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Published: October 12th 2017
First, we must find our train to Baku. It's not that Tbilisi station has a huge number of trains, but the station is hidden inside a shopping centre. We find the platforms on level two, but the information sign, telling us which platform to use, is on level three.
Train found, we are soon making ourselves at home in our two berth sleeping compartment, home for the next 15 hours. Our friendly lady conductor is busy keeping her carriage clean and in order, providing clean sheets and bedding as we pull out. The evening passes well, helped by a bottle of Georgian wine, glasses provided by our lovely conductor.
After an hour we arrive at the border post to leave Georgia. Lots of uniformed men in big peaked caps but a pretty smooth process. Then a 25 minute ride across no man's land before we reach the Azerbaijan border post. More large peaked caps and this time we have to go to the end of the carriage to be photographed and questioned. All rather officious but harmless. Then the customs inspectors appear, with mirrors to check where our luggage is stowed and a dog to sniff about. We are
asked about our wine bottle and we have to admit it is already empty. Then we get more questions ... this time about Arsenal football club! The chief inspector is a football fan and Arsenal is his team. After two and a half hours, they let the train leave and we turn in for the night.
We wake to a grey morning but soon the sun burns off the haze and we see the Caspian Sea for the first time. Our conductor brings us tea as the skyline of modern Baku appears, the first modern skyscrapers of our trip. We gently pull in to Baku station, 90 minutes late. We thought it was only 30 minutes late but we got the time change wrong!
Second game of hide and seek, find a bank or an ATM for some "manat". The people we ask smile and point us in every direction and are all wrong. Downstairs, under the station platforms is the correct answer. So, money in hand, we find a taxi and agree a price for the ride to our hotel. The driver then phones the hotel reception to get directions.
Third game of hide and seek,
find the hotel. The taxi driver is lost, all the time. He stops to get directions five more times and is still lost. OK, so the old city is a warren of narrow alleys but can it be this hard? Eventually a young lady with excellent English explains that we just need to walk up an alley for two minutes and we will find our hotel. The taxi can't go up the alley because it is all steps. So we lug our bags up 80 steps, getting reassurance halfway up that we are going up the right alley. And at last, we find the Old East Hotel ... on a narrow road that our taxi could have driven into, from the other end.
The hotel is lovely and our rooms is ... on the top floor, up just 70 more steps then!
Baku is a city that is easy to like. The weather is warm and the sky cloudless. The old city is beautifully restored and almost car free. Around every corner is a palace, a little shop, a mosque, the city wall or a traditional restaurant. We are often unsure where we are but it doesn't matter
Beyond the old city is the new city, dotted with coffee shops, garden squares and ultra posh boutiques. We spot Harvey Nichols, Dior, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen ... Along the side of the Caspian Sea is a wide promenade and series of gardens, 4 km / 3 miles long and more than 700 m wide. It is a city that rewards wandering, so we wander a lot.
Out of the city, we visit a fire temple. Natural gas has always seeped from the ground here. The bizarre sight of rocks apparently on fire was venerated by Zoroastrians as a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. In modern times, the temple became surrounded by oil and gas rigs but there is still enough gas left for the temple fires.
Azerbaijan's wealth is based on oil and gas production. It is the first wealthy country of our trip and makes us realise the difference petro-dollars can make to a small nation.
There are few tourists here, we are the only foreigners on the metro and in the bus. When visiting a palace, a teacher is eager to introduce us to her class of 13
year old girls. She is their English teacher and very happy to talk to us. Her pupils just laugh and will not try out their English.
This is the last stop on our trip around the Caucases. We've learnt a lot about the region, visiting three very different countries. Each has its own views and issues, each even has its own alphabet. All three countries are still at war with a neighbour and while we have been travelling the UK government has issued two "travel advisories" for parts of this region. Let's hope the future sees the countries resolving their differences and continuing to become more open and more prosperous.
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