“Aza-What? Azajan? Where is that?!”
These were some of the typical responses I heard from friends when informing them where I would be riding for the next month. Many were unfamiliar of its existence let alone its whereabouts. Earlier this year, I didn’t even really know much of Azerbaijan other than its location and how to pronounce it. In fact, my partner Justa Jeskova and I had no plans of travelling there until 30 days before we arrived.
In most instances, we prepare meticulously months ahead. We make local contacts, book tickets, and sort out logistics well before we arrive. This time was quite different. Having sat out the previous summer with an injury and feeling restless awaiting winter’s end, I had started daydreaming of travelling exotic locations. Justa felt the same yearning for adventure which led to us picking a date and randomly picking spots off a 3D globe. The only requisite? Inspiring foreign mountains that were hopefully free of snow.
It was a sharp contrast from our familiar ways, but that’s what led us to this unusual choice of mountain bike destinations. A refreshing change which left us open to the whims of the road, weather, and last-minute decisions. We boarded the plane with an added air of excitement, keen to tackle an unset path laid before us and the adventures ahead.
Upon arrival, we quickly came to realize how diverse and contrasted a place Azerbaijan is. The capital city, Baku, is a mind-bending melting pot of old and new. Some of the worlds most advanced modern architecture stood juxtaposed with buildings dating back to the 12th century. Soviet, Islamic, Victorian, and Post Modern styles clashed telling a story of a colourful and rich past. New structures such as the Heyday Aliyev Cultural Centre, a flowing design of undulating white curves and lines, stand as a shining light in the dark amongst Soviet apartment blocks. Strolling amidst the Old City provided peek-a-boo views of Baku’s modern architecture in between elegant mosques and medieval towers. Literally minutes away we would find ourselves in animated squares and Parisian like strolls crammed with cafes and restaurants.
It’s not difficult to understand how Azerbaijan came to be this way. Standing at the crossroads of east and west, it occupies an area of the world that has seen influence from Turkic, Caucasian, Iranian and Russian heritage. It has come to be known as a lands of contrasts. Born of ancient humans and witness to the birth and death of empires. Its people have long been host to travellers and merchants from different cultures around the world.
The first of many ultra-friendly locals we met was Aydin Damir-Zade. After meeting through social media he kindly offered to introduce us to his local trails. Since he began riding in 2014, he’s remained a stalwart of the tight-knit biking community; a lifetime when considering the short history of the sport in Azerbaijan.
We met up with him late afternoon for one of his classic evening laps. A ride that began in congested streets before ascending up barren ridges on the outskirts of Baku. A fiery sunset and wide, open views of the Caspian Sea made us forget that a bustling metropolis lay less than a few kilometres behind. It culminated in a twilight descent into Baku through a series of berms and drops with a view unlike anything we had seen before. Many of Baku’s architectural wonders were lit up in dramatic fashion. Most impressive of all, an iconic trio of glass buildings called the Flame Towers morphed between flames, pouring water, and a waving Azerbaijan Flag. Justa and I both stood in awe at the cityscape before us, astonished to be riding single track in such a developed and densely populated city let alone one lit ablaze in a sparkling light show.
Aydin, in true Azeri form, invited us out again the next day. This time it would be alongside nearly half the country’s current mountain biking population. According to his estimates, there were 20-30 mountain bikers in the country, 8 of which would be joining us. Our all-day epic included trespassing through army bases and climbing by pump-jacks & oil pools. It was as foreign an experience as we could have from back home. We chased each other down desert ridges while taking care to avoid trail side hazards which included venomous snakes, army security, and deep & lethal oil wells left abandoned from over a century of petroleum extraction. Our pursuit of good times and adventure wrapped up in the most of Azeri of ways, eating baklava and drinking tea at a seaside cafe.
Four days in and we already felt as if we had seen a country worth of sights in one place. If there were any doubts or trepidation in finding worthwhile riding and adventure in Azerbaijan, there were none now. There was only more excitement and enthusiasm for the road ahead.
We bid farewell to our newfound friends and set our eyes on Xizi, home to the unique and colourfully striped hills known as the Candy Cane mountains. It wasn’t long before sights changed drastically. The shine of Baku in our rearview mirror gave way to a grittier and empty landscape dotted with communist apartment blocks. As we drove onwards, decrepit old buildings and dusty abandoned farmlands became the norm. If there was one constant during this trip it was change. Changes in everything, climate, geography, scenery, even language.
Arriving late afternoon in Xizi didn’t leave much time to find a place to stay for the night. The small village rarely saw visitors let alone foreigners. As far as we could tell, lodgings did not exist other than one bizarrely out-of-place and deserted luxury hotel. Not wanting to end up in the real-life version of ‘The Shining’ we opted to search on for more locally authentic options.
While inquiring with locals on the existence of any guest rooms in the area, a duo operating a ramshackle tea house offered us their own room to stay in. They even reorganized their own sleeping arrangements so we wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. Already grateful with the generosity we were shown, they went above and beyond in offering us cheese, bread, and a bottle of vodka curiously paired with slices of tomato and lemons as chasers. The affable couple sat with us and didn’t take no for an answer until the bottle of vodka was finished.
