“You are going to Azerbaijan for mountain biking? Are you crazy?” This is what many friends wondered before our departure. Everybody behaved like an over attentive parent who needed to make sure that their children chose their destination reasonably, which obviously was something we did not. While most of the people walk effortlessly down paved roads, Zam project is about discovering places where mountain biking has, as of yet, been completely unknown or introduced only recently.
When mentioning Azerbaijan, people usually recollect the country’s affiliation to the former Soviet Union, its oil industry, or the fact the area is surrounded by the Caspian Sea. This is what most of us are generally able to name, which is the shame because we were soon about to find out how great it is to be in Azerbaijan.
Each of our journey’s itinerary is based on intense online research. There are many tools that come in handy, such as Google Earth and Google Maps with its street view instrument. We always try to find as many potential places as possible to make our experience easier for when we finally get to the biking spot. However, surprises and unplanned encounters are always part of the game.
For the sixth time in a row, the crew consisted of rider Richard Gasperotti, photographer Adam Marsal, cameraman Marty Smolik and trip producer Luke Jusko. We got a huge American van (Ford Econoline) nicknamed “the Great Gas Guzzler” for its consumption, to explore the area that has not been thoroughly mapped in terms of mountain biking. Red Bull supported athlete Michal Maroši was scheduled to join us in the country later in the journey.
In spite of serious planning, we left Prague without comprehensive knowledge about where we were going and what were we going to do there, even though it was clear that there was a 4,000km journey ahead of us to reach the country's capital city, Baku.
After Mongolia, New Mexico, and Taiwan, we were heading to the country which is, at least by the most geographers, considered as part of Asia, while some others believe it’s still in Europe. In Azerbaijan, cycling as a hobby was discovered a short time ago, after a huge and modern bicycle assembly line was ceremonially opened to produce bikes of a local brand. It looks like there are new opportunities coming to the country with great cycling potential.
In order to save as much time as possible, we travelled through Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Georgia with breaks only for grabbing some food and refueling. This way we made it to the Azerbaijan’s border in only three days. The following morning we woke up to catch sight of the wonderful mountainous scenery undulating far on the north. The sun shone high over the clouds, the tall grass rustled, cows and goats grazed on the meadows and birds of prey circling in the sky. “Guys, just wait to see the real mountains,” an older man standing at the bus stop promised us. Boy, was he right.
As soon as the clouds dissolved, giant peaks emerged, rising from the mist as frost giants from the lake. They were covered with snow and looked too much like an illusion to be true. The view lasted just for a few seconds and then the clouds swallowed the mountains once again but we knew this was the place we were looking for.
There are two larger ski resorts in Azerbaijan. The first is Qabala – a private holiday centre with a new four-seat chair lift and a cable car. From the top station, local bikers built a trail running through a dense forest with occasional stops from where you can observe the surrounding peaks.
The other resort is Shahdag, owned by the Ministry of Culture, which plans to add mountain biking to the list of available activities. Although the main season is winter when the resort is massively visited by Russian tourists, the management is opened to new challenges and they are considering building their own bike park in the near future to lure visitors during the summer months.
The resort, equipped with both a hotel base and a rich network of cable cars, has all the essentials to becoming a sought-after biking destination among both foreign tourists and locals, many of whom have begun to be much more interested in cycling after their beloved president showed up in front of cameras with his mountain bike.
Loading hay bales to the off-road truck as we could closely observe in the Shahdag region. The varied climate of Azerbaijan allows cultivation of a wide variety of crops, ranging from peaches to almonds and from rice to cotton. In the early 2000s, agricultural production directly employed about one-third of the labour force and providing a livelihood to about half the country's population.
Azerbaijan is a beautiful country with amazingly diverse landscapes where the Caspian Sea beaches meet rocky deserts, hilly steppes, and sky-scraping mountains. The dusty desert areas turned out to be very demanding and it took a time to make bikes ready for every day's ride.
The road from Gilazi to Xizi is flanked by the "Candy Cane" mountains, eroded shale formations with multiple colours provide stunning photo opportunities. The Candy Cane Mountains were originally dubbed so by travel writer Mark Elliott in his guidebook 'Azerbaijan with Excursions to Georgia'. The mountains' colours are produced by groundwater that has altered the oxidation state of the iron compounds in the earth. Gaspi had a rare opportunity to race with the wild horses at the bottom of a valley.
