Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan
29.05.2010 - 03.06.2010
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You would think border crossings are easy, as really, it’s a pretty straight forward process; we were already in Georgia and just wanting a stamp out and in the case of Azerbaijan, you are required to obtain your visa beforehand in your home country, so why does it take so long?
We left Tbilisi just after lunch time and made our way to a bush camp close to the border. The site we were originally heading to was not accessible anymore as the bridge across the empty river was too narrow for Calypso to fit. We did however stock up on some local wine from a family watching us trying to make a 3 point turn which ended in a 14 point turn to get out.
We did see the grey clouds coming towards us but unfortunately we weren’t able to avoid them as we needed to head into them in search of an empty field. As the truck pulled up to our spot for the night, the rain poured down and the kitchen awning was rolled out to give us some cover. Our luck of sunshine definitely had run out! It was an early start in the morning and no surprise, we were on breakfast duty and the 5.30am wakeup call came to quick.
We were at the border for 7.30am and the long process started. It took 2 different men to check our passports before we were allowed close to the Georgian customs officer. It was then a long walk across no man’s land before we reached the Azerbaijan border, guarded by gates and another man. He asked us where we were going and seemed confused by our answer of Australia until the truck pulled up next to us and he read the countries listed on the side.
Again, like Georgia, Kylie’s passport was taken away and inspected by numerous men and the explanation of ‘America ripped my passport’ was explained a few times. Asked to stand aside, the rest of the group entered Azerbaijan at a rather slow pace (considering everyone already had a visa so was allowed in anyway) before Kylie’s passport was stamped and thrown back at her. It took a further 2 hours for the truck to get through and after clearing customs, we found out that they had run out of A4 paper to print the truck permit on. Pete did offer them some of ours from the truck, they refused and made him wait till someone went and brought some back in a taxi. The wait wouldn’t have been too bad if there was a coffee shop, a place to sit down or even a town to wander around in. The only thing to do was to sit on the gravel and rocks and wait.
Once given the all clear, we made our way to Sheki, a small town known for its caravanserais which are old Silk Road hotels where people could buy and sell items en-route to their destinations.
The landscape of Azerbaijan is very dry, lifeless and oil infested but then all of a sudden there are towns like Sheki that appear out of nowhere that are lush and green.
We stayed in the Karavansaray Hotel where the rooms that use to serve as shops had been transformed into rooms. The hotel had 2 floors and back in the day, the first floor was used as the shop with the second floor being used as the living quarters. We spent the afternoon drinking tea at a local tea house before finding a local restaurant for dinner where the waiter tried to do everything he could to make us welcome. The evening was spent playing Uno and of course drinking more tea but this time it was fancy tea. It came with 2 types of jam that you ate before drinking the tea and the idea was that the jam sweetened your tea. You should never judge anything before trying as it was actually really nice.
The next day we spent most of it driving to Qobustan so we could camp beside the baby mud volcanoes. It was such a bizarre sight, these small conical mounds coming to life every now and then by spurting cold mud. Pete, after warning us that the edges of the cones were fragile, fell knee deep into the mud. Neill also tried to get close to a gurgling volcano but sank a little, although he did manage to save his thongs, unlike Pete. Ned also ventured off on his own to explore, but with his weight increasing on his belly due to the beer drinking, he fell in with only his head sticking out!
With a sight like this you would think it would be a busy place but there was not a sole in sight apart from 2 truck transporting some local workers and 3 policemen who came to suss out the truck and have a few beers.
The heat was slowly getting hotter but still manageable although we dreaded what was ahead of us with some desert bush camping coming up. After dinner our new jobs were given out as our first section of the trip was coming to an end in Baku. Kylie’s new job was to manage the bar which involves keeping it stocked, buying stock and collecting the bar bills every week or so. Neill’s job remained the same, Roof Crew.
We only had a short ride to the capital, Baku and as we got closer, the oil digging was becoming more evident. We passed hundreds of ‘nodding donkey’s’ digging for oil before we hit the chaos of the roads in Baku where road rules don’t apply. It was also out first glimpse of the Caspian Sea which we hoped would be crossing on a ferry tomorrow. Due to the oil money, Baku is a very modern city which reminded us of Dubai as new hotels are being built everywhere and designer clothing shops line the streets. The streets themselves were clean, the parks were gorgeous and the expensive cars were out in force. We got lost trying to find the port as so much work had been carried out since Pete was last here so we gave up and headed to the hotel only to be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic as the President was being moved around town. Whole roads are cleared for him to drive through at full speed without any obstacles in his way as his nervous someone will try and kill him. Great confidence in your people then!
Whilst Pete went to beg and if necessary bribe, the captain of a ferry to take us across to Turkmenistan, we explored some of the streets of Baku but the sun was so hot that the air conditioned room was calling. At 6pm we were informed that we had ourselves a ferry and that we would be leaving in the afternoon. Great news as Azerbaijan was very expensive – US$1 = 0.80 manat and with prices in restaurants hitting London prices or higher, it was nice to know that we didn’t have much time left here. Another reason we only had a short stay in Azerbaijan was that the truck only has 72 hours once entered to reach the port for customs.
The ferry hadn’t arrived in the afternoon as planned as it had been diverted to Kazakhstan so not a problem, another day in Baku. Although the problem was that all the hotels were full as an oil conference was taking place. After a few phone calls later, we managed to scrap together 4 rooms, 2 in the current hotel and 2 in a sister hotel up the road. When we normally take 12 rooms, 4 didn’t go down too well with some people but there’s nothing that can be done so we were in the room that slept 7 people, but only had 3 beds. Our roll mats and sleeping bags came in handy that we had brought along for the ferry so eventually the room looked like a slumber party. We spent the day exploring the old city which has been restored and kept in great condition, and wandered through the back alleys and along the fortress walls before heading back for the next 6pm update on our ferry. It was due to arrive into port at about 3am so Pete was told to head down around 7am, to suss out the situation and give us a call if we need to rush down.
He returned looking not too happy and why would you be after being told that the ferry had already left! Another day in Baku but the problem re: the accommodation only got worse. They had 1 room available this time. After an hour it was sorted, we were allowed to camp outside in the hotel car park but we can’t put up the tents until 8pm as the office buildings will see. We had nothing left to see in Baku so spent most of the day at the hotel playing cards in the hotel foyer trying to escape the heat. Most people gave up on the tents and I think we did pretty well squeezing 10 into the 1 hotel room available, with a few sleeping in tents and a few sleeping out under the stars. Pete wasn’t going to risk losing this ferry, so he went down to the port to sleep on the truck along with Mike, Neill and Dennis so once it arrived, they could text us.
The 5am text from Mike set us all in motion and we’ve never seen everyone move so fast. The ferry was being unloaded so we packed up camp (in a hotel) and headed to the port to wait....and wait....and wait. After passport checks, our photo’s taken and security checks (although no one was watching the x-ray machines as the bags were going through so what the point was, we don’t know) we were allowed to board our luxurious, oil / diesel carrying ferry, Akademix H.aliyev and we were off sailing at 10am. We were on our way to Turkmenistan!