The Caspian Sea
I arrived at the Azerbaijan border and passed through the Georgian side in 5 minutes. Then began the queuing for Azerbaijan. It wasn’t moving fast so I settled in for a wait. A friendly local chap introduced himself and we passed the time with him teach me introductory Azerbaijani lingo. Overall it took about 2.5hrs to get through the border controls. I had to pay $65 for insurance and $40 for road tax. They had a look through the vehicle but not very thoroughly and I was through. Sweet. The border guards were very friendly, so I was thinking great, this should be pretty straightforward.
How wrong I was. Not 30 minutes after crossing the border I was caught in my first speed trap. I didn’t even see where I could have been speeding but they had a picture of me doing 93km in a 50km zone. Apparently each town has a 50km zone that starts 1-2kms out of town and continues right out the other side. Sneaky as you think you are through and back on the highway at 90km. Then they catch you with their cameras.
So I set myself for another round of negotiations for the ticket. Their opening gambit was 150 euros. Ouch, you have to be kidding right?! No, they weren’t. I could see I would be here for a while. About 30 mins later I’d tried all my usual tricks and I’d even had to try a new one by having a cigarette with the guy. The things I do… it tasted horrible. Still I was down to 75 euro’s when he finally cleared it with his boss. I wasn’t making any further progress and I was getting pissed off, so I paid up and left. They weren’t a friendly bunch and it left me in a stew for a couple of hours. Especially when I saw the whole highway was basically a giant speed trap. $%$%%!!! It forced me to drive very conservatively meaning it was going to take hours longer to get to Baku. The sneaky buggers even hid behind bushes and fences with their cameras just waiting to nail you. I heard about a chap travelling the same day as me, who got caught 3 times for $200 each. They started at $500 each time.
Eventually my dodgy Sat Nav pointed me towards a shorter route. Well, shorter in length yes, but longer in time. The road was a construction site. Still, I was far happier as I was in the countryside and there were no speed cameras.
Cruising on the back roads to Baku
It turned into a crazy drive through the mountains. It was the right, wrong way. It added about 3 hours to the journey but made the drive far more memorable. I was driving through local villages and towns waving to the bewildered locals. The views from the mountains were beautiful and it put me in a far better mood for Baku.
It was dark by the time I arrived into Baku and I was buzzing. The city was buzzing. So many cars and lights. The city was wide awake on a Thursday evening at 11pm. I drove down to the waterfront and parked up. I was so excited that I ran down to the Caspian Sea and jumped about by myself for 10 minutes. After all the challenges of getting to the start line and along the way, I’d made it to Baku in one piece and in just 20 days. I was on schedule and ecstatic to be here. It also felt like city had put on its best for my arrival. Arriving late turned out to be the best time to see the city. The water front and city was awash with lights, water fountains and locals out enjoying the cool evening air. What a great first impression!!
The team arrive in Baku. Leg 1 is complete.
Back at Boris it was time to find my host for the night. I drove into the centre of the city to meet Andrzej near his apartment. I was greeted with big smile and we headed back to his apartment and a couple of cold beers. Andrzej is a polish expat living in the centre of town, and as it turned out had a fantastic 2 bed apartment with views of the city. Sweet!! I’d been on the road for 14 hours by the time we cracked the first beer. Boy, it tasted good!! It had been my longest day of the expedition so far.
I slept well knowing that the next day I would begin the challenge of securing transport on a cargo ship across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.
Views of Baku and the Caspian Sea
The following day I woke to a beautiful sunny day and a nice sleep in. I’d asked Andrzej if he knew anybody that could help me arrange a ferry ticket. As luck would have it he did. Around 10.30am we headed into the Old Town to meet Huseyn. Huseyn and his brother run an art gallery in the centre of the old town. Now, I bet you are wondering how an art dealer was going to help me get a ferry to Turkmenbashi? To be honest I was too. Andrzej assured me Huseyn was the right man to know. Huseyn had studied in Poland for a couple of years and is now the unofficial Polish consulate in Baku and friend to all travellers.
Andrzej introduces me to Huseyn
So after no more than 12 hours in the city, I found myself being introduced to a local Azerbaijani art dealer, by an ex-pat Polish national in the old town of Baku, with the aim of helping me buy a ferry ticket to Turkmenistan. Not really an everyday occurrence but I wasn’t about to argue.
Huseyn was great right from the first moment. I told him what I need to do and his said. No problem. I will do everything I can to help you out. I had the feeling I was going to like Huseyn. I was welcomed in to the art gallery which was also his home. We spent the next few hours getting to know each other. He cooked us lunch and he even left me in charge of the gallery. Suffice to say I didn’t make any sales but I feel confident enough to add Azerbaijani art dealer to my CV now.
picture running gallery
Azerbaijan Art Gallery Manager
Around 3pm when Huseyn’s brother returned we headed off to the carefully hidden port for the Caspian Sea ferries. We found a little old lady waiting for us at the ticket office. She basically said we were too late for today and to come back tomorrow. Perhaps we should go down to the port and we might have some luck there. We headed to the customs area and after 30 minutes of backwards and forwards between buildings we (mainly Huseyn) ascertained that I had the right documentation and exiting customs shouldn’t be a problem. However, if we wanted a ticket we need to speak to the little old lady. Ah really we said, as she had already fobbed us off. We headed back to find the office shut for the day (at 4pm). Sneaky cow!!
