Baku 12TH October
Checking out of the hotel, we leave Tbilisi anxious about the long drive to Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku. We had read and heard scare stories from other travellers about police bribes and harassment so we were not expecting a smooth drive. Leaving the chaotic roads and traffic of Tbilisi, we start the drive in the sunshine to the border on good roads, through rolling hills. We exit Georgia easily but next is the Azerbaijan crossing…
I am pointed towards a doorway by a border guard and told to go through whilst Martin drives the car through. At the end of the passageway, there is a large group of men who all proceed to turn around and stare at me. Should probably be used to these stares after four months on the road, but it still seems quite strange! I join the end of the queue (or group) and wait to be let through. Half an hour later, I get through border control and walk to the other side. I wait for Martin but there is no sign of him or the car and the guards speak no English, so am left wondering…A mere 2 hours later we are re-united!
Taking the car through the border was a very time consuming and difficult process especially when it was clear that the border guards really did not want to deal with me today! At first sight of my English documents he threw his paper work up in the air and went for a cigarette leaving me and everyone else in the queue waiting. Once he returned I paid the insurance fee, with a $20 note. I should have received $15 in change, but I saw this go into a different drawer in the desk! The guard, using one figure to type took about 30 minutes just to log the documents on the computer. By this time a queue of about 40 impatient people and cars had built up. Finally he completed his part of the process.
I was then passed onto the next desk; they asked me to bring the car over but unfortunately they had not told me that I needed to have the road tax receipts at this point. So after waiting a further 30 minutes I was told to turn back, round to the car park. I then proceeded to pay for the road tax and rejoined the queue. A border guard who could speak a little English was trying to speed me through. The border guards were very inquisitive about the car. A large group of them came over to have a look- this was not part of the customs check!! Finally the customs guards searched the car and took away our medical box for inspection, and I was free to pass. In total, the whole process took about two hours.
On the way to Baku, we are flagged down by police regularly. At the town check points they just ask us where we are from and where we are going. However, between towns we are not so lucky… one particular time a young policeman asks Martin to step out of the car and join him in his. 20 minutes later he returns explaining that the policeman wanted $200 for speeding. Martin played dumb during the process and pretended he 1) did not understand and 2) he had no money anyway until we reached a bank in Baku, which worked on two more occasions. On the final occasion the policeman pointed out we had overtaken where we were not allowed to. He was actually correct this time but not wanting to lose any more time and with the sun setting, Martin offered him a choice of $20 or nothing which he gladly accepted.
We eventually get to Baku around 9:30 passing the huge new illuminated tower changing from purple to green to yellow in seconds. We see a stark difference here to the rest of the country. Huge skyscrapers and massive new hotels mixed with green tree-lined promenade filled with cafes and restaurants makes the city inviting. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to visit any of the sights.
We check into the Sea Port Hotel paying astronomical prices for an OK room but it is the cheapest one we find! After 13 hours of travelling and avoiding police bribes we are exhausted and have dinner in the hotel restaurant-lamb and chicken which is good.
I wake up early to find out about the ferries across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. We had been told that there was no timetable and that they leave when full, in addition to the possibility of being stuck at sea for up to three days.
I reach the small ticket office where I ask about the ferry; I was told to return at 10am when they would be able to tell if and when it would be going. In the meantime we stock up on food and water. Returning at 10am we are told to come back again at 1pm. At 1pm we are told that a ferry would leave today and we should return again in an hour to buy the ticket.
Finally the man writes out the ticket in a small room, whilst continually puffing on cigarettes one after the other, filling the room with smoke! As expected a few bribes are needed to get the ticket. Then we are led to another small room where a rather scary looking lady takes our money and hands us our tickets! We are told that the boat is leaving in ONE minute so proceed to run to the dock, realising this is the boat to Kazakhstan not Turkmenistan. Then we are told it will leave in the next hour. Four hours later, the boat to Turkmenistan pulls into the dock!
Martin is led to a room by a border guard and is told for $20 he can get on the boat early; otherwise we would have a further few hours while they load. We then wait another hour for the boat to unload and finally board the Mercuri.
We are handed the keys to our cabin expecting a decent room and shower but we open the door to a run-down tiny room. If comparing to a hotel room, it is definitely the worst we have stayed in so far. We were contemplating sleeping downstairs in the lounge area! We walk around the boat looking for some clean linen and eventually find some. Have something to eat in the restaurant which opens at 11-meat soup which is surprisingly good, then we finally retreat to bed.
We awake to bright sunshine and glimmering seas. In the distance we can see several burning oil rigs. We arrive in Turkmenbashi around 10am, and have a further 3 hours to wait before we are able to take our car off the boat, which is not too bad as we have to wait for our guide anyway, who was flying in from Ashgabat.
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Martin & Nicole