With a mild hangover and our hearts and bellies full we left early the next morning to check out the mountains we had made our way here for. Nearing our destination, sporadic glimpses of the colourful terrain peaked high above the village’s green, hilly pastures. Treeless ridge lines crept up mountainsides shifting between the colours and textures of grass, clay, and the candy cane striped dirt.
The first hike-a-bike up revealed years’ worth of routes and lines to ride. The most difficult decision became choosing where to hike up and what to ride down. Over the next few days, I ticked off a checklist of dream-like lines. With each successive descent, my trust in how the dirt reacted led to increasingly difficult and exposed lines. It became a game of staying on line and memorizing blind rollovers from the no-go cliffs. A hint of uncertainty accompanied me at the top of each run while trying to visualize the ‘can’t miss’ landmarks I hoped to memorize on the way up.
Although nerves were a part of the equation, the surreal feeling of free-riding in an otherworldly landscape was ever-present. It was absolute pure elation to be leaving tracks in a place that felt too perfect to be real. Had we gone straight home after this, our trip would have been a resounding success. I didn’t want to leave but spending too much time here would do a disservice to our plans to explore and discover the rest of the country.
Reluctantly, we said good-bye to our new Azeri friends and returned to the road. We aimed north towards the towering rugged peaks of the Greater Caucasus in search of alpine riding.
Soon the arid red and white hills gave way to rugged, taller mountains. Trees began to dominate the hillsides while massive storm clouds ominously enshrouded the peaks we were headed straight for. It was a considerable contrast after spending nearly a week atop sweltering, wind-scoured ridges. To experience such wildly different landscapes in a matter of hours was extraordinary.
Our amazement at the quick change of environs soon turned to concern. The temperature plummeted as we climbed upwards with the rain eventually turning to snow. Initially, the winter-like scene added depth and beauty to the old roadside villages. However, it became clear with the deepening snow that our 4wd’s bald tires were no match for the steep and slick mountain track. With an air of impending failure about us, we made the call to abort the mission. The likelihood of finding ourselves stranded, or worse, seemed inevitable. And to add insult to injury, the best option in the ever-worsening storm was a 7-hour detour to the other side of the country.
With the difficulties of finding a bed in Xizi, we weren’t sure what awaited us in our hastily chosen destination of Lahic. Plans of a mellow day had vanished into a hectic race across the country in hopes of beating nightfall, a race which we lost. The final leg to our destination was as chaotic as our misadventure earlier that day. Pouring rain, sleet, and falling rocks pelted our 4 x 4 while navigating a narrow bench of exposed cliff-side road. So narrow in fact that we questioned if we were even on a road at all.
Fortunately, that would be the end of our anxiety. Just as we were starting to regret our decision the road opened back up and the village of Lahic came into view. In a stroke of good luck, we found a hot meal and room to stay at the first house we inquired within. The friendliness and generosity of the Azeri people once again on full display.
Sunrise the next morning revealed we had escaped the brunt of the unseasonably late storm. Although it wasn’t a complete escape as some snow had fallen on the peaks encircling the 1500-year-old cobble-stoned village. Luckily it wasn’t enough to keep us from exploring the area’s countless trails and lesser peaks.
Due to the steep and dangerous mountains around Lahic, much of its existence was spent isolated from the rest of the country. The construction of a roadway in the 1960s may have changed some things but the character of Lahic and the villages dotting the hillsides remained. That same geological remoteness of the area meant many people’s homes and farms were solely accessible by foot and were connected via a myriad of rickety bridges and goat paths. Perfect for days of riding up muddy mountains and hike-a-biking to secluded homesteads. It felt as though we had entered another part of the world overnight, yet again. A vast change in an ever-changing country where contrast seemed to be the only constant.
Throughout our stay, locals shared a friendly interest in where we were going and how we got here. Some even showed grave concern for our safety thinking we’d kill ourselves attempting to ride back down the steep terrain we just hiked up. Others invited us into their homes for tea and snacks, usually after being chased by some of the meanest sheepdogs I’ve ever had the displeasure of backing away from. It never mattered to them or us that we weren’t able to communicate well. Smiles, nods, and hand signals, as well as Justa’s rudimentary Russian, were more than enough to convey our gratitude.
And the ones who worried about our safety? Some would keep an eye out for our safe return and offered their congratulations on making it down alive.
At first, the late-season snow seemed a curse. Clearly it wasn’t. Seeing and exploring Lahic and its magnificent backdrop of snow-covered peaks just meant we witnessed it at its most beautiful. As picturesque as it was, the mud had grown thicker and unrideable with the runoff meaning it was the right opportunity to delve on to new parts of the country.
