Archive for the ‘Azerbaijan’ Category

Caspian ‘Cruise’….

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

(James) Before I start I just want to let you know that this next post will contain overzealous use of inverted commas as I don’t want to allow anyone to make the mistake of trying to picture some of what I will describe – it would be futile, some things just can’t ‘appreciated’ ( there I go already!) unless you have experienced them first hand!  I should also point out at this stage that this is not a ‘ferry service’ that crosses the Caspian from Baku to Turkmenbashi but a ship designed to carry rail stock, it doesn’t have a timetable of any sort and you are allowed on pretty much at the captain’s pleasure. The reason there is no schedule is simple, if not a bit bizarre. The crew don’t get paid per crossing but based on the load the ship is carrying so when we arrived on the Monday morning the ship was in dock but waiting for rolling stock to arrive at the port, and had no plan to leave until it had enough. The same logic applies at the other end, so whilst the crossing itself might only take 13 hours, the ships regularly sit for several days off shore, refusing to dock until they are satisfied that there is enough rolling stock waiting for them at the port!

So, having got all our gear together  and put our bike clothes back on we left the hotel and took a taxi down to the port where to our relief we found our bikes sitting in the customs ‘lot’ exactly as we’d left them. We loaded the bikes back up and then walked back down the alley to the ‘ticket office’ (a small door in a hut with no sign on it) to find out if there would be any berths available for us and were happy to see not just the really grumpy old woman who normally sells tickets (and who usually requires a bribe just to actually allow you to buy a ticket!), but the captain as well – surely a good sign?! We happened to bump into Michael and Noemi, a couple of French cyclists we’d first met and got chatting to on the road to Baku a few days earlier (cut short by another corrupt policeman pulling up to demand money!) who were looking to get on the same crossing so at least sailing or not we’d have some nice company! We’d been sitting quietly for half an hour trying not to draw attention to ourselves (the hut was air conditioned and given it was 39 degrees we’d gotten a little clammy – we did not want to be sent outside again!) before Michael and Noemi were sent to sit with the ticket lady and I was ushered over for a word with the captain. 20 minutes later, following a bit of gentle negotiation, we agreed on a reduced price (plus a little backhander for the Captain!) and were told that we should go back down to the customs area and start getting the necessary paper work stamped. Within 2 hours we were riding on to the ship and tying  the bikes up next to the rolling stock whilst negotiating a small fee with one of the crew to keep an eye (i.e. don’t steal everything) on the stuff we were leaving with them. Having secured the bikes, we had to walk with everything we’d need for the crossing back off the boat and round to the starboard side past several cranes loading additional cargo and up a pretty hairy looking set of stairs. Having survived this and now feeling like a couple of ‘boil in the bags’ we waited on deck for the ‘Helga’ (grumpy old Russian type) to allocate us a ‘cabin’. Ours had seen better days for sure and apart from being incredibly grotty was boiling! The ship itself must have been 50 years old and our ‘wall’ was the actual metal hull of the ship, air conditioning was provided by an open port hole (ooh, a cabin with a sea view!!), but we did luck out on the shower front and we had a nozzle from which some water would drip out. Having ‘showered’ (no towels but it didn’t take more than a minute to air-dry) we had little to do but stay out of the sun so we  sat in our cabin (stifling)and waited for the crew to decide to put to sea which fortunately they did within 2-3 hours.

As evening came we ventured up on deck and had ‘dinner’ and a bottle of wine with Michael and Noemi (again, don’t get the wrong idea – everyone on the ship brought with them food and water for up to 4 days!) and enjoyed the cooler air and the sea breeze before turning in for the night but not before another shower and lying wet on the bed. We were woken at 7am the following morning by the deafening sound of the anchor being dropped (not difficult as we were about 5 metres from it!) which informed us that although we had reached Turkmenbashi, the crew were not yet happy with the amount of rolling stock currently sitting in port and so started a very long, very hot (it was 6 degrees warmer here than in Baku!), utterly windless day which generally involved us sitting in our cabin, trying to stay out of the sun and standing under the ‘shower’ every couple of hours. Not much fun!

