Silk Road Adventure

May 16-19

Tbilisi Georgia to Baku Azerbaijan

We felt sorry to leave the wonderful people in Tbilisi and fully appreciated the difficult struggle they will have entering a market economy. They have been abandoned by the Russians, and saddled with a heavy hangover from a long period of Russian domination and the lack of a free market. Their education system is substandard, their work attitude is lacking, but they are extraordinary people and worth the effort that the U.S. is putting into the country. They are in a strategic location with respect to getting Central Asian oil into the European market without going through Russia or another currently unfriendly country. The U.S. Agency for International Development has a substantial commitment here in both education and economic development. In addition, there is a military assistance program to bring the Georgian army up to NATO standards, including training a company of Georgians to fight in Iraq.

Having gotten lost in the city, I struggled for an hour to find a right path out and did not fare well. I picked a breadcrumb track that looked like the one that the group was to follow. Instead, it turned out to be a highway, and I ended up entering Azerbaijan at the wrong border crossing, and got into a difficult position entering where motorcycles could not (I did not have the proper papers). So I had to turn around and re-enter Georgia, and then meet the others at the more northern crossing – a process that took the better part of 3-4 hours.

The Azerbaijan border crossing was an active one. It is a significant industrial country with energetic hard-working people and a considerable economy fueled by oil revenue. Azerbaijan is now pumping 800,000 barrels per day from three platforms owned by a consortium led by BP. The rate is expected to rise to 1.1 million barrels per day in the next year and a half. During the life of the contract that ends in 2024, they will build one more platform at a cost of $2 billion. This has had astronomical effects in Azerbaijan. Every corner is building a new apartment building. There have been 800 high rises built in Baku in the last two years.

We spent the night at a caravanserai – a replica of a 15th century building that provided a stopover for caravans traveling the Silk Road. There is room for one camel to enter the courtyard. The camel would be offloaded, the contents placed in the courtyard, and the caravan staff housed in a room adjacent to where their precious merchandise was stored.

The Accident

The next morning we left the caravanserai with the threat of heavy rain, and it came quickly. We put on our rain gear and spent a wet day riding to Baku. It was our second rain day with patches of slick gravel encrusted asphalt under us – a variable surface in the rain. Around noontime I went into a slide and started fishtailing. I struggled to correct it, careening several hundred yards past where I was to turn. I almost had control when I upended the bike, flipping it over providing a dramatic spectacle for Rupert, who was riding behind me. The bike dug in and did two barrel rolls, and I did the same. When I came to, I looked up and Rupert was about to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – the kiss of life, he calls it. I barely escaped being smothered by a mustache and a beard! I later flunked Mike Paul's "Who is the President of U.S.?" test (perhaps wishful thinking on my part), and was relegated to the chase vehicle to continue on the road to Baku. I fared much better than my bike, but smashed my computer, so I can no longer send and receive emails until the cavalry (Marge) arrives with replacement equipment. The phone dictation system in the office did not work either because of our location. So here I am dictating this blog over a SAT phone, which requires almost no buildings around it to work.

I have carefully examined my motorcycle, and been told that it survived rather well considering the fall it took. There is a full page of things wrong with it, including bent handlebars, crushed GPS unit, bent crash bars, broken windshield, crushed panniers, a brake system that doesn't work, as well as a few cosmetic things. When it went end-over-end, the windshield was flattened against the gas tank, which I would have thought was impossible to do. But even with all that is wrong with it, I have ridden the bike, and it seems to be in good shape.


When Azerbaijan was separated from Russia, Armenia grabbed a part of the Azerbaijani land – not oil land or land with any farming value, but the war that ensued over the disputed territory cost the lives of 40,000 people. When Mark, one of our more colorful teammates, was trying to get through the border crossing into Azerbaijan, the border guard caught his melodious Armenian last name and began to hassle him. The guard made Mark fill out the same piece of paper several times, crumbling it each time saying it was not correct. Mark finally unleashed a few Armenian expletives, and it required our guide's tact and poise to separate the two. The Kazaks cannot stand Armenians – but it is interesting that there is very little publicity about it.


I am using a two-pronged laundry approach. The first approach is the composting aerobic laundry bag method (a technique I learned from Michael Malm and Wilbur Shenk when they were my roommates at Trinity College). The idea is to put the laundry in a bag, but allow enough oxygen to get to it, so that it composts and cleans itself. The second approach (the never used approach) is the daily shower. If you are clean enough when you put your clothes on, your body will actually clean the clothes by wearing them. This highly technical methodology makes it is easy to get by with a couple of shirts and a couple pairs of pants. And it's really very easy.

Corruption and the Young People in Azerbaijan

The oil industry was never nationalized by Azerbaijan. It was nationalized by the Soviets when they took over Azerbaijan. So, about one-half of the profit from the 800,000 barrels per day goes to the government - much of that goes to public officials. There is rampant corruption. Anyone who works for the government is rich – those who do not, are not rich. The young people we met were bitter about not being on the "in" and not participating in the growth currently experienced in the country. The people are bright. Many of the young speak English. But they are clearly disenfranchised by a corrupt system. According to public record, the ex-president of Azerbaijan was treated for a heart and kidney problem at the Cleveland Clinic. When he died, his leadership role was passed on to his son, who later won a landslide corrupt election. Unless the income is spread more evenly, the situation will be increasingly difficult for the government to maintain.

The country has significant problems, but probably nothing that money couldn't solve if spent correctly. Here's a comparison of the last three countries per capita gross national product for 2006:

•Turkey - $8,200
•Georgia - $3,300
•Azerbaijan - $4,800


Baku Azerbaijan has only 5-6 mosques in the entire city of 3 million. By contrast, Istanbul, a city of 15 million, has 2,500 mosques. The Soviet influence has muted religious expression. Islam is gradually returning among the young (who are in somewhat of a desperate situation). The women wear western clothes, not as stylish as in Georgia, but far more stylish than Turkey. Characteristic Russian tight clothes and plunging necklines are quite common.

The ferry across the Caspian Sea was delayed by a day – we waited yesterday for the ferry that never came. This morning we got on a bus and left again for the ferry. It took three hours to get cleared and load our motorcycles on the vessel. As we pulled out onto the Caspian Sea, there were oil rigs everywhere, but two are absolute monsters. They must be the big BP rigs that are producing 350,000 barrels per day. The sea is completely calm. We will arrive in Turkmenistan at 2:00 a.m. facing a 400 mile ride through the desert tomorrow. We hear clearing customs in Turkmenistan is difficult.

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