It was such a great feeling to be on the Caspian Sea at last. The air was fresh, as was a layer of paint on the upper deck of the cargo ferry taking me to Azerbaijan. Due to high winds on the sea, the ferry took exactly three days to cross. Two of those three days we were anchored off the coast. But the food was good and the company even better. Half of the people I traveled with were Turkish truck drivers bringing their cargo home. The other half consisted of an Irish and Kiwi couple, a Spanish guy driving a van with his dog, a French Ducati rider, and a quiet Japanese man. Ducati is an Italian motorcycle manufacturer. The person I bonded with the most was the Spanish man, Ricardo. He is currently driving his van with his dog from Spain, across Russia, and then reversed course through Central Asia. The two of us talked a lot during the three day journey but when the ferry docked, I was only able to give him my email to keep in touch.
I mentioned in my previous article that I had had phone troubles, so while I was in Aktau, I backed up all of my photos and videos. But I didn’t think the phone issues were that serious, so unfortunately I didn’t keep backing up photos while on the ferry. But it was a great experience. I’d recommend crossing the Caspian Sea to anyone traveling from the Caucasus to Central Asia or vice-versa.
Top to bottom: the last sunset on the ferry to Baku. Early in the morning as the ferry was docking in Azerbaijan. My motorbike and I at the mud volcanoes.
The ferry landed in the small town of Alat. Nearby, there were some mud volcanoes that were fun to check out. Unlike Yellowstone National Park in the USA, these mud volcanoes were spitting out cold water instead of boiling. This made it possible for some visitors to dip their fingers in. After that, I high-tailed it to Baku to fix my phone. This time I wasn’t so lucky. In order to fix it, I had to replace the entire motherboard, which meant losing everything. But the most important things like photos and videos were backed up. While the repairs were getting sorted out, I had some extra time to explore the city.
Top to bottom: In the middle of Old City with a view of the Flame Towers in the background. Homes inside the Old City. Bottom: A familiar face in the reflection?
It was such a surreal feeling to have left Central Asia and then arrive in one of the fastest growing cities in the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia). In the heart of the city is the historic Old City. It was there where I got my first glimpse at European style architecture, as well as some quiet back alleys where many locals still live. A short walk from there I was thrust back into modern times and saw the city’s iconic Flaming Towers. At night time they are illuminated by a light show interchanging between fire, the national flag and water. In my eyes, the city is a diamond in the rough. The oil industry is booming and provides wealth to the city, but not too much to the rest of the country. Most of the time I spent in Baku was walking around historical parts of the city like “Old Town,” and marveling at the architecture in and around Fountain Square. It was very interesting to look at buildings so old, that yet look as if they were just recently built.
Top to bottom: Lucky to still have great weather in October. Walking around near Fountains Square. Venice in Baku, near Bulvar. Heydar Әliyev Cultural Centre. Flame Towers.
After spending an ample amount of time in the capital, my next destination was a remote village, high in the mountains called Xinaliq. It is located in the northwestern part of the country, near the town of Quba. The village is known as the highest in the entire region of the Caucuses. The drive there was beautiful. I drove through a forest filled with BBQ stalls on either side of the road, then up and over two gorges, before arriving at the top of a hill where the village rested.
Top two: leaving Baku and the famous Flame Towers. Bottom three: the roads and scenery change on the way to the remote village of Xinaliq.
Even though it was late in the day, I still had just enough time to get a quick hike in. Then I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the village and surrounding area at dusk. When I got back down to my bike, I was prepared to pitch a tent but a bunch of kids surrounded me and one of them invited me to his home. It was another great experience with a local family.
Top to bottom: the scenery turned beautifully desolate as I got closer to the village. Nice to get in a short hike after a long day of riding. Most of the homes in the village look like this one. The boy who invited me to his home sitting to my left and a couple other happy locals. Leaving Xinaliq on another clear day.
The following day started off difficult and never got easier. Shortly after I left the village, the electrical system in my bike shut down. I immediately knew the problem was a blown fuse, but I was a long ways from Quba, where the nearest auto shop was. A dozen cars filled with tourists passed by and none stopped to offer help. But I was able to get a hold of an English speaking local, who drove by an hour later with some of his friends on their way to Quba. The driver was kind enough to offer an extra fuse from his car. That was enough to get me to Quba, where I bought some new ones.
