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Published: October 7th 2014
This blog is part technical to show people how easy it is to go from Telavi, Georgia to Saki, Azerbaijan (also spelt Seki and Sheki in Roman alphabet) and part a description of the wonders of slow travel.
Our research the previous day, utilising a German traveller who spoke some Russian, had established that the marshrutka/minibus left Telavi for the border town of Lagodekhi at 8.30am. We made sure we got there for 8am to secure seats and room for our luggage. We bought hot pastries and bananas at the bazaar across the street for breakfast.
As part of our preparation I had mapped out the route on paper with expected fares for each transport option (buses, marshrutkas, taxis) and downloaded the relevant maps on to my phone GPS so I could work out where we were when necessary.
The marshrutka driver offered to take us to Lagodekhi for 6GEL per person and for an extra 1GEL to the Azerbaijan border. We were happy to accept as it would save us the taxi ride. Lagodekhi was across the flood plain in the valley and first the marshrutka went down the valley side
On the edge of the market at Tsnori, Georgia
This was a typical marshrutka stop on the journey
sometimes winding further up to visit towns and villages on the way. We were the only constant as locals got on and off the bus. Men would always give up their seat if a lady got on. They had bags of this and that and at one point a lady got on carrying a rudimentary cage with three live albino rabbits. I thought she must have just bought them. When she got off at the town of Tsnori it seemed like it was a bit of a livestock centre and it might have been market day. I concluded she had actually gone there to sell them. We had past three men about to butcher a recently slaughtered pig by the side of the road.
The marshrutka only had a few passengers when it set off across the valley floor to Lagodekhi. It suddenly pulled up as police car cut across. A policemen got in and rode with us to just outside Lagodekhi. When he got out I noted that he didn't pay - having said that the local police force is very trusted these days in Georgia.
Three of us lasted to the border.
Passengers on the Saki marshrutka
A quick shot with my phone just to show the variety. Note bag being unloaded from bus.
The first thing we needed was Azeri currency (manats). We had tried to get some in Telavi and no one stocked it so we had no choice except to accept the relatively poor rate at the border. It did ensure that we got rid of all our Georgian lari down to the last coin and we only needed enough to complete our journey.
We then set off on foot with our bags across the border bridge which spans an almost dry river. There were queues for both border posts and it was really only a formality. The first Azerbaijani soldier we saw welcomed us to his country in English. The immigration official was very pleasant and welcoming and spoke some English.
It had started to drizzle as we approached the taxis clustered at the Azerbaijani end of the bridge. To Balakan, the nearest town, they offered 5AZN. One quickly conceded to 2AZN (£1.50) and were were off in a battered old Lada with rain dripping through the back window.
This did just give us time to realise that we had just crossed a time zone and we were now 4 hours in front of the UK.
The taxi dropped us at the marshrutka stop in Balakan and we transfered to the minibus going to Zaqatala, the next major town and, incidentally, hazelnut capital of Azerbaijan. It was about a 30 minute journey and when we got to the Zaqatala bus station I needed 4AZN to pay him. I had a one manat note and a fifty, for which he predictably had no change. He took the one. I told him to wait because I knew I was going to have the same issue with the next bus. When I returned from cracking the fifty by buying drinks at the local mini market he had gone.
The marshrutka to Saki was across the bus station and left at 3pm. We had half an hour to spare which at least meant we secured seats. At this point Jane braved one of the more challenging loos she has had to negotiate to date.
It was a two hour ride from Zaqatala to Saki (12AZN) and there was much to-ing and fro-ing around us. We had started eating our packed lunch (salads in boxes) on the bus in the station. The chap next to me offered me a rip of bread which I refused of course and then took when I remembered that in these parts a offer of bread is important and is not something to turn down (like tea in India). It was very good!
At one point a good old argument, with a few laughs all around, started over whether the roof light window should be open or closed. A compromise was reached eventually. Half way there we were joined by two turkeys in a bag and their owner who sat behind us. The birds seemed quite calm even when the bus got crowded. Again I suspect they were being taken to Saki to be sold.
We got to Saki and the last part of our journey was a 2AZN taxi ride up the hill to our home stay.
In all the journey had taken 8 hours with 5 different buses and taxis and we had lost an hour crossing a time zone. The total distance was 193 km. It cost the equivalent of £18.50 for us both and you may have noted that the Azerbaijani leg was more expensive. We were in oil country now and the GDP per person of Azerbaijan is double that of Georgia.
Yes, it was a bit of a long day and we had enjoyed observing and interacting where we could with our fellow passengers. We can recommend it to any fellow slow travellers going that way.
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