Pilgrims

Summer rains sweep through mountains. The wet earth, once vacant now sprout wild flowers. A bird sings, a group of yaks pass and the sound of footsteps fill the road. Pilgrims. The walk in numbers with large sacks of food and supplies on back, sometimes with a stick in hand. Some pull large carts filled with clothes, cooking utensils and grain, no matter what they carry they  all head for the holy city of Lhasa, more than 1000 km away. Cars too are filled with pilgrims of a different sort, men and women who bring the comforts of their homes and sleep in warm beds. In this way it is easy to forget the world outside and embracing the dreams we all forget at dawn. 

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This pilgrim was prostrating his way, 3 steps one bow, to Lhasa.

Traveling has been very difficult lately. My Chinese Yuan supply has slowly dwindled and it is impossible for me to exchange money. I have therefore been subsiding on the bare minimum (fresh vegetables and cold noodles) and quickly making my way to Yunnan where I hope to find a large enough bank to withdraw funds. Hostels, hotels, and even apples are too expensive right now. The rain makes maters worse as I often spend hours pedaling up steep mountains only to find myself descending into a hail storm.

However it is too beautiful to be inside. Even when I am in the tent at night I want to open the fly and look out into a sky with patches of stars. I am too often invited by locals to stay inside warm wooden houses and each time I look down into forested distance and decline. It will take me several days to get to Yunnan, in the meantime I am riding when I can and when I can’t hiding in my tent beside soft streams.

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Backroads of Sichuan

IMG_2884After graduating college I spent close to a whole year traveling China with my father. It was a time when anything was better than returning to the US and contemplating the next step in life, and traveling seems to occupy those moments in my life. My father too, had plenty to escape, his health was failing and his energy to conduct his antique business had long since left him. We traveled to so many Buddhist temples and holy places that I can hardly remember which ones were interesting and which ones were more like Buddhist amusement parks . Most if not all the monasteries had long since been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and had been replaced with flashy stucco replicas with large plastic golden Buddhas.

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Native grass at 14,000 feet.

During our many temple visits we met a very interesting Tibetan teacher who became a close friend. We spent several days with him at the monastery, then invited him to our home in Guang Zhou. He had a very familiar laugh and a smile never seemed to leave his face. After my father’s death, we continued to keep in touch. He would call at 2 am California time and laugh about the time difference, and repeatedly ask when I would return to China.

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Rin Chen Jer Po Rinpoche and Padma (my Tibetan name)

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An offering. Rin Chen’s monastery in northern Sichuan

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Rin Chen’s village, Zong Mai Xiang

After more than a year of silence, I hesitated, then called him while pedaling south through the deserts of Qinghai. He quickly remembered me and extended an invitation to visit him in Sichuan. It turned out that his home was not too far off my route so I braved a 100 km single track mountainous road to his home village.

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Rin Chen making a call at the only place with service, the nearest tallest mountain pass 4,700 meters.

My friend’s name is Rin Chin Jer Po, who at the age of 19 was told by a senior Buddhist teacher that he had a strong potential in the practice of selflessness and Enlightenment. Immediately after hearing the news he decided to make a pilgrimage to India, and walked to the Holy city of Lumbini in northern India. When he arrived he met his future teacher  and decided to devote his life to the study of Buddhism. After a year in India he returned to his home in Sichuan province and began to teach in China.

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En-Route to Zong Mai Xiang village.

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Rin Chin’s village was almost impossible to find as it is extremely remote and not located on any maps. He gave me the name of his temple and told me that he was about 100 kilometers from a certain landmark. En-route it took me close to a whole day of cycling to and fro on a large highway looking for a small dirt road that would take me his way. Once found I quickly noticed that I would be riding on a road full of muddy pot holes, loose rocks and steep climbs. At times I doubted my resolution to visit him but continued on as he was very good to my family after my father’s death.IMG_3387

When I arrived at his village I spent close to an hour asking villagers about where he lived, no one seemed to have heard the name Rin Chin Jer Po. Did I pedal to the wrong place, I thought? The name of the temple was familiar to most but no one seemed to have heard the name Rin Chin Jer Po. Finally I asked a few monks at the monastery for the residence of the abbot, thinking this was his home I quickly entered expecting to see him. Instead I met a relatively large bald man with a very happy face. I apologized for barging into his home, however he seemed too surprised at seeing a foreigner that he didn’t seem to noticed that I had just walked into his home. I quickly described Rin Chin to him and made a long hair gesture as well as large earrings. He quickly knew who I was talking about and led me to his residence.