While moving through the dry grass in arid rocky areas around Xizi (pronounce like Khizi), we were warned to be aware of poisonous snakes which are reported to proliferate all around the area in April and May, precisely during the period when we were walking around in our shorts. During the hot days, we spotted dozens of dead snakes on the road, having been run-over by passing cars. Apart from the dangerous reptiles, there were numerous populations of poisonous spiders and scorpions living in the region. It’s said that in the vicinity of Baku, the ominous black widow often lurks about and trust me, you hope she doesn’t find her way home with you in your backpack.
For a couple of days, our crew was joined by the Red Bull athlete Michal Marosi.
Even here, Marosi proved to be one of the most inspiring riders of the mountain biking history as you can see on the picture shot near to Baku in the sun set light. Both Michal and Gaspi competed four times in the most difficult MTB freeriding event, Red Bull Rampage, held in Utah where you can find similar kind of terrain.
Although Azerbaijan is predominantly a Muslim country, beer is easy to buy everywhere including petrol stations. We were moved by the citizen's hospitality and kindness. The best place to meet with the local riders is Velo Café in Qurban Abbasov 35/21 street which is easy to find close to the Flag Square. In a cozy pub owned by a great guy Dmitriy Galabiev, you can always afford an ice-cold draft beer.
We spent two days riding with Parviz Ilyasov, Orkhan Mammedov and Emrah Ibrahimov who turned out to be exceptionally skilled riders who showed us some their secret spots.
Many years ago, both Gaspi and Michal were sharing a membership in a Czech downhill team named The Czech Blood. They’ve actually known each other since the childhood competing in BMX and later on the mountain bikes. Gaspi was featured in Michal’s movie Marosana Never Die couple year ago and now, Michal will have his part in Gaspi’s documentary, zam 6.
In spite of projections of time spent at the romantic beach, the Caspian Sea doesn’t look like a place where you want to stay over holidays. The world's first offshore wells and machine-drilled wells were made in Bibi-Heybat Bay, near Baku. In 1873, exploration and development of oil began in some of the largest fields known to exist in the world at that time. By the beginning of the 20th century, Baku was the centre of the international oil industry.
Some environmentalists say pollution caused by the oil drilling has already greatly harmed the ecology of the Caspian Sea. Nonetheless, Gaspi enjoyed the fact that the word Caspian is derived from the name of the Caspi, an ancient people who lived to the southwest of the sea in Transcaucasia.
If you close your eyes, yellow is the colour you recollect from visiting Azerbaijan. However, the sunny and dry climate has its darker side. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of UN, erosion damages mountain and foothill lands seriously: 42 percent of the country has been affected by erosion to a certain extent, including 48.6 percent of cultivated land and 20 percent of forests.
The downtown of Baku in the background is a place where ancient and modern buildings blend into the brilliant architectural synthesis which acts as a silent witness to Formula-1 Grand Prix races around the city, beginning this year.
The modern Baku is in a vast contradiction to what you can experience in the remote mountainous area of Caucasus, where people live in houses made of cobblestones similar to the way inhabitants used to live several hundred years ago.
Khinalug is the highest, most remote and isolated village in Azerbaijan and among the highest in the Caucasus. It is located just north of Quba in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountains that divide Russia and the South Caucasus. The weather changes dramatically during summer and winter. The village has a population of about 2,000 people.
We’d bet it was the first time when the local boys have an opportunity to see someone riding a full suspension bike in Khinalug. In the village, the houses, made of cobblestone and stretching up the hill, resemble multi-storied buildings. In his recollection of Memories on the Village of Khinalug, Azerbaijani writer Rasul Rza used to compare these houses with a whole range of eagle's nests. Currently, the village has 380 houses. The roof of each house serves as a small courtyard for another one built at a higher level. These houses were built densely together because the hills are very steep.
Khinalug is among the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, with a history spanning over 5,000 years. Because of its high altitude and remoteness, Khinalug managed to survive and withstand many invasions. The people of Khinalug are related to the Shahdagh ethnic group. They are mostly brown-haired, with brown or blue eyes, not very tall, and rather corpulent. Gaspi is greeting three local boys while pedalling up to the top of the village.
After two weeks of travel, we travelled over 12,000 kilometres in one van, spent ten days on a bike, made unexpected new friends and, among many other activities, we emptied five bottles of Jägermeister and three packs of Red Bull. We also got in touch with the local government, which makes us hope that mountain biking will be met with all the available support and develop into one of the most popular sports in the country. Big thanks to everyone who has helped us in fulfilling our dream!
Words and Photos: Adam Marsal Full video coming soon.
Zam team: Richard Gasperotti / Martin Smolik / Adam Marsal / Lukas Jusko Featuring: Michal Marosi and local riders of Azerbaijan