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Real Coffee At Last, Welcome to Paris (in Asia), and BBQ Sheep Balls

Our ferry crossing from Turkmenbashi was uneventful except for a 12-hour delay floating off the coast of Baku waiting for a slip to open. Our accommodations were not luxurious, but we were in premium cabins and at least could lay down and sleep. Many of the passengers didn't have the means to rent a cabin and were stuck sleeping wherever they could find a place to stretch out.

My initial fear that we would be hated because we got the VIP treatment through customs was unfounded and we were largely met with smiles and courteous nods. A few of the passengers could speak English and struck up conversations.


We learned that the wackadoodle ruler of Turkmenistan had once delayed the dis-embarkment of the overnight ferry for 14 days[2]  because he wanted to party outside of Baku for the annual F1 Grand Prix race and didn't want to see any visible shipping traffic. The ship ran quickly out of supplies and fuel, helicopters had to ship in emergency supplies, and tugs had to tow the ferry into port. Nice guy! We felt lucky to be away from Turkmenistan when the ship moored.

As we stepped off the boat and retrieved our bikes from the hold, we were met by our fixer Aidan. He motioned us to a small office where we were met by a uniformed border agent. He told us to wait outside and that we he would have us on our way shortly. He came out briefly and asked us for our passports, then re-emerged shortly later and told us to follow him to our hotel.

Aidan told us before he left that if we were looking for a good place to eat, he owned a good pizza joint in the city and would love to have us come by. It was obvious that he had taken a shine to us, and the feeling was mutual. We'd be taking him up on his offer.

Our hotel was thoroughly first-world and opened directly onto the Formula One race track main straightaway, which was also situated right across from a beautiful park that followed the shoreline of the Caspian. We felt like we had arrived in Europe. Baku's nickname is "The Paris of Asia '' because of its grand architecture and romantic ambiance.


We asked the fantastically handlebar-mustached concierge where we could get a good cup of coffee. He told us with a slight grin that the hotel café was closed for the day but that we could get a great cup at the McDonald’s, aka "The American Embassy,” in the mall adjacent to the hotel. We laughed and took off for the mall and sure enough we had the best cup of coffee since we'd left the States. Until then we had been traveling through the land of tea, not coffee, and the best we ever got was hot water over some sketchy instant coffee granules. This was the real deal and we felt that much closer to home.

The next day we took a self-guided walking tour through Baku and were amazed at its beauty and grace. We traveled through ancient winding streets of shops and museums and looked up to see the tops of extraordinary and mind-bending feats of high-rise architectural modernity. Baku is truly a city of contrast.

Later that evening we walked up one of the main boulevards and found Aidan's pizza place. We were puzzled because from the outside it looked closed and indeed when Aidan let us in, we were the only patrons. Aidan wanted us all to himself or this was just a front for some other shady business Aidan might be up to.

He sat us down and gave us legit menus and we ordered some pizzas which turned out to be great! He periodically took breaks from his constant cell phone conversations to ask us questions about ourselves and the trip. When we were finished, he told us that he had some business in the next town that we were going to, Sheki, that we should call him when we got settled, and that even though he wasn't our guide he'd take us out to dinner there.

We spent the next day driving north following the southern tail end of the Caucasus Mountains through Azerbaijan wine country. We passed numerous wine stalls and honey stands and arrived in Sheki in the late afternoon. After settling in we took a short walk and found an outdoor pub and decided to stop for a beer.


We were just talking amongst ourselves when from behind us a voice in perfect American English shouted out, "What are you guys doing here?" We turned around and faced a slightly redheaded fellow traveler by the name of Fritz Musser. Turns out he was on a solo walking tour of the whole Caucus Range, north to south.


We instantly bonded over beers, and he went on to tell us about his life as a rogue traveler and the many adventures he'd experienced, from trekking across the Sahara desert following a group of salt miners on camelback, to illegally joining a caravan of migratory reindeer herders in the wilds of Siberia. He had photo-documented all his travels and we sat engrossed as he narrated us through the NatGeo-quality pictures on his laptop. He had not been home (if he ever really had one) in over a decade and had no other plans than to find the next adventure to undertake. We all felt small in the shadow of his amazing adventures and the freedom with which he walked the earth.

When we got back to the hotel there was a black Mercedes-Benz parked at the front of the hotel. Out popped Aidan and one of his friends, and they motioned for us to get in. Mike was tired and having some slight stomach issues (or his Spidey senses were telling him not to go) so he bowed out. Nick and I jumped in, and we took off up the mountain.

As we wound up and up to the top of the peak, the whole time Nick and I were looking at each other mutually thinking, "What have we gotten into?" The car stopped outside of what looked like an empty resort. We got out and Aidan motioned for us to follow him into an outside porch that was set up for diners. No one was there and we sat down and were joined by two more of Aidan's friends.


Out came some beers and then the food started to flow from an unseen kitchen. Plate after plate of local cuisine was brought out, and Aidan beckoned us to eat as his friends asked us questions about life in America, particularly LA and Hollywood.


None of the food was recognizable but it was all artfully displayed and tasted wonderful. I spied a plate of what looked like small grey meatballs, and I asked what they were, not sure if I wanted to sample the goods. Aidan said they were BBQ'd sheep balls and that they were a particular delicacy of this region of Azerbaijan. Of course, I had to try one now so I popped one into my mouth. They were delicious and had the texture of somewhere between a piece of liver and a meatball, so I ate a few more. Nick wisely returned to being a vegetarian on the spot.

After dinner, Aidan chauffeured us back down the mountain to the hotel and bid us good night. Later on, I was sick as a dog and threw up all night, not sure if it was from over-eating and -drinking or from those mysterious sheep balls. I suspected the latter.

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