Not a bad spot of have an electrical problem.
My goal for the rest of the day was to arrive in Shamakhi that night. But due to two rather large river crossings and rough roads, I had to call it a night in another remote village. This one was not famous, but it had some of the most generous people I have ever met. The village was called Xaltan. That night, it rained. And despite numerous attempts to leave, I was forced to stay in the village for the next three days, while I waited for the roads to dry.
For the few days that I was in the village, I lived with a group of teachers and their landlord. The closest I got to leaving was hiring a man and horse to carry all of my baggage, while I would attempt to drive through the mud and up a mountain pass. But that failed epically because the mud was too thick for my still newly-aquired street tire. By the time the road was dry and I was able to leave, everyone in that house felt like family to me.
Top two: leaving the high mountains driving towards Quba. The first of two river crossings. Difficult driving but can’t beat that scenery. For half an hour, I felt like I was driving on Mars.
The most memorable part of living in the village was the day I tried to leave and put my bags on the horse. I had spent hours trying to drive through the mud. By the time I gave up, I called one of the guys I was living with and he told me to “come home.” I came back exhausted and drank tea with the owner of the house. Though we couldn’t speak each other’s languages well, all I could do was laugh at my situation and he smiled back at me and said, “tomorrow.” But the next day I was in for a rough ride.
Top to bottom: first of what turned out to be many meals together with the family in Xaltan. As far as the eyes could see were a group of sheep and goats, trampling the already muddy road. Home for a few days in the middle of nowhere. One of my two failed attempts to continue on my journey. My last day with the family on a perfectly sunny day that dried the road for me.
In the morning, it was sunny with no clouds but I was told by the family to wait till noon, when it was likely that the roads would be dry enough. Then, right when I was ready to leave, they invited me up for lunch. By the time I was able to leave and say good-bye, it was nearly mid-afternoon. I thought that with dry roads, I would at least be able to make it over the mountain pass to the next village, just 20 kilometers away. The rest of that day, I had to drive on the worst terrain I had ever been on. The roads were not only bad, but were so steep that I would have to unpack some of my bags to reduce the weight. Part of this was because the tire I got in Aktau was designed for pavement, not off-roading. They were so bad that I would have to drop and pick up the bike countless times.
Top to bottom: the roads got progressively worse and more challenging to drive up as the day drags on.
When I finally felt like I was getting close to the mountain top, it was getting dark and I just wanted to be done with going up hill, so I pushed extra hard to get over. But right at that moment, I heard a loud thud! Seconds later when I was at the top, I looked down and saw engine oil leaking. I immediately got off and put the bike on its side to delay the leak. It was at that very moment, that I felt I had reached rock bottom on the trip. I was in the middle of nowhere, on a road seldom used by locals, and it was getting dark. My best solution was to dry up the engine and cover the small crack with chewing gum. When I picked the bike up, what was once spewing out was now a rare drip. That night I slept in my tent, on a very windy outcrop a few kilometers away. Looking back on the first night, I believe I was very lucky to have blown a fuse the morning I left Xinaliq. If I hadn’t, I would have been in a tough spot. I’d have completely passed Xaltan and two hours later would have been forced to sleep outside, woken up to muddy roads, unable to go anywhere for days.
Forced to spend the night outside on a very windy night. Strong enough that it ripped two holes in my bike cover.
The next day things only got worse. The roads were no longer just steep, they essentially turned into a river. It took me two hours just to drive four kilometers. I was mentally and physically exhausted: over a period of 24 hours, I had dropped the bike more times than I can count. Eventually, I miraculously saw other people and one of them had a huge truck. For about $30, he agreed to take me and the bike to the next village. After only five minutes, it was very clear to me that it would have been IMPOSSIBLE to drive on that road. It either merged with the river or it had too steep of an incline for my smooth rear tire to handle. Even after making it to the village, in the back of my head I knew my engine was still a problem: I would still have to drive another 10 kilometers on bad roads before reaching the next village, and only there would I finally hit paved roads again. Unfortunately, I only made it 8 kilometers before my engine completely gave out because of the loss of oil. An hour later, a local who would take me to the next village called Pirbeyli was pulling me up a muddy hill. At that village, I eventually found someone who could take me to Shamakhi, which was one of the major towns on the way to the Georgian border. At the time, I thought I could simply get more oil, get the bottom of the engine welded and then I could be on my way. But it wouldn’t be that simple.