At about 8pm the engines started and the ship started making its way into the harbour – this was, despite the long time we’d already spent on the boat, a bonus as it would mean we’d dock in the evening, do our documentation over night and get a couple of hours of sleep and then hit the road. By 9pm, the ship was trying to dock and we were all waiting on the deck ready for the customs officers to come on board to inspect our papers. Despite the fact that there was only a slight breeze in the harbour (it was a calm day by English channel standards!)  the crew seemed to be struggling to line up to the dock and after twenty minutes of farting about gave up and headed back out to sea saying they’d try again in the morning! We were gutted and as we headed back down below deck we were informed that ‘Helga’ had already taken all of our sheets and put them in the laundry so we’d have to sleep on the (really dirty) mattress for the night and make do! Several people had also run out of food and water so there was much sharing around and pleading with the crew, but for us it was the lost time that was the biggest worry, as with each passing day our Uzbek visa got closer to expiring and, of course, Bishkek, still over 3000km away, would get that much harder to reach in time for our scheduled crossing of China.

Once again, at 6am we were shocked awake by the sound of the anchor being raised and once again we got ready to meet the customs officials on the aft deck. This time the ship docked without incident and within 20 minutes 5 men in various ‘soviet’ looking uniforms came on deck and we were ushered into an office to answer some questions and have a ‘medical’ inspection (which simply  involved signing our name on a random bit of paper) before being sent down to the cargo deck to pack up the bikes. Finally, we were on the Asian side of the Caspian Sea and about to enter the ‘Stans…

Nb. A few pics added to the end of Azer gallery.

Ciao for now!……

Monday, July 26th, 2010

(James) Just a quick update as we’ve had a bit of a traumatic morning and this may be our last entry for a while as we’re about to head for Turkmenistan and it’s a bit of a technological black hole.

After the disappointment of not making it in time to the Turkmen Embassy in Baku on Friday it was with some trepidation that we went there at 9am this morning. Naturally, we were the only ones there (the country only gets/allows about 250 tourists each year!) so got seen straight away and were quickly told that our visas were not here! Major heart in the mouth time as we’d only left Tbilisi (Georgia) on the understanding that our visas were waiting for us! This was a major problem as we’d be stuck here with our bikes sitting in the customs compound and our Azerbaijan visa only has 3 days left on it ($400 fine each for overstaying plus cost of new visa all of which we’d have had to try and arrange from the no mans land of customs) and even our Uzbek visa (you can’t get a Turkmen visa without a valid on-going country visa!) is only 10 days from expiring!

Our pleas fell on deaf ears and we were told to call Istanbul when it opened at 9am (Istanbul is 2 hours behind!) So, cue 2 hours of helpless panic as we paced around waiting for Istanbul to open. When it finally did and answered the phone we were told  (in English) that nobody there spoke English and the phone was slammed down on us – Not good! Given that the Baku embassy closed at midday we now had less than an hour to resolve the problem and niether embassy seemed prepared to speak to the other! In desparation we asked the girl at the reception desk at our hotel to call Istanbul as she spoke both Turkish and Russian and having relayed our problem was informed that our visa HAD been delivered to Baku! As you can imagine we were preparing ourselves for being the pawns in a game of pass the buck. We went back to the embassy and after 15 minutes of searching the consul ’found’ our fax!! To say we were relieved is an understatement! Suddenly the previously stern consul was all smiles and even insisted on taking us to a special room (where they clearly hold diplomatic functions) where we were subjected to a hilarious promotional DVD (all in Turkmen) of some sort of 21st century development resort that has clearly been a vanity project for the dictator/president. It was hard to keep ourselves from bursting out laughing such was the ridiculousness of the DVD which featured Turkmen dancers, multi-million dollar yachts, and multiple shots of the President (and nervous looking officials/yesmen) performing ceremonial openings of the resort’s own dedicated state of the art electricity and de-salination plants plus much more that was a rival for anything in Dubai! All this whilst the country is in dire poverty – clearly the President prefers to spend his time doing jobs that keep his hand clean and not dealing with poverty, educatin or infant mortality rates or any other real  issue. Scary stuff!

Importantly,  we’ve got the fax so we’re now free to go down to the port and haggle for a place on one of the ships crossing the Caspian Sea, although given that there’s no schedule or crossing times (all will be explained in our next blog…) we can now look forward to possibly having a couple of days sitting amongst rail cars at the dock waiting for a ship in the extreme heat (it was still 33 degrees at 10:30 last night!!!) and have food for 4 days and 3 bottles of wine (thanks Paul and Dean for the advice on that one!)

See you on the other side!!!


Sunday, July 25th, 2010

(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!!!