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A large Tibetan meal of Blood sausage, boiled beef and beef buns. The yogurt (in bowls) was really good!

Seeing Rin Chin through his second story window brought tears to my eyes and his large smile met mine. My doubts about coming quickly vanished and I was invited into his home and treated like a royal guest. A Tibetan  feast of fresh beef, yogurt, milk tea, and lots of Sampa was soon prepared and a bed in the monastery waited me. It took me a day to get used to Tibetan customs as women do everything for the men; wash their clothes, cook, serve, and prepare all the meals, wash their feet, make and serve tea the daily tea.

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Preparing to eat a large bowl of butter and boiled roots, a Tibetan delicacy!!

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The boiled roots are added to a large bowl of butter, the liquid butter is sipped while the roots are chewed. I must have eaten close to 3 sticks of butter. The white cheese looking like stuff is milk curds.

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Spring has finally sprung at 14,000 feet.

 

I am headed south again, towards the province of Yunnan. It is warm, humid and rainy. Food rarely deviates from Tsampa, boiled beef and buns. My bags are full of gifts from Rin Chen and I must have at least a months worth of Tsampa and butter in a large bag.

Cycling at 15,000 feet

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Prayer flags line bridges protecting pilgrims in remote canyons

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A Tibetan local, behind is his summer yurt and tent. His summer camp site was well above 15,000 feet.

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An unexpected snow storm. The snow actually acts as a insulator and kept me warm throughout the night. 

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At over 15,000 feet I often find myself short of breath, and have developed a practice of breathing in twice for every out breath.  Skipping or holding my breath for a passing, dusty vehicle is out of the question and leaves me dizzy. I also seem to have developed a deep, dry cough that wakes me at night.

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The culture is primarily Tibetan, with many locals unable to converse in Mandarin. This family invited me out of the rain for a lunch of Tsampa, tea and yak butter pan fried bread. I probably ate close to 2 sticks of Yak butter in 30 minutes.

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Tsampa is a ground flour that is added to milk tea with yak butter. Once finished drinking the tea the flour is mashed into a ball then eaten with more yak butter.

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Many of the villages have seen very little foreigners, and Esperanza loaded for a journey draws quite a crowd.

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These are the coldest nights I have every experienced, every night around 2 am I wake up in a shiver and patiently wait for sleep and the sun to rise.

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Elevation after a steep climb, 4677 m.

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Old man with two grandchildren

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The remote mountains are home to many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

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The sun is fierce and warm throughout the day, but once it falls temperatures quickly fall.

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A cold barren landscape, too high to for trees to grow, and little but small puddles of standing water.

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A small roadside cafe, wild dogs are rampant, and I have been attached several times wild pedaling through villages. 

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A yurt with a yak dung burning stove will keep you warm throughout the season.

Chinese bureaucratic nightmare

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i pedaled past miles of trucks waiting to go through the border patrol.

There is little left for me to do but circle around to the western side Qinghai and hope to cross into Sichuan through the mountains. The entire southern half of Qinghai is close to foreigners. I pedaled a long 60 km into the wind to find a huge border patrol forcing me to return. I asked to speak with the superior officer and found myself in a room with several Tibetan monks sitting on the dirty floor. The superior told me the monks did not have proper identification and had been held in custody for 2 days.

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I was headed south from Golmud and planned to take side roads to Yushu. I am now headed east of Golmud and hope to cross near the yellow river.

I begged the officers to let me through as this was the only southern road to Sichuan. But was repeatedly told that the road also went to Tibet and in order for me to move forward I had to have a permit! Imagine being in California and being unable to visit San Diego because the same road that took you there continued on to Mexico!

After rejoicing the end of my hardships, I am back into the cold windy desert. I will try again to find a southern passage to Sichuan. If I fail I am not sure what to do.

The Horizon is a Mirage

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The sky, once blue is now covered in dust. At night I faintly see the moon, a few nearby planets, and the lights of a nearby quarry. It is in these long stretches that I begin to break down. Days of pedaling into a dry mundane desert landscape, with strong gusty winds pushing me across the narrow road. My physical strength wavering brings anxiety, doubt and fear.

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My location is very near Youshashan, in the northwest of the province. I am headed south east to Golmud.

