I chuckled when I stepped through the archway into the courtyard. There were bicycles crammed into every nook and cranny. They weren’t ordinary bikes; they sported flags, and stickers, and were drawn upon with markers with witty sayings like, “May the wind be with you.” I knew immediately they belonged to bicycle tourists.
It made sense. We bicycle tourists are notoriously stingy travelers, and the Caspian hostel is the only budget accommodation in Baku, Azerbaijian. But even that won’t stop us from complaining about the nightly $19 a person fee. We’d be camping if it weren’t for the ferry.
The ferry that crosses the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan is legendary among bicycle tourists, having stranded countless travelers in Baku for weeks on end. The boat has no regular schedule, so travelers are forced to ask ‘the lady’ down at the harbor each morning to see if maybe (fingers crossed!) a ship will depart that day. A few of the cyclists at the hostel had been waiting twelve days already.
“Heyyyy!” they yelled drunkenly when I entered the room.
The hostel owner had put all the cyclists together in a darkened den underneath the main part of the building. It was a wise call, considering the olfactory onslaught of beer, salt-caked bicycle jerseys, and musty bike shoes that greeted my nose. I smiled. I was among my people.
“Mark. Berlin. Four months cycling.”
“Wen and Simon. Stockholm. Three months cycling.”
There was a guy from Greece, one from Germany, and a pair from Belgium. Each cited their starting locations and months on the road like it was an identification number.
“Chris. Paris. 16 months cycling.” I chimed. They responded with casual nods.
We played a short game of luggage tetris to create some free space for my bike panniers, before I addressed the pressing question that is never far from a cyclists’ mind: “Do you know where I can get something to eat around here?”
Wen knew exactly what I was looking for. The sole female cyclist gave me directions to the nearest supermarket. Because we were paying such a premium on accommodations, no one was eating out at the restaurants. The evidence was strewn about on counters and crumbled on sleeping bags. Half-eaten loaves of bread. Empty containers of nutella. Snickers wrappers. Knives smeared with remnants of jam and cheese.
“Ohhh, fancy!” Mark cooed with a wink. There was no stove at the hostel, but I had one-upped everyone by having the only hot meal, using the electric water heater to cook a pack of instant noodles. Over Azeri bread and sausage mystery meats, they eyed my dish jealously.
Once the beer started flowing, our sports’ preferred energy drink, jealousies were forgiven and I was on an even plane. We exchanged stories that only cycle tourists could know, like the hassle of getting camping stoves through baggage checks at airports, and the agony of particular stretches of road we’d faced down in Turkey’s Pontic Mountains. “Man, how about that road from Zonguldak to Sinop? That was tough!”
But mostly we talked about visas. The den was a sort of war room, and reports from the ground were delivered in rounds as if to a general. “What’s the latest from the Tajikistan embassy?” I asked. The situation is always changing with Central Asian visas, and I felt lucky to have troops who’d faced down the enemy just before my arrival.
“Ask for Mikheil in the Tajik embassy. He used to be a cyclist. He even gave us a visa without an LOI!”
The other topic that kept resurfacing was the ever-elusive ferry. The cyclists had recruited the Hostel owner Elisa to be their informant. She knew someone who worked at the dock, so each morning at 10am she would call him, and the cyclists would all gather in the courtyard below, faces gazing expectantly up at her window.
“Not today he says.”
The faces dropped. Brows furrowed. Things were getting desperate…
“I don’t know if I can wait another day for this damned ferry!” Simon growled.
In the war room, alternate battle plans were drawn for a way to get across the Caspian. There was rumor of a bi-weekly flight from Baku to Aktau. But how small was the plane? Would it be able to fit 7 bikes? Intelligence was meager, and orders were doled out for more reconnaissance.
Then Elisa, the hostel owner, rushed excitedly through the door. “Wait, they say the ferry may leave tonight!”
The cyclists had heard this before, and were hesitantly optimistic when I decided to go out and explore Baku for the day. Having just arrived, Morgan and I would be in the city at least another week collecting visas before worrying about the ferry. I wished my compatriots luck, and promised to have one last bread and nutella dinner with them that evening before they left.
When I came back a few hours later they were gone. Our bikes sat alone in the courtyard, and suddenly we were the only ones in the den.
Until the next troops arrive.