Azerbaijan

(Emily) Although we’d been told the previous day that our visa hadn’t been approved yet, when we rang the Turkmen consulate in Istanbul from Tbilisi on Thursday morning, this time they informed us that our visas should already be waiting in Baku, Azerbaijan. Grrrr. This meant trying to get to Baku for Friday morning before things closed down for the weekend; 600km of unknown road surface and it was already getting towards Thursday afternoon…

Anyway, we figured that we could at least cross the border that day and try and make up the time by an early start on Friday morning. We actually reached the border sooner than expected and, opting to bypass the 2km long queue of trucks, we were heartened when we rolled up to a brand spanking new structure… however, it turns out this was still under construction and we were directed down a dirt track to the left where armed guards milled about and several local citizens stood around looking thoroughly fed up. What a s***hole!! James was immediately ushered into a small office, where somehow they conjured up enough paperwork to fill over two hours, while I stood by the bikes in the heat trying to look inconspicuous. I was saved from mind-numbing boredom by a friendly member of staff who was able to converse with me in French (and he gave me a bottle of cold water; a life-saver in the intense heat) but I don’t think James fared too well with Moody McMooderson. Three hours and $80 later we were free to go, but not before we were expressly told that if our bikes were in the country longer than 72 hours, it would result in a fine of $2000 each. Ooookay then. Oh, and they wanted a wheelie – good luck with that!!

Armed with our faded A4 printed googlemap of Azerbaijan (which only showed major cities) we got on our way. I was relieved that, once out of the cesspit of the border post, the roads were pretty good and we were able to do nearly 200km before it started to get dark. The landscape was pretty much dry scrubland as far as the eye could see, though we did pass through little townships quite regularly and people went crazy for the bikes whenever we went by. Although intending to find somewhere to camp, at one point we passed a pretty decent looking hotel and, eying up the rapidly descending dusk, gave each other a look that said ‘Sod it, let’s be wussy and go for it’! However, in trying to get back to the hotel on the one-way system we managed to get lost and found ourselves in the middle of a busy town. Still don’t know how that happened! The beeping and whooping that had seemed so charming earlier suddenly became a bit threatening in the dark and we decided to just get the hell out and find a spot out of town to bed down. Trouble was, once out of the street light zone and back on the highway, it became evident that spotting an appropriate place to camp was not very likely. In the end, we pulled into a petrol station and decided that was as good a place as any to see out the night – at least the air was warm and it was well lit. We parked up round the side and, after being given several mugs of chai by the two night shift guys, we prepared to kip down on the floor by the bikes. However, just as we were trying to make the spot a little comfier by laying out our jackets and leaning on our bags, one of the guys drove his car (a Lada, naturally) round next to us and indicated that we should sleep in there in case it rained!! How sweet is that?!

Car or no car, we still had a pretty shoddy night’s sleep. I’d set the alarm for 5am but it when we woke up it was still nowhere near light enough so we didn’t actually get away until about 6.30am. Still, that was surely going to give us plenty of time to do the 380km to Baku by mid-morning… We were anxious to get there before 12 as embassies have notoriously short opening hours and, with only 72 hours permitted for the bikes, we needed to be on the ferry for Turkmenistan by Sunday evening. Somehow, even though the roads were for the most part decent and we kept a steady 80kmph the majority of the time, we were way off target. I blame two things: 1) A stupid 10km stretch of road re-surfacing which, in addition to reducing our speed to about 20kmph, also became treacherously slippery after some genius decided to go along in a truck spraying water all over the shop. I hardly had time to clock the change in conditions before I came off. Sodding mud has a lot to answer for!!!! Poor James; he then had to do the usual relay on both bikes while I walked. Luckily, I’d gone over on the left side this time but I was so paranoid about the bike falling on my bad ankle, I just couldn’t risk the poor surface anymore. Sorry James!!! And 2) The greedy corrupt police who stopped us no less than 8 times, the last time being when we’d pulled over to speak to a couple of French cyclists and the ‘policeman’ tried to say we’d been speeding – er, hello, we were stationary!!! Luckily James stood his ground each time and refused to pay any bribes; no mean feat when they would get quite officious. The first time was at a check point and James was ushered into the office where the guy kept banging his fist on the table, demanding dollars. By the last stop, we’d resorted to babbling away in English to bamboozle them and I had to stop myself from cracking up when James said, ‘I really don’t understand a word you’re saying but you’re obviously a bit of a dickwad’!! Ah, fun and games!

