After the crowning glory of Tblisi, the remainder of Georgia echoed rather meekly out until the border with Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi. Although we did encounter the most fearsome off-road section of the trip so far on the cliffs beneath the ancient town of Signaghi, where the cycle-nav had assured us a steep downhill goat-path was asphalt covered leaving us with either a 15 km retour or a 1 km foot-bound fight in skiddy cycling cleats to stop the laden bikes crashing us into a nasty Georgian gorse bush variant. Azeris don't have the best international reputations for honesty or incorruptibility, and with this in mind we approached the border in the afternoon with hesitance and trepidation. The Georgian officials clearly agreed with our sentiment, with their large multilingual border sign genuinely reading: 'Azerbaijan Border Good Luck'.
The crossing started strangely when we were aggressively fondled by the tweedle-dum and dumber of the first pair of guardsmen who were out-posted like militaristic gnomes in the garden before the threshold of the country itself. The first question we were asked was 'dronnnnn, you have dronnnnn?', we feigned ignorance in pronunciation when they started doing helicopter charades and said we couldn't possibly be packing a heli on our bikes. When they got the pronunciation right and asked me directly, I could honestly answer: 'no, I (heavy emphasis) have no drones, I definitely have no drones' and I tried to stand in front of Rob who was balking a little. When they followed up directly with Rob he quite rightly couldn't carry on the act any longer and slowly and regretfully got out our little flying friend I had named 'Ariel'. We were quickly sent packing back to Georgia to post the drone away, we vainly attempted to bribe passing lorry and taxi drivers to act as a covert courier, and so passed through the border dejectedly droneless. The bittersweet silver lining to this is that every landscape hereafter has seemed that much more beautiful or dramatic, and worthy of footage.
This denial of equipment and the continued bolshy and handsy approach of the border guards left us with a bitter first taste that was soured by a pestering and petulant nocturnal policeman, and then further dampened and almost shocked by a heavy thunderstorm that poured down on the tent in our first Azeri night. The damaged perspective these experiences gave us for the the country and it's people was only steadily repaired by the warmth and authenticity of the farming people we found in the country's verdant eastern valley. It seems to me that if first impressions are everything, countries should more finely select and increase the pay of their border forces. That starting contact can only be made once and ought to exemplify the best of a region, not it's worst.
The eastern part of Azerbaijan is formed of a wide plain trammeled by mountain borders with Russia to the North and Armenia to the South, we traveled along foot hills of the Northern mountain ridge crossing above the expanse of perfectly fertile cultivated lands before us. This lay-out threw up a unique effect in perspective of being able to survey and comprehend the entire topography of a non-island country from ground travel. This ability to relate map to landscape so closely firmly grounds you in a journey like this, and allows one a little more understanding of the world's scale on a cycle tour like this. The view hardened my ever-emerging belief of how the world is smaller than one thinks, genuinely, and not at all in the social sense. It starts to get just a bit 'Little Prince' sized.
If the East of the country gave out these wistful and soulful impressions, then the West was not it's cousin. On the fourth and final day into Baku, we broke across the mountain ridge and it's luscious nature for a scene change to a petro-martian landscape composed of crumpled hills of sandy dirt and dips of dirty sand. The busiest stretch of the highway was being extended into four lanes, and the monstrous fleet of diesel dumper trucks chucked and churned their way around us, all this danced out in danger on a loosened gravel surface. The single most unpleasant stretch I've experienced so far. This swift descent from a paradise of pasture plunged further down into the sprawl of Baku's peninsula. The roads became more congested and the thick dust in the air seemed to absorb and hold the exhaust gases in a hanging state of toxicity. All sorts of pollution from smell, sound and 'energy' were in ghastly abundance here. The city's restored stone mono-culture 'old-town' solely populated by high-end low-meaning brands and flash hotels didn't do much for me either. More than any other day, this transition in a day underlined my question of why people who choose to live in cities in conditions like this. The answer clearly is economics, but the economics of Fabrika's digital nomads made all the more sense in this dusty acrid light.