There was nothing more we could do so we decided to call it a day and go for a beer. While we were at the port we came across an Aussie chap called Tim. He was waiting for his ferry to Kazakhstan. We had a chat and found out the little old lady had told him he need to be at the port for his ferry at 5pm. Smelling a rat, Huseyn went and asked the dock workers about the boat. He found out the ferry wouldn’t leave until after midnight probably. So we convinced Tim to come back into town for a beer with us. We threw his bike on top of Boris and headed for a favourite bar of Huseyn’s.
Aussie Tim – Mad cyclist
After a few beers Tim decided to go back to port to check. Huseyn told him not to worry as he hadn’t received a call rom the port workers yet. Tim decided to go anyway. One hour later Tim was back with us for more beers after seeing no ferry ready to load. We continued on until around 10.30 when Tim went back to the port for his ferry. I found out the next day the ferry didn’t leave until 7am, so it was a long night for Tim.
I was up at 9am the next day feeling a little rough. I met up with Huseyn at 10.30 and we went to ticket office to find out about ticket for the next ferry. It turned out that there was a ferry travelling today and potentially one tomorrow. I was now faced with the decision of whether to go a day early or not. In the end I decided to go a day earlier as there was a guaranteed ferry. The ferry cost $70 per metre for Boris (which was 5 metres $350, $90 for me, and $60 for service costs (what ever they were) totalling $500. For an extra $100 I could get a guarantee that I would have no problems with customs. Apparently the customs guys are known to make you pay a last minute fee to board the boat. I declined the offer hoping for the best and that it wouldn’t result in problems down the line.
$500 cold hard cash for the ferry
It now meant that after racing across Europe and the Caucasus I was going to be a day ahead of schedule. So I advised my Turkmenistan support at Stan Tours I would be day early (maybe). The ferry journey takes 14 hours but its common for the ferry to wait offshore for 2-3 days waiting to dock. It’s all rather challenging when you are trying to arrive on an exact day to meet you guide and get into the country. Any changes to your plans costs more money as you have to pay for guides to wait for you.
After paying for the ticket around midday, I had to go to another port location and wait until 3pm to get my ticket and customs clearance. Once secured and with a little sweet talk from Huseyn (you are not meant to leave port once customs has checked you documents) we headed back into town for shopping and lunch with Andrzej and a couple of his friends.
I have my ferry ticket
Eventually the time came to say farewell to Huseyn. I don’t know how I would have got ticket without him. He was such a top chap that he wouldn’t accept anything in return for taking the best part of two days out to help me. It was struggle to buy him lunch and a drink as a way of saying thanks. It was a legendary effort to help me out. I also said farewell to Andrzej. It had been such short visit in Baku, City of Winds that we hardly got a chat to hang out. Nevertheless it was a great little visit and I was made to feel every welcome by all.
My boat – Fikrat Amirov
I was back to port at 7pm, thinking that I’d have to wait until 1am to board, then depart at 4am. Next thing I’m going on board at 8pm first. I didn’t know where I was going on so I ended up last going down to lower deck last. By the time I got upstairs all private rooms were gone and everybody was too busy to help. My passport was taken from me and whenever I asked about room and I got no joy. Eventually I was lead to 6 bed dorm room below deck. Here I met a bunch of Turkmenistan students so we all jump in together. Ruslan spoke a little English so he was appointed as translator for the journey.
Around 11pm my presence was requested by the Police. Oh dear I thought, what had I done now? It turned out that I hadn’t stamped out of passport control. Whoops. This was resolved in 10 minutes and I was back onboard ready to go. I thought it would be a quiet evening but I was mistaken. Word had got around that Jonny Foreigner was onboard and there was some entertainment to be had. I was dragged into lounge by locals for dinner and many rounds of moonshine vodka from a Georgian truck driver. There were loads of laughs, mostly at my expense but I didn’t mind. Next we were all down in our room having a party.
I managed to sneak out to watch our exit out of the harbour. The city skyline was lit up with a rainbow of colours flowing across the major buildings. The three flame towers were just that. Flames bursting across them as if they were on fire. It provided amazing views and a sensational end to Leg 1. Leg 2 was about to begin but before I think about it too much I was called downstairs for more beers and music. Another fantastic experience with the locals and a wonderful way to sail out of the Caucasus. Next stop Central Asia!!
Baku dominates the country both in beauty and wealth. The lights at night are spectacular as any city by the sea I’ve seen. It is a very self conscious city with looks and image high on the agenda. Most of the money is being spent in Baku with less investment and jobs in the outer cities. The corrupt police and the unhelpful ferry ticket sellers left a bad taste in the mouth but the people overall were wonderful.