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Small roadside village, Qinghai

In the six days of Xinjiang desert I experienced a wind like no other country. Relentless, dry and full of sand. Sometimes I would stop and cover my face, for what seemed like several minutes while a blinding sand storm passed. Within a few kilometers my teeth, nose, ears and face are covered, and breast pocket begins to fill. A night my sleeping bag feels like a sand box.

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Some friendly Chinese employees working at a remote power station, they served me breakfast and gave me a few packets of tea.

My mood suddenly changed as I got within 100 km of the Xinjiang/Qinghai border. The forever flat desert gave way to steep dry mountains and I began to climb into a fresh cool atmosphere. The wind stayed strong but was no longer filled with dust. Trucks constantly passed and the roadsides were piled high with trash, and un-recycled junk. I stopped at a small roadhouse and watched the few Chinese travels toss their litter into the desert wind.
The air slowly got thin and cold as I climbed to 9,000 feet. I smelled the air for the cargo of the trucks passing; coal, oil, and sometimes hay. Other rather scentless ones carried wire, plastic pipes, and really smelly live stock. On one occasion I was passed by a truck carrying a load of large pigs, as it passed I was sprayed with water but as I looked over I noticed it was a large pig peeing off the side.

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High desert camping, temperatures dropped well below freezing and I awoke to a frosted landscape.

The few people I encounter are friendly and courteous. Being stereotypical one would expect to find weird, socially strange people operating small business in the extreme remote but in China they seem completely normal and treat me with respect and trust.

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Roadside military, my passport and visa would randomly to checked in the most remote locations.   

The remote landscape once a refuge has begun to frighten me. A few sections of my route took me through single-lane roads covered in sand. With no traffic I felt that if I stopped pedaling I may never be found. I push on, I am 450 km from the city of Golmud, if all goes well I should be there in 4 days. There are police check points everywhere and I constantly give false information as to my destination (which is extremely close to the Tibetan border and may potentially be forbidden to foreigners without a permit).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deportation and Uncertainty in the Azerbaijan capital

“Here sign this” the government official said, “It is an official writ of deportation”, “Once you sign you will be deported to Kazakhstan and will be banned from returning to Azerbaijan for 2 years”……

An predawn stroll through Baku's old city

An predawn stroll through Baku’s old city

I am officially being deported from Azerbaijan! Unfortunately, upon entering the country I wasn’t informed of the tourist registration law. (All tourist must register at hotels, guest houses or police stations within three days). Arriving in Baku I quickly learned the unwritten rule from some unlucky tourists who had been fined 300 euros each and had missed their departing ferry to Kazakhstan. According to their story there was no way to avoid a 300 euro fine and it seemed that I was pretty much fucked! The words of the 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta echoed in my head, “It is better to negotiate your fate voluntarily, than to be coerced into service”. I decided to travel to the Regional Migration Department, and see if there was anything I could do to avoid the hefty fine.

Ateshgah, Zoroastrian fire temple, Baku outskirts

Ateshgah, Zoroastrian fire temple, Baku outskirts

A tribute to the everlasting flames that were once worshiped here. In the early 1900's Azerbaijan learned that money could be made from their natural gas source, the true life and flames of the temple never returned

A tribute to the everlasting flames that were once worshiped here. In the early 1900’s Azerbaijan learned that money could be made from their natural gas source, the true spirit and flames of the temple never returned

After an hour of standing in random lines and trying to find an official that spoke English I was directed to a small interrogation room with several military personal. I explained my situation and pleaded that a 300 euro fine would completely ruin my pilgrimage. After talking amongst themselves in Azeri, the official who spoke the best English produced a contract written entirely in Azeri. “Sign this” he said, “It is an official writ of deportation”, “Once you sign you will be deported to Kazakhstan and will be banned for 2 years from returning to Azerbaijan”…..”But no 300 euro fine”.

Downtown mosque

Downtown bazaar hours before opening

Caucasus style mosque

Caucasus style mosque

Baku is a mix between Dubai and Paris, but lacks the fragrance of a historically epic metropolis. Flame shaped skyscrapers, visible from miles away pinpoint downtown. Towering J.W Marriot, Hilton and Ramada hotels provide afternoon shade near the Caspian Sea boardwalk. City water fountains provide evening entertainment by showering streams of water to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky.

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Downtown is composed of designer clothing stores, McDonald’s, KFC and exotic automobile showrooms. It is impossible to find anything not overpriced as even bottles of water marked at 0.5 manat will cost 1. The city is undergoing a rapid change as it has recently been awarded the opportunity to host the Euro Games in 2015. Large landscaped medians adorn colored flower arrangements with EUROGAMES 2015 clearly written in the patriotic colors of the country flag; blue, red and green.

