From border to border: Azerbaijan

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May 22nd 2014
Published: October 15th 2015
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18th May

Whilst we cleaned up after breakfast, the guys hauled the rest of the large firewood up onto the roof and secured it with tarps and ropes. We'll definitely need to watch the wires with the added height and rolled the sides up in anticipation of the slow drive back to the main road.

Just after 8 we were on the truck and left the park gates, waving goodbye to the park rangers. Only 100 metres or so down the road was a freshwater tap so we attached a hose and filled up the drinking water container under the truck, much to the amusement of the local men who stopped working to watch us.

It was a slow and tense drive under the wires but event free and we eventually breathed sighs of relief when we turned left onto the main road. People still had a few lari to spend so Suse stopped at a roadside shop and we tumbled in, shopping like it was the last store we'd ever see! And it's all junk: soft drinks, sunflower seed bars, chocolates. What little coins we had left we passed along to the next in line.

The border was literally right there. Suse slowed for one last photo before cameras went away and we sat down to await the unknown procedure. Some borders in Africa we didn't have to leave the truck whilst others we had to exit the country as a pedestrian and meet the truck on the other side. This was one such border. With long tops and long pants on, we were all uncomfortable in the heat and revelled in the shade as we approached the Georgian passport control; a single man in a small cubicle. He was friendly, curious about our nationalities and wished us well on our journey. The truck also got through easily enough and we waited in no man's land before the bridge to board the truck and drive into Azerbaijan territory together.

We were entering a predominantly Muslim country again and having read the sections on customaries for the country, one said no smiling at people! That they will think you are either 'special' or that something is wrong with their appearance and that you're laughing at them! That was going to be virtually impossible for someone who looks out the sides and smiles and waves at everyone so we decided everyone would just have to think we were a 'special' tour group!

Border officials in bright green fatigues instructed us to get off the truck and head into passport control while Suse parked the truck over to one side for them to search it. Inside, Nat went first to scope out the process and although it was time consuming, it was easy. After having our photo taken and hearing the satisfying sound of the stamp going in the passport, we put our daypacks through the x-ray machine and walked through security as if at an airport. Officials looked closely at our passports more out of curiosity than anything it seemed and eventually we were all through and gathered together on the other side. The six guys were then told to go get their luggage and put it through the x-ray machine while we women took a seat on the floor, fanning ourselves with passports.

Once the truck had been searched and given the all clear, a official asked for a photo with us all and then sent us on our way with smiles all round. Suse recounted stories of having photos taken with officials on the truck and next to it with everyone laughing and joking. Seemingly one can't believe all they read...

We stopped briefly in the first town we came to for cook group to shop and a local man introduced himself to Suse and offered assistance. The few people with lari left changed it with him and Scott and I went for a walk around the block. Past the butcher with the bloody cow's head in a glass cabinet outside. Past the park where men sit around folding tables and play backgammon. Past builders on scaffolding who look at us with unabashed curiosity. If I catch their eye I smile but otherwise we continue on our way as if nothing is amiss.
We knew we were heading towards Sęki and sit quietly with all the sides up. It is HOT. Many locals wave to us and we wave back but otherwise we sit - or like myself, lie - still. The road is sealed but bumpy and I feel nauseous.
Azerbaijan looks semi-arid so far, a stark contrast to Georgia and Turkey. Although on the horizon is the majestic Caucasus mountain range, the ground around us is flat and dry. Only small pockets of farming can be seen; the rest must be used as grazing for the underfed livestock we've passed. Here, shepherds herd on horseback, rather than walk.

We've also gone forward one hour, making it three time zones already. Watches are adjusted accordingly and people munch snacks from under their seats. We doze, we read, we look.

And when I look, I realise we've gone through Sęki and are continuing on the road to Baku, or Baki as the signs say. The Greater Caucasus mountains loom closer with a hint of snow still visible on their peaks. The road cuts through a national park and the light disappears as we drive under a canopy of tall trees; the flat ground beneath them not going unnoticed as a suitable place to stop for the night.

It isn't far beyond there that we do turn off onto an unsealed road that takes us into a wide river bed, the water a considerable distance away. When the truck parks most choose to put their tent on the flat but rocky ground nearby but Scott and I go into the scrub just beyond the riverbed and eventually find decent ground 25 metres in, sheltered by surrounding bushes. This is all well and good until we hear howling during dinner and Suse notes that the nearby national park has bears, wolves and big cats. I'm suitably nervous and won't go to the tent on my own and without a head torch!

