We rose late, and had scarcely gone a kilometre before we were flagged down by a policeman. ‘Presidyent, Presidyent,’ he repeated, ushering behind the trees that lined the road. Ilham Aliyev was on an official progress (rather like a medieval king) from Shamakhi to Ismayilli, and we would have to wait for another hour before progressing. We took our seats, and waited. Thunder rolled ominously overhead, and the policeman shooed us further and further into the trees. Would the President be on time? If I were a dictator I would be late. Ant and Nico drummed their fingers, as I sat making adjustments to my Azeri flag. The promised hour arrived, and there was still no sign. I considered going to the toilet. Suddenly the policeman stood to attention, and a cavalcade of black cars charged past. We had been in the presence of the the world’s 28th best despot (as calculated by the Economist Democracy Index ). We hit the road.
We rode along a ridge, dodging a line of frustrated drivers double and triple overtaking in the opposite direction, before a vertiginous decent into a river valley and an intense uphill. Ant took a tumble while drafting on a truck, but was patched up by passers by. We were soon back on the road to Shamakhi, home of the grandest mosque in the Caucasus. It also happens to be the newest, a crisp 2013 chiselled onto the facade signalling that the mosque is a project of the current regime.
Having stopped for lunch, we were beckoned over by a woman. Was she going to offer us tea? We followed her eagerly round the corner, to discover a fridge sitting at the bottom of the stairs to her fifth floor apartment. After some heavy lifting, however, we were indeed treated to tea, fruit and Ramazan cake, a buttery fudge of crumbs, sugar, anise and (possibly?) black pepper. Fuelled up, we pushed on into desert, a mass of ridges, rises, wide, dry rivers, rust, russet and ochre, and a single snaking line of asphalt leading to Baku. Fifty kilometres down the road, with no end in site, we pitched camp on top of a shale and clay rise, and watched the sun went down.