A once underwater coral reef, Qobustan was inhabited thousands of year ago.

A once underwater coral reef, Qobustan was inhabited thousands of year ago.

My first few days moved about and wandered through the daytime heat. It is at night that this city truly comes alive. Clubs, bar and restaurants open their doors as the streets quickly become crowded with a multicultural hodgepodge. Like a Christmas pine taken from the wild to a suburban living room, the old city becomes completely illuminated taking on an ephemeral beauty, broken only by the radiance of dawn.

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How difficult I have found Baku. If I could I would re-name the city Al Sa’Ab taken from the Arabic word MEN Al SA ‘AB meaning “troublesome”. I have found most of the residents in poor moods and the first few days I shuffled between residences looking for a mellow place to lay my head while waiting for my Uzbekistan visa. After my second attempt I gave up on Baku and cycled 60 km south to a primitive man site called “Qobustan”. There I found a secluded rock cave and carrying close to 20 liters of water camped inside for the duration of 3 days. A real retreat, I wandered about the desert, meditated, read and wrote tirelessly in my journal.

I then pedaled back to Baku only to find that my visa was still not processed, however my luck changed as I met a Pakistani man working in the city who invited me to stay at his apartment. We became good friends and he invited me out to dinner with his friends, bought me food for the road and gave me new clothes. Thanks Cay Jay!

Cay Jay Pakistani friend working in Baku

Cay Jay Pakistani friend working in Baku

I met a few British expats who waited in Baku for 13 days each day expecting a Uzbek visa only on the last day to give up and travel through Kazakhstan. Today marks a full week that I have been on the western edge of the Caspian sea and I am disappointed at my situation. Tomorrow I will go to the Kazakhstan embassy and apply for a 30 days visa, if the Uzbekistan visa does not come through by Wednesday I will pedal the length of Kazakhstan (2,700 km of desert) to the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek. I will write again as soon as I know my plans.  -Julian

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Uncovering Azerbaijan

“Allahu Akbar” the Imam shouts. It is afternoon prayer and I am standing foot to foot in a long horizontal line at the local mosque in the old Azerbaijani capital of Gabalar. My sandal tan sticks out among pale feet and I bring my right arm over my left in the first standing position of prayer. “What are the Arabic words to the Fatiha again” I ask myself, for some reason all I can think of is the Pali Buddhist chants I had become so accustomed to as a child, “Namo Tassa Bhagavato, Arahato…” “No no no…wrong chant” “Wrong god” I could almost imagine the Imam calling out to me. Focus. I had come to the Mosque to meditate and to be away from the constant bombardment oflocals, but oddly enough had arrived minutes before prayer. Now at this time any place in the city would be more secluded than where I was. “OK” here we go……

Bismillahi-r Rahmanir-Rahim Al-hamdu lillahi Rabbilalamin Ar-Rahmanir Rahim Maliki yaumi din…..

Oldest Caravansari in Azerbaijan located on the silk road

Oldest Caravansari in Azerbaijan located on the silk road

After pedaling underneath a large sign that read “Azerbaijan Border Good Luck”, I handed my passport to three or four officials before finally being allowed through. Other than the long line of cars with Azer license plates waiting to enter Georgia, there were no dramatic changes. I had chosen the northern border as the roads were said to be less traveled offering a better glimpse at a remote life style. The towering snow-capped peaks, so frequently found in Georgia had disappeared and now all mountains were barren and dry like those found near the deserts of California. Farmers harvesting crops waved and whistled as I passed, and I dodged groups of cows and sheep heading towards the tall grass of a nearby field. I stopped at a small village town and picked up supplies for dinner. My eating habits are best compared to that of an ant; when I find food I like to carry it back to my tent where I can enjoy it in my own space.

Local Azerbaijan boys selling hazel nuts on the road side

Local Azerbaijan boys selling hazel nuts on the road side

The first thing that I noticed was that everything in the grocery store is expired. The challenge therefore became finding the items that had only expired recently. Dairy products, which are mostly sold over the counter (meaning you cannot personally inspect the expiry dates), can be as much as two months expired, and you really have to be adamant about getting the grocer to dig deep within the refrigerator to find something that has only recently expired. Bottled water, also a strange thing to inspect expiry dates, but very few locals buy water in containers larger than 500ml, yesterday I bought a 5 liter bottle that had expired 6 months ago, at first this didn’t bother me until I found jelly fish like algae growing off of the bottom. As a general rule of thumb, if what you are looking for is kept in a refrigerator it is likely to be expired and its cold environment is keeping it from stinking up the store. Raisins, apricots and nuts will almost all contain worms or other strange like creatures, so like being in England during the middle ages, boiling everything!

