We left Balakan in the morning after filling our bellies and water bottles with food and water. The map on Stephanie's wall indicated about 150km to Agdash, where we had a connection in Becca, Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague who teaches English there. We said goodbye to Clarisa and set off in the heat, which was dampened by the plane trees lining the country road descending from the Caucacus into the great valley that cuts through Azerbaijan. Some have named this valley, "The Valley of the Heat and the Doom". Heat and Doom, however, are no match for plane trees, and Jaco and I did well in the shade. The shade ended at about kilometer 100, at about 3pm, when the road crossed the river, then made a 90 degree turn southeast. We ate a whole watermelon, and asked a man at a bus stop in Russo-Turkic how far it was to Agdash.
"120km," he replied with confidence.
We chuckled, and asked someone else.
"120km," someone else replied with confidence.
We did not chuckle this time, and called Becca and told her we would not be arriving in Agdash that night, but made plans to meet up for lunch.
We camped a few kilometers later, and asked a mounted shepherd if we could sleep on his land. He had no problem with it, but told us to move our sleeping bags away from certain bushes where there were snakes. We moved our sleeping bags and started cooking dinner. The shepherd and his brother rode away unconcerned on their horses. We cooked, then ate. At about bedtime thirty, the shepherd's brother came charging down the hills with a flashlight, and began shouting at us in Azeri and shining the flashlights in our eyes. For some reason, he was worried about us sleeping there. Our tired minds were in no mood to move our stuff again, but he seemed really concerned. We had a hard time understanding why we had to move. His efforts to communicate were poor and were not working. He didn't use any gestures, and to make his point stronger, he used the ancient technique of raising the volume of his voice and the more modern technique of shining his flashlight in our eyes. This was frustrating and grated on the senses, but in the end we packed up our stuff and walked with him to his house, where we understood we could sleep. Once we got there there were tea and bonbons waiting for us, as well as fresh honey and fresh warmed milk. The shepherd was there too, and told us that they were so worried about 2 meter long cobras as big as your arm that they had to come get us. An unlikely occurence, but it would have been very nice if they had told us this before, so we wouldn't have had to pack and unpack and trudge our bikes through the tall snake infested grass to their home. In the end we slept in a spare room of theirs. We were woken up two hours before they had told us they would wake us up for no apparent reason in a flurry of the same shouting in Azeri and lack of gestures that had happened the night before. In total confusion, we left, and continued on the road to Agdash, mystified at why we had been woken up so early, but glad to be riding in the early morning cool instead of the mid-afternoon inferno.
A tailwind picked us up, and we soared as if on eagles' wings the 100km to Agdash. We were there by noon, and were greeted by a crowd of 20 or so Azeri dudes. We asked if there was a pay telephone nearby, and suddenly there were 20 or so cell phones being taken out of pockets. We called Becca, and Jaco serenaded them with a fine rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" while we waited for her. When she hopped out of the taxi, they couldn't believe that 3 Americans had congregated in Agdash, and were playing guitar and drinking tea with them. We left after a tea, and had lunch a ways down the road. In a side note, I had to leave lunch early, because I took my first solid poos since Tbilisi! About 3 in 30 minutes! It was quite a sensation.
In Agdash I was also mistaken for first a Pakistani, then a Saudi. This is what beards mean in Azerbaijan. While eating lunch some Azeris told me I needed a haircut, so I got my first professional haircut since 2005. It came with a shave! It was very nice, and made the Heat and Doom in the Valley a bit more manageable.
By the time my haircut was over, the earth had turned sufficiently to ease suffering caused by the Heat and Doom, and Becca mentioned that she thought there was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Ucar, city of dreams in the hottest region of the whole country. The heart of the Valley of the Heat and the Doom. She hadn't met him though, as he had arrived a year after she had. Being so well connected though, she made a few phone calls, and soon had his number, and called him up. She introduced herself and us. Dan, the volunteer, said he would be happy to put us up for the night. Ucar was 25km away, and off we went in the early evening blaze.
"Ucar is a ghost town where the people haven't left yet," quoted Dan from the guide book he had bought before arriving in Azerbaijan. Dan has the unenviable position of being posted in the hottest region in the country. He is the only volunteer living in Ucar, and said he spends most of the day trying to avoid the sun. While he is avoiding the sun he works on his project, which is setting up and maintaining a network of bike clubs for kids in Azerbaijan. He coordinates and leads rides throughout the region and the country, and is promoting bicycles as a means of recreation and transportation in a country that is swimming in gasoline. He has a big house with a pomegranate tree in the garden, and a cool, Old West style porch. He has a french press, and coffee from Seattle, his home town. We drank beers from the standard plastic bottles they come in here, and had a fine dinner in Ucar with Dan, and slept well. He had a full size guitar, and songs about cows walking in trash heaps. We had a fine time, and were humbled by the hospitality shown us. Dan had accepted us with only a few hours' notice, by a phone call from someone he hadn't ever met. The Peace Corps network is alive and well and in Azerbaijan.
In the morning I reawakened my coffee habit, and we left at around noon in the heart of the Valle of the Heat and the Doom. Baku, visas, and the Caspian Sea were only 2 days away.