Each time we left for a new destination we became increasingly excited for what lay ahead. With something new and distinct around each corner, it was hard not to contain our enthusiasm. We pushed on into the northern reaches where Dagestan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan converge. The resulting 3 points a showcase for the diversity and wild contrasts of life in a region known for cultural tolerance. The area is home to many local ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Their penchant for acceptance also meant an overt friendliness, even by Azeri standards, which led us into our next discovery.
While checking maps for potential riding zones and driving about, we stumbled upon a soviet-era holiday resort. An older jovial man greeted us excitedly as he saw us park nearby. He was ecstatic to discover we were Canadian and insisted on showing us around. When touring us through his ‘resort’ which included a decrepit yet charming wood-panelled bar complete with dust-covered disco ball, he confirmed there was in fact a trail nearby. One which rose upwards of 2500 meters from the valley floor into the alpine originally used by local shepherds to take their flocks to summer pastures. That sealed the deal for us. Well, that and a few shots of his homemade vodka which tasted what I imagine a gasoline and rubbing alcohol cocktail to resemble.
With the pungent aftertaste of vodka still lingering the next day, we left early to explore the biggest descent we’d encounter on our trip. The long out and back ridgeline ascended through lush green trees and multi-coloured flowers, broken up by broad patches of dark shale furrowed over time by livestock and weather. The shale sections provided the ultimate playground of mini ridges and chutes. Paired with sweeping views of Car and the massive valley beyond, it was an instant favourite.
The vibrant colours and lushness of Car felt countries apart from the rocky, treeless peaks and medieval cobblestones of Lahic. Equally stunning in their own unique ways, they exuded completely different moods than one another. Witnessing such vast changes within the same mountain range was astonishing. But to see those variations separated by only a few peaks was extraordinary.
We deemed our unforeseen cross-country deviation a success and decided to make another attempt at the high alpine of the Caucasus in the East. In a way, it was better we left it for last. Justa and I had high expectations for this area in particular. Home to the highest peaks of Azerbaijan and the 5000-year-old village of Xinaliq, we were eager to experience the ancient culture and landscape of one of the world’s highest and continuously inhabited places.
Travelling back across the majority of the country in a day was a lesson in the climatic contrarieties existing within its borders. From the beginning of our day in the sub-tropics to the high alpine tundra at the end, we experienced hot & cold, humid & arid, and every imaginable clime in between. It was wild to observe so much change in a relatively short time.
We passed through 9 of 11 of the world’s climate zones before emerging from a fog entrenched canyon when we finally caught our first views of the region’s towering mountains. The scale of the landscape was enormous beyond words. The village of Xinaliq looked minuscule. It sat precariously on a diminutive hill, ominously surrounded by giants which looked ready to drop rock slides and avalanches in its direction at any point. The isolation and precipitous location of the village was stunning and spooky. The Kettid people who call this place home are hardy people and have been shaped by this land over millennia. The remoteness of their existence has even resulted in their own language which has no links to any other and is solely spoken in their village.
However isolated Xinaliq had been over its history, it didn’t the cool the warm welcoming we received. A local man, Mr Kabir, offered us a room and meal in his home. His home was a humble abode built inconspicuously into the hillside and constructed of mud, stones, and a few bits of lumber. It was centuries old and remarkably sturdy. Their cattle and sheep shared the same building living below the sleeping quarters to help provide warmth during the cold nights. Their muffled bleating provided a soothing soundtrack to the area’s charm. It was crazy to think that only 4 hours from here was a bustling metropolis full of posh, five star, high-rise hotels.
The following days were spent hiking our bikes up craggy mountainsides as far as our lungs and daylight would allow us. Golden eagles circled overhead and the sounds of falling rocks reminded us of the wild place we were in. The insignificant feeling of being so small in this massive landscape never once for a minute escaped our thoughts. Descents that looked as if they would take minutes took the better part of an hour. There was a calming and euphoric feeling existing and riding in this landscape. Perhaps that was the reason people chose to live here so long ago despite the inhospitable nature of the imposing surroundings.
Our days always ended with the local children running to meet us. It didn’t matter if we were still far uphill from the village. Their altitude adapted lungs and enthusiasm for bikes made it a trivial matter even for the toddlers. They would excitedly count the gears on our bikes and boast they had more than our meagre 12. Some of them, having seen what we rode earlier, eagerly pointed out lines they wanted to see us ride. Although, many of these hilariously ended in massive drops into boulder fields. No matter how exhausted we were from the day, they always insisted we push them around on our bikes until every kid had their turn. We did so with massive smiles on our face, happy to be a part of their community for a fleeting moment. I couldn’t have imagined ending anywhere but here for the end of our trip.
We had started this trip in a futuristic, world-class, architectural wonder of a city and ended in an ancient village high in the Caucasus, it was about as big of a contrast as you could get. The contrast remained strong throughout our trip seeing colours, climates, geology, and geography constantly changing all around us in a display of yin and yang. However, one thing remained the same throughout; the people of Azerbaijan’s unwavering generosity, acceptance, and desire to help and accommodate regardless of place, language, or stature. Azerbaijan is rich in contrasts but what truly made it rich was the awe-inspiring beauty of its people and land.