I thought the worst roads I would face would be in Tajikistan. I was wrong.
While in Shamakhi, I was able to get the crack welded and the oil replaced. But what I didn’t know was the extent of the damage I caused while driving with low oil. There was an unusual sound in the engine but I was assured by the car mechanic that if I drove slowly enough I would make it to Georgia and I could get it fixed there. Two hours later, the engine died again, this time making a much worse noise. I found another local to pull me to the next major city of Gabala, where I spent a day getting told by different car mechanics that they didn’t know what was wrong and I would have to go back to Baku to find a professional motorbike mechanic. I really wanted to go to the Georgian border and push it across and then hitch another ride to Tiblisi, but I had a feeling the border guards wouldn’t be happy with me bringing a broken bike into their country.
On the top of the mountain, placing a piece of chewing gum was the only thing from stopping oil from leaking all over the place.
The motorbike shop in Baku that had been recommended to me by a police officer in Gabala was closed down, but I didn’t have a back-up shop, so the truck let me off next door, where there were other mechanics small shops. While I was waiting for them to decide if they wanted to try and fix it or not, I gave my old friend Shahin a call. He was a foreign exchange student whom I met on the wrestling team in high school. The last time I was in Baku, he was in Dubai on a business trip. This time, he helped me get in contact with a Harley Davidson mechanic. Two days later, when the mechanic came back to work, we were told he wasn’t interested. Then we took it to a shop that the Harley mechanic recommended. A guy named Sabir and his mechanic turned out to be the ones to get the job done. A couple days later, they had a diagnostic: driving with low oil had caused all the bearings inside the engine to overheat - particularly in one of the connection rods. It got so hot that one of the bolts from the connection rod came loose. This was the noise I was hearing after I left Shamakhi. In fact, the longer and faster I drove, the bolt actually pierced a hole inside the engine. The bolt then landed in the bottom of engine where the oil is, and this is when the bike died at last.
I was told by the mechanics that I would need to get the crankshaft fixed or maybe even replaced. I would also need to replace ten bearings and one of the connection rods. But then I was informed that none of these parts existed in Azerbaijan, and that I would need to be the one to find them. Benelli is an Italian motorbike company but with its major factories located in China. After spending nearly a week talking with Benelli shops in China, England, Italy and Turkey, I eventually found that the best way to get those parts was to have them shipped directly to me from a factory in Turkey. The man who sold me the parts later told me, that he was scolded by his boss, because they are only supposed to sell parts to shops and not to individuals.
Five days later, the spare parts arrived in Baku, but Shahin told me that the package wouldn’t clear customs. My hostel wouldn’t allow me to use their address, so naturally I asked if I could use Shahin’s business address. The reason that the package wouldn’t clear customs was because my name was listed under his shop’s name. I learned that when packages are sent to a business’ address, the recipient of the package needs to pay an extra tax. That is because those goods are going to be resold, whereas if the package had been sent to a home address, there would have been no problem. The only solution was to ask the man who worked at the factory to contact the delivery service in Turkey and have them send a request to Baku telling them that the name and address needed to be changed. When this finally got done a few days later (because of the weekend and a national holiday in Turkey), the package was cleared from customs. After two weeks of searching and waiting, I had the spare parts in hand.
Three days later, the engine had a complete face-lift and was ready to go. The next morning, I was back on the road and spent a full day driving all the way to Tiblisi, Georgia. It felt so good to be back on the bike again! It had been nearly three weeks of not being on the bike, which was the longest I had gone without riding in three years. Driving was a little colder than it had been a few weeks ago. It was now early November - exactly two months later than I had planned, back at the beginning of this journey. Being stuck at the border in China and now in Azerbaijan were big hiccups. But I thought to myself: “I’m healthy, my bike is mostly healthy, and I’m back on the road again.