meeting them in 5-6 days, nothing like going on vacation with a bicycle wheel! We told them to buy a cheap front wheel (and, boy, it was cheap!) and bring it. It was ‘Sukot’, one of the Jewish holidays, most shops were already closed, but they managed.
Now let’s hope the broken wheel holds the 270km to Tbilisi…

Rabies part 5 03/10/07
We had another good cycling say.
It was time to find a place to sleep. We always had the option of camping in the vicinity of one of many cafes, but Rami (again) insisted on betting on the locals.
On a junction to a small village we saw someone, about 50 years old, looking like a mechanic after a long day. We asked him bout sleeping/opening a tent. He invited us to his house, half a kilometer away from the main road. Again, a typical village house (cows, chickens…) - all houses on our trip were typical village houses. But, surprisingly, the house was sort of modern; concrete, with electricity running through the walls and even toilets inside the house (we still used the ones outside). The wife and daughter were all excited, went out to pick fruits for us and started working on supper. They even jumped to the small village shop to buy a large bottle of Coca-Cola.
We were put in a room of our own and blankets were spread on the floor. As opposed to the previous night, the blankets were like a double bed – Bantzi- Bantzi! Also, the husband went to the kitchen to make chai. After a few minutes of trying, he called the wife.
After breakfast, the husband took us to Qax, the big town (30,000), to help us get the 4’th Rabies vaccination.

Another Anti-Rabies shot.
The dictators of the country.

We reached Zaqatala in the late afternoon. We knew it is relatively touristy, but for some reason we insisted on reaching the big city.
Just as we reached the main square we spotted a middle aged western woman. We jumped on the opportunity to speak English, one thing led to another and we were following her to a friends house so we can sleep there.
The two were volunteers of the Peace Corps and were happy to have foreign companions. Anais, our host for the night, who is actually staying with a (wealthy) local family, took very good care of us.
We got house #2 for the night, the 2 room former house of the family (in the new one there are about 20 rooms).
When we got up in the morning we had a nice/terrible surprise – rain! It was the first rain we had in many months, a real rain. Rami babbled again about the coming winter "wait till we reach east Turkey...". Gal was just happy.

Goodbye Azerbaijan
We only heard bad stories about Azerbaijan, both by cycle and conventional tourists; that they were drunk hooligans, police harassment and more, so we planned on crossing the country as quick as possible, maybe even hitch.
What we found was a welcoming country with extremely friendly people and beautiful landscape.