Azerbaijanis are into their compote, here is a road side assortment

Azerbaijanis are into their compote, here is a road side assortment

The once quiet northern border road eventually joined with the southern road and all hell broke loose on the tarmac. The road remained the same a two lane highway (one lane in each direction) with very little shoulder, but with the increased number of vehicles, an invisible third lane for passing appeared. Regardless of direction autos would speed pasted slower vehicles into the center of the road pushing the oncoming traffic into the shoulder and sometimes off of the road. There doesn’t seem to be any concern of having a head on collision, and I am often pushed off of the shoulder by an oncoming car. It is an absolutely terrifying experience! I sometimes have to play chicken with the oncoming cars so that they will give me space in my lane. The nicer the vehicle, the faster and more careless the driving. It is almost as if all Azerbaijan drivers are teenagers who have just received their license, they are completely ignorant of the dangers associated with their driving. If that is not enough I often see vehicles that seem to be driverless, only as it gets closer do I see an adolescent, barely able to see over the dashboard, speeding down the road. Police vehicles are ever-present but don’t seem to do much except throw their trash out their windows, and flag passing vehicles with long red poles to cite seat belt violations.

Roadside butcher, this guys sliced this bull up in minutes

Roadside butcher, this guys sliced this bull up in minutes

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Because of the cost and extreme difficulty in getting a tourist visa, locals rarely see foreigners, making their behavior quite annoying. The annoying whistle that I experienced so often in Albania is back, as well as the friendly honk. On a given day I am honked and whistled at least 50 times, almost to the point where I want to wear ear plugs. Just like in Albania if a local whistles at you and you don’t look in their direction they will continue for a while as if there is some sort of important message they are trying to convey. I often tell locals, that I am from Canada to see how the results will vary. If I say I am from Canada, the Azerbaijanis will tell me how much they like American movies, cowboys, Hollywood, “Have you ever seen a movie stars” etc. If I tell them that I am from the States they will tell me how much they dislike the politicians as well as American foreign policies. I guess it is best to say that I am from Canada and talk about how great American movies and movie stars are.

Azerbaijan fruit roll-ups

Azerbaijan fruit roll-ups

Overall the country is very expensive, and the local currency: the Manat has the same value as the Euro. Fruit, vegetables these staples are still rather cheap but bread, pasta, rice and other carbo rich sources are often several manat. A big change from the cheap and plentiful Georgia. A days ration of water can sometimes cost me close to $4, depending on what stores I pass. Some venders try to sell water at a price higher than gasoline! The heat and the road conditions make traveling difficult along with the long distances between cities.

The last 150 km stretch before Baku

The last 150 km stretch before Baku

The real feeling of Azerbaijan, being in central Asia didn’t set in until about 150 km from Baku. All of the sudden the farm country and oak tree forests gave way to a vast and almost inhabitable desert. A dry dusty head wind deterred my path and the minarets looked like large ice cream cones stuck out in the horizon. There is no hidden place to park ones tent out here and I must climb the steppe before being out of view.

Fresh from a water bottle shower, camping under a canopy of invasive species

Fresh from a water bottle shower, camping under a canopy of invasive species

60 km from Baku I pedaled through an unexpected oasis, by oasis I mean a large group of tamarix trees. I was too hot and dry to continue but had little more than 2 manat in my pocket, my dirty and sweaty appearance won me over some tomatoes, bread and a half price deal on a 5 liter bottle of water. I then pushed Gaby through a tumble weed ravine to find a spot of shade to sleep in. Alone and cool at last, I spent the rest of the day resting to the sound of the desert winds rattle the trees.

Azerbaijan, the small bit on land on the left is the infamous Nagorno karabakh region, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, the small bit on land on the left is the infamous Nagorno karabakh region, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan

I have just arrived in Baku, and not sure if the allure of the city is due to it being at the end of a 100 mile desert road. I will be in the city for several days awaiting my Uzbekistan visa, and will post again before I depart for Kazakhstan.