While dinner is prepped, a few head off towards the water. One bathes in a calm tributary while others look for somewhere safe to enter the rushing water in the main river for a splash. I find a rock to sit on and put my feet in the cold, fast flowing water, taking photos of the others and surrounds. It's one of those surreal moments where I'm looking at the Greater Caucasus, in Azerbaijan, wondering what I did right to get to this moment in time. Others comment on my goofy grin but I just smile even more.
19th May

We've arrived in Baku and the traffic is horrendous. It was each man for himself as they drove fast then slammed on the brakes, flashing their hazard lights to indicate to cars behind that someone was crossing the road. I stopped looking and
Baku portBaku portBaku port

Not the most inspiring photo but the flagpole off to the left is the second tallest in the world at 162m. It lost its former record as the tallest in 2011 to Tajikistan by three metres.
lay down.

It was hot and humid and we were hungry when we pulled into a dusty vacant lot. With a few hours to kill Scott and I sat at the nearby cafe and managed to convey that we wanted food. Meanwhile behind us at the other table, Nat and Suse had ordered coffee and were given a plate of chocolate that had now melted into a lovely looking blob...
The food was delicious but the prices were much steeper than we were used to. It was also apparent that the country had money and was putting it into infrastructure, fixing roads and constructing huge high rise buildings. Massive houses lined the streets on the outskirts of the city, monotone and blending in with their desert surrounds.

The plan had been to go to the Turkmenistan embassy but upon finding that it had moved, we made for the Uzbek embassy instead. Piled into two taxis, the drivers navigated the traffic as best they could but it still took a long time to cross town. The embassy is down a side street and goodness knows how they found it. We waited in the line of sorts but when the door was opened, the security guards let everyone in except the tourists, telling us to wait. And wait. It was frustrating as we were nearing closing time and Suse registered her disappointment with a series of looks and words until the second guard eventually let Suse and Talbot in, pulling the door firmly closed on the rest of us.
They were back out in less than five minutes, smiling. Tomorrow morning we would go to the bank, deposit the payment and the embassy would open especially for us and issue the visas on the spot!

Back at the truck we picked up our backpacks and split up between three taxis for one final journey. For our three night stay in the city we'd be in an apartment! The building was opposite the main train station and within walking distance of the Caspian Sea, Old City and most importantly for some, a shopping mall. It didn't look like much as the guys were told to walk up the stairs while us women were deposited in the elevator (Azerbaijan holds women in high regards and already I'd had doors held open for me and been allowed to pass through gaps before men) but as I took off my shoes at the front door, I heard other people's reactions. Spread out over two floors were various bedrooms, a living room, a spa bath! A sauna! A pool table and table tennis! I was feeling extremely spoilt, and I don't doubt we were all pretty thrilled. We divided ourselves amongst the rooms and got settled in; showering, availing of the washing machine and jamming the wifi. I left it far too late to go looking for dinner and by the time we found a supermarket, I was short on patience. Talbot, Scott and I stared at rows of tomato sauces and it took much longer than I wanted to get the ingredients for Spag Bol. I cooked, Scott washed, Talbot hid from the dishes. I'll get him tomorrow.
20th May

The morning visa run couldn't have gone smoother. From the bank we went to the embassy and were all ushered straight in to the waiting room. The friendly staff joked with us, telling me I won't be getting a visa and therefore have to spend my birthday in Azerbaijan (I will spend it in Uzbekistan). A bit of theatrical complaining and laughing and I was the last one to have my passport handed back to me with the blue and green visa in it.

Overcast, humid, windy and therefore dusty. We visited Diego's kebab man who looked like he'd never seen so many tourists at once and then hid out in the apartment for a while. I had an afternoon nap which is a bit lame when I was in a new city I was yet to explore but it felt good. Others played pool upstairs; Nic's laptop with a seemingly infinite amount of music on it attached to Alex's speaker. People drank their alcohol in preparation for the three week enforced detox in Iran and it was a really fun, relaxed day followed by more kebabs for dinner. We actually shut the guy down, some of us having to find food elsewhere because he'd run out of meat. He'll probably miss us when we're gone.
21st May

When we crossed the border, our faithful Rosie was only given a three day transit visa, like all overland trucks. This meant that Suse had to drive to the border and leave the truck with customs before returning to Baku. Alex had volunteered to accompany her and they left at 11pm last night, arriving 6am this morning. Thankfully there were no issues and they were on their way back to us.
Meanwhile, we did a failed visa run to the Turkmen embassy. Like a lot of taxi drivers, they said they knew where it was but the written address seemed useless as they asked time and time again. We now know where a lot of the other embassies are if we divert from our route! The Odyssey gang who we'd last seen in Telavi were in a minivan and at a traffic light we found out they'd been doing laps of the city as well. They followed us to the street and then their tour leader bolted down the street with a few of us in pursuit. Neither of our groups wanted to get stuck behind the other! It was all foreigners there: an Israeli couple travelling public transport to Uzbekistan. Two American guys heading to China overland. An English couple with an overland truck also heading to China. The guard let us in two by two and Odyssey got in ahead of us but it needn't have mattered. They were in and out, having their letters of invitation at the ready and going to the bank to pay. We didn't have LOI and after a bit of effort, found out we couldn't apply without one here but that they were the only embassy requiring one. We could apply in Iran without. Sorted.