So, after all that we didn’t get into Baku until half two, and even then it was another half an hour before we found the Turkmenistan embassy. To say we were hot and tired doesn’t quite cover it… Therefore, we were not amused to be told that the embassy had closed (at 12, of course) and we had to come back Monday. Arghhhhh!!! We stuck around for while, hoping they’d take pity on us when we showed them the document saying the bikes had to be out by Sunday evening but we were consistently met with the universal sign for ‘not possible’ (arms crossed in an x in front of chest + moody grimace). Morale was low at this point. So low that the expensive hotel up the road was looking like a distinct possibility…. I know we shouldn’t have, but the thought of going back into the hellish traffic and heat was more than we (ok, I) could bear! Hence, here we are in a rather swanky room (there’s even a towelling robe!!) with aircon and wi-fi. Not quite roughing it but after a night in a gas station we figure it’s allowed, and James did haggle the price down considerably. It’s Sunday now and we’ve just dropped the bikes down at customs for the night – that was the only option to avoid the massive fine – the plan being to get our Turkmen visa first thing tomorrow morning then go and join the bikes at the port to wait for a ferry. This is going to be a whole new nightmare in itself (thanks for the heads up Dean and Paul) and we’re slightly uneasy not to have our bikes with us at the moment, but hey, needs must!

We went out in Baku the first evening we were here and were amazed by how stunning the city is (such is the Westerner’s arrogant assumption that countries like this couldn’t possibly do stylish and cosmopolitan). The town boasts beautiful buildings that Paris, London or Milan would be envious of, which are lit up tastefully in the evening and the streets are thronged with cool shops, bars and restaurants. There’s even an old town quarter, surrounded by a UNESCO protected old city wall (that said, it is a bit ramshackle) where we found more than a few scraggy kittens to keep me happy!

 So to some up, in James’ words, the best and worst thing about Azerbaijan are the people – along with the Kurds, we’ve been shown the most kindness and given the warmest welcome by locals we’ve met but when it comes to the officials… don’t get us started!!!

5 Responses to “Azerbaijan”

  1. Max says:

    James, Emily, congrats with getting visas and reaching Azerbaijan. Hope you’ll enjoy Asia! Will wait for your pics. And will send you a link on ours when they are ready.

    You two are great! And your adventure is reaaaaaly inspiring.
    Take care and enjoy!

    Max
    (Tbilisi Hostel)

  2. Suzanne says:

    Em and James,

    What an adventure. I’m soooooo envious.

    I love reading your updates!! I just realised, after reading your last entry that my mouth had been wide open from the first word until the last line, I was completely absorbed by every word. hehehe. It’s exciting stuff. You write so well!!!

    Em, i’ll send you a longer message on fb.

    Love to both of you!!!!
    Suzanne xxxxxxx

  3. Jess says:

    Loving the ‘dickwad’ comment! xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  4. Elizabeth says:

    That’s exactly what I was gonna say Pog! Oh we must be twins, or just both equally immature…
    I’m also a fan of the ‘Moody McMooderson’ character, he sounds like a bit of a knob but u really paint a picture x x x

  5. dad says:

    Guess you guys are on the ferry now. That’s the way to travel, waterborne without corrupt speedcops! Well done James for managing to stand up to the officious officials and without getting thrown into jail. Quite a balancing act!
    love from dad X

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