The kebab man saw us coming today and after lunch, we walked toward the Caspian Sea and onto the Old City. It was quickly apparent that Baku liked fountains. All different shapes and sizes every block or so. It was lovely but in the wind, the water was going everywhere, much to childrens' delight. The Caspian wasn't so scenic though. Oily residue floated on the surface as well as rubbish and there was no way I was putting my foot in it.
From there we followed the coastline passing manicured gardens with brilliantly coloured roses and even a cacti garden. Couples sat close to each other on park benches and mothers seated on blankets on the grass talked whilst children played around them.

The Maiden's Tower sits just outside the Old City walls and we bought tickets at the Information booth nearby. One story is that a woman was arranged to marry a shah but was in love with another. She had the shah build her the tower to show how much he loved her and then she threw herself from the top of it, rather than marry him... The truth is though, no one can agree on what its purpose was: defence, astronomy or worship. All seem plausible for different reasons but they all had one thing in common: there is an excellent view from the top! 360 degree views of the Caspian, the mountains, the Old and the new cities.

We wandered deeper into the Old city up uneven stairs, past padlocked doors that would probably disintegrate if you touched them and swish new 'boutique' hotels. Finding the palace by chance, rather than the signs being of any use, we paid the nominal fee to enter. I hadn't been sure what was in there and it didn't need long but I enjoyed the old artefacts and photos. I'm not so much into the 'bling' rooms.

We'd spotted a three tiered restaurant/cafe from the top of the Maiden's Tower and made our way back
Yes, it's a mustache trainerYes, it's a mustache trainerYes, it's a mustache trainer

The best reason to get in trouble taking a photo in the museum
to it with the idea of maybe cake and coffee. Part of one of the aforementioned boutique hotels, we passed the reception desk and climbed the stairs to the top floor where a young couple were sharing a shisha pipe and chic women sat at a table with various coloured drinks and plates of food. It definitely wasn't cheap for local standards, being much more on a par with European prices but we decided to treat ourselves. The stuffed vine leaves were a delicious nod to the local cuisine and the lamb chops had coincidentally been what I'd craved all day. Washed down with homemade ice tea and then followed up with a decorative cappuccino (only mine was decorated and served with special sugar; Scott's was plain with sugar packets!), it was a lovely way to spend the evening, watching the sun set over the Caspian.
22nd May

It was time to say goodbye to the apartment. I made use of the iron, wanting to get rid of the creases in my headscarf and then packed my backpack and put it in the living room along with everyone else's. We'd come back in the evening to collect our belongings before walking across the road to the train station and taking an overnight train to Astara on the Iranian border.

It was a quiet day sitting in the food court of the shopping mall editing photos, smiling at children and watching women watch women. Not necessarily the most inspiring environment but great for people watching. The women love heels. Nearly all wore them. When I got fidgety from sitting too long (or more likely from the coffee I drank!), I went looking for suitable clothing for Iran. This wasn't the country for it. Or at least the shopping centre. It was very hip, very European and therefore very short. I trudged back defeated but reassured that all of the clothes in Iran would be suitable and I'd just buy them there. And hopefully at better prices.

The overnight train left at 11pm but we were there in plenty of time to find our rooms, get sorted and buy a final beer from the stall on the platform. Scott, Steph, Quinn and I were sharing and found it difficult to move about in there together! With the beds down, we divvied out the mattresses and pillows and put our bags either under the bottom beds or in the little alcove over the door. Then we invited everyone over. With beer, gin, vodka and wine, everyone drank and sang along to the iPod, excited to be on our way to Iran. Sadly, Neil wasn't with us (note to future travellers: if you have a passport other than British, use it!!) as he hasn't yet got his Iranian visa but we hoped to see him in 48 hours.

Worried that the train would make me nauseous but pleasantly surprised to find it lulling me to sleep, I pretty much kicked the party out not long after midnight and everyone went to sleep, though some needing slightly more convincing than others...

Additional photos below
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15th October 2015

Welcome back...
I had almost given up hope of seeing another blog from you. Thanks for continuing. I haven't done this part of the Silk Road and am very interested in your accounts of overcoming the obstacles, which is one reason that I avoided this section. From reading your FB posts I can now look forward to reading many more adventures.
17th October 2015

Thanks, Bob!
I do feel guilty letting you and others down by not keeping it up to date but I've always found writing to be a chore. I'm trying to change that though! I have a bit of writing saved on here but it'll probably become a bit of a photo blog towards the end. Feel free to ask any questions if I don't supply the info and I'll do my best to answer! We're off to Palau in November so I do plan to write up that one!

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